Clemson is the ACC's clear favorite going into next season
Clemson heads into 2019 as the clear favorite to win the ACC and should open the season ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in preseason polls. While the Tigers are the clear favorite, uncertainty surrounds the rest of the ACC. After winning 10 games in 2018, Syracuse is likely to be in the mix for a spot in the top 25. Coach Dino Babers’ team won 10 games last fall and most of the depth chart returns intact. The rest of the Atlantic is a mystery. Louisville will be better under new coach Scott Satterfield, and it’s hard to see Florida State finishing 5-7 again. In the Coastal, Virginia Tech, Virginia and Miami appear to be the frontrunners going into ’19. However, defending champ Pitt shouldn’t be overlooked.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2019 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the ACC for 2019:
The reigning national champs will be a heavy favorite to win the ACC and reach the national title game for the fourth time in five years. Dabo Swinney’s defense lost tackle Dexter Lawrence, end Clelin Ferrell and linebacker Tre Lamar and cornerback Travyon Mullen early to the NFL and has to replace linemen Albert Huggins, Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant, along with linebacker Kendall Joseph. Despite those losses, coordinator Brent Venables will ensure this unit doesn’t miss a beat. Xavier Thomas and K.J. Henry headline the next wave of stars up front, while hybrid linebacker/safety Isaiah Simmons, cornerback A.J. Terrell and safety K’Von Wallace are back to anchor the secondary. With quarterback Trevor Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne and a loaded group of receivers leading the way, Clemson’s offense could be even better than its 2018 version (44.3 ppg). Left tackle Mitch Hyatt is the biggest loss on offense, but former top recruit Jackson Carmon is ready to step into the starting lineup. A trip to Syracuse is the toughest road game on the 2019 schedule, while Texas A&M visits Death Valley on Sept. 7.
Eric Dungey has finished his eligibility, but don’t expect Syracuse to fall too far in the win column next season. After winning 10 games in coach Dino Babers’ third year, the Orange should be able to reload behind former four-star quarterback recruit Tommy DeVito. The New Jersey native completed 50.6 percent of his throws for 525 yards and four scores as Dungey’s backup in 2018. DeVito has a strong supporting cast of skill talent at his disposal. Oklahoma transfer Abdul Adams joins a backfield that already features Moe Neal (869 yards) and Jarveon Howard (315). Three out of the top four statistical receivers are back in 2019, and this unit will receive a boost with Trishton Jackson eligible for a full year after transferring in from Michigan State. The biggest concern on offense is a line that loses three starters, including tackles Cody Conway and Koda Martin. After giving up 6.4 yards a play in 2017, Syracuse’s defense held teams to 5.8 in ’18. Another step forward out of this group should be expected next fall. Linebackers Ryan Guthrie and Kielan Whitner depart after leading the team in tackles, but the rest of the defense returns largely intact. Chris Slayton must be replaced on the interior of the line, but Alton Robinson, Kendall Coleman and McKinley Williams are back. Safety Andre Cisco anchors the secondary after earning first-team All-ACC honors as a freshman in 2018. The Orange face road trips to Maryland, Florida State, Louisville and NC State, but Clemson visits the Carrier Dome next fall.
3. Florida State
Willie Taggart will have a busy offseason in Tallahassee. The Seminoles finished 5-7 in his first year at the helm and watched their streak of 36 consecutive seasons with a bowl appearance end after a loss to Florida in the regular season finale. However, the news isn’t all bad for Taggart. Florida State still has a good core of talent in the program. James Blackman and Deondre Francois will compete for the starting quarterback job in spring practice, with Cam Akers back to lead the way at running back. Even though leading receiver Nyqwan Murray (54 catches) departs, the receiving corps features some intriguing options. Tamorrion Terry (21.3 ypc) should be an All-ACC performer in 2019, while Keith Gavin (26 catches), D.J. Matthews (42), Keyshawn Helton (11) and tight end Tre’ McKitty (26) also return. However, the offense won’t take off without better play in the trenches. The Seminoles struggled with attrition and injuries up front all year and prevented the offense from finding its footing under the new staff. There’s a new play-caller this year (Kendal Briles) and some added depth thanks to the recruiting trail. If Florida State can generate modest improvement up front, a bowl game should certainly be within reach. Defense also played a role in last year’s 5-7 record. The Seminoles allowed 31.5 points a game and allowed 10 plays of 50 yards or more. The secondary has to play better, and coordinator Harlon Barnett has to replace standout edge rusher Brian Burns. Tackle Marvin Wilson and hybrid linebacker/safety Jaiden Woodbey are two of the ACC’s rising stars on defense. Florida State opens with a matchup against Boise State in Jacksonville and faces tough road trips to Florida, Clemson and Virginia next season.
4. NC State
Despite winning nine games in back-to-back seasons, NC State is a tough team to get a read on for 2019. The Wolfpack are set to replace quarterback Ryan Finley, running back Reggie Gallaspy and receivers Jakobi Meyers and Kelvin Harmon. Also, standouts Tyler Jones (LT), Terronne Prescod (OG) and Garrett Bradbury (center) must be replaced in the trenches. Matthew McKay, Devin Leary and former Florida State signal-caller Bailey Hockman will compete to replace Finley, while Ricky Person is likely to emerge as the No. 1 running back after 471 yards as a freshman in 2018. The offense will also have a new play-caller after Eli Drinkwitz left for Appalachian State. Des Kitchings and George McDonald will share the co-offensive coordinator title and play-calling duties. Considering the turnover on offense, NC State will have to lean more on its defense next fall. The Wolfpack allowed only 24.9 points a game and finished second in the ACC against the run in 2018. Linebacker Germaine Pratt and linemen Darian Roseboro and Deonte Holden leave big shoes to fill in the front seven. However, the secondary should improve with nearly everyone back, and there’s a good foundation of talent in the trenches. Touted recruit Payton Wilson returns from injury to compete for time at linebacker.
5. Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons have recorded three consecutive winning seasons under coach Dave Clawson, and it’s a good bet that streak extends to four in 2019. Quarterback Sam Hartman returns after a promising freshman season that was cut short due to injury. He threw for 1,984 yards and 16 touchdowns to eight picks and added 275 rushing yards and two scores on the ground. Backup Jamie Newman played well in relief of Hartman and is slated to return as well next fall. Cade Carney anchors the rushing attack after recording 1,005 yards, but dynamic receiver Greg Dortch departed early for the NFL. Dortch leaves big shoes to fill on the outside, but Sage Surratt (41 catches), Scotty Washington (20) and tight end Jack Freudenthal (15) is a good trio to build around next fall. The offensive line has made major strides over the last two years but is set to lose center Ryan Anderson and guard Phil Haynes. However, left tackle Justin Herron suffered a season-ending injury in the opener and will rejoin the lineup in 2019. Coordinator Jay Sawvel was fired after the defense allowed 56 points to Notre Dame in late September, with Lyle Hemphill promoted to the play-caller role. This group showed some progress the rest of the way but still allowed 33.3 points a game in 2018. The Demon Deacons have plenty of room to improve against the run and have to cut down on the big plays allowed in the secondary. Every level of the defense has holes to fill next fall, as the secondary loses safety Cameron Glenn, while the front seven is set to replace Willie Yarbary, Chris Calhoun and Zeek Rodney in the trenches and linebacker Demetrius Kemp. Wake Forest has a tough opener versus Utah State and plays at Virginia Tech in crossover play. Additionally, Clawson’s team hosts swing games against Duke, Louisville and NC State.
6. Boston College
The Eagles appeared primed to exceed the seven-win mark for the first time under coach Steve Addazio but finished the 2018 season by losing their final three regular season contests. Addazio’s first priority this offseason is to find a replacement for coordinator Scot Loeffler, who was hired as the head coach at Bowling Green. In addition to finding a new play-caller, Boston College needs to replace a couple of starters in the trenches, including standout guard Chris Lindstrom. Running back AJ Dillon is among college football’s top returning players for 2018, and quarterback Anthony Brown threw for 20 touchdowns and 2,121 yards in sophomore campaign. The receiving corps needs to be restocked after tight end Tommy Sweeney and receivers Jeff Smith and Michael Walker expired their eligibility. Boston College is slated to lose a chunk of talent off a defense that held teams to 25.7 points a game in ’18. Linebacker Connor Strachan, end Zach Allen, cornerback Hamp Cheevers, safety Will Harris and tackle Wyatt Ray each depart Chestnut Hill. Addazio and defensive coordinator Jim Reid can begin the rebuilding effort around linebackers Isaiah McDuffie and Max Richardson and cornerback Brandon Sebastian. Boston College plays non-conference matchups at Rutgers and Notre Dame but hosts Wake Forest and NC State in potential swing games for positioning within the ACC.
Louisville was a big winner with its hire of Scott Satterfield in the coaching carousel for 2018-19, but the former Appalachian State coach inherits a team that finished 0-8 in ACC play, allowed 44.1 points a game and ranked last in the conference in scoring offense (19.8 ppg). It won’t be long before Satterfield gets Louisville trending in the right direction, but it could be a slow climb in 2019. The Cardinals struggled to get consistency out of quarterbacks Jawon Pass and Malik Cunningham last fall and could hit the graduate transfer market for another option. There are promising pieces to build around at the skill positions, especially Hassan Hall (101.7 total all-purpose yards a game), and receivers Dez Fitzpatrick, TuTu Atwell and Seth Dawkins. Louisville’s offensive line has ranked last in the ACC in sacks allowed in four consecutive years. However, Satterfield hired one of the league’s top line coaches in Dwayne Ledford, so there should be noticeable improvement in ’19. New defensive coordinator Bryan Brown is another outstanding assistant hire and should better utilize the returning talent than the previous staff. The Cardinals open with Notre Dame and play at Florida State, Kentucky, Miami, NC State and Wake Forest next season. Satterfield’s team does host Boston College and Virginia for swing contests in the ACC. Expect Louisville to show significant improvement in 2019 and moving up a couple of spots in the Atlantic once the dust settles in the coaching/offseason player carousel wouldn't be a surprise.
1. Virginia Tech
Uncertainty surrounds the Coastal Division once again for next season, but the Hokies are Athlon’s way-too-early pick for No. 1. Coach Justin Fuente’s team was hit hard by injuries and attrition, with just a handful of seniors seeing major snaps in 2018. Virginia Tech has two proven options (Ryan Willis and Josh Jackson) ready to compete for the starting quarterback job this offseason, with Damon Hazelton back as the go-to receiver after catching 51 passes for 802 yards and eight scores in ’18. The Hokies also return Eric Kumah (42 receptions), Tre Turner (26) and Hezekiah Grimsley (31) at receiver, while Dalton Keene is back at tight end after catching 28 passes for 341 yards and three scores. Leading rusher Steven Peoples (786 yards) departs, but Deshawn McClease (433) and Jalen Holston (281) should provide a solid one-two punch at running back. In addition to solving the quarterback battle, Fuente’s other concern on offense will be in the trenches. The Hokies are slated to lose three key seniors from the line, including right tackle Yosuah Nijman. Bud Foster’s defense allowed an uncharacteristic 31 points a game and 6.4 yards per play in ’18. However, with all of the injuries and attrition this unit faced, a handful of young players received valuable reps for 2019. Lineman Ricky Walker is the defense’s biggest loss. A tough road slate is on tap for next fall, as Virginia Tech plays at Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Miami and Virginia.
After winning just two games in coach Bronco Mendenhall’s first season in 2016, Virginia increased that total to six in ’17 and eight last year. The next step? Win the Coastal Division. That goal is certainly within reach for the Cavaliers next season, as Mendenhall’s team returns dynamic quarterback Bryce Perkins. In his first year in Charlottesville, Perkins accounted for 277.2 total yards a game and 34 overall scores. His supporting cast will require some renovation. Running back Jordan Ellis (1,026 yards) and receiver Olamide Zaccheaus (93 catches) have expired their eligibility. The Cavaliers have room to improve up front after allowing 32 sacks, and a couple of starters must be replaced going into 2019. Mendenhall’s defense finished third in the ACC by holding teams to 20.1 points a game in ’18. A couple of key performers – safety Juan Thornhill, linebacker Chris Peace and cornerback Tim Harris – are departing, but the unit got a huge boost when cornerback Bryce Hall announced he was returning to campus for 2019. Virginia has an intriguing non-conference battle at Notre Dame on Sept. 28 but catches Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech at home. Also, the Cavaliers do not play Clemson or Syracuse from the Atlantic Division.
Miami is the ACC’s wild card team for 2019. The Hurricanes entered ’18 with high expectations but finished 7-6 overall and 4-4 in ACC play. Additionally, coach Mark Richt announced his surprise retirement a couple of days after the Pinstripe Bowl loss to Wisconsin. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz left to be the head coach at Temple but returned to Coral Gables after Richt’s retirement. Diaz has been instrumental in guiding Miami’s defense to a place among the ACC’s best in each of the last three years. He’s slated to hand the play-calling duties on defense to former Louisiana Tech coordinator Blake Baker, and the new staff got an early victory once linebackers Michael Pinckney, Shaquille Quarterman and Zach McCloud all decided to return for 2019. End Joe Jackson and tackle Gerald Willis are big losses up front, while safety Jaquan Johnson leaves big shoes to fill in the secondary. While Diaz and Baker should keep this defense near the top of the ACC, the offense has to show improvement to challenge for the Coastal Division title. Miami averaged only 28.8 points a game, 5.6 yards a play and ranked near the bottom of the ACC in big plays through the air. The quarterback position is unsettled. N’Kosi Perry and Jarren Williams are back, but a graduate transfer is an option. The situation is different at running back, as the Hurricanes are in good shape with the return of Lorenzo Lingard and DeeJay Dallas. Center Tyler Gauthier and left tackle Tyree St. Louis depart an offensive line that allowed 2.4 sacks a game in ACC contests. Miami opens with Florida in Orlando to start the 2019 season and travels to Pitt, North Carolina, Florida State and Duke in conference play. However, key matchups against Virginia and Virginia Tech take place in Hard Rock Stadium.
The Panthers are the defending Coastal Division champs, but coach Pat Narduzzi’s program enters the offseason with some significant work to do on offense. Despite averaging 6.4 yards a play in conference-only matchups, Pitt averaged only 25.6 points a game for the season. As a result, coordinator Shawn Watson was dismissed following the Sun Bowl loss to Stanford. The new play-caller has to help quarterback Kenny Pickett (1,969 yards and 12 TDs to 6 INTs) take the next step in his development. Pickett is slated to return his top five statistical receivers next fall, including Taysir Mack (22.3 ypc) and Maurice Ffrench (6 TD catches). The rushing attack led the way for the Panthers in 2018, but 1,000-yard rushers Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall are out of eligibility. The cupboard isn’t totally bare at this position. While there’s inexperience, Mychale Salahuddin, A.J. Davis and Todd Sibley are a talented trio to utilize next season. Pitt has to retool its offensive line this season, as tackles Alex Bookser and Stefano Millin, center Connor Dintino and guard Mike Herndon are out of eligibility. The return of center Jimmy Morrissey from injury will ease the transition on the interior. Narduzzi also has a few holes to plug on defense. The linebacker unit loses standout Oluwaseun Idowu, along with Quintin Wirginis and Elijah Zeise. End Dewayne Hendrix and tackle Shane Roy have also finished their eligibility in the Steel City. End Rashad Weaver (14 TFL) is back after a disruptive 2018 season, while safety Damar Hamlin and cornerback Dane Jackson are back to anchor the secondary. The non-conference schedule features tough matchups against Ohio, Penn State (in Happy Valley) and UCF. Pitt hosts Boston College and plays at Syracuse in crossover play with the Atlantic Division. However, swing matchups versus Duke, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech take place away from Heinz Field.
Replacing quarterback Daniel Jones isn’t going to be easy, but coach David Cutcliffe is one of the best at developing players at this position. Additionally, it doesn’t hurt the Blue Devils have an experienced option in Quentin Harris to compete for the starting job. Harris completed 34 of 68 throws for 437 yards and seven touchdowns and went 2-0 as the starter with Jones sidelined due to injury in 2018. Deon Jackson and Brittain Brown are back to form a solid tandem at running back, but receivers T.J. Rahming (75 catches), Johnathan Lloyd (51) and Chris Taylor (31) have expired their eligibility. Left tackle Christian Harris and guard Zach Harmon must be replace up front. However, three starters are back, including center Jack Wohlabaugh. While the offense will be rebuilding, the defense should be a strength. Duke allowed 27.4 points a game in 2018, but this group returns a good chunk of its core. Leading tackler Joe Giles-Harris departed for the NFL, and fellow standout at linebacker Ben Humphreys also must be replaced. Victor Dimukeje (9.0 TFL) and Chris Rumph II (8.0 TFL) are two pieces to rebuild around up front, and defensive back Dylan Singleton earned honorable mention All-ACC honors last fall. Also, standout cornerback Mark Gilbert is back after missing most of the 2018 season due to injury. Duke opens with Alabama, plays Notre Dame on Nov. 9 and catches Syracuse in crossover play with the Atlantic Division. Key swing games against Georgia Tech and Pitt take place in Durham.
6. North Carolina
With Mack Brown back on the sidelines at North Carolina, this program certainly won’t lack for intrigue in 2019. After winning 11 games in 2015, the Tar Heels regressed to eight in ’16 and went 5-18 over the last two years. How quickly can Brown get this program back on track? New offensive coordinator Phil Longo inherits an offense with plenty of talent to work with at running back. Michael Carter (597 yards), Antonio Williams and Jordon Brown are back to anchor the ground attack in ’19. Nathan Elliott led the team with 2,169 passing yards, but he’s likely to be pushed by Cade Fortin, Jace Ruder, Chazz Surratt and incoming freshman Sam Howell for the starting job. The offense needs a new go-to receiver after Anthony Ratliff-Williams left early for the NFL. North Carolina’s offensive line allowed only 10 sacks in ’18, but left tackle William Sweet is off to the NFL. However, four other starters are back next season, including right tackle Charlie Heck. The Tar Heels have ranked near the bottom of the ACC in points allowed in each of the last two years. However, the coordinator hire of Jay Bateman from Army was a step in the right direction. Bateman won’t have linebacker Cole Holcomb, safety J.K. Britt or end Malik Carney to utilize in 2019, as all three have expired their eligibility. North Carolina opens in Charlotte against South Carolina and also plays non-conference games versus Wake Forest and Appalachian State. Clemson and a road trip to NC State mark the crossover opponents for 2019.
7. Georgia Tech
Geoff Collins is an outstanding hire for Georgia Tech, but it may take a year or two in order to transition from the option scheme ran under previous coach Paul Johnson. Considering the significant shift in scheme, could the Yellow Jackets pursue a graduate transfer at quarterback to jumpstart the passing game? If not, sophomore Tobias Oliver enters 2019 with the most snaps of any signal-caller on the roster. Oliver is the team’s top returning rusher (876 yards) but only completed 7 of 16 throws for 167 yards in 2018. Until the quarterback position is stabilized, Collins and coordinator Dave Patenaude can lean on the ground game, which features running backs Jordan Mason (659 yards) and Jerry Howard (564). Additionally, only one starter is set to depart up front. Collins was a standout defensive coordinator before he took over as Temple’s coach, and his impact should be felt on this side of the ball in 2019. Georgia Tech struggled to generate pressure (17 sacks), allowed 29.3 points a game, finished 13th in the ACC in pass efficiency defense and gave up 5.9 yards a play in 2018. Improving on those numbers won’t be easy. The Yellow Jackets lose eight of their top 13 tacklers, including lineman Anree Saint-Amour (12 TFL), safety Malik Rivera (68 tackles) and linebacker Brant Mitchell (63). Hybrid defensive back/linebacker Charlie Thomas and cornerback Tre Swilling are two sophomores Collins can build around in 2019. Georgia Tech faces defending champ Clemson in its 2019 opener and plays non-conference matchups against USF and Temple in September. Potential swing matchups against NC State, Pitt and North Carolina take place in Atlanta next fall.