ACC Football is back! After a few games last weekend featuring other conferences, our beloved Atlantic Coast Conference kicks off the 2018 season tonight when Wake Forest heads down to the Big Easy to take on Tulane. As always, the ACC is a tough conference to figure out with a cluster of teams that could reach great hights or sink to the bottom of the conference. But figure it out we will, starting with the defending conference champions.
1 - #2 Clemson Tigers (S&P+ #2)
The defending ACC champs are the heavy favorites to repeat in 2018. They made the playoffs in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year and now bring back a team that features a returning starter at QB, backed up by maybe the best QB recruit since Andrew Luck, a skill corps with both experience and upside, a veteran O-Line, and a defensive line that may feature four 1st round NFL draft picks. Anything less than a playoff berth would be a disappointment.
This week: Saturday at 12:20 pm vs Furman (ACC Network)
2 - #8 Miami Hurricanes (S&P+ #12)
Last year’s Coastal Champion is a significant step down from Clemson but is the rightful favorite to rematch against the Tigers in Charlotte. QB Malik Rosier stumbled a bit down the stretch but did lead the Hurricanes to a 10 win season. Mark Richt is a good developer of QBs and Rosier will have a loaded group of skill players. The only question on defense is along the line but there is still plenty of talent there.
This week: Sunday at 7:30 pm in Arlington vs #25 LSU (ABC)
3 - #19 Florida State Seminoles (S&P+ #19)
This is mostly a bet on the Seminoles’ talent. Last year was extremly frustrating for Florida State and, as a result, they have a new coaching staff heading into this season. Deondre Francois beat out James Blackman for the starting QB job and will head up a team that is young but has ace recruits everywhere. They probably won’t challenge Clemson this year but could lay a strong foundation for 2019.
This week: Monday at 8:00 pm vs #20 Virginia Tech (ESPN)
4 - NC State Wolfpack (S&P+ #36)
From this point down, every team in the ACC has some severe flaws but if everything breaks right, it really wouldn’t be that shocking to see anyone ranked 4-11 make a run at being #2 in the conference behind Clemson. For the Wolfpack, the offense should be strong behind QB Ryan Finley, possibly the best QB in the conference, and a solid receiving corps. The defense has a lot to replace and could struggle, but I’ll go with QB play and rank them as the best of the rest to start the season.
This week: Saturday at 12:00 pm vs James Madison (ESPNU)
5 - Louisville Cardinals (S&P+ #26)
I’m sure most will say this is too high. After all, the Cardinals have to replace the best player in program history in Lamar Jackson and even with him, they were an 8 win team last season. All that said, I can’t shake the feeling that Louisville won’t fall all that far. Bobby Petrino is a curse word in Atlanta but he always has strong quarterback play and Jawon Pass was highly recruited and is built like a tank (6’-4”, 231 lbs). The Cards should still be able to score at a pretty good clip. On the other hand, they open the season against Alabama, who has been known to destroy teams (see: 2017 Florida State).
This week: Saturday at 8:00 pm in Orlando vs #1 Alabama (ABC)
6 - #20 Virginia Tech Hokies (S&P+ #34)
Last season, Virginia Tech relied on an efficient offense and a really good defense to rack up 9 wins and another solid season under coach Justin Fuente. Things were looking good in Blacksburg but the Hokies’ defensive depth was decimated this offseason. Of the ten linebackers and defensive backs to record ten tackles in 2017, only one returns for 2018. Bud Foster is a great coordinator but the defense should regress and could really dip this season. I’m not sure I totally trust QB Justin Jackson and the rest of the offense to pick up the slack and lead the Hokies to a Coastal title.
This week: Monday at 8:00 pm at #19 Florida State (ESPN)
7 - Duke Blue Devils (S&P+ #38)
These next 5 teams...shuffle them up in any order and you won’t really be wrong. I’m putting Duke at the top of the cluster on the back of QB Daniel Jones and an experienced defense that performed pretty well at times in 2017. Jones didn’t quite take the step forward I had expected after a fantastic 2016 freshman campaign but had his moments and returns some exciting pieces in the skill corps. The defense will have to break in a new coordinator but has some genuine studs in CB Mark Gilbert and LB Joe Giles-Harris.
This week: Friday at 7:00 pm vs Army (ESPNU)
8 - Boston College Eagles (S&P+ #47)
At the halfway point of 2017, it looked like same-old, same-old in Chestnut Hill. Boston College was 2-4 with an anemic offense and a strong defense. Then freshman RB AJ Dillon emerged. Behind the workhorse back and a suddenly good offense, the Eagles soared in the second half, finishing the season on a 5-2 run. Dillon is back for his sophomore campaign and the early favorite for ACC Offensive Player of the Year. QB Anthony Brown is also back for his sophomore season after an up and down rookie year. If Brown can find some consistency the Eagles could have a legitimately good offense. The defense is a bit thin but the top line talent is excellent. Playing in the Atlantic is a chore but BC could make some noise.
This week: Saturday at 1:00 pm vs UMass (ACC Network/WatchESPN)
9 - Wake Forest Demon Deacons (S&P+ #41)
This will be an interesting season in Winston-Salem. 2017 was a high-water mark for Wake Forest with QB John Wolford putting up really strong numbers under center. Replacing him will be quite the challenge made no easier with presumed heir Kendall Hinton suspended for the first three games of the season. Even without Hinton, there’s some really exciting pieces on offense, especially sophomore WR Greg Dortch. The Decaons’ secondary should also be really strong, which is good because the front seven lost some big pieces.
This week: Thursday at 8:00 pm at Tulane (CBS Sports Network)
10 - Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (S&P+ #62)
I wanted to put the Yellow Jackets higher but as I wrote this blurb, I had to bump them down. I just have too many concerns heading into the season. Offensively I trust QB TaQuon Marshall to be competent and I feel good about running up the middle with Marshall and the BB corps. However, the way the offensive linemen have been rotating in and out of positions through fall camp has me a bit worried about cohesivness in the trenches and what that could mean for pass protection and pitches to the ABs. On defense, a change in scheme is probably a good thing but the secondary is really young and I’m not sure the talent is there up front to compete against the best OLs they’ll see this season. I like Nate Woody and the direction he wants to take; I’m just not sure we’ll see results in year one.
This week: Saturday at 12:30 pm vs Alcorn State (RSN)
11 - Pittsburgh Panthers (S&P+ #50)
The Panthers showed some real signs of improvment late last season. Freshman QB Kenny Pickett took over and led Pitt to an upset of Miami and near upset of Virginia Tech and the defense showed signs of life. Unfortunately, two key reasons for the defensive uptick, DBs Jordan Whitehead and Avonte Maddox, left for the NFL draft but there’s a good bit of experience left in the Steel City. How well that experience translates to production is still an open question. If the defense can pick up where it left off and Kenny Pickett lives up to his giant-slaying late season form, this could be far too low but I don’t see either of those happening.
This week: Saturday at 3:30 pm vs Albany (ACC Network/watchESPN)
12 - North Carolina Tar Heels (S&P+ #53)
After a run of good seasons, the Tar Heels came crashing down to earth in 2017. They were already set to take a step back due to inexperience but they coulped that with a year of terrible injury luck and fell all the way to 3-9. They should rebound a bit this season but may start a bit slow with 13 players suspended early in the season (well, 12 players early in the season, 1 a bit later in the season) for selling shoes.
This week: Saturday at 4:00 pm at California (FOX)
13 - Syracuse Orange (S&P+ #80)
At one point last season it looked like year 2 of the Dino Babers era would be a breakthrough for Syracuse. The Orange started 4-3, including an upset of Clemson, nearly beat Miami and Florida State in back to back games and then completely collapsed down the stretch. QB Eric Dungey is back and one of the ACC’s most entertaining players to watch but he’ll have to stay on the field for the full season to give Syracuse a chance at a bowl game.
This week: Friday at 6:00 pm at Western Michigan (CBS Sports Network)
14 - Virginia Cavaliers (S&P+ #72)
Virginia surprised a bit last year and made their first bowl appearance since 2011. Unfortunately, a repeat bowl bid will be difficult for Bronco Mendenhall’s team to pull off. The offense experienced a lot of turnover and will have to rely on JUCO transfer Bryce Perkins to replace QB Kurt Benkert. The defense should be solid and could keep the Cavs in games but getting to 6 wins will be a challenge.
This week: Saturday at 6:00 pm vs Richmond (ACC Network/WatchESPN)