Thus far, we have gone through all these conferences that are missing so much of their star power from last year. That is not the case for the ACC. The conference is returning all but one (!) of their top 20 rushers from last year, and they have not lost a ton of quarterbacks and receivers either. This will make the conference very competitive, as there is a ton of experience in the conference. The ACC should yield a representative to the college football playoffs, and I do think it will be the one we are all thinking it will be.
As it stands right now, I would rank the conference as follows:
2. Florida State
|2. North Carolina|
3. Virginia Tech
4. NC State
|5. Boston College|
|6. Georgia Tech|
|7. Wake Forest|
Clemson was an awesome team in 2015, and everything lines up for them to be the same way in 2016. The offense should be able to eclipse the 40-point mark, as they return everything. Not only do they return everything, including Heisman hopeful DeShaun Watson, but they get their most talented play maker, Mike Williams, back. The team keeps Artavis Scott and Hunter Renfrow at receiver, and also brings back Wayne Gallman at running back. This is a very serious offense, and should be one of the most fun to watch in all of college football.
The defense does have some issues. First, they are returning only four starters. It isn’t just the loss of talent, it is the level of the talent lost. Most of the guys that are gone were some of their better playmakers. This defense will probably be down from where it was at just a year ago, but it is really tough to project exactly how far down it will be. I think it should settle around the 25 points allowed mark, which should still give the offense plenty to work with.
Clemson has a favorable schedule, but does face two difficult games, both on the road. The first will be the opener against Auburn, and the next will be at the end of October at Florida State. If they are able to get through those games, and I think they can, they should have a good shot of returning to the playoffs.
Florida State Seminoles
The Seminoles were a good team in 2015, despite the loss of a former Heisman winner in Jameis Winston. I think the team should continue on this path, as it returns stud running back Dalvin Dook, and a trio of highly talented wide receivers in Kermit Whitfield, Travis Rudolph and Jesus Wilson. They also have a nice TE in Ryan Izzo. The biggest question mark in my opinion is the quarterback situation. Sean McGuire was serviceable in 2015, but ultimately, not enough to get the team into the playoffs. The team brings him back, as well as red shirt freshman Deondre Francois, who looks like he could end up starting. I’ve seen some put this team above Clemson, but for me, I think they are just a step below.
The defense looks like they could be close to as good as they were last year, were they have up only 17.5 points per game. They bring back a lot of their more talented playmakers, in addition to a ton of highly talented recruits, including DB Levonta Taylor and DL Shavar Manuel. The defense could be what gives Clemson a run for their money, as I think it is a better unit than what Clemson has.
Another factor keeping Florida State just a step behind Clemson for me is their schedule. Florida State has to play Clemson at home, Ole Miss at a neutral site and Louisville and Miami on the road. Those are going to be tough games, and I can certainly see them losing two games in there.
Right on the outside looking in is Louisville. This team was awkward last year, as it just seemed as if it couldn’t get things figure out. I think it will change this year. The team returns a lot of their top talent on offense, in fact, ALL of it. Like, literally, all of their position players are coming back. I would expect that Bobby Petrino will firmly turn control of the team over to Lamar Jackson in his sophomore year, after he showed promise in 2015. He will have some nice options with James Quick, Ja’Quay Savage and Jamari Staples returning. Finally, senior running back Brandon Radcliffe will look to end his college career on a high note.
The defense does lose some of their star-power, but they do return the remaining 8 starters at the same time. I would expect a small improvement on this side of the ball, coming back to their 2014 level of production of around 300 yards per game and 22 points per game allowed. With the increases in the offensive productions I expect, they are a quiet long shot to challenge in the division. Road games at Clemson and Houston, as well as a home game with Florida State does put a dampening on things, though.
North Carolina State Wolfpack
What a difference a year is going to make here! If Jacoby Brissett would be returning to the school this year, we would be talking about them as a sleeper. Without him, we aren’t quite sure what we have. The team doesn’t have a vastly inexperienced quarterback though, as Boise State transfer Ryan Finley will take over the job. He’s got some good receiving options with Bra’lon Cherry, Jumicheal Ramos and Jaylen Samuels returning. Matthew Dayes is a good running back, so I think this offense should only fall off a small amount.
The defense should take another step forward this year with eight returning starters and one of the best and most experienced defensive lines. I think 22 points per game is likely for the team, and it should help the team win some games. Overall, I think they are just a step below the team from 2015.
Boston College Eagles
2015 did not pan out how those at Boston College would have hoped. I think things could be better in 2016, but it is still cloudy. Kentucky transfer Patrick Towles will compete with Troy Flutie and Darius Wade for starting reps. The team will return Jon Hillman, who was lost for the year after game four last year. He should be the top back on this team. The team barely passed for 1300 yards last year, so this year’s production could be better, but I don’t see where the talent is at in the receiving unit.
The defense is what made this team last year, allowing just 254 yards and 15.3 points per game. The good news for them is that they are returning seven starters, and it is very possible that the production should be attainable. I just don’t see how things will improve that much on the offensive side of the ball, and I do think this is where the talent level drops off in the Atlantic.
The Orange improved by over 10 points in 2015, and I think it is certainly possible it takes another big jump in 2016. It will be largely due to the addition of former Bowling Green head coach Dino Babers. He has some good returning talent to work with in QB Eric Dungey, who will have Ervin Phillips and Steve Ishmael to get the ball to. The running back situation will see competition, as incumbent Jordan Fredericks will be faces with Dontae Strickland gunning for his job.
The defense has 8 starters returning, which is the positive. The negative is that the type of offense that Dino Babers runs if very fast paced. This means his defense will be on the field much more often. I would expect this defense to give up around 36 points per game, minimum, as it transitions.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
I expect Wake Forest to once again be in the cellar of the Atlantic Division. The team has decent quarterbacks in John Wolford and Kendall Hinton, who will both see time, but perform different functions, with Hinton as the mobile quarterback. Tabari Hines, Cortez Lewis and TE Cam Serigne round out the receiving unit, while Tyler Bell looks to build on his freshman campaign. The teams production in 2015 was pretty poor, so it should be better this year.
The defense returns seven starters, as well as a lot of their biggest contributors in tackling, so it should be another good unit this year. Wake Forest football tends to be unexciting, as they don’t give up many points, but they don’t score any either. I think they are still a few years away from being a team to really talk about.
The Miami Hurricanes are the favorites at this point in the Coastal Division. The team returns Brad Kaaya, who is quickly becoming one of the most touted potential 2017 draft picks. The team does lose a few receivers, but brings back both Stacey Coley and Braxton Berrios, who rooms with Kaaya and he has known prior to Miami. The team will need to utilize some of their incoming talent as the deep ball was a point of contention for them last year. The running back unit is stacked with Joseph Yearby, Mark Walton and Gus Edwards returning.
The defense should see some improvement with new head coach Mark Richt coming in. They have a lot of talent on this side of the ball, and I think they will be even better this year. I expect them to return to around 24 points allowed in 2015, which will go a long way. The team doesn’t have much of a non-conference schedule, but has difficult games against Florida State, North Carolina, Notre Dame and Appalachian State. The last one might surprise, but it is a road game against a team who is very talented.
North Carolina Tar Heels
The Tar Heels were a vastly improved team in 2015, and I have a real interest to see how things go in 2016. The team loses stud QB Marquise Williams, but has a good replacement I Mitch Trubisky, who has been around the program for awhile. He has a host of receiving threats in Mack Hollins, Bug Howard and Ryan Switzer. In addition, the team has two high quality running backs in Elijah Hood and TJ Logan. Hood will be the primary playmaker at the position, but Logan is more than capable to spell him.
One of the biggest surprises in 2015 was the jump the North Carolina defense took. This had once been a punching bag, but Gene Chizik shaved 14.5 points per game off their total, and now in his second year, looks poised to be able to do the same thing. The team has seven starters back, and I think it will drop another 3 points and allow around 21.5 points per game. If Trubisky has a good year and the defense improves again, this team could compete with Miami.
Virginia Tech Hokies
The Hokies will start their first year out of the Frank Beamer era, but will break in former Memphis head coach Justin Fuente, who had a great run with the team. The offense has solid playmakers in Cam Phillips, Isaiah Ford and TE Bucky Hodges. They also have talented runners in Travon McMillan and Marshawn Williams. The biggest question is what they will do at QB. Branden Motley returns for his senior year, but will have to fight off junior Jerod Evans for reps. It is still up in the air as to who would start.
On the defensive side of the ball, I expect things to drop off a little bit. The front 7 have some really big loses, and though there are some good recruits coming in, I think it will cause their points allowed to go up to around 28. I think this team should still perform well, but nonconference games against Notre Dame and Tennessee will definitely hurt their progress.
The Pitt Panthers are a bit of an interesting team in 2016 for a few reasons. First, the team will be without Tyler Boyd, who was their biggest receiving threat for some time. Without him, there just is not an option who can fill in, though Dontez Ford will try. The QB situation seems settled, as Chad Voytik transferred, leaving Nathan Peterman as the top option. The running back situation is also interesting, as James Conner looks to return from both injury and cancer to compete with sophomore Qadree Ollison, who had a very strong freshman year. It will be interesting to see how this offense does without a true receiving threat.
The defensive side of the ball will see eight returning starters to the mix, and I believe a slight increase in production as well. Dropping their points allowed down to 24 is not out of the question. I think the biggest issue is if the team becomes two one dimensional without a receiving threat like Tyler Boyd. I fear that will happen.
Duke Blue Devils
The first real big news of the college football offseason was that QB Thomas Sirk ruptured his Achilles and would be out for the majority of the season. This leaves Parker Boehme as the heir apparent in the meantime, and he was efficient when used with Sirk injured this past season. Most of the top receiving options are gone, leaving Anthony Nash and TJ Rahming as those who will be counted on for production. Shaquille Powell is also gone, leaving Shaun Wilson and my personal favorite, Jela Duncan to fill in. I think Duncan is talented enough to take over this year.
The team brings back 6 starters and should be in a similar position as 2015, which saw them give up about 25 points per game. I think this sounds about right for the team, as they have some tough games against offenses that should be able to put together some good offensive showings against them.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Justin Thomas comes back for his senior year, though it feels like he has been playing here practically forever. This team played pretty poorly last year, and I think it will be about the same way in 2016. The team runs a triple option, so the passing game isn’t a big threat, though Ricky Jeune is a capable receiver. Marcus Marshall and Clinton Lynch should both build off their freshman years, and while I think the offense will improve, it will be closer to 2015 than 2014 for this team.
The defense only returns 5 players, and the defensive backs are what are specifically depleted. This is going to be tough with games against Miami, Clemson, Virginia Tech and North Carolina specifically. I think the team should be better than 3-9 but like I said, it won’t be near 11-3. I think this team could be two years away from being a threat again.
The final team in the ACC breakdown is Virginia. This team was about what I thought in 2015. I was big on Taquan Mizzell finally putting things together and he had a nice year. I am expecting an even bigger year this year. Matt Johns is in his senior year and I think the chances for improvement are there as well. The biggest issue is a receiving unit that just isn’t very talented. Olamide Zaccheaus is the top guy here, but really, it is probably Mizzell.
The defense gave up over an extra touchdown per game in 2015, and it will be interesting to see how things go for Bronco Mendenhall in his first year in Virginia. The team will be switching to a 3-4 defense, and I think switching to a new scheme is always a little tougher, so I expect this team to be around 35 points per game in 2016. I think the offense could be slightly better, but I think this is still the basement of the division.