College Football Preview (Part 1 of 6 — ACC)

Football season is back.

Let’s get it started (ha). Let’s get it started in here.

What better way to prepare for Saturday’s slate of games than to write conference previews for each of the Power-5 conferences as well as identify the sleepers in the mid-major conferences that could possibly go undefeated and steal a seat at the 4-team playoff. Oh, and if that isn’t good enough, I’ll sweeten the pot with conference title game predictions, pick the 4-team playoff, and take a stab at Heisman Trophy finalists. From now until Saturday, check back here for all the up-to-date previews and analysis.

So without further ado, the Atlantic Coast Conference. Here’s what the media thinks:

The usual suspects. UVA needed a first-place vote in the Coastal based on new coach Bronco Mendenhall’s name alone.

The media thinks it will be a 2-horse race in the Atlantic Division. The media doesn't know what to think in the wide-open Coastal Division.

Here’s what I think:

Atlantic Division

Clemson

Clemson enters the season as the overwhelming favorite, and rightfully so. The Tigers return eight starters on offense including last year Heisman finalist and do-it-all quarterback DeShaun Watson. Not included in those eight is top pass-catcher and projected high-end draft pick Mike Williams, who was lost for the season after a neck injury in the 2015 opener for the Tigers. This team is loaded on offense. Williams is the biggest name in a Clemson receiving core that also features Artavis Scott and Hunter Renfrow. Wayne Gallman is not as heralded as some Clemson tailbacks that have come before him, but has a nice mix of speed and power that enables him to run between the tackles and on the edge. Jordan Leggett is a nice safety valve at tight end. Three out of the five offensive linemen also return. This offense would be good with just Watson, but it’s scary how good they’re going to be with all these other playmakers around him. In the Tigers’ only loss last season to Alabama in the national championship, Clemson still managed to hang 40 points and 550 yards of offense. And this Clemson offense is better than last year’s Clemson offense.

So it is with confidence that I say this Clemson team is the most dangerous of the past decade and should average 45 points per game. Defense is a little more of a question mark. Only four starters return, and the loss of defensive end Shaq Lawson and three secondary starters will hurt. However, Ben Boulware will provide a stabilizing presence at linebacker and Brent Venables will have the opportunity to work his magic with a new crop of 4-and-5-star recruits. The Tigers open at their namesake, Auburn, and get Louisville at home on October 1. The game everyone will be watching is an October 29th affair in Tallahassee.

Which brings us to.

Florida State

By now you’re most likely familiar with tailback Dalvin Cook and for good reason.

He’s a gamechanger.

But the name you’re going to want to know is Deondre Francois. Florida State returns all 11 starters on offense, which includes quarterback Sean Maguire. However, while Maguire, a senior, has more experience than the redshirt-freshman, the Noles have invested in the dual-threat QB with the higher ceiling and have named Francois the starter for the opener against Ole Miss.

That game headlines a brutal stretch to open the season where the Noles will also have to play Louisville, South Florida, UNC, and Miami. That doesn't include Clemson and Florida later down the road. Eight starters return on the FSU defense, and strong safety Derwin James will make opposing receivers think twice about going across the middle. Coach Jimbo Fisher has been vocal about needing more from his receiving corps, which includes Kermit Whitfield, Travis Rudolph, and Jesus Wilson. The talent is there for FSU to make a run. The question is if they can put it together each week and avoid a slip-up or two along the way. If the Noles get to the end of November at 11–1 or 12–0, they’ll be in the conversation for the playoff.

For that to happen, they will have to win on the road on September 17 at…

Louisville

I like this Louisville team. They bring back 10 starters on offense, including all of their skill positions, and nine on defense. Quarterback Lamar Jackson will have had a full off-season under his belt to prepare to be the full-time starter. The electric Jackson is coming off a bowl game in which he threw for 227 yards and ran for another 226. This Louisville team is a less heralded, less hyped Clemson in terms of the talent it’s bringing back. The Cardinals’ season comes down to 3 games. They host FSU in Week 3 before traveling to play at Clemson in Week 5. If Louisville can win one out of two there, it’ll set itself up in great shape to be in the conversation when it rolls into Houston to play the Tom Herman-led Cougars on November 17. Regardless of wins and losses, this will be a fun team to watch.

Condolences go out to NC State, Boston College, Syracuse and Wake Forest. I won’t waste the word space. Good luck this year.

Okay, fine. I’ll give you guys a blurb.

NC State

Six starters are back on offense while eight guys return on defense. The big question is at quarterback and who can replace Jacoby Brissett. New offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz will be tasked with adding more flavor and pizzazz to the Wolfpack’s offense. The defense, which has improved the past two seasons, is underrated. With a lot of continuity in terms of personnel from last season, it will be interesting to see if the Wolfpack can slow down the division’s top teams. Schedule does them no favors with Notre Dame and cross-divisional matchups against UNC and Miami.

Boston College

What if I told you the BC defense was better than Alabama’s unit last year. What if I told you the Eagles defense was better than everyone in terms of yards allowed per game. It’s true. However, the Eagles return just six guys on both sides of the ball this year. Linebacker Steven Daniels was an underappreciated cog in the defense and Justin Simmons was a beast at free safety. Coordinator Don Brown bolted for Michigan. This unit has potential to be good, but will need A LOT more from the offense. Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler struggled in his first year calling plays. And given his track record (his Virginia Tech days), it doesn’t bode well for Eagles fan who hope their team will light up the scoreboard.

Syracuse

Let’s check in on the Syracuse defense last year.

The Orange defense parting like the Red Sea.

Yeah, that’ll get somebody fired. New coach Dino Babers is in town fresh off a MAC title at Bowling Green. With him, he’ll bring a pass-happy offense that is built for the fast track field turf. That said, it will probably take a few years to be able to consistently compete with the division’s best teams. Playing quarterback in Babers’ offense this season sounds fun until you realize that Syracuse is breaking in three new offensive linemen. The defense is switching to a Tampa-2. It’s not too hard to see a defensive overhaul when running backs are dicing you for 87-yard touchdowns.

Hmmm. 1st and 10. LSU has best RB in country, but no QB. I wonder what they’re going to do.

Wake Forest

It boils down to the Demon Deacons schedule. Relatively difficult road games (Louisville, FSU, NC State, Indiana, Duke) coupled with relatively favorable home games (Tulane, Delaware, Syracuse, Army, UVA, BC). In fact, let’s say they lose to Clemson at home. That’s fine. If they win those home games listed above, they could lose all of their road games and still be bowl eligible. That’s not a terrible season for the Demon Deacons. But I’m getting ahead of myself. As collegefootballnews.com pointed out, Wake Forest and Kansas are the only FBS schools to average less than 20 points per game the past four seasons. The punter is the only returning starter who was named to any of the All-ACC teams. The offense and its nine returning starters has to be better for this team to have a chance to compete week in and week out.

I’ve got: 1. Clemson 2. Louisville 3. FSU 4. NC State 5. Syracuse 6. BC 7. Wake Forest

Barring an injury at the quarterback position, I think Clemson will just be too much for the rest of the conference. FSU’s schedule is brutal, and once the Noles slip up once, they strike me as a team that could let it all hit the fan. Francois is talented, but he’s no Jameis Winston that Noles fans are hoping he can be right off the bat. Like FSU, Louisville returns a lot of pieces and I think a motivated Bobby Petrino Louisville team will upend the Noles to take second in the division.

Dalvin Cook after hearing I picked Lousiville (pictured here) over FSU in the Atlantic Division.

Yeah, I might regret that one.

Coastal Division

North Carolina

The Tar Heels were the majority pick in the Coastal Division, but I’m not sold. The Georgia game to open the season will be a telling sign. UNC returns a trio of skill guys in running back Elijah Hood and receivers Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard, but the loss of quarterback Marquise Williams and All-ACC guard Landon Turner will hurt. Mitch Trubisky takes over for Williams and will try to navigate UNC through conference road games at Florida State and Miami and tough home games against Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech. Six starters return on Gene Chizik’s defense, but it appears there may be more questions than answers. We know Larry Fedora offenses can put up points, but it remains to be seen if the defense can stop a nosebleed. UNC has two FCS teams on its schedule this year (James Madison and The Citadel) so I think it’s only right that one of those teams will upset the Tar Heels. The Citadel won at South Carolina last year and its coach at the time, Mike Houston, is the new coach at James Madison. The Dukes had an FBS win over Virginia Tech in 2010 and return almost their entire offense. Upset special?

Miami

If the Hurricanes keep quarterback Brad Kaaya upright, they have a chance. Miami is coming off a solid 8–5 campaign and have added Mark Richt to the mix as coach. All five starters are back on the offensive line, but it was a line that struggled with run blocking a year ago. Richt, who always had a stable of good tailbacks at Georgia, will be hoping to add talent to that position. Seven starters return on defense including five guys in the front seven. Miami doesn’t have to play Clemson this year and it gets FSU, UNC, and Pittsburgh all at home. This sounds like it’s shaping up to be a patented Mark Richt 8–4 season.

Pitt

Is that really a thing? Are the Pittsburgh Panthers really that cool where they can drop the burgh from their name. Antonio Brown is a great wide receiver for the Pitt Steelers. See how dumb that sounds. Maybe I’m out of the loop or maybe it’s a northerner thing. I’m not going to choose to die on this hill, but this deserves a C’Mon Man. I digress.

Hopefully, James Conner will return to form after a bout with cancer. Conner of course was a bullish back for the Panthers posting a beastly 5.92 yards per carry on just shy of 300 rushes to go with 26 touchdowns.

The Panthers lost top receiver Tyler Boyd to the NFL, but have just about everyone (18 starters) back. The defense will look to force more turnovers this year under second-year head coach Pat Narduzzi and should see more success having had another offseason in his system. All in all, this is a team that screams above average, but not great. It’s still a dangerous team that all the big-names and title contenders will want to be wary of.

Virginia Tech

If this team were a stock, I’d invest a big chunk of change in them. Because by buying low, I know I’m going to get a great return. You’re telling me Justin Fuente comes to town and that he gets to implement his offense with Isaiah Ford, Cam Phillips and Bucky Hodges as his three primary targets? And he gets 1,000-yard rusher Travon McMillian in the backfield? And he retained Bud Foster as defensive coordinator? This team has dark horse written all over it. Sure, there are questions at quarterback, but top junior college transfer Jerod Evans has all the tools to have success at the highest level. He threw for over 3,100 yards and had 38 touchdowns to only three interceptions. Yes, I know, junior college. For comparison’s sake, Cam Newton only threw for just over 2,800 yards and 22 touchdowns (and 655 rush yards) in his one year at junior college. The Hokies have talent and depth along the defensive line, which will help to cover up the back end. There is talent in the secondary that just needs time to gel together. Linebacker remains a question mark, but I’ll trust one of the best defensive coordinators in the country to figure it out. Pencil me down for a VT win over Tennessee in Week 2 at the Battle of Bristol.

Duke

At least you have something to look forward to Blue Devils fans:

In all seriousness, David Cutcliffe is a great coach and Duke could turn some heads. I just don’t see it this season.

Georgia Tech

New faces, same triple option. Seems like Paul Johnson’s seat is getting warm. The Yellow Jackets are always difficult to prepare for on short notice.

Virginia

All the Hoos down in Hooville need to prepare for a long, sad season.

The upcoming UVA football season. Bronco will turn them around… eventually.

Coastal Rankings: 1. Virginia Tech 2. Miami 3. UNC 4. Pittsburgh 5. GT 6. Duke 7. UVA

I’m high on Virginia Tech. They finally have a coach who will utilize his weapons to the fullest. Both Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges could end up being Day 1 draft picks. The Hokies don’t have to play either FSU or Clemson, and I trust their defense more than North Carolina when the game is on the line. Pittsburgh will be a tough out week-to-week, but I think they may still be one year away. Miami’s Brad Kaaya is the best quarterback in the division, but lost several of his weapons from last year and Richt just dismissed two starters on defense last week. It really is a crapshoot as the media poll suggested, but I’ll take a gamble on Virginia Tech.

ACC Championship: Clemson 42 Virginia Tech 31

Check back throughout the week for more previews. I’ll be doing the Big 12 tomorrow.