College Football 2016: ACC Preview
Despite being considered the 5th among the Power 5 conferences, the ACC has seen its two top dogs, Florida State and Clemson, achieve a lot of success in recent years. But to gain more national respect the rest of the conference needs to raise its game. This season should be no different, with one of the two the favorite to win the conference and claim a playoff spot, but no other likely candidate to rise to such heights should FSU or Clemson falter. Here are my thoughts on each team, in order of how I think they will finish in conference.
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Florida State – The Seminoles are the most talented and complete team in the conference. Inexperience at QB is the only question mark, and that could be a concern with a season opener vs Ole Miss, plus games at Louisville, South Florida and Miami in the first half of the season. But Heisman candidate Dalvin Cook running behind a great OL should give Jimbo Fisher the luxury of bringing whomever the QB is along slowly.
Clemson – The Tigers are again loaded on offense, led by Heisman hopeful and potential #1 NFL draft pick Deshaun Watson, but they took big losses on the defensive side of the ball this offseason. Still, DC Brent Venables lost 9 starters off the nation’s #1 defense in 2014 and still put together a Top 10 unit last season, so there’s that. They open the season with a sneaky-tough game at Auburn, but have a friendly schedule the rest of the way until the conference game of the year in Tallahassee on Oct 29.
Louisville – The Bobby Petrino Cardinals, version 2.3, should be the best since his 2006 team went 12-1 including a BCS Bowl win. Rapidly-improving QB Lamar Jackson leads a big play offense and an opportunistic defense that forces a lot of turnovers sets them up well. In addition to facing division titans FSU and Clemson, Louisville faces a tough late-season game at Houston Nov 19. They’re still a notch below the Big Two in the Atlantic but they are capable of having a say in who does finish on top.
NC State – Coming off back-to-back bowl appearances, the Wolfpack will have a challenging time making it three in a row. They suffered big losses on offense and have a very challenging conference schedule (they face preseason Coastal favorites UNC and Miami, plus Notre Dame). They should still finish 6-6, which under the circumstances would be a success.
Boston College – The Eagles had a lot of staff turnover in the offseason, including both coordinators. The bad news: Don Brown, now at Michigan, coached the #1 defense in the country in fewest yards per game allowed last season. The good news: BC still only went 3-9, meaning the offense needed a change. They do return talent on defense, and will have a graduate transfer (former Kentucky QB Patrick Towles) calling signals. Sneaking into a bowl game is not out of the question, but a best-case scenario.
Wake Forest – After two 3-9 finishes in his first two seasons, head coach Dave Clawson likely needs to get to a bowl game to stay off the hot seat. The Demon Deacons return some experience, and could have a pretty good defense. There are 5 winnable games on their schedule, all at home. Finding that 6th win could be tough.
Syracuse – New coach Dino Babers inherits a team that went just 4-8 last season. Factor in the drastic change of styles on both sides of the ball and 2016 is likely to be a season of growing pains for the Orange.
UNC – Coming off one of their most successful seasons in recent memory in 2015, the Tar Heels will need to replace some key starters to replicate that feat in 2016. First-year starter Mitch Trubisky is surrounded by a lot of offensive talent (5 All-conference players), but he will be greatly tested immediately as UNC opens they season against Georgia in Atlanta. The defense has more holes to fill, especially at LB. Repeating an 11-win season might be asking a bit much in 2016, but the Tar Heels are still the favorite in the ACC Coastal.
Pitt – The return of RB James Conner from lymphoma should provide quite a boost to both the Pitt offense and team spirits. But it is defense that is is Pat Narduzzi’s and the Panthers’ calling card. The unit that ranked #16 in QB sacks last year figures to be just as menacing this season. A tougher schedule could be what keeps Pitt from winning the Coastal and out of the national rankings, but Narduzzi is building a great foundation and culture in Pittsburgh, and fans have responded.
Miami – A Mark Richt/Brad Kaaya pairing, plus plenty of talent at the skill positions, would typically be enough to be the favorite in the lighter Coastal Division. One problem: games are won up front, and Miami’s O-Line is neither good at run blocking nor pass protecting. A talented front-7 on defense should be able to slow running games and pressure QBs, but an iffy secondary could be too big a leak to fill. The Hurricanes do have a favorable schedule, with their toughest conference games at home, that could make them the division dark horse.
VA Tech – The last time the Hokies took the field under a head coach other than Frank Beamer, gas cost 89 cents a gallon, Mike Tyson was the youngest ever heavyweight champion and pretty much invincible, and Chris Pine was 6 years old while some guy named Shatner was playing Capt Kirk in Star Trek movies. Hokies fans aren’t likely to recognize new coach Justin Fuente’s spread offense, at least not when they have the ball. One familiar stalwart, DC Bud Foster, does remain to lead a defense that struggled in 2015, but does return some talent. A tough non-conference schedule (Tennessee, Notre Dame) is offset by not having to face the toughest Atlantic Division teams. VA Tech should keep their 23 year bowl streak alive.
GA Tech – With the exception of Iowa, perhaps no team in college football has played to the opposite of expectations more than GA Tech in recent years. Coming off a very impressive 2014 that culminated with a beatdown of Miss St in the Orange Bowl, the Yellow Jackets followed it up with a 3-9 dud. QB Justin Thomas returns and there’s a lot of RB depth. But the O-line is a question mark. The defense is also a concern, especially a green secondary. But 6-wins and a bowl for Paul Johnson and Co. should be within reach.
Duke – The Blue Devils have made an unprecedented four straight bowl games under David Cutcliffe. It will be a challenge to make it five. The uncertain status of QB Thomas Sirk (ruptured Achilles in Feb) and turnover on both defense and the coaching staff will take some adjustments. Add in a challenging schedule (non-conference games at Northwestern and Notre Dame) and 6 wins will be a tall order.
UVA – New coach Bronco Mendenhall brings new schemes to both sides of the ball. Poor QB play last season, with no apparent front-runner emerging yet for this season, does not portend a promising offensive transition. A terrible defense last season can simply hope to get better. There is talent on the roster. If Mendenhall and staff can get more out of it than their predecessors, a bowl game might not be unattainable, but still unlikely.
Next up: Big 12