As our 2017 countdown to college football continues, the time has come to take a much broader look at the Atlantic Coast Conference — or at least at the always-stacked Atlantic Division. This time around the Jackets are scheduled to face off with two of the seven Atlantic teams, permanent crossover opponent Clemson and rotational crossover opponent Wake Forest, but there’s always the chance that we could see a new face in the ACC Championship. Let’s take a look at the field:
Georgia Tech will make the trip up to Death Valley for a matchup with the defending champions of both the conference and the nation in late October. The Tigers lost an unholy amount of talent this offseason, including quarterback Deshaun Watson, wide receiver Mike Williams, running back Wayne Gallman, and linebacker Ben Boulware, but will welcome in one of the top recruiting classes in the country to fill the gaps. I have serious doubts about their ability to repeat as national champions, but there’s no question that Clemson will be in the hunt for the ACC crown.
Much like Georgia Tech, the Tigers have a wealth of options with no truly clear answer at quarterback. The talented trio of Kelly Bryant, Zerrick Cooper, and Hunter Johnson continue fighting for leverage as offseason work draws to a close. I’d give Bryant the upper hand for the same reason I give Matthew Jordan the upper hand around here: experience. Clemson is still in good position to contend this season and needs a reliable option to play behind a veteran and talented offensive line.
The Demon Deacons made a strong turnaround last season in year three under head coach Dave Clawson, finishing 7-6 with a Military Bowl victory over Temple, but have a remarkably tough road to obtaining bowl eligibility in 2017. Three out of four out-of-conference opponents are easy wins, but the Deacs also have to make the trip to South Bend to face Notre Dame. Couple that with a game versus Georgia Tech — which has historically dominated rotational crossover opponents under Paul Johnson — rather than Virginia, their crossover opponent from last year, and there’s cause for concern.
Thankfully, Wake returns talented starting quarterback John Wolford and versatile running back Cade Carney plus an always-stout defensive unit. There’s no question that coach Clawson has the program on the uptick, but whether or not there will be enough improvement from last season to this season to win against tougher competition remains to be seen. I foresee something like a 6 to 7-win campaign.
North Carolina State
Georgia Tech last saw NC State back in 2014 and won’t see them again until roughly the year 3000... unless the Wolfpack emerges as a dark horse in the Atlantic, as many have speculated. The 2017 season will be the fifth year of head coach Dave Doeren’s tenure in Raleigh, but the returns to this point have been meager at best. With the Pack eclipsing the seven-win mark just once, there will be significant pressure for the talented team to perform this time around. It’s that very pressure that has created a strange dynamic around the program, with some questioning Doeren’s job security and others picking the Wolfpack to upend the likes of Florida State and Clemson in the Atlantic. The emergence of quarterback Ryan Finley, the best signal caller of the post-Brissett era, has helped tremendously, but whether or not the rest of the roster can compete remains to be seen.
If there’s a single coach whose seat is the hottest of them all, it’s Steve Addazio’s up in Massachusetts. We saw the Eagles at the beginning of last season over in Dublin and were treated to what I’d call the Boston College special: an ugly, low-scoring affair that makes you wonder why Addazio’s non-BC offenses were so successful. I fear that this season could be even worse, with stronger competition around the conference and the current question marks on many offensive positions. They do return a solid running back in Jon Hilliman plus some defensive talent, but I don’t anticipate seeing the Eagles in the postseason.
The Seminoles should probably be the favorites to win the ACC. Jimbo Fisher has truly built a powerhouse in Tallahassee (not that anyone needed to tell you that), and his returning talent is absurd this season. Deondre Francois has the potential to be one of the premiere signal callers in the nation and safety Derwin James has a shot at being the top pick in the NFL Draft. Add in a top recruiting class and a roster that is overflowing with talent from top to bottom and you have a Florida State team which is beyond prepared to face the likes of Clemson, particularly given the Tigers’ questions at quarterback and other key positions.
When there’s Lamar Jackson, there’s a path to the top. Though the reigning Heisman winner did falter towards the end of last season, Jackson remains the most electric player in all of college football and very well could take another step forward in 2017; losing to a guy like that is almost tolerable. Unfortunately, losing to Bobby Petrino just so happens to be the least tolerable thing in the history of college football. It won’t be easy to stop his offense this time around, so the best way to topple the Cards very well could be to go after the relatively depleted defensive unit which ranked in the top-15 nationally a season ago but lost some talent in the offseason.
Dino Babers will enter his second go-around with the Orange following a 4-8 debut in the 2016 season. Poor ‘Cuse is really up against it this time around, with scheduled games against Atlantic foes Clemson, Louisville, and Florida State plus an out of conference matchup with LSU and a crossover game with the preseason NCAA Champion Miami Hurricanes. There are three easy wins to start the schedule (assuming they take care of business against MTSU), but it could be very rough sailing from there on out. Bless their round and non-rhyming hearts.