Can Florida State beat Clemson? Can N.C. State? Or Georgia Tech? Or anyone?
It’s a slightly myopic question because the Tigers haven’t throttled everyone in their path during their three consecutive ACC title runs. They lost at home to Pittsburgh two years ago. They fell in mid-October last season to a Syracuse team that wouldn’t win again. Clemson has been one of the top two programs in the country over the past five years. But nothing is inevitable.
Granted, it is difficult to see an exceptional defense anchored by the country’s top line having many poor days against subpar opponents. The unit up front featuring Austin Bryant, Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins is the best reason to believe the Tigers are headed for a fourth consecutive playoff appearance.
Chances are, though, someone makes a good run at Clemson. Maybe N.C. State as it comes off a bye. Or Boston College as the Tigers complete their run through the ACC Atlantic Division.
On that point: The Atlantic is arguably as deep as it’s been since the ACC adopted divisions in 2005. Maybe Florida State isn’t at the level it was a few years ago, and Louisville lost Lamar Jackson to the NFL. But Boston College and Wake Forest are improving, and Syracuse should be better. There won’t be many easy outs.
Still, the Tigers are the favorite here and, arguably, nationally. But nothing, not even Dabo Swinney’s consistently excellent program, is a sure thing every week.
1. Clemson (No. 1 nationally, 12-2): Not much else needs to be said about the Tigers’ defense. However, as talented as Clemson’s offensive players are, there is some uncertainty.
Senior Kelly Bryant is the incumbent starting quarterback, but true freshman Trevor Lawrence is viewed as the future. Both Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster showed glimpses as rushers last year, but neither is a proven bell cow back (not that having one matters as much as it once did). The receiving corps isn’t especially proven beyond Hunter Renfrow, though Tee Higgins impressed late in the season.
All of those count as questions, though Clemson very well may answer them quickly and effectively. Even if it doesn’t, the Tigers should cruise to at least 10 victories anyway. That’s a luxury few programs enjoy.
2. Florida State (No. 21, 7-6): Here comes the Gulf Coast offense, an up-tempo scheme touted by new Coach Willie Taggart. Florida State went from being a playoff team to strikingly stale under Jimbo Fisher in just three years, and so it’s Taggart’s task to reinvigorate what’s been the ACC’s flagship program more often than not since it joined the league in the early 1990s.
The Seminoles’ 2017 season went sideways when quarterback Deondre Francois was injured in the opener and some recruiting missteps left no one with any serious experience ready to step in. James Blackman did what he could as a true freshman behind a vulnerable line, and he should be better for the frequently harrowing experience.
Florida State now has two tested quarterbacks (Francois was named the starter for the opener on Monday against Virginia Tech), but the big beneficiary of Taggart’s arrival might be sophomore tailback Cam Akers. If anyone is going to deny Boston College’s A.J. Dillon the league rushing crown, Akers is the best bet.
3. N.C. State (No. 32, 9-4): Yes, Dave Doeren’s bunch lost a lot on defense, including star end Bradley Chubb. But if we’re going strictly by the Law of the Wolfpack — when you expect the most, you get the least; when you expect the least, you get the most — it has a decent chance to exceed some surprisingly modest expectations.
The Wolfpack should be capable of winning some shootouts, what with umpteenth-year senior Ryan Finley at quarterback and Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers as his top targets. The defense probably won’t be quite as good, but Doeren and his staff have steadied that side of the ball. The difference between a good season and 4-4 in the ACC is probably whether N.C. State solved the kicking bugaboo that plagued it in recent years.
4. Boston College (No. 41, 7-6): If you’re making a list of teams that could jam themselves into a time machine, travel back to the 1970s and fit in well, Boston College is near the very top of it. The Eagles are going to run the ball with rugged back A.J. Dillon, and their defense is going to be a pain for most offenses to deal with even if their best player (end Zach Allen) isn’t the household name he should be.
As tempting as it is to jump on the BC bandwagon, though, there’s the matter of that schedule. The Eagles get arguably the worst possible set of cross-division opponents (Miami and Virginia Tech) and still have to deal with the Clemson-Florida State-Louisville-N.C. State gantlet. Oh, and Boston College faces those six opponents in succession before closing against Syracuse. Steve Addazio’s bunch could very well be better than last year’s 7-6 crew and still end up around .500 at season’s end.
5. Louisville (No. 43, 8-5): Yes, Lamar Jackson is gone after three seasons (two resplendent), with Jawon Pass stepping in at quarterback. Remember, though, this is a Bobby Petrino team, and so long as the line holds up, it is going to score points.
Now, can the Cardinals stop enough opponents to get to their typical 9-3 or 8-4 level? It’s the reasonable question facing a team on its third defensive coordinator in three years (Brian VanGorder this time). Don’t draw too many conclusions from the opener; Alabama is going to do Alabama-type things. It’s what Louisville does after it deals with the Crimson Tide juggernaut that will dictate how its season unfolds.
6. Wake Forest (No. 45, 8-5): Coach Dave Clawson needed time to build the Demon Deacons back to relevance. He didn’t inherit much, but went about his job methodically. You’d think back-to-back bowl victories might qualify as a just payoff, but Wake Forest is poised to be even better in Clawson’s fifth season.
One problem: the rest of the Atlantic Division. It’s a neighborhood that’s grown much more competitive over the past three years, and while the Demon Deacons’ improvement is part of that trend, others have improved, too. And so, like Boston College, a team set up to be the best yet under its current coach might end up around 7-5 anyway.
The suspension of quarterback Kendall Hinton for three games doesn’t help, but there are two obvious strengths unaffected by that problem — an offensive line littered with veteran starters and a sound defensive scheme that keeps Wake in nearly every game. The final record might look a lot like last year’s, but no one is going to be eager to deal with the Demon Deacons.
7. Syracuse (No. 70, 4-8): Dino Babers has bagged a noteworthy victory in the Carrier Dome in both of his seasons with the Orange — Virginia Tech in 2016 and Clemson last year. Every now and then, things come together for Syracuse, which isn’t anyone’s idea of great but is vastly more interesting than it was in the previous decade and a half.
It’s safe to assume the Orange will score plenty against mid-tier-and-worse defenses. It’s also safe to assume they’ll give up a lot of points. Until Syracuse solves its defensive issues, it’s going to have a limited ceiling in the loaded Atlantic.
1. Miami (No. 9, 10-3): The funny thing about the Hurricanes’ first trip to the ACC title game last year is the motivational ploy most associated with that team — the turnover chain — was built on a stat that is difficult to replicate season to season.
Nonetheless, Coach Mark Richt has upgraded his alma mater’s talent level over the last three years, he has a strong defense to deploy, he’ll start a veteran quarterback (Malik Rosier) and his team resides in the more manageable half of the conference. The Hurricanes aren’t the most overwhelming division favorites in a Power Five league (put Southern California and Wisconsin ahead of them), but they should head back to Charlotte in early December.
2. Virginia Tech (No. 22, 9-4): It was not a great offseason in Blacksburg, and on the surface it seems as if it will take all of defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s considerable wizardry to hold things together.
Then you look at the Hokies’ schedule and realize things would have to really unravel for this team to end up worse than 8-4. Foster’s defenses are always good. Coach Justin Fuente’s offenses have pretty much always been effective. Maybe this year goes against history, but someone else can be the one to bank on that happening. Even in what could be a transitional year, Virginia Tech will be a tough out.
3. Georgia Tech (No. 39, 5-6): Hard to believe Paul Johnson is beginning his second decade as the Yellow Jackets’ coach. Remember all those questions about whether the triple option would work in a power conference? Now, it’s understood that Georgia Tech is at minimum a giant nuisance and at its best a three-plus hours of misery for opponents.
It has a capable quarterback (TaQuon Marshall) running its scheme and a new defensive coordinator promising a more aggressive approach (as pretty much all of them do). The Yellow Jackets are plenty capable of finishing in the top half of the division.
4. Pittsburgh (No. 58, 5-7): Probably the Coastal’s wild card. The Pat Narduzzi era has brought some riveting victories — over Clemson and Penn State in 2016, an upset of unbeaten Miami on Thanksgiving weekend last year — and plenty of duds. Toss in the sense that Narduzzi just feels like a good fit in the Steel City, and this is an interesting program.
The questions are the same as last year. Will the Panthers enjoy above-average quarterback play, and can they hold up on the back end of the defense? The former didn’t happen in 2017, though Kenny Pickett did engineer the Miami upset in the regular season finale and he’s back this year. The jury won’t be out long on gauging Pitt’s improvement. It meets Penn State at home the second weekend of the season.
5. Duke (No. 62, 7-6): Sometimes, the numbers match the results. The Blue Devils went 7-0 last year when they topped 380 total yards, 0-6 when they didn’t. They were 0-4 when they allowed 380 yards, 7-2 when they didn’t. Basically, things were either working all over the field or they weren’t. There wasn’t much in between during a streaky season in which Duke won its first four, lost its next six and claimed its final three games.
Coach David Cutcliffe brings the bulk of the starting lineup back from that team. Joe Giles-Harris is one of the ACC’s best linebackers, and quarterback Daniel Jones heads into his third year as a starter. Don’t be surprised if the Blue Devils end up matching their victory total from last year.
6. Virginia (No. 71, 6-7): The good feelings of a 5-1 start dissipated a bit last season when the Cavaliers were outscored by 18.4 points per game during a 1-6 finish. Still, there’s no reason to diminish Virginia’s first bowl bid in six years. The Cavaliers made progress.
The addition of junior college transfer Bryce Perkins at quarterback offers some hope that a perpetually inert running game. In a best-case scenario, Perkins is the most valuable newcomer in the conference and enables Virginia to make a run at the top half of the Coastal Division with the help of a defense that lost its two best players but brings nearly everyone else back.
Big picture, Virginia doesn’t require a best-case scenario, however much it might like one. What Coach Bronco Mendenhall needs is to stack some success on top of success and reestablish the Cavaliers as a consistently competitive program. Reaching consecutive bowl games for the first time since 2002-05 would meet that objective, and it’s an attainable goal.
7. North Carolina (No. 76, 3-9): Coach Larry Fedora drew some attention last month for declaring football under siege and suggesting society would gravely miss it were it to leave the scene in the next 10-15 years. Throw in some ill-advised comments about concussions, and Fedora was the talk of the ACC’s media days for all the wrong reasons.
This much though, is definitely true: If the Tar Heels go 3-9 again — and between suspensions aplenty, a tricky nonconference slate and a perpetually broken rush defense, it’s not unthinkable — North Carolina fans probably wouldn’t miss Fedora were he to leave the scene in the next 10-15 weeks. Given the problems, a bounce-back bowl bid would make this a solid enough season in Chapel Hill.