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ACC Atlantic Preview

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College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T - Alabama v Clemson Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

We’ve been talking nonstop about NC State football for the past few months and what to expect this season. So let’s now take a look at the rest of ACC Atlantic and some things to watch for with State’s opponents. Teams are listed in order of predicted finish by the media.

1. Clemson

2018 record: 15-0 (8-0)

Offense; 8 returning starters

Just downright scary. Stars at each position group with quality depth is the exact recipe for “downright scary”. Trevor Lawrence is back at quarterback after throwing for 3,280 yds and 30 TDs to only 4 INTs as a true freshman. Those numbers were kept in check due to splitting time early with Kelly Bryant and having to sit the 4th quarter in several blowout wins. On the outside, Lawrence returns possibly the best receiving trio in college football with Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross, and Amari Rodgers. The three combined for 160 catches, 2,511 yds and 25 touchdowns. Clemson was even more explosive in the run game, with Travis Ettiene back after a breakout sophomore year which saw him get some Heisman attention rushing for 1,658 yards (8.1 ypc) and a nation best 24 TDs. There will be even more carries for Ettiene to gobble up this year as his top two backups are no longer on the roster.

Defense; 4 returning starters

If there’s a question with this years team, it’s how they’ll handle all the attrition in the front 6-7 on the defensive side of the ball. Gone is the entire starting defensive line after being drafted in the first four rounds, as well as five of their stop seven linebackers. A bit of a drop off from the 5th best rush defense in the country should be expected with that attrition, but not by too much. This is Clemson we’re talking about here and they’ve got talent ready to step in with guys like Xavier Thomas, Nyles Pinckney and KJ Henry. Whatever drop off there is in the run game should be picked up by a secondary that returns its major contributors, led by returning leading tacklers and star players Isaiah Simmons and K’Von Wallace.

Schedule

Looking at Clemson’s schedule as far as S&P+ win probability goes is just stupid, as they have at least an 89% chance to win every game except for two. Must be nice. Two of the first three games come against ranked teams in Texas A&M and at Syracuse, but after that I don’t envision anyone offering too much resistance until the final week when they travel to South Carolina. Even then they’ll still probably be favored by double digits. Keep Charlotte and Wofford in your thoughts and prayers on September 21 and November 2.

2. Syracuse

2018 record: 10-3 (6-2)

Offense; 6 returning starters

The theme here is talented guys in the starting spots, but little to no proven depth. The Orange have to replace do-it-all quarterback Eric Dungey, but true sophomore Tommy DeVito should step in and fill the void just fine. DeVito saw a decent amount of action last year in reserve, and while Dungey was more dangerous with his legs, DeVito projects as the better passer. Dino Babers offense looks to spread you out, but still aims to run the ball more than they throw and did a pretty nice job of it last year. They return senior running back Moe Neal, who with a few more carries left behind by Dungey and graduated RB Dontae Strickland, should be a 1,000 yard rusher. At WR you’ve got a solid trio to start with Taj Harris and a pair of 5’8” speedsters in the slot in Sean Riley and Nykeim Johnson. After that though, nobody returns with more than 7 catches last year.

Defense; 7 returning starters

Syracuse has seen an improvement each of the last three seasons in both scoring and total defense, thanks mainly to a better rush defense which ranked a respectable (compared to years past) 64th last year. Also contributing to this has been a strong pass rush, where seniors Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman return after both totaling 10.0 sacks a year ago. Much like Clemson there will be a ton of turnover at the linebacker spot, but the secondary returns just about every major contributor from last and should improve. Free Safety Andre Cisco established himself as a playmaker in his freshman season tying for the nation lead with 7 interceptions.

Schedule

The schedule is pretty manageable. If Cuse can get a win at Maryland in week 2 they’ll be 4-1, with the one loss to Clemson, coming into Raleigh for a huge Thursday night game. A win on the road in Raleigh and another 10-win season becomes a real possibility. They’re favored in 4 of their final 6 games, with the two being toss ups at Florida State and Duke. If they’re able to stay healthy at the skill positions and develop some quality depth, it’s not hard to imagine 9 wins in the regular season. If not, S&P+ projects seven games to be decided by less than a touchdown and the losses could start to rack up in those games.

3. Florida State

2018 record: 5-7 (3-5)

Offense; 8 returning starters

Kendal Briles takes over as offensive coordinator hoping to turn this thing around after successful stints at Baylor, FAU and Houston. It was well documented how terrible FSU’s offensive line was last season, and that’s really where all their issues originated. The Noles started nine different O-line groups in their 12 games and it was ugly no matter who they threw out there. FSU ranked 111th in sacks allowed per game and 127th in rushing yards per game. There’s nowhere to go but up for that unit, and if the O-line can just show some improvement the offense as a whole will look a lot more cohesive. James Blackman, who threw for 421 yards against the Pack last year, was named the starter this morning over Wisconsin grad transfer Alex Hornibrook. Blackman loses his top receiver but brings back pretty much all other pass catchers including big play threat Tamorrion Terry (35 rec, 744 yds, 21.3 ypc). After setting the FSU freshman rushing record in ’17, former 5-star recruit Cam Akers regressed mightily due to having no holes to run through. He’ll see a bounce back in production, but this group is thin with only 3 scholarship RBs.

Defense; 8 returning starters

The defense fell off a cliff as the competition picked up, allowing over 40 points in four of their final five games. A young defense is now a year older and returns eight starters, which should equal a solid improvement this year. Marvin Wilson is a big boy in the middle and one of the top defensive lineman in the conference. They’ll need to find guys up front to put pressure on the QB though after ace pass rusher Brian Burns left for the NFL. They return just about everyone else though including the two leading tacklers in linebackers Dontavious Jackson and Hamsah Nasirildeen. Four starters return in the secondary, which was good against the run but ranked 120th in pass defense. FS Jaiden Lars-Woodbey and CB Stanford Samuels lead a secondary that will need to limit big plays.

Schedule

The Seminoles have one of the tougher schedules in the conference. Boise State in week one will be a test, although they’ll be breaking in a new QB and it is essentially a home game in Jacksonville. They draw Miami and Virginia as their two crossover games, and every game away from home is against a bowl team. Getting off to a good start will be key because things start to pick up after the bye week on Oct 5, beginning with a trip to Death Valley and ending with a trip to The Swamp. There is going to be noticeable improvement this year, but getting back to double digit wins shouldn’t be expected with this schedule.

5. Boston College

2018 record: 7-5 (4-4)

Offense; 6 returning starters

Hey! Boston College actually had an offense last year! For a program that has struggled producing top 100 scoring offenses this decade, the Eagles jumped all the way up to 40th last season averaging 32.0 ppg. They weren’t very efficient but were able to generate big plays. A big reason for improved offensive numbers was the play of Anthony Brown at quarterback. He’s back for his third year as the starter and is probably a better passer than he gets credit for. But everything still ran through All-American AJ Dillon, and this year will be no different. Dillon was slowed by an ankle injury causing his numbers to dip a bit to 1,108 yards rushing on 4.9 ypc, but he’ll continue to get an insane amount of touches as long as he’s healthy. It’s a deep stable of running backs with the next three returning, including senior Ben Glines who also can line up at receiver. Leading receiver Kobay White is back as well as junior CJ Lewis, but after that there isn’t too much proven on the outside. The O-line will be breaking in three new starters but should be solid as usual.

Defense; 3 returning starters

While there’s optimism and proven playmakers on offense, the same can’t be said for the defensive side of the ball. Gone are star defensive ends Zach Allen and Wyatt Ray, leading tackler LB Connor Strachan, and four starters in the secondary including mainstays Hamp Cheevers and Lukas Denis. So who is back? This years D will be led by a trio of solid junior linebackers in Max Richardson, Isaiah McDuffie and John Lamot. They’ll need stellar play out of those three because the other two units lose every top contributor and will go from strengths to question marks. Tanner Karafa (DT) and Brandon Sebastian (CB) were solid a year ago and will need to take the next step as they slide into more prominent roles.

Schedule

Much like last year, look for Boston College to get off to a fast start. And also much like last year, they’ll need it. They’ll open with a big home matchup this Saturday against Virginia Tech, but then have a nonconference slate of FCS Richmond and two of the worst power five teams in Kansas (welcome back Les Miles) and Rutgers. Following nonconference are the only two teams picked to finish behind them in the Atlantic, but after that there is a decent chance they finish the season 0-6. Steve Addazio has never won more than 7 games at BC, don’t expect this to be the year he does.

6. Wake Forest

2018 record: 7-6 (3-5)

Offense; 7 returning starters

The Deacs return a lot from an offense that has made a huge jump the last two seasons. All-ACC slot receiver Greg Dortch leaves a big hole after hauling in 89 catches for 1,078 yards, but there’s still a lot to like about this offense. Both quarterbacks are back, and Jamie Newman has been named the starter after beating out Sam Hartman, who started the first 9 games before a season ending injury. Newman was a little more consistent and would’ve been on pace to have the better season statistically. He’ll have the reliable Cade Carney in the backfield after eclipsing 1,000 yards as a junior, and he’ll be running behind a solid O-line led by three seniors, which includes getting back All-ACC LT Justin Herron after he missed all but one game a year ago. Wake has some big targets at receiver in Scotty Washington and Sage Surratt who should see an increase in production. This offense should be very good again, especially if former QB Kendall Hinton can help ease the blow of losing Dortch in the slot.

Defense; 5 starters returning

While the offense has seen great improvement over the last couple seasons, the same can’t be said for the defense. Wake dealt with a myriad of injuries on this side of the ball and slipped to 101st in scoring defense, third worst in the ACC ahead of only UNC and Louisville, who each won a total of 2 games. Despite having experience in the secondary they were pretty bad against the pass, but look for them to rebound with two senior starters back at corner including 2nd team All-ACC Essang Bassey. Leading tackler Justin Strnad (105 tackles) is back at linebacker along with Luke Masterson in what should be a solid duo in the middle of the defense. The biggest concern heading into the season is up front on the line. Carlos Basham returns after a very good year at DE, but the other 3 starters are gone. Wake had trouble generating a pass rush at times, so finding one this year could go a long way in helping to improve the defense and providing relief to the secondary.

Schedule

In an interesting schedule quirk, Wake Forest opens the season with three straight Friday night games, and the third being a nonconference tilt against North Carolina. Just glancing at the schedule and a 6-0 start is not crazy to think about, although Utah State to open up the season is a lot tougher than some realize. November will be a grind however; road games at VT, Clemson and Syracuse as well as NC State and Duke in Winston. The Deacs should be bowling though for the fourth straight year.

2018 record: 2-10 (0-8)

Offense; 6 returning starters

Nobody thought replacing Lamar Jackson was going to be easy. I also don’t think anybody thought a Bobby Petrino offense would completely collapse like it did. Jawon Pass was supposed to be the heir apparent to Jackson, but he struggled mightily and was benched mid game several times. Pass is back though still with loads of potential and looking to improve on his 54% completion rate and 8-12 TD-INT ratio. If he improves he actually has a really good quartet of receivers to throw to led by Dez Fitzpatrick and Seth Dawkins. Scott Satterfield comes from App State where his teams ran the ball a ton (67 percent on standard downs, 44 percent on passing downs). The issue here is that Louisville’s leading rusher a year ago had only 497 yards… and that was backup QB Malik Cunningham. You read that right. Cunningham is back but someone else is going to have to emerge in the backfield, and that could be sophomore Hassan Hall. The O-line should see improvement with the addition of Florida grad transfer TJ McCoy.

Defense; 10 returning starters

If you thought the offense was a mess last year, woo boy. The good news is that 10 starters are back so there’s at least continuity. The bad news is those 10 starters got smoked repeatedly a year ago. The defense surrendered at least 52 points in each of it’s last five games, including a smooth 77 from Clemson. Trevor Lawrence only played one drive in the second half. Satterfield brings his defensive coordinator Bryan Brown with him from App, and they were known to have some stellar defenses. They’re also bringing with them Colgate grad transfer T.J. Holl who was the Patriot League player of the year with 121 tackles. Switching to a 3-4 defense this year will allow them to play more linebackers, which is probably their deepest unit. The Cards gave up a whopping 278.8 rushing ypg, good for 127th in the nation, so they’ll need more from the front seven. But hey, they can’t really get worse.

Schedule

Of course the ACC cellar dweller has one of the toughest schedules in the conference. Notre Dame in week one will let Satterfield know what he’s got right away, and if this is a team that will just quit like it seemed to do a year ago. They’ll pick up two wins in the following weeks against both Eastern and Western Kentucky. But after that, opportunities for wins will be few and far between. It doesn’t help that they draw Miami and Virginia as their two crossover games. Getting to 4 wins would be a huge success for Satterfield in year one.