Early ACC Football Predictions for 2015

Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech are the top teams in 2015.

College football’s 2014 season has ended, and the focus shifts from the national championship picture to signing day, spring practice and early preseason rankings for 2015. While last year and Ohio State’s national title victory over Oregon is still fresh in our minds, it’s never too early to think about next season.

 

Florida State dominated the ACC over the last two seasons, but the gap between the Seminoles and the rest of the league has narrowed entering 2015. Coach Jimbo Fisher’s team has several personnel concerns, and Clemson returns promising sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson. On the other side of the league, Georgia Tech is the favorite to repeat as the Coastal champion. Virginia Tech is a team to watch next season if coach Frank Beamer’s team improves on offense.

 

Early Atlantic Division Rankings for 2015

 

1. Florida State
2014 Record:
13-1 (8-0)

It’s a close call between Florida State and Clemson for the top spot in the Atlantic. And in a potential tiebreaker between these two programs, this year’s game is in Death Valley. But for now, the Seminoles get the nod as the favorite in this division. The losses on both sides of the ball are heavy for coach Jimbo Fisher. However, only one team – Alabama – has a better average recruiting rank than Florida State over the last five seasons. Junior Sean Maguire is the favorite to replace Jameis Winston at quarterback. Maguire threw for 304 yards (Clemson) in his only career start. Until Maguire settles in under center, expect the offense to use a heavy dose of running back Dalvin Cook. In addition to replacing Winston, four starters are gone from the line and receiving targets Rashad Greene (WR) and Nick O’Leary (TE) expired their eligibility. After holding opponents to 12.1 points per game in 2013, Florida State’s defense regressed on the stat sheet. The Seminoles allowed 25.6 points per game and 5.5 yards per play in 2014. Getting the defense back to an elite level next year will be a challenge with the departure of tackle Eddie Goldman, end Mario Edwards Jr. and cornerbacks Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams. However, much like the offense, there’s no shortage of promising young talent waiting to emerge next season.

2. Clemson
2014 Record:
10-3 (6-2)

The Tigers are coming off their best four-year stretch in school history, and coach Dabo Swinney’s team is poised to contend for the league title in 2015. Quarterback Deshaun Watson shined in limited action, and if healthy, will be one of the top signal-callers in the nation next year. Receivers Artavis Scott (1,002 total yards) and Mike Williams (18.1 ypc), and running backs Wayne Gallman and Tyshon Dye headline a talented group of skill players. Protecting Watson is a priority, and the line needs to be revamped with three starters departing. While there’s a lot of talent in place, coordinator Chad Morris – arguably one of the top offensive minds in the nation – left to be the head coach at SMU. Can Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott continue to keep the offense performing at a high level? And the biggest concern for this team in 2015 will be replacing the defensive losses from a unit that led the nation in fewest yards per play allowed (4.0) in 2014. Standouts Vic Beasley (DE), Corey Crawford (DE), Grady Jarrett (DT), Stephone Anthony (LB) and Garry Peters (CB) have expired their eligibility. How quickly can coordinator Brent Venables restock the cupboard?

3. Louisville
2014 Record:
9-4 (5-3)

Louisville’s first season in the ACC was a success. The Cardinals lost four games, but three of those defeats were against Florida State, Georgia and Clemson – teams ranked among the top 15 in the nation in the final Associated Press poll. Coach Bobby Petrino has some rebuilding to do this offseason to get Louisville back into the mix for nine wins in 2015. Who starts at quarterback in 2015? Will it be Reggie Bonnafon, Kyle Bolin or Will Gardner? Or will Penn State transfer Tyler Ferguson win the job in the spring? In addition to settling the quarterback battle, top receiver DeVante Parker, tight end Gerald Christian and three starters on the offensive line must be replaced. The biggest surprise in 2014 was the defense, which despite the return of only four starters, limited opponents to 4.5 yards per play in ACC games. This unit loses a key player at each level, including safety Gerod Holliman, cornerback Charles Gaines and linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin.   

4. NC State
2014 Record:
8-5 (3-5)

The Wolfpack improved by five victories in coach Dave Doeren’s second season in Raleigh. The five wins were the biggest jump in overall improvement by an ACC team from 2013 to 2014. NC State probably won’t see another five-win increase in victories next year, but this team should take another step forward under Doeren. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett is back after passing for 2,606 yards and 23 scores last year. The senior helped the offense score at least 30 points in each of its last three games. Brissett’s return will help this unit continue to improve statistically, but top receivers Bo Hines and Marquez Valdes-Scantling decided to transfer. The running back duo of Shadrach Thornton and Matt Dayes should be one of the best in the ACC next year. It’s a good thing the Wolfpack should have no trouble scoring points, as the defense allowed 31.3 points per game in ACC contests in 2014. Improvement should be expected on defense, but there are some significant losses in the trenches – Art Norman, Thomas Teal and T.Y. McGill.

5. Boston College
2014 Record:
8-5 (3-5)

Make no mistake: The Eagles are going to lose some key pieces off last year’s team. But after winning seven games in 2014 with just nine returning starters, it’s safe to assume coach Steve Addazio will find a few answers this offseason and keep this team in contention for bowl games. The biggest question mark of the spring will be who replaces Tyler Murphy at quarterback. Darius Wade is expected to replace Murphy, and the sophomore is considered another dual-threat option with potential in the passing game. The strength of Boston College under Addazio has been its offensive line and rushing attack. However, Addazio must replace all five starters on the line and more playmakers need to emerge at receiver to help an inexperienced quarterback. A handful of key defenders depart from a unit that allowed only 21.3 points per game in 2014.

6. Syracuse
2014 Record:
3-9 (1-7)

Scott Shafer’s second season saw a four-game regression in the win column, and Syracuse’s only victory in ACC play came against Wake Forest. Needless to say, the third year is a critical one for Shafer. Can the program get back on track? Or will the Orange finish 3-9 again? Injuries were partly to blame for Syracuse’s regression in the win column, but there’s hope for improvement with a healthy Terrel Hunt at quarterback. In addition to Hunt’s return, the offense needs receivers Ashton Broyld and Brisly Estime to avoid injuries after each played in only five games in 2014. Left tackle Sean Hickey and running back Prince-Tyson Gulley are other key losses for an offense that failed to score more than 17 points in each of its last five games. The defense suffered losses at each level, including standout safety Durell Eskridge and leading tackler (LB) Cameron Lynch.

7. Wake Forest
2014 Record:
3-9 (1-7)
 

Dave Clawson has been a head coach in the FCS and FBS ranks at four different programs. At his first two stops, Clawson’s team showed marked improvement from the first season to year two. Expect Wake Forest to take a step forward on the stat sheet and on the field in 2015, as Clawson inherited a roster in need of repair and a young depth chart. The Demon Deacons aren’t slated to lose many players, but cornerbacks Kevin Johnson and Merrill Noel, safety Anthony Wooding Jr. and end Zach Allen are big losses on defense. Improvement on offense is a must after averaging just 3.1 yards per play in eight ACC contests this year. The statistics weren’t pretty, but Wake Forest has some promising young talent in the mix. Quarterback John Wolford and tight end Cam Serigne are two players for Clawson to build around. However, the skill talent won’t matter if the Demon Deacons can’t fix their offensive line (48 in 2014).
 

Early Coastal Division Rankings for 2015
 

1. Georgia Tech
2014 Record:
11-3 (6-2)

The defending Coastal champs should be the favorite to win this division in 2015. Georgia Tech rebounded from a 14-13 record from 2012-13 to finish 11-3 in 2014 – its first season of double-digit victories since 2009. A big reason for the improvement in the win column was the emergence of quarterback Justin Thomas. In 14 games, Thomas rushed for 1,086 yards and eight scores and passed for 1,719 yards and 18 touchdowns to only six interceptions. Having a veteran quarterback like Thomas executing the triple option offense is critical, especially since Georgia Tech is losing five of its top seven rushers from 2014. Guard Shaquille Mason was one of the best in college football and will be missed next year. The defense gave up 6.2 yards per play in 2014 but compensated by forcing 29 turnovers. With a chunk of the starting 11 on defense returning, improvement on the stat sheet should be expected. A key scheduling note for 2015: Georgia Tech hosts Florida State, North Carolina and Virginia Tech.

2. Virginia Tech
2014 Record:
7-6 (3-5)

Thanks to a favorable schedule and 13 returning starters, Virginia Tech was considered by some to be a contender in the Coastal Division in 2014. However, the Hokies never emerged as a threat to win the division and needed a victory over Virginia in the season finale to get bowl eligible. In order for coach Frank Beamer’s team to contend in the ACC once again, fixing the offense has to be a priority. Quarterback Michael Brewer has to cut down on his mistakes (15 picks) but also needs more help from the offensive line and young receiving corps. Having a healthy stable of backs after injuries robbed Marshawn Williams and Shai McKenzie of large chunks of playing time in 2014 will help an offense that averaged only 4.9 yards per play. As usual under coordinator Bud Foster, the defense should be among the best in the ACC. Safeties Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner and linebacker Chase Williams are key losses, but the defense regains the services of tackle Luther Maddy and cornerback Brandon Facyson after both missed nearly all of last season due to injury. Cornerback Kendall Fuller is one of the ACC’s top defenders.

3. North Carolina
2014 Record:
6-7 (4-4)

Since an 8-4 record in Larry Fedora’s debut in 2012, North Carolina has regressed in the win column over the last two seasons. The Tar Heels went 6-7 last season and continued to struggle mightily on defense. North Carolina allowed 6.5 yards per play and gave up 39 points per game. While the defensive numbers aren’t pretty, there’s reason for optimism entering 2015. Most of the depth chart on defense was comprised of underclassmen last season, and new coordinator Gene Chizik has a strong track record. If the Tar Heels find a few answers on defense, they can contend in this division in 2015. The offense averaged 33.2 points per game in 2014 and returns largely intact. Quarterback Marquise Williams should be in the mix for All-ACC honors, while all five starters are back on the offensive line.

4. Miami
2014 Record:
6-7 (3-5)

Miami is just 16-16 in ACC play under coach Al Golden. Is this the year the Hurricanes win the division crown or finish in the final Associated Press poll for the first time since 2009? Running back Duke Johnson and standout left tackle Ereck Flowers left for the NFL, but the offense can build around rising star Brad Kaaya at quarterback. As a true freshman, Kaaya threw for 3,198 yards and 26 scores in 2014. Joe Yearby is a breakout candidate as Johnson’s replacement, and the Hurricanes need receiver Stacy Coley to regain his explosiveness (17.9 ypc in 2013) after averaging only eight yards per catch in 2014. The performance on defense has been an ongoing issue for Miami under Golden, but this unit limited opponents to 4.9 yards per play in ACC games. However, the Hurricanes struggled to get stops on third downs and in the red zone, while recording only 15 sacks in conference play. Linebacker Denzel Perryman and end Anthony Chickillo are two huge losses on defense.

5. Duke
2014 Record:
9-4 (5-3)

Duke’s 19 wins from 2013-14 is the best two-year stretch in school history. Coach David Cutcliffe has elevated the program, and the Blue Devils will be in the mix for a finish among the top three in the division once again. Quarterback Anthony Boone, receiver Jamison Crowder and guard Laken Tomlinson are big losses for an offense that averaged 32.4 points per game in 2014. Running back Jela Duncan’s return from an academic suspension deepens a backfield that already returns Shaquille Powell (618 yards) and Shaun Wilson (7.7 ypc). Thomas Sirk is the favorite to replace Boone at quarterback. The defense was hit hard by departures in the front seven, but the secondary could be among the best in the ACC with the return of safety Jeremy Cash. 

6. Pittsburgh
2014 Record:
6-7 (4-4)

Pat Narduzzi is Pittsburgh’s fourth head coach in six seasons. Stability at the head coach position is crucial for the Panthers in the long-term, and Narduzzi seems to be the right fit in the Steel City. Pittsburgh lost five games by five points or less in 2014, so a little improvement on both sides could result in a two-game swing in the win column. Narduzzi’s speciality is defense, which is an area of focus for the Panthers after giving up 29.6 points per game in 2014. Running back James Conner and receiver Tyler Boyd are two of the ACC’s top players, and both should thrive under new coordinator Jim Chaney. Quarterback Chad Voytik threw for 2,233 yards and 16 scores in his first season as the starter, and to help the junior progress as a passer, Chaney needs to find a few more weapons to complement Boyd in the receiving corps. The offensive line returns largely intact, but standout tackle T.J. Clemmings must be replaced.

7. Virginia
2014 Record:
5-7 (3-5)

2015 is a make-or-break year for coach Mike London at Virginia. The Cavaliers showed improvement in 2014, going from 2-10 (2013) to 5-7 last season. But even though the five victories represent the second-highest total of London’s tenure, Virginia has only one winning season over the last five years. Talent certainly isn’t an issue for the Cavaliers. Using the 2010-14 signing classes, Virginia has the No. 6 roster in the ACC. For this team to reach the six-win mark, the offense has to take a step forward. The Cavaliers averaged 20.9 points per game in eight ACC contests last season and lost 24 turnovers. The defense was the strength of this team in 2014, but standouts Eli Harold (DE), Max Valles (LB), Henry Coley (LB) and Anthony Harris (S) must be replaced. 

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