ACC Atlantic Preview
The ACC Atlantic, next to the SEC West, is the only conference to win multiple National Championships in recent years. That both ACC Atlantic teams beat teams from the SEC West in the championship game has started something of a rivalry between the two divisions. That rivalry will play an important role in determining the future of both divisions this year as there are three regular season matchups between the Atlantic and the SEC West. Florida State and Alabama kick off the season, and are the two presumptive favorites for their respective conference titles. Auburn and Clemson are widely considered the next best teams in each conference and play the following week. LSU will play Syracuse in October, but the Orange are simply not in the same class as LSU. ACC coaches, fans, and media are talking themselves up as the best but they’ll need a championship and a couple of victories over top SEC competition to really stake that claim.
Top Draft Prospects
1: Harold Landry, Boston College
2: Derwin James, FSU
3: Tarvarus McFadden, FSU
4: Christian Wilkins, Clemson
5: Bradley Chubb, NC State
Order of Finish
1: Clemson I am going out on a limb and saying that Clemson has the easier path this year. Both teams are likely to lose, in my opinion, their early season games with Alabama and Auburn, and their heads up game is at Clemson this year. That will be the factor. Clemson must replace a lot of talent offensively but Deon Cain and Hunter Renfrew will lead an experienced and talented receiving corps while the team returns four starting offensive linemen including Tyrone Crowder at guard. I would expect Swinney to find the answers he needs at quarterback and running back. Defensively Clemson looks fiercest along the defensive line. Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence are the best defensive tackle tandem in the ACC, if not college football. Kendall Joseph is a playmaker at weakside linebacker while Van Smith and Trayvon Mullen should be able to solidify the secondary. I am not sure Clemson is a better team but I think they have an easier path to the national championship. I see them 11 or 12 games and the ACC.
2: Florida State FSU is the popular choice this summer as a favorite but their path to the playoffs is long and difficult. Aside from having to play Alabama to open the season must travel to Clemson and Florida late in the season and still have serious matchup problems with Lamar Jackson and Louisville. I can see them overcoming some of those obstacles, but expecting them to go 4 for 4 is unrealistic. I do not question the prowess of their offense. Deondre Francois looks to build off of a very good 2016. Cam Akers is expected to be a playmaking tailback immediately and he certainly has the pedigree. I worry about the offensive line that replaces three starters and the inexperience at receiver but FSU will still have a talent surplus against every team they face except for 3 or 4. Defensively the Seminoles boast a talented backfield with safety Derwin James and cornerback Tarvarus McFadden, both expected to be early first round selections in the 2018 draft. Derrick Nnadi and Josh Sweat are also in contention for all conference honors along the defensive line. FSU has more talent than any other team in the ACC this year. They also have a terrible path to get to the playoffs. I expect one or two hiccups along the way. I think they are a 10 win team again.
3: Louisville The Cardinals return Lamar Jackson and his Heisman trophy and little else offensively. Fortunately Bobby Petrino is famous for developing a system that works with lesser talented offensive linemen and running backs. Jaylen Smith, Seth Dawkins, and Reggie Bonnafon all return at receiver, which should allow Jackson to remain the dangerous dual threat that he was in 2016. Geron Christian is a very good left tackle and should be more than capable of buying Jackson the time he needs to let a play develop or take off. Defensively Jaire Alexander leads the team and is one of the best defensive players in the nation. Along with James Hearns as a pass rusher the Cardinals have two playmaking defenders, at key positions, which might be enough to allow them to make some key stops in critical situations. Ultimately Louisville will do what all Bobby Petrino teams do and live and die by their offense. I think, like Florida State they will win 10 or 11 games, but I think the Seminoles will probably catch up with them this year.
4: NC State Dave Doeren is a solid coach who is doing well at a historically difficult place to win football games. In 5 seasons leading the Wolfpack Dorean has had 4 winning seasons. This season could see Dorean have his best season yet Ryan Finley is an underrated quarterback that should find a place on the second or third All ACC team. Jaylen Samuels is a big play receiver who had 55 receptions and 7 touchdowns last year. He should expand on both numbers in 2017. Finley will have the benefit of having an offensive line that returns 4 starters and an offense that returns 9 overall starters. Defensively the Wolfpack are in a position to surprise some people. Bradley Chubb leads a veteran defensive line that also includes tackles BJ Hill and Justin Jones. Shawn Boone is the veteran in the defensive backfield. Overall the Wolfpack return 8 defensive starters, 7 of them seniors. This should give Dorean a defense that succeeds in making timely plays, if not big plays. I expect NC State to win 8 or 9 games this year.
5: Wake Forest Dave Clawson is the right coach for Wake Forest’s program. Like Jim Grobe before him, Clawson realizes the need to develop lesser talented players over time and will consistently see starting players in at least their third years. This year Wake returns 9 offensive starters including talented tailback Cade Carney and left side offensive line tandem Phil Haynes and Justin Herron. All 7 of the team’s leading receivers from 2016 return as does Kendall Hinton at quarterback. Defensively the team is led by defensive end Duke Ejiofor and safety Jessie Bates. Both will be in contention for All Conference teams this season. Wake Forest is not the most talented team, and only returns 5 defensive starters but the offense should be very consistent and that will help the Demon Deacons compete. I see 6 or 7 wins for Wake Forest this season.
6: Boston College Boston College is one of the teams I expect to take a major step backwards this season. Offensively the team looks to be very limited at quarterback and the skill positions, although the offensive line play should be good enough to mask some of those deficiencies. What will be most interesting to watch this season will be Harold Landry on the defensive line. Landry has a chance to be the top rated player in the draft next season. He is a complete defensive end and a terror rushing the passer. I also like senior linebackers Ty Schwab and Connor Strachan as they play a physical and consistent brand of football. There just isn’t much more to like, unfortunately. In a league with three potential ten win teams I expect Boston College to struggle mightily. I see 5 wins tops for the Eagles.
7: Syracuse Dino Babers has Syracuse fans excited for the future. With 19 returning starters the Orange should be a much better team, although their record might not show it. Earvin Phillips should have them excited to watch the Orange on offense since he had 90 receptions last year with multiple quarterbacks. If Eric Dungey holds down the job all season then his rapport with Phillips should lead to a fruitful connection for the team. Defensively Zaire Franklin and Antwan Cordy are the team's best two players. The defensive unit returns 10 starters and should be less prone to giving up big plays this year. Syracuse should be a better team, I’m just not sure that will translate to more wins - they have that large of a gap to close. I see them equalling their 4 wins from last season though.