With 21 wins from 2011-12, Clemson is coming off the best two-year stretch in school history. The Tigers will have a chance to earn their third consecutive season of double-digit victories in 2013, as quarterback Tajh Boyd turned down a chance to enter the NFL Draft for another year in Death Valley. Receiver DeAndre Hopkins did leave for the next level, but Sammy Watkins should regain his freshman form in 2013. With a neutral site matchup against Georgia in Week 1, Clemson has an early chance to stamp its place in the national title mix.
Florida State should be the ACC’s No. 2 team next season, but the Seminoles have holes to fill. Quarterback EJ Manuel, defensive end Bjoern Werner and cornerback Xavier Rhodes are significant losses, while the defense will have a new coordinator after Mark Stoops left for Kentucky.
The Atlantic Division is home to the ACC’s top two teams, but the Coastal Division may have more depth. A case could be made for Miami, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech or North Carolina for the No. 1 spot in the division, while Pittsburgh and Virginia won’t be easy outs.
Early Atlantic Predictions for 2013
Key Returnees: QB Tajh Boyd, RB Roderick McDowell, WR Sammy Watkins, WR Adam Humphries, LT Brandon Thomas, LG David Beasley, DE Corey Crawford, DT Josh Watson, DT DeShawn Williams, DT D.J. Reader, NG Grady Jarrett, LB Spencer Shuey, LB Stephone Anthony, CB Bashaud Breeland, DB Travis Blanks
Key Departures: RB Andre Ellington, WR DeAndre Hopkins, WR Jaron Brown, TE Brandon Ford, C Dalton Freeman, DE Malliciah Goodman, LB Jonathan Willard, CB Xavier Brewer, S Rashard Hall, S Jonathan Meeks
Thanks to quarterback Tajh Boyd’s decision to return to Clemson, the Tigers will be a heavy favorite to win the ACC in 2013. Boyd threw for 3,896 yards and 36 scores last season and despite the departure of DeAndre Hopkins, could improve on those numbers in his senior season. Clemson needs receiver Sammy Watkins to regain his freshman form, while the offense has to find a replacement for running back Andre Ellington and center Dalton Freeman. The defense showed slight improvement in the first season under coordinator Brent Venables but must replace three starters in the secondary, defensive end Malliciah Goodman (seven sacks) and linebacker Jonathan Willard (95 stops).
2. Florida State
Key Returnees: RB Devonta Freeman, RB James Wilder Jr., WR Rashad Greene, WR Kenny Shaw, WR Kelvin Benjamin, TE Nick O’Leary, LT Cameron Erving, C Bryan Stork, RG Tre’ Jackson, DE Mario Edwards Jr., DT Timmy Jernigan, DT Demonte McAllister, LB Christian Jones, LB Telvin Smith, CB Ronald Darby, SS Lamarcus Joyner, S Karlos Williams
Key Departures: QB EJ Manuel, RB Chris Thompson, WR Rodney Smith, RT Menelik Watson, DE Bjoern Werner, DE Brandon Jenkins, DE Cornellius Carradine, DT Everett Dawkins, LB Vince Williams, CB Xavier Rhodes, K Dustin Hopkins
Although Jimbo Fisher hasn’t quite elevated Florida State into an annual national title contender, the program is in much better shape than it was before his arrival. Fisher’s work on the recruiting trail has helped to improve the depth, which is why the Seminoles aren’t going to fall too far in the top 25 next season. Clint Trickett, Jameis Winston and Jacob Coker will compete to replace quarterback EJ Manuel in spring practice, but Florida State’s strong supporting cast should help ease the transition of the new signal-caller. With coordinator Mark Stoops leaving to become the head coach at Kentucky, plus the departure of standouts Bjoern Werner, Cornellius Carradine and Xavier Rhodes, the Seminoles defense will take a step back in 2013. Although Florida State could still push for 10 victories, traveling to Death Valley to play Clemson could be the deciding factor in the ACC Atlantic.
Key Returnees: QB C.J. Brown, QB Perry Hills, RB Brandon Ross, RB Wes Brown, WR Stefon Diggs, WR Marcus Leak, OG De’Onte Arnett, DE Quinton Jefferson, DT Darius Kilgo, LB Cole Farrand, LB L.A. Goree, CB Dexter McDougle, CB Jeremiah Johnson, S Anthony Nixon, S Matt Robinson
Key Departures: WR Kevin Dorsey, TE Matt Furstenberg, OG Bennett Fulper, RT Justin Gilbert, DE Joe Vellano, DE A.J. Francis, LB Kenny Tate, LB Darin Drakeford, LB Demetrius Hartsfield, S Eric Franklin
The Terrapins were hit hard by the injury bug in 2012 but managed to double their win total from the previous season. The quarterback position was decimated the most, losing C.J. Brown before the first game with a torn ACL, while Perry Hills, Caleb Rowe and Devin Burns each suffered season-ending injuries before the month of November. With the top four quarterbacks out with injuries, Maryland was forced to turn to converted linebacker Shawn Petty as the starter for the final four games. With a healthy cache of quarterbacks, the Terrapins should make strides on offense in 2013. Receiver Stefon Diggs is back after a standout freshman year, while the rushing attack will benefit from the return of promising backs Brandon Ross, Albert Reid and Wes Brown. Although the offense should be improved, the defense needs a lot of work in the spring. The Terrapins lost first-team All-ACC selection in defensive end Joe Vellano, as well as four other key performers from the front seven.
Key Returnees: RB Jerome Smith, RB Prince-Tyson Gulley, WR Jarrod West, TE Beckett Wales, C Macky MacPherson, RT Sean Hickey, DE Markus Pierce-Brewster, NT Jay Bromley, LB Marquis Spruill, LB Dyshawn Davis, LB Cameron Lynch, CB Keon Lyn, CB Ri’Shard Anderson, CB Brandon Reddish, FS Jeremi Wilkes, S Durell Eskridge
Key Departures: QB Ryan Nassib, WR Marcus Sales, WR Alec Lemon, LT Justin Pugh, LG Zack Chibane, DE Brandon Sharpe, DT Deon Goggins, LB Siriki Diabate, LB Dan Vaughan, SS Shamarko Thomas
Head coach Doug Marrone departed for the NFL, but there’s no question he left Syracuse in much better shape than he found it in 2009. New coach Scott Shafer was a popular hire among the players but has no previous head coaching experience and must replace offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. Quarterback Ryan Nassib finished his eligibility after the Pinstripe Bowl, leaving Charley Loeb and Terrel Hunt to battle for the job. Neither player has a start under their belt and has combined to throw just six passes in their career. In addition to finding a new quarterback, Syracuse needs to rebuild the offensive line and replace Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales at receiver. The Orange suffered some key losses on defense, headlined by end Brandon Sharpe, safety Shamarko Thomas and linebacker Siriki Diabate.
5. NC State
Key Returnees: RB Shadrach Thornton, RB Tony Creecy, WR Quintin Payton, WR Bryan Underwood, TE Asa Watson, LT Rob Crisp, DE Darryl Cato-Bishop, DE Art Norman, DT Thomas Teal, DT T.Y. McGill, LB Rickey Dowdy, LB Rodman Noel, LB Brandon Pittman, CB Dontae Johnson, CB Juston Burris
Key Departures: QB Mike Glennon, WR Tobais Palmer, TE Mario Carter, LG R.J. Mattes, C Camden Wentz, RG Andrew Wallace, DE Brian Slay, LB Sterling Lucas, CB David Amerson, S Brandan Bishop, S Earl Wolff
There’s a clear drop in the Atlantic Division after Clemson and Florida State, and the pecking order only gets more crowded after Maryland at No. 3. Even though the Wolfpack made one of the top coaching hires of 2012 (Dave Doeren), it may be a struggle for NC State just to get bowl eligible. The biggest question mark for Doeren will be replacing quarterback Mike Glennon, which will likely be a battle between sophomore Manny Stocker and Colorado State transfer Pete Thomas. The offensive line also needs to be a focal point for Doeren, as the Wolfpack lose center Camden Wentz and guards Andrew Wallace and R.J. Mattes. On defense, the secondary needs to be rebuilt, but the front seven should be solid.
6. Wake Forest
Key Returnees: QB Tanner Price, RB Josh Harris, RB Deandre Martin, WR Michael Campanaro, WR Sherman Ragland III, DE Zach Thompson, DE Kris Redding, NG Nikita Whitlock, LB Justin Jackson, LB Mike Olson, LB Zachary Allen, CB Merrill Noel, CB Kevin Johnson, FS A.J. Marshall, S Daniel Mack
Key Departures: FB Tommy Bohanon, WR Terence Davis, C Garrick Williams, DE Joey Ehrmann, LB Riley Haynes, CB Chibuikem Okoro
After snapping a two-year bowl drought in 2011, the Demon Deacons took a step back in 2012. Wake Forest opened 3-1 last season but proceeded to lose six out of its last eight games. The biggest factor in the slide was an offensive line that had four new starters in 2012, which struggled to open up holes for the running game and protect quarterback Tanner Price. The line will be under the spotlight once again, as Price and receiver Michael Campanaro could be one of the ACC’s top pass-catch combinations if the duo has enough time to attack downfield. There’s also room for the defense to improve, especially after finishing 11th in the ACC in points allowed. Wake Forest doesn’t lose many players, so the potential is there to get back to a bowl game in 2013.