2017 ACC Football Preview: Atlantic Division

Ryan Mayer

College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, bowl teams, non-bowl teams and rebuilding. The tiers are fairly self-explanatory. Contenders means these teams will push for the division/conference title. Bowl bidders are expected to be in the conversation for a bowl bid, non-bowl teams aren’t. Rebuilding teams are in the process of attempting to get into contention. At the end, we’ll give you our thoughts on the team’s wins based on Bovada’s Win Totals for the season

The Atlantic now calls itself home to the defending national champion after Clemson’s thrilling victory over Alabama in the title game in January. Heading into 2017, the Tigers have to replace multiple weapons on offense while their division rival to the south, Florida State, looks ready to contend for a title once more.

Contenders

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Deondre Francois #12 of the Florida State Seminoles. Credit: Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Florida State Seminoles

The Seminoles biggest problem during last year’s campaign was protecting redshirt freshman QB Deondre Francois. They allowed 36 sacks, and were it not for Francois’ elusiveness, that number would likely have been higher. They enter this season losing a couple of guys on the offensive line, but the unit should be better with more experience after last year.

Francois was very good as a freshman throwing for 3,350 yards with 20 TDs and 7 INT and adding 198 yards and 5 TD on the ground en route to earning ACC Rookie of the Year honors. He needs to improve his accuracy, as he completed just 58.7% of his passes last year and he won’t have the benefit of relying on All-American Dalvin Cook in the run game as Cook left for the NFL as did top receiver Travis Rudolph. The ‘Notes did add 5-star RB Cam Akers, who should settle in nicely in Cook’s absence. 6’5″ WR Auden Tate started just four games last year, but figures to see more time with Rudolph and Kermit Whitfield gone. The Seminoles recruit well (top class in ACC according to 247 Sports), and should have enough talented replacements to match last year’s production (35 PPG 466.4 YPG).

The defense is looking like one of the best units in the country entering this season. They do lose 3rd team All-American DE DeMarcus Walker and CB Marquez White, but everyone else is back and they get DB Derwin James back from injury. Look for the secondary of James, Trey Marshall and corners Tavarus McFadden and AJ Westbrook to make life miserable for opposing QBs, particularly with NG Derrick Nnadi (49 tackles 6 sacks 4.5 TFL) playing the role of wrecking ball up front. The ‘Notes gave up 25 points and 349.1 YPG last season and those numbers could improve with this unit.

The schedule is pretty rough however. They have to face Alabama in Week 1, and then have road dates with both Clemson and Florida in the last three weeks of the season. They get Miami and Louisville at home, and you can bet Fisher’s squad is looking for revenge for the embarrassing loss to the Cards last year. Overall, this team should be in the playoff race and is the favorite to make the ACC title game. But, they’ll have to beat Clemson, which they haven’t done the past two seasons. Over 9.5 wins.

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Head coach Dabo Swinney of the Clemson Tigers. Credit: Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Clemson Tigers

By now, you know what Dabo Swinney’s team did last season. They face a much tougher task in 2017 as they lose five key starters on offense, but the defense could be just nasty enough to keep them in the playoff picture once more.

After an illustrious three years, QB Deshaun Watson took his talents to the NFL, ending his college career as the program’s No. 2 all-time leading passer. Now, junior Kelly Bryant will fight it out with true freshman Hunter Johnson for his spot. The Tigers will also need to find replacements for RB Wayne Gallman, TE Jordan Leggett (No. 2 receiver) and WRs Mike Williams and Artavis Scott. There are a plethora of talented options as Swinney has done a great job in recruiting (No. 3 ACC, No. 16 nationally) and last year’s title game hero Hunter Renfrow is back along with Deon Cain (19.1 yards per reception) and Ray Ray McCloud. The offensive line should be solid in protecting whichever QB wins the job as they have two All-ACC selections back among four starters. I don’t think they’ll match last year’s 39.2 PPG, but they’ll still be explosive.

On defense, Swinney and DC Brent Venables continue to stack up talent. DT Dexter Lawrence was dominant as a freshman with 78 tackles and seven sacks, and he’ll be joined by fellow DT Christian Wilkins as a tough duo to stop in the middle of the line. Losing leading tackler and heart-and-soul of the defense LB Ben Boulware hurts, but they do have Kendall Joseph (124 tackles 10 TFL) returning in that group. The secondary is a little more uncertain after consecutive years of losing their top guys, with Cordrea Tankersley and safety Jadar Johnson moving on from last year’s group. Venables remains one of the best defensive minds in the game and he’ll have this unit right around the same level of production once more.

The Tigers do get two of their biggest games (Auburn and Florida State) at home, but have to hit the road to face Lamar Jackson and Louisville this season. It’s going to be a three-team race and if Clemson finds a rhythm with their new QB early, they’ll be right in the thick of the playoff hunt once more. Over 9.5 wins.

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Lamar Jackson #8 of the Louisville Cardinals. Credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Louisville Cardinals

The Cardinals had the breakout star of the college football season in 2016 when sophomore QB Lamar Jackson exploded into the limelight particularly in the first four weeks of the season. As explosive as the offense was for much of the year, they struggled down the stretch, averaging 19 points in their final three games in losses to Houston, Kentucky and LSU (bowl game). Jackson is back, but he’s one of the few back on offense.

Jackson combined for 5,114 yards and 51 TDs passing and rushing last year proving himself to be a dynamic threat in both areas. His accuracy wasn’t great however, completing just 56.2% of his passes, and he’ll be looking to improve on that number this year. He’ll do so without his top three receivers and top running back from a year ago, while playing behind an offensive line that loses three starters. The Cardinals were like the Seminoles in having problems protecting their QB, giving up 47 sacks last year and that number needs to be cut dramatically, if they are to improve on their 9-4 record. True freshman, 4-star RB Colin Wilson will look to help share the rushing load with Jackson this season. Even with Jackson back, it’ll be hard to match last season’s 42.5 PPG.

Defensively, the heaviest losses are in the linebacking corps where the Cards lose three multi-year starters. Combine that with the loss of 2nd team ACC DT DeAngelo Brown and you might expect a step back in the run defense. But, safeties Chucky Williams and Zykiesis Cannon along with LB Stacy Thomas should be able to maintain last year’s production considering they were No. 2, 3, and 4 in tackles last season. CB Jaire Alexander also returns after recording 5 INTs and 9 PBU last season. The Cardinals should once again hover around that 23.6 PPG they allowed last season.

The biggest games for the Cards are split between home and road as they get Clemson at home and have to travel to Tallahassee to meet up with Florida State. If they win both, they’re in the driver’s seat. If not, well, a similar third place finish will likely await. Over 9 wins.

Bowl Teams

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Ryan Finley #15 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack. Credit: Lance King/Getty Images

NC State Wolfpack

Dave Doeren’s Wolfpack teams have consistently hung right around the .500 mark the past three seasons with 8-5, 7-6, and 7-6 records. They were within a late missed FG of knocking off Clemson last year and return 17 starters this season. It’s possible they could make some noise against the big boys, but more likely that they’ll be bowl eligible and right around that 7-8 win mark.

QB Ryan Finley is back after getting his first full season of starts under his belt (60.4% 3,059 18 TD 8 INT) and should be more productive in his second season. The offense will likely rely more on him as they lose top back Matt Dayes to the NFL, and return the top four receivers from last year. The offensive line has four starters back from a group that allowed just 17 sacks last season, so Finley will have good protection and this group should improve upon last year’s numbers (27 PPG 416.7 YPG).

Defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable has plenty of returning talent to work with as well as eight starters return from last year’s unit that allowed 25.8 PPG and put up 37 sacks. He’ll have all four starters back on the defensive line, two back in the linebacking corps and two in the secondary. The biggest star of the group is DE Bradley Chubb, who recorded 10.5 sacks last year and is on this year’s preseason Bednarik award watch list. With the experience that they have returning, the 22.8 PPG they allowed last season is certainly within reach once again.

The Wolfpack will have the chance to play their way into contention at home with both Louisville and Clemson coming to Raleigh, but they do have to travel to Tallahassee and South Bend this year. They’ll likely be underdogs in those four games and barring upsets, they’re looking at 7 or 8 wins once again. Over 7.5 wins.

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Head coach Steve Addazio of the Boston College Eagles. Credit: Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Boston College Eagles

Boston College had one of the most anemic offenses in FBS last season averaging 20.4 PPG and 292.8 YPG, but they were in a bowl game because of the stinginess of their defense (25 PPG 314 YPG). The offense should (key word, should) be better this season (hard to be worse) and the defense is looking ready to be stingy once again which makes this Eagles team likely bowl-bound once more.

Starting QB Patrick Towles departs leaving junior Darius Wade and redshirt freshman Anthony Brown to battle for the starting job. Whoever gets it will have a veteran supporting cast with four starting offensive linemen, the top six receivers and top two running backs back from last year. The offensive line in particular should take a strong leap forward as last year they were an entirely new group. Now with a year of starts, the numbers should go up despite a new QB.

Defensive coordinator Jim Reid has seven starters back from last year’s stingy unit including DE Harold Landry who lead the team with 16.5 sacks (47 team total). Top tackler MLB Conner Strachan returns as well, but they do lose safety John Johnson who will be tough to replace in the secondary. Last year’s numbers set a high standard, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this group fall back just a bit.

The Eagles should improve enough on offense while not dropping too far on defense to be able to once again reach a bowl game in 2017. Over 4 wins

Non-Bowl Teams

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Eric Dungey #2 of the Syracuse Orange. Credit: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Syracuse Orange

The Orange actually got off to a 4-4 start under Dino Babers in 2016 before losing QB Eric Dungey to injury and dropping their final four down the stretch. Heading into this season, they’re one of the most experienced teams in the country with 19 returning starters and a bowl bid looks very possible.

Dungey is back, and he looked good in his nine starts last season, completing 64.8% of his passes for 2,679 yards and 15 TDs with seven interceptions in Babers’ high-octane offense. He’ll have five returning starters in front of him on the offensive line which should hopefully help keep him healthy. The top two running backs are back, and with the more experienced line, the rushing numbers should improve from last year’s dismal 120 YPG. The biggest loss is WR Amba Etta-Tawo who recorded 94 catches for 1,482 yards and 14 TDs last season. But, in Babers’ offense, the WRs get plenty of opportunities to make plays so his production should be made up for by the returning guys. With a healthy QB and more comfort in the offense, last year’s numbers should improve.

On defense, the only loss is CB Corey Winfield who transferred to West Virginia. With ten guys back from last year’s unit, DC Brian Ward should be able to engineer improvement on last year’s 38.6 PPG and 501.6 YPG allowed. This unit was one of the country’s worst last season, but should be much improved this season.

The Orange’s schedule is favorable with seven home games and only five road games, and they could be favored in six of those home games (lone exception being Clemson on October 13th). Over 4.5 wins.

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Quarterback Kurt Benkert #6 of the Virginia Cavaliers is brought down by defensive lineman Duke Ejiofor #53 of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. Credit: Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Wake Forest

Dave Clawson did a remarkable job turning around the Demon Deacons going 7-6 after back-to-back 3-9 seasons. This year, he’s got an experienced offense, but plenty of holes to fill on defense, and how quickly the defense comes together will be the key to whether or not this is a bowl year.

QB John Wolford returns as does junior Kendall Hinton who showed off his dual-threat capabilities when Wolford missed two games with an injury in the middle of the season. Those two will battle once more for the starting job, and they’ll have plenty of weapons to work with as the entire receiving corps returns intact along with TE Cam Serigne who proved himself a capable threat (14.2 YPR) last season. RBs Matt Colburn and Cade Carney (1,215 yards 8 TD combined) return, and the offensive line has three starters back. That formula should be good enough to improve on last year’s 20.4 PPG and 311.5 YPG.

While the offense looks ready to take a step forward, the defense may take a step back with six starters departing including three of their top four tacklers. The biggest loss among those is ILB Marquel Lee, who had 105 tackles and 12.5 TFL last season. They do have three starters back on the defensive line including 3rd team ACC DE Duke Ejiofor, who racked up 10.5 sacks last season. That said, new DC Jay Sawvel has some work to do if this unit wants to keep its Top 25 ranking in PPG (22.2, 23rd FBS).

There are in theory enough winnable games for the Deacs to make consecutive bowl appearances, but it may come down to how they fare in road games against BC and Syracuse. Under 5.5 wins.

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