ACC Preview by Michael Leese

Big Questions

  • Which coach is on the hot seat?
  • Will Everett Golson guide a second team to a national title game
  • Are the Pitt Panthers poised to pounce?
  • Is this Larry Fedora’s best team in Chapel Hill?
  • Will the Hokies run the table in the Coastal?
  • Can Clemson challenge Florida State in Atlantic?

Big Games

  • 9/17  Clemson at Louisville
  • 10/14   Miami at North Carolina
  • 10/17   Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech
  • 10/24   Florida State at Georgia Tech
  • 10/29   Pittsburgh at North Carolina
  • 10/31   Clemson at North Carolina State
  • 11/28   North Carolina at North Carolina State
  • 11/28   Clemson at South Carolina

Big Impact Newcomers

  • Boston College – K  Mike Knoll
  • Duke – QB  Thomas Sirk
  • Florida State –  QB  Everett Golson
  • Louisville – DL Devonte Fields
  • Miami – RB  Joseph Yearby
  • North Carolina – DT  Nazair Jones
  • NC State – DL Kentavius Street
  • Syracuse – NT  John Raymon
  • Virginia – RB  Taquan Mizzell

Big Coaching Hires

  • Pitt – Pat Narduzzi – head coach
  • North Carolina – Gene Chizik – defensive coordinator

Team-by-team

Coastal Division

VIRGINIA TECH  I love the Hokies!   Frank Beamer welcomes back 16 starters, and has perhaps one of the best defenses in the country.   Bud Foster will work his magic with this bunch that features what could be the nation’s top defensive line!  All four starters are back, including sack masters Dadi Nicolas and Ken Ekanem who combined for 18 QB sacks last season.   The Hokies also figure to have one of the better secondaries in the conference.   On offense, Quarterback Michael Brewer should be better in his second year in the system.   He has weapons all around him as the skill positions are loaded with highly touted athletes waiting to breakout.   The offensive line is the only questionable unit on the squad.    The Techsters have a very favorable schedule as they dodge Louisville, Clemson and Florida State from the Atlantic.   They’ll open with an Ohio State team bent on revenge, but look out after that!

GEORGIA TECH     The Yellow Jackets had a remarkable 11-3 season last year, with the losses by a combined 13 points.    Justin Thomas is the perfect fit for this option offense.  He returns under center and figures to improve on a solid season, that saw him rush for over 1,200 yards and throw 18 touchdowns.    The skill positions have me a bit concerned as head coach Paul Johnson will need an impact player or two to emerge.   The defense should be better than last years bunch, and features a secondary that return intact.  They schedule is tough as draw both Florida State and Clemson from the Atlantic, and play Notre Dame and Georgia.  Getting back to 11 wins may be tough, but hey are legit contenders for the Coastal title.

PITTSBURGH      Pat Narduzzi inherits a Panther team that is on the cusp of something big, and he’ll bring his hard-nosed approach that should fit well in the steel city.  Narduzzi is known for his great defenses at Michigan State, which will be welcomed here.   The offense is in good hands with QB Chad Voytik.  He had a breakout season last year and is joined by James Conner, who had 1,800 rushing yards and super receiver Tyler Boyd.  The Panthers are young, as the projected opening day lineup features only six seniors.   Road games at Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, will be challenging.

NORTH CAROLINA      It’s now or never for Larry Fedora, next year may be too late as there will be no more excuses for another mediocre team.  The Heels are loaded returning 17 starters and including the dynamic Marquise Williams at quarterback.   Williams is a solid dual-threat quarterback who ran for 1,051 yards while passing for another 3,068.     The offense figures to be much better than last years 33 PPG, as the only loss is at tight end where Jack Tabb has moved on.  The defense should also be much improved with the addition of Gene Chizik, as coordinator.  I think the Heels will start 4-0 before a division season-opening game at Georgia Tech, and they also face Pitt and Virginia Tech on the road.   An upset in one of these contests could well get them to a double-digit win season.

MIAMI  This is the hardest team for me to gauge in the ACC.   The offense is in capable hands with sophomore Brad Kaaya, who should improve with a year under his belt.  Replacing Duke Johnson and Phillip Dorsett is going to be a tall task, but many think Joseph Yearby will have a breakout season at tailback.  He is one of several underclassmen who will be in a starting role on the Hurricane offense.   The defense figures to be the strength of the team , led by a back seven that is among the best in the ACC.   The defensive line has me concerned with the departure of three starters.   I think the Hurricanes are a year away from becoming dominant.

DUKE   David Cutcliffe is an outstanding coach who gets the most from his players.   He will have to do another masterful job this season in order to get the Devils to their fourth straight bowl.    Thomas Sirk should take over at quarterback for the departed Anthony Boone.   Sirk has little experience, but does have a better arm than his predecessor.   A solid ground game led by running backs Shaquille Powell and Shaun Wilson should take some pressure of Sirk.    The defense will take a big hit with the loss of three standouts on the defensive front.  There are many, many question marks, but who would have thought that Duke would be 19-8 the past two years?

VIRGINIA   Mike London has had a few really good recruiting classes, but just can’t seem to equate that to a winning product on the field.   Part of the problem is that the Cavaliers seem to always play a tough non-conference slate, and that is the case again in 2015.   They host both Boise State and Notre Dame, and travel to UCLA.    By the time they open ACC play they could be 1-3.   Throw in the fact they have road games at Pitt, Louisville, Miami and North Carolina, and play both the Techs and it could be fourth straight losing season, leaving me wondering if London can keep his job.

Atlantic Division

FLORIDA STATE      Many questions have yet to be answered about this tribe of Seminoles.    Head Coach Jimbo Fisher has yet to name a starting quarterback as Everett Golson and Sean Maguire battle it out.  I just can’t see Golson losing, but the bigger question for me, will be how do they replace four offensive lineman.   The Seminoles had their worst defense since the 2009 season, giving up 25.6 PPG, double that of the National Championship winning team.   But I expect big improvement on that side of the ball as the top four tacklers return.   The Seminoles are 39-3 the past three years, but the schedule is tough this year with road tilts at Georgia Tech, Clemson and Florida.

LOUISVILLE      This will be only the second season for both head coach Bobby Petrino and the Cardinals in the ACC.   The Cardinals return only four starters on defense, but coach Petrino is not alarmed, as three big-time transfers figure to improve the back seven.  Devonte Fields was a beast at TCU, before running into trouble with the law, while Georgia transfers Chucky Williams and Josh Harvey-Clemons figure to start in a depleted secondary.  On offense, a healthy Will Gardner is expected back under center.   If healthy he will provide a huge spark to a Petrino offense that should put up solid numbers.   The non-conference slate is tough featuring Auburn, Kentucky and Houston.

NORTH CAROLINA STATE   Dave Doeren has his best team in his three-year tenure, and the Wolfpack should be 4-0 when they open conference play at home against Louisville.  Quarterback Jacoby Brissett had an outstanding year last season and will only get better.  He has more weapons at his disposal this year, with a deeper set of running backs and solid receiving core.    Defensively they get back eight starters and are poised to improve with the additions of Kentavious Street and Bradley Chubb.     The Wolfpack have two tough road games at Virginia Tech and Florida State.

CLEMSON  After beating LSU, Oklahoma and Ohio State in bowl games the last three seasons, many prognosticators have Clemson winning the Atlantic Division.  I’m not on that bandwagon and in fact think the Tigers slip a bit in the standings.  We all know how good the offense will be, led by super Soph Deshaun Watson, with his top three running backs and receivers back.   The defense is where I will make a stand, as only three returning starters return.   The entire defensive line is gone, and the linebacking unit also took two big hits.  While the Tigers do have many highly recruited athletes to fill the void, they have very little experience.  Overall this conference is much tougher than last season, but watch out next season!

BOSTON COLLEGE    Gone are the entire offensive line and the quarterback that kept them in many games last season.  The Eagles also lose their top rusher and receiver.  At this writing head coach Steve Addazio had yet to settle on a quarterback.  Darius Wade should win the job, he has thrown a total of eight passes in his college career.  This could be a long season for an offense that has no real leader.    The defense will have to carry the mail for the Eagles.   The defensive line will be the strength as everyone returns, but the bad news is, the secondary needs a complete overhaul.    A soft non-conference slate will get them a chance to get some continuity.

SYRACUSE   The Orange were beat up last year!   They lost quarterback Terrel Hunt for a good chunk of the season and had major injuries at the receiver position.   Hunt gives the Orange a chance to be in every game, but he must remain healthy.   I expect a big increase in offensive production over last years meager 17 points per game.   The defense has all kinds of holes to fill, with eight starters departing.   Head coach Scott Schafer has said “no job is safe on defense.”   It looks like another long season in western New York.

WAKE FOREST   Dave Clawson enters his second season at the helm of the Demon Deacons and has what will be the youngest team in the ACC, with only four seniors expected to start.   Quarterback John Wolford has a chance to be a solid leader but he struggled last year as a freshman.  The Deacons must find a running game, and averaging a paltry 1.3 yards per carry last season.     The front seven on defense is the strength of the team.

Projected standings

ATLANTIC

  • FLORIDA STATE     7-1   11-1
  • LOUISVILLE             6-2   9-3
  • NC STATE                  5-3   9-3
  • CLEMSON                 4-4   7-5
  • BOSTON COLLEGE 1-7   4-8
  • SYRACUSE                 1-7   4-8
  • WAKE FOREST         1-7   3-9

COASTAL

  • VIRGINIA TECH        8-0   11-1
  • GEORGIA TECH         6-2   8-4
  • PITTSBURGH             5-3   8-4
  • NORTH CAROLINA  4-4   8-4
  • MIAMI                          4-4   7-5
  • DUKE                            2-6   5-7
  • VIRGINIA                    2-6   3-9

ACC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME:  Virginia Tech vs. Florida State

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