Superstar QB Deshaun Watson will look to lead Clemson back to the playoff
NOTE: Since most of us can’t remember who’s in what division without looking it up, the Coastal teams are Duke, Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, Pitt, Virginia, and Virginia Tech. The Atlantic teams are Boston College, Clemson, Florida State, Louisville, North Carolina State, Syracuse, and Wake Forest. No, it doesn’t make sense to me either.
Along with the SEC West and Big Ten East, the ACC Atlantic looks like a very strong division at the top, one that could potentially have more than one playoff-caliber team. In the Atlantic, it’s Florida State and Clemson: the two have split possession of the ACC title since 2011, FSU won a national championship in 2013, and both schools have reached the playoff since its inception. Last season, Clemson beat Notre Dame and FSU en route to an undefeated season; they received the top overall seed, beat Oklahoma in the playoff semifinal, and lost a thriller in the national championship game. It was a rebuilding year for Florida State, but it still went well for the Noles: they reached a New Year’s Six bowl despite suffering a hideous upset at the hands of Georgia Tech, who finished 3-9. Importantly, Florida State hosts Clemson this season – the winner of the most high-profile divisional rivalry in the ACC (the Bowden Bowl!) has won the conference each of the last five years.
Both programs are looking forward to a strong season. Clemson returns the best quarterback in the country (Deshaun Watson) at the helm of an explosive offense, Florida State boasts a tremendous running back (Dalvin Cook) and safety (Derwin James) and should recover from its brief dip post-Jameis Winston. Both teams are stacked with former blue-chip recruits and the type of overall talent level to compete for playoff bids. If you’re looking for what could potentially be a de facto play-in game, October 29th in Tallahassee is perhaps the game that most closely fits that label as we look at things before the season.
Louisville gave Clemson a scare in September last season and the Cardinals, with head coach Bobby Petrino, are the team best positioned to challenge the duopoly from within the Atlantic. The rest of the division lags behind, although Syracuse made a great hire in Bowling Green’s Dino Babers.
[Team previews after the JUMP]
It turns out that Dabo Swinney was the man to lead Clemson to greatness
Last season was a breakthrough for Dabo Swinney in his eighth season as the coach of Clemson: the Tigers broke free of Clemsoning* and managed to ease into the playoff as the undisputed top overall seed by virtue of being the only undefeated Power 5 program. Their semifinal win over Oklahoma came as somewhat of a surprise to many (including myself) who saw the Sooners morph into a formidable squad in November, but Clemson handled OU pretty easily in their most impressive win of the season. The Tigers couldn’t stop hemorrhaging big plays against Alabama in the title game and eventually lost 45-40, though the game was highly competitive – after a bowl season that was decidedly not – and they acquitted themselves well in defeat.
Clemson’s getting plenty of hype in the lead-up to the season and rightfully so. There are plenty of reasons for optimism, most of all the return of Deshaun Watson as the quarterback. A former 5* recruit, Watson started some games as a freshman after winning the job mid-season but struggled with injury – though he did engineer a win over hated rival South Carolina on a destroyed knee. He was fully healthy last season and the numbers were astonishing: over 4,000 yards passing, almost 1,200 yards rushing, and 47 touchdowns. His box score in the national title game against one of the best – if not the best – really says it all: 30 for 47 passing for 405 yards, four touchdowns, and a pick to go along with 73 rushing yards on 20 hard-fought carries. As he enters his junior season, there’s still room for him to improve, which is terrifying for the rest of the ACC. There are other dynamic playmakers surrounding him – RB Wayne Galliman and WRs Artavis Scott and Mike Williams (injured in 2015) especially – as well as most of a great OL. Assuming that Watson stays healthy, if Clemson’s not the best offense in the country, they’ll be close to it.
While Clemson’s defense was usually pretty good last season, there were a few hiccups in wins (41 points conceded to NC State, 32 to South Carolina, 37 to UNC in the ACC title game) that foreshadowed the collapse against Alabama. Still, injuries later in the year played a role in that and ultimately the Tigers did have a pretty great defense most of the time. That defense will have to replace more than the offense: ends Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson were extremely productive terrors on the edge and they’re gone, B.J. Goodson – the LB with the most tackles – is gone, and 3/4 of the starting secondary, including lockdown corner Mackensie Alexander, is also gone. While there is some proven talent returning at each level of the defense (Carlos Williams at DT, Ben Boulware at LB, and Cordrea Tankersley at CB), many talented-but-inexperienced players will need to step up in bigger roles.
They have an interesting schedule this season: Florida State is easily their toughest opponent and the game is on the road (though after a by week), but there are a couple of potential road blocks at Auburn and against Louisville and Pittsburgh at home. Every so often, a sure thing in the preseason doesn’t exactly work out as well in reality – consider Ohio State as the unanimous #1 last August – but it’s hard to envision there being much turbulence en route to what will very likely be a double digit win season and possibly much more.
*The internet has wrung any meaning out of the word Clemsoning, but it used to describe those horrible, inexplicable road upset losses to mediocre ACC foes. Losing to Alabama in the national championship game is NOT Clemsoning; hypothetically stubbing a toe against a 2-7 Boston College team to take yourself out of the conference title race definitely would be Clemsoning.
Dalvin Cook is part of the elite crop of running backs in CFB this year
If it seems like last season’s 10-3 record was somewhat of a letdown for Florida State, it’s because Jimbo Fisher has set an impossibly high bar since taking over for Bobby Bowden and shaking the program out of its doldrums. They weren’t that impressive in the 6-0 start before the unthinkable Georgia Tech loss, but a competitive showing against Clemson and went to Gainesville to demolish Florida (by the extremely hilarious score of 27-2) in the regular season finale. Houston wound up beating the Noles in the Peach Bowl, but an injury to QB Sean Maguire in that game pretty much did FSU in. The three losses FSU suffered in 2015 was equal to the number that they’d lost in the previous three years combined.
Quarterback play was an issue last season and it’s the biggest open question heading into 2016 for Florida State. While decent enough, Everett Golson – a grad transfer from Notre Dame – didn’t come close to filling Jameis Winston’s shoes and after a concussion forced him out of a couple games, Fisher turned to Maguire. Golson returned against NC State, struggled mightily, and was replaced by Maguire, who held onto the job for the rest of the year. Golson left the team before the bowl game. Maguire is back and is the presumptive frontrunner to win the job, although Deondre Francois, who redshirted last year, is an intriguing prospect. Regardless of who’s under center, they’ll be surrounded by a ton of talent. Dalvin Cook struggled with injuries last season but still rushed for almost 1,700 yards and 19 touchdowns – he’s the star, a one-cut back with good vision and great speed. The entire receiving corps and offensive line return, including first-team All-ACC left tackle Roderick Johnson. If Cook can stay healthy, he could make a case as the best running back in college football over McCaffery, Fournette, and Chubb, so FSU is pretty well set even if the QB instability persists.
Even though the Noles lose quite a bit on the defensive side of the ball, it’s a good bet that they’ll simply reload: there are still some potential stars – look no further than sophomore safety Derwin James, who managed to stand out amidst a star-studded secondary last season – and the two-deep is littered with former blue-chip recruits. The defensive line returns the most from a year ago and DeMarcus Walker, a senior who had over ten sacks last season, headlines that group. There aren’t many linebackers with significant experience, so that might be the weaker link in the front seven. On the back end, James is the most sure thing and he’ll wreak havoc in the middle of the field, but there’s plenty of potential contributors in the ranks eager to replace the players who left for the NFL. With FSU’s track record, the secondary should still be very good. I usually don’t mention special teams (because they’re a huge crapshoot) in these previews but it’s worth noting that Roberto Aguayo – one of the best college kickers I’ve seen – must be replaced.
The 2016 schedule isn’t kind to Florida State, outside of them getting Clemson at home. They open their season with a game against Ole Miss (in Orlando, for some reason), travel to a USF program that’s on the rise, host Coastal Division favorite North Carolina, and finish their season with Florida, who should actually have a quarterback this time. It really all comes down to the Clemson game though: as long as that’s not their one loss, a one-loss FSU team would likely still win the ACC and probably get into the playoff. So, same as it’s been for the past few years, that game will have huge implications in the ACC and beyond.
As a freshman, Lamar Jackson showed off tantalizing potential at QB
In another universe, the ACC’s restructuring in 2014 would have placed Louisville in more favorable circumstances and the Cardinals would be considered one of the big up-and-comers in college football. However, in this universe, they’re stuck in 3rd place behind FSU and Clemson: they’ve finished third in the Atlantic in each of their two seasons in the ACC while going 0-4 against those two and 8-0 against the rest of their division. It’s easy to envision Louisville as a perennial Coastal contender, but alas, Pittsburgh was the lucky newcomer – and Syracuse and U of L were not. While it’s theoretically possible that Louisville could develop into a contender in the Atlantic, that’s predicated on them keeping Bobby Petrino for the long haul (far from a sure thing). As for now, they’re caught in the limbo of pretty good but not good enough.
Louisville does have a promising quarterback, which goes a long way. Petrino is known for his offenses, but the Cardinals struggled for the first year and a half of his second stint in Louisville with uneven QB play and indecision as to who should be getting the snaps. Eventually he settled on Lamar Jackson, a high-upside dual-threat freshman who threw for 12 touchdowns and rushed for 11 more. Jackson’s feet are a huge asset – he rushed for 1,143 yards before accounting for sacks (and he took quite a few of them) – but he has nice touch on the long ball and should thrive in Petrino’s system, assuming proper development. There are a ton of returning contributors on offense, most notably WR James Quick, and they should have built some chemistry after growing pains as a young unit in 2015. U of L has produced some aggressive, quality defenses in the past two seasons and it should be more of the same. While star defensive end Sheldon Rankins is gone to the NFL, most everyone else is back, including former 5* safety Josh Harvey-Clemons.
In 2015, Louisville opened the season 2-4, including three straight losses right at the beginning. None of those losses were to bad teams – Auburn was probably the worst, Houston, FSU, and Clemson (and near the end of the year, Pitt) were the others. A similarly front-loaded schedule looms again in 2016: they face Florida State and Clemson on Sept. 17 and Oct. 1, respectively. If Louisville can upset one of the two – and they played Clemson extremely close last year at home – they could sneak their way into the division title race. Still, it’s a tall task, considering the gap between U of L and the other two.
RB Matthew Dayes was quietly putting up a great season before getting injured
Perhaps no program better embodies the middle of the ACC than NCSU does: they lingered around 7.5 wins under Tom O’Brien – and the Notorious TOB was fired for it – and they seem poised to hover right around that same level under Dave Doeren, the former NIU coach who’s now in his fourth season in Raleigh. The Wolfpack made bowl games in each of the last two seasons, but may take a step back this year – Doeren replaced his offensive coordinator with an inexperienced offshoot of the Malzahn tree, loses his two-year starting QB and star LT, and must turn things around for a defense that was thoroughly exposed in their losses.
NCSU does return TE / FB / H-Back Jaylen Samuels, perhaps one of the most interesting players in big time college football: he ran for 9 touchdowns on 56 carries while being the most heavily-targeted receiver in the passing game. Samuels and RB Matt Dayes are two pieces towards a potent backfield, but NCSU needs stable quarterbacking to make it work. Defensively, the Wolfpack return quite a bit, including 6 / 7 starting DL and LBs – the pieces are in place for a strong run defense and that would go a long way in covering for a suspect secondary. The biggest thing for NCSU is that their schedule is harder than it usually is: they draw Notre Dame and East Carolina (on the road) in their non-conference schedule, so their strategy of devouring cupcakes to get to bowl eligibility might not work as well in 2016.
Remember this guy? He’s Syracuse’s RBs coach now
Under former coach Scott Shafer, Syracuse had some utterly terrible offenses – and they went and hired one of the most offensively gifted gurus in the mid-major coaching ranks, Dino Babers, formerly of Bowling Green. This will be his fifth season as a head coach and Syracuse is already his third job. What’s promising for Syracuse fans is that Babers was quickly able to install his system – derived from the Art Briles Air Raid – at Eastern Illinois and BGSU very quickly; Babers was successful in his scheme with players recruited by his predecessors.
It might take a year or two for the Orange, but the pieces are in place for Babers: QB Eric Dungey was a promising dual threat option last year and RB Jordan Fredericks was the team’s leading rusher – both were just freshmen. The receivers – who will see a huge uptick in targets in a new pass-happy scheme – all return, headlined by Steve Ishmael. The defense gets everybody back from its back seven, and defensive end is the only huge question mark of all the position groups on the roster. While it’s unlikely that Syracuse has a significant turnaround in Babers’s first year, keep an eye on Syracuse moving forward, as they’re a team that could be ascending soon. I mentioned in the Coastal preview that the ACC made some excellent coaching hires this past offseason and this might be the best one.
DE Wendell Dunn anchors a strong run defense, Wake Forest’s biggest bright spot
Before Babers, Bowling Green’s coach was Dave Clawson – Wake Forest hired Clawson after he built a potent offense and led BGSU to the MAC title. Unfortunately, the Clawffense has yet to take off in Winston-Salem: 3-9 in each of his first two seasons and the two conference wins (6-3 in 2OT vs. Virginia Tech in 2014, 3-0 vs. Boston College in 2015) are perfectly representative of their problems so far in the Clawson era. Even if the defense has been pretty decent, the offense is bad enough for it not to matter, most of the time.
It was a huge rebuilding project, so the lack of immediate success under Clawson isn’t an indictment of him or his tenure at Wake Forest so far, but after two years of putting hopelessly overmatched underclassmen on the field, there should start to be signs of improvement. QB John Wolford is entering his third season as a starter, but his backup, Kendall Hinton, led the team in rushing yardage and rushing touchdowns last season. Only two contributors on offense have graduated. The defensive line was Wake Forest’s biggest strength last year and it’s all back. Eight starters in total return on the defense. It’s a reasonable expectation for Wake Forest to challenge for a bowl game – the schedule’s terrible – but they’ll have to improve a lot to get there.
LB Matt Milano and the defense almost sprung an upset on Notre Dame in 2015
Teams like ‘15 Boston College are incredibly rare and unique: they boasted one of the best defenses in the country and perhaps college football’s worst offense. They went winless in ACC play, but only conceded a little over 18 points per game in conference play. They lost two games in which they conceded fewer than double digits. They were shut out twice. Crawling back from the abyss will be difficult, and Steve Addazio hired Scot Loeffler, fresh off of disastrous stints at Auburn and Virginia Tech, to right the ship. With defensive coordinator Don Brown leaving for Michigan and BC slated to replace a key contributor at each level of the defense, there should be some regression on that side of the ball. While there will be improvement on offense – there has to be – whether there’s enough to offset the defense stepping back and improve the team as a whole enough to get six wins is a big question.