2015 NCAA Football Preview: Atlantic Coast Conference

August 31, 2015
By K. Becks

Moving right along in ATC’s coverage, let’s take a look at the Atlantic Coast Conference.

As I’m writing these, I’m quickly realizing that publishing 11 conference previews and a general season overview in four days while also working a full-time job is going to be difficult. Extremely difficult.

Overview

The Atlantic Coast Conference has enjoyed the spotlight over the past two college football seasons, and they have Jameis Winston to thank in large part for that. The former Florida State quarterback was a constant source of news content, and not always for his play on the field. For better or worse, the “Jameis Effect” brought ACC football to the forefront, which isn’t something that could have been said about the league before Winston arrived in Tallahassee.

Post-Winston, Florida State and the rest of the conference will need to find a way to stay relevant. Ask conference officials, and they’d tell you that they prefer it be through strong play on the gridiron only. But between Florida State’s current most dangerous asset on offense nearly¬†costing himself a spot on the team and a Clemson star’s return from injury, chances are the officials won’t get their wish. This is still a conference with talent, but we’ll find out whether its days competing for national titles left as soon as Winston did fairly quickly.

College Football Playoff Contenders

Clemson

It’s hard to call anything after a 9-3 season a bounce-back year, but for Clemson 2015 could be labeled as such. The Tigers were all but eliminated from playoff contention after the first three games in 2014, suffering losses at Georgia and Florida State to begin the year at 1-2. While this year’s team looks poised to wreak havoc offensively, concerns about the schedule exist once again. After beginning the campaign with two soft tune-ups, the Tigers will visit Louisville then host Notre Dame and Georgia Tech in a four week span. Mid-September to early-October will be season-defining for Clemson.

The other concern is wound up around quarterback Deshaun Watson’s surgically repaired left knee. The sophomore is a star in the making, but only if he can remain on the field long enough to get there. Unfortunately for Clemson, there isn’t enough on the defense this season to make up for the loss of a guy like Watson, so the offensive line will need to stand tall and prevent him from going down with another injury. If he does, then Clemson is cooked.

Florida State

The Seminoles must start life after Jameis Winston, but this team is in playoff consideration to begin the season because of its defense anyway. An experienced group that features a couple of senior linebackers and one of the best secondary units in the country should be enough to keep Florida State in the hunt through mid-October. At that point, the hope is that one of the quarterbacks has developed enough that the Seminoles will be able to keep pace offensively with the likes of Georgia Tech and Clemson, both of which are on the second half of the schedule.

With Dalvin Cook being reinstated to the team after a run in with the law this summer, the Seminoles should have enough balance on the offense to have a fighting chance. But this isn’t the juggernaut that waltzed into the College Football Playoff in 2014; if Florida State is off one weekend, someone in the ACC is capable of taking Jimbo Fisher’s squad down.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Duke

To assume that the Blue Devils would take a major step back after losing quarterback Anthony Boone and wide receiver Jamison Crowder would be total ignorance of David Cutcliffe’s coaching ability. The man who once groomed Peyton Manning at Tennessee will be just fine molding redshirt junior Thomas Sirk into the type of quarterback who will be able to produce in Cutcliffe’s calculated offensive scheme.

The schedule is manageable, with home dates against Georgia Tech, Miami and Pittsburgh, and the defense brings back enough in the secondary that passing on the Blue Devils should prove to be a difficult task. While Sirk’s development is obviously the make or break for Duke, another 9-3 season is not out of the realm of possibilities.

Hi, My Name Is… (Players to Watch)

Deshaun Watson, Clemson sophomore quarterback

In just eight games as a freshman last season, Deshaun Watson showed the country why he is the future of Clemson football for at least the next two seasons. The 6’2″, 205 pound wunderkind threw for 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns with only two interceptions, five of those touchdowns coming against South Carolina when he had already torn his ACL. Watson comes into the 2015 campaign as one of the Heisman contenders from the ACC.

The biggest question for Watson will be whether his knee has completely healed. A prolific passer, Watson is also a tremendous athlete and creates openings downfield in part because of his threat as a runner. If the answer to that question is “yes”, he is the going away favorite for the league’s Most Valuable Player award.

Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech junior quarterback

Not since Calvin Johnson donned the Old Gold and White has a player at Georgia Tech commanded the amount of national attention that Justin Thomas has coming into the 2015-2016 season. Thomas, who became the starter at Tech just last season, made enough of an impact in Paul Johnson’s triple option offense that he is being considered by some as a dark horse Heisman Trophy contender.

Thomas will bear the brunt of the work early, as the Yellow Jackets still must pin down who will be the go-to guys at the running back positions. While this could be concerning from a team perspective, it could also result in the shining moment Thomas needs to really kickstart his Heisman campaign. Georgia Tech plays at Notre Dame in the third game of the season and the play of Thomas will dictate how well the Yellow Jackets can keep up with Fighting Irish.

Out-of-Conference Games to Watch

Georgia Tech at Notre Dame (September 19)

Two heavy-hitters will clash in South Bend in this mid-September battle, which will pit an unconventional offense against one of the country’s most talented defenses. It can be difficult to prepare for a team like Georgia Tech, but Notre Dame should be prepared as this is one of several highlighted matchups on the schedule for the Fighting Irish.

Individual performances are nice, but for Georgia Tech to be successful in this one, players not named Justin Thomas will need to step up. Notre Dame’s defensive front is an imposing force and will make running the ball difficult, no matter the offensive formation.

Notre Dame at Clemson (October 3)

Since Notre Dame now plays a partial ACC schedule, the Fighting Irish essentially rule this segment. The Tigers are much different offensively than Georgia Tech, and they also have a bye week to prepare especially for Notre Dame. Things could get very interesting in Death Valley.

As Clemson will still be breaking in a plethora of new pieces on the defensive end, this game has the potential to reach the high 70s or even low 80s in total points scored. The last team to have the ball may very well end up being in position to steal the game in the final minutes.

In-Conference Games to Watch

Georgia Tech at Clemson (October 10)

In what might be Round 1 of 2 between these squads, powerful offenses will look to gain an important edge in their respective ACC divisions. While these teams do not compete directly for a chance to play in the ACC title game, this one will go a long way in deciding who has the best chance of ending up in Charlotte on December 5.

While the focus will be on the quarterbacks, Georgia Tech’s secondary and Clemson’s defensive front will have an equally important role in deciding the outcome of this game. Expect points to be scored, but turnovers will be difficult to come by and the team that wins that battle will be in good position.

Florida State at Clemson (November 7)

By this point in the season, we will know the relative effectiveness of Florida State’s quarterback. That will determine whether or not this game has the potential to be a shootout or whether Florida State’s defense will need to stifle the Clemson offense in order for the Seminoles to have a shot at winning.

Clemson is lucky in that its two most important ACC contests come at home. But this game takes place late in the season, so injuries suffered throughout the year will also have an effect. All things considered, though, this is still ATC’s pick to decide the ACC Atlantic Division champion.

Predictions

Atlantic Division

1. Clemson (10-2, [7-1])

2. North Carolina State (9-3, [6-2])

3. Florida State (10-2, [6-2])

4. Louisville (6-6, [4-4])

5. Syracuse (7-5, [4-4])

6. Boston College (6-6, [3-5])

7. Wake Forest (2-10, [0-8])

Coastal Division

1. Georgia Tech (8-4, [6-2])

2. Virginia Tech (8-4, [5-3])

3. Duke (9-3, [5-3])

4. Pittsburgh (6-6, [4-4])

5. North Carolina (6-6, [3-5])

6. Miami (5-7, [2-6])

7. Virginia (2-10, [1-7])

Championship Game (Clemson vs. Georgia Tech)

Winner: Clemson

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