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College Football Preview 2017-2018: Previewing the ACC

Lamar Jackson, Louisville
Atlantic Coast Conference

2016 In Review: 2016 was an absolutely fabulous year for ACC football. First off, the conference's two-time reigning champion, Clemson, went on to get vengeance against Alabama, winning the school's first National Title since the 1980s. Louisville shone bright for the first ten weeks of the season (9-1 start) before falling flat over their next three games. Even so, their star QB Lamar Jackson became the first Heisman winner for the conference since Jameis Winston in 2013. Meanwhile, Florida State recovered from a relatively disappointing regular season to blast Michigan in the Orange Bowl, Miami looked the best they have in years and pounded West Virginia in the Russell Athletic Bowl, while downtrodden conference power Virginia Tech won 10 games and returned to the ACC Championship for the first time since 2011. Even Pittsburgh, considered by most to be a mid-tier ACC team, beat Clemson and eventual Big Ten Champion Penn State en route to a successful year. Can the conference continue that momentum in 2017?

Ranking the ACC (click on Top 25 teams for more in-depth previews)

Atlantic Division

1. Clemson Tigers (National Rank:3)
After leading a wonderful last-second drive to stun Alabama in the National Championship, quarterback Deshaun Watson left for the NFL, taking with him a ton from that National Championship team. Yet, there shouldn't be much worry in Clemson, South Carolina. While the offense must find a new QB (Kelly Bryant was named the starter this week), there is still plenty of firepower, with receivers Deon Cain and Hunter Renfrow, and the Tigers are absolutely stacked on both the offensive and defensive lines. Only helping out the Tigers' case is the fact they get Florida State at home, in what very well could decide the division. Losing Watson and emotional leader Ben Boulware may hurt but this team and program still have no trouble reloading. I see them making their third straight Playoff appearance this year.

2. Florida State Seminoles (National Rank: 5)
A popular National Title pick last season, FSU had some major ups-and-downs en route to a relatively disappointing 10-3 mark. However, they did have a first-year starter at QB, a very poor offensive line and lost their best defender early on in the season, so some of the struggles made perfect sense. Now a sophomore, Deondre Francois hopes to lead an offense that will lose star back Dalvin Cook but should still move the ball very well. Defensively, the Seminoles return nearly everybody to a very stout front seven and most importantly, return safety Derwin James, who could be the best defender in college football but missed most of 2016 with a torn meniscus. Tough games against Alabama (in a neutral site) and on the road against Clemson will be brutal, but this Seminoles team has more than enough talent to be in the thick of the Playoff conversation for much of the year.

3. Louisville Cardinals (National Rank: 20)
Louisville was one of the nation's most surprising teams over the season's first half last season, as they started 9-1 and came within inches of stunning Clemson on the road. Unfortunately, their poor end to the year, in which they lost three straight, really cast a shadow on what was overall a pretty successful year. The Cards should be tough once more in 2017, thanks in large part to the return of Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. He'll be helped offensively by receivers Jaylen Smith and converted QB Reggie Bonnafon, while true frosh running back Collin Wilson is one of the biggest recruits Bobby Petrino has ever landed at UL. On the other side of the ball Louisville brings a ton of experience and a ball-hawking secondary, headlined by All-American corner Jaire Alexander. The Cardinals will almost certainly be very dangerous and a real threat, but they just don't seem quite at Clemson and Florida State's level, at least not until they can develop more consistency.

4. NC State Wolfpack
There are a number of people around NC State that believe fifth-year head coach Dave Doeren should be gone (25-26 here), but Doeren may have his best team in Raleigh in 2017. Doeren brings back a veteran QB in Boise State transfer Ryan Finley (3,059 yards, 18 touchdowns in '16) and do-it-all running back/receiver Jaylen Samuels (13 total touchdowns last season). Also working in NC State's favor is the return of their entire defensive line, which could end up being one of the best in college football. All four returnees are very experienced and well-rounded seniors, and one is an All-American in Bradley Chubb, who had 10.5 sacks last year. All signs point up for the Wolfpack and if they can get some things to go their way, they may just have a chance at breaking into the Atlantic's upper division and getting double-digit wins.

5. Wake Forest Demon Deacons
After two consecutive 3-9 seasons to begin his time in Winston-Salem, head coach Dave Clawson oversaw a breakthrough in 2016, as Wake Forest made a bowl and finished off 7-6. What is particularly amazing about that '16 team was that they made a bowl despite having the 124th total offense in the country, and one that managed just 20.4 points per game (118th nationally, 13th in the conference). Expect that to change this year, as the Demon Deacons bring back two experienced quarterbacks in junior Kendall Hinton and senior John Wolford, a solid back in junior Matt Colburn and perhaps the ACC's best tight end in Cam Serigne. If the underrated defense, led by defensive end Duke Ejiofor and safety Jessie Bates, can continue to progress another bowl, and perhaps even an improvement on last year's seven victories, could be in the cards.

6. Boston College Eagles
Speaking or poor offenses, we arrive at Boston College, who also managed to win seven games despite an offense that was stagnant and lacked any creativity (averaged 292.8 YPG, 127th in the country). Second-year offensive coordinator Scott Loeffler experimented with some up-tempo in the spring, so we will see if the Eagles change anything up in 2017. This roster has some potential, as junior back Jon Hilliman has shown flashes of brilliance, and the defense is stout, bringing back Harold Landry, who had 16.5 sacks a year ago but decided not to go the NFL. However, unless the offense can do something new or find some other major spark, this team's ceiling is pretty low. Getting back to a bowl game would be a very reasonable goal for Steve Addazio, who enters his fifth year in Chestnut Hill.

7. Syracuse Orange
Despite the fact Syracuse had the exact same record in 2016 as they did in '15, there was significant progress under first-year head coach Dino Babers. Babers installed a spread, up-tempo look that worked very well for Syracuse, who averaged over 440 yards per game. Yet, some of the inexperience throughout the roster and a porous defense contributed to the Orange going 4-8 once more. Babers will have his star QB, junior Eric Dungey back, and also has a decent crop of receivers to throw to, even as Amba Etta-Tawo departs (1,492 yards). On defense, nearly everybody returns on the front seven but this team won't make any progress unless some playmakers emerge in a poor secondary. Year Two should have some more growing pains for Babers and staff, but you have to feel as though this team is making progress. A bowl game might be tough with their schedule, but five wins and maybe a couple upsets would be a very successful year at the 'Cuse.

Coastal Division

1. Miami Hurricanes (National Rank: 17)
Since joining the ACC in 2004, Miami has been mired in mediocrity. The program has had moments where it looked like they were ready to return to their glory days, but have failed to win a single division title. That could change in 2017, as the Hurricanes look like the clear-cut favorite in the Coastal, where a number of the other top contenders are rebuilding. The 'Canes will have to find a replacement for three-year starter Brad Kaaya (junior Malik Rosier is the favorite) but should still be strong offensively behind the legs of back Mark Walton and a great receivers corps, which includes sophomore Ahmmon Richards and senior Braxton Berrios. On defense Miami should also be very good, as they return nearly everybody to their front seven including a linebackers corps that includes All-Conference candidates such as Shaq Quarterman and Michael Pinckney. The secondary is a concern considering Miami has zero returning starters back there, but cornerback Dee Delaney, a transfer from The Citadel, has skyhigh expectations. It doesn't appear as though Miami is quite back to the level of competing for National Championships, but they are on the rise. There is no reason why they can't win the Coastal and post 10-plus wins.

2. Virginia Tech Hokies
After nearly three decades of Frank Beamer on the sideline in Blacksburg, Virginia Tech broke in new head coach Justin Fuente, to great success. Fuente engineered a quick turnaround of a formerly stagnant offense and the defense played its usual shutdown style, equating to a 10-4 record and Coastal Division title. It was an impressive start to the Fuente era but now comes the tough part: rebuilding after this team loses a ton. Fuente must find a QB to replace Jerod Evans, who left early for the NFL. Redshirt frosh Josh Jackson is the favorite, but could be pushed by junior A.J. Bush or newcomer Hendon Hooker. Finding a new go-to weapon in the passing game should be a top priority, although senior Cam Phillips should make it easier, as he had 983 yards last season. Long-time defensive coordinator Bud Foster should ensure VT's defense is tough as usual. He'll have to rebuild the D-Line, but linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Andrew Motuapuaka (114 tackles in '16) are as good as you can get in the ACC. It's completely reasonable that this team may struggle out of the gate but there is no shortage of talent here. If the offense can click pretty fast, another division title isn't out of the question.

3. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Just a week ago, I had Georgia Tech second in the Coastal and viewed them as a serious threat to Miami for the division title. They are still a dangerous team, but the loss of running back Dedrick Mills, who was kicked off the team this week, really hurts. Mills was GT's top returning rusher, picking up 771 yards and 12 scores last season and he played a huge role in this option offense. With Mills now gone and the Yellow Jackets still searching for a quarterback to replace Justin Thomas, this offense could undergo a rebuild entering 2017. The defense has never been elite but has always been passable, and that should be the case once more. Seniors Lance Austin and Lawrence Austin will lead a very experienced secondary, but the pass rush has to improve, after managing a lowly 18 sacks last year. Georgia Tech is tough every single year because they play hard and their triple-option attack is tough to gameplan against. They'll be in the mix for a Coastal crown, but some of their deficiencies should push them more to the middle of the pack in the division.

4. Pittsburgh Panthers
Jordan Whithead, Pittsburgh
Prior to last season, Pitt had never really been known as a team that could light you up offensively, but that changed in 2016. The Panthers averaged 40.9 points per game under the leadership of offensive coordinator Matt Canada, including scoring 76 against Syracuse and 56 against Duke. Unfortunately, their defense couldn't hold others from doing the same, equating to a 8-5 record. Canada moved on to the same role at LSU, and Pitt must replace QB Nathan Peterman and back James Conner, but the offense still has potential. USC graduate transfer quarterback Max Browne played fairly well with the Trojans but was overtaken by Sam Darnold. Passing to a deep and talented receivers corps, which includes the incredibly versatile Quadree Henderson, should really help him. On defense, the Panthers have to rebuild their front seven, which was hit hard by graduation, but the secondary should be improved with junior safety Jordan Whitehead returning. There will have to be some adjustments as the Panthers work in some new toys and a new OC, but Pat Narduzzi has done a good job with this program. They could very well replicate last year's eight wins, or perhaps even surpass it.

5. North Carolina Tar Heels
It has been a great couple years for the Tar Heels, who followed up their division title in 2015, with a solid 8-5 record. But, this team was hit hard by losses this off-season, likely indicating it will be a rebuilding year in Chapel Hill. The Heels lose 99 percent of their rushing, 70.5 percent of their receiving yards and their starting quarterback, as Mitchell Trubisky left for the NFL a year early. Trubisky's absence opens the door for a QB competition, with LSU grad transfer Brandon Harris battling sophomore Nathan Elliott and others for the starting job. Harris showed flashes with the Tigers but never really fulfilled his vast potential in Baton Rouge. We will see if a move to the spread attack UNC has will change that. UNC must also replace Elijah Hood at running back (sophomore Jordon Brown the projected starter), and plenty at receiver. The Tar Heels have taken steps on defense over the past few seasons, but must replace D-coordinator Gene Chizik, who retired, along with plenty across their secondary. With the insane amount of production gone on offense, UNC will almost certainly go through some struggles in 2017, but if Harris can adapt to this offense quickly and the defense can continue to improve, the Tar Heels should still be bowl-bound, at the very least.

6. Duke Blue Devils
It is amazing that the 4-8 record Duke suffered through in 2016 would have once been considered normal or perhaps even a success. Head coach David Cutcliffe has greatly risen the program's tradition and talent level, so last year's stumble seemed out of the blue. The good news entering '17 is that Duke will have their QB, sophomore Daniel Jones, figured out and plenty of other weapons back on offense. Jones had troubles with consistency throughout last year but did show plenty of potential, finishing off the year with 2,836 yards and 16 touchdowns. He'll be helped by underrated tailback Shaun Wilson and a cast of receivers without a real star, but plenty of solid options. On the other side of the ball Duke should be pretty solid, particularly with sophomore linebacker Joe Giles-Harris, who had 107 tackles last season, leading the way. A tough non-conference slate (Northwestern, Baylor and a road trip against Army) will test this team but if they can surprise some ACC foes, a bowl berth isn't completely out of the question.

7. Virginia Cavaliers
After a long tenure at BYU, head coach Bronco Mendenhall had a tough welcoming to the ACC with Virginia. The Cavaliers lost by 17 to FCS foe Richmond and never really figured it out, finishing the season 2-10 and 1-7 in the conference. Virginia should still have plenty of issues entering this season as they continue on their massive rebuild, but there is some bright spots. First off, former East Carolina QB Kurt Benkert has a huge arm and has plenty of talent. Also working for the Cavs is a defense that includes future NFL draftees like senior safety Quin Blanding, senior defensive end Andrew Brown and senior linebacker Micah Kiser, who led the team in tackles (134) and sacks (6.5). That should give UVA fans at least something to feel good about and watch, because it should be a long season. However, Mendenhall has a good sense of what he needs to do to get this program back on track, and there should be some progress in Year Two.

All-ACC Teams
First Team
QB Lamar Jackson, Louisville
RB Mark Walton, Miami
RB Qadree Ollison, Pittsburgh
WR Deon Cain, Clemson
WR Jaylen Samuels, NC State
TE Cam Serigne, Wake Forest
OL Mitch Hyatt, Clemson
OL Alec Eberle, Florida State
OL Tyrone Crowder, Clemson
OL Brian O'Neill, Pittsburgh
OL Tony Adams, NC State
DL Christian Wilkins, Clemson
DL Dexter Lawrence, Clemson
DL Harold Landry, Boston College
DL Bradley Chubb, NC State
LB Micah Kiser, Virginia
LB Shaq Quarterman, Miami
LB Kendall Joseph, Clemson
CB Jaire Alexander, Louisville
CB Tavarus McFadden, Florida State
S Derwin James, Florida State
S Quin Blanding, Virginia

Second Team
QB Deondre Francois, Florida State
RB Cam Akers, Florida State
RB Shaun Wilson, Duke
WR Ahmmon Richards, Miami
WR Cam Phillips, Virginia Tech
TE Ryan Izzo, Florida State
OL Lukayus McNeil, Louisville
OL Brock Ruble, Florida State
OL Wyatt Teller, Virginia Tech
OL Bentley Spain, North Carolina
OL Austin Davis, Duke
DL Clelin Ferrell, Clemson
DL Duke Ejiofor, Wake Forest
DL Derrick Nnadi, Florida State
DL Brian Burns, Florida State
LB Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech
LB Andrew Motuapuaka, Virginia Tech
LB Joe Giles-Harris, Duke
CB Lance Austin, Georgia Tech
CB M.J. Stewart, North Carolina
S Jordan Whitehead, Pittsburgh
S Jessie Bates, Wake Forest

Projected Awards
Championship Game: Clemson over Miami
Offensive Player of the Year: Lamar Jackson, Louisville
Defensive Player of the Year: Derwin James, Florida State
Newcomer of the Year: Cam Akers, Florida State
Coach of the Year: Dabo Swinney, Clemson

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