The experts are calling for a rematch and a repeat in the ACC Championship game.
The Clemson Tigers, who posted a 12-2 record and earned a College Football Playoff berth for the third consecutive year in 2017, were picked by 139 out of 148 ACC media members last month to beat the Miami Hurricanes in a rematch of last year’s conference championship game. The Hurricanes, who won the Coastal Division for the first time in 2017, were beaten by the Tigers 38-3 in last year’s ACC title game.
Boston College sophomore running back AJ Dillon, meanwhile, was named the ACC’s Preseason Player of the Year, edging Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins by three votes. Dillon’s 1,589 yards rushing last season were the second-most by any freshman in ACC history and seventh nationally among all players.
The Tigers’ entire defensive front line – ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant, along with tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence – was voted to the All-ACC preseason squad, along with linebacker Kendall Joseph. The Tigers had three players chosen on offense: tackle Mitch Hyatt, center Justin Falcinelli and wide receiver Hunter Renfrow.
Clemson’s eight selections led all ACC schools. Boston College, meanwhile, had four preseason All-ACC selections followed by Miami with three and NC State, Wake Forest, Florida State and Duke with two each.
Here’s a team-by-team look at the ACC in the media’s predicted order of finish:
1. CLEMSON TIGERS
Coach: Dabo Swinney (11th season, 101-30)
Players to watch: RB Travis Etienne, WR Hunter Renfrow, OT Mitch Hyatt, C Justin Falcinelli, DL Clelin Ferrell, DE Austin Bryant, DT Christian Wilkins, DT Dexter Lawrence, LB Kendall Joseph, CB Trayvon Mullen
Key games: at Texas A&M (Sept. 8), vs. N.C. State (Oct. 20), at Florida State (Oct. 27), at Boston College (No. 10), vs. South Carolina (Nov. 24).
Overview: The Tigers are eyeing their second national title in three years after winning the conference for the third year in a row in what was considered a bit of a rebuilding year. Seven starters return on offense and eight on defense. Clemson has the best defensive line in the country hands down. Ferrell (6-5, 260) and Lawrence (6-4, 340) are listed as the No. 4 and No. 7 overall draft prospects regardless of position according to CBS Sports.
2. FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES
Coach: Willie Taggart (9th season, 47-50)
Players to watch: RB Cam Akers, K Ricky Aguayo, DE Brian Burns, DT Demarcus Christmas, RB Jacques Patrick, QB Deondre Francois, QB James Blackman
Key games: vs. Virginia Tech (Sept. 3), at Miami (Oct. 6), vs. Clemson (Oct. 27), at N.C. State (Nov. 3), at Notre Dame (Nov. 10), vs. Florida (Nov. 24)
Overview: Since winning 28 consecutive ACC games through 2015, the Seminoles are only 10-9 in conference play since. Taggart, who has a combined record of 31-30 over the last five seasons with stops at Oregon (7-5 in 2017) and USF before that, has eight starters back on offense and four on defense. Burns, a 6-5, 250-pound graduate of Plantation American Heritage High School, and Christmas (6-4, 308) are rated 14th and 65th respectively among top 100 NFL prospects by CBS. Akers, who broke FSU’s freshman rushing record with 1,024 yards in 2017, is back to lead the ground game.
3. N.C. STATE WOLFPACK
Coach: Dave Doeren (8th season, 57-34)
Players to watch: QB Ryan Finley, WR Kelvin Harmon, C Garrett Bradbury, LG Terronne Prescod, LT Tyler Jones, FS Dexter Wright, CB Nick McCloud, SS Jarius Morehead, LB Germaine Pratt
Key games: vs. West Virginia (Sept. 15), at Clemson (Oct. 20), vs. Florida State (Nov. 3), at Louisville (Nov. 17), at North Carolina (Nov. 24)
Overview: Seven players -- including star defensive end Bradley Chubb -- were taken in the NFL draft from last year’s 9-4 team. Finley, who completed 65 percent of his passes last season for 3,518 yards, 17 touchdowns and only six interceptions, is the highest-rated quarterback prospect in the country according to CBS Sports (10th overall regardless of position). Harmon (6-3, 213) is rated the 12th best receiver prospect by CBS. The issue for the Pack is on defense where only three starters return.
4. BOSTON COLLEGE EAGLES
Coach: Steve Addazio (8th season, 44-44)
Players to watch: DE Zach Allen, S Lukas Denis, RB AJ Dillon, TE Tommy Sweeney, C Jon Baker, OT Chris Lindstrom, LB Connor Strachan
Key games: at Purdue (Sept. 22), at N.C. State (Oct. 6), vs. Miami (Oct. 26), at Virginia Tech (Nov. 3), vs. Clemson (Nov. 10), at Florida State (Nov. 17)
Overview: Dillon (6-0, 245) exploded on the scene as a freshman and is one of 10 starters back on an offense that averaged 220 yards rushing per game. Six starters are back on defense. Allen (6-5, 285) is ranked the 20th best draft prospect regardless of position by CBS Sports and is coming off a 100-tackle, six-sack season. Denis (5-11, 185) had 83 tackles and seven interceptions in 2017 and is rated the top safety prospect in the country by CBS.
5. LOUISVILLE CARDINALS
Coach: Bobby Petrino (14th season, 117-48)
Players to watch: WR Jaylen Smith, QB Jawon Pass, WR Seth Dawkins, WR Dez Fitzpatrick, LT Mekhi Becton, LB Dorian Etheridge, LB Robert Hicks, CB Russ Yeast
Key games: vs. Alabama (Sept. 1), vs. Florida State (Sept. 29), at Boston College (Oct. 13), at Clemson (Nov. 3), vs. N.C. State (Nov. 17), vs. Kentucky (Nov. 24)
Overview: Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson is gone, but the biggest concerns are actually on defense for the Cardinals, who return only two starters on that side of the ball and have a new coordinator in Brian VanGorder. Offensively, seven starters are back including four on the offensive line with 79 combined starts. Smith (6-4, 223) leads a talented group at receiver.
6. WAKE FOREST DEMON DEACONS
Coach: Dave Clawson (10th season, 53-60)
Players to watch: WR Greg Dortch, OG Phil Haynes, DT Willie Yarbary, NT Zeek Rodney, DE Carlos Basham, CB Essang Bassey
Key games: vs. Boston College (Sept. 13), vs. Notre Dame (Sept. 22), vs. Clemson (Oct. 6), at Florida State (Oct. 20), at Louisville (Oct. 27), at N.C. State (Nov. 8)
Overview: The Demon Deacons are coming off an 8-5 season and Belk Bowl victory over Texas A&M and bring back eight starters on offense and six on defense. Dortch (5-9, 170) is the primary playmaker on an offense coming off the highest-scoring season in school history. The problems are on defense. Wake Forest allowed over 380 passing yards in each of its final six games and safety Jessie Bates, the leader of the unit, turned pro early.
7. SYRACUSE ORANGE
Coach: Dino Babers (5th season, 26-25)
Players to watch: QB Eric Dungey, TE Ravian Pierce, ATH Antwan Cordy, RB Dontae Strickland, OT Koda Martin, P Sterling Hofrichter, DT Chris Slayton,
Key games: vs. Florida State (Sept. 15), at Clemson (Sept. 29), at Pittsburgh (Oct. 6), vs. Louisville (Nov. 9), vs. Notre Dame (Nov. 17), at Boston College (Nov. 24)
Overview: The Orange, coming off a 4-8 season, is looking to reach its first bowl game since 2013. Eight starters return on offense and six on defense. Dungey, a third-year starter, has yet to make it through a season healthy. The good news is there is an experienced offensive line blocking for him this year. Syracuse, though, has concerns on defense after giving up 32.2 points per game in 2017 and losing the bulk of experience at linebacker.
1. MIAMI HURRICANES
Coach: Mark Richt (18th season, 164-58)
Players to watch: LB Shaq Quarterman, S Jaquan Johnson, CB Michael Jackson, FS Sheldrick Redwine, DE Joe Jackson, RB Travis Homer, WR Ahmmon Richards, C Tyler Gauthier, OT Navaughn Donaldson
Key games: vs. LSU (Sept. 2), at Toledo (Sept. 15), vs. Florida State (Oct. 6), at Boston College (Oct. 26), at Virginia Tech (Nov. 17), vs. Pittsburgh (Nov. 24).
Overview: Six draft picks were plucked off last year’s team, but seven starters return on each side of the ball for Richt, who is now 19-7 in his two seasons with the Canes. Four of those starters are top 100 NFL prospects according to ESPN: Richards (33), Jackson (36), Johnson (85) and Homer (100). Confidence is building Richt is on his way to building the type of team that can compete with the top teams in any conference. Repeating last year’s 10-win season would prove that’s true.
2. VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES
Coach: Justin Fuente (7th season, 45-31)
Players to watch: QB Josh Jackson, WR Sean Savoy, OT Yosuah Nijman, RB Steven Peoples, LB Dax Hollifield, FS Divine Deablo
Key games: at Florida State (Sept. 3), vs. Notre Dame (Oct. 6), at North carolina (Oct. 13), vs. Boston College (Nov. 3), vs. Miami (Nov. 17).
Overview: Five players – including three juniors – were drafted off last year’s 9-4 team. Seven starters on offense and five on defense are back for Fuente, who has gone 19-8 his first two years on the job and now has a roster loaded with sophomores and freshmen. Jackson (6-1, 216) broke the school’s freshman record for passing with 2,991 yards and 20 touchdown passes, but lost his top receiver in Cam Phillips.
3. GEORGIA TECH YELLOW JACKETS
Coach: Paul Johnson (17th season, 121-83)
Players to watch: QB TaQuon Marshall, OG Parker Braun, RB KirVonte Benson, DE Anree Saint-Armour, OLB Victor Alexander, LB Bruce Jordan-Swilling
Key games: at USF (Sept. 8), vs. Clemson (Sept. 22), at Louisvile (Oct. 5), at Virginia Tech (Oct. 25), vs. Miami (Nov. 10), at Georgia (Nov. 24)
Overview: Eight starters are back on offense and five on defense for Johnson, who has gone 76-54 in his 10 seasons in Atlanta but has had losing seasons in two of the last three. Marshall (5-10, 185) is an explosive runner, but was a terrible passer last season completing only 37.1 percent of his throws. Defensively, Nate Woody from Appalachian State takes over the coordinator duties. Johnson wants the Jackets, who are switching from a 4-2-5 to a 3-4 scheme, to improve on its 17 sacks and 47 tackles for loss last season, which ranked in the 100s.
4. DUKE BLUE DEVILS
Coach: David Cutcliffe (17th season, 103-96)
Players to watch: LB Joe Giles-Harris, CB Mark Gilbert, DT Edgar Cerenord, LB Ben Humphries, QB Daniel Jones, WR T.J. Rahming, RB Brittain Brown
Key games: at Northwestern (Sept. 8), at Baylor (Sept. 15), vs. Virginia Tech (Sept. 29), at Miami (Nov. 3), at Clemson (Nov. 17).
Overview: Seven starters on offense and eight on defense return for Cutcliffe, who won the final three games of the season to finish 7-6 after losing six games in a row. Giles-Harris (6-2, 240) and Gilbert (6-1, 175) earned preseason All-ACC honors are the anchors of a defense that finished 21st in scoring and total defense last season, but welcomes a new coordinator after Jim Knowles left for Oklahoma State.
5. PITTSBURGH PANTHERS
Coach: Pat Narduzzi (4th season, 21-17)
Players to watch: LB Oluwaseun Idowu, DE Dewayne Hendrix, NT Shane Roy, DE Rashad Weaver, QB Kenny Pickett, RB Darrin Hall, WR Rafael Araujo-Lopes, OT Alex Bookser
Key games: vs. Penn State (Sept. 8), at UCF (Sept. 29), at Notre Dame (Oct. 13), vs. Virginia Tech (Nov. 10), at Miami (Nov. 24)
Overview: The Panthers have knocked off top 10 teams Miami, Clemson and Penn State over the past two seasons, but is coming off a 5-7 season. The schedule is once again tough for Pitt. Seven starters are back on defense for first-year coordinator Randy Baters including six in the front seven. Only four starters return on offense.
6. NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS
Coach: Larry Fedora (11th season, 77-53)
Players to watch: WR Anthony Ratliff-Williams, RB Jordon Brown, RB Michael Carter, DE Malik Carney, LB Cole Holcomb, S Myles Dorn
Key games: at California (Sept. 1), vs. UCF (Sept. 15), at Miami (Sept. 27) vs. Virginia Tech (Oct. 13), at Duke (Nov. 10), vs. N.C. State (Nov. 24).
Overview: Carolina’s three wins in 2017 were the program’s fewest since 2006. Four starters are back on offense from a unit which scored an ACC-low 19.3 points per game in conference play. Eight starters return on defense, but the Tar Heels have finished last in the ACC in run defense each of the last five seasons. Ratliff-Williams (6-1, 205) was named an All-ACC return specialist in 2017, returning two kickoffs for TDs and is the team’s big playmaker.
7. VIRGINIA CAVALIERS
Coach: Bronco Mendenhall (14th season, 107-60)
Players to watch: QB Bryce Perkins, RB Jordan Ellis, WR Olamide Zaccheus, NT Eli Hanback, DE Mandy Alonso, LB Chris Peace, LB Malcolm Cook, FS Juan Thornhill
Key games: at Indiana (Sept. 8), vs. Miami (Oct. 13), at Duke (Oct. 20), vs. Pittsburgh (Nov. 2), at Virginia Tech (Nov. 23)
Overview: The Cavaliers reached their first bowl game since 2011 and were a pleasant surprise last season in Mendenhall’s second season at the helm, but lost 3,000-yard passer Kurt Benkert and three big-time leaders on defense to graduation. In all, five starters return on offense and eight on defense.
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