The 2017 season was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Clemson football. After all, head coach Dabo Swinney lost Deshaun Watson—one of the most prolific NCAA quarterbacks in recent memory—not to mention the gunslinger’s favorite targets: running back Wayne Gallman, wide receivers Mike Williams and Deon Cain, and tight end Jordan Leggett. To put that in perspective, those five players accounted for 53 of the team’s 75 offensive touchdowns—in other words, 70.7 percent of the program’s scoring output.
In spite of those astronomical departures, the Tigers marched back to the ACC Championship and booked their third-straight ticket to the College Football Playoff. It wasn’t a storybook journey—in fact, Clemson dropped all the way from second to 45th in offensive S&P+, averaged 5.9 less points per game than it did the year before, and suffered one of the country’s most embarrassing upsets—but the team’s return to the CFP was still incredibly impressive.
That said, even though the Tigers exceeded expectations, their 24-6 loss to Alabama in the national semifinals must have been a tough pill to swallow. Fortunately for Clemson, it’ll be fully stocked for another revenge tour this fall. Star-studded roster and all, the Tigers are surely the team to beat in the ACC. The question is: Will anyone give them a run for their money?
1. Clemson (2017: 12-2, 7-1 ACC) (AP Poll: 2)
Swinney’s bunch is as talented and experienced as any team in college football. Clemson returns eight defensive starters, most notably defensive linemen Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant, Dexter Lawrence, and Christian Wilkins—all of whom could theoretically be first-round NFL Draft picks. Whether or not the Tigers win another title will likely come down to the quarterback position. Kelly Bryant is back for another go-around, but there’s no telling that five-star true freshman Trevor Lawrence won’t win the job by the season’s end.
2. Miami (2017: 10-3, 7-1 ACC) (AP Poll: 8)
For much of last season, three months to be exact, Miami was the talk of the country. Some even argued that the “U” was back. The Hurricanes won the first 10 games of the year— despite nearly losing to Florida State, Georgia Tech, and North Carolina—and stole headlines, flaunting the ever-popular Turnover Chain, all while embracing the program’s old-age swagger. But, over the course of the final weeks of the season, Miami fell back down to earth, dropping its last three games of the year. A relatively weak schedule and a mighty defense should once again prove fruitful for head coach Mark Richt. Similar to Clemson, offense will be the dealbreaker.
3. Florida State (2017: 7-6, 3-5 ACC) (AP Poll: 19)
A lot has changed since Deondre Francois went down with a torn patellar tendon in last year’s season opener against Alabama. FSU nearly missed out on the postseason for the first time since 1981, Jimbo Fisher left the program for Texas A&M, and Willie Taggart was hired to save the Seminoles from what could have been a slide toward mediocrity. While at Oregon, Taggart’s Ducks posted 36 points per contest—even better, in the seven games that quarterback Justin Hebert was healthy, they were putting up about 52 a game. Francois will have wide receivers Nyqwan Murray and Keith Gavin at his disposal, along with Cam Akers in the backfield. FSU might look a lot different than Fisher’s Noles, but it could enjoy similar success.
4. Virginia Tech (2017: 9-4, 5-3 ACC) (AP Poll: 20)
In head coach Justin Fuente’s first two years at the helm, the Hokies have posted a 19-8 record, reached an ACC Championship game, and finished a season inside the top-20. After unexpectedly losing quarterback Jerod Evans to the 2017 NFL Draft, VTech slightly regressed last season. The Hokies might have to take one more step back before making the jump in 2019. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster will have his hands full this fall—all but one of the 10 linebackers and defensive backs to tally double-digit tackles last season are gone. All things considered, though, another manageable schedule could serve VTech eight or nine wins.
5. North Carolina State (2017: 8-4, 6-2 ACC)
This past April, seven N.C. State players heard their names called in the 2018 NFL Draft, most notably top-five selection Bradley Chubb. All of that talent was a major reason why the Wolfpack won nine games last season—its second-most in single-season program history. Yet some wondered why head coach Dave Doeren’s squad didn’t accomplish more, especially during what was a down year in the ACC Atlantic Division. Quarterback Ryan Finley is back, as are his top five wide receivers and three experienced offensive linemen. Defensively, N.C. State is as raw as any team in the ACC. Time will tell if Doeren can live up to his contract extension.
6. Boston College (2017: 7-6, 4-4 ACC)
It’s pretty clear that BC is the dark horse of the ACC, at least according to the national media. ESPN ranked the Eagles fourth in its preseason power rankings and Steve Addazio’s team creeped its way into the receiving votes section of the AP Preseason Poll. BC has finished 7-6 four of the past five seasons and hasn’t been ranked since 2008. But with one of the deepest offensive lines in the country and a Heisman Trophy candidate in running back A.J. Dillon, the Eagles could be primed for their best season in years. They won’t survive their brutal second-half schedule without decent quarterback play, though—that’s for sure.
7. Louisville (2017: 8-4, 4-4 ACC)
Losing Lamar Jackson—one of the most explosive players in not only the FBS, but all of college sports—is a big blow. Yet, in all likelihood, the Cardinals are still going to put up an abundance of points this coming season. Four-star sophomore quarterback Jawon Pass is a safe bet to start the season behind center after completing 69.7 percent of his passes in limited action last fall. He won’t have to run a one-man show like his predecessor. Louisville returns last year’s top-three wideouts, all of whom averaged at least 9.1 yards per target, a trio of serviceable running backs, and an O-Line that consists of four multi-year starters with a combined 77 career starts. As for the defensive side of the ball, anything first-year coordinator Brian VanGorder comes up with will have to be an improvement, right?
8. Georgia Tech (2017: 5-6, 4-4 ACC)
You never know what you’re going to get from head coach Paul Johnson and Georgia Tech. Over the course of the past four years, the Yellow Jackets have alternated winning and losing seasons, following up 11 and nine-victory campaigns with nine and six-loss slates. Fortunately for GT, it actually has an experienced backfield this time around—the source of its offensive explosion. The TaQuon Marshall-KirVonte Benson tandem is back for another chance to better the Yellow Jackets’ fabled spread option attack. Marshall completed just 37.1 percent of his throws in 2017. If he can read through his progressions, both while dropping back to pass and running the option, GT’s rushing offense could once again wreak havoc in the ACC.
9. Pittsburgh (5-7, 3-5 ACC)
The Panthers might have fallen short of bowl season for the first time in 10 years, but they couldn’t have ended the 2017 season on a higher note. After juggling quarterbacks all year—namely Southern California transfer Max Browne and Ben DiNucci—head coach Pat Narduzzi found his guy in the final weeks of the season: Kenny Pickett. The true freshman came within one yard of beating VTech and then orchestrated one of the biggest upsets of the year, a 24-14 victory over then-No. 2 undefeated Miami. Pickett won the job, wrapping up Pittsburgh’s 3-2 finish and second-half transformation. With an improved secondary, volatile running back, and young signal caller, the Panthers are on the rise again.
10. Wake Forest (2017: 8-5, 4-4 ACC)
John Wolford was one of the most underrated quarterbacks in college football last season. While he certainly wasn’t as flashy as his ACC counterparts, his numbers speak for themselves. The fourth-year starter completed 63.9 percent of his passes for 3,192 yards and 29 touchdowns and rushed for another 683 yards and 10 scores, leading Wake Forest to its first eight-win season since 2008. The Demon Deacons think they have someone well suited to fill Wofford’s shoes: junior Kendall Hinton—but first, he has to serve a three-game suspension. There are more question marks on the other side of the ball. Head coach Dave Clawson has to hope that the team’s experienced secondary makes up for a depleted front seven.
11. Duke (2017: 7-6, 3-5 ACC)
Maybe 2018 is the year that Daniel Jones finally lives up to the hype—if so, the Blue Devils could be on to something. As a freshman, Jones tossed 16 touchdowns and nearly eclipsed 3,000 yards in the air. But last year, his accuracy dipped and interception total increased. He was streaky to say the least, and so was his team. Duke started 4-0, then lost six-straight games before blowing out GT, edging Wake Forest, and hammering Northern Illinois in the Quick Lane Bowl. In Year Three, Jones will have a trio of senior wide receivers, Brittain Brown and Deon Jackson in the backfield, and an elite defense at his back, including of the best secondaries in the NCAA. Unfortunately, a loaded schedule could foil the Blue Devils’ plans.
12. Syracuse (2017: 4-8, 2-6 ACC)
Syracuse is one of the most intriguing teams in the conference. During the first two years of head coach Dino Babers’ tenure, the Orange has boasted one of the best passing games in the country. Just this past season, Eric Dungey and Syracuse logged 294.8 yards through the air on a game-to-game basis—the 18th-most in the FBS. But an explosive aerial attack hasn’t necessarily translated to wins. All the Orange has to show for the past two years is a pair of fluke upsets over No. 17 Virginia Tech (2016) and No. 2 Clemson (2017). Syracuse is coming off its second-consecutive 4-8 season and has one of the worst defenses in the ACC—a unit that has conceded 42 or more points nine times during Babers’ stay. There’s no guarantee the Orange snaps out of its rut in 2018, but hey at least the Carrier Dome has air conditioning now.
13. North Carolina (2017: 3-9, 1-7 ACC)
To say that UNC caught the injury bug last season would be an understatement. By the second week of October, the Tar Heels had already watched 16 players go down with season-ending injuries. This time around, head coach Larry Fedora’s team will be without a significant portion of its personnel, but for different reasons. On August 6, 13 UNC players were suspended for selling school-issued sneakers, in exchange for a total of about $2,500. Of those 13, nine will sit out four games, including quarterback Chazz Surratt, who was in the race for the starting quarterback job. Nathan Elliott might have ended up winning the gig anyway, especially after his promising late-season audition, but the Tar Heels could be in for another long, rebuilding campaign.
14. Virginia (2017: 6-7, 3-5 ACC)
It’s never a good thing when your head coach comes out and tells the world that only about a third of your roster is built to play in the ACC—is that even a thing? Well, that’s what UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall said during an unscheduled UVA Board of Visitors speech this June. Still, regardless of the team’s talent, the Cavaliers are trending in the right direction. In Mendenhall’s second year in Charlottesville, UVA booked its first trip to the postseason in six years. But after losing quarterback Kurt Benkert, wide receiver Andre Levrone, three starting offensive linemen and a handful of guys on the defensive front, it’s hard to see the Cavaliers reaching seven wins this fall. For now, Mendenhall’s focus will likely be geared toward stockpiling recruits for the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
Featured Image by Nicole Chan / Heights Editor