ACC Football: Preview and Predictions for 2019 Season
The Clemson Tigers have won college football's Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) in each of the last four years, compiling an overall league record of 34-2 (including conference championship games) during that time.
Could Syracuse, Miami, Florida State or Virginia Tech put an end to that dynastic run in 2019, or are Dabo Swinney and Co. destined for a fifth consecutive appearance in the College Football Playoff?
In this preview of the 2019 ACC season, we'll talk favorites, challengers, biggest stars, top storylines and coaches who enter the season sitting uncomfortably on the hot seat. There will also be predictions for best offense, best defense and a full rundown of the conference standings.
If you've been paying any attention to preseason rankings and national championship odds, though, it shouldn't come as a surprise that we're expecting Clemson to breeze through this conference like a hot knife through butter.
AJ Dillon, RB, Boston College
Despite missing two October games due to an ankle injury, Dillon managed to finish his sophomore season with 1,108 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. He's averaging more than 100 yards and more than one touchdown per game in his two-year career, and he's probably going to increase those averages in the first half of this season. September games against Richmond, Kansas, Rutgers and Wake Forest ought to make Dillon's name an oft-mentioned one in the early Heisman debate.
Bryce Hall, CB, Virginia
Not only did Hall lead the nation in passes defended last season, but according to CFBstats, his mark of 24 defenses is tied for the third-highest of the past decade. Only Houston's William Jackson III (28 in 2015) and Iowa's Josh Jackson (26 in 2017) made more of an impact as one-man "no-fly" zones. Hall's numbers will probably dip with Juan Thornhill (six interceptions last year) no longer in the picture, as opposing quarterbacks should try to avoid throwing in his direction. But he's still an obvious choice for preseason first-team All-American at cornerback.
Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina
Rated by the 247Sports composite as the sixth-best quarterback in this year's class, Howell is our pick for true freshman of the year in the ACC. He might not be the starter immediately and he probably won't win many games in what figures to be a rebuilding year for the Tar Heels. But the combination of his skill set, Mack Brown's Air Raid offense and a woeful UNC defense should result in big numbers for Howell.
Tamorrion Terry, WR, Florida State
Terry was a 3-star recruit who redshirted his first season at Florida State (2017), which means he came out of nowhere last year to nearly lead the nation in yards per receptions (21.3). Ten of his 35 catches went for at least 30 yards, and 21 of his receptions came in FSU's final five games. Most of the league's top receiving threats from last season are no longer in the picture, so he might be the ACC's top wideout outside of Clemson.
Pick Your Clemson Poison
Trevor Lawrence is a preseason co-favorite (along with Tua Tagovailoa) to win the Heisman. Travis Etienne averaged more than eight yards per carry and nearly two touchdowns per game last season. Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross might be the nation's best one-two punch at wide receiver. Defensive end Xavier Thomas is at or near the top of every list of likely breakout stars. Linebacker Isaiah Simmons should be a preseason first-team All-American. And the secondary might be Clemson's biggest strength of all. Suffice it to say, there are some decent players on this roster.
Who Is No. 2?
We'll get into this more shortly, but one of the biggest questions this preseason—not just in the ACC, but in the entire country—is: Will anyone from this conference challenge Clemson? And if so, who is that team?
According to ESPN's Football Power Index, Clemson has an 88.8 percent chance of winning the ACC and has at least a 92 percent chance of winning each of its conference games. It's ridiculous how wide the gap is between the Tigers and the rest of the league.
Syracuse has been the top challenger to Clemson lately, beating the Tigers in 2017 and at least staying within 10 points of them three other times in the past five seasons. The Orange get Clemson at home in Week 3 and might be able to pull off a stunner if quarterback Tommy DeVito has the game of his life.
Whether there's an upset of Clemson or not, there might not be a second ACC team in the final Top 25 polls.
Coaching Changes Galore
Last year, the only ACC head coaching job to change was Florida State transitioning from Jimbo Fisher to Willie Taggart. But there are four new head coaches in the ACC this year, including one who has never been a head coach before and another who hasn't been on the sidelines since 2013.
Louisville gave Bobby Petrino the boot and brought in Appalachian State head coach Scott Satterfield. Under his tutelage, the Mountaineers were annually the team to beat in the Sun Belt Conference. Don't expect anything close to that in his first year with this roster, but the Cardinals may have made the best long-term hire of the bunch here.
North Carolina kicked Larry Fedora to the curb following his second consecutive nine-loss season and is hopeful that Mack Brown can rekindle some of that magic from his time with the Tar Heels in the 1990s. As with Louisville, though, don't expect an overnight transformation.
Georgia Tech also has a new coach following Paul Johnson's retirement. No one knows what to expect from the Yellow Jackets with former Temple coach Geoff Collins coming in and ditching the triple-option offense.
But the most noteworthy change was Miami "promoting" defensive coordinator Manny Diaz to head coach after Mark Richt retired. Diaz left Miami earlier in December for the Temple job that Collins vacated, but he returned to the Hurricanes a couple weeks later. And he immediately needs to deal with one of the toughest decisions in the conference...
Miami's Quarterback Situation
Miami led the ACC in yards allowed per game last season and ranked second in points allowed. The Hurricanes also had an above-average rushing attack in which nearly every ball-carrier averaged at least five yards per touch.
Were it not for terribly inconsistent quarterback play, they might have been a contender instead of a 7-6 bust.
And there might be even more critical focus on their quarterback situation this season.
Diaz recently made the surprising decision to name redshirt freshman Jarren Williams as the starting quarterback for the season opener against Florida, leaving N'Kosi Perry and Ohio State transfer Tate Martell to battle for the backup job. Though Williams was a top-100 recruit in last year's class, most expected Miami to either immediately hand the job to Martell or give Perry another chance to prove he belongs.
The dilemma now is what to do if Williams gets eaten alive by what should be an excellent Gators defense. Bouncing back and forth between Perry and Malik Rosier got the Hurricanes nowhere fast last year, and there could be similar repercussions if they play hot potato with the position once again. That ACC Coastal Division is wide-open, though, and Miami could play in the ACC championship for the second time in three seasons if it figures out and sticks with its best option at quarterback.
In the other Power Five conferences, it's easy to argue that there are multiple co-favorites. You've got Alabama and Georgia both looking like College Football Playoff teams in the SEC; Michigan and Ohio State jostling for Big Ten supremacy; Oklahoma and Texas doing the same in the Big 12; and the Pac-12 has three serious threats to win the league in the form of Oregon, Utah and Washington.
Here in the ACC, though, that's not the case. It's Clemson and then a long drive to get to the rest of the pack.
That doesn't mean there's a 100 percent chance the Tigers run the table, win the conference and reach the playoff for a fifth consecutive season. We're still talking about college football, after all. They could drop a game somewhere along the way. It might even happen in the conference championship game—even though they have won the last two by a combined score of 80-13.
It just feels inevitable that Clemson will get the job done again, because trying to find a weakness on this team is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
One year removed from going 15-0 and winning by an average margin of 31.1 points per game, Dabo Swinney has 13 players on the preseason first-team All-ACC "roster." No other school has more than four such players.
Don't be surprised if Clemson gets to pull its starters before the fourth quarter in at least 75 percent of games this season.
In Bryce Perkins and Bryce Hall, Virginia has a spectacular QB-CB combo. The rest of the roster is the question, though, as the Cavaliers must replace their top rusher (Jordan Ellis), top receiver (Olamide Zaccheaus), top tackler and interception leader (Juan Thornhill) and the man who was best at sacking the QB (Chris Peace). Also, to win the Coastal Division, they'll probably need to beat Virginia Tech for the first time in 16 years.
Miami has possibly the best starting linebacker group in the country and a litany of great rushing and receiving options. If the Hurricanes succeed at quarterback, let's just say the schedule isn't what will keep them from winning the division. They get both Virginia and Virginia Tech at home, and they don't face Clemson or Syracuse at all.
Virginia Tech Hokies
It was no surprise that Virginia Tech's defense took a big step backward after losing basically everyone from the 2017 unit, but the Hokies should be better in that area this year. If fifth-year senior Ryan Willis establishes himself as the second- or third-best quarterback in the conference, this could be a 10-win team.
As previously mentioned, Syracuse has the best head-to-head shot at toppling mighty Clemson, as it will host the Tigers on Sept. 14. It's hard to know if the offense will be up to the task after losing dual-threat quarterback Eric Dungey and his top receiver from last season (Jamal Custis), but the Orange should have one of the best defenses in the country. Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman each recorded 10 sacks last year, and Andre Cisco had seven interceptions and 60 tackles as a true freshman. If any defense in the ACC is going to be able to slow down Trevor Lawrence and Co., it's this one.
Florida State Seminoles
Last year was an abomination for the 'Noles, finishing with a sub-.500 record for the first time since the U.S. bicentennial. There is a ton of talent on this roster, though, and Florida State could bounce back in a huge way if the offensive line is even remotely competent this time around.
Best Rivalry Matchup: Virginia Tech at Miami (Oct. 5)
Miami vs. Florida State and Clemson vs. Florida State are better rivalries from a historical perspective, but this might be the game that determines who wins the ACC's Coastal Division and gets a chance to battle Clemson in Charlotte in December.
So, even if it isn't the best rivalry, it's arguably the most important game.
It has been a well-balanced rivalry dating back to when both Miami and Virginia Tech were in the Big East. This will be their 28th consecutive year facing each other with the Hokies holding a slim 14-13 lead* in the annual series. Neither team has won more than three consecutive games since VT's five-game winning streak from 1995 to '99.
The games haven't been that interesting lately, though. It's a 5-5 split in the last 10 meetings, but only one was decided by a single-digit margin—VT's 38-35 victory in 2011.
If either team is going to win in blowout fashion this year, it will probably be Miami.
Virginia Tech's run defense was abysmal last season, allowing 5.5 yards per carry and more than 210 yards per game. The Hokies should improve by virtue of bringing back most of last year's key contributors in the defensive front seven, but even average defenses will have trouble slowing down this Miami backfield. This one could get away from the Hokies in a hurry.
It's games like these where Ryan Willis will either make or break the Hokies. He had a poor performance in the 38-14 home loss to Miami last year, and they'll need him to be almost perfect to win this road game.
Prediction: Miami 27-14
*Miami is 22-14 overall in this series, winning all nine games played between 1953 and '91, but Virginia Tech has been slightly better since they became conference rivals.
Coaches on the Hot Seat
Steve Addazio, Boston College
How long will Boston College be content with mediocrity?
Addazio has had five winning seasons in his six years with the Eagles, but he has an overall record of 38-38. He is 1-15 against AP Top 25 opponents, and that lone win came in September 2014.
The schedule isn't going to do Addazio any favors this season. Boston College should win at least five of its first seven games, but it's liable to crash and burn down the stretch against Clemson, Syracuse, Florida State, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh—all of those games on the road except for the one against the Seminoles.
If and when they stumble across the finish line to another 6-6 record and subsequently lose AJ Dillon as an early entrant to the NFL draft, it might be time to hit the reset button.
Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech
Fuente got the job at Virginia Tech in large part because of his sensational work in rebuilding Memphis. The Tigers had gone 5-31 in the three seasons before hiring him, but within three years, Fuente was leading them to the first 10-win season in program history. If the Hokies hadn't snatched him up, some other Power Five team certainly would have.
But his trajectory with Virginia Tech has gone in the opposite direction, starting out with 10 wins in his first year before a pedestrian 6-7 mark in year No. 3.
Between the early injury to quarterback Josh Jackson and the unenviable position of needing to replace most of the defense from the previous season, Fuente should get a mulligan for 2018. If the Hokies once again flirt with missing out on bowl season, though—especially against their laughably weak schedule—the fans in Blacksburg will be clamoring for a change.
Firing him after this season isn't likely to happen because the Hokies would reportedly still owe him $15 million ($12.5 million if done on Dec. 15 or after). Nevertheless, it will be a conversation if they struggle.
Willie Taggart, Florida State
Florida State's 36-year bowl streak was snapped in Taggart's first season as the head coach, and the Seminoles might give him a quick pink slip if his second season isn't any better.
As with Fuente, the amount of money that would be owed to a fired Taggart might prevent it from being seriously considered. He signed a six-year, $30 million contract in which he receives 85 percent of the remaining value on the contract if terminated. That puts the upcoming offseason's buyout amount at approximately $17 million.
Even at a program that expects greatness every year, that's an awful lot of money to pay someone to go away. It would need to be a brutal season for that to become a realistic possibility.
Best Offense: Clemson
As a true freshman, Trevor Lawrence led the ACC in passer efficiency rating with a mark of 157.6. He threw 30 touchdowns against just four interceptions in the process of supplanting a senior who had led the Tigers to the CFP the previous season. With all due respect to Bryce Perkins and Ryan Willis, there is no question that Lawrence is the top quarterback in this conference.
And that's only the beginning of why Clemson will have the ACC's best offense.
The Tigers also have Travis Etienne and Lyn-J Dixon, each of whom averaged more than eight yards per carry in 2018. Etienne's 24 rushing touchdowns are more than twice as many as the next-closest returning running back (BC's AJ Dillon had 10), and he might be the best running back in the country.
That dynamic duo will be running behind what should be the best offensive line in the ACC. The Tigers did lose left tackle and four-year starter Mitch Hyatt as well as center Justin Falcinelli, but they're hardly lacking for protection. 2018 5-star recruit Jackson Carman is the top candidate to fill Hyatt's shoes, and he should be starting alongside a ton of experience in the form of three seniors and one redshirt senior.
Then there's the receiving game where Tee Higgins (936 yards, 12 touchdowns) and Justyn Ross (1,000 yards, nine touchdowns) are No. 1 and No. 2 among returning ACC players in both categories. The Tigers also still have Amari Rodgers, who had 901 all-purpose yards and who should thrive in the full-time slot position with Hunter Renfrow out of the picture.
With all that talent—and with a favorable schedule—a repeat of last year's 44.3 points per game is a conservative estimate for Clemson's 2019 offense.
Best Defense: Clemson
There's no question that Clemson's offense will be the best in the conference, but Miami could give the Tigers a run for their money in the defensive department.
Shaquille Quarterman is one of four senior linebackers who should make up one of the best units in the nation. He, Michael Pinckney, Zach McCloud and Romeo Finley all played a big part for a defense that held opponents below 20 points per game. The Hurricanes also have a stud at defensive end (Jonathan Garvin), one of the better cornerbacks in the conference (Trajan Bandy) and a wild card at safety in the form of USC transfer Bubba Bolden. If he delivers on the potential he had coming out of high school, Miami could have a top-10 defense.
But Clemson should rank in the top five, despite losing six starters from last year's defensive front seven.
The defensive end trio of Xavier Thomas, Justin Foster and K.J. Henry will wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks. Nyles Pinckney is no Dexter Lawrence, but he and Jordan Williams should be more than adequate at defensive tackle. And last year's leading tackler, Isaiah Simmons, figures to be one of the nation's top linebackers.
Clemson's real strength is in the secondary, though. It's probably not the best starting unit at the FBS level this season, but good luck finding a better two-deep.
In Tanner Muse, K'Von Wallace and A.J. Terrell, the Tigers have three returning starters from the team that led the nation in points allowed last year. They also get back a pair of key reserves in Nolan Turner and Denzel Johnson. Throw in the addition of 2019 5-star cornerback Andrew Booth, the offseason transition from wide receiver to cornerback by 2018 5-star recruit Derion Kendrick and the projected developments of 2018 top-115 recruit Mario Goodrich, and the Tigers have a potential juggernaut brewing.
1. Clemson (12-0, 8-0 in ACC)
2. Syracuse (9-3, 5-3 in ACC)
3. Florida State (8-4, 5-3 in ACC)
4. North Carolina State (8-4, 5-3 in ACC)
5. Boston College (6-6, 3-5 in ACC)
6. Wake Forest (6-6, 2-6 in ACC)
7. Louisville (3-9, 1-7 in ACC)
1. Miami (10-2, 7-1 in ACC)
2. Virginia (9-3, 6-2 in ACC)
3. Virginia Tech (9-3, 6-2 in ACC)
4. Pittsburgh (5-7, 3-5 in ACC)
5. Georgia Tech (4-8, 2-6 in ACC)
6. Duke (4-8, 2-6 in ACC)
7. North Carolina (3-9, 1-7 in ACC)
*Note: The North Carolina at Wake Forest game on Sept. 13 is technically considered a nonconference game.
Projected ACC Championship Pairing: Clemson vs. Miami
At this time last year, we were anticipating an 8-0 vs. 8-0 showdown between the Tigers and the Hurricanes for the ACC title. Clemson held up its end of the bargain, but Miami sputtered to a 4-4 tie for third place in the Coastal Division.
We're willing to give the Canes another shot, though that's mostly because they get both Virginia and Virginia Tech in the Sunshine State and may well be favored in all 11 games following the season opener against Florida.
However, it shouldn't matter whether it's the Hurricanes, the Hokies, the Cavaliers or some less likely candidate in this spot. Clemson will be expected to win by a multiple-touchdown margin once again.
The Tigers blew out Pittsburgh 42-10 last year and pummeled Miami 38-3 in 2017, and the projected gap between Clemson and the rest of the conference is wider than ever.
Even if we get a best-case-scenario Miami with a thriving quarterback and a front seven that shuts down most of the competition on its schedule, an undefeated Clemson would still be projected to win comfortably. Wish we could offer up a juicier prediction than this, but it is what it is.
The Prediction: Clemson 41-13
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.