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100 Days to Kickoff: An Atlantic Painted Orange

Previewing the ACC Atlantic — spoiler alert: it’s Clemson’s world, and we’re all just living in it.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”.

Newton’s third law of motion describes the current dichotomy of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s divisions to a T. For every act of volatility, there must be equal stability. For every shimmering image of NFL-esque parity, there must be an equally earth-shattering show of dominance. Them’s the rules — I don’t make them up, I just follow them.

Tommy Bowden used to be the coach of the Auburn-with-a-lake Tigers many, many moons ago. In 9.5 years in Death Valley (not the real one or the other fake one, but you get the point), he won 72 games and led Clemson to a bowl every year (other than 2004, in which they declined a bowl invite because of a fight in their rivalry game versus South Carolina). That’s good. At some schools, that’s great — they dream of being that successful for extended periods of time.

He entered the 2008 season with his Tigers favored to win the ACC title and ranked ninth in preseason polls (which don’t matter anyway, but I digress). Given these auspicious predictions, he and his merry band, clad in their traditional garish combinations of orange and purple, proceeded to take an immediate nosedive. With six games in the books and the Tigers sitting at .500, Bowden took his ball and went home, leaving his team in the hands of a young wide receivers coach with a funny name.

Dabo, they called him — as a toddler, his brother had made an innocent portmanteau of “that boy” and it had stuck. His real name is William, but you’d probably never know that and heck, neither did he for a time; it took until standardized testing in the third grade for him to actually learn his real name.

Dabo. Dabo. Dabo. Dabo. Dabo. Repeat once for each time his team was torched by Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina Gamecocks to cap off the end of a season. The Ol’ Ball Coach only let “that boy” get a single game back before retiring midseason in 2015, playing one final trick on his rival out west (as he was wont to do) and depriving him of another chance at vengeance.

That same formerly middling wide receivers coach and 1-4-against-his-state-rivals coach is now the commander of the most powerful battle station football team the country has ever seen. He has been for some time now. It’s hard to say when the switch flipped in fake Death Valley, but the Tigers found their window and grabbed it by the [B-52s].

There is no end in sight to his reign of terror across the Atlantic half of the Atlantic Coast Conference. In predetermined memoriam, we salute these hallowed few that will dare to strike out at “that boy” and his empire, long before they even step foot on a battlefield.

1. Clemson

S&P+ Projected Conference Wins (Total): 7.5 (11.0)

How they’ll win the Atlantic:

Do you really need me to answer this for you? Fine: Clemson is, without a question, the most talented team in this conference. It has been for years now. Everyone else in the Atlantic is playing for second.

How they won’t:

The city of Clemson gets swallowed up by the earth’s crust in a cruel twist of entropy at work. The sports gods giveth, and the sports gods taketh away (and boy, have they given-th in Clemson).

Seriously, there’s almost no way that they don’t win this division. It will take [Def Leppard] near a miracle to take this team out.

2. Syracuse

S&P+ Projected Conference Wins (Total): 3.7 (6.7)

How they’ll win the Atlantic:

They hung in versus Clemson for far too long to not be considered a threat — granted, that was with Clemson’s third-string QB pulling the strings, but still. Putting up a fight versus by far the best team in the nation means something. Continuity at most of their skill positions will help, despite the loss of grungy Eric Dungey at quarterback. If their retooled linebacking corps can put together performances like last year and new full-time starting QB Tommy DeVito can limit his mistakes, then Cuse could finish the job versus Clemson this year.

How they won’t:

If ‘Cuse can’t close tight games or limit big plays, they’re in a lot of trouble. S&P+ projects that the Orange will play in eight games decided by one score — EIGHT! Two-thirds of their schedule is effectively a toss-up — that could be the difference between a Tier 1 Bowl (and second place in the Atlantic) and not making a bowl. A pretty middle-of-the-road Orange defense (54th in Defensive S&P+) was shredded last year by opponents’ big play abilities (we’re talking bottom-30 in the nation defending here), and if they can’t contain those AND let games come down to the wire, 2019 may not be pretty at all for ‘Cuse.

3. Florida State

S&P+ Projected Conference Wins (Total): 4.6 (7.1)

How they’ll win the Atlantic:

Kendall Briles (ick) coaches up a dynamic offense and takes full advantage of quarterback James Blackman (or maybe Wisconsin grad transfer Alex Hornibrook?)’s athleticism and a young but experienced offensive line. FSU has the skill players on both sides of the ball to compete with the best teams in the country, but their line play was...nonexistent in 2018 (seriously, just look at the radar chart). If the Seminoles can field a non-paper-tiger line to go along with a deep receiving corps and blue-chip-studded (and mostly intact from 2018) defense (and catch a lot of breaks in other divisional games), Florida State could pick opposing defenses apart and wreak havoc on opposing offenses en route to an Atlantic title.

How they won’t:

The offense remains the same ineffective mess it was in 2018 with a similarly tissue-paper offensive line. Briles’ tempo (and lack of drive completions, in this scenario) could leave the defense out on the field too long against other high-tempo opponents. Look, there’s really nowhere to go but up for that offense, but the fact that we can and have to say that really underscores how bad it was.

4. NC State

S&P+ Projected Conference Wins (Total): 4.2 (7.4)

How they’ll win the Atlantic:

They somehow figure out how to replace all of the offensive production they lost this offseason and maintain the same (or a better) level of defensive play. The defense will be especially key here, considering the relative lack of turnover — the Wolfpack just can’t afford to squander the talent they’ve accrued the last few years. They’ll need some help to get to the top (someone is gonna have to take out Clemson and Syracuse after all), but if the Wolfpack get all of these breaks and maximize their defensive talent (which as of recent has been NFL-quality, given their many defensive draft picks), there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to take advantage of it.

How they won’t:

Then again, NC State [Styx] is real. They (very realistically) squander all the talent they’ve accrued the last few years and fail to effectively replace QB Ryan Finley, who accounted for 66.2% of the NC State offense per game. There’s not much else to it — there’s a lot of gaps on this team that need to be accounted for.

5. Wake Forest

S&P+ Projected Conference Wins (Total): 3.4 (6.2)

How they’ll win the Atlantic:

They get some consistent quarterback play and find a replacement for WR Greg Dortch. The Deacs ran a high-tempo offense (seriously, it ranked third in adjusted pace — these guys went fast) that played right into Dortch’s strengths; he gashed opposing secondaries and stretched the field for Deacs quarterbacks Sam Hartman and Jamie Newman. Dortch’s speed was the only sure thing that Wake had going for it in the passing game, and when throwing to him worked and worked well, the Deacs did it as long as they could. The run game was Wake’s bread and butter, but Dortch added some spice that really made the Deacs’ offense dangerous at times.

How they won’t:

They don’t catch breaks in close games (seven of their games are projected to be within five points), and neither Hartman nor Newman sticks long-term at quarterback. On the other side of the ball, if the Wake defense continues to “let (teams) off the hook” in passing situations and fails to bring disrupting pressure, teams will be able to spread the Deacs thin with reckless abandon. It may not be pretty.

6. Boston College

S&P+ Projected Conference Wins (Total): 2.9 (5.5)

How they’ll win the Atlantic:

The Eagles offense learns how to be effective even without relying on running back AJ Dillon, and quarterback Anthony Brown plays like he did the first quarter of 2018. Teams who couldn’t stop the bruising running style of Dillon just couldn’t stop BC, and Brown put together a “Heisman-level (passer rating of) 240.2” to start last year. There’s a bit of turnover up front and in the receiving corps, but some of Brown’s main targets, including WR Kobay White, come back for another year. If that main duo can recreate those levels of effectiveness and the BC defense overcomes its turnover (it returns only 38% of 2018’s production) to be at or above its 2018 level (and they get the aforementioned many breaks along the way), the Eagles could be in Charlotte in December.

How they won’t:

The schedule sets up extremely poorly for BC — Bill explains: “After a season-opening visit from Virginia Tech, BC is a projected favorite in each of its next five games ... and then an underdog in the last six.” That is not particularly confidence-inspiring.

The Eagles also have to replace 41 of 60 total starts on their offensive line, along with a vast majority of the experience on their defense. The former is arguably more important, given that the BC offense lived and died with the effectiveness of AJ Dillon last year, so if they can’t find effective contributors in the trenches this fall, BC’s offense could look like 2018 FSU’s.

7. Louisville

S&P+ Projected Conference Wins (Total): 2.1 (4.0)

How they’ll win the Atlantic:

New head coach Scott Satterfield produces a real-life college football version of Space Jam and gets the Monstars to take the talent of every other team in the division.

How they won’t:

This team hit rock bottom in 2018, and like the [ABBA] he is, Bobby Petrino left the cupboard bare. This will be a mulligan year for Satterfield and the Cardinals — like Bill says, “The goal is to be better in November than September and hit the offseason with optimism. Don’t worry about win totals.”


Who do you think will win the ACC Atlantic in 2019?

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    Boston College
    (2 votes)
  • 86%
    (66 votes)
  • 2%
    Florida State
    (2 votes)
  • 3%
    (3 votes)
  • 1%
    NC State
    (1 vote)
  • 1%
    (1 vote)
  • 1%
    Wake Forest
    (1 vote)
76 votes total Vote Now