ACC

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#14 Clemson Tigers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#14

ACC Atlantic PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Dabo Swinney, 61-26 (6+ years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Scott, Tony Elliott | DEF. COORDINATOR: Marion Hobby, Brent Venables

Clemson has won at least 10 games in four consecutive seasons, and even with personnel losses on both sides of the ball, the Tigers should be in contention for the ACC title in 2015. Quarterback Deshaun Watson should be at full strength from a torn ACL by the fall, and the rising star will be surrounded by a deep group of skill players. Only two starters return on one of the nation’s top defenses. However, Clemson has recruited well, and there’s still talent on the roster to replace some of last year’s stars.

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Previewing Clemson’s Offense for 2015
 

The moment Clemson fans had dreaded for the better part of four years finally arrived in December when offensive coordinator Chad Morris became SMU’s new head coach. But the Tigers’ offense shouldn’t look that different as long as star sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson stays healthy. Coach Dabo Swinney opted for continuity, elevating running backs coach Tony Elliott and wide receivers coach Jeff Scott to co-offensive coordinators.

Watson is the key. In eight games (five starts), he threw for 1,466 yards with 14 touchdowns against two interceptions, but he missed nearly five full games with a broken finger and later a torn ACL. He had surgery in December and will be healthy for the season opener. With Cole Stoudt at the helm, the offense largely struggled. Clemson averaged 30.8 points per game, No. 51 nationally, and ranked 110th in red zone offense.

Watson is a dynamic dual threat with excellent targets in Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, who combined for 1,995 yards with 14 touchdowns on 133 receptions a year ago. Wayne Gallman leads an improving backfield as a powerful speed back. There are questions about a line that must replace both starting guards, and true freshman Mitch Hyatt is expected to start at left tackle after Isaiah Battle declared for the NFL supplemental draft. But if Watson is healthy, the Tigers’ offense should be scary good.

Previewing Clemson’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 ACC College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Brent Venables raised some eyebrows when he left Oklahoma to take over Clemson’s struggling defense in January 2012; but three years later, it looks like a brilliant move. Last fall, the Tigers had the nation’s top overall defense, allowing 260.8 yards per game, and the No. 3 scoring defense, yielding 16.7 points per game. The challenge? Repeating the feat after losing nearly the entire defensive line two-deep (including Clemson’s career sack leader Vic Beasley) as well as middle linebacker Stephone Anthony, the team’s leading tackler.

Junior defensive end Shaq Lawson will be expected to take his game to the next level: He was a freshman All-American two years ago and had 3.5 sacks as a reserve last fall.

Junior Ben Boulware, one of the defense’s most intense players, will step into a lead role at weak-side linebacker. He and senior B.J. Goodson will have to carry bigger loads while a pair of hard-hitting redshirt freshmen — Kendall Joseph and Korie Rogers — provide depth.

The secondary will be a major strength. Sophomore cornerback Mackensie Alexander established himself as one of the ACC’s top cornerbacks with excellent shutdown ability.  Safety Jayron Kearse is an athletic specimen who is expected to take the next step this fall. Clemson was No. 2 nationally in pass defense a year ago, allowing 157.4 passing yards per game, and the defense will lean on the secondary again while the new defensive line gets acclimated.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128
 

Previewing Clemson’s Specialists for 2015
 

Clemson’s only early draft departure was junior punter Bradley Pinion, who averaged 42.6 yards per boot. His replacement, junior Andy Teasdall, had two punts for 87 yards last fall. Kicker Ammon Lakip struggled initially while replacing Chandler Catanzaro, but he recovered to make 21-of-28 field goals and finish as a Lou Groza Award semifinalist.

Final Analysis 
 

Under Dabo Swinney, Clemson has developed into one of the nation’s steadiest programs, winning 42 games over the last four seasons with an ACC title and bowl wins over LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma. Now is the time for the Tigers to take the next step and make a run at the College Football Playoff. This group has the talent and the schedule to win the ACC. From there, the sky is the limit.

The Debate

Is Deshaun Watson the ACC's Best Quarterback for 2015?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#18 Ga. Tech Yellow Jackets

NATIONAL FORECAST

#18

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Paul Johnson, 59-35 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Paul Johnson | DEF. COORDINATOR: Ted Roof

Georgia Tech suffered some key losses in the backfield and at receiver, but coach Paul Johnson’s team is positioned for another run at the Coastal Division title. The Yellow Jackets return 13 starters, with the most important being quarterback Justin Thomas. The defense ranked near the bottom of the ACC in the four main statistical categories but improvement should be noticeable in 2015.  

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Previewing Georgia Tech’s Offense for 2015
 

Georgia Tech’s disappointing 2013 season raised questions about the direction of the program heading into last fall. That was particularly true on offense, where Paul Johnson attempted to customize his option playbook for quarterback Vad Lee’s throwing ability with mediocre results. With Justin Thomas at the controls in 2014, however, the Yellow Jackets got back to a more traditional option look and became as dangerous on offense by the end of the season as at any time in Johnson’s tenure.

With Thomas’ speed, elusiveness and intelligence, Georgia Tech should once again be among the nation’s most prolific rushing teams. Thomas has a chance to exceed his single-season school record (for quarterbacks) of 1,086 rushing yards and solidify his status as one of the nation’s must-watch players. 

Georgia Tech loses its running back trio of Synjyn Days, Zach Laskey and Charles Perkins, who accounted for 377 carries and 2,218 yards last season. But most of those concerns will be eased by the depth on the offensive line — four starters and a handful of others with experience return — and the talent that has been groomed to replace them. A-back Broderick Snoddy showed big-play ability in a limited role before breaking his leg last season. However, depth at B-back is a concern after C.J. Leggett, the expected starter, was sidelined with a torn ACL in the spring. Patrick Skov – a graduate transfer from Stanford – is expected to factor into the backfield this season.

Georgia Tech will also look for young receivers to step up after losing DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller, who had a knack for making timely catches.

Previewing Georgia Tech’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 ACC College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Johnson won’t sugarcoat the Jackets’ struggles on defense, particularly against the run. “We weren’t very good,” he says of a unit that gave up 25.7 points and 411.3 yards per game last year. Depth along the defensive front was a major concern, and it will likely remain that way. The good news for the Yellow Jackets is that their first team is solid with senior All-ACC performer Adam Gotsis anchoring the interior and KeShun Freeman coming off a season in which he earned various Freshman All-America honors at end. Johnson is counting on Jabari Hunt-Days, academically ineligible last season, to make a big impact after moving from end to tackle and bulking up to 295 pounds.

Losing All-ACC linebacker Quayshawn Nealy, who contributed 92 tackles, two interceptions and three fumble recoveries last season, leaves a big hole in the middle of the defense. But the Yellow Jackets are hoping for some of the same attributes out of senior Tyler Marcordes, who had 5.5 tackles for a loss and a pair of sacks.

Georgia Tech should be solid in the secondary with senior safety Jamal Golden, who had 61 tackles and four interceptions. Georgia Tech remains stable at cornerback with seniors Chris Milton and D.J. White, who was involved in game-saving takeaways against Virginia Tech and Georgia. 

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128
 

Previewing Georgia Tech’s Specialists for 2015
 

Georgia Tech is looking for more consistency out of junior kicker Harrison Butker, who made some high-pressure kicks — such as a 53-yarder at Georgia to send the game to overtime — but also had five misses inside 40 yards. Junior punter Ryan Rodwell returns after an ACC-low 32 attempts last season.

Final Analysis 
 

Coming off an 11-win season capped by a dominant Orange Bowl victory, there are more positive vibes and higher expectations around the program than any time in recent memory. Though Tech will need to re-tool in some areas, having Thomas for two more years means the offense will continue to be potent. Defense is always a question mark for the Yellow Jackets because they don’t have overwhelming athletes, but if Ted Roof’s unit makes even incremental improvement, another ACC Coastal Division title is well within reach. 

The Debate

Is Justin Thomas the ACC's Best QB for 2015?

Click here to join the debate.




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