The ACC continued its upward trajectory after the conference claimed its second national championship in four seasons after Clemson’s victory over Alabama on Jan. 9. Thanks to outstanding coaching hires in recent years, the ACC has made progress in catching the Big Ten and SEC at the top of the conference power rankings. Could this league earn another national championship next fall? Florida State is the ACC’s top returning team for 2017, but Clemson and Louisville aren’t far behind. The Tigers must replace quarterback Deshaun Watson, while the Seminoles lose running back Dalvin Cook early to the next level. Lamar Jackson should be able to carry the Cardinals to another standout season, but the reigning Heisman winner needs more help from his offensive line to lift Louisville into the ACC title game. On the Coastal side, it’s a tight battle at the top. Miami and Virginia Tech are the early favorites, but Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Pitt aren’t far behind.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2017 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the ACC for 2017:
1. Florida State
Could the ACC make it two in a row in national championships next season? Considering the roster talent coach Jimbo Fisher has in place, the Seminoles should be one of the favorites to win it all in 2017. Quarterback Deondre Francois returns after starting all 13 games and throwing for 3,350 yards and 20 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman in 2016. Running back Dalvin Cook left early for the NFL, but the arrival of five-star freshman Cam Akers and the return of Jacques Patrick will keep the ground game performing at a high level. Left tackle Roderick Johnson and receiver Travis Rudolph departed early for the NFL. After a rough start, Florida State’s defense was much better in the second half of the 2016 season. Some of the unit’s struggles have to be attributed to a talented slate of quarterbacks faced at the start of the year, along with the season-ending knee injury to safety Derwin James. All signs point to a full recovery for James. He's a huge addition to a secondary that already returns rising star Tarvarus McFadden at cornerback. End DeMarcus Walker is a big loss off the edge, but Josh Sweat is primed for a standout 2017 season, while tackle Derrick Nnadi is a force on the interior. Florida State’s path to a playoff spot won’t be easy. The Seminoles have to play at Clemson and Florida, while catching Louisville and Miami at home. And of course, there’s the huge showdown against Alabama in Week 1 in Atlanta.
Dabo Swinney’s Tigers have plenty of staying power, but a repeat of a national championship isn’t going to be easy in 2017. Replacing quarterback Deshaun Watson is enough of a task for co-coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott, and the Tigers also lost running back Wayne Gallman and receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott early to the NFL. Additionally, center Jay Guillermo and tight end Jordan Legget have expired their eligibility. The cupboard is hardly empty on offense, as Tavien Feaster is a breakout candidate at running back, and left tackle Mitch Hyatt is one of the best in the nation. Vying to replace Watson under center will be junior Kelly Bryant, true freshman Hunter Johnson and redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper. The defense loses tackle Carlos Watkins, linebacker Ben Boulware, cornerback Cordrea Tankersley and safety Jadar Johnson. But coordinator Brent Venables is one of the best in the nation and should have this unit performing at a high level early in the 2017 campaign. End Christian Wilkins and tackle Dexter Lawrence are two of the top returning linemen in college football next year.
The Cardinals were in the thick of the playoff race in November but finished 2016 by losing their last three games. With the return of quarterback Lamar Jackson, Louisville should be a factor in the ACC title mix once again. Winning the Heisman once again won’t be easy, but Jackson should progress as a passer and eclipse 1,000 rushing yards in 2017. Jackson’s supporting cast will feature a couple of new faces. Running back Brandon Radcliff (903 yards), receivers James Quick (45) and Jamari Staples (36) and tight end Cole Hikutini (50) have all expired their eligibility. Improving the offensive line is a priority this spring, and coach Bobby Petrino upgraded the staff with the addition of Mike Summers to coach this unit. The coaching staff also experienced some turnover on the defensive side. Coordinator Todd Grantham left for Mississippi State, and Peter Sirmon arrives from Starkville to call the defensive signals. This unit must replace tackle DeAngelo Brown, linebackers Keith Kelsey and Devonte Fields, but cornerback Jaire Alexander and linebacker Stacy Thomas were two of the ACC’s most underrated defenders in 2016.
4. NC State
The Wolfpack finished 2016 with momentum, as coach Dave Doeren’s team claimed victories in three out of the final four games. Can this team challenge Louisville, Clemson or Florida State for a finish in the top three of the division next fall? With home matchups against two of those teams (Clemson and Louisville), along with rival North Carolina visiting Raleigh next year, another step forward in the win column is certainly within reach. On offense, quarterback Ryan Finley and all-purpose threat Jaylen Samuels lead the way after the departure of standout running back Matt Dayes. The loss of center Joe Scelfo is a big one, but the line could be one of the best in the ACC. A healthy Johnny Frasier at running back should alleviate some of the concerns with the departure of Dayes. The defense limited offenses to just 5.1 yards per play in 2016 and should be even better in 2017. Safety Josh Jones, cornerback Jack Tocho and nickelback Dravious Wright are the biggest losses for coordinator Dave Huxtable.
5. Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons had a breakthrough year in coach Dave Clawson’s third season. After back-to-back 3-9 campaigns – and a lot of young players receiving snaps on both sides of the ball – Wake Forest finished 7-6 in 2016 and earned a Military Bowl victory over Temple. More improvement in the win column is certainly within reach in 2017, as the Demon Deacons return nearly everyone on offense and a solid core of talent on defense. Quarterbacks John Wolford and Kendall Hinton will compete for the starting job in spring ball, but the supporting cast has improved with the emergence of running back Cade Carney and the continued play of tight end Cam Serigne. Four wide receivers that caught at least 23 passes last season are back in 2017. The biggest losses on offense came up front, as guard Tyler Hayworth and center Josh Harris expired their eligibility. New coordinator Jay Sawvel inherits a defense that finished third in the ACC in fewest points allowed per game (22.2). This unit suffered a couple of significant losses, including linebacker Marquel Lee, tackle Josh Banks, cornerback Brad Watson and rover Thomas Brown.
Entering his second year at Syracuse, Dino Babers has this program trending in the right direction. The Orange finished 4-8 in Babers’ debut last season and scored an upset win over Virginia Tech in mid-October. Another step forward is within reach next year, especially if quarterback Eric Dungey stays healthy. Dungey threw for 2,679 yards and 15 scores in nine games in 2016 but missed time at the end of the last two seasons due to injury. Dungey will miss top target Amba Etta-Tawo (94 catches). However, Ervin Phillips (90) and Steve Ishmael (48) are a talented duo on the outside. The offensive line surrendered 38 sacks last year but should improve with better luck in the health department. Scoring points shouldn’t be a problem for Syracuse next fall. For this team to earn a bowl bid, the defense needs to show marked improvement. The Orange gave up 38.6 points per game and 6.9 yards per play in 2016. This unit returns largely intact, with linebacker Zaire Franklin (101 tackles) and lineman Chris Slayton (10 tackles for a loss) leading the way in the front seven. The secondary needs to cut down on the big plays allowed after surrendering 12 passes of 50 or more yards in 2016.
7. Boston College
The Eagles rebounded in 2016 with a 7-6 record and a victory over Maryland in the Quick Lane Bowl. Under coach Steve Addazio, Boston College has won at least seven games in three of the four seasons, with the 3-9 record from 2015 the outlier. Another bowl trip should be within reach next fall – provided the Eagles answer a few key questions on offense. Boston College averaged 12 points per game in ACC games and was limited to 3.3 yards per carry in league play. Quarterback Patrick Towles (12 TDs, 7 INTs) expired his eligibility, leaving Darius Wade and Anthony Brown as the top options under center. The backfield is in great shape with the return of Jon Hilliman (542 yards) and Davon Jones (361 yards). With a new quarterback taking over, the Eagles will lean heavily on the line and running backs until the passing attack develops under Wade or Brown. Defense has been a strength for the Eagles in each of the last three years, and this unit should remain strong once again. End Harold Landry is one of the best in the nation and passed on the NFL to return for one more season in Chestnut Hill. Linebacker Matt Milano, end Kevin Kavalec, safety John Johnson and tackle Truman Gutapfel are the biggest losses for coordinator Jim Reid.
There’s not much separation at the top in the Coastal Division. For now, let’s give the edge to Mark Richt’s Hurricanes as the early favorite for 2017. Quarterback Brad Kaaya left early for the NFL after throwing for 3,532 yards and 27 touchdowns as a junior in 2016. Malik Rosier worked as Kaaya’s backup and should get the first opportunity to start next fall. However, Rosier will face competition from Evan Shirreffs and incoming freshmen N’Kosi Perry, Cade Weldon and Jack Allison. Until a quarterback emerges, expect to see the offense lean heavily on running back Mark Walton. The supporting cast also has to be retooled. Receiver Stacy Coley expired his eligibility, and tight end David Njoku left early for the NFL. Standout guard Danny Isidora will be missed in the trenches. Coordinator Manny Diaz has to replace a couple of players in the secondary, but the strength of this team should be the defense. Three freshmen – Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud - return after anchoring the linebacker spots in 2016. Joe Jackson, Chad Thomas and Kendrick Norton are back to lead the way for a talented defensive line.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2017
2. Virginia Tech
Justin Fuente was one of the offseason’s best hires and capped a standout debut in Blacksburg with a trip to the ACC Championship Game. Despite the personnel losses on offense headed into the 2017 campaign, Fuente will have this team in contention for the division title once again. Quarterback Jerod Evans, tight end Bucky Hodges and receiver Isaiah Ford all declared for the NFL Draft. Redshirt freshman Joshua Jackson could be the frontrunner to replace Evans under center, while Cam Phillips (76 catches) is due for a bigger role on the outside. Fuente also has work to do up front, as guard Augie Conte and tackle Jonathan McLaughlin expired their eligibility after the Belk Bowl. A few key players – end Ken Ekanem, tackle Woody Barron and safety Chuck Clark – depart from the defense. However, Bud Foster’s group should still rank near the top of the ACC.
3. Georgia Tech
After improving their win total by six games from 2015 to 2016, the Yellow Jackets will be a dark horse pick to watch in the Coastal Division. Quarterback Justin Thomas has expired his eligibility, but Matthew Jordan played in nine games in 2016 and should keep the offense on track. Dedrick Mills (771 yards and 12 TDs) headlines coach Paul Johnson’s backfield, but second-leading rusher Marcus Marshall (624 yards) decided to transfer. Some offseason shuffling of the offensive line is in order after center Freddie Burden expired his eligibility, and tackles Trey Klock and Eason Fromayan decided not to return in 2017. Linebacker P.J. Davis and tackles Patrick Gamble and Francis Kallon are the biggest losses for a defense that allowed 24.5 points a game last fall. Georgia Tech’s schedule features a neutral site matchup against Tennessee in Week 1 but key swing games against Pitt, Virginia Tech and North Carolina are all in Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Pat Narduzzi has brought some much-needed stability to the Steel City. The Panthers have finished 8-5 in back-to-back seasons under Narduzzi’s watch and should be a factor in the Coastal Division despite some significant personnel losses. The offense will have a new play-caller after Matt Canada left for LSU, and quarterback Nathan Peterman and linemen Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson have expired their eligibility. Additionally, running back James Conner left early for the NFL. USC graduate transfer Max Browne is expected to claim the starting job at quarterback, and the cupboard isn’t empty at running back with the return of Darrin Hall, Qadree Ollison and Chawntez Moss. All-purpose threat/receiver Quadree Henderson is another weapon for Narduzzi’s offense to utilize. With the losses on offense, Pitt’s defense needs to take a step forward to help alleviate some of the concerns on that side of the ball. This unit suffered a few key losses at each level, but safety Jordan Whitehead is back after missing the final three games due to injury.
5. North Carolina
With the departure of quarterback Mitch Trubisky and running back Elijah Hood to the NFL, 2017 appears to be a rebuilding year for coach Larry Fedora in Chapel Hill. Nathan Elliott spent 2016 as the backup to Trubisky, but the competition will include redshirt freshmen Logan Byrd and Chazz Surratt and possibly a graduate transfer (Malik Zaire?). Jordon Brown is expected to take over the starting job at running back, but the question marks on offense extend to the receiving corps after three of the top four receivers leave Chapel Hill. Center Lucas Crowley, guard Caleb Peterson and tackle Jon Heck leave big shoes to fill in the trenches. The defense may have to carry more of the load until the offense settles behind the new quarterback. Tackle Nazair Jones left early for the NFL, but enough talent returns to expect improvement in 2017. Cornerback M.J. Stewart should be one of the top defensive backs in the ACC next fall.
Duke’s streak of four consecutive bowl bids ended in 2016, as the Blue Devils slipped to 4-8 – the program’s first losing mark since 2012. However, coach David Cutcliffe’s team won’t be down for long. Quarterback Daniel Jones returns after a promising freshman season, while leading rusher Shaun Wilson (623 yards) and three of the top four receiving targets are also back in Durham. The biggest losses on offense are in the trenches after Casey Blaser and Tanner Stone expired their eligibility. Improvement on defense is needed after surrendering 6.3 yards per play in 2016. Tackle A.J. Wolf is the biggest loss on the defensive front, but the bigger concern for Cutcliffe is in the secondary after Breon Borders, Deondre Singleton and Corbin McCarthy expired their eligibility.
A quick fix wasn’t expected for Bronco Mendenhall’s first season at Virginia. The Cavaliers finished 2-10 but defeated Duke in ACC play and lost two games (Louisville and Wake Forest) by a touchdown. Mendenhall and this staff have a lot of work to do as offseason workouts begin for 2017. Quarterback Kurt Benkert (21 TDs, 11 INTs) returns, along with the team’s top two receivers in Doni Dowling (50 catches) and Olamide Zaccheaus (51). However, running back Taquan Mizzell (940 yards and 52 catches) departs. The offensive line needs to play with more consistency after giving up 36 sacks in 2016. After giving up 6.3 yards per play last year, the defense also enters spring ball looking to take a step forward. There are building blocks for Mendenhall on this side of the ball. Linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding are two of the top defenders in the ACC, and tackle Andrew Brown is back after generating six sacks in 2016.