The top of the ACC in 2018 could look a lot like the 2017 standings. Clemson has claimed three consecutive conference titles and begins the preseason as the favorite for next fall. The Tigers should have an explosive offense, while the defense should remain among the best in college football. Florida State is the biggest threat to Clemson in the Atlantic Division, but coach Willie Taggart’s team is likely a year away from pushing for the top spot. In the Coastal, Miami finally reached the ACC title game last fall and is favored over Virginia Tech for the division crown for 2018. The Hurricanes are a team on the rise behind coach Mark Richt and should be in the mix for a playoff spot once again.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2018 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the ACC for 2018:
Early ACC Football Predictions for 2018
After winning three conference titles in a row, it should be no surprise Dabo Swinney’s team enters 2018 as the favorite to win the ACC. Quarterback Kelly Bryant returns after a solid debut as the team’s starter, but he could face competition from sophomore Hunter Johnson or five-star recruit Trevor Lawrence in spring ball. Running backs Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne form a potent one-two punch on the ground, with Hunter Renfrow, Amari Rodgers and Tee Higgins leading the next wave of standouts at receiver after Deon Cain declared early for the NFL Draft. The interior of the line will have three new starters, but left tackle Mitch Hyatt is among the best in college football. Even if the defense loses linemen Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant to the NFL, this unit won’t slip too far on the stat sheet with Brent Venables calling the plays. If those three linemen leave for the next level, tackle Dexter Lawrence and incoming freshmen Xavier Thomas and K.J. Henry is a good place to start the effort to reload in the trenches. Dorian O’Daniel is a big loss at linebacker, but Kendall Joseph led the team with 96 stops and is likely to be among the ACC’s best at that position in 2018. Cornerback Ryan Carter is the only starter departing from a secondary that surrendered only 16 touchdowns in 14 games in 2017.
2. Florida State
Expect the Seminoles to rebound back into the top 25 in coach Willie Taggart’s first season. There’s simply too much talent in this program to expect another seven-win mark in 2018. Taggart’s first priority is to implement his offense, which will feature more tempo than former coach Jimbo Fisher. Running back Cam Akers is likely to be the focal point of the offense after rushing for 1,025 yards and seven touchdowns as a true freshman in 2017. Taggart has two proven quarterbacks vying for the starting job in Deondre Francois and James Blackman. Can one emerge as the clear starter in offseason workouts? The receiving corps wasn’t deep with depth in 2017 and loses Auden Tate and tight end Ryan Izzo early to the NFL. Nyqwan Murray, Keith Gavin and George Campbell headline the top targets for Blackman and Francois at receiver. The biggest concern for the new staff has to be the line. This unit has underachieved in recent years but only loses one senior from the bowl two-deep and guard Landon Dickerson is back from injury. New coordinator Harlon Barnett inherits a defense that gave up 21.2 points a game last year but struggled to get stops on third downs and in the red zone. The Seminoles are set to lose end Josh Sweat, safety Derwin James and cornerback Tarvarus McFadden early to the next level, while linebackers Matthew Thomas and Ro’Derrick Hoskins and standout tackle Derrick Nnadi have expired their eligibility. The cupboard isn’t bare, as ends Brian Burns and Joshua Kaindoh should be a formidable pair off the edge, and the secondary features Stanford Samuels III and Levonta Taylor at cornerback.
3. NC State
Last year’s nine wins were the highest mark for NC State under coach Dave Doeren. Additionally, the Wolfpack finished in the Associated Press top 25 for the first time since 2010. Topping those totals could be tough in 2018, as Doeren must rebuild a standout defensive line that featured standout end Bradley Chubb and tackles B.J. Hill and Justin Jones. In addition to losing all four starters up front, the defense loses key linebackers in Jerod Fernandez and Airius Moore, nickel Shawn Boone and cornerbacks Mike Stevens and Johnathan Alston. With the heavy losses on defense, the Wolfpack needs to lean more on the offense to win in 2018. That shouldn’t be a problem considering the returning talent in place, starting with quarterback Ryan Finley. The senior had another efficient and productive year, throwing for 17 touchdowns and 3,518 yards and completing 65.1 percent of his throws. All-purpose threat Jaylen Samuels will be missed, but Kelvin Harmon (69 catches), Stephen Louis (15.8 ypc) and Jakobi Meyers will be one of the ACC’s top receiving trios. This offense could get an extra boost if tackle Will Richardson and running back Nyheim Hines return for their senior year. Guard Tony Adams leaves big shoes to fill up front.
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4. Boston College
Not much separates the teams ranked in the next four slots on this list. The Eagles finished 2017 on a high note, winning four out of their last six games and losing two contests by seven points or less. Look for coach Steve Addazio’s team to build off that finish in 2018, as standout running back AJ Dillon returns after an impressive freshman campaign, and quarterback Anthony Brown is back under center after missing the last three games due to injury. Brown has a solid group of receivers at his disposal, including tight end Tommy Sweeney and freshman Kobay White on the outside. The line should have no trouble clearing rushing lanes for Dillon with the return of Jon Baker and Elijah Johnson from injuries, along with five full-time starters from 2017. Standout end Harold Landry, tackle Noa Merritt, linebacker Ty Schwab and cornerback Isaac Yiadom are the biggest senior departures for coordinator Jim Reid. However, this unit is still in good shape with end Zach Allen, linebacker John Lamot and safety Lukas Denis anchoring this group in 2018. Additionally, linebacker Connor Strachan returns after missing nearly all of 2017 due to injury. Boston College does have a tough crossover schedule next fall with the Coastal Division with matchups against Miami and Virginia Tech.
5. Wake Forest
After a 6-18 start to his tenure at Wake Forest, coach Dave Clawson’s rebuilding effort has delivered steady improvement. The Demon Deacons are 15-11 over the last two years and have claimed back-to-back bowl bids. Even with a few key cogs departing, another postseason trip should be in order in 2018. Quarterback John Wolford departs after an All-ACC year in 2017. However, backup Kendall Hinton has plenty of experience and should keep the offense performing at a high level. Hinton’s supporting cast is in good shape with the return of receiver Greg Dortch (53 catches) from injury, along with running back Matt Colburn (904 yards). Tight end Cam Serigne is the biggest loss outside of Wolford on offense. The line struggled in Clawson’s first two years but has made big strides. This unit should be a strength once again with all five starters returning. The defense is likely to draw the most attention from Clawson this offseason. The line loses ends Wendell Dunn and Duke Ejiofor, linebackers Grant Dawson and Jaboree Williams and safety Jessie Bates left early for the NFL. The cupboard certainly isn’t bare, but Wake Forest gave up 28.3 points a game in 2017 and has a few big names to replace.
Lamar Jackson leaves big shoes to fill at Louisville for 2018, but sophomore Jawon Pass is an intriguing prospect for coach Bobby Petrino. The sophomore inherits an offense losing its top lineman in tackle Geron Christian and its top two running backs from 2017 in Malik Williams and Reggie Bonnafon. The good news for Pass? The offensive line has a solid foundation in place with four starters back, and the receiving corps returns top targets Jaylen Smith, Dez Fitzpatrick and Seth Dawkins. Louisville’s defense struggled in coordinator Peter Sirmon’s first year with the program. The Cardinals allowed 27.4 points a game, gave up 5.61 yards per play and ranked 13th in the ACC in third-down defense. This unit is losing a chunk of talent, as six out of the top 10 tacklers from 2017 were seniors. That group includes standout linebackers Stacy Thomas, James Hearns (13.5 TFL) and Trevon Young. Additionally, top cornerback Jaire Alexander left early for the NFL. Linebacker Dorian Etheridge led the team with 83 stops as a freshman last season and will be a key cog in the rebuilding effort for Sirmon. Pass and the rebuilt defense won’t have much time to develop, as a neutral site showdown awaits against Alabama in Week 1.
As we mentioned above, not much separates the teams after NC State in the early ACC predictions for 2018. With that in mind, whichever team finishes seventh next December should have a good shot at bowl eligibility. For now, Syracuse is the pick here but that could change later this offseason. The Orange catch three swing games on the road next year – Wake Forest, Pitt and Boston College – but host Louisville and North Carolina. Expect the offense to lead the way for coach Dino Babers’ team once again. Quarterback Eric Dungey is back but the receiving corps loses standouts Ervin Phillips and Steve Ishmael. The offensive line should be a strength with only one senior from the two-deep leaving, along with the return of Aaron Roberts from injury. In order for Syracuse to challenge for a bowl, the defense has to take a step forward after giving up 32.2 points per game in 2017. Linebackers Zaire Franklin and Parris Bennett are the biggest losses for coordinator Brian Ward.
The Hurricanes crossed off one goal under coach Mark Richt in 2017. Miami finally claimed its first Coastal Division crown and earned a trip to a New Year’s Six Bowl. But that’s not the ultimate goal for this program. Instead, Miami has its sights set on an ACC title and a CFB Playoff berth. That’s certainly within reach next fall, as Richt continues to upgrade the talent on the recruiting trail and returns a solid core of talent from his 2017 team. Can Malik Rosier hold off promising redshirt freshman N’Kosi Perry at quarterback? Regardless of who starts under center, the receiving corps features promising targets. Ahmmon Richards is back from injury, and he’s joined on the outside by Mike Harley, Jeff Thomas and Lawrence Cager. Mark Walton is off to the NFL, but the running back position is in good shape with Travis Homer, DeeJay Dallas and incoming freshman Lorenzo Lingard. The line must improve if Miami is to challenge Clemson for the top spot in the conference. This unit loses two starters, but Navaughn Donaldson is back after starting 10 games as a freshman in 2017. The defense is in relatively good shape for coordinator Manny Diaz, but the line has to retool in the middle after Kendrick Norton and RJ McIntosh declared early for the NFL. End Chad Thomas also expired his eligibility. The back seven returns intact, which includes standout linebacker Shaquille Quarterman, safety Jaquan Johnson and cornerbacks Malek Young, Michael Jackson and Trajan Bandy.
2. Virginia Tech
The Hokies will be the biggest threat to Miami at the top of the Coastal Division in 2018. After averaging 28.2 points a game last year, the offense should take a step forward behind quarterback Josh Jackson. As a redshirt freshman in 2017, Jackson threw for 2,991 yards and 20 touchdowns and rushed for 324 yards and six scores. Jackson is only going to get better with another offseason to work under coach Justin Fuente. While the sophomore loses go-to target Cam Phillips, the receiving corps features a couple of promising weapons, including Sean Savoy, Eric Kumah, Caleb Farley and Ball State transfer Damon Hazelton. Deshawn McClease and Steven Peoples are a promising duo at running back, but the line must replace standout guard Wyatt Teller and center Eric Gallo. Even though Bud Foster’s defense loses a couple of key players from its 2017 unit that limited opponents to 14.8 points a game, expect this group to rank near the top of the ACC once again. Foster has to replace tackle Tim Settle, linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Andrew Motuapuaka, cornerback Greg Stroman and safety Terrell Edmunds. However, tackle Ricky Walker is one of the best linemen in the ACC, and the secondary still returns Adonis Alexander, Mook Reynolds and Reggie Floyd.
3. Georgia Tech
Paul Johnson only has two losing seasons since taking over at Georgia Tech in 2008. With that in mind, odds are in favor of the Yellow Jackets rebounding back to a winning record after finishing 5-6 in 2017. Johnson’s flexbone attack returns quarterback TaQuon Marshall and running backs KirVonte Benson, Nathan Cottrell and Qua Searcy. Top receiver Ricky Jeune will be missed, but the offensive line returns nearly intact with four starters back from 2017. Johnson’s defense has finished seventh or worse in points allowed in the ACC in each of the last four years. New coordinator Nate Woody was a key hire from Appalachian State, but he inherits a group that loses a handful of key contributors. The secondary is set to replace Lawrence Austin, Corey Griffin, Lance Austin and Step Durham, while KeShun Freeman and Antonio Simmons depart from the line. How fast this unit reloads will likely determine where Georgia Tech ends up in the Coastal Division.
The Panthers missed out on a bowl for the first time since 2007 last season. But coach Pat Narduzzi’s team wasn’t far from a winning record. Pitt lost three games by six points or less, including a 20-14 loss at Virginia Tech on Nov. 18. A rebound back into the postseason should be a reasonable goal for this team in 2018. Quarterback Kenny Pickett was impressive in the upset win over Miami and now has a full offseason to work as the starter. Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison are back to the lead the backfield after this duo combined for 1,026 yards last year. Top receiver Jester Weah has expired his eligibility, and all-purpose threat Quadree Henderson decided to leave early for the NFL. The receiving corps is a concern for Narduzzi, but the biggest issue on offense is the line. This group loses left tackle Brian O’Neill, guard Alex Officer and Jaryd Jones-Smith and Brandon Hodges from the right side. In Narduzzi’s three years in the Steel City, Pitt has never finished higher than ninth in the ACC in scoring defense. Expect that to change next fall. The Panthers only lose one senior among its top 15 tacklers, and safety Jordan Whitehead declared for the NFL. This unit should take a step forward in 2018. Pitt’s non-conference schedule might be among the toughest in the nation with games against Penn State, UCF and Notre Dame on tap.
After a 4-8 mark in 2016, the Blue Devils rebounded to 7-6 last year. Coach David Cutcliffe’s team should be able to make another bowl trip in 2018, but the schedule isn’t kind with non-conference games against Army, Northwestern and Baylor, along with a crossover matchup against Clemson. The offense will be anchored by quarterback Daniel Jones once again, but the supporting cast features question marks. Top running back Shaun Wilson, left tackle Gabe Brandner, center Austin Davis and right tackle Evan Lisle are out of eligibility. Duke’s defense quietly ranked third in the ACC in fewest points allowed in 2017 and should be just as effective next fall. Linebacker Joe Giles-Harris and cornerback Mark Gilbert will push for All-America honors, and tackle Mike Ramsay is the only key contributor gone from the trenches.
6. North Carolina
Going into 2017, it was clear North Carolina was poised for a rebuilding year. However, the Tar Heels slipped more than most in the ACC anticipated. Can Larry Fedora get this team back into a bowl in 2018? In order for North Carolina to hit six wins, the offense has to find a spark after averaging only 19.3 points in ACC contests. Nathan Elliott and Chazz Surratt will battle for the starting quarterback job after both saw extensive playing time in 2017. Jordan Brown and Michael Carter should form a solid duo at running back, and Anthony Ratliff-Williams is a big-play threat on the outside. Even though the offense needs more consistency from its quarterbacks, this unit won’t improve unless the line reloads after losing four starters. Also on Fedora’s priority list this offseason: Improve a defense that gave up 31.3 points a game in 2017. This unit loses top cornerback M.J. Stewart, linebacker Andre Smith declared for the NFL, and fellow linebacker Cayson Collins (83 tackles) expired his eligibility.
The Cavaliers were clearly better in coach Bronco Mendenhall’s second season. After a 2-10 record in 2016, Virginia improved to 6-7 and earned a trip to the Military Bowl. But Mendenhall and his staff will be busy replacing some of the team’s biggest contributors from 2017. On offense, quarterback Kurt Benkert and receivers Doni Dowling and Andre Levrone have expired their eligibility. Who steps up to replace Benkert? Mendenhall’s offense does return top target Olamide Zaccheaus (85 catches) and running back Jordan Ellis (836 yards). The line also loses both starting tackles in Brandon Pertile and Jack English. The Cavaliers lose two All-America defenders in safety Quin Blanding and linebacker Micah Kiser from a defense that gave up 28.4 points a game in 2017. Cornerback Juan Thornhill and safety Brenton Nelson are two promising players to anchor the secondary in 2018, while linebacker Jordan Mack returns after collecting 114 stops last year.