2016 NCAA Football Preview: Atlantic Coast Conference

August 30, 2016

By Wednesday night, all of the Power 5 conference previews will be posted. My goal is to have all conferences that will begin play on Thursday posted as well.

The Big 12 and Independents do not have any games on opening night.

Next we’ll take a look at the Atlantic Coast Conference.


The ACC captured the final national championship handed out by the BCS, but the conference has yet to win the College Football Playoff despite having the No. 1 seed in the semifinals both years. Although some disappointment has come from that, it has not shed any doubt that there isn’t a team in the league that could again vie for that top position in 2016.

Top contenders Clemson and Florida State, coincidentally the previous two Playoff representatives of the Atlantic Coast Conference, are back with teams that look poised to make another run at a coveted spot in a semifinal game. The question for both teams will be whether the defense, which was depleted heavily by graduating seniors, can recover with the next line of starters ready to step into their roles. If not, this league may be wide open.

While the bullies at the top are interesting, in the last few seasons a relative dark horse has emerged alongside them to contend for the conference crown. In 2013 it was Duke, in 2014 a Georgia Tech team that recovered from back-to-back losses in October to make the conference title game, and last year North Carolina, whose offense overwhelmed several opponents in the second half of the season.

During the middle to latter end of the last decade, the ACC was beginning to earn a reputation as the clear weak link of the Power 5 conferences. But since the College Football Playoff was introduced, it has done quite well and appears to have the teams to contend for a national title once again.

College Football Playoff Contenders


The Tigers were a very balanced team in 2015, something that served them well en route to their perfect regular season and appearance in the national title game. When the offense was down as it was during the early part of the campaign, the defense picked up the slack. And when the offense was humming near the end of the year, not very many teams were capable of keeping games close.

This year, Clemson must find a replacement for its top two pass rushers and all but one starting linebacker. The Tigers led the ACC and were second in the country in sacks last year, so this is not an easy task. But recall that last season, Clemson had to replace Vic Beasley, Sephone Anthony, Grady Jarrett and Tony Steward on the defensive end. Things ended up going pretty well, as the Tigers ended up being a Top 10 defense in 2015. Assuming that the offense can carry the load while the inexperienced defensive starters adjust, Clemson should be right in the thick of the Playoff race again this season.

Florida State

As talented as Florida State was last season, it always seemed like the Seminoles were missing a beat offensively. Part of that is undoubtedly due to the injuries that star running back Dalvin Cook dealt with, and assuming that he’s healthy Cook will be an invitee to the Heisman ceremony in December. But some of it also had to do with the fact that the right starting quarterback, Sean Maguire, wasn’t playing consistently until the eighth game of the season.

Assuming Maguire experiences no complications from the ankle surgery he was recovering from in the spring, Florida State’s offense should be far more dynamic this season than it was in 2015. The schedule is daunting for the Seminoles, however. As many as eight games could be considered traps, and half of those come on the road. If Jimbo Fisher’s team can navigate the treacherous waters of its schedule and reach the ACC title game with one or fewer losses, it fully deserves a shot at the Playoff.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)


This year’s Louisville team is the best that Bobby Petrino has had since the program moved over to the ACC from the Big East/AAC in 2014. The defense is strong as usual, but possesses even more speed than in prior years and is probably the most athletic in the conference behind Florida State. It will give plenty of support to an offense that has the potential to have a breakout year.

Speaking of the offense, the difference between mediocrity and nationally recognized depends on quarterback Lamar Jackson. The 6’3″, 196 pound sophomore is a potential dual-threat star, but needs to be a more accurate passer and avoid turning the ball over in order to give his team a chance to win the big games. If he can improve in that aspect, expect the Cardinals to challenge Clemson and Florida for the Atlantic Division title.

Hi, My Name Is… (Players to Watch)

Lamar Jackson, Louisville sophomore quarterback

Mentioned in the previous section, Jackson is a star in the making if he can hone his passing skills and get them to the level of his rushing abilities. The sophomore was terrific late last season for the Cardinals, amassing 1,029 total yards and 9 touchdowns in his final three games. His ability in open space lets him get away with some suspect passing mechanics, but if he can shore those up then he could be the conference’s next great quarterback.

With an experienced set of skill position players around him and plenty of starting experience on the offensive line, Jackson should get all the support he needs to have a breakout year. If he does, he could elevate the Cardinals into the national title conversation.

Dalvin Cook, Florida State junior running back

If you don’t know who Dalvin Cook is as this point, you may not be watching enough college football (or at least, enough ACC football). Cook is the odds-on favorite to win the league’s Offensive MVP award and is a strong contender for All-American and Heisman consideration. Despite being bothered by a hamstring injury for the majority of the season, Cook still ran for over 1,600 yards and broke the Florida State single-season rushing record.

Cook’s ability to make a quick cut and burst upfield is unparalleled, and defenses have trouble getting a hand on him. If he can stay healthy this season, expect him to be one of the nation’s leading rushers and a constant topic of conversation come Heisman time.

Out-Of-Conference Games to Watch

Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech [game in Bristol, TN] (September 10)

This game will be one to watch simply for the fact that it is being played in NASCAR’s famed coliseum Bristol Motor Speedway. If this works out, don’t be surprised if college football teams are consistently scheduling games in the large racing facilities. But even if that doesn’t interest you, perhaps the unusual sight of a head coach not named Frank Beamer on the Virginia Tech sideline will.

The Hokies are definitely the underdog in this game, but could keep things tight if the defensive line has an answer for Tennessee’s rushing attack. Virginia Tech’s secondary is good enough to keep Joshua Dobbs honest, but if the Volunteers quarterback is able to get things done with his legs no problem then it won’t matter. Offensively, the Hokies should return to the days of old, pounding the football on the ground.

Miami at Notre Dame (October 29)

Who knows how good Miami’s record will be at this point in the season, but chances are the Hurricanes will be up to the challenge of giving Notre Dame a fight in South Bend. Brad Kaaya has struggled with consistency at times in his career with the Hurricanes, but there is no denying that he has the strongest arm in the ACC and when he’s clicking, Miami is extremely difficult to stop on offense. The entire offensive line, which allowed just 19 sacks last season, returns for the Hurricanes.

If Notre Dame is unable to get pressure on Kaaya, it better be prepared to score a lot of points on offense as well. Expect Tarean Folston to get a lot of carries, trying to gash a Miami defense that was suspect at times last season. But if that’s the case, then the Fighting Irish may have to employ a game plan to keep Miami’s offense off the field, because Kaaya & Co. can score in a heartbeat.

In-Conference Games to Watch

Florida State at Louisville (September 17)

This is a good test for the Cardinals, who will be trying to play spoiler in the Atlantic Division all season long in addition to making their own case as a team worthy of a Playoff bid. Defensively this should be a fine battle, as this is a matchup between arguably the two most talented defenses in the ACC. How each team will try to solve the opposing squad’s defensive riddle may be different, however.

For Florida State, getting Dalvin Cook touches on the ground will be imperative. But having him pose as a blocker and then float out into the flat for easy first down dumps is a way to confuse Louisville consistently. On Louisville’s end, the Seminoles will surely try to bait the young Lamar Jackson into making dangerous throws. Letting tailback Brandon Radcliff bruise his way inside could wear down Florida State’s defense enough and bring their linebackers up so Jackson can find his receivers over the middle with space. Both coaches are smart offensive play callers, so expect a chess match.

Clemson at Florida State (October 29)

The marquee matchup on the ACC schedule this season takes place one weekend before November, meaning that for the winner the fun has only just begun. A victory in this game likely puts the victor in the driver’s seat for the Atlantic Division title, which means they’ll get everyone’s best shot from this point on out.

In essence, this game will come down to which side of the football that each team has questions on is playing better. For Florida State, getting the most out of its offense against Clemson will be necessary to avoid a letdown like last season, when the Seminoles were held to just 13 points against the Tigers. For Dabo Swinney’s squad, new starters on the defense must play well because Florida State is one of the few defenses in the ACC that could stifle Clemson’s offense.

Conference Predictions

Atlantic Division

1. Florida State (11-1, [7-1])

2. Clemson (11-1, [7-1])

3. Louisville (10-2, [6-2])

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

5. Syracuse (3-9, [2-6])

6. Boston College (5-7, [1-7])

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

Coastal Division

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

2. Virginia Tech (7-5, [5-3])

3. Georgia Tech (8-4, [4-4])

4. Miami (8-4, [4-4])

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

6. Duke (5-7, [3-5])

7. Virginia (4-8, [1-7])

Championship Game (Florida State vs. North Carolina)

Winner: Florida State

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *