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College Football Preview 2019: Breaking Down the ACC

Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
2018 In Review: (Atlantic) Clemson once again imposed their will on the rest of the ACC in 2018, going a flawless 8-0 and winning the conference championship by 32 points. In fact, they were so far in front of the rest of the league, with the exception of a Syracuse game where their star QB went down with injury, the Tigers closest game was a 20-point win over Boston College. While Florida State slipped down the Atlantic totem pole, Syracuse rose, winning ten game for the first time since 2001. Meanwhile, Louisville fell apart late in the year and Bobby Petrino was let go and replaced by Appalachian State's Scott Satterfield. (Coastal) A disappointing season from preseason favorite Miami as well as a rash of injuries at Virginia Tech left the Coastal Division wide open. In the end, Pittsburgh ended up rising to the occasion and taking it, going 6-2 in the conference. However, the Panthers were dominated in their two biggest games of the year, a meeting with rival Penn State (51-6) and that ACC Championship against Clemson. Behind them, Virginia was a pleasant surprise, winning eight games and going .500 in conference play, although they were unable to overtake their in-state rival. Rounding out the division was UNC, who fell to 2-9 and ended up firing Larry Fedora as head coach.

Power Rankings 

Atlantic Division 

1. Clemson Tigers
Projected Record:

2. Syracuse Orange (National Rank: 16)
Strengths: Even without QB Eric Dungey, Syracuse breaks back a bunch of weapons offensively, notably running back Moe Neal and receiver Sean Riley... The Orange may have the top secondary in the league, led by sophomore safety Andre Cisco and corners Scoop Bradshaw and Chris Fredrick... This team will face one of the easiest schedules in all of Power Five football and get Clemson in the Carrier Dome.
Weaknesses: New QB Tommy DeVito has showed promise, but replacing Dungey is a tall task, considering what he meant to this offense and the program as a whole... The offensive line must replace three starters that cleared the way for Dungey and Neal all of 2018, with the left tackle position a major question mark... Will have to find a way to replace their top two linebackers, Ryan Guthrie and Kielan Whitner, who were 1-2 in tackles on the team last fall.
Projected Record: 10-2 (6-2 ACC)

3. Florida State Seminoles
Strengths: Running back Cam Akers suffered a heavy slump in 2018 but looks rejuvenated to have a big 2019. Akers ran for 1,024 yards as a true freshman before that number fell to 706 a season ago... Sophomore receiver Tamorrion Terry emerged as a special talent down the stretch for FSU in 2018. Terry averaged 21.3 yards per catch a year ago and caught eight touchdown passes, which could pave the way for a true breakout season in his second stint in Tallahassee... Even though their pass defense numbers were poor in '18, FSU has a talented secondary. Sophomore Asante Samuel Jr. will join junior Stanford Samuels III to form a superb 1-2 combo at cornerback.
Weaknesses: The offensive line play was atrocious last fall and needs to improve if the Seminoles want to keep pace in the Atlantic. They must replace three starters, although Northern Illinois grad transfer Ryan Roberts is a huge addition... James Blackman has experience at QB, as does Wisconsin transfer Alex Hornibrook. Yet, losing Deondre Francois is still notable, as he led the team in passing last fall... The schedule is not necessarily kind, as the 'Noles open the year with an always-dangerous Boise State team in Jacksonville and get their annual Florida meeting on the road.
Projected Record: 8-4 (5-3 ACC)

4. Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Strengths: Head coach Dave Clawson has established consistency at one of the toughest jobs in the Power Five, as Wake Forest has been to three straight bowl games. He should be able to maintain that level of success on to 2019 and beyond... Senior running back Cade Carney isn't anything flashy but he get the job done, compiling over 1,000 yards a season ago, the most for a Wake RB since '05. He is surrounded by some intriguing offensive pieces... All-ACC corner Essang Bassey is a great starting point for a defense that needs to take a step forward. Bassey recorded 16 pass deflections in 2018 and truly is shutdown.
Weaknesses: The Demon Deacons have two solid quarterbacks in Jamie Newman and Sam Hartman, but neither have been able to separate themselves. Hartman is probably more talented, but is still not 100 percent from a broken leg late in last year's campaign... There are some possible breakouts over at receiver, but losing Greg Dortch will still be notable. Dortch was second on the team's all-time receiver list and could also help in special teams... The pass rush has to get better in 2019, although there is no star pass rusher to note.
Projected Record: 7-5 (3-5 ACC)

5. NC State Wolfpack 
Strengths: Even though NC State has to replace 1,000-yard rusher Reggie Gallaspy, sophomore Ricky Person Jr. seems up to the task. He had 471 yards as a freshman and was a highly touted recruit when he came to Raleigh... The defense doesn't have a lot of big names, but is solid throughout. Senior James Smith-Williams had six sacks last year and seems like he could have a grand finale for this unit... Sophomore Christopher Dunn is one of the premier kickers in the ACC, notching 23 of 26 on field goals in 2018. He will allow this offense a little bit of wiggle room as they figure out the QB spot.
Weaknesses: Ryan Finley is playing on Sundays, leaving NC State with an uninspiring quarterback competition. Sophomore Matt McKay is the likely starter, but he'll be pushed by Florida State transfer Bailey Hockman... Two 1,000 yard receivers are gone, which will obviously not help whoever wins that QB job. Kelvin Harmon is an especially tough loss, as he was a big-bodied threat who could cause damage anywhere on the field... To add even more questions to the offense, the O-Line has just two starters back and a new coach.
Projected Record: 6-6 (3-5 ACC)

6. Boston College Eagles 
Strengths: One of the best running backs in the game is back in junior A.J. Dillon. A throwback, hard-nosed runner that fits BC's style of play, Dillon added 1,108 yards and 10 scores last year, despite missing two games... Junior QB Anthony Brown is among the best the Eagles have had in recent memory, totaling 20 touchdowns a season ago. He won't do anything that is too extraordinary, but he is very serviceable... BC does a great job developing the defense, which they'll have to once again, as they lose eight starters.
Weaknesses: This offense has to open up more if they want to compete in the top of the division, which will hinge on Brown playing even better and the receivers stepping up. Kobay White can make plays, but he needs help... How does Boston College replace their top two defenders, end Zach Allen and corner Hamp Cheevers? Cheevers was a steady force for a long time in this secondary, starting 15 consecutive games... The Eagles passed to their tight ends 33 percent of the time in 2018, but lose their top playmaker at the position in Tommy Sweeney.
Projected Record: 5-7 (2-6 ACC)

7. Louisville Cardinals
Strengths: New head coach Scott Satterfield has brought a lot of energy to the program, which it desperately needed. Satterfield did a tremendous job at Appalachian State, and he has way more resources at a school like Louisville... Even though the defense was last in the conference and 128th nationally in scoring defense, having nine starters back is a luxury for this new coaching staff... Possible starter at quarterback, sophomore Malik Cunningham, led all Cardinals with 497 yards last fall. He could get even better if Satterfield finds some creative ways to use his skills.
Weaknesses: A lot of players seemed to quit on this team last season and it was clear in their ten losses. The new staff will probably have to chase away some more players that just aren't committed to the new culture... The QB spot is a massive hole. Jawon "Puma" Pass was underwhelming in '18 and threw 12 interceptions. Cunningham could be interesting, but he just doesn't throw the ball with much confidence... Louisville was gashed by the run constantly last season and is in a division that includes Etienne, Dillon, Akers and Carney.
Projected Record: 3-9 (1-7 ACC)

Coastal Division

1. Virginia Cavaliers (National Rank: 23)
Strengths: Quarterback Bryce Perkins was quite the surprise for this offense a year ago, as the former Arizona State transfer notched 2,680 yards through the air and 923 on the ground. He is one of the most athletic quarterbacks in the country, and should be a guiding force for the Cavs in 2019... UVA was third in the ACC in scoring defense and return seven starters to a well-built group. They have one of the nation's premier corners in Bryce Hall, while bringing back a ton of production along the line and at linebacker... The schedule works out pretty well for Virginia as well. While there are some pretty tough road trips (Notre Dame, Miami), the Cavaliers get their arch-rival, Virginia Tech, at home.
Weaknesses: Running back has to be the offense's biggest question mark entering 2019. Jordan Ellis and his 1,026 yards and ten touchdowns are gone, leaving a huge hole. Junior P.K. Kier appears to be the favorite to take over, but he had just 80 yards in a backup role last fall. He'll need to step up in a huge way, or one of the new freshmen could overtake him... Juan Thornhill was the leader of the defense in a lot of ways last season, leading Virginia in tackles. His absence will leave a hole in the secondary, while also leaving a leadership gap that will need to be taken up by someone... Can Virginia really take the jump from a long-time doormat to Coastal champion? They have the talent and a whole lot veteran experience, but being the "hunted" will be an odd transition for the program.
Projected Record: 9-4 (6-2 ACC, Lose in ACC Championship Game)

2. Miami Hurricanes (National Rank: 24)
Strengths: Miami's linebacker corps will enter their fourth season of playing together, showcasing amazing chemistry and consistency. Shaq Quarterman is really the star of the group, but Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud also play a crucial role on this defense. That trio will help keep this defense among the best the ACC has to offer... The 'Canes had the best pass defense in the entire nation in 2018 and bring back enough to be awfully stingy once more. Junior corner Trajan Bandy is well on his way to being a star, while USC transfer Bubba Bolden will be a crucial addition to the back-end... Even though Miami will miss the now-retired Ahmmon Richards, the receivers have serious upside. Jeff Thomas nearly transferred but decided to return, giving them a real burner on the outside. Buffalo transfer K.J. Osborn was a big get, while tight end Brevin Jordan is an All-ACC talent.
Weaknesses: Quarterback play was a disaster last season and needs to be improved. Ohio State newcomer Tate Martell was the favorite coming out of the spring, but Jarren Williams was recently named starter for the season opener. Williams has a lot of potential, but is he ready for the show? Could Martell be a distraction if he gets unhappy as a backup?... Three starters lost on the O-Line are significant, particularly in this division. Left tackle is a serious concern that will have to be remedied quickly... Manny Diaz seems to be a great hire and he brought in a solid OC in Dan Enos to run the offense. With that being said, Diaz has never been a head coach and Miami always has skyhigh expectations. It isn't unreasonable to think there could be some growing pains early on in the process.
Projected Record: 9-3 (6-2 ACC)

3. Virginia Tech Hokies
Ryan Willis, Virginia Tech
Strengths: Former Kansas transfer Ryan Willis was a revelation for VT at QB after taking over for the injured Josh Jackson. Willis threw for 2,716 yards and 24 touchdowns, while looking comfortable in this offense. He may not be an All-ACC quarterback but if he can slightly improve, the aerial attack should in good hands... Willis has a number of proven targets, with the most notable being Damon Hazelton. It has been awhile since Tech has been particularly strong at receiver, but Hazelton had 802 yards last year and seems to only be getting better. Tight end Dalton Keene is another solid building block going forward for this offense... This defense struggled last season, but nearly everybody is back and there are a lot of breakout candidates. Sophomore Dax Hollifield could have a huge year, while fellow LB Rayshard Ashby and corner Caleb Farley are already proven commodities. This could be a very successful final season for coordinator Bud Foster in Blacksburg.
Weaknesses: The energy around the program has been very negative the last 12 months, with a number of players transferring. Justin Fuente has done a fine job transitioning away from the legendary Frank Beamer, but he has some pressure on him to right the ship in 2019... Much like Miami, the Hokies have questions on the O-Line. Three starters are also gone, and both tackle spots could end up being questions... Who is this team's top pass rusher? Senior Houshun Gaines led them in 2018 with 4.5 sacks, but they need some other pieces to get after the quarterback if the defense is to fulfill its potential.
Projected Record: 8-4 (5-3 ACC)

4. North Carolina Tar Heels
Strengths: Mack Brown was an interesting hire by this program to try and regain relevancy in the Coastal. Brown won a lot of games his first stint here and at Texas, so it could be highly successful. He did make some strong hires at both coordinator spots and has already been hitting the recruiting trail, which bodes well for the future... One of the few strengths of the 2018 team was the pass defense (64th nationally). Three starters are back to the secondary, with senior free safety Myles Dorn an All-Conference talent. Figuring out who will start at cornerback will be imperative early on... True freshman Sam Howell is slated to be the starting QB. Despite no experience, Howell comes in with a lot of fanfare and has seemed to impress the coaching staff. He could have some struggles, but the talent is there.
Weaknesses: This team went 2-9 last season for a reason, there is a lot that needs work. The defense couldn't force turnovers and was gashed all year by the run, which will be the first main focus for the new defensive staff, which includes former Army DC Jay Bateman... Even if Howell is better than expected early on, he doesn't have a lot of proven options at wide out. Beyond Dazz Newsome, UNC doesn't have a lot at the position, which means a lot of guys are going to have to step up... For a team that will need time to get its feet under it, the Tar Heels don't have a favorable early schedule. The firth month includes South Carolina, Miami, Wake Forest, Appalachian State and then Clemson.
Projected Record: 5-7 (2-6 ACC)

5. Pittsburgh Panthers
Strengths: The reigning Coastal champ have momentum on their sides. They also have some motivation, after they were absolutely dominated in last year's ACC Championship by Clemson... While incredibly streaky, QB Kenny Pickett is a great starting point for the offense. Pickett had 1,969 yards and 12 scores in 2018, although he had some putrid performances mixed in. If he can become more consistent, this is a really good quarterback... While leading receiver Rafeal Araujo-Lopes is gone, Pittsburgh returns three other experienced wide outs for Pickett to work with. Maurice Ffrench is now likely their top guy, with Taysir Mack and Aaron Matthews helping out. That trio should give this pass offense some real bite.
Weaknesses: Even though they won their division, this Pitt team had some really major problems in '18. The pass offense still needs a lot of work, while the rush defense was terribly inconsistent. The rest of the Coastal seems to be getting better for the most part, but that doesn't seem like the case for the Panthers... Two 1,000-yard rushers depart this offense, which is obviously a huge problem. Junior A.J. Davis is now the first in line to replace the production, but he doesn't inspire a ton of confidence. Technically, Pickett is their top returning rusher, with 220 yards and three scores... Four starters are gone on the offensive line, although junior center Jimmy Morissey is quite the talent. Combine that with the questions at RB and this ground game is going to have a real tough time getting going in 2019.
Projected Record: 4-8 (2-6 ACC)

6. Duke Blue Devils
Strengths: There isn't a ton of debate head coach David Cutcliffe is among the most underrated coaches in the country. He has a proven pedigree with quarterbacks, but must show he can continued to reload in Durham, where a ton departs... It looks like this Duke offense is going to be run-first in 2019, which was not the case a year ago. Junior back Deon Jackson should be a 1,000-yard guy, while sturdy backup Brittain Brown will get action. They will operate behind an O-Line that is strong in the interior... Cornerback Mark Gilbert is an absolute stud and will be tasked with being the No. 1 coverage guy. He missed nearly all of 2018, but has proven he can compete in this league.
Weaknesses: No matter what you think of the Giants taking Daniel Jones No. 6, it is going to hurt Duke. Jones didn't put up crazy numbers in his final season with the Blue Devils, but was still an important leader. Now, Cutcliffe and this team will turn to long-time backup Quentin Harris at quarterback... Even if Harris is able to impress, who is he going to throw to? Nearly all of Jones' top targets are gone on the outside, leaving Jackson as their top returning pass-catcher. Sophomore Jake Bobo is probably the favorite to break out, but the position group is razor thin right now... Duke didn't get after the QB very well in 2018, which needs to change. Four starters do return to the D-Line, with Victor Dimukeje the leader of the group at the moment.
Projected Record: 4-8 (2-6 ACC)

7. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Strengths: Despite the loss of 2018's leading rusher, QB TaQuon Marshall, Georgia Tech returns a ton of talent to their backfield. Junior Jerry Howard Jr. had 564 yards and five scores last season and looks ready for a feature role, while KirVonte Benson is back after missing all of '18 (1,053 yards in 2017)... Georgia native Geoff Collins was an understandable hire following the retirement of long-time head coach Paul Johnson. Collins had a very successful stint up at Temple and will immediately bring more authority to the recruiting trail. He seems like the type of hire that could pay serious dividends for this program going forward... GT was +8 in turnover margin in 2018, which was second best in the ACC. A lot of that had to do with their ground-orientated approach, but also a secondary that could make plays and get turnovers. With safety Tariq Carpenter and corner Tre Swilling back to do much the same, expect a healthy dose of turnovers once again.
Weaknesses: An offense that has run the triple-option for over a decade will now be operating a spread attack under Collins. That is a major transition that will take time, particularly considering every QB on this roster was recruited to play in that triple-option system... Speaking of QB, it is unclear who will start the road opener against Clemson. Sophomore Tobias Oliver was helpful as a backup to Marshall in 2018, although he will be pushed by junior Lucas Johnson and redshirt frosh James Graham... The entire offense is obviously going to go through a huge transition, including a receiver group that doesn't have much star power. The program that once put out Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas, the Yellow Jackets haven't had a receiver catch 25 passes since 2014. That should change, but guys like senior Jalen Camp are going to have to step up.
Projected Record: 4-8 (1-7 ACC)

All-ACC Teams
First Team
QB: Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
RB: Travis Etienne, Clemson
RB: A.J. Dillon, Boston College
WR: Justyn Ross, Clemson
WR: Tee Higgins, Clemson
TE: Brevin Jordan, Miami
OL: Charlie Heck, North Carolina
OL: John Simpson, Clemson
OL: Jimmy Morissey, Pittsburgh
OL: Mekhi Becton, Louisville
OL: Ben Petrula, Boston College
DL: Marvin Wilson, Florida State
DL: Alton Robinson, Syracuse
DL: Xavier Thomas, Clemson
DL: Rashad Weaver, Pittsburgh
LB: Shaq Quarterman, Miami
LB: Justin Strnad, Wake Forest
LB: Isaiah Simmons, Clemson
CB: A.J. Terrell, Clemson
CB: Bryce Hall, Virginia
S: Andre Cisco, Syracuse
S: Damar Hamlin, Pittsburgh
K: Andre Szmyt, Syracuse
P: Oscar Bradburn, Virginia Tech

Second Team
QB: Bryce Perkins, Virginia
RB: Cam Akers, Florida State
RB: Cade Carney, Wake Forest
WR: Tamorrion Terry, Florida State
WR: Sean Riley, Syracuse
TE: Dalton Keene, Virginia Tech
OL: Navuaghn Donaldson, Miami
OL: Airon Servais, Syracuse
OL: Sean Pollard, Clemson
OL: Justin Herron, Wake Forest
OL: Tremayne Anchrum, Clemson
DL: Kendall Coleman, Syracuse
DL: James Smith-Williams, NC State
DL: Carlos Basham, Wake Forest
DL: Jonathan Garvin, Miami
LB: Michael Pinckney, Miami
LB: Jordan Mack, Virginia
LB: Rayshard Ashby, Virginia Tech
CB: Trajan Bandy, Miami
CB: Mark Gilbert, Duke
S: Jarius Moorehead, NC State
S: K'Von Wallace, Clemson

Award Projections
Conference Championship: Clemson over Virginia
Offensive Player of the Year: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
Defensive Player of the Year: Bryce Hall, CB, Virginia
Breakout Player of the Year: Asante Samuel Jr., CB, Florida State
Freshman of the Year: Frank Ladson, WR, Clemson
Coach of the Year: Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia

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