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ACC Atlantic Preview 2016: A Two-Horse Race…Or Is It?

Like the famous Tupac Shakur song, the ACC Atlantic division have all eyes on them. Particularly its top two contenders, Clemson & Florida State. Every college football fan has their meet up in Death Valley on October 29th circled on their calendar, as the repercussions of that game could very well determine who does and doesn’t make the College Football Playoff; possibly even could determine the de facto National Champion. Barring any catastrophic injuries to either side, it should be a showdown for the ages.

            For the rest of the division, there is not a ton to write home about. There are a lot of folks in the media world that are high on Louisville’s chances to spoil the party. Personally, I don’t foresee that happening, as you can’t look at Louisville as anything other than third-best in their own division. Bobby Petrino has done a terrific job in his return to the Cardinals, but as long as the two top dogs have all the pieces in place, the best they can hope for is the bronze medal. Every so often, North Carolina State pulls off an improbable upset, then go back to being their mediocre selves. The rest of the way through the division is pretty lackluster, triggering the ever-popular opinion that the ACC is “weak.”

            The ACC has been well-represented in the bowl system and the College Football Playoff in its two-year existence. Florida State snapped the SEC’s national championship streak in 2014 and earned a spot in the inaugural CFP the following year. Clemson reached the National Championship game last year, but despite Deshaun Watson’s greatest efforts, they fell to the Crimson Tide. Many folks are projecting this is the year the ACC gets over the hump, with either the ‘Noles or Tigers bringing home the trophy.

            As for the rest of the division, skepticism remains as to whether or not there will be another contender rise to prominence for the years to follow. As previously mentioned, many folks are high on Louisville and, occasionally, NC State wins a game that they shouldn’t. I’d be hard-pressed to find any reasonable doubt any of the teams below the top two stand a snowball’s chance of knocking them off. Here’s my breakdown of the ACC Atlantic Division, team by team:

ACC AtlanticBOSTON COLLEGE EAGLES: It was a tough year for Steve Addazio’s bunch; largely on the fault of the offense as the defense was one of the stingiest in the country giving up just 15 points per game and allowing their opponents only 83 yards per game. But you can’t win if you can’t score. Much of the offense returns intact, with the addition of Kentucky transfer quarterback Patrick Towles; who very well could be the guy for Addazio’s system. He will be competing with junior Darius Wade, who started two games early last season before going down with an injury. Towles was also very inconsistent with the Wildcats so the job isn’t his to lose just yet. All of the Eagles top three running backs and top three receivers return to the team as well, and barring catastrophic injuries to whichever quarterback gets the starting nod should see increase in their production. The biggest loss on BC’s defense is that of coordinator Dan Brown, who took the same job at Michigan. New coordinator Jim Reid will have to find replacement production in two new defensive linemen as well as replacing the team’s top tackler from last season: linebacker Steven Daniels. The front seven has four of its starters from 2015 returning and the secondary has three of four members returning as well. Experience should help the Eagles remain towards the top of the country in total defense. If the offense can put points on the board, BC should be able to compete in most of their games. They open the season in Dublin against Georgia Tech; which should be a fun atmosphere for players and fans alike. They do get Clemson and Louisville at home this year, but will have to travel to Tallahassee and Blacksburg which are both pretty hostile environments for opposing teams. The schedule isn’t overly tough, but the matchups with both Clemson and Florida State come on Friday nights, leaving them with one less preparation day. Prediction: 6-6 Overall, 3-5 in ACC, low-tier bowl bid.

CLEMSON TIGERS: Despite Deshaun Watson’s heroic performance in last year’s National Championship game, the Tigers gave up too many big plays on defense to the Crimson Tide and it doomed them throughout the contest. Watson solidified himself as the Heisman frontrunner and has a majority of his weapons on offense returning. He became the first player in NCAA history to throw for more than 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season. Let that sink in. With workhouse running back Wayne Gallman returning, the read-option game between the two will once again be a defensive coordinator’s nightmare. Those two are protected by an offensive line that returns three of its starters. Adding to that nightmare, projected top receiver Mike Williams returns from injury this season; along with Artavis Scott, Deon Cain, Hunter Renfrow and tight end Jordan Leggett. This offense has potential to break scoring records this year. Like in 2015, the questions lie on the Tigers’ defensive unit. Coordinator Brent Venables had to replace a ton of talent on last year’s unit; and while it isn’t as much of a daunting task this season, they did lose a combined 49 tackles for loss and 24.5 sacks when Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd departed for the NFL. Talented defensive ends Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins will be expected to get pressure on the quarterback along with top defensive tackle recruit Dexter Lawrence.The Tigers do get 1st-team All-ACC linebacker Ben Boulware back as well. The secondary, like last season, has a ton of holes to fill. Three main components from last year are gone, so finding production from a potentially young and inexperienced group is pertinent. Outside of the matchup with Florida State on October 29th, the Tigers’ schedule is considerably favorable. They do get Louisville and Pittsburgh at home, with the matchup with the Cardinals coming on a Thursdaynight; as well as a Friday night matchup with Boston College on 10/7. As per usual, they close out their season with the rivalry matchup with South Carolina. Prediction: 12-0 Overall, 8-0 in ACC, Playoff berth.

 FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES: The Seminoles still managed to finish 10-3 last season despite losing Jameis Winston and other potent talent to the NFL. This year, Jimbo Fisher’s team returns an offense almost completely intact along with deep talent on the defensive side. Senior quarterback Sean Maguire should be penciled-in as the Week 1 starter vs. Ole Miss, but many reports out of Tallahassee have redshirt-freshmen Deondre Francois pushing for the starting job as well. Whoever is under center will benefit greatly from an offensive line that returns all five starters from last year and stud running back Dalvin Cook who is a top contender for the Heisman Trophy and looks to improve the 7.4 yards per carry he had last year to go along with the 1,691 yards and 19 touchdowns he racked up on 226 carries. Top receivers Travis Rudolph and Whitfield return as well. The ‘Noles averaged 32 points per game last year, expect an improvement on that number. Defensively, the lost a ton of star power to the NFL, particularly number three overall pick Jalen Ramsey. One thing that Florida State does well is restock the defensive talent through recruiting. DeMarcus Walker is the lone returning starter on the defensive line, though he was 1st Team All-ACC last season and is the leading candidate for ACC Defensive POTY. The linebacker corps brings back Josh Sweat who showed great potential as a freshman last year and a returning Trey Marshall coming off an injury. The secondary lost Ramsey and safety Lamarcus Brutus, but corner Marquez White and corner Nate Andrews return after starting all 13 games for the ‘Noles in 2015. Florida State has a favorable schedule, with three of their toughest matchups all at home, including the October 29th matchup with Clemson (Have I mentioned that already?). They do open up on Monday night against Ole Miss in Orlando, also travel to Louisville on 9/17 and to Miami on 10/8. All eyes on October 29th, at least for the fans. Prediction: 11-1, 7-1 in ACC, Playoff berth.

LOUISVILLE CARDINALS: Even though Bobby Petrino’s squad isn’t getting the national recognition that Clemson and Florida State are, there is potential for them to be very good this year. The Cardinal’s offense averaged 35.6 points per game over the last five games last season as their offense, and particularly sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson, caught fire. Jackson torched Texas A&M in their bowl matchup when he ran for 226 yards, solidifying his starting spot for this season in the process. Those rushing numbers are pertinent being that running back Brandon Radcliff only racked up 634 yards last season, but I expect those numbers to increase with Jackson being the full-time starter this season. The offensive line returns three of its starters from last year, but will need to improve on the 44 sacks they gave up in 2015. Jackson gets his top receivers in seniors James Quick and Jamari Staples as the Cardinals should improve on their 29 points per game average from last year. Like many other teams in this division, Louisville loses some significant star power on defense. Defensive end Sheldon Rankins and linebackers James Burgess and Keith Brown are all gone, so the front seven is going to rely on nose tackle DeAngelo Brown to produce in Rankins’ absence. In a couple interesting position transitions, defensive end Devonte Fields and corner Josh Harvey-Clemons both move to outside linebacker, adding some much needed athleticism coming off the edge. The secondary benefits from the returns of Shaq Wiggins, Trumaine Washington and Chucky Williams who all started last year. Louisville avoids the heavy hitters out of the Coastal division (UNC, Miami, Pittsburgh) and faces Florida State at home. Both of their matchups with Clemson and Florida come within the first five weeks of the regular season, so we shall see early on just how good Petrino’s bunch is. They also have a tough matchup in late November on the road at Houston. Prediction: 9-3 Overall, 6-2 in ACC, mid/high-tier bowl bid.

NORTH CAROLINA STATE WOLFPACK: Dave Doeren enters his fourth season at the helm of the Wolfpack football squad, his first season where he will be without quarterback Jacoby Brissett. The team is bringing in a new offensive coordinator and new quarterback, so don’t expect Brissett-like statistics on offense. Eli Drinkwitz, formerly of Boise State, brings his new system and a new quarterback who is familiar with it, graduate transfer Ryan Finley. His familiarity with the system makes him the likely starter of sophomore Jalen McClendon. Top rusher Matt Dayes returns to the backfield, but his offensive line loses three starters from last season though they do bring in South Alabama transfer Joseph Scelfo. Many of last year’s top wideouts also return, but none of them are guys that opposing defenses have to plan around. The Wolfpack fall victim to losing star power on defense like many of their division foes. Up front, they must replace the 10.5 sacks from last year top lineman Mike Rose produced. Corner Juston Burris and safety Hakim Jones are also gone, but the team does have top tackler in linebacker Airius Moore. NC State has a very brutal schedule after its first four game. They have a five-week stretch of murderer’s row that includes: Notre Dame, at Clemson, at Louisville, Boston College and Florida State; while they also end their season with back-to-back games against Miami and at North Carolina. Scheduling combined with a new regime on offense could very well mean a long season for the folks in Raleigh. Prediction: 5-7 Overall, 2-6 in ACC, no bowl bid.

SYRACUSE ORANGE: Dino Babers takes the reigns after two seasons at Bowling Green where he went a total of 18-9. He inherits a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2013, and the schedule does not give Orange fans that 2016 will be one to remember for the right reasons. Quarterback Terrel Hunt is gone after what seemed like an eternity, which makes Eric Dungey the likely starter. He led the team to a 3-0 start last season before going down with an injury, coming back and starting five more games before getting injured again for the year. The offensive line returns only one starter from 2015, so keeping Dungey healthy will be top priority. The top three rushers return this year so that should help alleviate pressure away from the passing game. Receivers Steve Ishmael, Brisly Estime, and Ervin Phillips all return and should benefit greatly from Babers wide open offensive scheme. Look for the combined 1,149 receiving yards between the three to increase. Defensively, the pass rush is going to be the biggest question coming into the season as they will have to replace three of the four starters from last year on the defensive line. Good news for the Orange is that all three of their starting linebackers from last year are back; as well as most of the secondary, including safety Antwan Cordy who was second on the team last year in tackles with 68. Like NC State, Syracuse does not have a favorable schedule, which will likely keep them from contending in the Atlantic Division. Prediction: 3-9 Overall, 1-7 in ACC, no bowl bid.

WAKE FOREST DEMON DEACONS: The program hasn’t made a bowl game since 2011 and Dave Clawson’s first two years both resulted in 3-9 records. This year’s unit is his most experienced yet and their schedule is not overly difficult, there are definitely some winnable games there for Wake Forest. The “Claw-fense,” as my pal Lewis Woodard likes to call it, will more than likely go back to the two-quarterback system it was last season; as junior John Wolford and sophomore Kendall Hinton are both returning. They’ll operate behind an offensive line that returns four starters looking to improve on their 105 rushing yards per game average and 40 sacks given up from 2015. A more experienced and cohesive line bodes very well for sophomore running back Tyler Bell, and top wideout Cortez Lewis should look to improve as well. With nine total starters on offense returning, Wake should improve on the 17 points per game they averaged a year ago. In 2015, the Demon Deacons only mustered up 20 sacks defensively. This year, they get their entire defensive line back; but, they also lose two of their starting linebackers, leaving senior Marquel Lee as the lone veteran of that unit. The secondary also lost one corner and one safety, so sophomore corner Dionte Austin will step in opposite Brad Watson for a solid combo, adding in safety Ryan Janvion; who was the team’s leading tackler in 2014 and the third-leading tackler in 2015. The Deac’s schedule is favorable in that they get Clemson, Florida State, Louisville and Boston College all at home, while they avoid the heavy hitters from the Coastal getting matchups with Duke and Virginia (though Duke usually exceeds expectations under David Cutcliffe). Prediction: 3-9 Overall, 0-8 in ACC, no bowl bid.

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