With the start of the college football season around the corner, we're going around the country to preview the 2017 season, conference by conference, with analysis and projected records for every team. We continue with 20 things to know about the ACC.
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1. The Year of the Quarterback in the ACC will become the Year of the Defensive Line. Heisman winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville and Deondre Francois of Florida State return as star quarterbacks, but the ACC offenses will look a lot different in 2017: Gone are Clemson's Deshaun Watson, Miami's Brad Kaaya, Virginia Tech's Jerod Evans, Georgia Tech's Justin Thomas, Pitt's Nathan Peterman and North Carolina's Mitch Trubisky. Meanwhile, the conference is loaded with excellent defenses -- four of our top six nationally -- and that's particularly true on the defensive line, where Clemson has arguably the top overall position unit in the country and others also own enticing NFL talent. Great defenses could end up being the story in the ACC, but the quarterback turnover creates fascinating uncertainty and unpredictability, at least in the Coastal Division.
2. Miami exemplifies this year's ACC: The Hurricanes' improved roster and coaching could lead to big things, but quarterback is an unknown. Brad Kaaya's departure leaves a battle between 2016 backup Malik Rosier, Evan Shirreffs and true freshman N'Kosi Perry, among others. The winner of the competition steps into a mostly favorable situation, with arguably the ACC's best returning running back (Mark Walton) and receiver (Ahmmon Richards), even if the line still needs improvement. The other reason the situation is favorable? Beyond having to play at Florida State on Sept. 16, the schedule sets up well. The Hurricanes miss the Louisville, Clemson and N.C. State defenses, and they don't have to play Virginia Tech until Nov. 4, at home. Notre Dame also visits Miami. The nonconference games against Arkansas State and Toledo are both traps, but if the Hurricanes take care of business in those games, the schedule couldn't be much better, at least for a team that's guaranteed to play Florida State from the Atlantic every year.
3. Miami was dominant for a significant portion of 2016, a fact that was overshadowed by its four-game midseason losing streak. Three of those losses were by touchdown or less, and the Hurricanes' nine wins were all by at least two touchdowns. After making significant strides last year, Miami will have one of the nation's best defenses. Under coordinator Manny Diaz and line coach Craig Kuligowski, the Canes leaped from 86th to ninth in yards per play allowed and 115th to 17th in rushing yards per attempt allowed. They did that despite a youthful front seven that included three freshmen starting at linebacker. While there are holes to fill at cornerback, a deep line -- led by R.J. McIntosh, Kendrick Norton, Trent Harris, Joe Jackson, Chad Thomas and Demetrius Jackson -- in front of those rising star linebackers gives Miami an excellent foundation. Yes, Miami lost its quarterback, but its defense will be attacking Coastal contenders that also lost their quarterbacks. Miami always has the talent to win the division; this time, it can finally end its drought and makes it first ACC title game appearance.
4. Virginia Tech looks similar to Miami, only with a few more non-quarterback questions. The Hokies returned to the top of the Coastal in Justin Fuente's first season as head coach. However, starting QB and leading rusher Jerod Evans turned pro, as did top WR Isaiah Ford and TE Bucky Hodges. Throw in the struggles of the running game beyond Evans last year, and this offense has several questions to answer as it retools. Virginia Tech does return a veteran go-to receiver in Cam Phillips. Otherwise, there's an open competition at running back and quarterback, the latter featuring redshirt freshman Joshua Jackson, juco transfer A.J. Bush and true freshman Hendon Hooker. While Fuente is a terrific offensive coach, some regression can be expected, putting the Hokies a step behind Miami in the preseason Coastal pecking order -- something that could change depending on how quarterback development pans out in both place.
5. We do know that Virginia Tech will be able to rely on yet another excellent defense under coordinator Bud Foster. The defense is just built differently than some of the other top units in the conference. While the defensive line has potential, the veteran stars of the Hokies defense are in the back seven. Once again, they're loaded with talented cornerbacks, including Greg Stroman, Brandon Facyson and Adonis Alexander. The Edmunds brothers -- linebacker Tremaine, safety Terrell -- are proven weapons, versatile DB Mook Reynolds is an underrated playmaker and LB Andrew Motuapuaka had 114 tackles last year. The only question is replenishing the pass rush, but after a solid season last year, this unit is capable of becoming a top-10 defense nationally, giving Virginia Tech a chance to win in any given week.
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QB: Lamar Jackson, Louisville
RB: Mark Walton, Miami
RB: Cam Akers, Florida State
WR: Ahmmon Richards, Miami
WR: Deon Cain, Clemson
TE: Jaylen Samuels, N.C. State
OL: Mitch Hyatt, Clemson
OL: Tyrone Crowder, Clemson
OL: Brian O'Neill, Pittsburgh
OL: Tony Adams, N.C. State
OL: Wyatt Teller, Virginia Tech
DE: Harold Landry, Boston College
DE: Bradley Chubb, N.C. State
DT: Dexter Lawrence, Clemson
DT: Christian Wilkins, Clemson
LB: Micah Kiser, Virginia
LB: Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech
LB: Kendall Joseph, Clemson
CB: Jaire Alexander, Louisville
CB: Tarvarus McFadden, Florida State
S: Derwin James, Florida State
S: Quin Blanding, Virginia
K: Michael Badgley, Miami
P: Tom Sheldon, North Carolina
AP: Quadree Henderson, Pittsburgh
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6. Paul Johnson is entering his 10th season at Georgia Tech, and a strong finish to last season solidified his standing. The Yellow Jackets plummeted from 11-3 to 3-9 in 2015, then rebounded to 9-4 last year, thanks a four-game winning streak at the end that featured road wins over Virginia Tech and Georgia. There's a lot to like about Georgia Tech's chances of duplicating the 2016 success, but the Yellow Jackets are more dependent on new QB success than others because their defense lags behind the top Coastal contenders. The Yellow Jackets' option game has potential; it's just a matter of how well junior Matthew Jordan can fill the shoes of Justin Thomas at QB, especially because Georgia Tech defenses tend to finish in the bottom half of the conference. Of course, things have only gotten tougher for Thomas, as 1,000-yard rusher Dedrick Mills was dismissed from the team on Aug. 18. Georgia Tech's schedule won't make things easy, either: The Yellow Jackets play both Tennessee and Georgia from the SEC, and they have road trips to Clemson and Miami. The 2015 debacle remains the only time in the past 20 seasons that Georgia Tech missed a bowl game, and while there are clear hurdles, there's little reason to expect the Yellow Jackets to fall out of the postseason mix.
7. On one hand, Pittsburgh is the luckiest team in the ACC. It is the only team in the conference that avoids Florida State, Clemson and Louisville, and it gets N.C. State and Miami at home. That'll make it much easier to improve its pass defense. On the other hand, two of Pitt's first three games are nonconference tilts with the explosive passing offenses of Penn State and Oklahoma State … and top DB Jordan Whitehead will be suspended for those games, in addition to the dismissal of starting DE Rori Blair. Pat Narduzzi's background is defense, but that unit gave up 4,331 passing yards last year, ranking 106th in defensive passer rating. Further raising questions is the uncertainty on offense. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada spent one year revamping this offense into a creative and explosive unit; he abruptly left for LSU. New coordinator Shawn Watson is tasked with replacing RB James Conner, QB Nathan Peterman and star linemen Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson. He does have explosive playmakers Jester Weah and Quadree Henderson back, and he has an intriguing quarterback in former five-star recruit Max Browne, who waited his turn at USC, only to get beat out by Sam Darnold last September. There are enough intriguing parts and a beneficial conference schedule to put Pitt into ACC Coastal contention, but it'll be difficult for Narduzzi to beat the 8-5 records of his first two seasons.
8. The rapid rise of Mitch Trubisky led to his rapid departure, too. The Tar Heels broke out in 2015 and ranked No. 1 in yards per play nationally behind Marquise Williams at QB. Last year's team fell to 8-5, but despite a downturn in rushing production, the offense was still potent with the efficient, NFL-bound Trubisky at the helm. Larry Fedora can be trusted to put together impressive offenses. But can he get the most out of Brandon Harris … or whomever replaces Trubisky? Harris struggled to live up to his recruiting reputation at LSU, but now he transfers into to a spread-oriented offense that will likely utilize his legs more. That is, if he beats out Nathan Elliott, Chazz Surratt and Logan Byrd. Unlike last year, there is no clear-cut veteran QB waiting in the wings. Also unlike last year, the supporting cast is not proven. Top RBs Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan are gone, as are WRs Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins and Bug Howard. Throw in the retirement of defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, who made that unit respectable, and regression will be difficult to avoid in Chapel Hill.
9. David Cutcliffe is one of the best football coaches in the country, and he aptly took advantage of a window of opportunity in the ACC Coastal to push Duke to rare heights, winning 27 games from 2013-15. Last year, the Blue Devils fell back down to 4-8, faced with tougher competition in the division. A wave of productive quarterbacks is gone, but the strong series of coaching hires in the conference will continue to make things more difficult for Duke, one of the toughest jobs in college football. Hope for Duke this year rests on the arm and legs of enticing sophomore QB Daniel Jones. With five of the seven Coastal teams replacing QBs, Duke can be excited about the potential of Jones, who started all 12 games last year, completing 62.8 percent for 2,836 yards, 16 TDs and nine picks and rushing for 486 yards and seven TDs. Cutcliffe gets the most out of his talent, and Duke is bound to be more effective on offense in 2017. However, the defense has to improve after finishing 12th in the ACC in yards per play, and the schedule -- Florida State, plus Baylor and Northwestern out of conference -- makes a return to the postseason a toss-up in a competitive division filled with decent teams, even if there are no powerhouses.
10. Virginia has been an adjustment for Bronco Mendenhall in multiple ways. A surprise hire, Mendenhall spent just about his entire career in the West before moving to Charlottesville, and he also was one of college football's most consistent winners at BYU, where he went 99-43 in 11 years. At Virginia, he inherited a 4-8 team from Mike London, one with some individual talent but also one that was a long way from contending. The Cavaliers have been to one bowl in the past nine seasons, and they've lost 13 straight to rival Virginia Tech. Mendenhall went 2-10 in his debut, and 2016 made it clear for all involved that patience will be required at Virginia. That's not to say the situation is hopeless this year. With Micah Kiser, Quin Blanding and Andrew Brown leading the defense, a serviceable returning starter at QB in Kurt Benkert and a schedule that could be worse, being a surprise bowl team is hardly impossible. Still, merely doubling last year's win total to four would represent progress, especially with an unknown run game and a defense that hasn't played to its potential as a whole.
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Top 15 Games
1. Florida State vs. Alabama, Sept. 2
2. Florida State at Clemson, Nov. 11
3. Auburn at Clemson, Sept. 9
4. Louisville at Florida State, Oct. 21
5. Miami at Florida State, Sept. 16
6. Clemson at Louisville, Sept. 16
7. Virginia Tech at Miami, Nov. 4
8. Florida State at Florida, Nov. 25
9. Clemson at Virginia Tech, Sept. 30
10. Clemson at N.C. State, Nov. 4
11. Notre Dame at Miami, Nov. 11
12. N.C. State at Florida State, Sept. 23
13. Pittsburgh at Penn State, Sept. 9
14. Oklahoma State at Pittsburgh, Sept. 16
15. Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia, Sept. 3
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11. While Steve Addazio has guided Boston College to bowls in three of four seasons (all three featuring 7-6 records), it's hard not to feel doubt about how long the Addazio era will last, because of how difficult it has been to stay awake while watching the Eagles play. Beyond the fact that Boston College has a new athletic director, intense pressure on Addazio exists because the Eagles have been one of the most unwatchable teams in college football. They have finished last in the ACC in yards per play each of the past two years, when they've averaged 10.6 points per game in 16 conference matchups. Addazio is now 10-22 in ACC play, and just 2-14 the past two years, as last year's bowl trip happened because the Eagles had a laughable nonconference schedule featuring UMass, Wagner, Buffalo and Connecticut. This year, Boston College has to play Notre Dame out of conference, and while the defense can continue to be strong -- led by All-America candidate DE Harold Landry -- it might take another small step back, another year removed from the departure of coordinator Don Brown. The offense has experience beyond losing QB Patrick Towles, with an offensive line that will improve, but this is a team that hasn't scored more than 21 points in a conference game since Nov. 29, 2014. While a 36-30 win over Maryland in the Quick Lane Bowl offered positive signs, the Eagles slowed down after a fast start and still averaged only 4.6 yards per play against a mediocre defense. Coordinator Scot Loeffler wants to incorporate more tempo and make things less conservative, but it's impossible not to be skeptical.
12. Dave Clawson just ended Wake Forest's five-year bowl drought. Any postseason appearance is always a success for the Demon Deacons, even if they beat just two FBS teams that won more than four games (Indiana and Temple) in 2016. The bowl trip happened behind a stellar defense, which, predictably, resulted in coordinator Mike Elko getting hired by a most prestigious program (Notre Dame). Wake Forest will be experienced on offense, but it has finished in the bottom two of the ACC in yards per play four straight years and hasn't averaged 20 points in conference play since 2011. This will be Clawson's best Wake offense, but the Elko-less defense may take a step back, even with the return of DE Duke Ejiofor and S Jessie Bates. The Demon Deacons are in a brutal division, of course, and they also draw Notre Dame and play a tricky road game at Appalachian State, so back-to-back bowls would be an impressive achievement.
13. Marrying his style of football with the roster he inherited from Scott Shafer was always going require patience for Dino Babers. Last year saw some positives, including the win over Virginia Tech, but with QB Eric Dungey again battling injuries, the Orange still finished just 90th in scoring nationally. They also ended the year by scoring 61 points and still somehow losing to Pitt by 15, as they ranked 120th in points allowed. A healthy Dungey leading a more experienced roster could lead to clear Year 2 improvement under Babers, but a brutal schedule means Syracuse may have to wait until next year to get back to a bowl. The Orange play LSU, N.C. State, Miami, Florida State and Louisville on the road, in addition to hosting Clemson. They also can't overlook the early home dates with Middle Tennessee and Central Michigan. There are six winnable home games, but it will be tough for Syracuse to actually have the consistency to win all six.
14. N.C. State would be the pick by many to win the ACC Coastal. Stuck in the Atlantic, however, it's hard to view the Wolfpack as better than a fourth-place team. Such is life with heavyweights Clemson and Florida State, plus a Louisville team with the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. Last year was full of close calls for N.C. State, which lost tight games to Florida State and Clemson and got to the postseason by beating North Carolina in the final game. Dave Doeren is only 9-23 in ACC play in four years, and with one of the nation's best defensive lines, led by Bradley Chubb, and a veteran offense, led by QB Ryan Finley, the Wolfpack are equipped for a breakthrough in 2017. Unfortunately, they still have to play those three Atlantic opponents, plus South Carolina and Notre Dame. Even a significantly improved team might not break that five-loss ceiling that has hovered over the program. N.C. State will be good enough to topple at least one of those three divisional powers, with a chance to be the third top-25 Wolfpack team since 1994. But with an unproven running game and a tricky schedule, increasingly high expectations and sleeper talk need to be tempered.
15. Louisville had a strange season in 2016. It was ranked 19th in the preseason AP poll. It rose as high as No. 3; produced its first Heisman Trophy winner, Lamar Jackson; beat Florida State by 43; and was viewed as a playoff contender until late November. And yet it finished two spots worse in the AP poll (21st) than it started. Jackson had 5,114 total yards and 51 touchdowns, but the Cardinals lost a heartbreaker at Clemson, escaped a couple upset bids and then fell apart. The offensive line collapsed in losses to Houston and LSU, while mistakes and poor defensive play led to a surprise loss to Kentucky. Louisville faces rare preseason skepticism for a team with a returning Heisman winner. As we wrote in April, 1991 BYU, with Ty Detmer, is the only team with a returning Heisman winner to start the next season outside the AP top 10. The Cardinals opened 17th in the coaches poll and are likely to be in similar territory when the AP poll is released. Louisville has been ranked in the preseason AP poll only seven times ever, so it's not like a top-20 ranking is totally disappointing. It's also not hard to see why there is skepticism: Jackson won't catch anybody by surprise, as teams have had more time to prepare after LSU and Houston found ways to contain Jackson; the line needs substantial improvement; and Louisville's top running back and top three receivers are gone.
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1. Florida State 10-2 (7-1)
2. Clemson 10-2 (7-1)
3. Louisville 10-2 (6-2)
4. N.C. State 8-4 (5-3)
5. Syracuse 5-7 (2-6)
6. Wake Forest 4-8 (2-6)
7. Boston College 4-8 (1-7)
1. Miami 10-2 (6-2)
2. Virginia Tech 8-4 (4-4)
3. Georgia Tech 6-6 (4-4)
4. Pittsburgh 6-6 (4-4)
5. North Carolina 6-6 (3-5)
6. Duke 5-7 (3-5)
7. Virginia 5-7 (2-6)
Conference Championship: Florida State over Miami
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16. Despite the clear problems that need to be addressed, dismissing Louisville's ACC title chances would be foolish. The Cardinals draw Virginia and rebuilding North Carolina (in Week 2) from the Coastal, and they get Clemson at home. Jackson unquestionably has room for growth as a passer, especially as defenses finally find ways to adjust to his athleticism, but he was a deserving Heisman winner who had one of the most impressive statistical seasons in college football history. He's in Year 3 under coach Bobby Petrino now, and he also should have another stellar defense to support him. The offensive line does present significant issues, given the games against the defensive fronts of Clemson, N.C. State and Florida State, but the combination of a historically productive quarterback and a favorable schedule overall could allow Louisville to exceed expectations after 2016's late-season backlash, even if Jackson duplicating last year's absurd numbers is nearly impossible.
17. Clemson just won its second-ever national championship. It came close to winning back-to-back titles. It has become a national power, as Dabo Swinney built a giant with an excellent coaching staff and terrific recruiting, which have given the Tigers the capacity to reload. Clemson is well-positioned to reload, but expecting another playoff run is unreasonable. There's little doubt that Clemson has the talent to compete for a third straight playoff bid. Still, after winning a title and losing QB Deshaun Watson, a two-time Heisman finalist and the greatest player in school history, there's nowhere to go but down, even if the step back is small. The new QB is likely to be either junior Kelly Bryant or five-star true freshman Hunter Johnson, and even if Bryant initially wins the job, it's easy to envision Johnson following a Watson-like path and earning the job at some point during his freshman year. Clemson went 10-3 in Watson's debut season in 2014. Given the uncertainty at quarterback and a schedule that includes Auburn, Louisville and Virginia Tech before the end of September, a season similar to 2014 is the most likely outcome.
18. Line play ensures that Clemson will still contend in the ACC. The receiving corps, led by Deon Cain and Hunter Renfrow, is still in good shape, and there's enough potential in the backfield to believe that a running back will emerge. But the real key to Clemson avoiding a significant fall is the fact that it will be imposing at the line of scrimmage. The offensive line is loaded with experience and will be better than the unit that had mixed results for much of last year. The defensive line is the best in the country, featuring stars in Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell, plus several other key contributors. Brent Venables has consistently reloaded this defense, and, this year, there aren't quite as many holes to fill, even if players like Ben Boulware and Cordrea Tankersley are tough to replace. If Clemson can win the line of scrimmage, it has the athletes to give it a chance to win any game. The Tigers will probably stumble a couple times, but the fact that something like a 10-3 record would be a step back says it all about just how healthy this program is and how far it has come.
19. The early 2016 panic about the Florida State defense will soon feel like ancient history. Safety Derwin James, as talented as any player in the country, is back after missing nearly all of last season with an injury. CB Tarvarus McFadden led the nation in interceptions as a sophomore. The linebacking corps is no longer a weakness, with Matthew Thomas, Ro'Derrick Hoskins and Jacob Pugh ready for a big season. And while DeMarcus Walker is gone at defensive end, the Noles have a powerful anchor up front in tackle Derrick Nnadi, and Josh Sweat and Brian Burns give them potential pass-rush firepower. After a few horrendous games early last year, the Seminoles were often dominant defensively down the stretch. Even though it scored 32 points, Michigan averaged only 3.4 yards per play with 252 yards in FSU's Orange Bowl win. Now, James is back, and coordinator Charles Kelly has all the pieces in place for this to be one of the best defenses in the country, fueling Florida State's national title hopes.
20. Florida State will win the ACC, but don't be surprised if the Seminoles are a two-loss team right in the center of the College Football Playoff debate (and, possibly, controversy). A loss to Alabama is more forgivable than any other possible loss, but based on the way the postseason system operates, one loss on the opening weekend is going to severely decrease or wipe out the Seminoles' margin for error the rest of the season. They'd have to run the table to feel sure about a spot, and while a two-loss team is bound to get into the playoff sometime, a second loss would put the Seminoles at the mercy of the results of others, perhaps the Big 12 champion. Of course, it's entirely possible that FSU beats Alabama and jumps to No. 1 right away; the Seminoles have the talent to do it. They'll miss Dalvin Cook but have enticing options at tailback in Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick, and there is potential for the receiving corps to improve behind Auden Tate and Nyqwan Murray. More than anything, the 2017 season hinges on the offensive line's ability to keep QB Deondre Francois more upright than he was last year. The Seminoles haven't been great on the line the past couple years, and they face a scheduled loaded with potent pass rushes, from Alabama to Miami to N.C. State to Louisville to Clemson to Florida to potentially Virginia Tech or Miami again in the ACC title game. Florida State is talented enough to run the table, but the supporting cast, especially with Cook gone, needs to step up and take more pressure off Francois to give the Seminoles a good chance to realize that high potential.
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