The Atlantic Coast Conference once again has a team on the short list of national championship favorites as the Clemson Tigers aim to defend their title. The rest of the conference is wide open, though, with teams like the Syracuse Orange and Miami Hurricanes trying to prove 2018 was a fluke in different ways.
Here’s a division-by-division look at how the ACC could wind up shaking out in 2019:
1. CLEMSON TIGERS
Coach: Dabo Swinney (12th year, 116-30).
Players to watch: QB Trevor Lawrence; RB Travis Etienne; WR Justyn Ross; DE Xavier Thomas; S Isaiah Simmons.
Key games: vs. Texas A&M (Sept. 7); at Syracuse (Sept. 14); vs. Florida State (Oct. 12); at Louisville (Oct. 19); at South Carolina (Nov. 30).
Overview: The defending national champions have a lot to replace, particularly on defense, but Swinney officially has a machine going in Clemson, South Carolina. Lawrence might be the best quarterback in the country. Etienne might be the nation’s best running back. Ross could take the leap into the conversation as the best wide receiver in the country. The Tigers’ offense should be good enough to overcome the losses of All-American defensive linemen Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell, particularly in the ACC.
2. SYRACUSE ORANGE
Coach: Dino Babers (sixth year, 36-28).
Players to watch: OL Evan Adams; DL Alton Robinson; DB Andre Cisco; K Andre Szmzyt; K/P Sterling Hofrichter.
Key games: vs. Clemson (Sept. 14); at Florida State (Oct. 26); at Louisville (Nov. 23).
Overview: Syracuse was one of the most pleasant surprises in the country last year as Babers got his offensive machine rolling in Syracuse, New York. Even with quarterback Eric Dungey gone, Babers is a system unto himself and Tommy DeVito, Dungey’s replacement, is one of the top quarterbacks the Orange has recruited since Donovan McNabb. Throw in an experienced defense and the best kicker in the country, and Syracuse might be here to stay in the Atlantic Division.
3. FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES
Coach: Willie Taggart (10th year, 52-57).
Players to watch: RB Cam Akers; WR Tamorrion Terry; DT Marvin Wilson; DB Stanford Samuels III; P Logan Tyler.
Key games: vs. Boise State (Aug. 31); at Clemson (Oct. 12); vs. Syracuse (Oct. 26); vs. Miami (Nov. 2); at Florida (Nov. 30)
Overview: Year 1 was a disaster for Taggart, but things can only go up in the coach’s second season. The offensive line will almost certainly be better, the quarterback situation should be more consistent and there’s enough talent in place to bounce back, even if it doesn’t quite push Florida State to the top tier in the division. Worst case, the Seminoles can just lean on Akers.
4. NORTH CAROLINA STATE WOLFPACK
Coach: Dave Doeren (ninth year, 66-38).
Players to watch: WR Emeka Emezie; S Jarius Morehead.
Key games: at Florida State (Sept. 28); vs. Syracuse (Oct. 10); vs. Clemson (Nov. 9); vs. Louisville (Nov. 16).
Overview: North Carolina State was hit hard by key departures after spending much of the 2018 season inside the Top 25. The Wolfpack lost a pair of All-American offensive linemen as Garrett Bradbury and Terrone Prescod graduated. North Carolina State will also have to work in a first-year quarterback after Ryan Finley departed for the NFL. It looks like a rebuilding season in Raleigh, North Carolina.
5. BOSTON COLLEGE EAGLES
Coach: Steve Addazio (ninth year, 51-49).
Players to watch: RB AJ Dillon; OL Ben Petrula.
Key games: at Louisville (Oct. 5); at Clemson (Oct. 26); at Syracuse (Nov. 2); vs. Florida State (Nov. 9); at Notre Dame (Nov. 23).
Overview: Boston College spent part of 2018 inside the Top 25, but 2019 should be a step back for the Eagles, who have to replace star defensive lineman Zach Allen and All-American defensive back Hamp Cheevers. Losses like those will make it tough for Boston College to win with its grind-it-out, low-scoring style. The Eagles could go as Dillon goes.
6. WAKE FOREST DEMON DEACONS
Coach: Dave Clawson (11th year, 60-67).
Players to watch: WR Sage Surratt; DB Essang Bassey.
Key games: vs. Utah State (Aug. 30); vs. Louisville (Oct. 12); vs. Florida State (Oct. 19); at Clemson (Nov. 16); at Syracuse (Nov. 30).
Overview: Wake Forest has settled in as roughly a .500 program under Clawson, and there are reasons to think 2019 could be another similar season. The Demon Deacons should have a more stable quarterback situation this year, but they also have to replace All-American wide receiver Greg Dortch, who was the focal point of Wake Forest’s offense when things were humming in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
7. LOUISVILLE CARDINALS
Coach: Scott Satterfield (sixth year, 47-16).
Players to watch: T Mekhi Becton; MLB Dorian Etheridge.
Key games: vs. Notre Dame (Sept. 2); vs. Clemson (Oct. 19); vs. Virginia (Oct. 26); at Miami (Nov. 9); vs. Syracuse (Nov. 23).
Overview: Louisville hasn’t been the same since former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson left, so Satterfield has a major rebuild ahead of him. The former Appalachian State Mountaineers coach, though, has always succeeded with limited talent, so he could get the Cardinals back to respectability quickly.
1. VIRGINIA CAVALIERS
Coach: Bronco Mendenhall (15th year, 115-65).
Players to watch: QB Bryce Perkins; MLB Jordan Mack; CB Bryce Hall.
Key games: vs. Florida State (Sept. 14); at Notre Dame (Sept. 28); at Miami (Oct. 11); at Louisville (Oct. 26); vs. Liberty (Nov. 23).
Overview: Picked by the media in the preseason to win the Coastal Division, Virginia enters 2019 with a surprising amount of hype thanks to a better-than-expected 2019 season. Perkins is a big reason for the optimism as a legitimately dangerous dual-threat quarterback. The defense is talented, too, and it helps make the Cavaliers the Hurricanes’ toughest divisional challenger.
2. MIAMI HURRICANES
Coach: Manny Diaz (first season).
Players to watch: TE Brevin Jordan; DE Jonathan Garvin; LB Shaquille Quarterman; LB Michael Pinckney; CB Trajan Bandy.
Key games: vs. Florida (Aug. 24); vs. Virginia (Oct. 11); at Florida State (Nov. 2); vs. Louisville (Nov. 9).
Overview: Diaz will certainly be far from perfect as a first-time coach, but the defense should still be one of the best in the country, and offensive coordinator Dan Enos should give the offense a much-needed infusion of ingenuity. The team is deeply flawed, but the Coastal Division is one of the worst Power 5 Conference divisions. A 10-win season isn’t impossible for the Hurricanes, who are still easily the most talented team in the Coastal.
3. VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES
Coach: Justin Fuente (eighth year, 51-38).
Players to watch: WR Damon Hazelton; LB Rayshard Ashby.
Key games: at Miami (Oct. 5); at Notre Dame (Nov. 2); at Virginia (Nov. 29).
Overview: The Fuente era hasn’t gone as expected in Blacksburg, Virginia. The good vibes from a promising first season were quickly washed away in 2018 when Virginia Tech was on the wrong side of an upset loss to the Old Dominion Monarchs. A rash of offseason transfers crushed the Hokies’ talent level. The coach has to turn things around quickly to save his long-term prospects. The good news: Virginia Tech still has one of the most talented rosters in the division.
4. PITTSBURGH PANTHERS
Coach: Pat Narduzzi (fifth year, 28-24).
Players to watch: WR Maurice Ffrench; DB Damar Hamlin.
Key games: vs. Virginia (Aug. 31); at Penn State (Sept. 14); vs. Central Florida (Sept. 21); at Syracuse (Oct. 18); vs. Miami (Oct. 26).
Overview: Pittsburgh won the Coastal Division last season, then promptly got throttled by the Tigers in the ACC Championship Game. It was immediately clear the Panthers weren’t the division’s best, and they should regress toward the mean in 2019, mostly because some of the competition should improve.
5. DUKE BLUE DEVILS
Coach: David Cutcliffe (19th year, 111-101).
Players to watch: RB Deon Jackson; CB Mark Gilbert.
Key games: vs. Alabama (Aug. 31); at Virginia (Oct. 19); vs. Notre Dame (Nov. 9); vs. Syracuse (Nov. 16); vs. Miami (Nov. 30)
Overview: Duke will likely take a step back in 2019 with former quarterback Daniel Jones now competing for the New York Giants’ starting job. Never count out Cutcliffe, though, who somehow is averaging more than seven wins a season in his past seven years in Durham, North Carolina. The two coaches prior to Cutcliffe averaged fewer than two wins a season with the Blue Devils.
6. NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS
Coach: Mack Brown (30th year, 238-117-1).
Players to watch: QB Sam Howell; DL Jason Strowbridge.
Key games: vs. South Carolina (Aug. 31); vs. Miami (Sept. 7); vs. Clemson (Sept. 28); vs. Virginia (Nov. 2).
Overview: The final years of Larry Fedora’s tenure as North Carolina’s coach cast a shadow on the program’s potential. The Tar Heels could turn back toward respectability quickly with Brown at the helm thanks to some of the talent already on the roster. Although the quarterback spot is still a question and it’s hard to trust Brown’s long-term prospects because of his age, North Carolina should be able to get back to bowl contention.
7. GEORGIA TECH YELLOW JACKETS
Coach: Geoff Collins (third year, 15-10).
Players to watch: RB Jordan Mason; DB Tre Swilling.
Key games: at Clemson (Aug. 29); vs. South Florida (Sept. 7); at Temple (Sept. 28); at Miami (Oct. 19); vs. Georgia (Nov. 30)
Overview: Georgia Tech is in a precarious spot in Collins’ first season. After years of running a triple option with Paul Johnson as coach, the Yellow Jackets will begin their move toward a more traditional offensive system. Quite simply, the personnel isn’t in place yet. Collins could turn Georgia Tech into a perennial contender in the Coastal Division. It probably won’t happen right away, though.