1.Miami (Ranked #11 Nationally)
Miami’s 2017 was a roller coaster ride for ‘Canes fans. After starting 10-0, Mark Richt’s team faltered down the stretch, losing their last three games by a combined 55 points. QB Malik Rosier returns for his senior year (3,120 yards, 26 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, 54% completion rate), although he will be challenged in fall camp by freshman N’Kosi Perry. Last year’s starter at running back, Mark Walton is off to the NFL, but Travis Homer returns after 5.9 YPA (966 yards) last season after Walton went down with an injury, and the ‘Canes add speedy freshmen Lorenzo Lingard and Robert Burns. The top two are gone from the receiving core, but pretty much everybody else is back, including Ahmmon Richards, who averaged 18.3 YPC and managed to rack up 439 yards despite being injured for half of the year. Also back is Jeff Thomas, who averaged 22 YPC as a true freshman.
Maybe the #1 thing most people will remember about 2017 Miami would be the turnover chain, as the ‘Canes had a +13 turnover margin, the 5th best in the country. Seven starters return from the defense, but a key piece is gone as three of four are off to the NFL from the defensive line that caused the pressure that helped force those turnovers. DT RJ McIntosh, DE Chad Thomas, and DT Kendrick Norton all now will be playing on Sundays, and I would expect that turnover margin to regress to the mean. On the positive side of things, Miami has one of the easiest schedules in the power five, and should be favored in just about every single game. Florida State and Duke are at home, and the toughest game on the schedule would either be the Week 1 neutral site matchup with LSU or the road game in Week 12 @ Virginia Tech.
Projected Regular Season Record: 10-2 (7-1 ACC)
2.Virginia Tech (Ranked #21 Nationally)
The offseason went about as awfully as it possibly could have for Virginia Tech. Between Bud Foster’s #2 leaving, injuries, academic suspensions, legal issues, and more, this team with top-20 potential now enters the year under a cloud of doubt. QB Josh Jackson, who was rumored to be suspended for the year at points in the past few months, will return and is now a sophomore. While he wasn’t great last year, his 2,991 yards on a 60% completion rate and 20-9 touchdown to interception was solid for a freshman, and he should only improve in his sophomore season. Overall, this offense should get better. The defensive side of the ball on the other hand, is a different story.
Bud Foster is quite possibly the greatest coordinator of all time, but even he may struggle to work with this defense, which only returns five starters and lost even more players over the course of the offseason. Over half of the two-deep on defense will be made up of underclassmen needing to step into big roles. The linebacking core loses Tremaine Edmunds to the NFL and five of six from the two-deep overall, making it a huge question mark. The secondary looks almost as sketchy, as Greg Stroman, Terrell Edmunds, and more are gone, and similarly to the linebacking core, just one starter is back. While the line will be solid again, the back seven will take a massive step back. As for the schedule, Tech starts the season off with a bang @ Florida State, but then should cruise in their next three games before getting back into ACC play @ Duke. The Hokies’ two toughest games (Notre Dame, Miami) are at home, and while the offseason has been tumultuous, the Hokies will definitely make a bowl, and I wouldn’t kiss their chances of an ACC Title Game appearance goodbye.
Projected Regular Season Record: 9-3 (5-3 ACC)
Duke had a very up and down 2017, starting the year 4-0, falling to 4-6, and then rallying to end the season with wins against Georgia Tech and Wake Forest to send themselves to a bowl. David Cutcliffe was able to do all that with a very young core group, including a sophomore at quarterback, Daniel Jones. Jones, now a junior, was banged up at times last season but was still able to put up 2,691 yards passing (and 518 rushing). Jones will be joined in the backfield by sophomore Brittain Brown, who rushed for 701 yards last year as a back up to the now departed Shaun Wilson. The big question mark on this offense is clearly the line, as just two starters return from the group. A name to keep an eye on will be highly touted sophomore Rakavius Chambers, who played in all 13 games as a backup last season.
The defense returns a lot, but one thing it doesn’t return is the coordinator. Positional coaches Ben Albert (DL) and Matt Guerrieri (DB) have been promoted to co-defensive coordinators to fill in that hole. The secondary has the potential to be one of the best in the conference. CB Mark Gilbert returns after 15 PBUs and six interceptions last year. Both safeties return as well, including senior Jeremy McDuffie (58 tackles, three interceptions). The schedule is pretty rough, with two power fives on the road out of conference (Baylor and Northwestern), and the toughest possible draw you could get from the Atlantic in @ Clemson. A bowl game should still be likely, but a tough schedule will keep this team from reaching their full potential in terms of record.
Projected Regular Season Record: 6-6 (4-4 ACC)
2017 was a really weird year for Pitt. The Panthers started the year by nearly being upset by Youngstown State (Head Coach Pat Narduzzi’s alma mater), then went 1-5 in their next six. After that, somebody lit a fire under Pat Narduzzi. Narduzzi went to Duke and won, then beat Virginia, choked away a lead against North Carolina, came within six of Virginia Tech as 15 point underdogs, and then beat then-undefeated Miami to end the season. QB Kenny Pickett started one game as a freshman (the Miami game) and pulled one of the biggest upsets of the year. With that confidence booster under his belt and another year of experience, Pickett will only improve in 2018. At running back will be the returning #1 man, Darrin Hall (628 yards, nine touchdowns in seven starts) and despite just four starters returning, I see this offense improving.
The defense was really young last season, and while they still are on the younger side, the group will get five seniors in starting roles. Almost everybody is back from a defense that improved last year, although I am a little bit worried about the secondary, as just one player that started most of last season is back. A freshman, Paris Ford, may have to fill into the #2 corner spot, and while the defense will improve, I’m not so confident about the defensive back group specifically. The schedule is pretty rough, with Notre Dame and Penn State out of conference and winnable games against North Carolina and Virginia both on the road.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (3-5 ACC)
Georgia Tech has been pretty volatile under Paul Johnson. Since Johnson took over in 2008, Tech has gone 76-54, but that includes a 3-9 season in 2015 as well as an 11-3 season back in 2014. The Paul Johnson option style offense is always pretty consistent, what has fluctuated is the defense, and because of that, Johnson decided to bring in former Appalachian State Defensive Coordinator Nate Woody to fill the same role here in Atlanta. On the offensive side, QB TaQuon Marshall was very inconsistent last year, throwing for 927 yards (37% completion rate, 10 touchdowns, five interceptions) and rushing for 1,146 more (4.6 YPC). I remember watching the Tennessee game last year in week one where Marshall helped lead the Jackets to over 500 yards rushing as a team and thinking he was incredible but also seeing him struggle when Tech traveled to Death Valley and got mauled by Clemson. With Marshall now a senior, and most of the offense returning around him, this team should get back past 30 ppg after falling short each of the last three seasons.
As I previously mentioned, Nate Woody will take over the defense for Paul Johnson, and he is likely to implement his 3-4 scheme that worked so well with the Mountaineers during his tenure in Boone. Eight of the top 12 tacklers are gone from this defense, so it has it’s fair share of young talent, with somewhere between two and four underclassmen projected to take on starting roles and start the development process early. All in all, I expect some big improvement from the offense and maybe a little step back from the defense, and with an out of conference schedule that includes just one power five opponent (I think this team can beat USF), I expect a bowl.
Projected Regular Season Record: 6-6 (3-5 ACC)
Everybody expected North Carolina to take a step back last season. Mitch Trubisky was gone (as were a lot of pieces from the offense). The eventual man to replace Trubisky ended up being Chazz Surratt, who started seven games for the Heels as a freshman, throwing for 1,342 yards, eight touchdowns, and three interceptions on a 59% completion rate. Junior Nathan Elliot also returns and will compete for the starting job. Elliot started just three games last year (925 yards, ten touchdowns, five interceptions, 51% completion rate) and will have an outside shot of earning the starting spot. The entire running back group returns, including last year’s leader, Jordon Brown (613 yards, 4.4 YPA) and freshman sensation Michael Carter (559 yards, 5.8 YPA). The receiving core should be in the top half of the conference as the #1 guy is back in Anthony Ratliff-Williams (630 yards, 18.0 YPC) and while the #2 and #3 guys are gone, they combined for just around 600 yards last season, and because of a ton of injuries, plenty of Tar Heel receivers earned playing time and experience.
The defense dealt with a lot of injuries in 2017, but this group will return a lot of pieces, especially on the defensive line where they return seven of eight from the two-deep, including senior DE Malik Carney (57 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 6.5 TFL). Three starters also return in the secondary after combining for over 150 tackles last season, although the linebacking group may be a question mark as they lose both of the outside guys. This is the quintessential toss-up bowl team. The non-conference features games @ Cal and vs UCF, but in-conference the Tar Heels draw Syracuse as their rotational opponent from the Atlantic. My computer calls for about a 40% chance of a trip bowling, but I may be a little higher.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (3-5 ACC)
Virginia went 6-7 last season, making a bowl, but to be fair, the Cavs didn’t really look like a bowl team, especially on offense, placing 107th in the country and last in the ACC in both yards per game and points per game. Kurt Benkert was wildly inconsistent, and JUCO transfer (formerly Arizona State) Bryce Perkins will be a much better scheme fir for the spread QB role that Bronco Mendenhall prefers out of quarterbacks as opposed to Benkert’s more pro-style approach. Perkins will have an interesting group of receivers to throw to. Olamide Zaccheaus (895 yards, five touchdowns) was one of the few bright spots on the offense and he will be joined by a pair of juniors in last year’s #4 and #5 wide receivers: Joe Reed (244) and Hasise Dubois (120). Tight End Evan Butts also returns after 266 last year. The run game was particularly atrocious in 2017, ranking 128th in the country and their #2 and #3 rushers were receivers Reed and Zaccheaus. Perhaps Jordan Ellis (3.9 YPC, 836 yards, six touchdowns) will start again, but I would consider making the switch to PK Kier who is both fast and has good size, but only totaled six carries as a freshman last year.
Defensively, Virginia returns pretty much everybody except for their three NFL Draft Picks: Andrew Brown, Micah Kiser, and Quin Blanding. The defensive line may need some work, as it also loses the end that was opposite of Brown, Juwan Moore, however, the addition of Ohio State transfer Dylan Thompson will help stop the bleeding. The secondary will be deadly again after being ranked 7th in the nation in opponent passing yards per game last year, as Blanding is the only loss from the two-deep. The schedule looks rough, and the ‘Hoos are favored in three games and will be slight underdogs in two more, meaning UVA will need to run that table and score a sizable upset, likely @ Indiana or vs Louisville, to make a bowl.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (2-6 ACC)