ACC Preview 2016: Clemson the favorite to win

Clemson Tigers quarterback and Offensive MVP Deshaun Watson watches as coach Dabo Swinney and Defensive MVP Ben Boulware hug while celebrating after defeating the Oklahoma Sooners in the 2015 College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl at SunLife Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, Dec. 31, 2015.
Clemson Tigers quarterback and Offensive MVP Deshaun Watson watches as coach Dabo Swinney and Defensive MVP Ben Boulware hug while celebrating after defeating the Oklahoma Sooners in the 2015 College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl at SunLife Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, Dec. 31, 2015.

Clemson, last year’s national runner-up to Alabama, was picked by the 191 media members in attendance for the ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte, N.C., in July to beat North Carolina and repeat as the conference champions. Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson was the overwhelming choice to repeat as ACC Player of the Year after his record-setting 2015 campaign, edging out Florida State running back Dalvin Cook. The Miami Hurricanes were picked to finish second behind the Tar Heels in the Coastal Division.



Coach: Steve Addazio (fourth season, 17-21)

Players to watch: QB Patrick Towles, RB John Hilliman, TE Tommy Sweeney, LB Matt Milano, DT Truman Gutapfel, DL Harold Landry, DE Zach Allen, S John Johnson, CB Isaac Yiadom

Overview: The Eagles ranked 120th in scoring, 125th in total offense and went 3-9 after back-to-back 7-6 seasons and trips to bowl games. Avoiding going winless again in the ACC will require the offense will require Towles, a graduate transfer from Kentucky getting the offense back on track. The good news: eight starters return on defense from a unit that ranked fourth in scoring (15.3 points per game), second against the run (82.8) and first in total defense (254.3). If the offense can produce something then the Eagles should contend for a bowl game again.

Key games: vs. Georgia Tech (Sept. 3), vs. Clemson (Oct. 7), at Florida State (Nov. 11), at Wake Forest (Nov. 26)


Coach: Dabo Swinney (ninth season, 75-27)

Players to watch: QB Deshaun Watson, RB Wayne Gallman, WR Mike Williams, LT Mitch Hyatt, DT Christian Wilkins, DE Austin Bryant, LB Ben Boulware, CB Cordrea Tankersley

Overview: Last year’s national runner-up should continue to hum on offense behind eight returning starters including Watson, a Heisman candidate who threw for 4,104 yards and ran for another 1,105 last season. That offense is balanced with Gallman, who set a school record with 1,527 rushing yards last season. It’s the defense, which returns just three starters, that has Tigers fans a little worried. Early entries to the draft – including the loss of pass rushers Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd – will require a lot of young players to step up.

Key games: at Auburn (Sept. 3), vs. Louisville (Oct. 1), at Florida State (Oct. 29), vs. South Carolina (Nov. 26)


Coach: Jimbo Fisher (seventh season, 68-14)

Players to watch: QB Sean Maguire, RB Dalvin Cook, WR Travis Rudolph, LT Roderick Johnson, DE DeMarcus Walker, DE Josh Sweat, CB Marquez White, SS Derwin James

Overview: Cook, a Miami Central graduate, shattered Warrick Dunn’s school rushing record last season with 1,691 yards and 16 touchdowns and appears to be headed toward another monster season with three returning starters on the offensive line. But there are questions at quarterback with Sean Maguire dealing with a foot injury and redshirt freshman Deondre Francois being pressed into starting duty. Defensively, six starters must be replaced from a unit that ranked ninth in scoring defense (17.5 points per game) and 19th in total defense (336.9 yards per game). But there’s talent. The real challenge is the schedule.

Key games: vs. Ole Miss (Sept. 5), at Louisville (Sept. 17), vs. UNC (Oct. 1), at Miami (Oct. 8), vs. Clemson (Oct. 29), vs. Florida (Nov. 26)


Coach: Bobby Petrino (12th season, 100-39)

Players to watch: QB Lamar Jackson, WR Jamari Staples, WR James Quick, TE Cole Hikutini, DT DeAngelo Brown, LB Keith Kelsey, LB Devonte Fields, S Josh Harvey-Clemons

Overview: Coming off an 8-5 season and a Music City Bowl win over Texas A&M, their is optimism the Cardinals can take a big step forward in 2016 behind Jackson, a versatile, playmaking quarterback. The issue is the offensive line, which gave up the second-most sacks in the country last season. Defensively, a few playmakers in the front seven must be replaced. But there is speed and talent abound including three former Miami-area standouts in linebacker Stacy Thomas (Miami Gulliver Prep), cornerback Trumaine Washington (Miami Killian) and safety Chucky Williams (Hialeah Champagnat) in the starting lineup.

Key games: vs. Florida State (Sept. 17), at Clemson (Oct. 1), at Houston (Nov. 17), vs. Kentucky (Nov. 26)


Coach: Dave Doeren (sixth season, 41-24)

Players to watch: QB Jalan McClendon, RB Matt Dayes, TE-RB Jaylen Samuels, RB Johnny Frasier, WR-RB Nyheim Hines, DE Bradley Chubb, DT B.J. Hill, DT Kentavius Street

Overview: Following a 7-6 season and Belk Bowl loss to Mississippi State, Doeren said hired Eli Drinkwitz as the new offensive coordinator to improve the passing game and try and help the run-heavy Wolfpack become a more balanced team. Obstacles are already in the way: only two starting offensive linemen return and Jumichael Ramos, second on the team in receiver, was already lost for the season with a knee injury. Defensively, eight starters return from a unit that ranked 29th nationally in total defense. The front should be improved with added depth.

Key games: vs. Notre Dame (Oct. 8), at Clemson (Oct. 15), at Louisville (Oct. 22), vs. Florida State (Nov. 5), at North Carolina (Nov. 25)


Coach: Dino Babers (fifth season, 37-18)

Players to watch: QB Eric Dungey, WR Steve Ishmael, RB Dontae Strickland, DT Chris Slayton, DE Gabe Sherrod, LB Zaire Franklin, LB Parris Bennett, PR Brisley Estime

Overview: Babers, an Art Briles disciple, has brought the hurry-up spread offense from Bowling Green to the Orange, who are coming off a 4-8 season in which it ranked 116th in passing and 118th in total offense. Former North Miami Beach High standout Steve Ishmael, who has 66 catches for 985 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first two seasons at Syracuse, figures to be the biggest beneficiary. Defensively, the Orange are switching to a Tampa 2 scheme and growing pains are expected. After going 3-17 against Power-5 opponents the last two seasons, Syracuse should improve. But becoming bowl-eligible could still prove tough against a pretty challenging schedule.

Key games: vs. Louisville (Sept. 9), at Connecticut (Sept. 24), vs. Notre Dame (Oct. 1), vs. FSU (Nov. 19)


Coach: Dave Clawson (17th season, 96-98)

Players to watch: WR Tabari Hines, WR Cortez Lewis, TE Cam Serigne, DE Duke Ejiofor, LB Marquel Lee, CB Brad Watson, S Ryan Janvion

Overview: Wake Forest is coming off back-to-back 3-9 seasons in Clawson’s first two seasons on the job and hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2011. But the Demon Deacons are improving having lost four games by eight points or less last season -- including a 20-19 loss to Louisville and 24-16 loss to Florida State. Nine starters are back on an offense, which averaged just 17.4 points per game (119th) and ranked 122nd in rushing (105.2 yards per game). Defensively, seven starters are back led by senior safety Ryan Janvion, a former Miami Dade Christian School standout who has started 35 games in his career.

Key games: at Duke (Sept. 10), at Indiana (Sept. 24), vs. Army (Oct. 29), at Louisville (Nov. 12), vs. Clemson (Nov. 19)



Coach: David Cutcliffe (15th season, 92-82)

Players to watch: RB Jela Duncan, WR T.J. Rahming, TE Daniel Helm, DE Marquies Price, LB Ben Humphreyss, CB DeVon Edwards

Overview: The Blue Devils are coming off an 8-5 season and a Pinstripe Bowl victory over Indiana -- it’s first bowl win since 1961. But there’s a huge question mark at quarterback with redshirt senior Thomas Sirk returning from a ruptured left Achilles injury back in February. Only four starters are back on each side of the ball and ACC Defensive Player of the Year, safety Jeremy Cash, isn’t among them. A tougher non-conference schedule also awaits with a road game at Wake Forest on Sept. 17, a week before a trip to Notre Dame. Becoming bowl eligible for a fifth straight season is no cinch.

Key games: at Notre Dame (Sept. 24), at Louisville (Oct. 14), vs. North Carolina (Nov. 10), at Miami (Nov. 26


Coach: Paul Johnson (20th season, 168-83)

Players to watch: QB Justin Thomas, RB Marcus Marshall, WR Ricky Jeune, DT Patrick Gamble, LB P.J. Davis, S A.J. Gray

Overview: Few teams had a more staggering fall last season than Georgia Tech, which went from winning the Orange Bowl to going 3-9 in Johnson’s eighth season with the Yellow Jackets. Six of those losses were by eight points or less though and Georgia Tech still managed to upset Florida State for one of its victories. Seven starters return on offense and five on defense and improvement is expected with a much improved front seven led by Davis, a three-year starter. Still, the offensive line remains a work in progress following some key injuries and most expect the Jackets to be borderline bowl-eligible.

Key games: vs. Clemson (Sept. 22), vs. Miami (Oct. 1), at North Carolina (Nov. 5), at Georgia (Nov. 26)


Coach: Mark Richt (16th season, 145-51)

Players to watch: QB Brad Kaaya, RB Joe Yearby, WR Stacy Coley, TE David Njoku, DE Chad Thomas, DT Kendrick Norton, LB Shaquille Quarterman, CB Corn Elder, S Rayshawn Jenkins

Overview: Since his arrival from Georgia, Richt has taken over the reigns of the offensive play-calling and brought in Manny Diaz as defensive coordinator to revamp the scheme from a 3-4, read-and-react style that didn’t work under Al Golden to an aggressive, blitzing 4-3 attack. Depth is ultimately Miami’s biggest issue. Miami is thin at both linebacker and cornerback. If something should happen to Kaaya, the season could quickly go down the drain. Still, Miami, which hasn’t won a bowl game since 2006, should improve upon last year’s 8-5 record and contend for its first ACC Coastal crown.

Key games: vs. FSU (Oct. 8), vs. North Carolina (Oct. 15), at Virginia Tech (Oct. 20), at Notre Dame (Oct. 29)


Coach: Larry Fedora (ninth season, 66-39)

Players to watch: QB Mitch Trubinsky, RB Elijah Hood, WR Mack Hollins, WR Ryan Switzer, DT Nazair Jones, LB Cayson Collns, CB Des Lawrence, CB M.J. Stewart

Overview: Seven starters return on each side of the ball for the Tar Heels, who won 11 games, completed their best season in 20 years and played in the ACC championship game for the first time in school history. Quarterback Marquise Williams is gone after leading the nation’s ninth-ranked scoring offense (40.7), but plenty of talent at the skill positions remain. Switzer, who has seven punt returns for TDs in his career, needs one more to match the NCAA record this coming season. Still, if the Tar Heels can’t stop the run again (UNC ranked 121st in run defense last season), the Tar Heels will simply compete for the Coastal Division crown and not much beyond that.

Key games: vs. Georgia (Sept. 3), at Florida State (Oct. 1), at Miami (Oct. 15), vs. Georgia Tech (Nov. 5), vs. N.C. State (Nov. 25)


Coach: Pat Narduzzi (second season, 8-5)

Players to watch: QB Nathan Peterman, RB James Conner, WR Dontez Ford, OG Dorian Johnson, OT Adam Bisnowaty, TE Scott Orndoff, DE Ejuan Price, S Jordan Whitehead

Overview: Coming off an 8-5 season and loss to Navy in the Military Bowl, the Panthers could have the best backfield in the country with Conner back healthy and sophomore Qadree Ollison, who rushed for 1,121 yards and 11 touchdowns last season en route to ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Four starting offensive linemen return among a group of eight starters on offense. Seven starters return from the nation’s 37th best total defense, but the Panthers are thin and young at linebacker and along the defensive line. Expect Pitt to contend for the Coastal, but the overall record might not be pretty with tough non-conference games and an ACC cross-over game at Clemson.

Key games: vs. Penn State (Sept. 10), at Oklahoma State (Sept. 17), at North Carolina (Sept. 24), at Clemson (Nov. 12)


Coach: Bronco Mendenhall (12th season, 99-43)

Players to watch: RB Taquan Mizzell, RB Albert Reid, WR Olamide Zaccheaus, WR Doni Dowling, LB Micah Kiser, CB Juan Thornhill, FS Quin Blanding

Overview: Mendenhall took BYU to 11 straight bowl games but has his hands full trying to turn a 4-8 Cavaliers program around. The Cavaliers return five starters on each side of the ball. The defense, which ranked 96th in scoring (32. points per game and 96th against the pass (254.9 yards per game), is switching to a 3-4 scheme this fall under former East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeil. Three starters are back in the secondary led by the productive Blanding, the ACC’s second-leading tackler last season. If Mendenhall can get the right quarterback under center in the team’s up-tempo attack, Virginia has enough talented skill position players to score more points per game than a year ago (25.8, 89th) and become bowl eligible for the first time since 2011.

Key games: at Oregon (Sept. 10), at Duke (Oct. 1), vs. Miami (Nov. 12), at Virginia Tech (Nov. 26)


Coach: Justin Fuente (fifth season, 26-23)

Players to watch: TB Travon McMillian, WR Isaiah Ford, WR Cam Phillips, TE Bucky Hodges, DE Ken Ekanem, LB Andrew Motuapuaka, S Chuck Clark

Overview: Fuente comes over from Memphis after going 19-6 in his last two seasons there and has installed a no-huddle, spread offense which could flourish with the right quarterback. Eight starters return on offense for Tech including a 1,000-yard back in McMillian, two an 1,100-yard receiver in Ford and a pro prospect at tight end in Hodges, who had 40 catches including six touchdowns last season. Defensively, Bud Foster was kept around even after the Hokies ranked 59th in scoring defense (26.3 points per game) and 75th against the run a year ago (180.7). The secondary, though, should still be good.

Key games: vs. Tennessee (Sept. 10), at North Carolina (Oct. 8), vs. Miami (Oct. 20), at Notre Dame (Nov. 19)