BY MICHAEL LEESE
Last year, the ACC stepped out of the shadow of the SEC, as Florida State beat Auburn in the BCS National Championship Game, ending a seven-year run by the SEC. This season, the conference is undergoing a mass overhaul on offense as 11 starting quarterbacks have moved on, but Heisman Trophy Winner Jameis Winston returns for the Florida State. Louisville will make their conference debut, joining the Atlantic Division replacing Maryland who took their shells to the Big 10. Notre Dame also joins the conference on a limited basis, facing four ACC foes, including Louisville, North Carolina, Florida State and Syracuse.
FLORIDA STATE The Seminoles start the dance to the Big D right in Dallas, warring with the Cowboys of Oklahoma State. This year, Jimbo Fisher welcomes back 13 starters, an amazing 11 of which are pre-season all conference selections. Heisman Trophy Winner Jameis Winston returns under center and has a super supporting cast led by Wide Receiver Rashad Greene. They might take a small step backwards on defense, with a tougher schedule on the horizon, but only five defensive starters need to be replaced. This year, Notre Dame, Florida and Clemson will come to Tallahassee , and the Noles have road games at Miami and Louisville. In the past, it seemed like the Seminoles would lose to a team they shouldn’t every year. The avoided that trap last season, and if they do so again this year, the Seminoles could again be National Champions.
CLEMSON The Tigers are coming off of an amazing season that ended with an Orange Bowl victory., This year, the defense will have to take on a bigger role and they are primed to do just that. The Tigers feature what could be the best defensive line in the conference, and have a loaded linebacking crew as well. Vic Beasley could earn All-America honors as he led the team with 13 sacks a year ago. On offense, Cole Stoudt and Deshaun Watson who are vying for the starting quarterback job. Watson was the No.2-ranked quarterback coming out of high school last season. With Taj Boyd and Sammy Watkins now in the NFL, I think it will be next to impossible to score at a 40-point clip like last season. The schedule is tough as the Tigers open with Georgia and close at home against rival South Carolina. They also have Florida State on the road.
LOUISVILLE What a difference a year makes! First, Louisville moves from the AAC to the ACC, a big step-up in competition. Second, Charlie Strong bolted after a dominating bowl victory over Miami, to take the head coaching job at Texas. Third, Teddy Bridgewater decided to turn pro and was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings! Then in steps, Bobby Petrino who was the head man here from 2003-06 before leaving for the NFL. Petrino is considered an offensive genius and quarterback guru, and his first order of business was finding a replacement for Bridgewater. Wes Gardner has been anointed the starter after throwing for 500 yards in the spring game! He does have quality weapons as both Dominique Brown (leading rusher) and DeVante Parker (leading receiver) return. The troubling part may be the massive migration on defense, as only four starters return. There are just to many questions to be answered, but the fan base is eager for the upcoming ACC season, as the Cardinals will face Notre Dame, Clemson and Florida State.
SYRACUSE Head coach Scott Shafer did a great job in his first year last season. The Orange went 7-6 and finished with a bowl victory over Minnesota. I expect much of the same this year as 15 starters return! Terrel Hunt has a firm grip at quarterback. He’s a dual threat and can beat you both running and throwing the pigskin. His supporting cast returns pretty much intact. I expect improved offensive production this season. Seven starters return on defense and they add in John Raymon a behemoth 6-5 325 transfer from Iowa. The schedule is tough as they face Notre Dame, Florida State, Clemson, Louisville and Maryland.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE Dave Doeren’s first year didn’t go according to plan, as the Wolfpack suffered their first losing season since 2009, and their first winless conference season since 1959! The Wolfpack suffered major injuries at quarterback and offensive line. Stepping in at quarterback is Jacoby Brissett,a Florida transfer who could well be another Phillip Rivers. He’ll have to find his targets, as the top three receivers departed. The Pack has lost the top three tacklers from last years defense, but there does appear to be plenty of options to choose from, and Doeren is a former defensive coordinator. They could go 4-0 in the non-conference and have home games versus Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Boston College. In his two years at Northern Illinois, Doeren led the Huskies to conference championships. Look for the Pack to get back on track with a bowl trip this season.
WAKE FOREST Winds of change have come to Winston-Salem. Jim Grobe stepped down as head coach after the season, leaving the school to find a new successor. They found a good one in Dave Clawson from Bowling Green. Clawson turned the Falcons into a MAC front-runner in his five years there, leading them to three bowl games. But this could be a rough year for the new head coach, as only 10 starters return, five on each side of the ball. The first task will be to name a replacement for the departed Tanner Price, as Tyler Cameron and Kevin Sousa are in a battle for the top QB spot. The top two rushers and receivers also departed, leaving major holes to fill. The entire defensive line also moved on, creating a major concern. Adding to the problem is the fact that the projected starters are smallish averaging a mere 255 pounds.
BOSTON COLLEGE Head coach Steve Addazio will certainly have his hands full replacing most of the offense.Gone is Andre Williams who rushed for 2,233 yards, which was good for 45-percent of the team’s total offense. Also gone is four-year starter at quarterback Chase Rettig, who threw for 1,995 yards, along with the top four receivers. The also defense also suffered big attrition. The defensive line must be rebuilt and the linebacking corps also has holes. I think it’s going to be a long year in Chestnut Hill.
NORTH CAROLINA Larry Fedora returns for his third season as head coach and has what could be his most talented team yet. Marquise Williams took over for an injured Bryn Renner last season, and led the TarHeels from a 1-5 start to a 7-6 record and a bowl victory over Cincinnati. The loss of tight end Eric Ebron is the only real concern for the coaching staff. Defensively, the Heels return seven starters. They add highly-touted recruits Dajuan Drennon and Greg Webb to the line. I expect a fast start to the season after opening 1-5 last year.
PITTSBURGH Paul Chryst, like Fedora enters his third season as head coach. Pitt is loaded with young talent, and three young sophomores will need to step up and be leaders on offense. Chad Voytik claimed the quarterback spot, while James Connor and Tyler Boyd fill voids at running back and receiver. If the Panthers can shore up the defensive front, they will surely play spoilers in the league. Replacing Aaron Donald, the All-American defensive tackle, will be the first order of business on the stop unit. I have the Panthers starting the season 5-0 with road games at North Carolina and Miami being huge tests.
VIRGINIA TECH With three-year starter Logan Thomas moved on to the NFL, Michael Brewer, a transfer from Texas Tech, takes over at quarterback position. Brewer has a bevy of talent surrounding him as nine starters return. The defense is what has me concerned. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster is one of the best in the business, but has only one returning starter on the front seven. Somehow, I believe his Lunch Pail Defense it done yet again. This is a young team that should get better as the year goes on.
MIAMI (FLA.) This season the expectations are again high after the Hurricanes made it back from a two-year bowl ban to play in the Russell Athletic Bowl last year. With Ryan Williams lost for the season with injury,Kevin Olsen, a redshirt freshman, will now get the keys to the offense. He was the No.4 -rated recruit in the nation at quarterback two years ago. He’ll benefit from a healthy Duke Johnson who returns after rushing for 948 yards in only five games. Johnson together with Dallas Crawford could form one of the top rushing duos in the nation. I expect a better effort on the defense as well. Seven starters are returning and several highly touted recruits are ready to contribute! Al Golden is one of the better coaches in the country and we will soon see Sebastian returning to national prominence.
VIRGINIA If you’re looking for a team to make a big move, this is it. Mike London has always been a premier recruiter, but the problem has been getting that talent to translate to the win column. Last season saw the Cavaliers go 0-8 in the conference and just 2-10 overall, and they have a 6-18 record the past two seasons. Greyson Lambert and David Watford are fighting for the top quarterback spot. Kevin Parks returns at running back after rushing for 1,065 yards, and the receiving core looks solid with the additions of Canaan Severin and Kyle Dockins. On defense, I expect big improvement. Super-recruit Andrew Brown will join Mike Moore to fill the only two open spots. The Cavs play one of the toughest schedules in the country with BYU and UCLA in non-Conference and draw Florida State and Louisville from the Atlantic Division. Even with the tough schedule, this could be the year outstanding recruiting pays off.
GEORGIA TECH The Yellow Jackets traditionally are near the top in rushing offense in the nation. After last year, the top three rushers departed, including quarterback Vad Lee, and they’ll be hard pressed to match last season’s 299 rushing yards per game. But Paul Johnson always seems to find a way to get the right personnel on the field. The defense is what concerns me as only four starters return. The loss of so much talent has me calling for a challenging year for the Yellow Jackets.
DUKE It was a magical run for the Blue Devils last season, as David Cutcliffe pushed all the right buttons last season! A 10-4 season that saw them play in both the ACC Championship Game and an amazing bowl game against Texas A&M. Anthony Boone does return at quarterback after throwing for 2,260 yards a year ago, and leading rusher Josh Snead and leading receiver Jamison Crowder, who caught 108 passes last year, also return. The defense took big hits in the secondary and along the line. The Blue Devils have plenty of playmakers back and I believe Duke starts the season 4-0 in non-conference play.
How They’ll Finish
- Florida State 12-0 8-0
- Clemson 8-4 6-2
- Louisville 7-5 4-4
- Syracuse 7-5 4-4
- North Carolina State 6-6 3-5
- Wake Forest 4-8 2-6
- Boston College 3-9 0-8
- North Carolina 10-2 7-1
- Pittsburgh 9-3 5-3
- Virginia Tech 7-5 4-4
- Miami 7-5 4-4
- Virginia 6-6 4-4
- Georgia Tech 6-6 3-5
- Duke 6-6 2-6