ACC FOOTBALL

ACC Football: Atlantic Division Preview

This season Raleigh City Sports will bring you weekly coverage of the top ACC football games. We start the season with a preview of the Atlantic Division. Follow us on Twitter @rcitysports

The ACC is the best football conference in America.  Just ask the ACC’s coaches.

They’re right, and I’m not just saying that because I’m an ACC homer. The league is deeper than the SEC — especially on the Atlantic Division side. And oh yeah, we’ve got the CFP natty champs and the Heisman. Sorry, SEC.

No worries, Coach Saban. Bammer is still my pick to win the national title, mainly because you probably haven’t slept since January and are hell-bent on bloody revenge. But it doesn’t change the fact that John Swofford has turned a conference that everyone was shitting on seven years ago (remember, Doug Gottlieb said FSU and Clemson were going to the SEC because SOURCES, and then someone else said the Big XII because SOURCES) into the national power at the moment.

The fact of the matter is, the occasional apoplectic SEC fan that reads this article has to admit that the ACC has a legitimate chance to repeat as national champs. There are also a bunch of other quality teams in the mix.

Using only the finest research tools and statistical models that Raleigh City Sports’ money can buy, I’ve determined what I think will happen this fall in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

I can’t stand preseason publications that bury their predictions or don’t make any at all. I give you my division standings predictions first and then my outlook for each individual team. I also make a prediction for each individual game. I don’t predict scores because that’s stupid. Enjoy, or flame away in the comments section.

Up first, the venerable Atlantic Division.

The Atlantic: FSU’s the Team to Beat

We’re starting with the Atlantic because it’s first alphabetically and it’s the better division. We at RCS pride ourselves on avoiding the #hottakes of the local and national media, but I found myself pretty much in line with them on the Atlantic.

Florida State looks like the class of the league, but Clemson could win the division again. NC State and Louisville both could contend, but they could easily fall apart, too. BC, Wake and Syrcause don’t really differentiate themselves from one another — they’re all fighting to get to .500.

Team 2017 Projected Record
Florida State 11-1 (College Football Playoff)
Clemson 10-2
North Carolina State 9-3
Louisville 9-3
Syracuse 6-6
Boston College 5-7
Wake Forest 4-8

 

1 – Florida State Seminoles

 

Last Year: 10-3 (Orange Bowl – WIN)

Head Coach: Jimbo Fisher (8th Year)

What They Got

The ACC’s most dominant program for years (minus the mid-to-late 2000s) has taken a backseat to Clemson the last couple of seasons. Conventional wisdom suggests that they’ll switch places this year. With the way both programs recruit, I don’t see either falling off like what happened when Wake and BC were winning division titles. Bad news for everyone else in the Atlantic.

The Seminoles return a little bit more than the defending national champs, and it starts at quarterback. Redshirt sophomore Deondre Francois returns behind center after an impressive freshman campaign that saw him throw for 3,350 yards and 20 touchdowns on nine picks. While Dalvin Cook is gone, Jacques Patrick and stud recruit Cam Akers – ranked the No. 1 tailback prospect in the nation — should be able to step in and fill the void for another potent rushing attack.

The hyped defense, well, should actually live up the hype this year. The 62-point beatdown that Lamar Jackson and Louisville laid on them last year definitely hurt the group’s confidence. They return a nasty defensive line anchored by bookends Josh Sweat and Brian Burns that will be disruptive. They also feature a harassing secondary that could be the best unit in the country. Tavarus McFadden and Derwin James (who’s returning from a knee injury) lead the way.

Outlook

This should be the best team in the conference. They return a lot of talent, have a dynamic offense and a stifling defense. It’s a matter of living up to expectations.

The biggest obstacle the ’Noles face is a brutal schedule. The opener in Atlanta against Alabama — for which a raging Nick Saban has had months to prepare — smells like a loss. They also have to deal with an improving Miami team at home and Clemson and Florida (who I think is overrated but the experts like) on the road.

Verdict: 11-1. ACC Champions. College Football Playoff.

This year, everything comes together for Florida State after playing second fiddle to Clemson for a couple of years. After losing a hard-fought battle against the Tide in the new stadium in Atlanta, the Seminoles rip off 12 straight wins — including the ACC title game in Charlotte — and secure a birth in the College Football Playoff. Francois continues to develop into a top-tier quarterback, the offensive line is better and the defense plays up to its talent level. Louisville ain’t hanging 63 on this team this year.

I don’t think they end up winning the title, but I do think they can make it interesting.

Date Opponent Projected Result
Sept. 2 Alabama (Atlanta) L
Sept. 9 Louisiana-Monroe W
Sept. 16 Miami W
Sept. 23 NC State W
Sept. 30 @ Wake Forest W
Oct. 14 @ Duke W
Oct. 21 Louisville W
Oct. 27 @ Boston College W
Nov. 4 Syracuse W
Nov. 11 @ Clemson W
Nov. 18 Delaware State W
Nov. 25 @ Florida W

 

2 – Clemson Tigers

Last Year: 14-1 (Fiesta Bowl – WIN; College Football Playoff Championship – WIN)

Head Coach: Dabo Swinney (10th Year)

What They Got

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost 10 years since Dabo took the reigns of the Clemson Tigers. In fact, I was at the game at Wake Forest in 2008 that sealed ole Tommy Bowden’s fate. Understatement of the century: That was a major upgrade.

Though Clemson begins the season in the top 10, it’s a reach to say they’ll repeat as national champions. Though Dabo has built a powerhouse that simply reloads on talent every offseason, it’s no easy task replacing Deshaun Watson and Mike Williams (among six starters in all) on offense.

Kelly Bryant was named the starting quarterback on Monday, which wasn’t a surprise. But if the offense sputters, Zerrick Cooper and highly touted true freshman Hunter Johnson are there to step in. The good news for Bryant, Clemson returns a tremendous offensive line and has plenty of weapons, namely tailback Tavian Feaster and wideout Deon Cain. Don’t forget national championship hero Hunter Renfrow, who somehow is only a junior.

Brent Venables’ defense should pick right up where it left off, despite losing the unit’s leader in Ben Boulware. Last year’s D was ranked 8th nationally in total defense, giving up a stingy 311.5 yards per game and 10th in scoring. Expect a repeat performance this year.

Outlook

I think there will be a little bit of a step backwards on offense this year. Bryant has some experience, but it’s really difficult to come in and replace a legend like Watson. If everything gels and this team can knock off FSU at home, then yes, they will win the ACC. I just think the Seminoles have a little more this year. They have to face the next two best teams in the division — NC State and Louisville — on the road. There’s also a trip to Blacksburg on Sept. 30.

Verdict: 10-2. No Repeat.

I think Clemson puts together a great run to start the season and gets the talking heads revved up about another CFP run, but the pressure becomes too great and they trip up in Raleigh and then lose at home to FSU. They still end up in a major, BCS-like bowl, but fall short of winning another ACC crown.

Date Opponent Projected Result
Sept. 2 Kent State W
Sept. 9 Auburn W
Sept. 16 @ Louisville W
Sept. 23 Boston College W
Sept. 30 @ Virginia Tech W
Oct. 7 Wake Forest W
Oct. 13 @ Syracuse W
Oct. 28 Georgia Tech W
Nov. 4 @ NC State L
Nov. 11 Florida State L
Nov. 18 The Citadel W
Nov. 25 @ South Carolina W

3 – North Carolina State Wolfpack

Last Year: 7-6 (Independence Bowl – WIN)

Head Coach: Dave Doeren (5th Year)

What They Got

If not now, then when?

I’ve got several pessimistic NC State colleagues on staff here at RCS who I’m sure will question this pick. I understand the pessimism because I’m a Boston College grad. However, it’s Year 5 for Dave Doeren, a defining year. I’m betting that they take the next step just because they’re pretty loaded across the board. Have faith, Pack fans! JFK believes in you!

Let’s look at this objectively. On paper, this is a 9-3 team. Yeah, you have to play the games, but there’s no reason why this particular team can’t win 9 games.

In total, 17 starters return to Carter-Finley. You’ve got QB Ryan Finley back, along with flex player Jaylen Samuels and wideout Stephen Louis. Even better, four out of five offensive lineman return. Losing Matt Dayes may hurt, but there are a couple of options to fill the void. With another year in Eli Drinkwitz’ system, this side of the ball should be more productive.

This is a really good defense, and they get pretty much everyone back, led by defensive end Bradley Chubb who’s a first rounder. DTs BJ Hill and Justin Jones are disruptive. Expect a jump up from 24th in total defense — and for this unit to give opposing offenses a hard time.

Outlook

I’m going to put a big disclaimer on this pick. The opener in Charlotte against South Carolina — a middling SEC team that’s trending upward — will quickly define State’s season. A loss changes all of my calculus and sends the Pack back toward .500 fighting-for-the-Military-Bowl mediocrity, which probably gets Doeren canned. A win provides some momentum they can ride into ACC play.

Experience counts. If the other five teams are going to challenge FSU and Clemson, they’re going to need to be experienced. BC and Wake won three division titles between them with veteran squads (granted Clemson and FSU sucked then). State won’t make it to Charlotte, but they can hang in there against the big boys.

Verdict: 9-3. The Pack is Back!

I’m taking the glass half full. State hangs on against an annoying Gamecocks team. After pounding Marshall and Furman, they lose to Florida State. I think they can beat Louisville, who I’m not as high on as I was last year. That Pitt game on the road looks like a classic trap game, and I think they drop one at ND, too. But instead of folding like a cheap suit, they come back and beat Clemson at home and win out. That’ll be good enough for a Citrus Bowl bid or something similar.

Date Opponent Projected Result
Sept. 2 S. Car. (Charlotte) W
Sept. 9 Marshall W
Sept. 16 Furman W
Sept. 23 @ Florida State L
Sept. 30 Syracuse W
Oct. 5 Louisville W
Oct. 14 @ Pittsburgh L
Oct. 28 @ Notre Dame L
Nov. 4 Clemson W
Nov. 11 @ Boston College W
Nov. 18 @ Wake Forest W
Nov. 25 North Carolina W

 

4 – Louisville Cardinals

Last Year: 9-4 (Citrus Bowl – LOSS)

Head Coach: Bobby Petrino (8th year overall, 4th since 2014)

What They Got

The Lamar Jackson show returns for another year on the banks of the mighty Ohio River. This year is probably even more the Lamar Jackson show because only four offensive starters come back. The Cards lost quite a bit of firepower, so I expect some of those ridiculous, video game numbers to come back down to earthy a little bit. I doubt we see 3,500 yards passing + 30 TDs + 1500 yards rushing + 21 TDs this year. Running back Jeremy Smith and receivers Jaylen Smith and Dez Fitzpatrick will have to step up to take some of the pressure off of Jackson. The offensive line is a weakness, and doesn’t look to be much better this year.

Lost in all of the Lamarmania was how good this team was defensively in 2016 — 14th in total yards per game. It was especially good against the run. There are some new pieces, but linebacker Stacy Thomas provides a veteran presence.

Outlook

Lamar Jackson is still a nightmare to gameplan against. That alone will win a lot of game for Louisville. But if the offensive line still sucks, how many hits can he take? Also, how effective will he be with such a green surrounding cast?

That said, as much as I think the team should take a step back, I don’t think it’s reflected in their record. The Cardinals’ schedule just isn’t that tough. Kentucky is the toughest nonconference game, and the hardest road trips are to FSU and NC State.

Verdict: 9-3. More of the Same.

I don’t think Jackson wins another Heisman this season, but he’ll still put up big numbers. I don’t think they’ll beat FSU or Clemson, and I think NC State plays better against them at home. But outside of that, I don’t think anyone else on the schedule will be able to deal with Jackson. That gives them 9 wins and T3 in the Atlantic.

Date Opponent Projected Result
Sept. 2 Purdue (Indy) W
Sept. 9 @ UNC W
Sept. 16 Clemson L
Sept. 23 Kent State W
Sept. 30 Murray State W
Oct. 5 @ NC State L
Oct. 14 Boston College W
Oct. 21 @ Florida State L
Oct. 28 @ Wake Forest W
Nov. 11 Virginia W
Nov. 18 Syracuse W
Nov. 25 @ Kentucky W

5 – Syracuse Orange

Last Year: 4-8

Head Coach: Dino Babers (2nd Year)

What They Got

I like what Dino Babers is doing in Central New York. Maybe it’s because I’m a BC grad and I’ve been subjected to nine straight years of Frank Spaziani and Steve Addazio cowardly playcalling. Dino has some imagination and they play fast. I enjoy watching Syracuse play even if they aren’t that great.

Honestly, you could throw Cuse, BC and Wake into a hat and figure out how they finish that way. None of them are good teams. But I think the Orange have the chance to best of this bunch.

21 starters return this year. Quarterback Eric Dungey is a really good player. His big problem is getting hurt, but look for him to be dangerous in his second year in Babers’ electric offense. Wideout Steve Ishmael is the best of the receiving corps and he’s joined by slot receiver Irv Phillips. Dontae Strickland should lead a rushing attack that was a putrid 115th in the nation last year. That needs to improve. The O also needs to find ways to get in the endzone — even though Cuse moved the ball through the air effectively (11th nationally), they were 90th in scoring.

Defensively, things were pretty damn awful (122th overall). Turning things around starts with relying on a senior-laden linebacking unit that includes Zaire Franklin, Parris Bennett, and Jonathan Thomas.

Outlook

I’m probably overestimated Syracuse’s chances this year. They’ve got a pretty tough schedule, that includes an unpleasant trip to Baton Rouge to play Ed Orgeron’s Bayou Bengals. They’ll get killed. They also get stuck playing Miami from the Coastal in addition to the usual slate of Atlantic teams. If this team can figure out how to score more points, they will be tough for some of the lesser teams they play to scheme against.

Verdict: 6-6. Party Like It’s 2013!

I think there are enough winnable games to get to six. I think they can deal with the nonconference schedule outside of LSU. That means they just have to cobble together three more wins against BC, Wake and Pitt. Not impossible. They get all three at home.

Date Opponent Projected Result
Sept. 2 Central Conn. W
Sept. 9 Middle Tennessee W
Sept. 16 Central Michigan W
Sept. 23 @ LSU L
Sept. 30 @ NC State L
Oct. 7 Pittsburgh W
Oct. 13 Clemson L
Oct. 21 @ Miami L
Nov. 4 @ Florida State L
Nov. 11 Wake Forest W
Nov. 18 @ Louisville L
Nov. 25 Boston College W

6 – Boston College Eagles

 

Last Year: 7-6 (Quick Lane Bowl – WIN)

Head Coach: Steve Addazio (5th Year)

What They Got

Steve Addazio was hired during the same offseason as Dave Doeren. Like his colleague in Raleigh, it’s put up or shut-up time for the Eagles’ head man. We’ve heard for five years now how BC is a “developmental program” and how Year 5 would be the barometer. I’m bracing myself to be underwhelmed.

No doubt, BC’s offense has been putrid the last couple of years. 127th in total offense in 2016. The good news is, it can’t get any worse. Darius Wade and freshman Anthony Brown have been battling out in summer camp for the starting job. I think either will be an improvement over Towles. Jon Hilliman will lead a deep group of backs, supported by Davon Jones and true frosh AJ Dillon, who has been turning heads. Jeff Smith is among the fastest wideouts in the conference.

Defense continues to be the strength of this team, finishing in the top 10 of total defense last year.. Preseason first-team All-American Harold Landry led the nation in sacks last season. He should be a first-rounder if he backs that up with another strong season. Connor Strachan and Ty Schwab stand out in the linebacking corps.

Outlook

The ACC media loves to dump on BC — not surprisingly, they picked the Eagles last in the Atlantic. I’ve seen some predictions that have them as bad as 3-9, but I don’t think this team is that bad. But the schedule is significantly more difficult than last year. This team will handle out-of-conference lightweights Northern Illinois, Central Michigan and Connecticut. But outside of Wake and UVA, I don’t see a lot of opportunities to win, especially if this team can’t score again.

Verdict: 5-7. Addazio fired.

In the end, I don’t have faith in Addazio’s playcalling or game management abilities, which have plagued the program since he arrived. I predict BC heads to the Carrier Dome with a bowl bid on the line but comes up short. I don’t see how Addazio makes the case to save his job when missing a bowl bid is the culmination of five years of building.

Date Opponent Projected Result
Sept. 2 @ N. Illinois W
Sept. 9 Wake Forest W
Sept. 16 Notre Dame L
Sept. 23 @ Clemson L
Sept. 30 Central Michigan W
Oct. 7 Virginia Tech L
Oct. 14 @ Louisville L
Oct. 21 @ Virginia W
Oct. 27 Florida State L
Nov. 11 NC State L
Nov. 18 UConn (Fenway) W
Nov. 25 @ Syracuse L

7 – Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Last Year: 7-6 (Military Bowl – WIN)

Head Coach: Dave Clawson (4th Year)

What They Got

Before all you Deacs run me out of the Oak City, I grew up a Wake fan. No one was more pumped about the 2002 Seattle Bowl than yours truly. It was such a great game they never played it again.

I just don’t think Wake is that good. There’s been a little bit of media hype — if you can call it that — because of last season. Dave Clawson is a good coach. But despite improvements on offense, they still aren’t great at scoring or moving the ball. They were in triple digits in scoring, rushing, passing and total offense per game last year.

Kendall Hinson does bring something extra behind center and the offense should benefit from that. There’s also two backs who rushed for at least 500 yards — Cade Carney and Matt Colburn. They also have a stable of solid receivers.

Defense is a different story from the offense. It was a pretty good unit that featured a line that can plain out get after the quarterback. Defensive end Duke Ejiofor leads the group — he had 10.5 sacks last season. The secondary, however, looks questionable.

Outlook

This schedule doesn’t look great for the Demon Deacs. Two of the winnable conference  — BC, Syracuse — games are on the road. They get Duke at home, but are stuck traveling to Clemson, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame. I don’t think they’ll trip up State in Winston like they have in the past. Like BC, unless this team finds a way to score points, I think they’ll struggle.

It is possible that Hinson makes the offense dynamic, but I think the ceiling for this team is 6-6.

Verdict: 4-8. Sorry, Deacs.

I apologize to my parents, who are grads and have season tickets, but I just don’t see anything special about this Wake team. It may very well be improved over last year, but the schedule doesn’t do them any favors. I don’t see them beating any of the top 4. Syracuse should be a little better. Flip a coin with BC — the games are usually close, if not unwatchable. I still don’t see a repeat bowl appearance here.

Date Opponent Projected Result
Aug. 31 Presbyterian W
Sept. 9 @ Boston College L
Sept. 16 Utah State W
Sept. 23 @ App. State W
Sept. 30 Florida State L
Oct. 7 @ Clemson L
Oct. 21 @ Georgia Tech L
Oct. 28 Louisville L
Nov. 4 @ Notre Dame L
Nov. 11  @ Syracuse L
Nov. 18  NC State L
Nov. 25 Duke W

 

Check back next week with Raleigh City Sports  for JFK’s look at the ACC’s chaotic Coastal Division.