Andrea Adelson and David M. Hale
As we get set to kick off fall camps around the ACC, the looming question seems to be whether anyone is ready to truly challenge Clemson. Can Miami take the next step despite working with the same QB? Can Florida State rebound now that the Jimbo Fisher fiasco is over? Are BC or Wake Forest or Louisville capable of matching up with the Tigers’ immense talent? For now, our power rankings have a clear No. 1, and the list beyond that — particularly after the top four — feels like a toss-up.
Last season: 12-2 (ACC: 7-1)
What’s not to like? The Tigers bring back that vaunted defensive line, have oodles of talent at the skill positions, and the biggest offseason question mark is whether their true freshman QB is so good they have to bench the guy who got them to the playoff last year. This is a playoff team again — and depending on how the QB position unfolds, potentially a special one.
Last season: 10-3 (ACC: 7-1)
Even though last season ended in disappointment, Miami still had a breakthrough performance and there is no reason to believe the Hurricanes will take a step back — especially in a division that looks as chaotic as usual. There are two big questions that could hinder their rise: How much better is quarterback Malik Rosier, and how does the offensive line hold up in front of him?
Last season: 7-6 (ACC: 3-5)
FSU is the real wild card in the ACC. Last year was a massive disappointment that resulted in Fisher’s departure and Willie Taggart’s arrival. There are questions about who will helm the offense at QB. There are questions about who’ll step up at receiver, linebacker, DB. There are questions about how long it will take to adjust to Taggart’s system. But what’s certain is that FSU still has ample talent on its roster and there’s a weight off the shoulders of everyone involved now that Fisher’s tenure is in the rearview mirror. Worst-case scenario should be a return to respectability. Best-case scenario could be a real push for the Atlantic.
Last season: 7-6 (ACC: 4-4)
AJ Dillon is a Heisman candidate. The offensive line is one of the most experienced in the country. The secondary is elite. The receiving corps has taken a big step forward. Zach Allen is among the best defensive linemen in the ACC. There’s so much to like about this year’s BC team, but the wild card remains at QB, where Anthony Brown must prove he’s recovered from last year’s injury and ready to open up the passing game so the entirety of the offense doesn’t fall on Dillon’s shoulders.
Last season: 9-4 (ACC: 5-3)
This has been an offseason to forget at Virginia Tech, one that only adds to the uncertainty around this program headed into the year. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster will have his work cut out for him, as experience and depth at linebacker and defensive back are cause for concern. Josh Jackson returns on offense, but this is a team in dire need for skill position players to step up around him. Having said all that, Justin Fuente knows how to maximize the talent he has, although bumpy spots are to be expected.
Last season: 9-4 (ACC: 6-2)
Gone is the uber talented defensive front, with four linemen selected in the first four rounds of the NFL draft this year. What’s left is a work in progress on defense, but some stellar weapons on offense. NC State returns the ACC’s most established QB in Ryan Finley, along with a terrific receiving corps of Kelvin Harmon, Steph Louis and Jakobi Meyers. Still, for the Wolfpack to find success, this will need to be a far different approach than the run-heavy, defensive-led teams of years past.
Last season: 8-5 (ACC: 4-4)
Replacing Lamar Jackson is the big talking point at Louisville, where Jawon Pass will step in for the former Heisman winner. But the bigger issue for the Cardinals may be on the other side of the ball, where Bobby Petrino is on his third defensive coordinator in as many years and will need to find a host of new starters on the heels of a disastrous year in 2017. If the defense finds success under Brian VanGorder, there’s a lot less pressure resting on Pass’s ability to escape Jackson’s shadow.
Last season: 8-5 (ACC: 4-4)
Fans outside Winston-Salem probably failed to realize just how good QB John Wolford was last year, and finding a replacement has proven a bit tricky for Wake. Expected starter Kendall Hinton is suspended for the first three games of the season, and whether he’ll be back in Dave Clawson’s good graces upon his return is a question. Add in some big losses on the defensive line, along with safety Jessie Bates, and there are some reasons for worry. That said, there’s a ton of experience here, starting with one of the league’s best offensive lines, so there’s plenty to like, too.
Last season: 5-7 (ACC: 3-5)
Coach Pat Narduzzi is excited about the team he has returning, and for good reason. The Panthers’ upset over Miami to end last season gave him a glimpse into the possibilities: a quarterback to build around in Kenny Pickett and, finally, a solid performance from his much-maligned defense. Nine starters return from that unit, and Narduzzi believes it has the potential to be the best defense he’s had since he arrived. On offense, Pickett has solidified his standing as the starter. The big question is at receiver, a huge unknown going into the fall.
10. Duke Blue Devils
Last season: 7-6 (ACC: 3-5)
There is potential for the Blue Devils to be a dark horse, with Daniel Jones returning as the starting quarterback and a defense coach David Cutcliffe believes will be at a different level this season. Their linebackers rank among the best units in the ACC, and the secondary should be improved, too. The offensive line remains a question, and the schedule is tough, with two nonconference road games (Northwestern, Baylor) and at trip to Clemson in late November.
Last season: 5-6 (ACC: 4-4)
Georgia Tech is usually one of the more difficult teams to evaluate every single preseason. On paper, the Jackets should be better this year, with TaQuon Marshall and KirVonte Benson primed to have even bigger seasons, and a more experienced offensive line ready to lead the way. The defense should be better, too, with a change at coordinator and a front seven that is poised to be a strength. The schedule is difficult, and one reason why it’s hard to project just how good this team can be in 2018.
Last season: 3-9 (ACC: 1-7)
Larry Fedora can only hope he doesn’t have another nightmare season both on the injury front and the win-loss column. If there’s any sliver of good news that came from last season, it’s that the Tar Heels return a team that has much more experience because so many players had to step in and fill holes. But there are still questions across the board, including who will start at quarterback, who will step up at receiver, and whether the defensive line in particular can translate its potential into dominance.
13. Syracuse Orange
Last season: 4-8 (ACC: 2-6)
In his first two years at Syracuse, Dino Babers has pulled off two of the biggest upsets in college football, beating Coastal champs Virginia Tech in 2016 and ACC champ Clemson last year. But the Orange haven’t made a bowl game in either season, and in the aftermath of the stunning win over the Tigers last season, things got downright ugly, with five straight losses and 162 points allowed in the final three games. Finding some consistency, especially on defense, will be critical if Babers wants to get Syracuse back into postseason play for the first time since 2013.
Last season: 6-7 (ACC: 3-5)
Bronco Mendenhall is under no illusions that he has a quick fix at UVa. But he’s hopeful his program will take another step in its progression and development this season. The Cavaliers return eight starters on defense, but their top three players on that unit are gone. The hopes on offense rest with junior college transfer quarterback Bryce Perkins while the offensive line remains a work in progress.