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ACC Football 2016 Predictions

Deshaun Watson

Deshaun Watson

The ACC is two-for-two in the College Football Playoff era. Clemson followed up Florida State’s playoff trip in 2014 with a run to the national title last season, as the Tigers defeated Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and fell just short against Alabama in the championship game. Clemson is loaded for another run at the title in 2016, but Dabo Swinney’s team will have company at the top of the league. Florida State finished 10-3 in a rebuilding year last fall, and with a roster full of experience and talent in place, the Seminoles are poised to challenge for the national championship. Jimbo Fisher’s team has to settle on a quarterback, but all of the other pieces are in place for Florida State to return to the College Football Playoff.

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The Atlantic is a two-team race at the top between Clemson and Florida State, but this division also features Louisville – a team capable of finishing in the 10-15 range this year – and three other projected bowl teams in Wake Forest, NC State and Boston College. Syracuse is Athlon’s pick to finish seventh in the Atlantic, but the Orange should show improvement under new coach Dino Babers.

North Carolina is the pick in the Coastal, with Miami, Virginia Tech and Pitt up next in the second tier. Georgia Tech’s regression to 3-9 last season was a huge surprise, but the Yellow Jackets should rebound back into a bowl game this fall. Duke has made major strides under coach David Cutcliffe and should challenge for a fifth consecutive trip to the postseason. However, a tougher schedule and an injured quarterback (Thomas Sirk) won’t make it easy on the Blue Devils. Virginia is projected to finish seventh in the Coastal under new coach Bronco Mendenhall. The Cavaliers enter 2016 with significant question marks on both sides of the ball. 

Five Key Questions That Will Shape the ACC in 2016

1. Clemson vs. Florida State

The Clemson-Florida State debate for the No. 1 spot in the ACC was by far the toughest of Athlon’s prediction meetings for the 2016 magazine. The Seminoles eventually got the nod as the projected ACC champion, but these two teams are really 1A and 1B. What separates Florida State from Clemson? Not much. The Seminoles have the better overall roster than the Tigers, more depth on defense, and host Dabo Swinney’s team on Oct. 29 in Tallahassee. However, Clemson has a clear edge at quarterback with Deshaun Watson retuning, and the junior signal-caller is surrounded by the nation’s top receiving corps, standout running back Wayne Gallman and an offensive line that returns three starters. While Florida State’s quarterback situation is a mystery, it’s safe to assume this position won’t be any worse than it was last year. Assuming redshirt freshman Deondre Francois is as good as advertised, the offense should be more explosive through the air, providing a little balance to go with running back Dalvin Cook. Clemson should be favored in its 11 games outside of the matchup at Florida State. However, the Tigers’ hopes of a repeat trip to the ACC title game likely rests on how quickly a young defense rebuilds once again, as well as the trip to Tallahassee. The Seminoles may lose a game in conference play somewhere along the way, but Athlon likes Florida State to edge Clemson for the division title.

Related: Explaining Athlon’s 2016 ACC Predictions

2. Can North Carolina Go Back-to-Back in the Coastal?

The Coastal Division hasn’t had a repeat team in the ACC Championship Game since Virginia Tech went to Charlotte in 2010-11. Nothing in the Coastal seems to go according to plan, but it’s hard to pick against the defending champs – North Carolina – in 2016. Mitch Trubisky should be a capable replacement for Marquise Williams at quarterback, and coach Larry Fedora has assembled one of the league’s top supporting casts. Running back Elijah Hood should push for first-team All-ACC honors behind an offensive line with four returning starters. Scoring points shouldn’t be a problem for North Carolina, but the defense is still a concern. This unit showed some improvement under new coordinator Gene Chizik last year and features one of the ACC’s top cornerback duos in M.J. Stewart and Des Lawrence. However, the Tar Heels have to get tougher against the run after giving up 247.4 yards a game in 2015. Another obstacle in a repeat bid for the division title is the schedule. North Carolina trades Wake Forest for Florida State in crossover play and has a road trip to Miami. 

College Football: Breaking Down Athlon’s 2016 Top 25



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3. How Do You Sort Out the Middle of the Coastal Division?

North Carolina is Athlon’s pick to win the Coastal, but there’s not a ton of separation between the Tar Heels and Miami in the projected standings. North Carolina is projected to finish 6-2 in league play, while the Hurricanes headline the second tier at 5-3. However, Miami will have plenty of competition for the No. 2 spot in the Coastal. If the pieces fall into place, Pitt or Virginia Tech could pass the Hurricanes in the final standings. The Panthers had a solid debut (8-5) under Pat Narduzzi last season and return 16 starters for 2016. The defense should take a step forward this year, but Pitt has to find a replacement for standout receiver Tyler Boyd. New coach Justin Fuente’s background on offense should help a Virginia Tech attack that struggled under former coordinator Scot Loeffler. The Hokies also have a favorable league schedule for Fuente’s debut. There’s no Clemson, Florida State or Louisville in crossover play, while Miami visits Blacksburg on Oct. 20. The Hurricanes have their share of concerns – secondary, offensive line and overall improvement on defense – but the addition of Mark Richt as the new coach and quarterback Brad Kaaya’s return should be enough to edge Pitt and Virginia Tech for the No. 2 spot in the Coastal.

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4. Louisville is a Sleeper Team to Watch

It’s no secret Clemson and Florida State are the heavy favorites in the Atlantic Division this season. While it would be a major surprise to see a team outside of the Tigers or Seminoles from the Atlantic in Charlotte this December, Louisville is a team that could play spoiler in 2016. The Cardinals finished 2015 by winning six out of their last seven games and returns 16 starters this year. Quarterback Lamar Jackson is one of college football’s top rising stars and should benefit from a full offseason to work as the starter under coach Bobby Petrino. Jackson is also surrounded by a deep supporting cast, and the offensive line should improve after surrendering 44 sacks in 2015. Replacing standout end Sheldon Rankins won’t be easy, but the Louisville defense returns standouts at each level and features one of the nation’s top linebacking units. The Cardinals catch Florida State in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in mid-September. Could Louisville deal an early blow to the Seminoles’ national title hopes? Or could the Cardinals pull an even bigger upset in Death Valley against Clemson on Oct. 1?

Related: 12 College Football Playoff Sleepers for 2016

5. ACC Hits a Home Run With New Coach Hires

The ACC was arguably the biggest winner of the offseason coaching carousel. All four programs hiring a coach – Virginia, Virginia Tech, Syracuse and Miami – earned high marks in their search. Not only are the individual programs big winners in the carousel, but the conference as a whole took a step forward. Having better teams and coaches only increases the entire profile of the ACC on a national level. Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente was Athlon’s No. 1 new coach hire for 2016, but he has big shoes to fill in replacing Frank Beamer. Dino Babers has brought some much-needed energy to Syracuse, and his up-tempo, spread offense should give the rest of the Atlantic fits. Bronco Mendenhall is an interesting fit at Virginia, but he’s a proven winner from his stint at BYU and is an underrated defensive coach. Miami may not win a national title under Mark Richt, but the program should take a step forward under his watch. All four new coach hires should have a positive impact on their teams for 2016 and in the future. 

College Football: Others Receiving Votes



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ACC 2016 Team Previews

Visit the Athlon Sports Online Store to order a copy of the 2016 ACC Preview Magazine, which features in-depth analysis and previews for all 14 teams, predictions, rankings and features to prepare for the upcoming year. 

ACC Predictions for 2016

ACC 2016 Superlatives and Season Predictions

 

Steven Lassan

Mitch Light

Mark Ross

David Fox

Braden Gall

 

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Offensive POY

Deshaun Watson QB, Clemson

Deshaun Watson QB, Clemson

Deshaun Watson QB, Clemson

Deshaun Watson QB, Clemson

Deshaun Watson QB, Clemson

Defensive POY

Derwin James S, FSU

Derwin James S, FSU

Devonte Fields LB, Louisville

Devonte Fields LB, Louisville

Derwin James S, FSU

Coach of the Year

Jimbo Fisher Florida State

Jimbo Fisher Florida State

Jimbo Fisher Florida State

Mark Richt Miami

Justin Fuente Va. Tech

Coach on Hot Seat

Paul Johnson Ga. Tech

Dave Doeren NC State

Paul Johnson Ga. Tech

Dave Doeren NC State

Dave Doeren NC State

Top Freshman

Deondre Francois QB, FSU

Deondre Francois QB, FSU

Dexter Lawrence DL, Clemson

Deondre Francois QB, FSU

Dexter Lawrence DL, Clemson

Top Newcomer

Jerod Evans QB, Va. Tech

Patrick Towles QB, BC

Gerald Willis DL, Miami

Jerod Evans QB, Va. Tech

Patrick Towles QB, BC

Sleeper Team

Virginia Tech

Wake Forest

Pitt

Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech

Top Coordinator Hire

Manny Diaz DC, Miami

Eliah Drinkwitz OC, NC State

Manny Diaz DC, Miami

Manny Diaz DC, Miami

Bud Foster DC, Virginia Tech

Key Position to Watch

Clemson DB

Clemson DB

Clemson DL

Clemson DB

Miami OL

Hardest to Evaluate

Miami

Miami

Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech

Miami

Coach on the Rise

Justin Fuente Virginia Tech

Dino Babers Syracuse

Justin Fuente Va. Tech

Pat Narduzzi Pitt

Dino Babers Syracuse

Must-See Game

Clemson at Florida State

Clemson at Florida State

Clemson at Florida State

Clemson at Florida State

Clemson at Florida State

Breakout Player

Josh Sweat DE, FSU

Josh Sweat DE, FSU

Mitch Trubisky QB, UNC

Josh Sweat DE, FSU

Kendall Joseph LB, Clemson

Comeback Player

James Conner RB, Pitt

James Conner RB, Pitt

James Conner RB, Pitt

Mike Williams WR, Clemson

James Conner RB, Pitt

Ranking the ACC's Coaches for 2016

1. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State

2. Dabo Swinney, Clemson

3. Bobby Petrino, Louisville

4. David Cutcliffe, Duke

5. Mark Richt, Miami

Click here to view the full ACC Coach Rankings for 2016

Grading the ACC's New Coach Hires

1. Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech (A+)

2. Mark Richt, Miami (A+)

3. Dino Babers, Syracuse (A+)

4. Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia (B+)

Click here to read the full New Coach Grades and Rankings for 2016

Ranking the ACC's Quarterbacks for 2016

1. Deshaun Watson, Clemson

2. Brad Kaaya, Miami

Recommended Articles

3. Lamar Jackson, Louisville

4. Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina

5. Deondre Francois, Florida State

Click here to view the full ACC Quarterback Rankings for 2016

ACC's Top Five Players on the Rise for 2016

1. Derwin James, S, Florida State

2. Josh Sweat, DE, Florida State

3. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville

4. Mitch Trubisky, QB, North Carolina

5. Christian Wilkins, DL, Clemson

Click here to view the ACC's Top 15 Players on the Rise for 2016

ACC's Top 10 Non-Conference Games for 2016

1. Ole Miss vs. Florida State (Orlando, Sept. 5)

2. North Carolina vs. Georgia (Atlanta, Sept. 3)

3. Florida at Florida State (Nov. 26)

4. Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech (Bristol, Sept. 10)

5. Miami at Notre Dame (Oct. 29)

6. Louisville at Houston (Nov. 17)

7. Clemson at Auburn (Sept. 3)

8. Virginia Tech at Notre Dame (Nov. 19)

9. Penn State at Pittsburgh (Sept. 10)

10. Pittsburgh at Oklahoma State (Sept. 17)

Key Coordinator Hires for 2016

1. Manny Diaz, Defensive Coordinator, Miami

2. Matt Canada, Offensive Coordinator, Pitt

3. Eliah Drinkwitz, Offensive Coordinator, NC State

4. Brian Ward, Defensive Coordinator, Syracuse

5. Ben Albert, Co-Defensive Coordinator, Duke

Top Incoming Freshmen (from 247Sports)

1. Dexter Lawrence, DL, Clemson

2. Levonta Taylor, CB, Florida State

3. Tavien Feaster, RB, Clemson

4. Landon Dickerson, OL, Florida State

5. Baveon Johnson, OL, Florida State

6. Malik Henry, QB, Florida State

7. Brian Burns, DE, Florida State

8. Tre Lamar, LB, Clemson

9. Trayvon Mullen, DB, Clemson

10. Shavar Manuel, DL, Florida State

11. Shaq Smith, LB, Clemson

12. Sam Bruce, WR, Miami

13. Janarius Robinson, DL, Florida State

14. Dontavious Jackson, LB, Florida State

15. Xavier Kelly, DE, Clemson