ACC

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#85 Syracuse Orange

NATIONAL FORECAST

#85

ACC Atlantic PREDICTION

#7

HEAD COACH: Scott Shafer, 10-15 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tim Lester | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chuck Bullough

Syracuse took a couple of steps backwards in Scott Shafer's second season, as the Orange won just three games. If any bounce back occurs this fall it will have to happen with a new offensive coordinator in place and very little starting experience returning on either side of the ball. The Orange could have a tough time climbing out of the basement in the ACC Atlantic Division.

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Previewing Syracuse’s Offense for 2015

 

Fifth-year senior quarterback Terrel Hunt is one of the few steady figures on the roster despite fracturing his fibula midway through last season. Hunt likely will be Syracuse’s best running threat, but he is working to develop as a pocket passer with the ability to use his feet, much like Seattle’s Russell Wilson. That aligns with offensive coordinator Tim Lester’s system, which will feature more downfield routes and simpler terminology.

The Orange lose more than 67 percent of their running back production to graduation. And with Erv Philips sliding to the H-back position, juniors Devante McFarlane and George Morris II are expected to take the majority of carries by true running backs. Philips and senior Ashton Broyld, arguably the team’s two most dynamic playmakers, will take handoffs both between the tackles and on the perimeter from the H-back position.

Steve Ishmael is the only proven entity at wide receiver after starring as a true freshman. Lining up opposite him is junior Alvin Cornelius, who recorded as many tackles as receptions last season (three), but was a standout player in the spring. Junior Brisly Estime may be SU’s fastest skill-position player, but ankle and foot injuries derailed his 2014 season and carried into the spring.

With Sean Hickey off to the NFL, Syracuse has a three-year starter to replace at left tackle. The leading candidate is senior Ivan Foy, who has played primarily at right tackle the last two seasons. Rob Trudo, a two-year starter at left guard, is likely to replace center John Miller. The biggest question facing the unit: Can it stay healthy? SU played 10 offensive linemen last season.

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

Previewing Syracuse’s Defense for 2015

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

The good news for the front four is that junior Ron Thompson, once a four-star tight end recruit, returns to his natural defensive position on the end of the line. The bad news? Senior defensive tackle Wayne Williams was the next-most-productive returner after a nine-tackle season in 2014, and he decided to transfer in late June. New faces will be relied on to produce immediately, including 23-year-old Luke Arciniega, who was granted two additional years of eligibility by the NCAA in March.

Possibly the strongest position on the team last year, the linebacker corps loses NFL hopefuls Cameron Lynch and Dyshawn Davis. Sophomore middle backer Zaire Franklin steps in as the unit’s leader. He’s smart, savvy and well respected by his teammates. Marqez Hodge will slide to the weak-side spot in 2015, while sophomore Parris Bennett has the inside track for the strong-side spot.

Cornerback Julian Whigham returns from what he described as a “wasted” junior year as the secondary’s most experienced player. Wayne Morgan is expected to line up opposite Whigham. There is little experience at safety, where sophomores Chauncey Scissum and Rodney Williams are the expected starters.

Previewing Syracuse’s Specialists for 2015

 

Senior punter Riley Dixon is one of the team’s most talented players, and he got more than his fair share of work last season. After winning the starting placekicking job last year as a true freshman, walk-on Cole Murphy will have to defend his spot against two scholarship kickers in senior Ryan Norton and incoming freshman Sterling Hofrichter. In the return game, McFarlane and Philips are the likely choices for kickoffs, while Estime brings experience returning punts.

Final Analysis

 

Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer has his work cut out to improve on a 3–9 season. Margin for error will be slim with a new offensive system and eight new defensive starters. And with (now former) athletic director Daryl Gross choosing to “take on new challenges” following the NCAA’s handing down of sanctions in March, Shafer could be coaching for his job.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#82 Wake Forest Demon Deacons

NATIONAL FORECAST

#82

ACC Atlantic PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Dave Clawson, 3-9 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Warren Ruggiero | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mike Elko

Not surprisingly, Dave Clawson's first season at Wake Forest experienced more downs than ups. The good news is that 13 starters return from last season's 3-9 team. The bad news is that the Demon Deacons will once again be one of the youngest teams in FBS and this offense was not just the worst in the ACC, it ranked near the bottom of all of FBS in 2014. Wake Forest appears to be in good hands with Clawson at the helm, but success is probably still at least one more season away.

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Previewing Wake Forest’s Offense for 2015


With a freshman quarterback and an overmatched offensive line, Wake Forest’s offense was historically bad. The Deacons allowed 48 sacks, the most in the country, and 37 percent of their runs went for a loss or no gain. Overall, Wake Forest’s 3.4 yards per play ranked last in the nation — by a wide margin.

Second-year coach Dave Clawson sees the offensive line improving, despite losing two starters and inserting three redshirt freshmen, and more playmakers arriving in the latest recruiting class. “The offensive line was the root of our problems a year ago and that will be a reason for our improvement next year,” he says.

Quarterback John Wolford took a beating and improved: He threw only four interceptions in the final seven games. But Wolford struggled to get passes downfield (only two of 35-plus yards in ACC play). Freshmen Kendall Hinton and Kyle Kearns will compete for the job.

Dez Wortham and Isaiah Robinson return in the backfield, but neither broke a run longer than 20 yards nor provided a pass-catching threat. So Clawson likely will look to highly rated recruits Rocky Reid (originally a Tennessee commit) and Matt Colburn (originally a Louisville commit).

Wake Forest’s receivers have struggled to hold on to the ball lately, but Clawson is encouraged by the return of Tyree Harris, who redshirted in 2014 after showing promise as a true freshman, and the impact of new faces. Speedy freshman Tabari Hines enrolled early and will take over in the slot. He was a spring standout, along with redshirt freshman Cortez Lewis. Wolford built a connection with tight end Cam Serigne, who led the Deacons in all receiving categories in 2014. 

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

Previewing Wake Forest’s Defense for 2015

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

The defense pulled off a miracle to finish in the middle of the ACC, and the veteran unit will have to lead the way again. The Deacons should be better up front and have one of the ACC’s best units at linebacker, but cornerbacks Kevin Johnson and Merrill Noel and their 84 starts are gone.

The defensive line proved it could speed rush, with Wendell Dunn and Josh Banks combining for 15 tackles for a loss with three forced fumbles and an interception. But Clawson wasn’t as happy with the unit’s ability to control the line. Tylor Harris will need to stand out in the middle.

At linebacker, senior Brandon Chubb and junior Marquel Lee combined for 210 tackles last season. They’re teamed with senior Hunter Williams and backed by a strong group of young players. “That position is the one position right now that we look like an ACC team,” Clawson says.

The replacements for Johnson and Noel missed spring practice, and while Brad Watson (wrist) will return, Bryant Gross-Armien (ACL) is more questionable. Top recruit Dionte Austin could see playing time. Starting safeties Ryan Janvion and Thomas Brown are solid, but they’re backed by two redshirt freshmen.

Previewing Wake Forest’s Specialists for 2015


If you have a struggling offense, it helps to have a good punter, and the Deacons have one of the nation’s best in Alex Kinal. Mike Weaver opened his career with 10 straight field-goal makes and finished his first season 15-of-19. Wake’s returners haven’t produced big plays in years.

Final Analysis


Clawson, coming off two straight bowl games at Bowling Green, walked into a disaster. The Deacons will be one of the nation’s youngest teams again, and the offense could feature eight underclassmen as starters. They have a difficult schedule and are likely a year away from being truly competitive, but Clawson’s recruiting classes have been historically good, giving hope that he can transform the program.




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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#61 Virginia Cavaliers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#61

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#7

HEAD COACH: Mike London, 23-38 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Steve Fairchild | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jon Tenuta

Mike London enters his sixth season at Virginia squarely on the hot seat for the third consecutive season. The Cavaliers showed improvement last year, winning four of their first six games but struggled badly in ACC play over the second half of the season. In a wide-open Coastal Division, a postseason berth for Virginia and London may be the only thing that saves his job.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing Virginia’s Offense for 2015
 

Virginia has settled on an identity and style of play. And now, the Cavaliers can settle on a quarterback. Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns were competing through the spring. Lambert started nine games a year ago but wasn’t able to separate himself from Johns, who started three games when Lambert was hurt and played in all 12. Lambert decided to transfer in May, leaving Johns as the clear No. 1 quarterback this season. At 6'5", Johns is a tall-in-the-saddle type seemingly suited for a pro-style offense that seeks to emphasize the running game. Johns needs to be more accurate and less mistake-prone than a year ago, when the two Virginia quarterbacks combined for 18 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.

Virginia ranked 97th nationally in rushing offense in 2014. Hopes of being a power-running team rest on an offensive line that was banged up last year and did a good job in pass protection but struggled to open holes on the ground. The upside is that 10 players with game experience are back, including seven who have been starters at some point.

The graduation of tailback Kevin Parks creates an opportunity for former five-star recruit Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell, a potentially dynamic player who has shown only flashes of that talent in two seasons. If the Cavaliers can establish the running game, they feel good about their chances of taking shots down field, with an experienced corps of receivers that includes senior Canaan Severin, and North Carolina transfer T.J. Thorpe.

Previewing Virginia’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.

A big chunk of Virginia’s pass rush left early for the NFL. Junior defensive end Eli Harold and sophomore linebacker Max Valles, who combined for 16 sacks and 27 tackles for a loss, are both gone, as is senior linebacker Henry Coley and his eight sacks.

Given those losses, it’s difficult to envision the Cavaliers being as disruptive again, even in a scheme designed to create havoc with blitzes and stunts.

The strength of the unit should be on the back end, where safety Quin Blanding, a Freshman All-American, should only get better, and where the return of cornerback Demetrious Nicholson from a turf toe injury adds to an already deep secondary.

Up front, tackle David Dean anchors a group that ranked 18th nationally against the run. Though not the speed rusher that Harold was, end Mike Moore had three sacks and will be counted on to bring heat from the edge. After an injury-plagued freshman year, former five-star recruit Andrew Brown is being counted on for a breakout season at tackle.

The linebacking corps must replace three starters, meaning the heart of the defense will be young. Expect a true freshman or two on the two-deep.


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

Previewing Virginia’s Specialists for 2015


Given Virginia’s inability to finish in the red zone, kicker Ian Frye was busy last year, hitting 22-of-27 field-goal attempts. Punter Alec Vozenilek was a valuable weapon and will be missed. Thorpe, the North Carolina transfer, is a former All-ACC returner who could bring some needed sizzle to the return game. 

Final Analysis

Coach Mike London is no stranger to the hot seat. He’s been under a cloud for three seasons. Last year’s improvement from 2–10 to 5–7 was encouraging to a point. But a second-half fade after a 4–2 start raised old questions about the team’s inability to finish close games under London.

Last year’s progress earned London a last chance. Nothing short of a bowl game appearance is likely to keep him around. With the usual questions on offense and big shoes to fill on defense — as well as another brutal non-conference schedule — Virginia has a lot to overcome for that to happen. Too much, probably. 

The Debate

Is Taquan Mizzell Primed for a Breakout Season?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#41 Pittsburgh Panthers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#41

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Pat Narduzzi, First season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jim Chaney | DEF. COORDINATOR: Josh Conklin

Another year. Another coach for Pittsburgh football. The Panthers got three full seasons out of Paul Chryst before he returned to Wisconsin, but that’s better than a stretch in 2010-12 when Pitt hired three head coaches and employed two interims in bowl games. It’s no wonder that Pitt has gone merely 6-6 in each of the last four regular seasons. Now, Pitt looks to Pat Narduzzi — Michigan State’s decorated defensive coordinator — to get the Panthers over the hump.

Previewing Pittsburgh’s Offense for 2015
 

As top-tier tandems go, James Conner and Tyler Boyd have few equals. Conner not only beat out defending Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston for ACC Player of the Year honors, but he was also named a first-team All-American after rushing for 1,765 yards (5.9 per carry) and an ACC-record 26 touchdowns. Boyd, meantime, became the first player in conference history to compile 1,000 receiving yards in both his freshman and sophomore seasons. The first-team All-ACC selection had 78 receptions for 1,261 yards (16.2 per catch). Conner is a legit Heisman candidate, Boyd a legit Biletnikoff Award contender. 

The question is: Can the two juniors provide enough firepower to an offense that features question marks at quarterback and on the offensive line? And can they help the program adjust to its fifth head coach in seven years? Former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi replaced Paul Chryst, who left for his alma mater, Wisconsin. “We’re here to lead this team,” Conner says. “We’re here to try to win a championship.”

Junior quarterback Chad Voytik is the X-factor. After a sluggish first half of last season, Voytik experienced a profound turnaround. He averaged nearly 200 yards and completed 64.5 percent of his passes as Pittsburgh averaged 35 points in its final six games. If he continues to evolve, the offense could flourish under new coordinator Jim Chaney, who mentored Drew Brees at Purdue and revitalized Arkansas’ offense last season.

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.

Previewing Pittsburgh’s Defense for 2015
 

First-year coordinator Josh Conklin was known for his attacking style last season at Florida International. “We want our defenses to have an opportunistic mentality,” Narduzzi says. “Josh will help us achieve that.” 

Unlike the offense, the defense lacks star power. It lost its top two tacklers from last season and faces uncertainty across the board. Third-year starting middle linebacker Matt Galambos must pilot the unit during this transition phase. 

An intriguing prospect is outside linebacker Bam Bradley, whose name resembles his hitting style. He had 36 tackles, four tackles for a loss, two sacks and an interception. On the opposite side, senior Nicholas Grigsby (three sacks) will be relied upon to use his speed and explosiveness to induce more turnovers and big plays. 

Fourth-year starter Lafayette Pitts provides experience in the secondary, and safety Reggie Mitchell returns after leading the team with seven pass breakups.  At defensive end, sophomore Rori Blair (team-high five sacks) could be a linchpin for this newfangled attack-first unit.

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

Previewing Pittsburgh’s Specialists for 2015
 

Kicker Chris Blewitt returns after converting 16-of-21 field goals (76 percent). Sophomore punter Ryan Winslow averaged 40.1 yards on 50 punts. Boyd ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the ACC in kickoff and punt returns, respectively. 

Final Analysis 
 

Seven years. Five coaches. Zero continuity. That is the storyline for Pittsburgh, which hired Narduzzi in December. The situation is confounding and maddening to a fan base that’s been witness to a program mired in mediocrity. Whether Narduzzi can provide stability is unclear, but the former Michigan State defensive coordinator offers a snappy résumé as a career assistant. Under Narduzzi, Michigan State was the only school in the FBS to rank in the top 10 in total and rushing defense the past four seasons. He inherits a Panthers team that was the youngest in the nation with 81 underclassmen (53 freshmen and 28 sophomores). Fifteen starters return. 

Pittsburgh features game-changers in Conner and Boyd, but a transition to a new coaching staff — again — and uncertainty at quarterback and on defense will surely create challenges.

The Debate

Is James Conner the Best Running Back in College Football?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#56 Boston College Eagles

NATIONAL FORECAST

#56

ACC Atlantic PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Steve Addazio, 14-12 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Todd Fitch | DEF. COORDINATOR: Don Brown

Steve Addazio has installed a personality in two seasons at Boston College. His teams have an identity, and the program is coming off back-to-back bowl games. The rest of the ACC knows exactly what it’s getting out of the Eagles on both sides of the ball and it’s still tough to stop. However, with just nine starters back, Addazio has his work cut out for him in the brutal Atlantic Division.


Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports
 

Previewing Boston College’s Offense for 2015
 

With former offensive coordinator Ryan Day now the quarterbacks coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, new OC Todd Fitch will have to break in a new system, a new starting quarterback and a new offensive line that replaces five starters. In other words, while the Eagles have plenty of returning talent at running back, there are more questions than answers for an offense that rushed for 254.7 yards per game last year, good for 14th in the nation.

Expect quarterback Darius Wade to start. The sophomore threw only eight passes a year ago, and the 6'0", 201-pound dual threat will need to be more accurate than the departed Tyler Murphy (57 percent completion rate in 2014) for the offense to take the next step. Tight end/receiver Dan Crimmins was expected to be the top target for Wade, but his status with the team is uncertain as of late May.

The ground game should be in good hands with sophomore running back Jon Hilliman, who gained 860 yards with 13 touchdowns last fall. He will lead another committee approach that includes Myles Willis, Tyler Rouse and Marcus Outlow. Although not a running back, the speedy Sherman Alston should get plenty of carries from his wide receiver spot on jet sweeps, as the sophomore rushed for 352 yards at 10.4 yards per carry as a true freshman.

The only fly in the ointment may be the offensive line, which replaces all five starters. That said, coach Steve Addazio likes what he has on the interior, with sixth-year senior Harris Williams, who can play either guard or center, leading the way.

Previewing Boston College’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.

Defensive coordinator Don Brown always puts together an attacking unit that is led by a rugged front seven and utilizes a lot of creative blitzes. Expect that to be the case again and for the Eagles to repeat as one of the top defenses in the country against the run. A year ago, the Eagles finished second only to Michigan State in rush defense, allowing only 94.5 yards per game.

Clearly, the strength of the defense — and possibly the team overall — is in the front seven. The Eagles return five starters there, including three along a defensive line that returns tackles Truman Gutapfel and Connor Wujciak and end Kevin Kavalec. Along with other projected starter Malachi Moore at end, those four combined for 29.5 tackles for a loss last year and should increase that production in 2015.

The linebackers are led by senior Steven Daniels, who was second on the team with 72 tackles last year, including 7.0 for a loss. The secondary loses cornerback Manny Asprilla and safety Dominique Williams, but free safety Justin Simmons, the team’s leading tackler, is back. Simmons, who made 76 stops and two interceptions a year ago, can also play cornerback and gives the secondary leadership and experience. 


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

Previewing Boston College’s Specialists for 2015
 

The Eagles will need more consistency out of kicker Alex Howell, who made just 5-of-11 field goal attempts last year, including 3-of-9 from 40 yards or longer. Howell acquitted himself much better as a punter with a 42.5-yard average. Returns should be in good hands with Willis and Alston back to handle kick and punt return duties, respectively.

Final Analysis 
 

Addazio has this program going in the right direction after taking over a 2–10 team and putting together back-to-back winning seasons. Still, the question remains whether or not the Eagles can take that next step and become a true contender in the ACC. The defense should give this team a chance, but an inexperienced offense may prevent any giant leaps forward.

The Debate

Where Does Jon Hilliman Rank Among ACC RBs?

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