The ACC has two legitimate title contenders and a few other teams that will push for national relevance.
The college football season is right around the corner, and it’s almost time to start firing up those tailgate grills. But before fans go and do that, it’s time to take a look at what each conference has to offer before the season starts. Leading up to the season, SQ will have in-depth previews for every FBS conference. Today we tackle the ACC.
What Happened In 2016
Conference Champion: Clemson (14-1)
Coach of the Year: Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech
Replacing the legendary Frank Beamer as the head football coach at Virginia Tech was always going to be a tall order. Beamer was the Hokies’ head coach for 29 straight seasons. He won 280 games, brought home seven conference championships, and took Virginia Tech to 24 straight bowl games. And yet, with the weight of following a legend on his shoulders, Justin Fuente had an incredibly successful first season in Blacksburg.
The former Memphis head coach led the Hokies to a Coastal Division title—their first since 2011—and came within a possession of knocking off eventual-National Champion Clemson in the ACC title game. The Hokie faithful were surely apprehensive when Beamer turned the keys to the program over, but Fuente showed that the program was left in capable hands.
Offensive Player of the Year: Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
There wasn’t a single player in college football last season who was more fun to watch than Lamar Jackson. That, and the tremendous statistics is exactly why Jackson took home the Heisman. From his eight-touchdown first-half debut against Charlotte to this eye-popping hurdle for a touchdown, to Louisville’s 43-point rout of then-No. 2 Florida State, every time Jackson stepped onto the field, you were guaranteed a spectacle.
Jackson’s ability to run with the ball was so awe-inspiring—he led Louisville with 1,571 rushing yards and 21 rushing touchdowns (as a quarterback!)—that his ability as a passer was significantly underrated. With a mediocre receiving corps that was at times hampered by injuries, Jackson still threw for 3,543 yards and 30 touchdowns against just nine interceptions. His 56.2% completion percentage wasn’t phenomenal, but he was more than able to overcome that thanks to his gift for creating explosive plays down the field with both his arm and his legs. Jackson is more than capable of becoming the first back-to-back Heisman winner since Archie Griffin.
Defensive Player of the Year: DeMarcus Walker, DE, Florida State
Although he was overshadowed by the likes of Jonathan Allen and Myles Garrett, Walker was one of the best defensive linemen in the country last season. Walker finished with 16.0 sacks (second-best in the nation), 21.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, and 68 total tackles. He even threw in two pass break ups and a blocked kick for good measure.
Walker was also named a Hendricks Award finalist and a Lombardi Award semifinalist for his efforts last season. His 28.5 career sacks place him third all-time in Florida State history, and his 16.0 sacks in 2016 ties him for second all-time in FSU history for a single season. Walker may not have been the most talked-about name in college football last season, but he was certainly one of the most dangerous.
Looking Ahead To 2017
Conference Favorite: Florida State
The Seminoles are a legitimate national title threat this season. In fact, they may be the second-best team in the country behind the Crimson Tide, which makes their opening contest against Alabama all the more exciting.
Head coach Jimbo Fisher returns 15 starters from last season’s team that finished 10-3 and no. 8 in the country. Among those returning starters is sophomore quarterback Deondre Francois, who is primed for a breakout season after an effective freshman campaign. Francois threw for 3,350 yards and 20 touchdowns against seven interceptions on 58.8% passing and 8.38 yards per attempt—all solid marks for a true freshman. Now, with a full year of experience under his belt, Francois will be ready to take the next step in his development and lead this offense with aplomb.
The offense did lose consensus All-America running back Dalvin Cook, but there will be plenty of weapons surrounding Francois. Cook’s successor, true freshman Cam Akers, was the no. 1 running back in the Class of 2017. He possesses plenty of ability on the ground and versatility in the passing game. He should make the transition to a post-Cook offense a lot easier.
Florida State did lose three of its top five receivers from last season. However, the men coming back and the men who will see increased roles are all extremely talented and will benefit from having a more experienced quarterback.
As for the offensive line, last year Francois took a beating. The Seminoles allowed 36 sacks in 2016, tied for 17th-most in the nation, but the line improved as the year progressed, and it returns three starters. That stability and progressive improvement should mean a much more capable line in 2017.
Defense is where Florida State will shine, though. The Seminoles return nine starters from a defense last season that allowed just 18.5 points and 293.2 yards per game over its final eight games. The defense is loaded at every single position group and also has the luxury of possessing arguably the best football player in the entire country, defensive back Derwin James. James was forced to miss most of last season after suffering a knee in Week 2 against Charleston Southern, but he is back at 100% this year and is ready to dominate opposing offenses. He was named first-team preseason All-ACC in July and will almost certainly be an early first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
The Seminoles have an incredibly tough schedule with the season opener against Alabama and road games against Clemson and Florida (not to mention home games against Miami and Louisville). But this team is extremely talented and well-built to withstand the onslaught of opponents it will face.
Conference Dark Horse: Miami
Miami has a lot going for it as it pursues its first-ever Coastal title. On offense, the Hurricanes return four starters to the offensive line, running back Mark Walton, and wide receiver Ahmmon Richards, both of whom led the team in rushing and receiving, respectively, last season. The only question that remains for this offense is who will replace Brad Kaaya at quarterback?
The two options are redshirt junior Malik Rosier and true freshman N’Kosi Perry. Rosier would give Miami stability and experience at least in years if not games played (Rosier has just one start to his name thus far in his career). However, Perry, a highly touted four-star recruit, provides the most upside. Perry is a true dual-threat quarterback with a potent arm, but he lacks any experience at the college level. Head coach Mark Richt has stated that he wants to be patient with Perry, but it wouldn’t be shocking if he takes over midseason, if he doesn’t start opening day.
Regardless of who starts at quarterback, both Walton and Richards will see increased roles in the offense. Walton rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 2016 and now has a stronger offensive line in front of him. He’ll see plenty of carries to help take some of the pressure off of the new signal caller. Richards will serve as the quarterback’s go-to target, a consistent outlet to focus on. He is lethal running deep, and with an extra year to put on some weight, he should also show marked improvement over the middle.
Miami’s defense will be one of the best in the country. The Hurricanes return their entire front seven from a defense that ranked second in the ACC last season, allowing just 18.5 points per game. Sophomore inside linebacker Shaquille Quarterman has emerged as one of the best backers in the country, and his fellow linebackers, Zach McCloud and Michael Pinckney, are not far behind in quality.
Miami lost three starters in the secondary and will replace them not with freshman, but with two experienced transfers. Dee Delaney was an All-FCS corner for the Citadel last season, and JUCO-transfer Jhavonte Dean was one of the most sought-after JUCO transfers this offseason.
The defense will lead the way. The offense will, at worst, be above average. And if one of the two quarterback options bursts onto the scene, Miami could emerge not just as a threat in the ACC, but at the national level as well.
Team That Will Disappoint: Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech had a very successful first season in the post-Beamer era. The Hokies finished 10-4, won the Coastal, almost beat Clemson in the title game, and mounted an impressive comeback to beat Arkansas in the Belk Bowl. The Hokies will still have a stout defense in 2017, led by defensive coordinator Bud Foster who is entering his 31st season with the team. They return seven starters from last year’s defense and look to have one of the best secondaries in the conference.
However, Virginia Tech lost quite a bit on offense. Quarterback Jerod Evans, leading receiver Isaiah Ford, formidable tight end Bucky Hodges, and the Hokies’ two best offensive linemen are all gone. The only two real remaining vestiges of last season’s offense are junior running back Travon McMillan and senior receiver Cam Phillips. The problem is that McMillan, though he the lead back last year, did not lead the team in rushing. Instead, it was Evans, the quarterback, who did. And he hasn’t shown the explosiveness or downhill ability that is necessary to expect significantly improved numbers with an increased workload. Phillips, too, although talented, has not shown himself to be talented enough to put a passing offense on his back with what will likely be an inexperienced quarterback at the helm.
That doesn’t mean Virginia Tech won’t be good. The Hokies should still easily make a bowl game, and the defense will be strong enough to keep most games competitive. But because of all they lost on offense, expect Virginia Tech to take a step backward this season. Eight wins seems about right for this team.
Three Players to Watch:
1. Mark Walton, RB, Miami - Despite an at-times shaky offensive line, Walton rushed for 1,117 yards and 14 touchdowns on 5.3 yards per carry and 3.60 yards per carry after first contact last season. None of those are world-beating numbers, but they are all more than solid, and they all came while Walton was paired with the above-average Brad Kaaya at quarterback and sharing some carries with senior Joseph Yearby. But that’s not the case any longer. Miami wasn’t shy about running the ball last season. However, with an uncertain situation at quarterback to start the year, expect Walton to get the ball early and often this season. He should put up much bigger numbers in 2017 and could potentially see Heisman attention if he performs to the best of his abilities.
2. Cam Akers, RB, Florida State - A true freshman, Akers has the seemingly unenviable task of replacing Dalvin Cook in the Florida State backfield. However, Akers, the no. 1 running back in the class of 2017, seems perfectly capable of exploding onto the scene and helping to assuage the worries of Seminole fans. A five-star recruit from Clinton, Mississippi, his vertical leap and 40-yard dash times prior to entering college were better than all but one and two players, respectively, who participated in the 2016 NFL Combine. Akers is a physical, durable three-down back who loves to stick his foot in the ground and run downhill. Expect him to put up big numbers in Jimbo Fisher’s offense alongside quarterback Deondre Francois.
3. Daniel Jones, QB, Duke - Jones is poised for a showcase 2017. After a season-ending injury to incumbent Thomas Sirk, Jones won Duke’s starting job last offseason as a redshirt freshman over redshirt junior Parker Boehme. Jones had an up-and-down start to the year. He led a road upset of Notre Dame in Week 4 with an exquisite passing performance, but then immediately followed that up with an absolute disaster of a game at home against an abhorrent Virginia team, during which he threw five interceptions. However, he finished the season on a significant upswing. During his final five contests, Jones threw for 250.4 yards per game (with two 300-plus yard performances), threw seven touchdowns against just one interception, and completed 62.9% of his passes. With a year’s experience under his belt, Jones has the necessary physical tools to guide Duke back to a bowl game and potentially be one of the best passers in the ACC along the way.
Most Important Conference Matchup: Florida State vs. Clemson
For the past six years, Florida State-Clemson has been the premier matchup in the ACC each season. It will be again this year. Either the Seminoles or the Tigers have won the ACC each of the last six seasons, and the two are once again the early favorites to take home the conference crown. This season’s contest, however, comes with a little additional flair: Clemson is the reigning national champion.
The game, which is to be played November 11 at Death Valley in Clemson, South Carolina, will also serve as the final conference game of the regular season for both teams. Chances are, when Florida State and Clemson take the field in the fall, this game will decide which team will represent the Atlantic Division in the ACC title game, as it has so often in the past.
The Seminoles haven’t beaten Clemson since an overtime victory in 2014, but each of the past three games has been closely contested. The average margin of victory in those three games was just 6.3 points. Expect nothing different this season.
Florida State currently looms as the conference favorite and one of the country’s biggest national title threats. Clemson may have lost All-American quarterback Deshaun Watson, but it returns an immensely talented team, particularly on defense. If the Tigers can develop a capable quarterback, they could push to repeat as national champions. This matchup promises to be one of the best games of the season with two elite teams facing off and plenty at stake.
The ACC is ripe for another exciting season. Reigning national champions Clemson return an excellent defense, and an offense that will need to work itself out but has plenty of promise. Florida State is the favorite with one of the best defenses in the country and an offense led by a quarterback ready to become one of the nation’s best. Lamar Jackson is set to defend his Heisman crown and hopefully, lead Louisville past both the Tigers and Seminoles to the ACC title game and beyond. Miami could emerge as a legitimate threat to dethrone the Atlantic Division, which has claimed each of the last six titles.
The rest of the conference shouldn’t be forgotten either. NC State has the potential for a breakout season. The Wolfpack return nine offensive starters, including quarterback Ryan Finley, to an offense that averaged 417 yards and 27.0 points per game last year. They also have probably the second-best defensive line in the conference, behind Clemson. Duke missed a bowl game for the first time since 2011 last season. Head coach David Cutcliffe will have his team ready to frustrate every opponent the Blue Devils will face, and he has a quarterback in Daniel Jones ready to emerge as a premier passer in the league.
The 2017 ACC title game will end up pitting Florida State against rival Miami in a rematch of a game to be played on September 16. It will be a closely contested game, but the Seminoles will come away victorious and head to the Playoff. Clemson, Miami, and Louisville all have legitimate odds to upset Florida State somewhere along the way, but the Seminoles have too much talent and balance this season to end up anywhere but on top.
Edited by Jazmyn Brown.
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