ACC

Is the ACC the best conference in college football? Breaking down Atlantic and Coastal

Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) throws a pass during warmups before a 2016 NCAA game against Virginia in Charlottesville.
Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) throws a pass during warmups before a 2016 NCAA game against Virginia in Charlottesville. AP

Is this finally the year we’ll get to see Florida State and Miami face off in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game? The experts think so.

The Seminoles, who finished 10-3 and won the Orange Bowl in a thriller over Michigan, were picked by the 167 media members in attendance for the ACC Football Kickoff in Greensboro back in July to win its 16th ACC title and beat the Hurricanes in the conference championship game. Miami, which joined the ACC in 2004 with five national titles and much fanfare, has never won the Coastal Divsion.

Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, was chosen to repeat as ACC Player of the Year after a record-setting sophomore campaign in which he averaged 393.4 yards per game of total offense and accounted for 51 touchdowns, both ACC single-season records. Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois, last year’s ACC Rookie of the Year, was picked to finish second to Jackson.

Last year, the ACC finished 9-3 in bowl games – the best record of any conference – and five teams finished in the AP Top 25 led by national champion Clemson. This season, all 14 ACC teams have schedules that feature no fewer than seven opponents that appeared in bowl games. Syracuse leads that category with 11.

The league had 43 players drafted including four first rounders last April. CBS Sports lists 20 players from the ACC among the NFL’s top 100 prospects including 16 combined between Florida State (7), Clemson (6) and Louisville (3).

Here’s a team-by-team look at the ACC in the media’s predicted order of finish:

1. FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES

Coach: Jimbo Fisher (8th season, 78-17)

Players to watch: SS Derwin James, CB Tavarus McFadden, DT Derrick Nnadi, DE Josh Sweat, WR Auden Tate, QB Deondre Francois, SS Trey Marshall, C Alec Eberle, RB Jacques Patrick, WR Nyqwan Murray, TE Ryan Izzo, OT Rick Leonard, OG Landon Dickerson, DE Brian Burns, LB Jacob Pugh, K Ricky Aguayo

Deondre_Francois
Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois Wilfredo Lee AP

Key games: vs. Alabama (Sept. 2), vs. Miami (Sept. 16), vs. Louisville (Oct. 21), at Clemson (Nov. 11), at Florida (Nov. 25)

Overview: Seven starters return on offense and 11 on defense for Fisher, whose .821 career winning percentage ranks second nationally among all active head coaches. FSU is one of only two schools to record double-digit wins each of the last five seasons. James and McFadden are rated the No. 1 strong safety and cornerback prospects, respectively, in next April’s NFL Draft according to CBS Sports. The Seminoles have seven players rated among the top 100 draft prospects.

2. CLEMSON TIGERS

Coach: Dabo Swinney (10th season, 89-28)

Players to watch: DT Christian Wilkins, WR Deon Cain, OT Mitch Hyatt, OG Tyrone Crowder, ILB Kendall Joseph, DT Dexter Lawrence, K Greg Huegel, WR Hunter Renfrow, DE Clelin Ferrell, CB Ryan Carter, S Van Smith

Key games: vs. Auburn (Sept. 9), at Louisville (Sept. 16), at Virginia Tech (Sept. 30), vs. Florida State (Nov. 11)

Overview: The Tigers bring back five starters on offense and seven on defense, but must replace star quarterback Deshaun Watson who was 32-3 as a starter. Wilkins is rated the No. 1 defensive tackle in next April’s NFL Draft by CBS Sports and one of six Tigers ranked among the top 100 prospects.

3. LOUISVILLE CARDINALS

Coach: Bobby Petrino (13th season, 109-43)

Players to watch: QB Lamar Jackson, CB Jaire Alexander, S Chucky Williams, WR Jaylen Smith, RB Jeremy Smith, DT Drew Bailey, LB Stacy Thomas, LB James Hearns, P Mason King, OT Geron Christian

Key games: vs. Clemson (Sept. 16), at Florida State (Oct. 21), at Wake Forest (Oc.t 28), at Kentucky (Nov. 25).

Overview: The Cardinals, who return seven starters on defense and five on offense, have finished ranked in the AP Top 25 two of the last three seasons. Louisville has averaged 9.6 wins in the seven years Petrino has coached them. Jackson is rated the fifth-best quarterback prospect in next April’s NFL Draft by CBS Sports and one of three Cardinals ranked among the top 100 prospects. Alexander is rated the No. 2 cornerback prospect.

Louisville Football
Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson warms up before the start of the first open NCAA college football practice of the season, Monday, July. 31, 2017, in Louisville, Ky. Timothy D. Easley AP

4. N.C. STATE WOLFPACK

Coach: Dave Doeren (7th season, 48-30)

Players to watch: OG Tony Adams, DE Bradley Chubb, RB Jaylen Samuels, P A.J. Cole III, RB Nyheim Hines, OT Tyler Jones, DT B.J. Hill, LB Airius Moore

Key games: vs. South Carolina (Sept. 2), at Florida State (Sept. 23), vs. Louisville (Oct. 5), at Notre Dame (Oct. 28), vs. North Carolina (Nov. 25)

Overview: Eight starters return on each side of the ball for Doeren, who enters his fifth season in Raleigh having led the Wolfpack to three straight bowl appearances. Priorities include finding playmakers at running back to replace leading rushing Matt Dayes and three members

of the secondary. Chubb is rated the third-best defensive end prospect in next April’s NFL Draft by CBS Sports.

5. WAKE FOREST DEMON DEACONS

Coach: Dave Clawson (18th season, 103-104)

Players to watch: TE Cam Serigne, SS Jessie Bates, DE Duke Ejiofor, DE Wendell Dunn, LB Jaboree Williams, OT Ryan Anderson, OT Justin Herron, K Mike Weaver

Key games: at Appalachian State (Sept. 23), vs. Florida State (Sept. 30), at Clemson (Oct. 7), at Notre Dame (Nov. 4), vs. Duke (Nov. 25)

Overview: Eight starters return on offense and five on defense from a team that broke through in the third season of Clawson’s rebuilding project, recording a winning season, earning a bowl bid and finishing with a bowl victory for the first time since 2008. Clawson must replace two starters on the offensive line and find replacements at linebacker and in the secondary. Ejiofor is rated the fifth-best defensive end prospect in next April’s NFL Draft by CBS Sports.

6. SYRACUSE ORANGE

Coach: Dino Babers (6th season, 41-24)

Players to watch: LB Zaire Franklin, QB Eric Dungey, RB Dontae Strickland, WR Ervin Phillips, WR Steve Ishmael, OLB Paris Bennett, P Sterling Hofrichter

Key games: at LSU (Sept. 23), vs. Pittsburgh (Oct. 7), vs. Clemson (Oct. 13), at Miami (Oct. 21), at Florida State (Nov. 4)

Overview: Babers, coming off a 4-8 season in his first year at the helm, welcomes back 20 starters, the most of any team nationally. Nine are back on offense and on defense and both the punter and kicker return. Dungey, despite missing the final three games of the season with an injury, finished 11th nationally in total offense, 13th in pass completion percentage (.643) and seventh in pass completions per game.

7. BOSTON COLLEGE EAGLES

Coach: Steve Addazio (7th season, 37-39)

Players to watch: DE Harold Landry, C Jon Baker, LB Connor Strachan, RB Jon Hilliman, TE Tommy Sweeney

Key games: vs. Wake Forest (Sept. 9), Notre Dame (Sept. 16), vs. Connecticut (Nov. 18), at Syracuse (Nov. 25)

Overview: Nine starters return on offense and seven on defense for Addazio, who enters his fifth season at BC having led the Eagles to three 7-6 records and appearances in the Independence, Pinstripe and Quick Lane Bowls. Landry, who led the nation in sacks per game and was voted a second team All-American, is rated the No. 1 outside linebacker in next April’s NFL Draft according to CBSSports.

1. MIAMI HURRICANES

Coach: Mark Richt (17th season, 154-55)

Players to watch: WR Ahmmon Richards, RB Mark Walton, LB Shaquille Quarterman, K Michael Badgley, TE Chris Herndon, OG Kc McDermott, S Jaquan Johnson, WR Braxton Berrios, OT Trevor Darling, DE Chad Thomas

Key games: at Florida State (Sept. 16), vs. Syracuse (Oct. 21), vs. Virginia Tech (Nov. 4), vs. Notre Dame (Nov. 11)

Overview: Seven starters return on offense and eight on defense for Richt, who led the Canes to their first bowl win since 2006 in his first season at the helm. Miami finished 12th nationally in scoring defense and its front seven will be the strength. If the quarterback position doesn’t become an issue, UM is in strong position to win its first division title.

2. VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES

Coach: Justin Fuente (5th season, 36-27)

Players to watch: CB Adonis Alexander, S Tremaine Edwards, LB Andrew Motuapuaka, CB Greg Stroman, CB Brandon Facyson, LB Andrew Motuapuaka, OG Wyatt Teller, K Joey Slye, WR Cam Phillips, OG Wyatt Teller, RB Travon McMillian

Key games: vs. West Virginia (Sept. 3), vs. Clemson (Sept. 30), at Miami (Nov. 4), vs. Pittsburgh (Nov. 18)

Overview: In his first season at Virginia Tech, Fuente led the Hokies to their first 10-win season and their first appearance in the ACC Championship Game since 2011 and earned ACC Coach of the Year honors. Eight starters return on defense and five on offense for the Hokies, who must replace three starters on the defensive line. Alexander is rated the third-best cornerback prospect in next April’s NFL Draft.

3. GEORGIA TECH YELLOW JACKETS

Coach: Paul Johnson (21st season, 117-87)

Players to watch: WR Ricky Jeune, OT Andrew Marshall, OG Parker Braun, DE KeShun Freeman, CB Lawrence Austin, LB Brant Mitchell

Key games: vs. Tennessee (Sept. 4), vs. Pittsburgh (Sept. 23), at Miami (Oct. 12), at Clemson (Oct. 28), vs. Georgia (Nov. 25)

Overview: Georgia Tech won six of its final seven games to complete a six-win turnaround from 2015, tied for the largest in the country. Eight starters return on each side of the ball, but the Yellow Jackets must replace the offense’s triggerman in quarterback Justin Thomas and leading rusher Dedrick Mills, who was booted off the team on Aug. 18 for a violation of athletic department rules.

4. PITTSBURGH PANTHERS

Coach: Pat Narduzzi (3rd season, 16-10)

Players to watch: WR Quadree Henderson, S Jordan Whitehead, OT Brian O’Neill, WR Jester Weah, C Alex Officer, CB Avonte Maddox

Key games: at Penn State (Sept. 9), vs. Oklahoma State (Sept. 16), at Virginia Tech (Nov. 18), vs. Miami (Nov. 24)

Overview: Six starters are back on offense and four on defense for Narduzzi, who has piled up a combined 11-5 record in the ACC and finished second in the Coastal Division in each of his first two seasons at the helm. The main priorities are to find a quarterback, find replacements on the defensive line and linebacker and settle on a running back to replace James Conner. Whitehead is suspended for the first three games of the season as part of a disciplinary measure handed down by Narduzzi.

5. NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS

Coach: Larry Fedora (10th season, 74-44)

Players to watch: CB M.J. Stewart, S Donnie Miles, WR Austin Proehl, TE Carl Tucker, OT Bentley Spain, DE Malik Carney, P Tommy Sheldon

Key games: vs. Louisville (Sept. 9), vs. Duke (Sept. 23), vs. Notre Dame (Oct. 7), at N.C. State (Nov. 25)

Overview: Seven starters return on defense, five on offense for the Tar Heels who last season became the first ACC team to win games at Miami and Florida State in the same year each was ranked. The questions are all on offense for UNC, which must replace No. 2 overall pick Mitch Trubinsky at quarterback and the team’s leading rusher and receivers.

6. DUKE BLUE DEVILS

Coach: David Cutcliffe (16th season, 96-90)

Players to watch: LB Ben Humphreys, C Austin Davis, QB Daniel Jones, RB Shaun Wilson, WR T.J. Rahming, TE Daniel Helm, OT Evan Lisle, LB Joe Giles-Harris, CB Bryon Fields Jr.

Key games: vs. Northwestern (Sept. 9), vs. Baylor (Sept. 16), at North Carolina (Sept. 23), at Army (Nov. 11)

Overview: Seven starters return on offense and five on defense for the Blue Devils, who had been to four consecutive bowl games before finishing 4-8 last season. Jones had a strong rookie campaign, completing 62.8 percent of his passes for 2,836 yards and 16 TDs, while also running for 486 yards and seven more scores last season.

7. VIRGINIA CAVALIERS

Coach: Bronco Mendenhall (13th season, 101-53)

Players to watch: LB Micah Kiser, S Quin Blanding, WR Doni Dowling, DE Andrew Brown, CB Bryce Hall

Key games: at Boise State (Sept. 22), vs. Duke (Oct. 7), at North Carolina (Oct. 14), vs. Virginia Tech (Nov. 25)

Overview: Mendenhall’s first season was far from easy as the Cavaliers began slowly and never really recovered in finishing 2-10 overall. Eight starters are back on defense led by Kiser, the No. 1 rated inside linebacker prospect in next April’s NFL Draft by CBS Sports. Blanding is rated the fourth-best free safety. Three graduate transfers on the offensive line join five returning starters on offense.

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