1. Clemson Tigers: The defending national champions fell to the Alabama Crimson Tide during the 2017-2018 College Football Playoff semifinals, 6-24. The Clemson defense conducted itself in the manner college football fans expected. They held the Tide to 261 total yards and 17 points. Yes, Alabama won with a score of 24, but the pick-six that Kelly Bryant threw during the third quarter cannot be hung on the defensive effort of the Tigers. It certainly didn’t help that the other interception Bryant threw gave the Tide an extremely short field, allowing Alabama to take over on the Clemson 27. I am fully of the opinion that, in any given game, it is the job of the defense to hold an opposing offense to 21 points and it is the job of the offense to score 24. Even if the Tide hadn’t scored 14 points off turnovers they still would’ve beaten Clemson. The reality of what a player like Deshaun Watson brings to the football field cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, for Clemson, Watson was not on the field. When we look at last year’s national championship there are several plays in which Watson’s ability and athleticism kept a Tigers’ drive alive. This year, Bryant and the Clemson offense only mustered 188 offensive yards. It is also arguable that Bryant isn’t even the most dynamic offensive player offered by the Tigers. When Travis Etienne left the field due to injury the most explosive player on the Clemson offense also left the field. In the end the Alabama offense was able to marginalize one of the two pillars that carried Clemson to an ACC Championship and a CFB Playoff berth. Clemson relied on their defense and their punishing rushing attack all season. The defense, as mentioned above, showed up. But, the running attack was beyond prosaic. Bryant accounted for 19 of the 33 rushing attempts, and only earned 19 yards on those runs. In total the Tigers generated 64 yards rushing and a woeful 1.9-yard average.
Before the CFB Playoff semifinal, the Clemson Tigers absolutely dominated the Hurricanes, 38-3. I am happy to remind everyone that last year the Hokies did much better, only losing by one score while being hampered by several questionable calls.
Currently Rivals have the Tigers as the No. 12 recruiting class. That is only five above the Hokies and seven below Miami, but they have scored the overall No. 1 recruit, QB Trevor Lawrence. Clemson will likely still be the team to beat, in the ACC, next season, but they will be decidedly more mortal. Will teams like Miami and Virginia Tech be able to topple the Tigers?
2. N.C. State Wolfpack: QB Ryan Finley stated that he will return for his fifth and final season. This past year NCST was the most experienced team in the ACC, and one of the most experienced teams in the entirety of the FBS. As a result, they are graduating a significant amount of that talent and experience. 2017 was the most successful year the program has had since that one guy, Wussell Rislson…? Something like that… no, no, Russel Wilson! Yes, most successful since Wilson played for the ‘Pack. N.C. State devastated the Arizona State Sun Devils, 52-31, in the Hyundai Sun Bowl. It was hard to decide if NCST or VT would be No. 3, in the overall conference rankings, but I gave the nod to the Hokies because they defeated four Power 5 bowl eligible teams, while the Wolfpack defeated three. They did defeat four bowl eligible teams, but the fourth was the Marshall Thundering Herd.
3. Wake Forest Demon Deacons: There were some pretty good bowl games. The Rose Bowl was fantastic, but for me the Belk Bowl was the best bowl of the year. Or, at least, the most fun. Wake Forest defeated the Texas A&M Aggies in a surprising shootout, 55-52. Demon Deacons QB, John Wolford, threw for a stupefying 400 yards and four TDs (A&M’s Starkel threw for 499 yards!). A season after WF was known for offensive woes they generated 646 yards in their bowl game. In total, both teams combined for 1,260 yards of offense where defense was simply an afterthought. The difference was Wake generated 246 yards on the ground while TAM was only able to find 115 yards on deck. Such numbers make me think that maybe Wakey-leaks had more of an effect than we want to admit. Wake does graduate some talent, including Wolford. Another big question is how long will head coach Dave Clawson remain at WF before being called up to a bigger program? 2017 was a fantastic year for the Demon Deacons. Considering the tectonic shifts that have occurred in the Atlantic it is not far fetched to see Wake as the number two team in the division. TIME WILL TELL.
4. Louisville Cardinals: The Cardinals fell to the Mississippi Stat Bulldogs, 27-31, during the Taxslayer Bowl. With head coach Dan Mullen’s departure to the Florida Gators and freshmen QB, Keytaon Thomas, starting in place for the injured Nick Fitzgerald, it seemed as if the ‘Dogs were ripe for the picking despite their successful 2017 season. That simply was not the case as Lamar Jackson tossed four interceptions and the Louisville defense gave up 404 yards. The Cards went into the fourth with a 24-17 lead, but two late game interceptions sealed their fate. Jackson struggled in the air, but was again prolific on the ground. Lamar Jackson has made no announcement regarding the 2018 NFL draft, but it seems extremely unlikely that he will be on the field for Louisville next year. Assuming he departs the Cardinals will be in a troublesome spot, and will likely struggle to find the postseason in 2018.
5. Boston College Eagles: The Eagles’ season is a tale of two teams. The first half of the season was decorated with woeful offensive play against more talented teams. But, during the last six games of the season BC went 5-1, including wins against Louisville and Florida State. The reason for that was freshmen RB, AJ Dillon, who probably saved head coach Steve Addazio’s job. Boston College lost to the Iowa Hawkeyes (the same Hawkeyes that crushed the Ohio State Buckeyes) by one score, 20-27, during the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. During the regular season BC beat five bowl teams and lost to four ranked teams. That’s not too shabby of a performance against a pretty tough slate. The emergence of AJ Dillon will have to be reckoned with next season. BC is sitting pretty for 2018, and should be in the running for best of the rest in the Atlantic.
6. Florida State Seminoles: My goodness, what a season for FSU. I’ve never seen a team that started as a preseason national championship contender fall so far. They lost their starting QB in week one, lost their coach at the end of the season, and barely qualified for bowl. The program has retained former Oregon Ducks head coach, Willie Taggart, but has suffered a hemorrhage of recruits and some transfers. Furthermore, rivals.com has them as only the No. 44 recruiting class, being outperformed by programs like Purdue, Arizona, Vanderbilt, et cetera. Despite all that, and the controversy surrounding their bowl eligibility, FSU defeated Southern Mississippi, 42-13, during the Walk-On’s Independence Bowl. I don’t expect the Seminoles to struggle like they did this year, but they will not be challenging for the ACC in 2018.
7. Syracuse Orange: After defeating Clemson, 27-24, the Orange finished the season on a five-game skid, resulting in Syracuse missing out on the post season. Eric Dungey was injured for many of those games, and he might easily go out as the most under-rated QB in the ACC, referencing 2017. Syracuse is a wave of highs and lows, defeating ranked teams throughout their last two seasons, but failing to qualify for a bowl in both. Dino Babers won’t have Dungey next season and must find some consistency for them to be considered a dangerous program in the ACC.
1. Miami-Florida Hurricanes: Miami rolled into the last week of the regular season undefeated and then lost to the Panthers. They then got wrecked by Clemson during the ACC Championship before falling to the lumbering Wisconsin Badgers at the Capital One Orange Bowl. Miami has much to build on. They are a young team with a top-ten recruiting class, according to rivals.com. The Hurricanes ruined the Hokies, the only legitimate threat to them in the Coastal. The Hurricanes finally won the Coastal and appeared in the ACC Championship, for the first time, since joining the conference. The table is set for the Hokies and Hurricanes to be fighting for the Coastal year in and year out for the foreseeable future.
2. Virginia Tech Hokies: As far as I am concerned the Hokies overachieved this season. I said at the end of last year and the beginning of this year the Hokies would take a step back compared to head coach Justin Fuente’s first season. To me, that meant an 8-4 season, but I was surprised by a 9-3 season. Tim Settle has already announced an early NFL Draft declaration. More will likely follow. McShay has several Hokies listed in the top ten of his positional rankings on defense. Meanwhile Coach Fuente will be looking to generate only his second true recruiting class. Over the last two seasons Fuente has finished 19-8, including a conference championship appearance, a bowl win and two total bowl appearances, largely with recruits that weren’t his own. While Josh Jackson might be favored to win the starting job, Hendon Hooker, AJ Bush, and Quincy Patterson will provide competition that will either help develop him or see him fall to the aforementioned. The Hokies are currently rocking the No. 18 recruiting class, according to rivals.com. Last year they were 28th. The transition year, between Beamer and Fuente, saw the Hokies’ recruiting rank at No. 49. To say that Virginia Tech has improved under Fuente is an understatement. Coach Foster has done an amazing job reloading the defense after fielding his worst effort, ever, in 2015. There is much to be hopeful for regarding Virginia Tech, and once Fuente has his team, expect VT to be in the CFB playoff discussion, if not outright winning the ACC, in 2019 or 2020.
This year the Hokies failed to advance to the ACC Championship and they fell to the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the Camping World Bowl. Much of the woes that faced the Hokies fell on the offense, particularly during the last half of the season. Look for that to change next year as Miami and VT struggle to be THE team in Coastal. The aged man in me is happy to see former Big East competitors lead the charge in the division.
3. Duke Blue Devils: Do not sleep on head coach David Cutcliffe, ever. If he was a younger man he would be in prime-time consideration for moving to a larger program. If the Blue Devils can find some answers on defense and some offensive players step up and help QB David Jones, then Duke could be a sleeper in the Coastal. The Blue Devils defeated the NIU Huskies, 36-14, during the Quick Lane Bowl, making them one of the few ACC teams to win their bowl game. VT and Miami will fight it out to figure out who challenges Clemson for the ACC crown, but if either or both slips up this will be the team that will be in a position to take advantage of the failures.
4. Virginia Cavaliers: The 2017 effort of the Hoos must be accepted as a good season. After much bravado in 2016, head coach Bronco Mendenhall recognized and admitted that the rebuilding of UVA would take longer than he anticipated. He answered the mail this year, taking the Cavaliers to a bowl for the first time six years. In a stark dichotomy of reality, I thought they were going to defeat Navy soundly. The reality was much worse, and the Hoos were destroyed by the Naval Academy, 7-49, during the Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman. The Hoos currently sport the No. 53 recruiting class, according to rivlas.com. The resurgence of VT certainly has much to do with that reality, but UVA will challenge Duke as the best of the rest in 2018.
5. Pittsburgh Panthers: Narduzzi was hired because he was a defensively minded coach. Pitt was better in 2017 on defense than they were in 2016, but not by much. The Panthers still struggled, particularly in pass coverage, and despite their spoiler win over Miami they failed to qualify for a bowl. They lost to Syracuse, UNC, and VT in one score games. The loss of Peterman and Conner, to the NFL, took much from Pitt. The Panthers will be hard pressed to compete for the Coastal, but will likely return to bowl their bowl qualification ways next year.
6. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets: Of all the teams in the ACC they are the biggest almost team. GT was better than their record. The Jackets had one-point losses to the Tennessee Volunteers and Hurricanes. Their loss to UVA was one score. GT has struggled for consistency over the last three seasons, but remain a dangerous team in the Coastal that can certainly be bowl eligible next season.
7. North Carolina Tar Heels: The talent hemorrhage that UNC suffered is significant. Beyond that they were ravaged by injuries. Regardless, the Heels played the entire season with courage and temerity. While they will struggle to qualify for a bowl next season I expect their output to be better, and for them to be a potential spoiler for those teams on the cusp of bowl eligibility.
Overall Conference Rankings
1. (No. 4 AP / No. 4 Coaches) Clemson Tigers (12-2, 7-1ACC) – Static
2. (No. 13 / No. 13) Miami-Florida Hurricanes (10-3, 7-1ACC) – Static
3. (No. 24 / No. 25) Virginia Tech Hokies (9-4, 5-3 ACC) – Static
4. (No. 23 / No. 23) N.C. State Wolfpack (9-4. 6-2 ACC) – Static
5. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (8-5, 4-4 ACC) – Up Two
6. Louisville Cardinals (8-5, 4-4 ACC) – Down One
7. Duke Blue Devils (7-6, 3-5 ACC) – Up One
8. Boston College Eagles (7-6, 4-4 ACC) – Down Two
9. Virginia Cavaliers (6-7, 3-5 ACC) – Static
10. Florida State Seminoles (7-6, 3-5 ACC) – Up One
11. Pittsburgh Panthers (5-7, 3-5 ACC) – Down One
12. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (5-6, 3-5 ACC) – Static
13. Syracuse Orange (4-8, 2-6 ACC) – Static
14. North Carolina Tar Heels (3-9, 1-7 ACC) – Static