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ACC Football 2017 Predictions

Deondre Francois, Florida State Football

Deondre Francois, Florida State Football

The ACC stuffed the trophy case last season and claimed the top spot among college football’s conferences. Clemson defeated Alabama for the national title, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson won the Heisman Trophy, Florida State defeated Michigan in the Orange Bowl, and 11 teams finished with a winning record. Additionally, the ACC capped a strong regular season by claiming nine bowl victories

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There’s little reason to doubt this league will be back near the top of the pecking order once again in 2017. Athlon’s predictions place Florida State and Miami as the favorites to win the divisions and rematch in Charlotte in early December to decide the conference title. However, Clemson is once again a playoff contender, Virginia Tech is a close No. 2 behind Miami in the Coastal, and with Jackson leading the way, Louisville is a top 25 team.

Here are five key storylines or discussions that shaped Athlon’s ACC predictions for 2017:

1. Clemson vs. Florida State

With Deshaun Watson taking snaps in the NFL, the balance of power in the ACC is likely to swing back to Florida State. The Seminoles return one of the league’s top quarterbacks in Deondre Francois, along with a defense that should be among the nation’s best with nine returning starters. Additionally, this unit will get a boost with safety Derwin James – arguably the top defensive player in college football – back from a knee injury. The biggest question marks surrounding coach Jimbo Fisher’s team remain in the trenches and depth at receiver. The schedule also works against Florida State. The Seminoles play Alabama to open the year, along with road trips to Clemson (Nov. 11) and Florida (Nov. 25). The Tigers also have their share of obstacles in the schedule, as a non-conference date against Auburn and a road trip to Blacksburg to play Virginia Tech won’t be easy. But Clemson’s hopes of a repeat bid to the CFB Playoff rest with the development of the quarterbacks. Kelly Bryant closed spring as the No. 1 option, but true freshman Hunter Johnson will make a push in the fall. The offense is likely to take a small step back without Watson, but the Tigers are loaded once again on defense. Even if Clemson regresses in the win column, don’t expect too big of a drop. Despite the Clemson-Florida State matchup in Death Valley this year, Athlon likes the Seminoles to regain control of the Atlantic Division.

2. Miami vs. Virginia Tech

Deciding between Miami or Virginia Tech for the top spot in the Coastal Division was the toughest debate of Athlon’s ACC predictions. Both teams bring similar strengths to the table this fall. The Hokies and Hurricanes should rank near the top of the conference in defense, but both could start a freshman quarterback in the opener. Miami is in slightly better shape in terms of skill talent, and these two teams are relatively even up front on the offensive line. Whichever team finds the right mix on offense early in the 2017 season is likely to hold a slight edge for the top spot. Both teams have difficult crossover matchups. The Hurricanes have to play Florida State, and the Hokies host Clemson in late September. However, the defacto Coastal title game between Miami and Virginia Tech is at Hard Rock Stadium on Nov. 4. That could be the difference in the Coastal Division race.  

3. North Carolina’s Rebuilding Effort

As evidenced by our staff picks below, North Carolina was one of the toughest teams to get a read on this offseason. The Tar Heels suffered some significant personnel losses. On offense, quarterback Mitch Trubisky, running backs T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood, receivers Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard, along with three key linemen have all departed Chapel Hill. The rebuilding effort starts with LSU transfer Brandon Harris under center, while Auburn transfer Stanton Truitt could provide some punch at running back or receiver. Two graduate transfers – Cam Dillard (Florida) and Khaliel Rodgers (USC) – should help in the trenches. That’s a lot of new faces to blend on offense in just one offseason. The defense returns six starters and could be the strength of this team. New coordinator John Papuchis inherits some solid pieces in the front seven, while cornerback M.J. Stewart should push for All-ACC honors. This unit has to get better against the run after giving up 227.3 yards per game in 2016. In addition to all of the roster turnover, North Carolina plays at NC State and catches Louisville in crossover play. The Tar Heels also have road trips to Georgia Tech and Pitt – two key swing games. That’s a lot of question marks for Larry Fedora’s team, pushing North Carolina to fifth in our Coastal picks.

4. Can Louisville Challenge Clemson or Florida State?

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While Florida State and Clemson enter 2017 with better overall rosters than Louisville, Bobby Petrino’s team has the ultimate equalizer: Lamar Jackson. The dynamic junior helped the Cardinals outgain ACC opponents by 255.3 yards per game last season and is capable of another monster statistical season. But in order for the Cardinals to catch the top teams in the Atlantic Division, Jackson needs more help from his supporting cast. Louisville’s offensive line surrendered 47 sacks last year and remains a concern. Last season’s leading rusher (Brandon Radcliff) and key receiving targets James Quick, Cole Hikutini and Jamari Staples departed Louisville. The skill players will be missed, but the Cardinals have a collection of promising options ready to step up. But the play of the offensive line – especially against the Seminoles and Tigers – is crucial to cutting the gap in the Atlantic. Peter Sirmon replaced Todd Grantham as the program’s defensive coordinator, and he’s tasked with simplifying things for a unit that ranked 31st nationally in scoring defense last fall. Seven starters return on defense, and linebacker Trevon Young is slated to return after missing 2016 due to injury. Another key component to Louisville’s hopes of winning the Atlantic: Turnover margin. The Cardinals ranked 107th nationally by posting a minus-seven margin in 2016.

Related: ACC 2017 All-Conference Team

5. Dark Horse Teams to Watch

While Virginia Tech and Miami earned the top spots in Athlon’s Coastal Division predictions, keep an eye on Georgia Tech and Pitt. The Yellow Jackets showed marked improvement after a 3-9 record in 2015, defeating eventual Coastal champ Virginia Tech 30-20 and finishing with a 9-4 overall record. Coach Paul Johnson’s team returns 17 starters, including breakout star Dedrick Mills at running back. Can the Yellow Jackets find the right answer under center and improve a defense that ranked 10th in the ACC against the run? Considering how tight the Coastal Division usually is, Pitt’s schedule should allow for coach Pat Narduzzi’s team to hang around in the title picture. The Panthers don’t have to play Louisville, Clemson or Florida State – the top three teams from the Atlantic. But Narduzzi’s team isn’t without question marks. Pitt has a new play-caller (Shawn Watson) on offense, a transfer (Max Browne) stepping in at quarterback, and the defense surrendered 35.2 points per game last fall. In the Atlantic Division, NC State is the dark horse team to watch. The Wolfpack are strong on the line of scrimmage, feature a returning starter (Ryan Finley) at quarterback, and feature one of the nation’s most underrated players in all-purpose threat Jaylen Samuels. NC State has to play at Florida State, but Louisville and Clemson come to Raleigh. 

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ACC Football 2017 Predictions

ACC 2017 Superlatives and Season Predictions

 

Steven Lassan

Mitch Light

Mark Ross

 

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@AthlonMitch

@AthlonMarkR

Offensive POY

Lamar Jackson QB, Louisville

Lamar Jackson QB, Louisville

Lamar Jackson QB, Louisville

Defensive POY

Derwin James S, FSU

Harold Landry DL, BC

Harold Landry DL, BC

Coach of the Year

Mark Richt Miami

Mark Richt Miami

Mark Richt Miami

Coach on Hot Seat

Dave Doeren NC State

Steve Addazio Boston College

Dave Doeren NC State

Top Freshman

Cam Akers RB, FSU

Cam Akers RB, FSU

Michael Carter RB, UNC

Top Newcomer

Dee Delaney DB, Miami

Brandon Harris QB, UNC

Dee Delaney DB, Miami

Sleeper Team

NC State

NC State

NC State

Key Position to Watch

Florida State OL

Florida State OL

Florida State OL

Best Coordinator Hire

Jay Sawvel DC, Wake Forest

Jay Sawvel DC, Wake Forest

Peter Sirmon DC, Louisville

Hardest Team to Evaluate

North Carolina

North Carolina

North Carolina

Coach on the Rise

Brent Venables DC, Clemson

Jeff Scott Co-OC, Clemson

Brent Venables DC, Clemson

Must-See Game

Florida State at Clemson

Florida State at Clemson

Florida State at Clemson

Breakout Player

Dedrick Mills RB, GT

Nyqwan Murray WR, FSU

Quadree Henderson WR, Pitt

Comeback Player

Derwin James S, FSU

Derwin James S, FSU

Derwin James S, FSU

Ranking the ACC Quarterbacks for 2017

1. Lamar Jackson, Louisville

2. Deondre Francois, Florida State

3. Eric Dungey, Syracuse

Click here to view the full QB Rankings for 2017

Ranking the ACC Coaches for 2017

1. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State

2. Dabo Swinney, Clemson

3. Bobby Petrino, Louisville

Click here to view the full ACC Coach Rankings for 2017