ACC Football: Preview and Prediction for the 2017 Season

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistAugust 28, 2017

ACC Football: Preview and Prediction for the 2017 Season

0 of 10

    Jimbo Fisher and Dabo Swinney have turned Florida State and Clemson into national powers in the ACC Atlantic.
    Jimbo Fisher and Dabo Swinney have turned Florida State and Clemson into national powers in the ACC Atlantic.Mark Wallheiser/Associated Press

    If anyone had questions about the ACC’s place as one of college football’s best leagues, he or she shouldn’t anymore. The league has firmly established itself at or near the top of the game’s power structure. The ACC has had a representative in each of the first three College Football Playoff fields, and Clemson broke through to win its first national title since 1981, pairing with Florida State’s 2013 triumph to give the league two national titles in the last five years.

    Don’t expect much to change in 2017. While Clemson has some major questions to answer offensively, the Tigers shouldn’t slip too far, and Florida State projects as one of the nation’s best teams. In the Coastal, former powers Virginia Tech and Miami hope to continue their march toward the top under new regimes. How does the ACC shake out this fall? Let’s take a look.

Biggest Stars

1 of 10

    Lamar Jackson is one of the most fun players to watch in college football.
    Lamar Jackson is one of the most fun players to watch in college football.Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

    Louisville QB Lamar Jackson

    Last fall, Lamar Jackson broke out in a huge way. Louisville’s quarterback emerged as one of the most electric players in college football, dashing past defenders and throwing over them on the way to the Heisman Trophy. He threw for 3,543 yards with 30 touchdowns against nine interceptions and also rushed for 1,571 yards and 21 touchdowns.

    A late-season slump (Louisville lost its final three games) took some luster off his season, but Jackson is back for his junior season and should be more polished as a passer with pro-style tendencies. How he develops in what could be his final college football season will be worth watching. 

         

    Florida State S Derwin James

    Derwin James is back healthy this fall. That’s great news for the Florida State defense and terrible for the rest of the ACC. James’ 2016 season ended after two games because of a torn knee meniscus, but he had an incredible freshman year, totaling 91 tackles—9.5 for loss—and 4.5 sacks.

    James is a hard hitter and a versatile player who could fit in at either safety or linebacker, and maybe even defensive end. His presence will give FSU’s already-solid defense a major boost, as he should be one of the top players in college football, a distinction James doesn’t back away from one bit.

    Boston College DE Harold Landry

    Boston College is in one of college football’s toughest divisions in the ACC Atlantic and hopes to scrape out another postseason appearance this fall. Having senior defensive end Harold Landry helps. Landry surely could have jumped to the NFL after leading the FBS with 16.5 sacks, but he decided to return for his final season of college football.

    Landry also had 51 tackles and 22 tackles for loss last fall and is a prolific, unstoppable force on the defensive line. ACC offensive coordinators know to account for him on every play, but expect Landry to pile up big numbers in 2017.

    Miami RB Mark Walton

    Mark Richt is building on a solid first season in south Florida after leading Miami to a 9-4 record. He’ll return 14 starters this fall, and junior tailback Mark Walton’s play will be key. Walton is one of the nation’s top returning backs, having rushed for 1,117 yards and 14 touchdowns as a sophomore.

    With a new starting quarterback following Brad Kaaya’s departure to the NFL, Walton should be leaned upon more heavily in 2017. He is a speedy, dangerous back who’ll be one of the ACC’s best players in 2017.

    Clemson DT Christian Wilkins

    Clemson has perhaps the nation’s best defensive line—a nasty, deep group—and Wilkins is right at its core. He stands 6’4”, 300 pounds and is an imposing, athletic force who is capable of playing either defensive tackle or defensive end; he figures to slide inside to tackle after spending 2016 as an end.

    Last fall, he had 56 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. Wilkins has the athleticism of a much lighter player and can surprise with a trick play or two (like catching a pass off a fake punt in the 2015 Orange Bowl). He figures to be one of the nation’s top defensive linemen this fall.

Top Storylines

2 of 10

    Kelly Bryant has work ahead to keep Clemson in the ACC title picture.
    Kelly Bryant has work ahead to keep Clemson in the ACC title picture.Richard Shiro/Associated Press

    Can Clemson repeat?

    In January, Clemson fans partied like it was 1981. When Deshaun Watson connected with Hunter Renfrow with one second left in the national title game, it lifted the Tigers past Alabama for their first national championship in 35 years. Much of the offensive core (Watson, receiver Mike Williams, tailback Wayne Gallman, receiver Artavis Scott and tight end Jordan Leggett) is in the NFL, but Dabo Swinney’s bunch is focused on reloading, not rebuilding.

    Clemson has a largely favorable schedule with its biggest games (Auburn and Florida State) at home and a nasty defense led by one of the nation’s top defensive lines, but the offense must find its footing quickly to keep the Tigers among the nation’s elite.

          

    Is Florida State back?

    Following a national title in 2013 and a College Football Playoff appearance in 2014, Florida State has slipped a bit, at least by its own standards, to 10-win seasons in 2015 and 2016. But the Seminoles are ready to climb back atop the college football mountain. FSU returns 14 starters, and that doesn’t include all-everything safety Derwin James, healthy after a knee injury limited him to two games in 2016.

    Deondre Francois is ready to lead the offense to greater heights than it found last fall. Saturday’s opener against No. 1 Alabama in Atlanta will be a major barometer for what should be a great season in Tallahassee.

           

    Can the Coastal close the gap?

    With Clemson, Florida State and Louisville, the ACC Atlantic is one of the nation’s best divisions. But the Coastal is trying to catch up. With second-year coaches in Miami’s Mark Richt and Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente, the ACC’s “other” division is building its reputation as well. The Hokies won the Coastal last fall in Fuente’s debut and pushed Clemson hard in the ACC title game, and Miami closed the season on a five-game winning streak, including a bowl whipping of West Virginia.

    The Coastal doesn’t have the Atlantic’s star power yet, but with the Hurricanes, Hokies, North Carolina and Pitt (who handed Clemson its only defeat last fall in Death Valley), there’s reason to be excited.

The Favorites

3 of 10

    Derwin James is ready to return and be a major force for Florida State's defense.
    Derwin James is ready to return and be a major force for Florida State's defense.Mike Stewart/Associated Press

    Clemson

    Following its first national championship in 35 years, Clemson lost a program-changing quarterback in Heisman Trophy runner-up Deshaun Watson, its top running back and three of its top four receivers to the NFL. But counting the Tigers out isn’t smart. Clemson is one of only four programs to win at least 10 games in each of the last four seasons and one of two with 10-plus in each of the last six seasons, and Dabo Swinney has built a deep, sustainable program.

    The Tigers return 12 starters (seven on defense), including a nasty defensive line full of future NFL players and three offensive line starters. New starting quarterback Kelly Bryant must adapt and hold off freshmen Zerrick Cooper and Hunter Johnson, but he has the weapons to succeed and keep Clemson in the national picture.

         

    Florida State

    After winning 20 games in the past two seasons, this should be the year Florida State takes a step forward and becomes a true national force again. It returns 14 starters—including star safety Derwin James from a season-ending knee injury—and has a deep, talented defensive line, too.

    Dalvin Cook is in the NFL, but FSU has excellent replacements in Jacques Patrick and freshman Cam Akers. Expect Deondre Francois to improve on an already solid freshman season, too. FSU must go to Clemson and Florida in November and has a daunting season opener against Alabama in Atlanta, but this is a team that should contend for the College Football Playoff all season.

The Challengers

4 of 10

    Mark Richt is ready for big things in his second season at Miami.
    Mark Richt is ready for big things in his second season at Miami.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Louisville

    Bobby Petrino’s second stint at Louisville has gone pretty well. In three years, he’s 26-13, and the Cardinals spent much of 2016 in the hunt for a College Football Playoff bid before losing their final two regular-season games and the Citrus Bowl to LSU. His fourth edition should again be very good. The Cardinals return 11 starters, including Lamar Jackson.

    Louisville still isn’t on Clemson's or Florida State’s level; the Cards host Clemson and travel to FSU this year. But as both found out last fall, they have the talent to be a major factor in the Atlantic race.

         

    Virginia Tech

    Justin Fuente’s Virginia Tech debut was excellent. Fuente injected energy into a program that lacked it in Frank Beamer’s final seasons, winning 10 games and the ACC Coastal title and pushing national champion Clemson before falling 42-35 in the ACC title game. The Hokies return 12 starters but lost quarterback Jerod Evans, receiver Isaiah Ford and tight end Bucky Hodges to the NFL, which will be a concern.

    Freshman quarterback Josh Jackson must learn on the job, starting with Sunday’s opener against a good West Virginia team, but Tech hosts Clemson for a huge Sept. 30 game and North Carolina on Oct. 21. November brings road trips to Miami, Georgia Tech and Virginia, but the Hokies should be a Coastal factor again.

         

    Miami

    Mark Richt proved you can go home again. After a rough ending at Georgia, Richt returned to Miami, his alma mater, and won nine games. Not bad, and the best is yet to come despite quarterback Brad Kaaya’s early NFL entry. The Hurricanes return 14 starters and have skill players surrounding new quarterback Malik Rosier, including Mark Walton.

    The Hurricanes have a tough Sept. 16 test at Florida State but do get Virginia Tech and Notre Dame at home in November, a month that could say plenty about their push for a Coastal title and a 10-win season.

Best Rivalry Matchup

5 of 10

    Clemson-Florida State has become the best rivalry in the ACC and one of the best in the nation.
    Clemson-Florida State has become the best rivalry in the ACC and one of the best in the nation.Mark Wallheiser/Associated Press

    The ACC has improved its depth, but here’s the truth: It’s still Clemson and Florida State, and everyone else. For each of the last eight seasons, the winner of Clemson-FSU has gone on to win the Atlantic Division, and for the last six years, the victor has taken the ACC. So while the ACC has some fun rivalries, all pale in intensity and national interest compared to Tigers-Seminoles.

    This season will be no different. Clemson is the defending national champion, and Florida State should be even better after winning 20 games the past two seasons. Their meeting Nov. 11 in Clemson will have a huge impact on the Atlantic and ACC races and the College Football Playoff picture. Expect an intense, high-scoring game that will be worth your time if you tune in.

Coaches on the Hot Seat

6 of 10

    Does Steve Addazio have what it takes to succeed at Boston College?
    Does Steve Addazio have what it takes to succeed at Boston College?Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Steve Addazio, Boston College

    In four seasons at Boston College, Steve Addazio is 24-27 with three winning seasons, but he has yet to break the seven-win barrier. That’s a tough task in an Atlantic Division that includes Clemson, Florida State and Louisville, and it’s fair to wonder if the Eagles will ever break through. Last season, BC lost to the power trio by a combined score of 153-24. Ouch. Can BC get to eight wins under Addazio? It’s tough to see that happening. If the Eagles go backward, it might be time to think about a change.

          

    Dave Doeren, NC State

    Dave Doeren has been solid but not spectacular in four seasons at NC State. The Wolfpack are 25-26 under his watch and have never won more than eight games in a season. That could change this fall. State returns 16 starters, led by sack-happy defensive end Bradley Chubb, and expectations are a little higher in Raleigh.

    That creates some additional pressure; how will the Wolfpack handle it? Doeren needs to continue his forward progress and challenge Clemson and Florida State in the Atlantic. If the Wolfpack take a step back, it could spell trouble for his tenure.

Best Offense

7 of 10

    Deondre Francois is ready to lead the ACC's best offense.
    Deondre Francois is ready to lead the ACC's best offense.John Raoux/Associated Press

    Last fall, Florida State averaged 35.1 points per game, fourth-best in the ACC, and 466.4 yards, third in the league. So how did the Seminoles absorb losing their all-time leading rusher in Dalvin Cook and likely improve this fall?

    It starts with Deondre Francois. Francois took the starting quarterback role and ran with it last fall, throwing for 3,350 yards with 20 touchdowns against seven interceptions. He also showed mobility in the pocket and added five scores on the ground. As a sophomore, he should be even better. FSU slots potentially explosive backs Jacques Patrick and Cam Akers in Cook’s place, and Nyqwan Murray is ready to be the Seminoles’ top receiver.

    Overall, this group lacks big-game experience in the skill positions but is very talented. It should emerge as the ACC’s best offense by season’s end, if not earlier.

Best Defense

8 of 10

    Christian Wilkins is one of the nation's most dynamic defensive linemen.
    Christian Wilkins is one of the nation's most dynamic defensive linemen.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Remember when Clemson was just an offensive juggernaut that couldn’t stop anybody defensively? (West Virginia most certainly does.) Those days are long gone. Brent Venables has built a powerful defensive group, one that helped the Tigers win the national title last fall and could carry the team while the offense reloads following the loss of multiple key pieces.

    Start with the defensive line, which should be the nation’s best. The Tigers have 180 sacks in the past four years, and this year should be no different. Junior Christian Wilkins and sophomore Dexter Lawrence are a powerful defensive tackle tandem, and sophomore Clelin Ferrell should improve on his six-sack total from a year ago following a breakout College Football Playoff performance.

    Junior Kendall Joseph, who had 124 tackles last season, is ready to lead the linebackers following Ben Boulware’s graduation, and Ryan Carter and Van Smith provide secondary leadership. Overall, this group is ready to keep Clemson in games and help it win big games while a young but talented offense finds its way.

Projected Regular-Season Standings

9 of 10

    Jimbo Fisher and Florida State are ready to regain their perch atop the ACC.
    Jimbo Fisher and Florida State are ready to regain their perch atop the ACC.Alan Diaz/Associated Press

    Atlantic Division

    1. Florida State (11-1, 8-0)
    2. Clemson (10-2, 6-2)
    3. Louisville (9-3, 5-3)
    4. NC State (8-4, 4-4)
    5. Wake Forest (6-6, 3-5)
    6. Syracuse (5-7, 2-6)
    7. Boston College (5-7, 2-6)

    Coastal Division

    1. Virginia Tech (9-3, 6-2)
    2. Miami  (9-3, 5-3)
    3. Pittsburgh (8-4, 5-3)
    4. Georgia Tech (6-6, 4-4)
    5. North Carolina (6-6, 3-5)
    6. Duke (4-8, 2-6)
    7. Virginia (3-9, 1-7)

Projected Conference Championship Matchup

10 of 10

    Tarvarus McFadden and FSU will show why they're No. 1 in the conference again in Charlotte this December.
    Tarvarus McFadden and FSU will show why they're No. 1 in the conference again in Charlotte this December.Associated Press

    Seven years ago, Virginia Tech was the last ACC Coastal Division team to win an ACC football championship game. Tyrod Taylor and the Hokies overpowered Florida State, taking a 44-33 win in the first ACC title game played at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium. Following a one-year detour to Orlando, the ACC’s championship returns to Charlotte, and with it a familiar matchup.

    We project Florida State to run through the ACC Atlantic unbeaten, including a hard-fought win at Clemson, and represent the Atlantic. Even with big turnover on offense, Virginia Tech will beat Miami on Nov. 4 and represent the Coastal, thanks to the steady play of Josh Jackson and an experienced Bud Foster-led defense.

    The Hokies came up just short against Clemson a year ago, and they’ll take similar heartbreak back to Blacksburg this fall. Florida State’s offense is just too much, and Derwin James will make enough big plays on defense to give the Seminoles the ACC title and a College Football Playoff berth.