Fresh off its second national championship in four years, a 9-3 bowl season, and a 12-8 record against other Power Five institutions, the Atlantic Coast Conference has earned a spot atop the college football pantheon.
Alas, the 2016 season is over, and with it go a ton of players that made the conference so competitive last year. While the league is now mentioned in the same sentence as the SEC (as it should be) and the Big Ten (which its better than), another year of strong performance could truly put the ACC in position to be the nation’s premier football conference for the rest of the decade. What a world we live in in 2017.
The true reason behind the rapid ascent of the ACC lies in its middle tier. It was impossible to rank last year, and is equally unpredictable in 2017. The cream of the crop, Florida State and Clemson, is still just that. What will the rest of the league be able to do? The title defense starts on Thursday when Wake Forest hosts Presbyterian. Nothing like putting your best foot forward.
In all seriousness, though, the league has a great opportunity to build on last year’s momentum. With neutral site games (FSU/Bama, WVU/VT, Georgia Tech/Tennessee) headlining the season’s opening weekends on three straight nights, the league can land in the driver’s seat among the nation’s conferences early.
With no games to discuss yet, a bold prediction accompanies each team.
- Florida State Seminoles: A defense which allowed 25 points per game last year holds opponents to at least a touchdown less than that in 2017. There’s talent, experience, and depth.
This week: #1 Alabama (8, Saturday)
2. Clemson Tigers: Tavien Feaster, while running behind a good O-line with an inexperienced QB in Taylor Kelly, bursts onto the scene and some September Heisman lists with big games against Auburn, Louisville, and Virginia Tech in the first month. Also, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins will be good.
This week: Kent State (noon, Saturday)
3. Miami Hurricanes: A sluggish offense costs them the Florida State game for the 400th year in a row, but the U avoids the post-Florida State slump and reels off victories in its next four games to enter Chapel Hill at 6-1.
This week: Bethune-Cookman (noon, Saturday)
4. Louisville Cardinals: The obligatory “Lamar Jackson won’t win the Heisman again” prediction is not bold, but predicting that he exceeds his total offense numbers (3543 passing yards + 1571 rushing = 5114...good lord) is extremely bold. Why not?
This week: Purdue (7, Saturday)
5. Virginia Tech Hokies: Despite a young defensive front, Bud Foster’s defense leads the conference and is top-10 nationally in interceptions. I still don’t trust a V-Tech offense enough to make bold offensive predictions.
This week: #22 West Virginia (7:30, Sunday)
6. NC State Wolfpack: They beat a ranked opponent for the first time since 2012. Targets would be at Florida State on Sept. 23, Louisville at home on a Thursday night (Oct. 5), at Pitt the next weekend, at Notre Dame on Oct. 28, or home against Clemson on November 4. Hell, they may beat two.
This week: South Carolina (3, Saturday)
7. North Carolina Tar Heels: Homer pick? MAYBE! The offense will exceed its 32.7 points per game from 2016 despite definitely putting up worse pass numbers, and probably putting up less yards per play than the past two seasons.
This week: California (12:20, Saturday)
8. Pitt Panthers: Their average scoring margin last year: 40.9 to 35.2. Both of those numbers drop by at least six points.
This week: Youngstown State (1, Saturday)
9. Duke Blue Devils: With experience at the skill positions, Daniel Jones puts up better numbers than any ACC QB not named Francois or Jackson, and generates serious debate about whether he should leave for the NFL.
This week: NC Central (6, Saturday)
10. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets: Despite the loss of Dedrick Mills, the Tech offense gels and gets back to over 300 yards per game on the ground—somewhere they haven’t been in two years after averaging 318 the five years previous.
This week: Tennessee (8, Monday)
11. Syracuse Orange: They lose six straight in the middle of the season vs. LSU, State, Pitt, Clemson, Miami, and Florida State, but bounce back and upset Louisville on the road.
This week: Central Connecticut State (7, Friday)
12. Wake Forest Demon Deacons: The Clawfense takes a major step forward...but the defense regresses due to the loss of coordinator Mike Elko.
This week: Presbyterian (6:30, Thursday)
13. Virginia Cavaliers: They lead the ACC in personal fouls, or at least cement their status as the league’s dirtiest team.
This week: William & Mary (3:30, Saturday)
14. Boston College Eagles: RB Jon Hilliman doesn’t quite have an Andre Williams Heisman finalist season, but he ends up on the first team of savvy All-ACC ballots.
This week: at Northern Illinois (7:30, Friday)
Quickly, a snapshot of the other P5 conferences:
- Ohio State
- Penn State
- (After a LAAAAARGE dropoff) Minnesota
- Michigan State
- Oklahoma State (that’s right)
- West Virginia
- Kansas State
- Iowa State
- Texas Tech
- Washington State
- Arizona State
- Oregon State
- Texas A&M
- Mississippi State
- Ole Miss
- South Carolina