The ACC may be as deep as it’s ever been, thanks mainly to some savvy coaching hires. 5 teams (FSU, Clemson, Louisville, Miami, and VT) start the season with top 25 rankings and even the middle of the pack schools are no push-overs: Pitt, NC State, UNC, and GT have had varying degrees of recent success and each return some intriguing pieces in 2017. The Coastal division is as wide open as ever with 5 of the 7 teams replacing their starting quarterback. In the Atlantic, the Seminoles, Tigers, and Cardinals have national championship aspirations, but darkhorse NC State lurks in the shadows looking to surprise.
In week 1, the conference hits the ground running, as 6 of the 14 programs will matchup against Power 5 opponents to open their seasons, including a national top 3 clash between FSU and Alabama.
ACC Power Rankings
1. Florida State Seminoles (0-0, 0-0 ACC)
First opponent: vs. Alabama Crimson Tide (0-0)
Watch out: Jimbo Fisher always does damage when he has a competent QB under his tutelage and Deondre Francois may be his most talented gunslinger yet, save for Jameis Winston. Running back is deep and the defense improved mightily as the 2016 season went on. Additionally, the Noles stop-unit will be enhanced by the return of S Derwin James, who played in only 2 games last season and is considered by many to be the best defensive player in the nation. We’ll find out if this version of FSU is for real pretty quickly: they take on national championship favorite Alabama in the opener in a heavyweight showdown.
2. Clemson Tigers (0-0, 0-0 ACC)
First opponent: vs. Kent State Golden Flashes (0-0)
The Tigers lose a lot from last season’s national championship winning squad, but they’ve stacked together the type of elite recruiting classes the past few years that lend a program to reloading rather than rebuilding. While the defensive line could be one of the best units in the nation led by DT’s Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, on offense, junior Kelly Bryant will take the first crack at replacing the best QB in school history, Deshaun Watson, and will have to do it with both a new starting RB and #1 WR. The offense won’t have a lot of time to figure things out, though: after a cupcake opener vs. Kent State, the Tigers play Auburn, Louisville, and Virginia Tech during September.
3. Miami Hurricanes (0-0, 0-0 ACC)
First opponent: vs. Bethune-Cookman Wildcats (0-0)
The Canes are deep in the front 7 in Mark Richt’s second season, and Mark Walton, Ahmmon Richards, and Chris Herndon are a trio of skill players that can compete with the best in the ACC. The question is: who will step up at QB? Malik Rosier will get the nod in Week 1 against Bethune-Cookman, and he’s shown he’s got some chops; Rosier beat a top 25 Duke squad in 2015 during his only career start. However, Rosier will have to prove his mettle week-in and week-out, with talented true freshman QB N’Kosi Perry waiting in the wings. The secondary was also completely rebuilt after losing all 4 senior starters to graduation/the NFL. Even so, Richt has the Canes headed in the right direction as the favorites in the Coastal division in 2017.
4. Louisville Cardinals (0-0, 0-0 ACC)
First opponent: at Purdue Boilermakers (0-0)
It says a lot about the rest of Louisville (and the strength of the ACC) that they have the returning Heisman winner in Lamar Jackson yet still find themselves fourth in these power rankings. Louisville stumbled to the finish line in 2016 after a scorching start, as teams seemed to begin to figure out Jackson’s game. Can Jackson adjust to what defensive coordinators are throwing at him? There are also serious questions on the O-line, a completely new defense, and the Cardinals have to replace their top running back, tight end, and wide receiver.
5. Virginia Tech Hokies (0-0, 0-0 ACC)
First opponent: vs. West Virginia Mountaineers (0-0)
The Hokies looked like the favorite to repeat as Coastal Division champs until QB Jerod Evans surprised everyone by turning pro early. Justin Fuente has opted to go with redshirt freshman Josh Jackson to replace Evans, but year 2 for Fuente may be tougher than his sizzling debut. The Hokies must find some weapons for Jackson in the passing game after losing TE Bucky Hodges and WR Isaiah Ford and the VT defense has questions on the defensive line. A week 1 matchup with top 25 opponent WVU will give us a nice gauge on how far along the Hokies are in answering those questions.
6. Pittsburgh Panthers (0-0, 0-0 ACC)
First opponent: vs. Youngstown State Penguins (0-0)
Pitt comes into 2017 looking for successors to their dynamic backfield duo of QB Nathan Peterman and RB James Connor. USC transfer Max Browne will take over as the Panthers QB after losing his job to Sam Darnold back in Los Angeles. Working with new offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, how much Browne lives up to his former 5-star hype will be a big factor in determining how far Pitt can go in head coach Pat Narduzzi’s third year. However, getting the defense closer to Narduzzi’s Michigan State levels is probably priority number 1.
7. N.C. State Wolfpack (0-0, 0-0 ACC)
First opponent: at South Carolina Gamecocks (0-0)
The Wolfpack have the most returning talent coming back to Raleigh in 2017 that they’ve seen in years. The defensive line will be one of the best in the country, and QB Ryan Finley is back after a solid 2016. Replicating the production of NFL draft pick RB Matt Dayes will be a challenge, as will attempting to climb one of the most brutal divisions in football. Still, some are picking NC State to shock the world and win the Atlantic. We aren’t willing to go that far, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Wolfpack upset one of the three Atlantic powerhouses and throw a wrench into the ACC Championship race. NC State gets their first test right out the gate, heading on the road to South Carolina in a classic ACC-SEC matchup.
8. North Carolina Tar Heels (0-0, 0-0 ACC)
First opponent: vs. Cal Golden Bears (0-0)
The Tar Heels have enjoyed some recent success under the direction of head coach Larry Fedora, going to 4 straight bowls. In order to reach a bowl for the 5th straight season, though, Fedora will have his work cut out for him. The offense will essentially require a total rehauling, after losing most of their offensive production to the NFL Draft and graduation. Maybe Brandon Harris evolves working with the QB guru Fedora, but he has major decision-making issues and wasn’t the answer at LSU. The defense will have a new coach running things after Gene Chizik stepped down as defensive coordinator to spend more time with his family, but that might not be an altogether bad thing; the Tar Heels allowed an ACC-worst 227.3 rushing yards per game and finished 63rd in FBS in total defense during 2016.
9. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (0-0, 0-0 ACC)
First opponent: vs. Tennessee Volunteers (0-0)
Paul Johnson enters his 10th season as GT’s commander-in-chief and has amassed a respectable 70-48 career record with the Yellow Jackets. GT must replace three-year starter Justin Thomas at quarterback, but junior Matthew Jordan is a capable replacement. The big news for the Yellow Jackets is star RB Dedrick Mills being dismissed from the program only weeks before the opener. Does Johnson’s triple-option offense have the horses to collectively replace Mills? A lot rides on if the defense can be more than serviceable and vault into “great” territory. The third of three ACC-SEC matchups in week 1 sees GT at home against Tennessee.
10. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (0-0, 0-0 ACC)
First opponent: vs. Presbyterian Blue Hose (0-0)
The Demon Deacons have improved every year with 3rd year coach Dave Clawson in control, culminating in a bowl victory over top 25 Temple in 2016. Clawson made it open season on the QB job in the offseason, but senior John Wolford emerged yet again to begin his 4th season as Wake Forest’s starter. Wake Forest has ranked 12th or worse in the ACC in scoring in five consecutive seasons and has not averaged more than four yards per carry since 2010, stats that must improve if Wake hopes to finish closer to the top of the Atlantic this season. On defense, the losses of players like Marquel Lee will hurt, but, overall, the Demon Deacons have the personnel to avoid a step backward.
11. Syracuse Orange (0-0, 0-0 ACC)
First opponent: vs. Central Connecticut State Blue Devils (0-0)
Syracuse is going to put up points in head coach Dino Babers’ system, that much is certain. QB Eric Dungey returns to lead this high-flying offense, but the defense is desperate for some much needed improvement. The unit surrendered 38.6 points per game and 6.9 yards per play in 2016. How well Babers fixes the defense will determine how high the Orange can go in a top-heavy Atlantic division.
12. Duke Blue Devils (0-0, 0-0 ACC)
First opponent: vs. NC Central Eagles (0-0)
After a down season in 2016 saw their streak of 4 straight bowl games snapped, the Blue Devils are looking for a rebound in 2017. Some say Daniel Jones is already the best QB in the ACC, but we want to see more in his follow-up campaign, especially with a rebuilt offensive line. The front 7 is solid in Durham, but questions abound both in the offensive and defensive backfield. Duke is probably another year away from contending for the Coastal.
13. Boston College Eagles (0-0, 0-0 ACC)
First opponent: at Northern Illinois Huskies (0-0)
New year, same problems: will BC ever be able to develop an offense? If Steve Addazio could make his attack even average, the Eagles might be a scary opponent, as their defense has consistently ranked among the nation’s leaders in his tenure. Between Darius Wade and Anthony Brown, BC has still not named a starting quarterback, either a tactical decision or a sign that the Eagles could again be inept on offense. The good news is that DE Harold Landry returns as one of the country’s best pass rushers.
14. Virginia Cavaliers (0-0, 0-0 ACC)
First opponent: vs. William & Mary Tribe (0-0)
The state of the UVA program is in rough shape, after all the excitement from hiring Bronco Mendenhall away from BYU ended in a thud in the form of a 2-10 season. It’s now year 2 for Mendenhall and there’s nowhere really to go but up. At least the Cavaliers boast one of the best defenders in the nation, returning All-ACC first teamer S Quin Blanding. But that’s about it. The offensive line is a disaster and gave up 36 sacks in 2016, while opening up few holes in the run game. Mendenhall knows this is a long-term rebuild and getting to a bowl game would be seen as a huge accomplishment for this Cavaliers squad.