2017 College Football: ACC Preview

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College football is back folks! Time for a deep dive into the ACC.

Over the last few seasons, the ACC has risen to become arguably the toughest conference in college football. Only three of the ACC’s 14 teams had a record below .500 last season, and the conference finished the season with a 9–3 record in postseason competition. While the postseason record may not always be the best measure for conference supremacy, the ACC backed up their regular season performances with a national championship in Clemson and a Heisman winner in Lamar Jackson.

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ATLANTIC DIVISION

Boston College Eagles

Last season: 7–6 (2–6); 7th in ACC Atlantic

Postseason: Won (36–30) Quick Lane Bowl vs. Maryland

Key Departures: QB Patrick Towles, S John Johnson, LB Matt Milano

Pressing Concerns: To say Boston College’s offense last year was bad would be an understatement. It ranked 127th in yards per game, averaging below 300 yards a game, and 118th in points per game with 20.4. Against Maryland in the bowl game, they went more uptempo with some positive results, scoring 36 points and gaining 348 yards on offense. While there are improvements here, whether Boston College can move the ball consistently in an up-tempo scheme will be the major question for them this season.

Biggest Strengths: The Eagles’ defense was 8th in the country in total yards and 7th in rushing yards. Once again, this will be their biggest strength. Led by DE Harold Landry, the Eagles field a ferocious pass rushing unit and the run defense will be stout again. If the secondary can force turnovers and limit the big pass plays, Boston College may boast one of the best defenses in the conference again.

Offensive Players to Watch: RB Jon Hillman, WR Michael Walker, WR Jeff Smith

Defensive Players to Watch: DE Harold Landry, LB Connor Strachan, S Will Harris

Make-or-Break Factor: It’s been said already, but Boston College’s success hinges on how much the offense is able to move the ball. Their top six pass-catchers return from last season, and while that’s usually a good thing, their passing attack ranked 120th in the country last season. So a lack of roster turnover may actually be a bad thing in this case. If there’s anything for them to hang their hat on, it’s that it can’t really get worse, and with another offseason of development, they can only hope to improve drastically.

Key Games:

  • 9/9 vs. Wake Forest — Boston College is going to need to take advantage of as many winnable games as possible if they want to make a bowl game again, and their home opener is against a team that will also be fighting for a similar position. These are the games Boston College needs to win to get to that six-win tally.
  • 11/11 vs. NC State — Coming off a bye week, this could be a must-win for Boston College if they want to be bowl eligible again. NC State plays Clemson the week before, and depending on how that game goes for them, Boston College may have an opportunity to take advantage of a fatigued NC State team.

2017 Prediction: 6–6 (3–5); 5th in the ACC Atlantic. The Eagles face a brutal ACC stretch where they play Clemson, Virginia Tech, Louisville, and Florida State in a six-week span in which they could very easily go 0–4. However, a big win over NC State late in the season sends Boston College into the final stretch needing only one win for bowl eligibility. They close the season with UConn and Syracuse, so it’s likely Boston gets to go bowling again.

Clemson Tigers

Last season: 14–1 (7–1); 1st in ACC Atlantic

Postseason: Won (31–0) in College Football Playoffs Semifinal vs. Ohio State; Won (35–31) in National Championship vs. Alabama

Key Departures: QB Deshaun Watson, RB Wayne Gallman, WR Mike Williams, DT Carlos Watkins, LB Ben Boulware, CB Cordrea Tankersley

Pressing Concerns: Deshaun Watson is arguably Clemson’s best player of all time, so naturally, losing him creates a void that needs to be filled. Add in the fact that their star receiver and running back along with Watson, and there are some gaping holes to fill. The talent is there for Clemson, without a doubt, but the experience isn’t. Kelly Bryant (Jr.) seems to be the favorite to take over at QB, but he only has a grand total of 75 passing yards and one TD to his name thus far. Deon Cain should step into the number one receiver spot, while the running back position should be in good hands with former top recruit Tavien Feaster.

Biggest Strengths: Despite losing DT Carlos Watkins to the draft, Clemson’s defensive line should once again be among the best in the country. Between Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, and Clelin Farrell, Clemson’s defensive line is in good hands and should help give Clemson’s defensive backs time to catch up. With Kendall Joseph heading a great linebacker corps, the Tigers might just have the best front seven in the country.

Offensive Players to Watch: RB Tavien Feaster, WR Hunter Renfrow, WR Deon Cain

Defensive Players to Watch: DT Dexter Lawrence, DT Christian Wilkins, LB Kendall Joseph

Make-or-Break Factor: It seems like the easy answer, but Clemson’s success will be entirely dependent on how quickly QB Kelly Bryant catches on. Clemson losing their three-headed monster on offense is a big hit, but two of the three positions seem to be in good hands with up-and-coming stars. Bryant will need to play well, and he’ll have to do it quickly if Clemson wants to avoid early losses in their quest for another playoff appearance. They’ve got road games against Louisville and Virginia Tech plus a matchup against Auburn all within the first five games of the season. Clemson can’t afford for Bryant to be a late bloomer.

Key Games:

  • 9/16 @ Louisville — Clemson travels fairly early in the season to Louisville, where they’ll play Heisman winner Lamar Jackson. Clemson’s young defensive backs will be tested early and often, and Kelly Bryant will get plenty of opportunities to showcase what he can do in will likely be another shootout.
  • 11/11 vs. Florida State — Clemson hosts Florida State in their third to last game. Florida State’s offense struggled against Clemson’s stout defense last year, but with Clemson’s departures on both sides of the ball, the story could be different this year for a “rebuilding” Clemson team and a loaded Florida State roster.

2017 Prediction:10–2 (7–1); 2nd in the ACC Atlantic. Clemson, despite their departures, should be able to overcome their growing pains against a Louisville team that may take a step back this year. Although not mentioned in the key games, Clemson faces a trap game right before their Florida State matchup when they travel to NC State, a team with a solid defense. Back-to-back losses to the Wolfpack and the Seminoles will erase any playoff hopes for the Tigers this season.

Florida State Seminoles

Last season: 10–3 (5–3); 3rd in ACC Atlantic

Postseason: Won (33–32) in Orange Bowl vs. Michigan

Key Departures: RB Dalvin Cook, WR Travis Rudolph, LT Rod Johnson, DE DeMarcus Walker

Pressing Concerns: Finding consistency on offense will be Florida State’s number one concern. Without Dalvin Cook in the mix, there will be more pressure on Deondre Francois to lead the offense. While Francois showed flashes, he was inconsistent throwing the ball (58.7% completion) and had a tendency of holding on to the ball too long. Francois will have to be better in both facets if Florida State wants to end up in the playoffs. Cam Akers may be the most highly-touted running back prospect since Leonard Fournette, but is he ready to take the reins?

Biggest Strengths: Florida State’s defense is loaded. The defensive line, led by Josh Sweat and Brian Burns, is arguably the deepest in the country. The defensive backs are led by superstar safety, Derwin James, and a deep secondary around him. James returns from injury with an immense amount of hype surrounding him, with many regarding him as one of the top three players in the country. They return almost everyone outside of DeMarcus Walker. With the amount of depth they possess on the defensive side of the ball, Florida State will have the ability to wear teams down with their rotation.

Offensive Players to Watch: QB Deondre Francois, RB Jacques Patrick, RB Cam Akers

Defensive Players to Watch: S Derwin James, DE Josh Sweat, CB Tarvarus McFadden

Make-or-Break Factor: If Deondre Francois can become more comfortable and more accurate in the pocket, the sky is the limit for this Florida State team. Francois will be the focal point of the offense in the early going so the reps will be there for him to become more comfortable.

Key Games:

  • 9/2 vs. Alabama — Rarely do we get a matchup of this caliber this early in the season. Two teams that are favorites to make the playoffs open the season against each other in brand new Mercedez-Benz Stadium. How much Francois has developed will be on display right away against the best team in the country.
  • 11/11 @ Clemson— The road to the playoffs runs through Clemson. The Seminoles came up short last season but their roster is vastly improved over last season, especially on the defensive side of the ball. This will be a tough one for both teams, one that likely sends the victor to the conference title game.

2017 Prediction: 11–1 (8–0); 1st in the ACC Atlantic. Florida State should run through their schedule fairly easily after a Week 1 loss to Alabama. Jimbo Fisher can work magic with even the most difficult of quarterbacks. After a freshman season full of promise and shortcomings, Deondre Francois should make a jump this year. With two great runners behind him, the Seminole offense could be even more dangerous than it was last year. Defensively, they have almost everyone back, so look for that unit to be unforgiving, especially to a Louisville team that hung 63 on them last season.

Louisville Cardinals

Last season: 9–4 (7–1); 2nd in ACC Atlantic

Postseason: Lost (9–29) in Citrus Bowl vs. LSU

Key Departures: WR James Quick, TE Cole Hikutini, DL Devonte Fields, S Josh Harvey-Clemons

Pressing Concerns: The offensive line was an issue for Louisville last year, giving up 47 sacks. This year, they only bring back two starters. They will have to be much better and keep Lamar Jackson upright to make another step forward this year. On top of that, Louisville loses its top three receivers and needs its youth to step into those roles.

Biggest Strengths: Lamar Jackson. The electrifying Heisman winner returns for his junior season. If he can add a consistent passing game to his repertoire, Louisville’s offense will be even more potent than it already is. If he doesn’t make major strides as a passer? Oh well. He rushed for almost 1,600 yards and scored 21 touchdowns on the ground last year. If he never throws a single pass he’s still one of the best runners in college football.

Offensive Players to Watch: QB Lamar Jackson, RB Jeremy Smith, WR Jaylen Smith

Defensive Players to Watch: DE Drew Bailey, LB James Hearns, CBJaire Alexander

Make-or-Break Factor: It’s hard to say Louisville struggled on offense last year when they ranked 3rd in total yards per game. However, the one-man show in Lamar Jackson became increasingly easier to slow down as the season rolled on, especially during their three-game skid to end the season in which the offense averaged 169 fewer yards than their season average. The youth on offense will need to step up and help Jackson if Louisville wants to avoid being shut down on offense again down the stretch.

Key Games:

  • 9/16 vs.Clemson — With both teams rebuilding/reloading some of their lost talent, this will be a great game for both Louisville and Clemson to get some important big-game experience from their inexperienced players.

2017 Prediction: 9–3 (5–3); 4th in the ACC Atlantic. Louisville is a weird team with a lot of holes that won’t be as good as their record may indicate. Given their schedule, they could very easily win 10 games and only drop the Florida State game along with some other fluke loss. But there is also plenty of reason to believe that this team could take a major step back from what many believe was a little bit of a fluke season. Losses to Clemson and Florida State are almost a given, while it may not be inconceivable to expect a third loss to a team like NC State along the way.

NC State Wolfpack

Last season: 7–6 (3–5); T-4th in ACC Atlantic

Postseason: Won (41–17) in Independence Bowl vs. Vanderbilt

Key Departures: RB Matthew Hayes, S Josh Jones

Pressing Concerns: NC State needs to be better on offense, especially in the run game. They weren’t bad, by any means, but there was inconsistency. On top of that, their top running back, Matthew Hayes, is gone. With Hayes gone, NC State might not have a true number one back on their roster. The o-line play should be good enough to make the most of their running back situation, but there’s no guarantee that the running backs will be good enough to take advantage of it.

Biggest Strengths: NC State’s defense returns eight starters from last year’s unit that ranked 24th overall. The defensive line, with Bradley Chubb and Kentavius Street, will be in the conversation for the best line in the country. They tallied 37 sacks last season and return everyone of significance in the front seven. The defensive backs lose a major player in Josh Jones, but there is talent and depth there to replace him.

Offensive Players to Watch: QB Ryan Finley, RB Jaylen Samuels, RB Reggie Gallaspy

Defensive Players to Watch: DE Bradley Chubb, LB Airius Moore, LB Jerod Fernandez

Make-or-Break Factor: Can the Wolfpack force turnovers? They only had nine INTs last season despite having one of the better defenses in the country. NC State won’t, and probably shouldn’t expect to, have a great offense, so its defense will have to create opportunities for the offense.

Key Games:

  • 9/2 vs. South Carolina — South Carolina isn’t a great team by any means, but they’re a quality season opener opponent for a team looking to make the next step to ACC relevance.
  • 9/23 @ Florida State — It almost seems a little unfair to put arguably the best team in the country as a key game for NC State, but this is more about seeing how well NC State will respond to adversity on the road against a talented team.
  • 11/4 vs. Clemson — The Wolfpack forced overtime against the eventual national champions. Can the Wolfpack defense get pressure on Clemson’s inexperienced offense and get the job done this time around? Home-field advantage will play into this as the Raleigh crowd is gonna make this one difficult for the Tigers. Every year there’s always a trap game for teams like Clemson. This year, that game is with NC State.

2017 Prediction: 9–3 (53); 3rd in the ACC Atlantic. Expect NC State to make a big jump this year, especially with their defensive line being as dominant as it can be. Losses at Florida State, Pittsburgh, and Boston College put this team firmly in 3rd place in the division.

Syracuse Orange

Last season: 48 (26); 6th in ACC Atlantic

Postseason: Did not qualify.

Key Departures: WR Amba Etta-Tawo

Pressing Concerns: The defense is a disaster. They return 10 starters on that side of the ball from last year, but is that really a good thing for a defense that ranked 122nd in yards given up and 120th in points per game? The experience is there, but it’s all with players who, frankly, aren’t very good. The defense is going to give up a lot of points, again, and Syracuse is once again going to have to rely on their offense carrying the load for as long as possible.

Biggest Strengths: It’s hard to find strengths on a team that had eight losses. If there was any positive to take away from last season, it’s that they have a passing game. Unfortunately, they had to have a passing game to be able to keep up with the points their defense gave up. The offense lost their top receiver, but Eric Dungey is back behind center and should keep the passing game rolling.

Offensive Players to Watch: QB Eric Dungey, RB Dontae Strickland, WR Ervin Phillips

Defensive Players to Watch: LB Zaire Franklin, S Daivon Ellison, DT Chris Slayton

Make-or-Break Factor: The offense can move the ball, but they struggled to put the ball in the end zone consistently, especially in the red zone, ranking 103rd in red zone efficiency. Syracuse needs to take advantage of all their opportunities because their defense is likely not going to get the stops to help out the offense.

Key Games:

  • 10/7 vs. Pittsburgh — Their previous matchup last year was a high scoring affair that would make ACC basketball seem low-scoring in comparison. Looking at Syracuse’s schedule, they could very easily start 05 in conference play if they don’t pull a win off here.

2017 Prediction: 57 (26); 7th in ACC Atlantic. Three wins to start off the season may seem promising, but that’s about where all the good ends for Syracuse. A win over Pittsburgh in a revenge game from last year and a win over Boston College to finish the season are their only ACC wins as their defense, once again, struggles to stop anyone.

Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Last season: 76 (35); T-4th in ACC Atlantic

Postseason: Won (3426) in Military Bowl vs. Temple

Key Departures: LB Marquel Lee, LG Tyler Hayworth

Pressing Concerns: Wake Forest ranked 118th in scoring offense last season. If there’s anything good to take away from that, it’s that the offense can really go up from there. The passing game returns QB Kendall Hilton from a knee injury, and their top two receivers return as well. The offense will have to be better than it was last year if they want to get through the gauntlet of a schedule they have this year.

Biggest Strengths: Wake Forest was ranked 10th in the country last year at forcing turnovers after being near the bottom the prior year. The Deacons defense excels at forcing and recovering fumbles, which they’ll have to continue to do as the offense progresses. Thankfully for the Deacons, they return elite pass rusher Duke Ejiofor to help carry that burden.

Offensive Players to Watch: QB Kendall Hinton, TE Cam Serigne, WR Tabari Hines

Defensive Players to Watch: DE Duke Ejiofor, LB Jaboree Williams, S Jessie Bates

Make-or-Break Factor: The offense needs to be better. The defense kept Wake Forest in games against lesser opponents, but against better teams, the offensive ineptitudes were on display more than ever, especially when the defense wasn’t able to hold up for as long. If the offense isn’t better this year, it will be a long season for the Demon Deacons given the schedule they face this season.

Key Games:

  • 9/9 @Boston College — Wake Forest’s schedule this year includes games at Boston College, at Clemson, and at Notre Dame. They need to start the season off hot with a win at Boston College before they face the ACC powers later in the season.

2017 Prediction: 5–7 (2–6); 6th in ACC Atlantic. Wake Forest will be better than their record suggests, but they drew the short stick in terms of their schedule this year. Not a single easy game in the conference, and with an offense that struggled as much as it did last year, losses may be a plenty this year.

COASTAL DIVISION

Duke

Last season: 4–8 (1–7); 7th in ACC Coastal

Postseason: Did not qualify.

Key Departures: QB Thomas Sirk, S Deondre Singleton, CB Breon Borders

Pressing Concerns: Duke’s defense struggled mightily against good quarterbacks, which the ACC had plenty of last season. With many of those quarterbacks off to the NFL now, it may not be as bad this year statistically. With that said, the team is still severely lacking in talent at defensive back.

Biggest Strengths: The offense should be the strength of the team after QB Daniel Jones has now had a year to figure out the offense. While the offense still won’t be great, Duke will have to rely on it to be the focal point as the defense works on improving the form on which it ended last season.

Offensive Players to Watch: WR T.J. Rahming, QB Daniel Jones, RB Shaun Wilson

Defensive Players to Watch: LB Ben Humphreys, LB Joe Giles-Harris, S Alonzo Saxton

Make-or-Break Factor: The play of QB Daniel Jones will be the difference maker for the Blue Devils. The defense won’t be good, but if Jones plays well, the offense can be good enough to provide enough points to outscore the defense in enough games. He was forced into duty last season after QB Thomas Sirk went down with an injury early. With year of learning the offense under his belt, he should be more comfortable leading the team.

Key Games:

  • 9/23@ UNC — An early rivalry game on the road is a great time for Duke to make a statement. They won a stunner last season, and given Duke’s schedule, this could be one of their few ACC wins. It may not be basketball, but UNC/Duke still dominates North Carolina, no matter the sport.

2017 Prediction: 3–9 (1–7); 6th in ACC Coastal. Duke will struggle on both sides of the ball, and the schedule doesn’t help either, as they play Miami, Florida State, and Virginia Tech. Their only ACC win comes against Virginia, who might be equally woeful this season.

Georgia Tech

Last season: 9–4 (4–4); 5th in ACC Coastal

Postseason: Won (33–18) in TaxSlayer Bowl vs. Kentucky

Key Departures: RB Marcus Marshall, LT Trey Klock

Pressing Concerns: Can Georgia Tech’s defense get off the field? The Yellow Jackets pride themselves on time of possession. When they’re not winning that battle, they struggle mightily. The defense has to be better at getting to the quarterback and at forcing stops. Otherwise, Georgia Tech will have a tough time hanging with the ACC elites.

Biggest Strengths: The run game, obviously, is the team’s strength. But with the dismissal of top rusher, Dedrick Mills, even their best attribute is up for question. Despite losing their second best rusher from last season and Mills last week, three of their top five rushers from last season are back. The offensive line lost its starting left tackle, but there are replacements ready to play and the rest of the offensive line is more than solid enough to set the tone up front.

Offensive Players to Watch: RB Dedrick Mills, QB Matthew Jordan, RB Clinton Lynch

Defensive Players to Watch: S Corey Griffin, CB Lance Austin, LB Brant Mitchell

Make-or-Break Factor: It seems weird to say in an offense so run-heavy, but the ability of Matthew Jordan will play a big factor in how effective the Yellow Jackets can run the ball. Georgia Tech’s offense is built around the run, but their pass game is all about timing, and without the right production from the QB, the entire offense can be knocked out of sync. The Yellow Jackets need to be in control of the tempo of the game. For them to do that, they have to be able to balance their offense occasionally.

Key Games:

  • 9/30 vs. UNC — Georgia Tech needs some solid momentum going into their bye week as they then travel to Miami and Clemson in a three-week span. A good win against UNC could provide some confidence and momentum for Georgia Tech as they get into the meat of their schedule.

2017 Prediction: 7–5 (5–3); 3rd in ACC Coastal. Georgia Tech opens the schedule with a loss to Tennessee, and unfortunately, they also have to travel to Miami and Clemson later in the season. The wins will be there for another bowl game appearance but nothing more than that. 

Miami

Last season: 9–4 (5–3); 3rd in ACC Coastal

Postseason: Won (31–14) in Russell Athletic Bowl vs. West Virginia

Key Departures: QB Brad Kaaya, WR Stacy Coley, TE David Njoku, S Jamal Carter, CB Corn Elder

Pressing Concerns: Miami’s run game was inconsistent last year. In the games they lost, the run game was a non-factor. Miami can’t let the same thing happen this year or they’ll find themselves going into early holes against more talented teams like they did last year. Their offense likely revolves around a passing game, but having a consistent run game was still important to their success last season, and it will be important this season as well especially without Kaaya running the show.

Biggest Strengths: The Canes defense relied on youth last season and it paid off. They tallied 37 sacks and ended the season as the 27th ranked defense. The entire front seven returns, which includes most of their defensive playmakers from last season. They should improve upon those numbers, especially with a somewhat easier schedule.

Offensive Players to Watch: RB Mark Walton, WR Ahmmon Richards, TE Chris Herndon

Defensive Players to Watch: LB Shaquille Quarterman, DE Joe Jackson, LB Michael Pinckney

Make-or-Break Factor: The play of whoever starts at QB. The battle is between Malik Rosier, Evan Shirreffs, and N’Kosi Perry; Miami’s coaches have yet to announce a starter. Perry is the most talented of the group but is only a true freshman. Whoever starts has a lot of pressure to pick up from where Kaaya left off last season and keep the offense rolling.

Key Games:

  • 9/16 @ Florida State — Miami will travel to Florida State as heavy underdogs, and they’re probably ok with that. Are they expected to win? Definitely not. But this is a game that’ll put Miami to the test on both sides of the ball.
  • 11/4 vs. Virginia Tech — Remember the days of Miami and Virginia Tech vying for dominance over the Big East? We’re about to see a return to those days. Mark Richt is a proven competitor while Justin Fuente is second only to Tom Herman in the up and coming coach department. The rivalry that was fierce and exciting in the 90s and early 2000s is seeing a resurgence. Their only real competition with their division is each other. The victor gets to preemptively book their trip to the ACC title game while the loser hopes for a miracle.

2017 Prediction: 10–2 (6–2); 1st in the ACC Coastal. A loss at Florida State to open up their ACC schedule seems like a given. This team, however, feels like the type of team that’ll drop one other game this season. A loss at Pittsburgh to cap the season puts them at two losses but still crowns them champs over Virginia Tech.

North Carolina

Last season: 8–5 (5–3); 2nd in ACC Coastal

Postseason: Lost (23–25) in Sun Bowl vs. Stanford

Key Departures: QB Mitchell Trubisky, WR Ryan Switzer, RB Elijah Hood, DT Nazair Jones

Pressing Concerns: The offense loses almost all of its firepower from last year. UNC is now relying on LSU transfer Brandon Harris to fill in some pretty big shoes at the QB position. There are plenty of receivers on the team, but can Harris play better than he did at LSU and get the ball out to the receivers? There’s depth at the running back position as well, but if Harris doesn’t play well, there won’t be any room for the running backs to run. Harris had Leonard Fournette, good receivers, and a strong defense. Tar Heel fans, don’t hold your breath.

Biggest Strengths: While UNC may not have anyone single strength, one thing they can hang their hat on is experience on the defensive side of the ball. The defense returns almost everyone of significance. Though they struggled to stop the run last year, there were some positive signs of life in the front seven for the team to build around.

Offensive Players to Watch: QB Brandon Harris, WR Austin Proehl, RB Jordan Brown

Defensive Players to Watch: LB Andre Smith, CB M.J. Stewart, S Donnie Miles

Make-or-Break Factor: Here’s a shocking stat — UNC forced a total of ONE interception last year. Needless to say, that won’t suffice. UNC has struggled to force interceptions the last few seasons. Only tallying one in an entire season, however, is unacceptable. The defensive backs absolutely need to get more this year to help out the offense.

Key Games:

  • 10/21 @ Virginia Tech — UNC travels to Virginia Tech, then hosts Miami, and then travels to Pittsburgh two weeks later. In a tough stretch of games like this, UNC wants to start off with a win, but it won’t come easy in Blacksburg.

2017 Prediction: 5–7 (2–6); 5th in ACC Coastal. UNC lost too much talent on the offensive side of the ball to be able to make up for their deficiencies on the defensive end. After a 3–1 start, the ACC schedule won’t do them any favors as UNC takes a step back this year and misses qualifying for a bowl game.

Pittsburgh

Last season: 8–5 (5–3); 4th in ACC Coastal

Postseason: Lost (24–31) in Pinstripe Bowl vs. Northwestern

Key Departures: OC Matt Canada, QB Nathan Peterman, RB James Conner, DL Ejuan Price

Pressing Concerns: The offense loses some firepower, but they have brought in players to help alleviate those problems. The defense, though, was a major issue last year, particularly against the pass. The defensive backfield will be deeper this year and may help alleviate some of their problems. Despite this new depth, the talent isn’t quite there yet for their secondary to be good. Another concern is how the offense will react to losing offensive guru Matt Canada.

Biggest Strengths: The offense, even with the losses of Peterman and Conner, should be as good as it was before. They brought in USC transfer Max Browne who is more than capable to step in for Peterman. The receiving threats are there to make the transition for Browne easier, and there’s depth at the running back position to keep the running game fresh. The Pittsburgh defense also fields one of the best safeties in the country in Jordan Whitehead. Unfortunately, he’ll miss the first three games of the season due to suspension.

Offensive Players to Watch: QB Max Browne, WR Jester Weah, ATH Quadree Henderson

Defensive Players to Watch: S Jordan Whitehead, LB Oluwaseun Idowu, DE Rori Blair

Make-or-Break Factor: The play of the defensive backs will determine the success of the Pittsburgh defense. There has been some shifting in the secondary, but whether it’s the change necessary for making the pass defense remains to be seen. Whitehead is legit but the others are relatively unproven.

Key Games:

  • 11/18 @ Virginia Tech — Pitt wants to win the Coastal Division. But given their schedule and defense, they might just be fighting for a bowl game this year. These two teams played a treat of a game last season, but Pitt may not fare nearly as well this year.

2017 Prediction: 7–5 (5–3); 4th in ACC Coastal. Pitt probably won’t be as good as they were last year, but due to a relatively favorable conference schedule, they should be able to rack up enough wins for a postseason appearance once again.

Virginia

Last season: 2–10 (1–7); 6th in ACC Coastal

Postseason: Did not qualify.

Key Departures: RB Taquan Mizzell, RB Albert Reid

Pressing Concerns: There are going to be a lot of concerns for this Virginia team. They didn’t have much of a run game last year, so losing their top two rushers isn’t great. Can the new backs and the rebuilt offensive line find some consistency on the ground? The defense was horrendous, giving up 447 yards per game last season. The talent is there on the defensive side, but it didn’t seem to matter last season because of how spread out the talent is.

Biggest Strengths: The passing game seems like it’ll be one of the few strengths of this team. They were able to move the ball on a relatively consistent basis last season but still struggled to find the end zone when they needed to. Most of the weapons are back and so is QB Kurt Benkert, so they should only hope to improve from last year. The defense is porous and weak as a unit, but each level possesses one of the best playmakers in the conference.

Offensive Players to Watch: QB Kurt Benkert, WR Orlamide Zaccheaus, WR Doni Downling

Defensive Players to Watch: S Quin Blanding, DE Andrew Brown, LB Micah Kiser

Make-or-Break Factor: The defense needs to find a way to stop opposing offenses. They only tallied nine interceptions last season and ranked 123rd in defensive red zone efficiency. It’s unlikely that they’re going to flip a switch on defense, but asking them to force a few more turnovers and red zone stops doesn’t seem too unrealistic for a defense that actually has some skilled players.

Key Games:

  • 9/2 vs.William & Mary — Virginia started the season 0–3 last season, which set the tone for the rest of the schedule. Coming out strong this season is going to be important if they want to improve on last year’s win total. A reminder: If you think that an FCS team as a key game is a stretch, remember they lost to Richmond last year. By 17. At home.
  • 9/16 vs. Connecticut— UConn was miserable last season and still found a way to beat Virginia. With a bye week just five weeks into the season, going .500 at the very least in the first four games should be Virginia’s goal before starting their conference schedule.

2017 Prediction: 3–9 (0–8); 7th in ACC Coastal. Unfortunately for Virginia, there’s not much good going for them on either side of the ball. Quite frankly, every other team in the division is just flat-out better than them.

Virginia Tech

Last season: 10–4 (6–2); 1st in ACC Coastal

Postseason: Won (35–24) in Belk Bowl vs. Arkansas

Key Departures: QB Jerod Evans, WR Isaiah Ford, TE Bucky Hodges, FS Chuck Clark

Pressing Concerns: After losing several of their skill players to graduation and early departures, there is plenty of uncertainty of how the offense will perform in 2017. The talent to replace the gaps is there, but there is a lot of inexperience outside of WR Cam Phillips. How quickly the young guys and QB Josh Jackson can get on the same page will be a big barometer for Virginia Tech’s offense.

Biggest Strengths: Virginia Tech’s defense was 19th overall last season and, despite losing three starters from a strong defensive line, may be even better this season. The secondary is loaded with talent despite the departure of FS Chuck Clark, and the linebackers return everyone from last year’s group. The defense will be the anchor of this team while the offense gets up to speed.

Offensive Players to Watch: QB Josh Jackson, WR Cam Phillips, RB Travon McMillian

Defensive Players to Watch: LB Tremaine Edmunds, CB Brandon Facyson, S Terrell Edmunds

Make-or-Break Factor: The play of QB Josh Jackson and how quickly he can get up to speed will be a major factor in whether Virginia Tech wins the Coastal division once again. The offense revolved around Jerod Evans and his ability to run. Now, the weight will be on Jackson’s shoulders to do the same and to lead the offense to similar success it had last year, if not more.

Key Games:

  • 11/4 @ Miami — A road trip to Miami begins the toughest part of Virginia Tech’s schedule. A win on the road here would be almost a guarantee to lock up the Coastal division before they travel to face Georgia Tech’s triple option offense.

2017 Prediction: 10–2 (6–2); 2nd in ACC Coastal. Virginia Tech has the fortunes of having most of their tough conference games at home, but losses to Clemson and Miami bump them to 2nd in the division behind Miami.


At but not least, the final prediction — The ACC Conference Championship. Florida State defeats Miami for the second time in the season and books their trip to the College Football Playoffs.

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