ACC

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#38 Pitt Panthers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#38

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Pat Narduzzi, 8-5 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Matt Canada | DEF. COORDINATOR: Josh Conklin

Pittsburgh fans should feel like they have finally found their man in second-year coach Pat Narduzzi. He has given the fan base something to be excited about as expectations are relatively high entering the fall season. Star running back James Conner is on track to return in 2016, giving the Panthers a potent one-two punch in the backfield with the emergence of Qadree Ollison last year. Additionally, quarterback Nathan Peterman provided stability under center last season and returns for 2016. Replacing standout receiver Tyler Boyd is the biggest challenge for Narduzzi. 

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Previewing Pittsburgh’s Offense

Pittsburgh faces a couple crucial questions entering 2015. The first: Can junior running back James Conner, after enduring MCL surgery and offseason chemotherapy treatments for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, make a comeback? And second: If so, can the powerful runner return to the form that enabled him to rush for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns en route to 2014 ACC Player for the Year honors? The coaching staff believes Conner will be ready. “I know this, James is an inspiration to all of us; he makes us better every day,” says second-year coach Pat Narduzzi. Conner recently announced he was cancer-free and is on track to return by the season opener. 

A healthy Conner would surely bolster a Panthers team that went 8–5 in Narduzzi’s first season. If Pitt has to ease Conner back into his normal workload, sophomore Qadree Ollison offers a quality alternative. Ollison was named the ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year after rushing for 1,121 yards.

The X-factor is senior quarterback Nathan Peterman, a Tennessee transfer who emerged as a leader after taking over in Week 3. He finished second in the ACC in completion percentage (61.5) and third in touchdown passes (20). Peterman also threw just one interception in league play. It is imperative that he provide a steady hand early while the untested receiving corps, which lost all-time great Tyler Boyd to the NFL Draft, settles in.

Previewing Pittsburgh’s Defense

, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

True to Narduzzi’s personality, the Pittsburgh defense employs an ultra-aggressive style. Little wonder the Panthers ranked 16th nationally and third in the ACC in sacks last season at 2.85 per game. They also returned three turnovers for touchdowns. Explosive senior defensive end Ejuan Price fits perfectly into the scheme. He nearly set an FBS record with five sacks against Louisville and ranked 10th nationally with 11.5. Fifteen different Panthers players were in on at least one sack.

The star of the defense is sophomore strong safety Jordan Whitehead, who recorded the most tackles (109) by a true freshman in program history and was named the ACC’s Defensive Rookie of the Year. Whitehead was deployed at linebacker, corner and even on the offensive side of the ball.

Third-year starting linebacker Matt Galambos (five sacks) serves as the leader of a unit that must improve on scoring defense (26.1 ppg, 57th nationally), and takeaways (16, 97th).

Previewing Pittsburgh’s Specialists

Senior kicker Chris Blewitt returns after converting 15-of-23 field-goal attempts. Returning junior punter Ryan Winslow averaged 41.1 yards, with 21 downed inside the 20. Quadree Henderson and Avonte Maddox each returned kickoffs for touchdowns.

Final Analysis

Narduzzi infused life into a Pittsburgh program that had been stagnating in recent years. Prior to his arrival, the Panthers had finished 6–7, 6–7, 7–6 and 6–7 the previous four seasons. The eight wins in 2015 represented the most in five years. Highlights included a 6–1 start, a 5-1 road record, a second-place finish in the Coastal Division and a trip to the Military Bowl. Panthers partisans are hoping for continued improvement — which is feasible, given that 16 starters return — but the record might not reflect it. The schedule is unforgiving. Pittsburgh faces Penn State, Oklahoma State and North Carolina in Weeks 2-4, then travels to Miami and Clemson later in the season.

“We started to change the culture,” says Narduzzi, the former Michigan State defensive coordinator. “We’re still building. We don’t look too far ahead. We try to win the day.”

Narduzzi is rapidly winning over a fan base that seeks stability after enduring five coaching changes the previous seven years. He says he plans to stick around and build a consistent winner. The foundation appears to be in place.




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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#29 Virginia Tech Hokies

NATIONAL FORECAST

#29

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Justin Fuente, 0-0 (1st year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brad Cornelsen | DEF. COORDINATOR: Bud Foster

New coach Justin Fuente has some big shoes to fill in replacing Frank Beamer on the Virginia Tech sideline. Defense has always been a staple for the Hokies, but the offense must make strides for Virginia Tech to be a serious ACC contender. The good news for the Hokies? Fuente has a good track record of success on that side of the ball, and junior college recruit Jerod Evans could provide a spark under center. The ACC Coastal is unpredictable, but if Virginia Tech can fill a couple of voids on both sides of the ball, contending for the division title isn't out of the question.

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Previewing Virginia Tech’s Offense
 

It’s a new day on offense in Blacksburg, as new coach Justin Fuente brings his up-tempo, spread offense with him from Memphis. It’ll take Fuente time to build the personnel to fit his preferred style of play, but the Hokies have some pretty impressive pieces in place.

Travon McMillian ran for 1,000 yards last season in his first year as a tailback, getting the lion’s share of carries beginning only in mid-October. Do-everything fullback Sam Rogers can fill many roles in the offense. Tech’s top three pass catchers are as good as anyone in the ACC, with receivers Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips and tight end Bucky Hodges all returning. Ford’s poised to break all of the school’s receiving records, and the 6'7", 245-pound Hodges opted to come back to school instead of declaring for the NFL.

A veteran offensive line has four players returning who have started a combined 89 games in their careers, led by powerful guards Wyatt Teller and Augie Conte, two legitimate All-ACC candidates.

The big question is quarterback, where Jerod Evans, the nation’s No. 1 dual-threat junior college quarterback, is battling fifth-year senior Brenden Motley for the job. Fuente and his staff originally recruited Evans to be Paxton Lynch’s successor at Memphis, considering him a perfect fit for the spread.

Previewing Virginia Tech’s Defense 
 

, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

The defense hit its roughest patch in Bud Foster’s 20 years as a coordinator last season, with injuries, youth and attrition contributing to a down year. The Hokies allowed 26.3 points, 369.8 total yards and 180.7 rushing yards per game, all highs in the Foster era. Their 26 sacks and 10 interceptions were the team’s lowest since Foster assumed defensive coordinator duties in 1995.

Foster hopes that establishing continuity on defense, re-focusing on fundamentals and incorporating fresh ideas from new assistant coaches will right the ship. End Ken Ekanem (14 sacks the last two years) and tackle Woody Baron highlight a deep defensive line.

The linebackers are a question mark, with Foster hoping that Andrew Motuapuaka makes a leap in his second year as a starter and that 6'5" sophomore Tremaine Edmunds can slide into the backer role.

The aim of the secondary is to put players at one position and let them develop instead of constantly shuffling things around. Free safety Chuck Clark and cornerback Brandon Facyson are mainstays, but rover Terrell Edmunds, cornerbacks Adonis Alexander and Greg Stroman and nickel back Mook Reynolds are trying to settle into their positions. There’s talent on this side of the ball, and Foster has a two-decade track record of putting standout units on the field. It might just need time to jell.

Previewing Virginia Tech’s Specialists 
 

Beamer Ball is over, although its spirit remains under new special teams coordinator James Shibest, who ran some of the best units in the country at Memphis. Kicker Joey Slye was 23-of-27 on field goals inside 50 yards last year. Stroman’s a gamebreaker on punt returns.

Final Analysis
 

For the first time in three decades, a new coach will patrol the sideline in Blacksburg. Fuente succeeds the venerable Frank Beamer, a future College Football Hall of Famer who retired after winning 238 games in 29 seasons with Virginia Tech. There’s no question the Hokies needed a jolt, however. Tech was 29–23 overall the last four years and a .500 team in ACC play, so a return to prominence might not be instantaneous.

But in Fuente, Virginia Tech hopes it found a path to the future that doesn’t forget its past. The 39-year-old brings with him from Memphis a spread offense that’ll catch the Hokies up with the rest of the college football world. In keeping long-time Beamer aide Foster on defense, the Hokies eventually hope to have the best of both worlds.

The Debate

Is Justin Fuente the best coaching hire for 2016?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#27 Miami Hurricanes

NATIONAL FORECAST

#27

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Mark RIcht, 0-0 (1st year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mark Richt | DEF. COORDINATOR: Manny Diaz

Having a new sheriff in town with Mark Richt might be the key ingredient to getting Miami back to a perennial power. Richt comes into a great quarterback situation with star quarterback Brad Kaaya returning, but will that be enough to knock off the ACC’s best - Clemson and Florida State - for a conference title? 

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Previewing Miami’s Offense

If the Hurricanes can find a way to protect Brad Kaaya, this has the makings of a highly productive attack. Kaaya returns for his junior year after finishing in the top three in the ACC in yards per game, fewest interceptions, yards per attempt and passer rating. There’s a new, offensively gifted head coach, Mark Richt, who is excited to call plays for the first time since he surrendered those duties at Georgia in 2007. There’s a stable of running backs — 1,000-yard rusher Joe Yearby may not even start, since sophomore Mark Walton came on strong in the offseason and bruiser Gus Edwards is healthy after a season-ending foot injury. There’s a group of wide receivers that includes Stacy Coley (47 catches for 689 yards and four touchdowns), who opted to forgo an NFL career to return to school, and a three-headed monster at tight end that includes rising star David Njoku (6'4", 244).

What Miami does not have, however, is a reliable offensive line. The Hurricanes struggled to run block last year (112th in yards per carry) and allowed sacks galore in spring scrimmages. It remains to be seen whether that’s a sign of a recalibrated, reenergized Miami defense or an impending season-long headache for Richt — and aches and pains all over for Kaaya.

Previewing Miami’s Defense
 

, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Looking for an overhaul, Richt brought on Manny Diaz, formerly of Mississippi State (and most notably before that, Texas). Gone are the 3-4, read-and-react principles of Al Golden and coordinator Mark D’Onofrio. Diaz, a Miami native and son of the city’s former mayor, wants his charges to be as aggressive and relentless as the 4-3 defenses he grew up watching in the Orange Bowl.

The Hurricanes have a few players who wouldn’t look out of place on those national championship teams — though not nearly enough of them. Start with ends Chad Thomas and Al-Quadin Muhammad, both juniors who have high-round NFL Draft potential. Tackles Gerald Willis, Courtel Jenkins and Kendrick Norton will be nice pieces for former Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, who has produced four first-rounders since 2009.

It gets a little worrisome from there. While senior linebacker Jermaine Grace is a lightning-fast rover who led UM in tackles (79, six for a loss), that unit is depending on sophomore Darrion Owens to return from a major knee injury and talented freshmen Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud to be ready for action.

The secondary has a trio of capable safeties in seniors Jamal Carter and Rayshawn Jenkins and sophomore Jaquan Johnson, but the cornerback unit has one tested player in senior Corn Elder. Diaz’ blitz-happy front seven should improve Miami’s tackles for a loss (96th) and sack (64th) rankings, but leaks on the back end could be troublesome all year.

Previewing Miami’s Specialists
 

Elder was Miami’s top weapon last season, averaging 13.8 yards per punt and 33.8 yards per kick return. He scored punt and kick return touchdowns — the latter the controversial eight-lateral, 91-yard score at Duke — and had two more TDs called back because of penalties. But his duties at corner may cause the team to look elsewhere. Placekicker Michael Badgley, a Lou Groza Award semifinalist, made 25-of-30 field goals and hit from 57 yards. Punter Justin Vogel was steady and had a long of 73.

Final Analysis 
 

A gust of fresh air blew into Coral Gables with the arrival of Richt, a 1982 UM graduate and former backup to Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly. After a successful three decades as an assistant at Florida State and coach at Georgia, the 56-year-old Richt came home. You can bet after five mediocre years under Golden, he was well received. He takes over a program that has talent but ultimately not enough depth to unseat Florida State and Clemson atop the ACC.  

The Debate

Is Mark Richt the best coaching hire for 2016?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#2 Florida State Seminoles

NATIONAL FORECAST

#2

ACC Atlantic PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Jimbo Fisher, 68-14 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jimbo Fisher | DEF. COORDINATOR: Charles Kelly

After finishing 10-3 in a rebuilding season, Florida State is loaded for another run at a national championship in 2016. The biggest question mark for coach Jimbo Fisher is at the quarterback position, but the Seminoles aren’t hurting for talent. Redshirt freshman Deondre Francois and true freshman Malik Henry will push Sean Maguire for the starting job, with Francois expected to start. Helping Francois ease into the starting role is a talented supporting cast, headlined by Heisman Trophy contender Dalvin Cook at running back. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey will be missed, but Florida State’s defense could be better than the 2015 version that limited opponents to 17.5 points a game. Another huge advantage for Florida State? Clemson has to visit Tallahassee this season.

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Previewing Florida State’s Offense 
 

During a remarkable sophomore campaign, tailback Dalvin Cook established new FSU records for rushing yards (1,691) and all-purpose yards (1,935) in a season. He averaged 7.4 yards per carry and 140.9 yards per game. What made Cook’s performance even more impressive were the circumstances. Not only did he play through hamstring and ankle injuries that caused him to miss one game and parts of others, but he also was running behind an inconsistent and injury-plagued offensive line. FSU’s inability to establish a vertical passing game also allowed opposing defenses to crowd the line of scrimmage.

The offensive line should be much improved with seven players returning with starting experience, including All-America candidate Roderick Johnson at left tackle, and the wide receiver group is deep and talented. The biggest question mark is at quarterback, where senior Sean Maguire returns but will be pushed by a pair of talented underclassmen — redshirt freshman Deondre Francois and true freshman Malik Henry — who were very impressive in spring drills.

Previewing Florida State’s Defense 
 

, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

After recording career highs with 58 tackles, 15 tackles for a loss and 10.5 sacks, DeMarcus Walker flirted with a jump to the NFL before returning for his senior year. That decision gives the Seminoles an elite pair of defensive ends, with Walker on one side and sophomore Josh Sweat, a former five-star recruit, on the other.

FSU must replace All-America cornerback Jalen Ramsey, but the Seminoles have recruited so well in the secondary that it shouldn’t be much of a concern. Senior Marquez White returns at one corner, and much-hyped sophomores Tarvarus McFadden and Marcus Lewis are battling it out for the other. The rest of the secondary is filled with experienced players, including senior Nate Andrews, junior Trey Marshall and super sophomore Derwin James.

If there is one area of concern on a defense that ranked No. 9 nationally in scoring defense (17.5 ppg) last season, it’s at linebacker, where FSU lost seniors Reggie Northrup and Terrance Smith. Projected starters Matthew Thomas and Ro’Derrick Hoskins are talented, but Thomas has yet to play a full season of college football. He was suspended for half of the 2014 season and was ineligible for all of 2015.

Previewing Florida State’s Specialists
 

The Seminoles have major holes to fill here as All-America placekicker Roberto Aguayo bolted early for the NFL and four-year starting punter Cason Beatty graduated. Aguayo’s younger brother, Ricky, enrolled in January and should take over field goals and kickoffs. Fellow freshman Logan Tyler is expected to win the punting job.

Final Analysis 
 

To understand just how much talent Jimbo Fisher has ushered into Florida State’s locker room during the first six years of his tenure, one needs only consider this simple fact: The Seminoles are coming off of a rebuilding year that saw them go 10–3 and earn a coveted spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. Did we mention that it was a rebuilding year?

Despite losing No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Jameis Winston at quarterback and another dozen starters, the Seminoles reached double-digit wins for the fifth time in six years and once again swept rivals Florida and Miami. Now, FSU appears to have the experience to go with that talent. Florida State returns nine starters on offense and six on defense. They even bring back several key reserves who have started games in the past.

The schedule won’t necessarily be easy, but the always-crucial ACC Atlantic Division battle against Clemson will be played in Tallahassee. The winner of that game has advanced to the College Football Playoff in both of its first two years of existence.

The Debate

Is Dalvin Cook the best running back in the nation?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#4 Clemson Tigers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#4

ACC Atlantic PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Dabo Swinney, 75-27 (7+ years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Scott, Tony Elliott | DEF. COORDINATOR: Marion Hobby, Brent Venables

Dabo Swinney has raised expectations at Clemson, and last year's 14 wins in 2015 were the most in program history for a single season. However, the Tigers enter 2016 with unfinished business. Clemson fell just short in the national title game against Alabama, and the Tigers are hoping for another run to the championship in 2016. The pieces are certainly in place for Swinney’s team to win it all. Quarterback Deshaun Watson leads a dynamic offense, with the receiving corps and offensive line among the best in the nation. For the second year in a row, coordinator Brent Venables has work to do in rebuilding the defense. However, considering Venables’ success in rebuilding this group last season, there shouldn’t be too much of a drop in production. The Oct. 29 showdown at Florida State should decide the ACC Atlantic.

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Previewing Clemson’s Offense 
 

Following offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ departure to become SMU’s head coach, Clemson’s offense didn’t miss a beat under the watch of co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott. The Tigers averaged 38.5 points per game and finished as national runner-up to Alabama. The scary part? They could be even better this season. Clemson returns eight offensive starters, led by junior quarterback Deshaun Watson. Watson, an elusive, dynamic run-pass threat with a big arm, finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting and became the first FBS player ever to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season. He’s the key to Clemson’s national title hopes.

The Tigers scored a major offseason victory when tailback Wayne Gallman returned for his junior season. Gallman is a powerful, violent runner who emerged as a star last fall, rushing for 1,527 yards with 13 scores as one of the ACC’s best backs.  A strong offensive line, led by sophomore tackle Mitch Hyatt, will open plenty of holes for him.

Watson will throw to a deep receiving corps that will be even better with the return of Mike Williams, who had 1,030 yards as a sophomore but redshirted after suffering a broken bone in his neck in Clemson’s opener. He’ll be a perfect complement to speedy junior Artavis Scott.

Previewing Clemson’s Defense 
 

, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

A year ago, Brent Venables lost nine starters from the nation’s No. 1 defense and forged a unit that still finished No. 10 nationally. Following a major round of NFL Draft departures — led by defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd and cornerback Mackensie Alexander — repeating that production would be a feat. Senior defensive tackle Carlos Watkins and emerging star Christian Wilkins will hold down the middle, and freshman defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, the nation’s No. 2 overall recruit, will make an impact. Untested defensive ends Austin Bryant and Richard Yeargin must prove they’re ready for front-line action.

Senior Ben Boulware is Clemson’s leading returning tackler with 82. He is a fiery, intense competitor who’ll be the heart of the Tigers’ linebacker corps and the defense as a whole. Coaches love middle linebacker Kendall Joseph’s potential.

Beyond All-ACC-caliber senior cornerback Cordrea Tankersley, there are serious questions in the secondary, a group that gave up multiple big plays in 2015. Mark Fields and Ryan Carter are candidates to start across from Tankersley, and both must make the leap from trusted reserve to starter. The departures of starting safeties Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green to the NFL hurt. Senior Jadar Johnson will get a chance to shine in a starting safety role, but this group overall could give Venables some heartburn this fall.

Previewing Clemson’s Specialists 
 

Greg Huegel came up huge to begin 2015 after being thrown into the fire following senior Ammon Lakip’s DUI and cocaine possession-related suspension. The freshman made 27-of-32 field goals, including 21-of-22 from 40 yards and in. Punter Andy Teasdall was up-and-down but landed 23 punts inside the opponent’s 20 and averaged 39.5 yards per kick. Scott has major potential as a speedy kick returner.

Final Analysis 
 

Coming off its best season since 1981, Clemson has shaken labels like “soft” and “not clutch” that were remnants of the Tommy Bowden era. The Tigers are tough, deep and talented, and with Watson leading a potent offense, they have the ingredients to make sure 2015 wasn’t a fluke. Can Venables mold another inexperienced defense into a winning unit? If so, this group will challenge for another ACC title and College Football Playoff berth. The biggest concern is a trip to Florida State on Oct. 29, but Watson and a potent offense could be good enough to overcome a less talented defense. 

The Debate

Where does Dabo Swinney rank among the ACC's best coaches?

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