When Deshaun Watson guided Clemson to its second-ever national championship in 2016—the school’s first of the College Football Playoff era—many crowned the ACC as the sport’s best conference, a title that belonged to the SEC for much of the 21st century. Unlike its predecessor’s, the league’s reign was short-lived.
Although the Tigers earned a College Football Playoff berth last season, they failed to reach the national title game, or even give Alabama a fight in the Sugar Bowl. As a whole, the conference finished with four teams in the final AP Top 25, but lost six of its 10 bowl games. To put that in perspective, despite sending 10 teams to the postseason, the ACC had the second-lowest bowl winning percentage among its Power Five counterparts.
By the season’s end, it was clear that Clemson no longer had the star power on offense to compete with the best of the best; Jimbo Fisher’s time in Tallahassee was over; Miami’s 10-0 start was all for nothing; Virginia Tech was good, not great; and North Carolina State—seven NFL players and all—underachieved. With only three teams inside the Top 25, the ACC could be in for another underwhelming year.
This past weekend, most of the league feasted on FCS teams and FBS bottom feeders, while the others escaped season-opening upsets, and a few—namely Miami, Louisville, and FSU—were embarrassed on the country’s biggest stage. VTech’s primetime victory, the ACC’s only Week One win over a ranked opponent, came at the expense of the Seminoles. Once again, Clemson has the firepower to contend for a national title. The rest of the conference, on the other hand, has to prove its worth.
1. Clemson (1-0) (AP Poll: No. 2)
There still isn’t an undisputed starting quarterback in Death Valley—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Kelly Bryant and freshman Trevor Lawrence combined for five touchdowns during the Tigers’ 41-point rout of Furman. With a matchup against Texas A&M on tap, perhaps we’ll know more about the quarterback situation and really the entire Clemson team by Sunday.
2. Virginia Tech (1-0, 1-0 Atlantic Coast) (AP Poll: No. 12) ↑ 2
Any doubts about Bud Foster’s defense were cast away on Monday. The unit—which returned just 64 percent of its 2017 production, according to SB Nation—held FSU to 327 yards of total offense and three points, marking the first time that the Seminoles haven’t recorded a touchdown at home since losing to Wake Forest, 12-3, on Sept. 20, 2008. For the second year in a row, Josh Jackson’s Hokies have opened the season with a victory over a ranked opponent.
3. Miami (0-1) (AP Poll: No. 22) ↓ 1
Against LSU, the Hurricanes looked awfully reminiscent of the team that finished last season 0-3, not the one that stormed out of the gates with a 10-game win streak. Malik Rosier, who logged just three total touchdowns in the final three weeks of the 2017 season, is still in somewhat of a rut. The senior completed 43 percent of his passes on Sunday night and had no substantial run game to lean on. Worst of all, Miami didn’t force a single turnover.
4. Boston College (1-0) ↑ 2
After tearing his ACL against N.C. State last November, Anthony Brown starred in his return to the field, recording a career-high 279 passing yards and four touchdowns in just one half of action. Keeping Massachusetts on edge from start to finish with a variety of run plays and play-action passes, the Eagles were virtually unstoppable. When all was said and done, BC clocked out with 622 yards of total offense—the program’s most in a single game since 2003.
5. Florida State (0-1, Atlantic Coast) ↓ 2
Deondre Francois didn’t have quite the same “Welcome Back” party. Practically a year removed from tearing his patellar tendon against Alabama, the junior was picked off three times by the VTech defense in a brutal 24-3 home defeat. As a whole, the Seminoles committed five turnovers. Factor in a missed 32-yard field goal, and you have the makings of an ugly season opener for head coach Willie Taggart and Co.
6. North Carolina State (1-0) ↓ 1
If there was any FCS opponent that was going to give an ACC team a scare this fall it was James Madison. The 2016 Subdivision One national champions entered the season having won 28 of their last 30 games, including last year’s season opener against East Carolina. The Dukes scored the game’s first touchdown, but Ryan Finley strung together a 17-point second quarter, and ultimately the Wolfpack held on for an 11-point victory. A win’s a win, but it wasn’t pretty.
7. Duke (1-0) ↑ 4
Daniel Jones and the Blue Devils are off on the right foot again. Duke won its seventh-straight season opener on Friday, avenging last November’s loss to Army. Jones was an efficient 13-of-17 for 197 yards and a touchdown. The Blue Devils’ defense shut down the Black Knights rushing attack—which, last year, was the best in the FBS—but actually had its hands full with a newly incorporated Army passing attack. Nonetheless, Duke pulled away in the fourth quarter, building momentum for its impending matchup with Northwestern.
8. Pittsburgh (1-0) ↑ 1
It took four quarters and a period of overtime for the Panthers to settle last year’s season opener against Youngstown State. This time around, the game was all but over only 15 seconds in. Pittsburgh returned the opening kickoff for a 91-yard touchdown and never looked back, steamrolling over Albany, 33-7. Although imperfect, sophomore Kenny Pickett picked up right where he left off last season, throwing a pair of first-half scores.
9. Georgia Tech (1-0) ↓ 1
The Yellow Jackets outgained Alcorn State, 543-146, on Saturday, as five different players rushed for 50-plus yards in the team’s 41-point shutout. As dominant as the offense was, it wasn’t flawless. TaQuon Marshall was just as inconsistent as last season, even fumbling the ball and throwing an interception in the first half. Still, head coach Paul Johnson has to be pleased with first-year defensive coordinator Nate Woody and his newly instituted 3-4 scheme.
10. Louisville (0-1) ↓ 3
As expected, Louisville dropped its season opener to the defending national champions. After all, the odds weren’t in the Cardinals’ favor—Alabama had won 73-consecutive games against unranked opponents, and Louisville was 0-3 all-time against the No. 1 team in the nation. At times, Jawon Pass held his own, throwing for 252 yards and two touchdowns, but the Cardinals’ run game was non-existent, and they had no way of stopping Tua Tagovailoa or Jalen Hurts.
11. Wake Forest (1-0) ↓ 1
Last Thursday, Sam Hartman—filling in for the suspended Kendall Hinton—did his best John Wolford impression, racking up a total of 442 yards of offense, 378 of which came through the air. The freshman made his fair share of rookie mistakes, but did just enough to lead the Demon Deacons past Tulane, eeking out a 23-17 overtime win. The Green Wave punted seven times inside Wake Forest territory. A few more first downs or another Demon Deacons turnover, and this one could have gone the other way.
12. Syracuse (1-0)
Two of Eric Dungey’s seven pass completions ended in touchdowns. His performance through the air was hardly prolific—what he did on the ground, however, was astounding. The dual-threat signal caller rushed for 200 yards and a score, setting a new Syracuse single-game record. Dino Babers inserted redshirt freshman Tommy DeVito during the second half, but 21 unanswered points forced Dungey back in the game. The senior sealed the deal, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that serious questions remain on the other side of the ball.
13. Virginia (1-0) ↑ 1
Last season, the Cavaliers had the fifth-worst rushing offense in the country and averaged a mere 93.7 yards per game in said department. This past weekend, they more than tripled that total, thanks to JUCO transfer quarterback Bryce Perkins and running back Jordan Ellis. After throwing a pick-six on his first offensive series, Perkins bounced back by reaching the end zone on four separate occasions—twice through the air and twice on the ground. Talent-wise, UVA is still near the bottom of the ACC, but an electrifying run game certainly helps.
14. North Carolina (0-1) ↓ 1
California rotated three quarterbacks—all of whom combined to muster a measly 119 passing yards—and still beat the Tar Heels. North Carolina’s Nathan Elliott, who started the final three games of the 2017 season, was picked off four times, and head coach Larry Fedora’s team was held to a field goal through the first three quarters of play. As bad as it was, the Tar Heels rattled off a pair of touchdowns in the final frame and nearly recovered an onside kick—but an illegal blocking call summed up what was nothing more than a sloppy season-opening effort for UNC.
Featured Image by Nicole Chan / Heights Editor