Good morning Hokie fans! It is now time for my favorite article to write, the weekly ACC rankings! This year my preseason opinion is making an earlier than normal debut due to the demands of my real people job. Yes, yes, unfortunately I must again leave for parts unknown! Worry not I shall return fairly soon! Anyway, let’s get to it!
1. Clemson Tigers: Clemson is the clear favorite to win the ACC and make their fourth consecutive CFB Playoff appearance. Athlon sports ranks the Tigers’ QB unit as the No. 2 in the nation. Last year Kelly Bryant had a tall order replacing the electric Deshaun Watson. With 665 yards, on the ground, and 11 rushing TDs Bryant’s ability on the ground is not in question. He had a solid completion percentage (65.8%), but his TD – INT ratio of 13-8 is not spectacular. Despite having a playoff caliber QB the presence of college football’s top overall recruit, Taylor Lawrence, finds Clemson with a surprising QB controversy. The offensive wealth doesn’t stop under center though, with the other Tigers offensive units look to be near the top in the country. As good as the offense looks, it is nothing compared to the absurdity that is the Tigers defense. The 2018 Clemson defensive line should not only be the best in the nation, but arguably in the discussion for the best collegiate DL ever fielded. Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant, Clelin Ferrell, and Dexter Lawrence are likely all first round NFL picks. So... the Clemson Tigers are starting an NFL line. That would be rough enough, but the depth is what truly sends this unit into the stratosphere. Clemson will have professional caliber talent rotating through on every play. The Tigers’ DB and LB units are easily top ten in the country. Considering the defenses that Dabo Swinney has fielded over the last half decade it might seem crazy, but this could be his best one yet.
2. Florida State Seminoles: Was last year’s horrible showing an aberration? This is the season that will determine if FSU is in a rebuilding mode or if Willie Taggert can lead the Seminoles to eventually challenge for the conference. There is something of a QB controversy between Justin Blackmon and Deondre Francois, but RB Cam Akers is set to break out. In my opinion Akers is a dark horse Heisman candidate. FSU lost some recruits and suffered some transfers, but still managed to recruit 11 four-star student athletes in 2018. The Seminoles will likely not challenge Clemson, but one would be foolish to expect a similar performance as last year.
3. Boston College Eagles: BC running back A.J. Dillon is about to be a household name. He had 1589 yards and 14 TDs on the ground last year. He had five games over 150 yards, two of which were over 200. Before his injury, late in the season, Anthony Brown represented the most consistent QB play the Eagles had seen in years. Regardless of that, Dillon will be the centerpiece of the BC offense and really their entire effort in 2018. The Eagles have a very winnable first half of the 2018 season, but the second half features Miami, Virginia Tech, Clemson and Florida State… all in a row… in that order. This is probably the best squad fielded by Boston College in half a decade, but they will need to collect their wins early before running the gauntlet presented in the last five weeks of their season.
4. N.C. State Wolfpack: The ‘Pack could easily supersede the Eagles as the No. 3 team in the Atlantic. Ryan Finley returns as the most experienced QB in the ACC and he will have his top three receivers. The offense will be solid, but they only return three starters on defense. The strength of NCSU is experience. Even though they don’t have former starters filling forward they have juniors and seniors. The Wolfpack could easily start the season 6-0, depending on how they handle BC on 06 October. I have them starting at No. 4, but the Wolfpack have the potential to be the No. 2 team in the Atlantic, especially if Taggart isn’t the second coming FSU thinks he is and / or something happens to hinder BC’s Dillon.
5. Wake Forest Demon Deacons: I love Wake Forest. I just like seeing this team do well. Last year was something of a revelation, and in my opinion demonstrated just how much the Wakey Leaks scandal hurt them in 2016. John Wofford was a great QB and replacing his production will be THE challenge for head coach Dave Clawson. John Wofford isn’t returning, but nine offensive starters are, including the entire offensive line, the RB, and two WRs. A new starting QB cannot ask for much more support. Will the offense return to the program best performance of 2017? Unlikely, but they won’t be the pedestrian unit of the initial Clawson years. After his performance over the last few years, if WF keeps winning, it wouldn't surprise me to see Clawson snatched up by a larger program.
6. Louisville Cardinals: I almost put the Cardinals at the bottom of the Atlantic. I legitimately think that the generational talent of Lamar Jackson hid the gross deficiencies of the overall Cardinals effort. I genuinely feel that Louisville will only be considered a bowl contender because they rolled easier teams (UVA and GT) out of the Coastal. They already must face Alabama, FSU, Clemson, and the full compliment of the Atlantic… if they had rolled Miami and VT they would certainly be watching the bowl season from their couch. As it stands now, I still think they will be.
7. Syracuse Orange: The Orange are difficult to predict. Over the last two years they have collected two of the biggest upsets in college football. Last year’s defeat of Clemson is arguably one of the biggest upsets of the last decade. Miami’s Mark Richt and Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente have stolen the headlines regarding new coaches in the ACC, but Dino Babers inherited a significantly unhealthier program. Regardless, he’s managed to go 1-0 against Fuente and 1-1 against Swinney. Give Dino a few more years and he will have the Orange in bowl contention, if not this year.
1. Miami-Florida Hurricanes: Mark Richt and the ‘Canes had quite the sophomore season. Miami started the year with an impressive ten-win streak that included victories over FSU, VT, and Notre Dame. They collapsed during the last three games of the season, dropping a surprising egg against Pitt before being destroyed by Clemson in the ACC Championship and losing to the Wisconsin Badgers during the Orange Bowl. There is something of a QB controversy in Miami with Richt making it clear that he is willing to replace incumbent starter, Malik Rosier, if he fails to meet the standard. There is depth at RB but concerns on the offensive line, and that concern on the O-line could make life difficult for Miami against faster stronger defenses. Speaking of defense... I hate the turnover chain. I hate how the media rallies around it, but we will likely be exposed to it quite a bit this year as the ‘Canes will have one of the better linebacker units in the country. The entire starting LB lineup, from last year, returns, and they have experience behind them. Just like last year, the game against VT will probably determine who represents the Coastal in the ACC Championship game.
2. Virginia Tech Hokies: Coach Fuente and company continue to recruit well, but the hemorrhage of talent during this off season is notable. The losses on defense are concerning. The DL brings experience and returning starters and that is pretty much where that stops. Except for Mook Reynolds the LB and secondary units are largely inexperienced. BUT, with that reality firmly in hold… in Bud we trust… the talent and athleticism recruited over the last two years will have to step up. The Hokies’ ceiling is set by the freshmen and sophomores filling forward for departed NFL talent like Tremaine Edmunds and Tim Settle. Bud has faced this situation before, more than once, and excelled. For the first time since Michael Vick was under center the Hokies are going to look to the offense. There are returning starters and experience on the offensive line. The media pundits call the running game into question, but Peoples and McClease are going to be the new thunder and lightning. Kumah, Savoy, Carroll, and Patterson are going to light it up at WR. Kumah is a superstar in the making. The Hokies are young, and Coach Fuente will be largely coaching a team of his own making. If skill positions develop and step up the Hokies can win the Coastal.
3. Pittsburgh Panthers: Narduzzi was hired because he was defensive minded, and Pitt had questions that needed answers on defense. For the last two years the Panthers have represented the dregs of NCAA defense, particularly in the secondary. The Pitt secondary clocked in as the No. 103 unit out of 2017, allowing a 7.8-yard average per pass and 254.2 yards per game. 2018 may be different with six returning starters on defense. Defensively this is likely the best team the Panthers have fielded in recent memory, but that might not be saying much. They must find answers on an offense that returns only four starters, but there is plenty of young talent showing up. The Panthers could compete for a bowl berth, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see them get chewed up by a difficult schedule that includes the Central Florida Golden Knights and the Penn State Nittany Lions.
4. Duke Blue Devils: David Cutcliffe. That’s the only name that matters when it comes to Duke football. If the man were younger, he would be poached by a larger program. Their offense could be dangerous with seven returning starters to include QB Daniel Jones - a threat in the air and on the ground. Last season, after starting 4-0 the Blue Devils collected a six game slide but eventually upset GT and WF to become bowl eligible. They went on to defeat Northern Illinois at the Quick Lane Bowl and finished the season 7-6. Rolling in to 2018 it is entirely reasonable to consider Duke a bowl bound team, but they have a brutal schedule that includes seven bowl teams.
5. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets: GT is again a wild card in the ACC. They were able to muster up the ability to defeat VT and WF and almost defeat Tennessee and Miami. They had a rough schedule last year and the 2018 schedule is not that much easier for the Yellow Jackets. Georgia Tech will struggle to make a bowl and Paul Johnson’s time might be drawing nigh.
6. North Carolina Tar Heels: Larry Fedora is the best thing going for UNC right now. The years of Mitchell Trubisky being alright at North Carolina are long gone and the Heels have been trying to reload ever since. Last year injuries devastated North Carolina, but now there is a lot more experience on the field. The Tar Heels are very dependent on transfers and do not have much to hang their hat on regarding recruitment. With the resurgence of Miami and Virginia Tech and the pillaging of NC talent it seems hard to see UNC challenging for the Coastal as they did in the past, or really being considered bowl contenders.
7. Virginia Cavaliers: Bronco Mendenhall’s first season was a wake up call and his second season was based on the effort of players that are no longer part of the Virginia football program. UVA ended up being a surprise bowl team, but with the departure of Benkert the Hoos are dependent on a new face transfer QB. Bronco still has much to do before this program can be consistently considered a bowl contending team, unless of course they schedule the most cupcake non-conference schedule in the ACC, which is EXACTLY WHAT THEY DID. Their opening slate is Richmond, Indiana (away), and Ohio. Later in the season they will host Liberty who is playing their first year of FBS level ball. Unless this UVA team is truly horrific they simply need to find two wins in the ACC schedule that avoided Clemson and FSU. So... maybe the Hoos do ride that non-conference schedule into the bowl season...
Overall Conference Rankings
1. Clemson Tigers
2. Miami-Florida Hurricanes
3. Virginia Tech Hokies
4. Florida State Seminoles
5. Boston College Eagles
6. N.C. State Wolfpack
7. Wake Forest Demon Deacons
8. Pittsburgh Panthers
9. Duke Blue Devils
10. Louisville Cardinals
11. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
12. North Carolina Tar Heels
13. Syracuse Orange
14. Virginia Cavaliers