ACC Football Predictions: Clemson dominant once again, while Panthers can contend in Coastal



Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant (2) sets up to pass against Miami Hurricanes in the ACC Championship Game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, on December 2, 2017. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS)

By Cale Berger, Staff Writer

Atlantic Division

1) Clemson — Projected record: 11-1 overall (7-1 ACC)

Clemson will reign as conference champions for the fourth consecutive year in 2018, and it’s not even close. The Tigers boast four future pros on their starting defensive line and will aim to be the best defense in the conference once again — the only unknown is how well their offense will perform. Quarterback Kelly Bryant showed inconsistency at times in his first year as the starter, and he lost two of his top three targets from last season to the NFL. Still, with a fresh class of five-star recruits ready to make their mark in Death Valley, the Tigers are primed for a return trip to the College Football Playoff.

2) Florida State — Projected record: 9-3 overall (6-2 ACC)

After a disappointing 7-6 season and the departure of head coach Jimbo Fisher, the Seminoles will look to rejuvenate the program with the return of starting quarterback Deondre Francois and new head coach Willie Taggart. Francois was a popular Heisman pick last season before a season-ending injury against Alabama in the first game of 2017. He retains a strong supporting cast around him as the Seminoles return eight starters on the offensive side, including leading receiver Nyqwan Murray and leading rusher Cam Akers. The Seminoles should return to form in 2018.

3) NC State — Projected record: 9-3 overall (6-2 ACC)

Like many of its ACC counterparts, the Wolfpack has the luxury of a returning starter at quarterback in senior Ryan Finley, who threw for more than 3,500 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. The Wolfpack will go as Finley goes, as they only return nine starters on both sides of the ball — less than every other team in the conference. NC State will not be able to knock off the traditional powers in the ACC, but it will take care of business against its lesser conference foes.

4) Syracuse — Projected record: 6-6 overall (3-5 ACC):

Syracuse will likely boast one of the most explosive offenses in the conference after averaging the third-most yards per game in the ACC last year behind Louisville and Wake Forest. Senior quarterback Eric Dungey performs well on the field for the Orange, but availability has not been his strong suit. Despite missing three games, he threw for the second-most yards per game in the conference last season. Syracuse will need the offense to be productive to support a defense that finished last in the ACC in interceptions and sacks last season.

5) Wake Forest — Projected record: 5-7 overall (2-6 ACC):

The Demon Deacons’ season could go one of two ways — they could be a surprise team in the ACC, or they could be bottom-dwellers. Wake Forest is breaking in a new quarterback in first-year Sam Hartman but will have an above-average receiving core highlighted by senior Scotty Washington and former North Carolina High School Player of the Year Sage Surratt. Wake Forest played close games with Clemson, Florida State and Notre Dame last year. There’s a chance that they can finally pull off some of those upsets in 2018.

6) Boston College — Projected record: 5-7 overall (2-6 ACC):

The Eagles are a team best described as a one-man show. Their star is sophomore running back AJ Dillon, last year’s ACC Rookie of the Year. Dillon ran for 1,589 yards in 2017 with 14 touchdowns, but didn’t peak until the second half of last season, when he ran for more than 1,200 yards during the final six games. Dillon will be a force once again, and a potential Heisman candidate if he can put together a full season of production.

7) Louisville — Projected record: 4-8 overall (2-6 ACC):

Over the last three seasons, two words could easily define the Louisville Cardinals’ football program — Lamar Jackson. Jackson accounted for 119 touchdowns at Louisville, earning the 2016 Heisman Trophy in the process. Not only was he an electrifying player, but he also masked many of the Cardinals’ weaknesses. When the offense stalled, he could blow the game open. If the defense couldn’t stop the opponent, Jackson scored the points needed to win in a shoot-out. Now he is gone, and the cracks will show this season for the Cardinals.

Coastal Division

1) Virginia Tech — Projected record: 10-2 overall (7-1 ACC):

In a division overshadowed by Miami’s recent dominance, the Hokies have the talent to seriously contend for the Coastal crown this year. While VT did lose seven starters from last year’s stout defense, its offense should be improved behind returning sophomore quarterback Josh Jackson. This is a youthful team that will likely play much better at home than on the road, so Jackson’s consistency will be key. Blacksburg is always a challenging atmosphere for road teams, which can work in its favor against ranked opponents in Miami and Notre Dame.

2) Miami — Projected record: 10-2 overall (7-1 ACC):

Following a season that saw the Hurricanes peak as the No. 2 team in the nation, Miami has lofty expectations of another run to the ACC Championship game. The team has 14 returning players, including second team All-ACC selections Shaq Quarterman and Jaquan Johnson. Returning senior quarterback Malik Rosier will provide consistency alongside junior running back Travis Homer, who accumulated 1,185 yards and nine touchdowns last season. An opportunistic defense will buoy Miami, which led the ACC in turnovers forced in 2017.

3) Pitt — Projected record: 7-5 overall (5-3 ACC):

While Pitt may have one of the most challenging non-conference slates in the country, its ACC schedule is actually quite favorable. The Panthers avoid cross-divisional powerhouses Clemson and Florida State, and draw Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech at home. Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett generated most of the hype this offseason, but the true strength of this team will be its defense. In his fourth season, head coach Pat Narduzzi has finally assembled a promising defense that resembles those he crafted at Michigan State. The duo of sophomore Rashad Weaver and senior Dewayne Hendrix has the potential to be one of the best pass-rushing combos in the conference. But as always, you can count on the Panthers to have unexpected wins amid befuddling losses.

4) Georgia Tech — Projected record: 6-6 overall (3-5 ACC):

Despite his 20 years of head-coaching experience, Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson enters this season on the hot seat. After a 9-4 campaign in 2016, Johnson’s team fell to 5-6 in 2017. The Yellow Jackets look to turn things around with an experienced offense that returns eight starters, as continuity is crucial when running Johnson’s precision-oriented triple-option system. Their offense usually has success, but the strong defenses across the conference could give them trouble this year.

5) Duke — Projected record: 5-7 overall (3-5 ACC):

David Cutcliffe has transformed Duke football from an embarrassment into a respectable program in the ACC during his 11 years as head coach of Duke. They typically manage expectations and get to bowl games — but this year may be more challenging. The Blue Devils had an average offense last season and bring back three of their top four receivers. The outlook looks bleak with an ACC schedule that includes dates with Clemson, Miami and Virginia Tech. Look for Duke to have the rare down year under Cutcliffe.

6) Virginia — 4-8 overall (2-6 ACC):

Virginia went 6-7 last season, and will have a difficult time improving upon that in 2018. The Cavaliers lost their quarterback and return just five starters on the offensive side. The defense loses linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding from last year’s team, who were first and second on the team in tackles, respectively. Count on another subpar showing from head coach Bronco Mendenhall and the Cavaliers this year.

7) North Carolina — 3-9 overall (1-7 ACC):

This season will be a make-or-break year for UNC head coach Larry Fedora. After four straight bowl game appearances dating back to 2013, the Tar Heels were an abysmal 3-9 in 2017. Fedora has quickly gone from a young prodigy to a coach on the hot seat. There won’t be much improvement this year for UNC, as 13 players — including potential starting quarterback Chazz Surratt — will be suspended for at least the first game for selling their team-issued shoes. The Tar Heels won’t be able to recover from the absence of such key contributors, finishing last in the coastal division for the second straight year.