Does the ACC Have a Legit College Football Playoff Contender?

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistMay 29, 2015

Dabo Swinney has built Clemson into a national power.
Dabo Swinney has built Clemson into a national power.Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Among college football’s Power Five leagues, the ACC is clearly Rodney Dangerfield.

Despite impressive recent success, the league just can’t get no respect, as the late Dangerfield would say.

Two years ago, Florida State tore through college football on its way to an unbeaten season and the league’s first national title since 1999 (when the Seminoles defeated Virginia Tech). Last fall, Jimbo Fisher’s team rolled through the regular season as the only FBS unbeaten, but was only the No. 3 seed in the College Football Playoff before suffering a season-ending rout at Oregon’s hands.

“Our conference is strong. We’ve just got to keep producing results and hopefully y’all will eventually buy into the ACC being as good as any conference as there is out there,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said at the ACC spring meetings, according to Ken Sugiura of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “As coaches, we know we are.”

The ACC also excelled in the 2015 NFL draft. The league had 47 players selected, second-most in its history and second-most this season behind the SEC. Its nine first-round picks tied the Pac-12 for the most in college football.

“The Atlantic Division had more draft picks than any division in college football,” Swinney said. “I don’t hear that being written about anywhere. We’re still going to talk about some other division in college football, this mighty division. The fact of the matter is, this league is incredibly strong.”

The league has done plenty to garner national attention. So why isn’t it receiving much from preseason pollsters? When preseason top 25 polls roll out in August, it’s entirely likely that only one ACC team will crack the top 10. Does the ACC have a legit College Football Playoff contender? Let’s take a look.

We’ll examine the clear class of the league entering 2015: Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech. While other teams could emerge, these three are the obvious top candidates to challenge for a league title and a College Football Playoff spot.

Clemson

Over the last five years, Dabo Swinney has turned Clemson into one of the nation’s most consistent, successful programs. Following a 6-7 season in 2010, the Tigers have won 10, 11, 11 and 10 games, won an ACC title and defeated LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma in bowl games.

While the Tigers rode Chad Morris’ high-octane offense to success, they’re hardly one-dimensional. Brent Venables has built a powerful defense following Kevin Steele’s departure. Last fall, the Tigers leaned heavily on their defense due to periodic offensive struggles, and the unit finished as the nation’s top overall defense.

This fall, the Tigers hope to take the next step in their evolution behind talented sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson. While Watson was limited by a broken finger and torn ACL as a freshman, he was very impressive when he was on the field, throwing 14 touchdowns against two interceptions with 1,466 yards passing.

Deshaun Watson will be one of the nation's top quarterbacks.
Deshaun Watson will be one of the nation's top quarterbacks.Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

He’ll have a deep, talented receiver corps to throw to. Mike Williams and Artavis Scott combined for 1,995 yards and 14 touchdowns, and don’t forget about talented senior Charone Peake. In addition, standout freshmen Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud join the fray this fall.

Clemson does return only 10 starters, including only three on defense. Venables lost all but two members of last season’s defensive line two-deep, with former freshman All-America defensive end Shaq Lawson and senior tackle D.J. Reader leading the way. The Tigers will count on 5-star defensive tackle recruit Christian Wilkins to contribute early, and a salty secondary anchored by cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safety Jayron Kearse will need to carry its share of the load early.

Clemson has a tough early stretch, opening the ACC season at Louisville and, following an off-week, facing Notre Dame and Georgia Tech back-to-back in Death Valley.

However, the toughest games are at home, with Florida State (whom Clemson hasn’t beaten since 2011) visiting Nov. 7. Visiting South Carolina to end the regular season will be a challenge, but if Watson stays on the field and the defense matures, this team has the chance to be special.

Florida State

Over the last two seasons, you’d be hard pressed to find a team as talented and successful as Florida State. Jimbo Fisher built a juggernaut that went 27-1, won a BCS National Championship, a pair of ACC titles and made a Rose Bowl appearance before Oregon ended the 29-game win streak.

Fisher and his staff have capitalized on that success and recruited very well, but 2015 shapes up as a season of transition, at least by FSU’s recent standards. Only nine starters return from a year ago, with a boatload of talented players gone to the NFL via graduation or early entry.

While top overall NFL draft pick Jameis Winston’s departure is the headline, the Seminoles also lost a first-round pick in center Cameron Irving as well as impact defensive linemen in Mario Edwards and Eddie Goldman, a rugged receiving tight end in Nick O’Leary and the program’s all-time leading receiver in Rashad Greene.

Sophomore left tackle Roderick Johnson is the only returning offensive line starter. He’ll protect the blind side of either junior Sean Maguire or Notre Dame graduate transfer Everett Golson as FSU’s new starting quarterback.

Tailback Dalvin Cook has the skills to carry Florida State's offense.
Tailback Dalvin Cook has the skills to carry Florida State's offense.Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Make no mistake. There’s plenty of talent on hand in Tallahassee. Sophomore tailback Dalvin Cook came on strong at season’s end as one of FSU’s top offensive players, and wide receivers Travis Rudolph, Ermon Lane and George Campbell are plenty formidable. Junior corner Jalen Ramsey is one of the nation’s best defensive backs, and freshman safety Derwin James is an instant-impact player.

FSU gets Miami and Louisville at home but must travel to Georgia Tech and Clemson. If the young talent steps forward, Fisher’s bunch could avoid regression. That’s a big if, though.

Georgia Tech

It’s fair to suggest that Georgia Tech was one of the nation’s most surprising teams a year ago. Following a (since-vacated) 2009 ACC championship, the Yellow Jackets had sunk into mediocrity under coach Paul Johnson, going 28-25 over the next four seasons.

Paul Johnson enjoyed a bounce-back season in 2014 at Georgia Tech.
Paul Johnson enjoyed a bounce-back season in 2014 at Georgia Tech.Grant Halverson/Getty Images

New starting quarterback Justin Thomas was a revelation running the flexbone offense. He led Tech with 1,086 rushing yards, passed for 1,719 yards and accounted for 26 total touchdowns. The Yellow Jackets defeated rivals Clemson and Georgia, won the ACC Coastal and rolled Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl to cap an 11-3 season.

The question: Can they repeat it? It won’t be easy. Thomas is back, but four tailbacks who combined for 2,511 yards and 22 touchdowns (Synjyn Days, Zach Laskey, Charles Perkins and Tony Zenon) are gone, as are the top two receivers in DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller.

Beyond Thomas, the leading returning rusher is senior Broderick Snoddy, who is recovering from a broken leg that ended his season in November. The Yellow Jackets will be relying on unproven backs like freshman C.J. Leggett and juniors Dennis Andrews and Isiah Willis, among others, while also leaning on a defense that returns eight starters from a year ago.

The schedule isn’t easy. Tech must travel to Notre Dame, Duke and Clemson in a four-game span, and Florida State visits Atlanta on Oct. 24. The season’s close (home vs. Virginia Tech, at Miami, home vs. Georgia) could also be tricky.

Hopes of a College Football Playoff run will depend on how quickly the new pieces can adapt to the precision of the flexbone offense, but in reality, another 10-win season would be an accomplishment.

Overall, the ACC is significantly improved from just four years ago. Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech should all be top-15 fixtures all season long. Of the three, Clemson appears to be the most complete team, especially if its young defenders can step forward. If Deshaun Watson stays healthy, the Tigers are a legit College Football Playoff contender.

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