The Daily Nole

State of ACC Football for 2016 athletics

The Clemson Tigers recently fell to the Alabama Crimson Tide in what was one of the better national championship games of the past decade. Alabama, who had had a sizable talent advantage in almost every game it played this past season, experienced a Clemson team who could go toe-to-toe with it at multiple positions. While it was not enough to overcome Nick Saban and his crew, the game showed that Clemson and Dabo Swinney would be legitimate contenders for years to come.

Such a development bodes well for the ACC as a football conference. Before Florida State’s resurgence, the perception was one of an especially weak group of teams. This was probably true, but recent performances by FSU and Clemson are effectively changing the perception.

Conference strength however, is not limited to just the top two teams. It includes both middling teams and cellar dwellers, and exactly how many of those there are. For the purpose of this article, we will be breaking up the teams in the ACC into three tiers.

The first is playoff contenders — teams from the ACC that have a serious chance of getting a bid from the playoff committee.

The second tier is high level bowl teams. Schools from the ACC that have the ability to get an invitation to one of the traditional (read: well regarded) bowl games. Any non-playoff New Year’s Six bowls and the Russell Athletic Bowl are what is meant here.

The third tier is regular bowl teams. It is what it sounds like: teams who will be bowl-eligible, and basically nothing more.

The fourth tier are the “worst” teams of the ACC. Ones who will probably not be bowl-eligible and will only win a few games. This does not mean these teams do not have a bright future. It just means that they will not be achieving at a high level next year.
Playoff Contenders

Clemson Tigers – If the national championship game is any indication, Deshaun Watson will be able to single handedly keep the Tigers in contention. They will almost certainly lose guys like Mackensie Alexander and Shaq Lawson to the draft, but returning most of their offense, including Wayne Gallman, Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, and three offensive linemen, will help some of their younger talent adjust. If Deon Cain gets another shot at Clemson, the offense could even be better than this season.

Florida State Seminoles – Going 10-3 with the attrition FSU had from 2014 speaks to a talented team with good coaching. This talented team is also only getting more experience, despite losing playmakers like Jalen Ramsey and starters like Terrance Smith. The Seminoles return 17 players, which includes the entire offense and a good chunk of their defense. Barring injury, anything less than 11 wins will be a disappointment for Florida State. The game in Tallahassee against Clemson will almost certainly decide the potential conference representative in the playoffs.

High Level Bowl Teams

Louisville Cardinals – Quarterback Lamar Jackson struggled with consistency in 2015, but then again, he was a true freshman. He is clearly talented, and having eight other returning starters on the offense will only help in his development. Winning five of their last six games last season showed some of the potential the Cardinals had when the offense was clicking. Add in another eight returning starters on the defense, and you have a dangerous Louisville team being led by a good coach.

North Carolina Tar Heels – There is a lot of hype around quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who has now spent two years under Larry Fedora’s “Fed-Spread” offense that was so prolific in 2015. To some extent the Tar Heels were a paper tiger of sorts (their record was boosted by two FCS teams) but they were still competitive against good competition like Clemson and Baylor. Coordinator Gene Chizik’s defense might not be any more than decent, but the return of seven starters on both sides of the ball should serve to maintain their success.

Pittsburgh Panthers – Losing star wide receiver Tyler Boyd will not hurt the Pitt offense as much as people think it will. Hiring NC State’s offensive coordinator Matt Canada, returning starting quarterback Nathan Peterman, and bringing back 1,000-yard rusher Qadree Ollison will prevent a huge drop-off for the Panthers. The defense also suffers some attrition on the line by losing a few seniors, but the turnover rate is fairly low. Freshman All-American Jordan Whitehead returns at safety, and head coach Pat Narduzzi has a proven track record with defense. The Panthers will surprise a lot of people next season.

Regular Bowl Teams

Miami Hurricanes – Mark Richt is a good hire for the Hurricanes. But many are expecting a big jump in fortunes for a team that has struggled to recruit competitively. Returning players like Brad Kaaya, Joseph Yearby, Stacy Coley, and Rashawn Scott will certainly help, but the defense still has many holes in it. Miami will very likely improve next year, but too many are expecting a complete reversal of fortunes. Richt needs time to bring in his players and form a squad that is competitive on a national scale.

Duke Blue Devils – The Blue Devils will be a decent-to-good team long as David Cutcliffe is head coach. Next year will most likely play out similarly to this year. A good offense with a struggling defense presumes to be the reality. Leading passer/rusher Thomas Sirk returns and so do three of their four leading receivers. With Cutcliffe at the helm, the offense will be fine, but losing ACC Defensive Player of the Year Jeremy Cash does not bode well for a team who already struggled on that side of the ball.

NC State Wolfpack – Watching the Wolfpack struggle in 2015 was one of the more unexpected occurrences. They had a ton of talent returning and looked like they could even be dark horse contenders if things fell their way. Unfortunately, they never did. Now they lose quarterback Jacoby Brisset and the defense is not disruptive enough to negate a drop in offensive production. Head coach Dave Doeren will have to figure something out, though it’s hard to see the Wolfpack winning less than six games with their schedule.

Virginia Tech Hokies – Hiring Justin Fuente from Memphis and keeping defensive coordinator Bud Foster were some of the best coaching moves of the year. That being said, many questions surround how competent the offense can be. They lose starting quarterback Michael Brewer, though keeping their leading receiver Isaiah Ford and leading rusher Travon McMillian should help whoever steps in. Foster’s defense will continue to be one of his trademark squads. But losing six starters there might see a bit of a dip for 2016.

Virginia Cavaliers – Mike London was never an especially good coach. But his recruiting classes were almost always in the top half of the ACC. New head coach Bronco Mendenhall (formerly of BYU) seems poised to take control of an underachieving Cavaliers team and make large strides towards being competitive. They return first team All-ACC defenders in linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quinn Blanding, leading receiver Canaan Severin, leading rusher Taquan Mizzell, and starting quarterback Matt Johns. It’s not hard to see Virginia making a bowl game next year.

Bottom Teams

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets – Georgia Tech was right up there with Auburn in terms of the incredibly disappointing teams of 2015. Many expected it to compete for an ACC championship. Instead, injuries and general regression ruined the Yellow Jackets. Now they lose three starters on the offensive line and seven starters from a weak defense. Having quarterback Justin Thomas will prevent Tech from completely bottoming out, but looking at what its facing coming into the 2016 season does not lend itself to optimism.

Syracuse Orange – Dino Babers inherits a Syracuse team that experienced a mix of bad injury luck and discouraging performances. The Orange plan to run a Tampa 2 defense within the next couple of years, but none of the current roster was recruited for the system. They lose contributors on both the defensive line and secondary, with the linebacking corps being the most promising. Eric Dungy will return as the starting quarterback, and his health will probably dictate what type of year the offense will have. The Orange have a couple of years before they’ll be bowling again.

Wake Forest Demon Deacons – Despite its categorization as one of the bottom teams, Wake Forest will probably be better in 2016 than it was in 2015. The run defense finished in the S&P top 30 last year while the secondary held the Demon Deacons back a bit by finishing at 83rd. However, the offense last year was simply awful and it needs to take significant steps forward for the team to reach bowl eligibility. Returning 17 starters overall will probably help towards this goal.

Boston College Eagles – It was almost painful watching Boston College last year. The defense was exceptional, and kept the Eagles in every single game. Unfortunately, the offense was atrocious and couldn’t score a point to save their lives. Hiring Scott Loeffler doesn’t exactly help this problem either. Now the defensive coordinator Don Brown was lured away by Michigan. For a team that went 3-9 last year, it is difficult to see where exactly they will improve.

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