Could the ACC get two teams in the College Football Playoff? It may have the best chance of any league to get two bids.
Consider this: Florida State loses in Week 1 to Alabama but runs the table the rest of the way. Clemson, meanwhile, beats Auburn in Week 2 and is undefeated when the Seminoles come to town. Florida State wins that game and heads to the ACC Championship Game while Clemson doesn’t fall too far down the College Football Playoff standings and ends the season with one loss.
Crazy? Probably. Realistic? Not really. Possible? Absolutely.
Teams are listed in predicted order of finish.
Florida State (11-1, 8-0 ACC)
Is Florida State going to end the season on an 11-game win streak? That’s our guess, which means nothing of the sort will happen for the Seminoles.
We’re going to have a pretty good idea of where FSU stands after the month of September. Following the Week 1 matchup with Alabama, Florida State plays Miami and NC State in Weeks 3 and 4. The good news for the Seminoles is that both of those games are in Tallahassee, and so is an Oct. 21 matchup with Louisville.
The biggest ACC game of the season isn’t in Florida, however. That Nov. 11 trip to Clemson will likely decide the division. We’re taking Florida State in that game, as evidenced by the intro above and the 8-0 conference record listed at the top of its entry.
The Seminoles get the edge in a stacked division because of the anticipated improvement of QB Deondre Francois and the return to full strength of defensive back Derwin James.
Clemson (11-1, 7-1 ACC)
New Tigers QB Kelly Bryant may be Deshaun Watson’s replacement, but he doesn’t have to be as dynamic as Watson was for Clemson to succeed.
With a ton of defensive talent up front, Clemson will likely hold opponents to less than 20 points per game for the third time in four seasons. And with running backs C.J. Fuller and Tavien Feaster ready to replace Wayne Gallman, Clemson’s run game will be pretty good too. The Tigers return four starters on the offensive line.
This is the season where Clemson’s recruiting prowess pays off. With Watson, Gallman, Ben Boulware, Mike Williams, Carlos Watkins and others gone, there’s seemingly a lot of holes to fill. But coach Dabo Swinney and his staff will fill them.
NC State (8-4, 5-3)
NC State gets the third spot in the Atlantic by virtue of us picking the Wolfpack as the winners of an Oct. 5 matchup with Louisville in Raleigh.
If there was a team that we feel we omitted from our preseason top 25, it’s NC State. The Wolfpack returns 17 starters including four seniors along a defensive line that’s one of the better units in the country. NC State had 37 sacks in 2016 and could approach the 40-sack mark this season.
If it does, then 8-4 would be a bit of a letdown.
Offensively, Jaylen Samuels could be a star both rushing and receiving and quarterback Ryan Finley is a sleeper candidate to throw for 30 touchdowns. If you’re looking for a team outside the preason top 25 to be ranked fairly high at the end of the season, you could do far worse than NC State given the teams the Wolfpack will have to beat to get there.
Louisville (9-3, 5-3)
With Heisman winner Lamar Jackson back, Louisville’s got a fighter’s chance in the ACC Atlantic. The Cardinals would be the favorite in the ACC Coastal, but in a division with Florida State and Clemson, it’s hard to put Louisville at the top.
Jackson’s great and he’s going to be great again. But Louisville needs to replace three starters on the offensive line and his top three receivers from a year ago are gone. Oh, so is running back Brandon Ratcliff.
Finding new weapons for Jackson is a must. One of them could be former Louisville QB Reggie Bonnafon, who is now at receiver. He had 13 catches in 2016 and five of them went for touchdowns.
Boston College (5-7, 2-6)
This is where it starts to get muddled. The ACC was the best conference in college football in 2016 because of its mudpack strength. Teams like Boston College and Wake Forest went to bowl games.
BC made a bowl game in 2016 because its non-conference schedule included the likes of UMass, Wagner, Buffalo and UConn. Games against Northern Illinois, Central Michigan and UConn are winnable in 2017, but Notre Dame replaces Wagner on the schedule. Will that deny Boston College a bowl berth?
The Eagles haven’t publicly said if Anthony Brown or Darius Wade will start at quarterback. Brown, a highly touted recruit in 2016, spent the season as a redshirt while Wade was Patrick Towles’ backup.
BC kicks off the 2017 season Friday against NIU and you should check the game out if only to watch DE/LB Harold Landry. He had 16.5 sacks a year ago and if someone can step up as a No. 2 pass rusher, Landry could chase after 20 this season.
Syracuse (4–8, 1-7)
Can Syracuse go bowling? Wins over Boston college and Virginia Tech helped lead the Orange to a second-straight 4-8 season in 2016. If a trip to LSU wasn’t on the schedule near the end of September, a 4-0 non-conference schedule combined with a 2-6 non-conference record would be enough for the team’s first bowl trip since the 2013 season.
The Orange return 19 starters including quarterback Eric Dungey. In nine starts last season Dungey threw for nearly 2,700 yards. If he’s healthy for a full season, approaching 3,500 yards in coach Dino Babers’ offense is a possibility.
Defensively, Syracuse got worse from 2015 to 2016. The defense gave up nearly 39 points per game and almost seven yards a play. That’s not gonna fly in 2017.
Wake Forest (3-9, 1-7)
Don’t steal Wake Forest’s plays. One of the most entertaining sagas of the 2016 season involved former Wake announcer Tommy Elrod giving the team’s secrets to Louisville. For Wake’s sake, hopefully something similar doesn’t happen in 2017.
Coach Dave Clawson declared John Wolford the team’s starting quarterback over Kendall Hinton earlier this week. Wolford was the team’s primary QB in 2016 though he was far from spectacular. He completed 55 percent of his passes and threw nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Wake’s non-conference schedule is nasty outside of games at home vs. Presbyterian and Utah State. The Deacs travel to Appalachian State and Notre Dame. The schedule difficulty could mean a significant step back in the win-loss column.
Miami (9-3, 6-2)
Maybe QB Malik Rosier won’t be much of a drop-off from Brad Kaaya? Rosier won the starting job in fall camp after serving as Kaaya’s backup for the past two seasons. He’s got a chance to be known for far more things than starting the 2015 game Miami lost to Duke because of a kickoff return touchdown that should have never counted.
Miami’s defense took a huge step forward in 2016 and could be even better in 2017. The defense allowed 10 points fewer per game and a yard fewer per play last season and returns eight starters.
If Rosier plays well and RB Mark Walton cracks the 1,000-yard barrier again, Miami is a sneaky team to get 10 wins.
Virginia Tech (8-4, 5-3)
The Hokies have a lot to replace on offense. Gone are QB Jerod Evans and WR Isaiah Ford. Evans was the team’s leading rusher and Ford had 79 catches for 1,094 yards and seven scores. TE Bucky Hodges also declared for the draft too; he had 48 catches and seven touchdowns.
Redshirt freshman Josh Jackson is the team’s new starting quarterback and coach Justin Fuente has said the Hokies need to rely more on running baks like Travon McMillan to carry the rushing load in 2017.
DC Bud Foster’s defense returns four of its top five leading tacklers, including linebackers Andrew Motuapuaka and Tremaine Edmunds. They should lead the team in tackles once again.
The schedule starts off with a tough game vs. West Virginia, but there are three easily winnable games before Clemson comes to Blacksburg on Sept. 30.
North Carolina (8-4, 4-4)
We’re assuming QB Brandon Harris will be the team’s starter even though coach Larry Fedora hasn’t named him that just yet. If Harris doesn’t start the season, the team’s QB will likely be Chass Surratt, who spent 2016 as a redshirt.
Like Virginia Tech, UNC has to replace a lot on offense too. While Mitch Trubisky is the big name, the Tar Heels have to find replacements for running backs Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan and wide receivers Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard.
We’re bullish on Fedora’s offense being able to find new contributors. If a defense that returns seven starters — including its top three tacklers — plays well, UNC could be a contender for the Coastal title.
Georgia Tech (6-6, 3-5)
Once again, Georgia Tech must replace its leading rusher. The team dismissed running back Dedrick Mills earlier this month for a violation of team rules. He led the team with 771 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in 2017. His replacement could be Quaide Weimerskirch, who will immediately become a star if he starts simply because of his name.
Coach Paul Johnson has said he knows who his starting QB will be for Monday night’s game vs. Tennessee but he’s publicly playing coy. We’re betting it’s Matthew Jordan, who spent the 2016 season as Justin Thomas’ backup and ran for six touchdowns on 65 carries.
Duke (6-6, 3-5)
Welcome to the land of teams we think will go 6-6 in the ACC. We’re picking the Blue Devils to make a two-game improvement on the heels of the offensive talent that returns. Quarterback Daniel Jones is back for a second season and should be better as a sophomore. Running back Shaun Wilson needs to up his yards per carry above 4.1. And wide receiver TJ Rahming had 70 catches a year ago but just one touchdown. His TD total needs to increase.
While the offense was worse in 2016 than it was in 2015, so was the defense. The defense gave up nearly a yard more per play despite increasing its sack total. Notching another 25+ sacks while giving up less than 5.5 yards a play will go a long way to being bowl eligible again.
Pitt (6-6, 3-5)
Pitt’s hoping for more transfer magic at quarterback. After Nathan Peterman’s success following his transfer from Tennessee, former USC QB Max Browne takes over as the Panthers’ QB. He’ll have explosive wide receiver Quadree Henderson, who had four return touchdowns a year ago. Making Henderson a dependable part of the offense will be a big help.
In addition to replacing running back — and all-around inspiration — James Conner, Pitt also needs to replace offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Former Texas assistant Shawn Watson is now the team’s play caller.
The Panthers probably aren’t going to average over 40 points per game again so the defense must get its act together. Returning four starters from a unit that gave up 35.2 points a game last season may not be a bad thing. If the defense is as abysmal as it was last year, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi may make himself go crazy.
Virginia (3-9, 1-7)
Year two of Bronco Mendenhall’s Virginia tenure should lend some incremental improvement. It’s crazy to think that Virginia hasn’t gone to a bowl game since after the 2011 season. And that drought’s likely to continue for another season.
Former East Carolina QB Kurt Benkert enters his second season as the Cavaliers’ starter and UVA also returns Doni Dowling and Olamide Zaccheaus, the two leading receivers in 2016. LB Micah Kiser should once again be an All-ACC level player on the defense and may be one of the better players you haven’t heard of. He tallied 134 tackles and 6.5 sacks in 2016.
– – – – – – –