ACC Preview 2015: Clemson the favorite to win

Georgia Tech QB Justin Thomas
Georgia Tech QB Justin Thomas MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Clemson was picked as the preseason favorite to win the Atlantic Coast Conference, receiving 84 of the 158 votes from media members at the ACC Football Kickoff in July. Georgia Tech, which won the Orange Bowl and finished 11-3 last season, was picked to repeat as Coastal Division champion. Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson was selected as the preseason Player of the Year in the conference, edging Pittsburgh running back James Conner and Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas.



Coach: Steve Addazio (third season, 14-12).

Players to watch: RB Jon Hilliman, DE Kevin Kavalec, DT Connor Wujciak, DT Truman Gutapfel, LB Steven Daniels, LB Mike Strizak, CB Justin Simmons, P Alex Howell, K Myles Willis, DL Mehdi Abdesmad, OL Harris Williams.

Overview: BC is coming off back-to-back 7-6 seasons and bowl losses in Addazio’s first two years at the helm. The Eagles bring back only three starters on offense, none with double-digit starts in their careers. Six defensive starters are back from a unit that finished 21st nationally in points against (21.3).

Key games: vs. Florida State (Sept. 18), at Clemson (Oct. 17), at Louisville (Oct. 24), vs. Notre Dame (Nov. 21 at Fenway Park), at Syracuse (Nov. 28).


Coach: Dabo Swinney (ninth season, 61-26).

Players to watch: QB Deshaun Watson, WR Mike Williams, WR Artavis Scott, OG Eric MacLain, DE Shaq Lawson, RB Wayne Gallman, TE Jordan Leggett, C Ryan Norton, DT D.J. Reader, LB Ben Boulware, CB Mackensie Alexander, S Jayson Kearse.

Overview: The Tigers, whose 42 victories during the past four seasons are the most in any four-year period in Clemson history, led the conference with five preseason All-ACC selections. The Tigers return only three starters on a defense that led the nation in 11 different categories and ranked in the top 25 in a total of 20 but bring back players who represented 92 percent of their receiving yards, 81 percent of their rushing yards and 87 percent of their points on an offense that averaged 30.8 points per game.

Key games: at Louisville (Sept. 17), vs. Notre Dame (Oct. 3), vs. Georgia Tech (Oct. 10), vs. Florida State (Nov. 7), at South Carolina (Nov. 28).


Coach: Jimbo Fisher (sixth season, 58-11).

Players to watch: QB Everett Golson, QB Sean Maguire, OT Roderick Johnson, LB Terrance Smith, CB Jalen Ramsey, K Roberto Aguayo, RB Dalvin Cook, WR Travis Rudolph, WR Jesus Wilson, DE DeMarcus Walker, DT Derrick Mitchell, DT Nile Lawrence-Stample, LB Reggie Northrup, S Nate Andrews, P Cason Beatty, KR Kermit Whitfield

Overview: The Seminoles produced a modern-day record of 29 draft picks during the past three years, a stretch in which they went 39-3 and won three consecutive conference crowns. Only four starters return on an offense that averaged 33.7 points (35th nationally) and 303.3 yards passing per game (14th nationally) last season under No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick Jameis Winston. Defensively, seven starters are back from a unit that gave up 25.6 points per game.

Key games: vs. Miami (Oct. 10), vs. Louisville (Oct. 17), at Georgia Tech (Oct. 24), at Clemson (Nov. 7), at Florida (Nov. 28).


Coach: Bobby Petrino (sixth season, 50-13).

Players to watch: DE Sheldon Rankins, LB James Burgess, RB Brandon Radcliff, WR James Quick, WR Ja’Quay Savage, LB Keith Kelsey, CB Shaq Wiggins, S Josh Harvey-Clemons, K John Wallace.

Overview: A total of 41 lettermen return, including six starters on defense and four on offense for the Cardinals, who finished 9-4 in Petrino’s first season back at Louisville since 2006 despite playing three different quarterbacks. Louisville won most of its games on defense last season, giving up only 21.8 points per game and brings back loads of experience in the front seven. If the offense comes around and the team can settle on a quarterback, it could surprise and win the division.

Key games: vs. Auburn (Sept. 5), vs. Clemson (Sept. 17), at Florida State (Oct. 17), at Kentucky (Nov. 28).


Coach: Dave Doeren (third season, 11-14).

Players to watch: RB Shadrach Thornton, QB Jacoby Brissett, RB Matt Dayes, TE David Grinnage, OG Joe Thurney, C Quinton Schooley, DE Mike Rose, DT B.J. Hill, DT Kentavius Steet, LB Jerod Fernandez, CB Jack Tocho, CB Juston Burris, S Hakim Jones, S Josh Jones

Overview: The Wolfpack had the nation’s second-biggest collection of freshmen (52) in fall camp last year and brings back 42 lettermen, including six starters on offense and eight on defense. The Wolfpack could have the best rushing trio in the ACC. Thornton (907), Dayes (573) and Brissett (529) became the first Pack trio since 1973 to run for 500-plus yards last season.

Key games: vs. Louisville (Oct. 3), vs. Clemson (Oct. 31), at Florida State (Nov. 14), vs. North Carolina (Nov. 28).


Coach: Scott Shafer (third season, 10-15).

Players to watch: WR Steve Ishmael, OT Ivan Foy, C Rob Trudo, DE Ron Thompson, LB Zaire Franklin, LB Marqez Hodge, K Cole Murphy, P Riley Dixon.

Overview: Injuries and a dreadful offense that averaged 17.1 points per game (121st nationally) dragged the Orange down from a 7-5 team to a 3-9 disappointment. Eight starters are gone from a pretty good defense that gave up only 24.3 points per game. But at least eight starters are back on offense, including quarterback Terrel Hunt, who played in only five games last season.

Key games: vs. LSU (Sept. 26), at FSU (Oct. 31), at Louisville (Nov. 7), vs. Clemson (Nov. 14), vs. Boston College (Nov. 28).


Coach: Dave Clawson (second season, 3-9).

Players to watch: QB John Wolford, LB Brandon Chubb, P Alex Kinal, TE Cam Serigne, S Ryan Janvion.

Overview: The rebuilding process continues for Clawson, whose offense ranked 109th passing (176.3 yards per game) and 127th (39.9 yards per game) in rushing and scoring (14.8 points) last season. Wolford became the first true freshman in school history to start every game last season, and the Demon Deacons are going to need him to grow up in a hurry to avoid missing a bowl game for the fourth consecutive season.

Key games: at Syracuse (Sept. 12), vs. Indiana (Sept. 26), vs. FSU (Oct. 3), at North Carolina (Oct. 17), vs. N.C. State (Oct. 24), at Notre Dame (Nov. 14).



Coach: David Cutcliffe (eighth season, 40-48).

Players to watch: C Matt Skura, S Jeremy Cash, RB Shaquille Powell, WR Max McCaffrey, TE Braxton Deaver, OT Casey Blaser, OG Lucas Patrick, DT Carlos Wray, CB Breon Borders, CB Byron Fields, S DeVon Edwards, K Ross Martin, P Will Monday, QB Thomas Sirk.

Overview: Six starters return on each side of the ball for Cutcliffe, who won the Coastal Division in 2013 and went 9-4 last season. But there are some big shoes to fill at receiver, linebacker and defensive end. The Blue Devils have a friendly home schedule early, and if they can somehow knock off Georgia Tech on Sept. 26, they will have a path to the Coastal crown.

Key games: vs. Northwestern (Sept. 19), vs. Georgia Tech (Sept. 26), at Virginia Tech (Oct. 24), vs. Miami (Oct. 31), at North Carolina (Nov. 7).


Coach: Paul Johnson (eighth season, 59-35).

Players to watch: DT Adam Gotsis, QB Justin Thomas, OT Bryan Chamberlain, OT Errin Joe, OG Trey Braun, C Freddie Burden, DE KeShun Freeman, DT Jabari Hunt-Days, LB P.J. Davis, CB D.J. White, CB Chris Milton, S Jamal Golden, K Harrison Btutker, P Ran Rodwell.

Overview: Picked to finish fifth in the preseason, Johnson rode his quarterback and a turnover-producing defense to an 11-3 record and an Orange Bowl victory last season, which earned him a contract extension through 2020 and got him off the hot seat after four consecutive mediocre seasons. Thomas is the key to how far the Yellow Jackets will go. The Heisman Trophy candidate lost his entire starting backfield and two top receivers but has an experienced line in front of him. The schedule, though, is tough.

Key games: at Notre Dame (Sept. 19), at Duke (Sept. 26), at Clemson (Oct. 10), vs. Florida State (Oct. 24), at Miami (Nov. 21), vs. Georgia (Nov. 28).


Coach: Al Golden (fifth season, 28-22).

Players to watch: QB Brad Kaaya, RB Joe Yearby, RB Gus Edwards, RB Mark Walton, WR Stacy Coley, WR Rashawn Scott, OG Danny Isidora, C Nick Linder, DE Quan Muhammad, DT Calvin Heurtelou, LB Rafael Kirby, LB Jermaine Grace, S Deon Bush, CB Artie Burns, CB Tracy Howard, P Justin Vogel.

Overview: The Hurricanes blew a first-half lead against Florida State last November and never recovered, leaving Golden on the hot seat and recruits fleeing following a 6-7 season. Kaaya provides hope. Only Ken Dorsey and Jacory Harris had better quarterback passer-efficiency ratings than he did last season among passers at UM. Defensively, Miami finished 37th in scoring defense (24.3 points per game) and returns 19 of the 26 players who were in the rotation last season.

Key games: vs. Nebraska (Sept. 19), at Florida State (Oct. 10), vs. Virginia Tech (Oct. 17), vs. Clemson (Oct. 24), at Dike (Oct. 31), vs. Georgia Tech (Nov. 21).


Coach: Larry Fedora (fourth season, 21-17)

Players to watch: OG Landon Turner, WR/KR Ryan Switzer, QB Marquise Williams, RB T.J. Logan, WR Quinshad Davis, OT Jon Heck, OG Caleb Peterson, C Lucas Crowley, DT Nazair Jones, LB Jeff Schoettmer.

Overview: The Tar Heels scored 30 points or more eight times but were 5-3 in those games last season and slipped under Fedora to 6-7. He brought in former Auburn coach Gene Chizik to shake up the Tar Heels defense, which gave up 39 points a game (119th). The good news: 10 starters are back on UNC’s offense, which averaged 33.2 points per game (38th).

Key games: vs. South Carolina (Sept. 3), at Georgia Tech (Oct. 3), vs. Duke (Nov. 7), vs. Miami (Nov. 14), at N.C. State (Nov. 28).


Coach: Pat Narduzzi (first year).

Players to watch: WR Tyler Boyd, RB James Conner, OT Adam Bisnowaty, TE J.P. Holtz, OG Dorian Johnson, QB Chad Voytik, DT Khaynin Mosley-Smith, DT Darryl Render, LB Matt Galambos, CB Lafayette Pitts.

Overview: The Panthers lost 17 players to graduation and bring back 47, including eight starters on offense and seven on defense. If Narduzzi, a defensive mastermind at Michigan State, can improve a defense that finished 59th in scoring (26.3), the Panthers have enough in Conner and Boyd on offense to make Pitt a dark horse for the Coastal crown.

Key games: at Iowa (Sept. 19), at Virginia Tech (Oct. 3), at Georgia Tech (Oct. 17), vs. Notre Dame (Nov. 7), at Duke (Nov. 14), vs. Miami (Nov. 27).


Coach: Mike London (sixth season, 23-38).

Players to watch: S Quin Blanding, WR Canaan Severin, OT Eric Smith, C Ross Burbank, DE Mike Moore, DT David Dean, CB Maurice Canady, CB Demetrious Nicholson.

Overview: Five starters return on offense and defense for London, whose welcome is beginning to wear out in Charlottesville. The quarterback situation remains a mess. The defense (24.1 points per game), though, kept Virginia in games last year and should again.

Key games: at UCLA (Sept. 5), vs. Notre Dame (Sept. 12), vs. Boise State (Sept. 25), at Miami (Nov. 7), vs. Virginia Tech (Nov. 28).


Coach: Frank Beamer (30th season, 231-115-2).

Players to watch: TE Bucky Hodgers, DE Dadi Lhomme Nicolas, DT Luther Maddy, CB Kendall Fuller, RB J.C. Coleman, WR Isaiah Ford, OG Wyatt Teller, DE Ken Ekanem, DT Corey Marshall.

Overview: The Hokies have produced no more than eight wins in any of the past three seasons but still managed to win at eventual national champion Ohio State last season and beat Cincinnati in the Military Bowl to finish 7-6. The Hokies placed four players on the All-ACC preseason team and have plenty of experienced players from last year’s defense, which gave up only 20.2 points per game (14th nationally). If the offense can come around under quarterback Michael Brewer, the Hokies could make a run at their first Coastal crown since 2011.

Key games: vs. Ohio State (Sept. 7), at Purdue (Sept. 190), at Miami (Oct. 17), vs. Duke (OCt. 24), at Georgia Tech (Nov. 12), at Virginia (Nov. 28).

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