When the ACC media releases their picks this week, multiple teams are expected to get first place votes in both the Atlantic and Coastal divisions. Both are considered open divisions, as the Coastal was a year ago when Georgia Tech won it despite being picked fifth in the preseason with a grand total of one first place vote.
Florida State and Clemson are expected to sit atop the Atlantic Division when the preseason picks are released, with Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech leading the charge in the Coastal. What will those picks mean? Nothing, obviously, as Georgia Tech proved last year. Let’s take a closer look at the ACC with a brief outline of each team. We’ll start with the Atlantic Division.
Is Florida State Still the Team to Beat?
Florida State has won the Atlantic Division crown for three years in a row and four of the past five seasons. With Jameis Winston departing the program, other Atlantic Division teams are looking to move past the Noles, if only for this season.
Florida State: The obvious question here is how will the Seminoles replace Jameis Winston? Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson is the guy it seems, but he’s not as talented as Winston and he’s just as turnover prone. The bigger question to me is whether or not FSU’s defense gets back on track. Their S&P Defensive Efficiency dropped from #1 in the country in 2013 to #30 last season. It was that defense, rather than Jameis Winston, that won them the National Championship in 2013, in my opinion. If they get back to their 2013 level on defense, I think they’ll win the Atlantic Division.
Clemson: Sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson looks legit. He was very impressive last season before his injury. You can make a strong case for the Tigers to win the Atlantic Division. You can also make a case that they are the most overrated team in the Atlantic. They lose four starters on the offensive line, as well as excellent defensive linemen like Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett. Nearly their entire two-deep is gone up front on defense, as well as middle linebacker Stephone Anthony. Will they be able to beat Florida State with a brand new group of players in the trenches? We’ll see. The Tigers have developed into one of the nation’s most consistent programs, posting four consecutive 10-win seasons. Georgia, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Auburn, LSU and Florida State have all been defeated by Clemson during that span. It’s a fun time to be a Tiger fan.
Louisville: The Cardinals have an open spot at quarterback, and they also lost top wide receiver DeVante Parker to the NFL Draft. Louisville will need to establish a strong running game and play excellent defense to have a chance to win the Atlantic Division. They lost some good players on the front seven, but they expect to be strong in the secondary. Two potential standouts are cornerback Shaq Wiggins and Josh Harvey-Clemons. What do both of those guys have in common? They were both dismissed from Georgia. Remember, Bobby Petrino is back roaming the sidelines.
NC State: Quarterback Jacoby Brissett is very good. He threw for 2,606 yards with 23 touchdowns and just five interceptions a year ago while also rushing for 529 yards and three more touchdowns. The Wolfpack return seven starters on each side of the ball, and they are beginning year three of the Dave Doeren era. After winning seven games a year ago, they are hoping to compete for the Atlantic Division crown this year. They get Louisville and Clemson at home, but must travel to Florida State and Virginia Tech.
Boston College: BC’s new quarterback is Darius Wade, and he faces a tough challenge this year. He’ll have to learn the ropes while playing behind five new starters on the offensive line. Oh, and they have to do that with a new offensive coordinator as well. That’s not easy. BC’s defense will have to pick up the slack, and that is possible with five starters returning in the front seven. The Eagles won’t be able to compete for the Atlantic Division crown, but they will compete for one of the ACC’s bowl slots.
Syracuse: Quarterback Terrel Hunt is back, and he is a good player. However, there is little else to give Syracuse fans optimism for 2015. Most people seem to be picking the Orange to finish dead last in the Atlantic Division.
Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons were one of the worst offensive teams in the country last year. They should be improved on that side of the ball, but their defense probably isn’t going to be quite as good. Still, they could be starting as many as three freshmen on their offensive line, and that doesn’t bode well. This is going to be a long rebuild job for Dave Clawson, as he took over an offense that was completely devoid of talent.
Florida State and Clemson are obviously the most talented teams in the Atlantic Division, though Louisville and perhaps NC State are capable of making a run if everything comes together.
Is This the Year the Hokies Return to the Top in the Coastal Division?
Based on their schedule and their returning players, Virginia Tech is a solid pick to win the Coastal Division this season. However, they certainly aren’t the only team that has a chance. Georgia Tech, who won it last season, will have something to say about it, as could UNC, if the Tar Heel defense improves.
Virginia Tech: The Hokies should have one of the nation’s best defenses. The offense can only improve. Tech also doesn’t have to play Florida State, Clemson or Louisville. This team probably has the most experienced group of sophomore offensive players in the country. With only modest improvements offensively, this team should be able to win a lot of games and compete for the Coastal Division championship.
Georgia Tech: Justin Thomas is the most dynamic quarterback in the ACC. He carried Georgia Tech to the ACC Championship game last year, where they gave Florida State all they could handle. However, the Jackets lost B-Backs Synjyn Days and Zach Laskey, as well as A-Back Charles Perkins. Those guys accounted for 2,218 yards of offense in 2014. That said, four starters return up front, and Paul Johnson’s system is always dangerous. This team should be able to challenge for the Coastal Division, however unlike Virginia Tech they must face Florida State and Clemson during the regular season. On paper, that gives the Hokies an advantage.
Miami: Though talented sophomore Brad Kaaya returns at quarterback, he is just one of three returning starters on the offensive side of the ball. The offensive line could be in pretty bad shape. The defense lost emotional leader Denzel Perryman. The Hurricanes have never won the Coastal Division, and it’s hard to picture them doing so this year after losing so much talent. They had seven players drafted in April, yet only won six games last year. Perhaps the “U” stands for “Underachieving” these days.
North Carolina: Senior quarterback Marquise Williams returns to lead an offense that should be very good. The big question is whether new defensive coordinator Gene Chizik can turn around a defense that has been porous for the last two seasons. If he can make their defense better, the Tar Heels can compete for the Coastal Division. They do not play Florida State or Clemson, so if Chizik can get things turned around, UNC could be in for a good season.
Pitt: Since the end of 2010, Pitt has had seven football coaches (including interim coaches): Dave Wannstedt, Phil Bennett, Todd Graham, Keith Patterson, Paul Chryst, Joe Rudolph and Pat Narduzzi. The Panthers are hoping that Narduzzi finally brings some stability to the program. He will have some good offensive talent, such as James Conner at running back and Tyler Boyd at wide receiver, as well as a good offensive line and veteran quarterback. However, the defense tanked it down the stretch last year and needs to be rebuilt. Narduzzi, the former Michigan State defensive coordinator, seems like a good fit at Pitt, and they could surprise some folks this year.
Duke: The Blue Devils must find a way to replace quarterback Anthony Boone and wide receiver Jamison Crowder, not to mention first round pick offensive guard Laken Tomlinson. Duke should still have a pretty good running game. Defensively, Jeremy Cash is one of the best players in the ACC. Not a lot of people feel like Duke will compete for the Coastal Division this season, but they should still be able to qualify for a bowl game.
Virginia: Besides their regular Coastal Division schedule, Virginia plays Louisville from the Atlantic Division. They also play Boise State, Notre Dame, and UCLA. It will most likely take a bowl appearance to save Mike London’s job, and with the way their schedule sets up they don’t appear to have the overall talent to make that happen.
Virginia Tech and North Carolina have a schedule advantage over Georgia Tech, but the Yellow Jackets have the quarterback and a proven offensive system.
There is obviously no clear cut leader in either division, which should make the 2015 season all the more interesting.