1.Clemson (Ranked #4 Nationally)
Dabo Swinney has been absolutely incredible in his ten years with the Tigers, recording a 101-30 record, with four conference titles, two college football playoff appearances and one national championship. QB Kelly Bryant is back for his senior season after 2,802 yards on 66% passing, 13 touchdowns, eight interceptions, 665 yards rushing, and 11 touchdowns on the ground. Despite leading the Tigers to the playoff in his first year as a starter, a true freshman, five star Trevor Lawrence, will challenge him for the job. Clemson also returns their top three backs from last year, with Travis Etienne (766, 13 touchdowns, 7.2 YPA last year) being the name to watch. In terms of the passing game, in regards to whoever the eventual quarterback will throw to, WR Hunter Renfrow (602 yards) will lead the charge, with sophomores Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers (combined 468 yards, two touchdowns last year) needing to step up into bigger roles. The offensive line returns All-American LT Mitch Hyatt and All-ACC C Justin Falcinelli. Sean Pollard shifts from RT to RG and two highly touted juniors slip in to the remaining spots, Tremayne Anchrum and John Simpson. This offense will improve and should be one of the ten best in the country.
The defense is going to be freaking incredible. This defensive line is my First Team All-ACC defensive line, and I’d look out for DE Clelin Ferrell (63 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 8.5 TFL), DT Christian Wilkins (53 tackles, 8.5 TFL), and DE Austin Bryant (58 tackles, 8.5 sacks, seven TFL) to contend for All-American honors. The schedule isn’t easy, with @ Texas A&M and South Carolina out of conference, Florida State on the road, and Duke and Georgia Tech as crossover opponents from the Coastal. I do expect one loss, but this should be a playoff team.
Projected Regular Season Record: 11-1 (8-0 ACC)
2.Florida State (Ranked #20 Nationally)
Florida State may be the biggest question mark in the country. They get their quarterback back from injury, but lose their coach. The ‘Noles return pretty much everybody on offense, but lose pretty much everybody on defense. They have multiple Heisman Trophy contenders, but face one of the toughest schedules in the nation. Willie Taggart is going to have a very interesting first season in Tallahassee, and that all starts with the quarterback battle. When Deondre Francois (3,350 yards on a 59% completion rate, 20 touchdowns, seven picks in 2016) went down with an injury in week one, then-freshman James Blackman was thrown into the fire, and the results were inconclusive (2,230 yards on a 58% completion rate, 19 touchdowns, 11 interceptions). I expect Francois, an NFL Draft prospect and Heisman contender, to get his job back, but crazier things have happened. Whoever wins the job will be throwing to a great group of receivers despite two FSU wideouts being drafted last year. 2017’s #1 returns (Nyqwan Murray, 604 yards and four touchdowns), as well as a former top-rated recruit in George Campbell, who has been injured the past two years. The running back group will be one of the best in the country with the top three back, including freshman sensation Cam Akers (1,024 rushing yards, 5.3 YPC) and rising senior Jacques Patrick (748 yards, 5.6 YPC). I expect this to be one of the most improved offenses in the country.
On the defensive side of the ball I am much less confident. More than half of last year’s group of starters is gone after leading the ‘Noles to be top-five in the conference in both PPG and YPG. Underclassmen will need to step up with six projected starters expected to be either freshmen or sophomores. This defense will take a step back in 2018, but the added experience for these young players will pay dividends down the road. As I mentioned, the schedule is quite rough, with Virginia Tech as their crossover opponent from the Coastal and getting the rotational @ Notre Dame game this year. Clemson is at home, but both Louisville and NC State will be on the road as far as the hunt for the Atlantic crown goes. Despite the rough schedule, this team has a good shot at improving on last year’s poor performance.
Projected Regular Season Record: 7-5 (5-3 ACC)
Louisville has gone 34-18 in the four years since Bobby Petrino returned to Kentucky, however, this may be the toughest year yet for Petrino to lead the Cardinals to eight wins, as Lamar Jackson, the #1 rusher in Louisville history (and quite possibly the best player period) is off to Baltimore so he can play on Sundays. His replacement is likely to be sophomore Puma Pass, whose birth name is Jawon. Pass threw for 238 yards on a 70% completion rate, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions as Jackson’s backup. The top three receivers are back as well: Jaylen Smith, Seth Dawkins, and Dez Fitzpatrick. Those three combined for 2,321 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 15.8 YPC in 2017.
The offense will take a step back, although they will still be fine, but the defense will be pretty rough. Bobby Petrino hired yet another new defensive coordinator in former Notre Dame, Auburn, Georgia, and Falcons DC Brian VanGorder. VanGorder does not have much to work with, as just a few starters return from a defense that was already average at best. The secondary returns just 12 combined starts from last year, but adds Oklahoma transfer PJ Mbanasor and JUCO transfer Marlon Character. Just one player that started more than seven games last year is back on the entire defense, that would be MLB Dorian Etheridge (83 tackles as a freshman). This team will take a pretty massive step back, but the schedule is fairly light with NC State and Florida State both at home and this team should still make a bowl.
Projected Regular Season Record: 7-5 (4-4 ACC)
Dave Doeren’s five years in Raleigh have been up and down, but with a 34-30 record while with the Wolfpack, he earned himself a contract extension, mainly thanks to a solid 9-4 2017 when State floated in and out of the top 25 for the back half of the year. Doeren has helped produce a lot of NFL talent, and on the good side, that helps recruiting, but on the bad side, it means players are more likely to leave early, and with seven (!) NC State players taken in the 2018 Draft, Doeren will have to reload quickly if he wants to keep his streak of four winning seasons going. The offense should be fire again after ranking 4th in the ACC in both PPG and YPG. QB Ryan Finley is back for his senior year, and is probably the best power five quarterback you have never heard of (3,518 yards on a 65% completion rate last year). The receiving core is one of the best in the conference as four of the top five are back from last season, including the upperclassmen trio of Jakobi Meyers, Stephen Louis, and Kelvin Harmon (2,327 combined yards, 11 combined touchdowns) that will torture ACC defenses all season long.
The defensive side of the ball is where we run into trouble. NC State was about average for an ACC team in both PPG and YPG last year, and that was when they had four top-130 NFL draft picks on the defensive line, including Bradley Chubb. DE Darian Robinson somehow managed to pick up multiple sacks last season stuck as a backup behind those four, so I would keep an eye on him, but this is still clearly the biggest question mark on the team and will regress. The back seven doesn’t hold up well either, with just three returning starters combined between the group. State returns just two of their top nine tacklers from last season, and while the offense will take a step forward, the defense will take an even bigger step back. The good news is that the schedule isn’t too bad, with their toughest out of conference game (West Virginia) at home, and the easiest possible draw from the Coastal (home vs Virginia). This team will be in a lot of close games and there isn’t much separating another nine win year from a 5-7 disappointment.
Projected Regular Season Record: 7-5 (4-4 ACC)
Dave Clawson is one of the most underrated coaches in the nation. In just three years, the former Bowling Green head coach turned the Demon Deacons from 3-9 to 8-5, and for the first time in forever, Wake is recruiting at a level that rivals their rival, Duke. I don’t see eight wins again in 2018, but a bowl game is definitely possible. The main reason that I’m not crazy optimistic on Wake’s chances to shock the world again is that QB John Wolford (3,192 yards, 63.9% completion rate, 29 touchdowns, six interceptions, 158 passer rating), the #3 passer in school history, has graduated. Wolford is likely to be replaced by junior Kendall Hinton (399 yards, 57.4% completion rate, four touchdowns, zero interceptions, 156.8 passer rating, 190 yards rushing) who is a dual threat type of guy with a big arm, although he will be suspended for the first three games of the year, when Sophomore Jamie Newman may have to start. Newman threw just four passes last season, completing two (combined eight yards), with one incompletion and one interception. Around the QBs will be a skills group that returns practically everybody, including the top two receivers and the #1 half back, Matt Colburn (904 yards, seven touchdowns, 5.4 YPA). A name to watch on the outside will be Greg Dortch, who torched defenses in the slot last year for nine touchdowns and 722 yards (13.6 YPC).
On the defensive side of the ball I am a little less optimistic. The secondary returns three starters, but it is actually the one I am most worried about. The Demon Deacons will lose NFL Draft pick Jessie Bates from a group that already ranked last in the ACC in opponent passing yards per game. The defense’s top two tacklers returning are both defensive backs, but that is more of a problem that they are allowing so many tackles to be able to be made in the secondary. Overall, the offense and defense should both be about the same as last year, maybe a tad worse, but a tough schedule where the Deacs draw Notre Dame and flat out regression to the mean means they will take a pretty big step back.
Projected Regular Season Record: 6-6 (3-5 ACC)
Boston College’s offense has been laughed at for years (293 ypg in 2016, 276 ypg in 2015), and Steve Addazio found himself on the hot seat for it, but in 2017, the Golden Eagles turned it around, and actually put together a solid year on the offensive side of the ball (387 ypg) en route to a 7-6 season that took them to the Pinstripe Bowl. The key to success on offense for BC ended up being the running game. AJ Dillon went off for 1,589 yards on the ground, leading the team to become a top 25 rushing offense nationally. That is as a freshman, so with the extra year of experience for Dillon, and almost everybody returning around him, the only direction I can see this offense going is up. At quarterback, BC returns another sophomore, Anthony Brown. Brown threw for 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions last season as a freshman, and those numbers will need to improve if he wants to hold on to the starting job for four years.
The defense on the other hand, loses about half of it’s starters from what was still the better half of the team last year. As for returning guys, I would keep an eye on DE Zach Allen (100 tackles, 9.5 TFL, six sacks) and FS Lukas Denis (83 tackles, seven interceptions). This team should make a bowl again this year despite a pretty tough stretch in the middle of the year where Addazio and company will face my six highest rated teams in the conference (NC State, Louisville, Miami, Virginia Tech, Clemson, and Florida State) all back-to-back. I expect that the Eagles will improve but will probably win six or seven games again depending on the bowl result.
Projected Regular Season Record: 6-6 (3-5 ACC)
Dino Babers’ first two years at Syracuse have been disappointing to say the least (‘Cuse went 4-8 both years). Last year especially so as the Orange started the year 4-3 and choked away a bowl bid, losing five straight to end the year. Senior QB Eric Dungey is back after a productive 2017 where he passed for around 1,300 yards in seven starts. Because Dungey is seemingly always injured, it seems like it would be a good idea to mention the projected backup: highly rated freshman Tommy DeVito. The receiving core loses it’s top two and will have to rebuild with junior Devin Butler as the star (327 yards, one touchdown last year). On the positive side, the entire running back group returns, and while I expect a running back by committee approach, I would predict that senior Dontae Strickland (482 yards, injured for part of last year) will distinguish himself from the pack.
On the defensive side of the ball, I have good things to say about both the defensive line and the secondary. Three of four are back from the line, including DT Chris Slayton (8.5 TFL) and DE Alton Robinson (30 tackles, five sacks as a freshman). As far as the defensive backfield goes, the Orange get three of four back (but will lose some key backups) and I expect some slight improvement. Syracuse would fit well in the Coastal where nearly every team is a question mark, but this is a squad that could either make a bowl or could lead to Babers getting canned. If ‘Cuse does want to go bowling, picking up wins against Western Michigan, Wagner, and Connecticut in the non conference is key.
Projected Regular Season Record: 4-8 (2-6 ACC)