Before each college football season, Athlon Sports hears from readers wanting to know why one team was favored over another in our preseason rankings. Why this team was ranked so high or that team so low.
Some of these questions are in — um — colorful language.
That’s why Athlon takes you inside our decision process for some of the biggest questions you ask. Believe it or not, some of these questions are the ones we grappled with through our rankings meeting.
Here are the questions we anticipated about our ACC predictions for 2016.
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What gave Florida State the edge over Clemson?
We spent more time, thought and energy on this pick than any other this season. This is no exaggeration: This was Athlon’s toughest pick in a division or conference in several years. Not only are Florida State and Clemson incredibly close in our eyes, but the winner of the Atlantic has the edge in the ACC as a whole and has an excellent shot at the CFB Playoff. In the end, we still had both FSU and Clemson in our national top four. The arguments boiled down to this: One team has Deshaun Watson; the other one is loaded at every other position. We ended up picking Florida State due in part to the experience factor with nine returning starters on offense and six on defense. Deondre Francois should stabilize the quarterback position enough so the offense isn’t so reliant on Dalvin Cook. Clemson has recruited back-to-back top-10 classes, but Florida State has stacked three consecutive top-five national classes. We’re giving Clemson the benefit of the doubt that the Tigers’ D will be solid again, but 13 freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep defense is a concern. Clemson overall has the easier schedule, but Florida State gets the all-important head-to-head at Doak Campbell Stadium.
How many teams did you seriously consider for the Coastal Division title?
As usual, the ACC Coastal is one of the most difficult divisions to pick in the country. Three teams — North Carolina, Miami and Virginia Tech — received serious consideration for the division title. A look at our national rankings of those three teams, all between Nos. 22 and 29, shows how close this was. And even then, our staff considered Pittsburgh, ranked 38th nationally, to be a legitimate sleeper for the division. The X-factors in the division will be the new coaches, particularly Mark Richt at Miami and Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech. Richt should bring a steady hand to Miami that’s been lacking as predecessor Al Golden had been under pressure for two years, and Fuente brings offensive credibility back to the Hokies. Virginia Tech has an immediate advantage as the only Coastal team to avoid Clemson, Florida State and Louisville from the Atlantic.
In the end, what gave North Carolina the edge in the Coastal?
We could argue that the Tar Heels were the safest pick in the division. North Carolina went 8–0 in the ACC last season (helped by avoiding Clemson, Florida State and Louisville) and has an entrenched coaching staff. Quarterback Marquise Williams is gone, but we’re confident UNC will still put up points like Larry Fedora’s offenses always do. New QB Mitch Trubisky walks into a great situation with Elijah Hood at running back and an offensive line that’s second only to Clemson in the ACC. The defense still has its holes, but coordinator Gene Chizik already worked wonders by improving this unit from terrible to adequate last season.
The top three in the Atlantic Division seem clear. Is there a team among the bottom four of that division that could surprise?
Louisville is the clear No. 3 in the division, and, frankly, could be better than any team in the Coastal. NC State, Syracuse, Wake Forest and Boston College last season went 0–20 against Florida State, Clemson, Louisville and the entire Coastal Division. We don’t think that’s going to happen again. Dino Babers brings a shot of energy and instant offense to Syracuse. With 15 returning starters, Wake Forest is inching back to respectability under Dave Clawson. Boston College should be significantly improved on offense with Kentucky transfer Patrick Towles at quarterback and Jon Hilliman healthy at running back. Of those four teams, only NC State, without quarterback Jacoby Brissett, is in a position to regress.