ACC Preview: Clemson and Florida State remain the class of the conference
The 2015 ACC will look a lot like the 2014 version. The same teams look ready to dominate the top of the conference, while those that were out by October a year ago will likely meet the same fate. The Coastal division is easily the deeper of the two, with all but one team making it to a bowl game last season. The Atlantic, though, has the best chance of getting a team to the playoff.
Atlantic Division Preview
Florida State and Clemson are still the top teams in the Atlantic division (and the conference as a whole), with nine preseason All-ACC players on the two squads alone. If these two could meet in the ACC championship, they would.
Preseason ACC Player of the Year Deshaun Watson will be throwing to his two returning All-ACC wide receivers, Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, giving the Tigers one of the best offenses in the nation. Dabo Swinney lost eight starters on defense, but there's enough talent waiting in the wings to prevent a big drop-off. If Watson stays healthy, Clemson is the team to beat.
The Seminoles may have the most talented roster in the ACC, but it lacks experience. Along with Jameis Winston, Jimbo Fisher's offense lost its top receiver, tight end, and four offensive linemen. The defense should be good again, especially on the line and with Terrance Smith leading the linebackers. Special teams don't usually get too much attention in preseason rankings, but Roberto Aguayo's 98 percent field goal success rate is worth noting. He can hit a game-winner when needed. Florida State has to play at Clemson on Nov. 7, a game that will likely decide the division.
The second tier of the conference is a lot less definitive. Louisville has plenty of quarterbacks but nobody to throw to after losing three wide receivers, and the secondary is made up of no-names. The Cardinals are still better than the majority of the Atlantic, but won't take the next step toward being a real contender this year.
Boston College's defense looks impressive and the team has improved in each of the last two years, but it needs to replace quarterback Tyler Murphy before it can start climbing further up the standings. NC State went from 3-9 in 2013 to 8-5 last year, and has the roster to do even better in 2015. Jacoby Brissett will lead the offense after an impressive first season with the Wolfpack, and Dave Doeren has seven returning starters on defense. NC State could play spoiler to any team's title run.
And then, there's the bottom. Wake Forest and Syracuse are far behind the rest of the Atlantic, combining for two total conference wins in 2014. The Orange were supposed to jump into the upper half of the division in 2014, but injuries and terrible offensive production brought Scott Shafer’s squad back to the cellar. The offense is still a question mark going into this year, and most of the defense that kept Syracuse in games last season is gone. Wake Forest is one of the youngest teams in the nation, and will show it. Unless the coaching staff can pull off a miracle, it looks like another season to forget for the Demon Deacons.
Coastal Division Preview
Georgia Tech’s offense will be just as good as it was in 2014, returning quarterback Justin Thomas and almost the entire offensive line. Broderick Snoddy has breakout potential at running back, and the addition of Patrick Skov (a Stanford transfer) will make the backfield formidable. Defensive tackle Adam Gotsis will try to improve a less-than-admirable run defense, and he’ll get help in 2015 with the return of Jabari Hunt-Days, who was academically ineligible in 2014. The Yellow Jackets will win the Coastal if the defense is above average, which it should be.
Virginia Tech has the potential to make the biggest improvement of any ACC team this year. The defense will be scary good with Dadi Lhomme Nicolas and Luther Maddy on the line and All-American talent Kendall Fuller leading the defensive backs. The difference between this season and previous years is on offense. The Hokies return almost everyone after injuries kept the offense from developing in 2014. Redshirt sophomore Bucky Hodges is the best tight end in the conference, and Michael Brewer should be respectable at quarterback after a rocky first year in Blacksburg. The Hokies have a legitimate shot at the Coastal title after going 3-5 in the conference last season, though they'll have to play Georgia Tech on the road.
Duke, North Carolina, Miami, and Pittsburgh could fall in any order. The Tar Heels return 10 starters on an offense that was already one of the best in the school’s recent history, but the question is whether Gene Chizik can turn around the ACC's worst defense of 2014. Pitt has the same problem; reigning ACC Player of the Year James Conner and star wide receiver Tyler Boyd will make for an exciting offense, but the defense needs help.
Duke has an easier schedule, but also has question marks at too many positions to take advantage of it. The defensive line isn't ready to compete against the best teams in the conference, and new quarterback Thomas Sirk doesn't have a definitive number one target. In Miami, Coach Al Golden is on the hot seat. The Hurricanes had seven players taken in the NFL draft this year, but still only finished 6-7 after losing their last four games of the season. Quarterback Brad Kaaya could have a breakout year after earning ACC Rookie of the Year honors as a true freshman, but the defense is thin and was inconsistent last season.
Rounding out the Coastal division is Virginia. The Cavaliers went 5-7 last season, and non-conference games against UCLA and Notre Dame mean Mike London will have to find conference wins if he wants to get his team back to a bowl game. Virginia is lucky that its Atlantic game is against Syracuse, and a win there could make a three-spot difference given how tight the Coastal division is. Still, this team is the worst in the division, and will only finish higher than last if the other teams beat up on one another.
Projected Final Standings
2. Florida State
4. NC State
5. Boston College
7. Wake Forest
1. Georgia Tech
2. Virginia Tech
3. North Carolina
ACC championship: Clemson over Georgia Tech