The ACC’s title has resided with Florida State or Clemson in each of the last five seasons, and it’s hard to see that changing in 2016. The Tigers are the early favorite to win the ACC next year, but the Seminoles are a close No. 2. Clemson’s defense needs to be retooled, while the offense should remain one of the best in college football behind quarterback Deshaun Watson. Running back Dalvin Cook leads the way for Florida State, and the Seminoles have an advantage in scheduling with Clemson visiting Tallahassee in 2016. Louisville is another team to watch after winning six out of its last seven games last season. North Carolina tops the early Coastal Division power rankings, but Miami, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh are capable of pushing the Tar Heels for the No. 1 spot.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2016 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the ACC for 2016:
Early ACC Predictions and Rankings for 2016
After winning 14 games and falling just short of a victory in the national championship in 2015, Clemson has its sights set on another title run next fall. But it won’t be easy for coach Dabo Swinney’s team. Quarterback Deshaun Watson leads the way for an explosive offense, and running back Wayne Gallman, receiver Artavis Scott and tight end Jordan Leggett provide plenty of talent at the skill positions. The offense also regains the services of receiver Mike Williams, who missed nearly all of 2015 due to a neck injury. Left tackle Mitch Hyatt will be even better as a sophomore, but two starters must be replaced on the offensive line. While the offense is primed for a huge season, the defense may take a step back. Six players – ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd and defensive backs Mackensie Alexander, T.J. Green, Travis Blanks and Jayron Kearse – declared early for the NFL. A road date at Florida State could be all that stands between Clemson and another undefeated regular season.
2. Florida State
The ACC should have two playoff contenders next season, as there’s not a huge gap separating Clemson and Florida State prior to spring practice. Despite a rebuilding year in 2015, the Seminoles won 10 games and earned a spot a New Year’s Six Bowl. Nearly all of the two-deep is back on offense, including running back Dalvin Cook and standout left tackle Roderick Johnson. Question marks remain on the offensive line and at receiver, but the quarterback position will be under the microscope this offseason. Can Sean Maguire hold off a challenge from freshmen Deondre Francois and Malik Henry? The defense made big strides last season by limiting opponents to 4.68 yards per play. End Demarcus Walker is a candidate for All-America honors, and safety Derwin James and end Josh Sweat are back after standout freshmen seasons. The development of the linebacking corps will be an area to watch in spring practice.
The Cardinals started slow (0-3) but finished 2015 as one of the hottest teams in the ACC. Coach Bobby Petrino’s team won six out of its last seven games, including a 38-24 victory over rival Kentucky and a 27-21 win against Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl. The pieces are in place for a dynamic offense, starting with a rising star at quarterback in Lamar Jackson and the return of running back Brandon Radcliff and receivers Jamari Staples, James Quick and Jaylen Smith. The offensive line is the biggest question mark, but Geron Christian is a promising player to build around. The defense has ranked near the top of the ACC in each of the last two seasons under coordinator Todd Grantham and a strong core is in place for 2016. End Sheldon Rankins and linebacker James Burgess will be missed, but linebackers Devonte Fields and Keith Kelsey and all four starters are back in the secondary.
4. NC State
The Wolfpack have recorded back-to-back 3-5 records in ACC play, and progress in the win column in 2016 could be a challenge for coach Dave Doeren's program. The Atlantic Division is loaded at the top with Clemson, Florida State and Louisville, and NC State catches an improving Miami team and Coastal Division champion North Carolina in crossover play. New coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz won’t have quarterback Jacoby Brissett to work with, but Jalan McClendon is an intriguing player to watch. There’s a strong stable of running backs in place for McClendon to lean on, starting with Matthew Dayes (865 yards) and Reggie Gallaspy II (4.79 ypc). All-purpose threat Jaylen Samuels headlines the targets at receiver, but three starters are gone from the offensive line. Improvement is needed on defense after giving up 29.6 points per game in ACC contests last season. However, most of the depth chart returns intact, with end Mike Rose, safety Hakim Jones and cornerback Juston Burris the biggest losses for coordinator Dave Huxtable.
5. Boston College
Last year’s 3-9 record was the worst mark for Boston College under coach Steve Addazio. However, 2015 was largely a lost season due to injuries on offense. Starting quarterback Darius Wade was hurt in the third game of the year, and All-ACC candidate in running back Jon Hilliman was limited to 198 rushing yards due to injury. Kentucky transfer Patrick Towles will push Wade for the starting job this offseason. Despite the lack of production on offense, the Eagles lost five games by three points or less. That’s largely due to a defense that led the nation in fewest yards per play allowed (4.07), finished fourth in points allowed (15.3 ppg) and second nationally against the run. Coordinator Don Brown left for Michigan, but linebacker Matt Milano and end Harold Landry are back to anchor a solid defense in 2016.
6. Wake Forest
Third-year coach Dave Clawson has recorded identical records (3-9 overall and 1-7 in league play) in back-to-back seasons. However, there are signs of progress in Winston-Salem. The Demon Deacons lost four games by a touchdown or less, including matchups against Florida State (24-16), Louisville (20-19) and Duke (27-21). After playing several freshmen over the last two years, the experience could pay off in the form of a few more wins in 2016. Quarterbacks John Wolford and Kendall Hinton will compete for the starting job, and there’s talent in the skill positions with running back Tyler Bell (451 yards), receiver Cortez Lewis (47 catches) and tight end Cam Serigne (46 catches). In order for the offense to take a step forward, the line and ground attack has to improve. The defense has been placed into some bad situations with a struggling offense over the last two years, yet managed to hold opponents to 24.6 points a game in 2015. Most of the defense is back for 2016, but standout linebacker Brandon Chubb will be missed.
The Orange deserve high marks for the hire of Dino Babers, but 2016 will be a challenge for the first-year coach. Babers’ high-powered offense has a few promising players in place, including quarterback Eric Dungey, receiver Steve Ishmael and running back Jordan Fredericks. Three starters depart on the offensive line. Syracuse’s defense surrendered 6.21 yards per play and 31 points a game last season, so there’s plenty of work needed by new signal-caller Brian Ward this spring. The good news? Most of the unit returns intact, with ends Ron Thompson (early NFL Draft entrant) and Donnie Simmons (expired eligibility) the biggest losses. The 2016 schedule doesn’t provide many breaks for Babers, as Syracuse plays swing games against Boston College and Wake Forest on the road and catches Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh in crossover play. There's not much separation between Boston College at No. 5 and Syracuse at No. 7 in the early power rankings.
1. North Carolina
The defending Coastal Division champions are in good shape to make a repeat trip to Charlotte next December. Mitch Trubisky is ready to step in as the team’s starting quarterback after Marquise Williams expired his eligibility after the 2015 season. Elijah Hood is one of the ACC’s top running backs and returns after rushing for 1,463 yards and 17 scores last year. Quinshad Davis (55 catches) is the biggest loss in the receiving corps, while standout guard Landon Turner is the only departure from an outstanding offensive line. The defense showed improvement in coordinator Gene Chizik’s first season and should be poised for another step forward on the stat sheet in 2016.
New coach Mark Richt inherits a team capable of contending for the Coastal Division title in 2016. And the schedule certainly doesn’t hurt Richt’s first-year momentum, as Miami hosts Florida State and North Carolina and misses Louisville and Clemson in crossover play. Quarterback Brad Kaaya should benefit from Richt’s tutelage, and the rest of the offense returns nearly intact. Rashawn Scott (52 catches) is the biggest loss, while running backs Mark Walton and Joseph Yearby return, along with receiver Stacy Coley and all five starters on the offensive line. The defense needs the most attention from Richt and new play-caller Manny Diaz this spring. Seven starters return from a unit that surrendered 6.1 yards per play in ACC contests last season. However, the secondary must be retooled with the departures of cornerbacks Tracy Howard and Artie Burns, along with safeties Deon Bush and Dallas Crawford.
3. Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock wasted no time in replacing retiring coach Frank Beamer, and the program landed a home-run hire in Justin Fuente. After struggling on offense in recent seasons, Fuente’s background on that side of the ball should pay off in 2016 and beyond. The quarterback position is up for grabs with Michael Brewer expiring his eligibility, but the Hokies return running back Travon McMillian and standout receiving targets in Isaiah Ford (75 catches) and tight end Bucky Hodges (40 catches). One of Fuente’s biggest moves so far was to retain veteran coordinator Bud Foster and most of Beamer’s defensive staff. Foster has a busy spring ahead, as three starters depart the line and linebacker Deon Clarke must be replaced. The secondary held ACC quarterbacks to a 49 percent completion clip this season and should be solid once again in 2016.
Pat Narduzzi has Pittsburgh on the right track. The Panthers’ 8-5 record in 2015 was the program’s highest win total since 2010, and the stability at the top should pay off for this program in 2016 and beyond. Nate Peterman edged Chad Voytik for the starting quarterback job during the regular season and returns for his senior year under the direction of new coordinator Matt Canada. Top receiver Tyler Boyd will be missed, but the offensive line should be one of the ACC’s best. Narduzzi and coordinator Josh Conklin have a few holes to fill this spring, as tackles Darryl Render and Khaynin Mosley-Smith, linebacker Nicholas Grigsby and cornerback Lafayette Pitts have expired their eligibility. But the cupboard is far from empty. End Ejuan Price is expected to get a sixth year of eligibility, and safety Jordan Whitehead is one of the ACC’s top defensive backs.
5. Georgia Tech
What a difference a year makes. After winning the Coastal Division in 2014, the Yellow Jackets slumped to 3-9 overall and claimed one victory – a last-second win over Florida State – in ACC play. So where does that leave Georgia Tech for 2016? Probably somewhere in the middle. Coach Paul Johnson’s team wasn’t as bad as it played last season but contending for the Coastal Division title seems to be out of reach. Quarterback Justin Thomas is back for his senior year, and a promising group of options returns at running back. Improvement on the offensive line and a few more big plays in the passing game are a must for Johnson’s offense in 2016. The secondary was hit the hardest by departures on defense, with end KeShun Freeman and linebacker P.J. Davis headlining the returning corps for 2016.
To put the coaching job by David Cutcliffe at Duke into perspective, a quick history trip is needed. The Blue Devils are pushing for their fifth consecutive bowl appearance in 2016. Prior to Cutcliffe’s arrival, Duke played in eight bowl games from 1922-2011. The Blue Devils will be another tough out for the rest of the ACC next fall, as quarterback Thomas Sirk should benefit from another offseason to work as the starter, and the ground attack is in good hands with Shaun Wilson and Jela Duncan. Center Matt Skura and guard Lucas Patrick are big losses in the trenches. Safety Jeremy Cash, end Kyler Brown, tackle Carlos Wray and linebacker Dwayne Norman are big losses on defense, but cornerback Bryon Fields returns after missing all of 2015 due to an ACL tear.
Virginia’s hire of Bronco Mendenhall as the program’s new coach came as a surprise. But after winning 99 games at BYU from 2005-15, Mendenhall should be a solid hire for a program that hasn’t played in a bowl since 2011. Mendenhall is a defensive-minded coach and inherits a group that surrendered 32.2 points a game last season. Safety Quin Blanding is a rising star, and linebacker Micah Kiser is another key cog for Mendenhall to build around in the front seven. Virginia has not finished higher than ninth in the ACC in scoring offense in each of the last five seasons. Go-to receiver Canaan Severin departs, but quarterback Matt Johns and running back Taquan Mizzell are back for new coordinator Robert Anae.