When Miami joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2004, the common belief was that the conference’s odd alignment was created in order to facilitate a potential championship game between the Hurricanes and Florida State. How else could you explain how Miami and FSU would share the same state, but not the same division?
As the conference has expanded, the divisions have gotten stranger. Boston College, in the northeast, is in the same division with Syracuse, but not with Pittsburgh, which is 579 miles away. The Eagles, however, are in the same division with Florida State (1,313 miles) and Clemson (978 miles). And that’s just one example. The entire geographic makeup of the ACC makes no sense.
If the conference were properly aligned, it would have a North and South. (Honestly, can you explain what Atlantic and Coastal actually mean?) It would require moving just two teams from each division to the opposite side.
- Atlantic becomes South – Clemson, Florida State, Louisville, N.C. State and Wake Forest stay, plus Miami, Georgia Tech move from the Coastal.
- Coastal becomes North – Duke, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Virginia and Virginia Tech stay, plus Boston College and Syracuse move from the Atlantic.
ACC officials will talk about competition or preserving rivalries, but neither argument holds much water. There really aren’t a ton of rivalries in the ACC that are incredibly historic. And truthfully, this realignment would restore a number of rivalries to division games, which would intensify those rivalries.
As for the much-anticipated Miami-FSU conference championship game? It’s never happened. While FSU has won its division five times since 2004, Miami has finished first only once – in 2012, when it was ineligible for postseason play.
- Clemson (13-0). Clemson just missed in 2015. The Tigers surprised pretty much everyone and won every game except the last one. Starting outside the Top Ten, Clemson simply took care of business on the field and carried a lead in the CFP title game into the fourth quarter, where Alabama outplayed the Tigers down the stretch. This year, the Tigers look ready to finish the job. A solid core of returning starters will form the base, especially on offense, while a crew of talented newcomers will provide more than enough firepower for Clemson to make another serious run at the national title. At the top of the heap is Heisman frontrunner Deshaun Watson, who is the nation’s most dangerous mobile quarterback. In the backfield is RB Wayne Gallman, who was the ACC’s second-leading rusher last season. Top receiver Artavis Scott also returns and is joined by uber-talented WR Mike Williams, who suffered a broken neck in 2015’s season opener. The line returns three preseason all-conference players, but two sophomores are projected to start in the other spots. On defense, Clemson lost a ton of talent from last season’s team, which has opened eight starting spots on this year’s roster. The Tigers are loaded at defensive tackle, where Carlos Watkins and Christian Wilkins will shut down opposing running attacks. OLB Ben Boulware is probably the best at his position in the ACC, as is CB Cordrea Tankersley. While the defensive line looks great, the linebacking corps and secondary are both talented – but lack big-time experience. Still, Clemson’s offense looks to improve on last season’s output of 38.5 ppg, which should give the defense time to grow up, and outscore every opponent even if the defense struggles. PK Greg Huegel could be the difference in close games. The opener at Auburn will confirm or deny if Clemson is truly back for a championship run. The Tigers’ visit to FSU on Oct. 29 will almost certainly be for the Atlantic Division crown.
- Florida State (11-1). The ACC Championship Game hasn’t been too kind to the Seminoles. True, the Noles have won the ACC title four times since its inception in 2005. But in the 12 years preceding the big game, FSU had won the ACC 11 times. Simply put, ever since the ACC went to a divisional format, FSU hasn’t been nearly as dominant. A big part of that downturn was that it coincided with the decline of legendary coach Bobby Bowden’s tenure at FSU. The Seminoles won the ACC only in 20005 – their first year in the Atlantic. After that, it didn’t happen again until 2012, which was current coach Jimbo Fisher’s third year on the job. FSU seems to have returned to championship caliber, but now it has to contend with top-dog Clemson, which is a little bit more loaded than the Seminoles. QB Sean Maguire is back, but he could be replaced during the season by one of two more capable but less experienced freshmen. The offense will largely rest on the shoulders of All-ACC RB Dalvin Cook, who the Noles are touting for the Heisman. WR Travis Rudolph appears to be the next great FSU receiver. Like Clemson, FSU returns three O-linemen, but the overall strength of the line is excellent. Defensively, FSU has a very good line, led by potential POY Demarcus Walker at end and Derrick Nnadi at tackle. Also similar to Clemson, FSU brings a wealth of talent, but little starting experience, back at linebacker and in the secondary. CB Marquez White and SS Derwin James will make a great tandem in the defensive backfield, but the other three starters will be new. The Noles will break in two freshmen at both kicking positions. The schedule starts with a test against Ole Miss in Orlando, and brings two testy road games later in September at Louisville and USF. The Noles draw North Carolina, Clemson and Florida at home, but will have to win on the road against an improved Miami on Oct. 8. An undefeated season is possible, but any letdowns will cost the Seminoles dearly.
- Louisville (8-4). Note to Louisville: When it comes to Bobby Petrino, the best policy is caveat emptor, or buyer beware. The Cardinals are entering a fairly dangerous phase with their coach, who traditionally hasn’t stayed in one place very long. Just ask the Atlanta Falcons, who found out that Petrino was dumping them for the top job with the Arkansas Razorbacks … with three games left in the season. Or Western Kentucky, where Petrino stopped for a single season before the Louisville job became available. Four years has been Petrino’s limit – he managed that at both Louisville (the first time) and Arkansas. This is year three for Petrino’s second tenure with the Cardinals, and we’d be shocked that, if the Cardinals do well this year, Petrino wasn’t picking out property in places like College Station or Austin, all while assuring his players that he’s not going anywhere. Petrino’s biggest obstacle to a change of scenery is that he has two national championship contenders firmly entrenched ahead of his Cardinals this year, and maybe beyond that. In another year, this Louisville team might be good enough to win at least the Atlantic, and maybe the entire ACC. The Cardinals return 15 starters from last season’s 8-5 campaign, including most of the skill positions and offensive line. QB Lamar Jackson appears to be coming into his own and will have a solid line protecting him, and a reliable crew of receivers to catch his passes. While Jackson was the team’s leading rusher, his top running back, Brandon Radcliff, also returns and could approach 1,000 yards this season. The defense could make the difference for the Cardinals this fall. Louisville has several game-breakers on that side of the ball led by all-conference LBs Keith Kelsey and Devonte Fields, who make up the heart of the ACC’s best linebacking corps. The entire secondary returns and should see a dramatic improvement over last season’s middling outcome. The bottom line is this: Louisville is an upset or two away from launching Petrino to his next job. They’ll be underdogs at home against FSU, and on the road at Clemson and Houston, and maybe even Marshall. We have all four of those pencilled in as losses. A win in a couple of those games will change the landscape for both Petrino and the Cardinals.
- N.C. State (5-7). This is the first time in our team summaries where we will get to address the prospect of a losing team going to a bowl game. There are 40 bowls this year, which means that 80 teams will go bowling, while only 48 stay home. Last year, three losing teams got to attend bowls in spite of their unsuccessful seasons. This season, we have that number at five – including the Wolfpack. There are easily six games on N.C. State’s schedule that are easy to peg as losses, and we see a seventh loss as likely. Still, the Wolfpack isn’t a bad team, per se. There is a lot of experience and even some talent that could surprise some folks this fall, and could even contend for a bowl bid without the exception for losing teams. Gone is QB Jacoby Brissett, so sophomore Jalen McClendon must step up and provide offensive leadership. Fortunately, he will have some experienced receivers, plus all-conference hopeful RB Matt Dayes, to help move the ball. The line is a big concern, with only two returning starters, and three underclassmen projected in the starting lineup. The Wolfpack defense is much more solid, with eight returning starters. Junior DE Bradley Chubb is probably the best talent of the bunch, but the unit’s overall improvement in experience should help them allow less than the 25.8 ppg they surrendered in 2015. The biggest obstacle is the schedule – in addition to a home game against Notre Dame, the Wolfpack travels to Clemson, Louisville and North Carolina, and hosts Florida State and Miami. We also believe road games at East Carolina and Syracuse could pose a challenge. Still, if the Pack manages 5-7 in the ACC, we believe they will be a likely choice to represent the ACC in a lesser bowl game.
- Syracuse (4-8). “We never should have fired Paul Pasqualoni!” That’s what the folks at Syracuse should be thinking these days. Because ever since Pasqualoni got the axe following a 6-6 season in 2004, the Orange has been mired in college football purgatory. (Of course, that was the same year they neutered the Orangemen into the Orange, so maybe the college football political correctness gods are simply showing their disapproval of going gender neutral and simply calling the team by a color.) After three failed attempts at success through first-time head coaches, Syracuse is finally going with a guy who has proven he can win at the college game. Dino Babers has quickly climbed the college ranks, moving from Eastern Illinois to Bowling Green to Syracuse in just four years. His most impressive feat was taking Eastern Illinois, which had back-to-back 2-9 seasons prior to his arrival, to a 12-2 finish and the FCS quarterfinals after just two seasons. His task at Syracuse won’t be easy. QB Eric Dungey will undoubtedly be throwing the ball a lot more this season with Babers’ spread offense. He’ll need to be more accurate than his sub-60 percent accuracy a year ago. There is a lot of experience at wide receiver, though there are no proven standouts. The line will be a patchwork project, with only two returning starters. Defensively, Syracuse is a combination of a lack of speed and experience. The Orange has only three of its front-seven back, and only two players in the secondary return. FS Antwan Cordy is probably the best player on defense, but he won’t be able to single-handedly improve on the team’s 31 ppg, or even the 250+ ypg the secondary surrendered in 2015. The team may be more exciting to watch, and may even pull an upset or two this season, but it’s far more likely that this year will feature growing pains. The November games at home against N.C. State and at Pittsburgh will be last-ditch chances to get bowl eligible.
- Wake Forest (4-8). Wake Forest has never really been a football power, but it’s clear that it wants to be. The Demon Deacons’ head coach, Dave Clawson, has been a winner everywhere he’s every been, and it’s clear he wants to bring that to Wake Forest. Clawson built a reputation as an offensive innovator while a coordinator at Lehigh and Villanova. He brought that innovation to Fordham in 1999, and saw the Rams go from low-scoring and winless to high-scoring and in the FCS playoffs. The same story was true at Richmond, where Clawson guided them to the FCS semifinal game. And at Bowling Green, where he took the Falcons to three bowl games in five years. At Wake Forest, Clawson is yet to taste success, but he appears to be establishing a new culture and new expectations. Winning may be around the corner, but at the FBS level, talent is king. You can’t coach speed, and Wake Forest just doesn’t have enough to be competitive with the likes of Florida State and Clemson. This year, he will field a youth movement, with nine sophomores scattered among his starting lineup, which includes 16 returning starters. QB John Wolford struggled in his first year as a starter, but will have his best running back and top receivers back this year. Four offensive linemen return, and while they’re a step behind too many of the defenses they’ll face, they’ll at least have experience on their side. While the offense struggled to score (17.4 ppg), the defense was a bright spot, allowing just 24.6 ppg. Seven starters return from that unit, led by MLB Marquel Lee and CB Brad Watson, who led the ACC in passes broken up. There might not be any true stars on this year’s edition of the Demon Deacons, but with some discipline, the Deacons might be just a hair shy of a breakout season. How Wake Forest does on Sept. 10 at Duke will lay the foundation for the rest of the season.
- Boston College (4-8). Somehow, Steve Addazio stays employed. While at Florida, Addazio took over as offensive coordinator after Dan Mullen left for Mississippi State, and saw the offense go from 43.8 ppg to 29.9 ppg in just two seasons. Still, with that track record in hand, Addazio got hired as the head coach at Temple. While there, he followed Al Golden’s back-to-back winning seasons with another winning year, and then returned the Owls to their old losing ways with a 4-7 finish. Boston College must have still been impressed, because the Eagles lured him away from Temple three years ago. For two seasons, Addazio and the Eagles went 7-6, but last year, the real Addazio stepped up and took BC down to 3-9. Addazio may be a great offensive line coach, but as an offensive mind, he’s stuck somewhere in the days of the old Big Eight. He loves to slow the game to a crawl and at times almost abandons the passing game. That’s a recipe for consistent losing unless you’re a service academy, or unless you can recruit the best players in the country. BC is neither. Last year, the Eagles’ only salvation was a lights-out defense that ranked 4th in the nation in scoring with 15.3 ppg. The good news is that eight starters return from that unit, including DE Harold Landry and OLB Matt Milano. Those two should form a strong foundation for a defensive effort that will keep the Eagles in a lot of games. The bad news is that it will be harder to do better than 15.3 ppg – and the offense won’t be amazingly improved over last season. Exhibit A for that is the fact that BC couldn’t even muster a touchdown against itself in its spring game. (The game ended at 6-2 with two field goals and a safety.) Six starters return, but every starter could be back and the Eagles wouldn’t score much. Last year’s team managed just 17.2 ppg. Unless Addazio can figure out what a real offense looks like, even four wins will be a challenge. The only reason we’re pencilling those in is because UMass, Wagner, Buffalo and UConn appear on the schedule. A winless year in the ACC is a definite possibility.
- North Carolina (10-3). Great things seem to be happening with football in Chapel Hill. Coach Larry Fedora, who worked wonders with Southern Miss in four years there, moved the Tar Heels to within eight points of an upset of Clemson in the ACC title game last season. Entering the 2016 season, North Carolina stands as a strong favorite to repeat as Coastal Division champion, though the path to another 11-1 regular season seems extremely challenging. In the Tar Heels’ favor is a bevy of returning starters (7 on offense, six on defense) plus a host of talented new starters filling key positions. Gone is QB Marquise Williams, who might have some real Heisman buzz had he not been playing in the same conference with Deshaun Watson. In his place is Mitch Trubisky, who was Ohio’s Mr. Football in high school. He will target three receivers, including returning starters Bug Howard and Ryan Switzer, who have all-conference potential. All-ACC RB Elijah Hood will be a force on the ground and will be running behind a veteran line that includes three preseason All-ACC lineman. With those pieces in place, UNC might be able to approach – or even exceed – last season’s output of 40.7 ppg. The defense doesn’t look equally loaded, but does appear to be at least as good as it was a year ago, when it allowed 24.5 ppg. DT Nazair Jones is the leader in the front seven, which will be a bit rebuilt, but the secondary appears to be a lockdown unit with a pair of first-rate corners in M.J. Stewart and Des Lawrence. The key to whether this is a good or great season for the Tar Heels depends on three big games – vs. Georgia in the season opener in Atlanta, at FSU on Oct. 1 and at Miami on Oct. 15, which could determine the division winner.
- Miami (9-3). Who’s to say why Mark Richt didn’t win more big games at Georgia. He recruited very well and seemed to develop talent at a high level. And Richt did win a lot of games at Georgia. In 15 years, he became Georgia’s second-leading coach in terms of wins, and left Georgia with an even higher winning percentage than legendary coach Vince Dooley. The problem for Georgia was just that Richt didn’t win enough of the right games – the big games. There simply weren’t enough wins against Florida and Tennessee, and not enough SEC Championship Game appearances. Whether or not Georgia made the right move in firing Richt remains to be seen, but it definitely looks like Miami has made a great hire in bringing him home to where he played in the early 1980s. His best asset this season is clearly QB Brad Kaaya, who is projected by some as next year’s top pick in the NFL Draft. Kaaya should benefit from Richt’s expertise with quarterbacks, as well as from having a decent amount of talent at receiver. RB Joseph Yearby is a 1,000-yard rusher who could do even better in 2016. The entire line returns intact, which provides an enormous boost to both Kaaya and Yearby. In spite of returning seven starters on defense, there are still questions on that side of the ball. The ‘Canes allowed 28.2 ppg a year ago and need to find a way to dial up better performances in 2016. The development of the front seven may take another year, but there is some potential for a good year in the secondary, where CB Corn Elder and FS Rayshawn Jenkins have shown signs of greatness in the past. Miami should run out to 4-0 to start the year, but get two huge tests in back-to-back weeks at home in October, when Florida State and North Carolina come to town. The Notre Dame rivalry will be renewed on Oct. 29 in South Bend.
- Pittsburgh (8-4). It’s been a long time since Pittsburgh was regarded as a national power in college football – 35 years to be exact. That was the year that Pitt went 11-1 for the third straight year, and the fifth anniversary of the team’s only national championship in 1976. Since then, the program has been up and down and has only reached 10 wins one time, in 2009. The most many fans know about Pitt football is that Dan Marino played there. (So did Tony Dorsett, Larry Fitzgerald and Mike Ditka.) This year, the Panthers almost certainly won’t contend for a division title, but they should contend for an improvement over last season and a decent bowl bid. QB Nate Peterman showed a lot of progress last season and should be a solid starter for Pitt in 2016. The heart of Pitt’s offense is the running game, where they have an embarrassment of riches. Last year’s leading rusher, Qadree Ollison, was the ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year, but may end up playing backup to the 2014 Offensive Player of the Year, James Conner, who missed last year with a knee injury, and who has since also battled (and beaten) Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Pitt’s offensive line appears to be very strong, with all but one starter returning. The defense will be good, but not great. Eight starters return, including key performers in every area. Five of the front seven are back, as are three in the secondary. DE Ejuan Price is one of the ACC’s best, as is SS Jordan Whitehead. The Panthers are headed in the right direction, but are still a step or so behind the better teams in the ACC. If they want to prove differently, they’ll have two great early chances to do that on the road in September – at Oklahoma State on Sept. 17 and at North Carolina on Sept. 24. Two other road games late – at Miami (Nov. 5) and at Clemson (Nov. 12) will also show how far Pitt has come during the season.
- Virginia Tech (7-5). The sidelines in Blacksburg are going to look very different this fall. For the first time since 1987, Frank Beamer will not be the coach for Virginia Tech. Beamer, who build Tech into a national power during his 29 years leading the team, retired following last season and has since been replaced by Justin Fuente. Beamer was an up-and-comer from Murray State when he was hired to coach the Hokies. They’re hoping for a similar result from Fuente, who took just four years to transform the Tigers from four straight losing seasons back-to-back bowl games. His first year with the Hokies may be a very good one, but so much depends on getting solid play from a new starting quarterback. All of the other pieces are in place on offense, from RB Travon McMillian to all-ACC receiver Isaiah Ford to four returning starters on the offensive line. Tech was fairly average on offense a year ago, but could be much better than that if Fuente can discover a true starter quickly. Defense was always Beamer’s forte, and Fuente wisely kept defensive coordinator Bud Foster from the previous staff to help stabilize this year’s squad. Five starters are back, but only two of them are in the front seven. LB Andrew Motuapuaka will be key to the development of that part of the defense. The secondary may be the best in the ACC, with three returning starters, all of who excelled in shutting down the pass in 2015. With fresh enthusiasm from a new coach, it’s highly likely that both the offense and defense will see improvement this season. The nagging question is still that quarterback question and finding him early in the season – by week five of the season, the Hokies will have already played Tennessee at Bristol and North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
- Georgia Tech (5-7). Losing Team Goes to a Bowl, Part 2. Maybe. Georgia Tech always has enough talent to win more than six games. But the Yellow Jackets also manage to underperform frequently enough that you wouldn’t be shocked if they came in under .500. Last season, the Jackets inexplicably upset Florida State by turning a field goal block into a touchdown as time expired. The next week, they lost by a touchdown on the road to a Virginia team they should have beaten, and then lost again at home by two to Virginia Tech. Things aren’t yet in crisis mode for coach Paul Johnson, but another losing season won’t make his seat any less hot, even if it does wind up in a bowl bid. The offense will be in good hands with the return of QB Justin Thomas, who is marginal as a passer, but who runs the flexbone very well. He will pitch the ball to a trio of running backs, none of whom are amazing, but all of whom are capable of building a solid committee. The center of the line is solid with C Freddie Burden and both guards returning, but both tackles must be replaced. The defense – and especially the secondary – is a bit of an overhaul. Four of the front six are back, but the overall depth and talent up front won’t be imposing. Still, there may be some improvement against the run from 2015, when the Jackets surrendered 165.1 ypg. The secondary operates in a nickel package, and four of five starters will be new. While that unit may look incredible on opening day in Dublin, Ireland, against Boston College (and maybe even against Mercer and Vanderbilt in subsequent weeks), reality will set in on Sept. 22 when Clemson visits Atlanta to torch Jackets’ defense. Once October hits, wins will be hard to come by, and Tech will have to do a gut-check to even reach our projected total of five.
- Duke (5-7). Duke is in a bit of a football Renaissance, having gone to four straight bowls for the first time in school history. The great thing for Duke is that few people expect the Blue Devils to ever have a winning season. Even people at Duke are usually happy if the team is more or less competitive. Even with that low bar, this year’s team will have more than its share of challenges with only eight returning starters and with no discernible stars on either side of the ball. The offensive lineup is laden with juniors and seniors, but only four returning starters – and three of those are on the line. The Blue Devils will have to find a new quarterback, running back and two wide receivers. QB Thomas Sirk ruptured his Achilles tendon in the spring and may return as a starter, but that remains in doubt even this close to the start of the new season. Even if he is back, a drastic improvement is needed over last season, when he had a QBR of just 119.0. Reaching last year’s output of 31.5 ppg seems highly unlikely. The defense only returns four starters as well, and three of those are in the secondary. With only one returnee in the front six (and with three projected sophomores as new starters), the Blue Devils could be hard-pressed to slow down opposing rushers. And unless the revamped defensive line can find a way to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Duke’s fairly experienced secondary could be easy prey for good passing attacks. After two likely wins against N.C. Central and Wake Forest at home, Duke will get a couple of massive wake-up calls on the road at Northwestern (Sept. 17) and Notre Dame (Sept. 24). We project that the Blue Devils will need to win one or both games on the road at Pittsburgh and Miami at the end of the season to reach bowl eligibility.
- Virginia (4-8). Bronco Mendenhall established himself as a very successful coach during 11 seasons at BYU, where he took the Cougars to a bowl in each season. Long considered a keen defensive mind, Mendenhall has also proven to be a savvy head coach. Of course, he did that at a school which is steeped in a faith that Mendenhall shares, which has always played a heavy factor in the discipline of his players. After all, Mormon players who don’t drink, don’t smoke and don’t go with girls who do are also a safe bet to obey curfew and not get arrested for youthful stupidity. Now outside the safe confines of Provo, it will be interesting to see how well BroncoBall takes at a secular institution. He certainly didn’t make the task easy by going to Virginia, which hasn’t seen back-to-back winning seasons since 2003-2004. And with just 10 returning starters, this year’s edition of the Cavaliers will be a work in progress and should be content with just equaling last year’s total of four wins. Mendenhall is fortunate to have back an experienced quarterback in Matt Johns, a decent rusher in Taquan Mizzell and a gifted receiver in Keeon Johnson. Unfortunately, with just two returning offensive lineman, open lanes and solid passing protection may be scarce. Mendenhall’s defensive mind is definitely needed to improve on last season, when the Cavs gave up 32.2 ppg and 411.5 ypg. Fortunately, there is a modicum of talent with ILB Micah Kizer and FS Quin Blanding, both of whom are all-ACC hopefuls. The line, however, will have a completely different look and could feature a freshman in the middle. Last season, Virginia surrendered 32.2 ppg, and could improve on that simply by following it’s head coach’s lead. But some of the teams that Virginia might beat at home will play host to the Cavs this season (Duke, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech). Meanwhile, the home schedule is brutal (Pittsburgh, North Carolina, Louisville, Miami). Again, just reaching four wins will be a feat in this rebuilding year.
Bowl teams: Clemson, Florida State, North Carolina, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, N.C. State.
Offensive player of the year: Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
Defensive player of the year: Demarcus Walker, DE, Florida State
Coach of the year: Mark Richt, Miami
Tomorrow: 2016 Big 12 preview
Copyright © 2016 Doug DeBolt