Florida State and Clemson still rule the ACC, but can Miami finally play for an ACC championship?
It is time once again to start going on the record with my official predictions for the 2016 season. This year I decided to go down the list in alphabetical order, so we begin with a look at the ACC. It’s not a bad place to start with two teams looking very capable of playing in the New Years Six, but will that include a spot in the College Football Playoff for a third straight season? We’ll just have to wait and see.
ACC Atlantic Division
1. Florida State 11-1 (7-1 ACC)
Last season: 10-3, 6-2 ACC; lost Peach Bowl vs. Houston (38-24)
It is hard tot to like what Jimbo Fisher has been doing on a regular basis since taking over the head coaching job from the retired Bobby Bowden. The Seminoles have had four straight seasons with no fewer than 10 wins and Florida State has won a national championship and played in the College Football Playoff during that run. They could very well be in that national championship hunt once again with the ACC’s top running back (Dalvin Cook) playing behind a solid, but perhaps not great (yet), offensive line. Florida State’s defense could be nasty too, and it is the defense that will clamp down on some key opponents, including Ole Miss in the season opener in Orlando and Clemson later in the season. My game-by-game picks for Athlon Sports does call for an early upset of the ‘Noles (at Louisville), but I expect Florida State to take care of business the rest of the way and come out on top of the ACC Atlantic Division and landing right back in the ACC Championship Game. A spot in the College Football Playoff will be on the line in that setting.
2. Clemson 11-1 (7-1 ACC)
Last season: 14-1, 9-0 ACC, ACC champion; won Orange Bowl semifinal vs. Oklahoma (37-17), lost College Football Playoff national championship vs. Alabama (45-40)
Clemson will have the best player in the ACC, but not quite the best team. With quarterback Deshaun Watson back after a huge 2015 season, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Clemson in 2016, especially with running back Wayne Gallman being foolishly overlooked it seems. Clemson looks to have the best offense from position to position, which makes them lethal against all of their opponents, including Florida State. The defense could be pretty darn good as well despite some massive turnover on that side of the football. Trust that Dabo Swinney has recruited to the level when the Tigers should plug and play new faces this season and be just fine. A slip-up in Tallahassee will end up costing Clemson a chance at repeating as the ACC champion and ultimately lock them out of the playoff, but the Tigers should start making plans to attend another New Years Six bowl game at the end of the season.
Athlon Sports: 2016 Clemson Game-By-Game Predictions
3. Louisville 10-2 (7-1 ACC)
Last season: 8-5, 5-3 ACC; won Music City Bowl vs. Texas A&M (27-21)
I feel as though I am coming into this season a little too high on Bobby Petrino’s Cardinals with a 10-win regular season. And considering the two game sI am predicting them to lose, Louisville has a chance to look like the best darn two-loss team in the country. Louisville will probably be my overachiever of the year given this prediction with average talent on the line on both sides of the ball, but I call the games like I see them (as well as anyone can in the summer). The schedule starts with some possibly easy wins before hosting Florida State. That’s my upset pick right there. Outside of Clemson and Florida State, Louisville has a good chance to be the favorite in every game they play this season, and they’ll get a stab at snapping Kentucky’s bowl hopes at the end of the season.
4. NC State 7-5 (3-5 ACC)
Last season: 7-6, 3-5 ACC; lost Belk Bowl vs. Mississippi State (51-28)
I want to believe Dave Doren can get something going in Raleigh, yet I admit seven wins may be a bit high for the Wolfpack this season. They will, however, score one of the upsets of the year when Notre Dame comes to town. There really is not a whole ton to be overly enthusiastic about when you look over NC State, unless you believe having eight returning starters on defense has a chance to grow and make things happen. There were some glimpses of offensive potential last season, and Matt Dayes is back to carry the football. NC State may be a bit too streaky at times, but has spoiler potential if they play their best.
5. Boston College 6-6 (2-6 ACC)
Last season: 3-9, 0-8 ACC
We could be looking at one of the more improved teams in the ACC and country with Boston College. Considering what their offense did last season, that shouldn’t be a shock as there is nowhere to go but up. Hopefully. Boston College hired Scot Loeffler to be the new offensive coordinator, the third in four seasons under Steve Addazio at Boston College. There is not a whole lot to work with on offense, but three returning offensive linemen with starting experience helps. The defense was terrific last season but has a few holes to plug in 2016. Looking at the schedule though, there are six wins there to be had for the Eagles.
6. Syracuse 2-10 (1-7 ACC)
Last season: 4-8, 1-7 ACC
The Orange have a new head coach in Dino Babers, and that has be thinking better times are ahead for the Orange. Those good times will have to hold off until after 2016, because this fall could very well be a long one that serves as nothing more than a way to kill time before basketball season at the Carrier Dome. Syracuse has some tough draws in non-conference play including Notre Dame on the ACC scheduling rotation in MetLife Stadium and South Florida (seriously) and a road game at UConn (again, seriously). Being in the same division as Clemson and Florida State generally leads to two automatic losses too, of course. The problem is Syracuse hay have the worst defense in the ACC and the offensive line is shaky at best. But hey, at least they’re not Wake Forest.
7. Wake Forest 3-9 (0-8 ACC)
Last season: 3-9, 1-7 ACC
If there is one nice thing to say about Wake Forest it is the Deamon Deacons return a boatload of starters. Growth from experience? That’s the hope in Winston-Salem. Another thing I do like about Wake Forest is bringing back its entire starting offensive line for junior quarterback John Wolford. Or Kendall Hinton, whichever way Dave Clawson wants to go. This is Clawson’s third year on the job at Wake Forest, and here’s hoping he manages to exceed my very low expectations.
ACC Coastal Division
1. Miami 9-3 (6-2 ACC)
Last season: 8-5, 5-3 ACC; lost Sun Bowl vs. Washington State (20-14)
While I remain as optimistic about Miami’s future as I have been in years based solely on the hiring of Mark Richt as head coach, there are other reasons I am going all in on Miami in the Coastal Division this year. Keep in mind, Miami has failed to reach the ACC Championship Game since leaving the Big East for the ACC. That should change this season (I know, I’ve said this before). Richt has some good pieces to work with, starting with quarterback Brad Kaaya behind an offensive line returning four starters. Of course, offensive line was a huge issue for the Hurricanes last year. It wasn’t Penn State bad, but it wasn’t very good. But given Richt’s offensive style, things should improve, and the running game should be a factor as well. On defense, a move back to a 4-3 style should potentially lead to some quick improvements for Miami’s defense, with Chad Thomas and Al-Quandin Muhammad bringing pressure from the ends.
2. North Carolina 10-2 (6-2 ACC)
Last season: 11-3, 8-1 ACC, ACC Coastal Division champion; lost Russell Athletic Bowl vs. Baylor (49-38)
This was a pick that actually surprised me. For months I have been suggesting North Carolina, fresh off the division title last fall, was going to be the team to beat in the Coastal Division. That still holds true for the most part, but I pegged the Tar Heels to lose one key game in conference play; at Miami. That could be the game that ultimately determines if it is Larry Fedora and his Tar Heels or the Hurricanes booking hotel rooms in Charlotte at the end of the season. I do think things get off to a great start for UNC though, with a win in Atlanta against Georgia and a nice home win against another Coastal contender, Pittsburgh. But UNC will go 0-2 in the state of Florida with losses at Miami and Florida State. The offense has a new quarterback in Mitch Trubinsky and a solid wide receiver in Ryan Switzer, plus a tested offensive line with experience to build on. North Carolina will be dangerous, especially if the defense carries over the improved play they showed last season.
3. Pittsburgh 7-5 (5-3 ACC)
Last season: 8-5, 6-2 ACC; lost Military Bowl vs. Navy (44-28)
Pittsburgh has all the ingredients in place to be a real contender in the ACC Coastal Division. Decent defense? Check. Safe quarterback? Check. Strong running game? Checkmate. Some of that is dependent on how strong and healthy James Conner is for the Panthers, but he is saying he will be ready to go as he comes back from chemotherapy treatments and that will be great to see. Pittsburgh brings back a ton of starters from last year, not even including Conner, so the Panthers appear to be in pretty good shape for Pat Narduzzi’s second season at the helm. The schedule, however, offers some challenges. A home game against Penn State should be considered a toss-up for now (I have Pittsburgh winning at the moment), but back-to-back road games against Oklahoma State and North Carolina following that could make for a rough start to the season. Pittsburgh also has to go to Miami and Clemson in back-to-back weeks later in the season, and Pittsburgh should be well aware of how dangerous a game with Duke can be. With a couple of games going their way, Pitt should stay in the thick of the division chase, but too many tough road games could end up holding them back.
Pitt will definitely have the ACC’s bets alternate uniform this season. That is a fact.
4. Virginia Tech 7-5 (5-3 ACC)
Last season: 7-6, 4-4 ACC; won Independence Bowl vs. Tulsa (55-52)
Let me say this first. I love the hiring of Justin Fuente by the Hokies. If there was one coach not named Tom Herman I would expect to get the Virginia Tech offense clicking like it once was capable of doing, it will be Fuente. I just do not know how much will change in year one. That said, the Hokies are always going to pose a threat in the division and this season should be no different. Virginia Tech is going to stack upper classmen on the line on both sides of the football, most with starting experience. Travon McMillian will lead the ground attack for the Hokies for now, while Fuente looks to figure out who is best suited to run point at quarterback. My money’s on Jerod Evans, who will get to connect with one of the ACC’s top receivers in Isaiah Ford.
5. Duke 6-6 (4-4 ACC)
Last season: 8-5, 4-4 ACC; won Pinstripe Bowl vs. Indiana (44-41)
Enough simply cannot be said about the job David Cutcliffe has done with the Blue Devils. Duke manages to bring in a few really talented players but they will likely always be a few rungs down the ladder in terms of overall talent compared to other ACC programs. Still, the Blue Devils continue to play a key role in how this division plays out if recent years are any indication. That could be the case this season, especially later in the year. The schedule is a brutal one though, or at least as rough as one can get in the ACC without drawing Florida State and Clemson. The Blue Devils manage to skip each of the dominant programs in the conference but must go on the road to play Louisville, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Miami.That could easily result in four losses, which is what I’m predicting. A home game against Virginia Tech is a toss-up and could ultimately determine if Duke goes bowling once more or stays home for the winter.
6. Georgia Tech 6-6 (2-6 ACC)
Last season: 3-9, 1-7 ACC
After playing in the ACC Championship Game in 2014, I took some heat for my mediocre prediction for Georgia Tech last season. I felt a bit justified in my preseason prediction for the Yellow Jackets as the season played out, but even I was stunned to see Georgia Tech manage to win just three games last fall. Things will turn around in the other direction this season as Georgia Tech equals their 2015 win total through the first three games of the 2016 season. Then things get tough for Paul Johnson’s program. This much we know about Georgia Tech; quarterback Justin Thomas is going to be the key to the offense in that signature triple-option system. If Georgia Tech is going to make a push for the postseason, it will come from improved play on defense. Making big plays was not something Georgia Tech’s defense excelled in last fall, so we’ll see if they can create a few more game-changing plays this season with three starters back on defensive line.
7. Virginia 3-9 (1-7 ACC)
Last season: 4-8, 3-5 ACC
Just like at Virginia Tech, a new era is underway at Virginia with a well-respected head coach. Bronco Mendenhall is one of my favorite hires of the coaching carousel, and I am eager to see what he does with Virginia. He has a lot of work to do. At BYU, Mendenhall stressed physical toughness and aggression, which showed on defense and in the running game. That should be expected to be the message at Virginia, but it may take a little more time in order for it to pay off as it did at BYU. Matt Johns is not exactly the right fit for Mendenhall’s offensive style at quarterback, unless Mendenhall feels like he can spread his wings a little more at a new program. Success this season will be measured more by the way Virginia plays than by wins at the end of the season. This is a rebuilding project for Mendenhall, and this season is more about laying the foundation.
ACC Championship Game
Florida State over Miami
Finally, for the first time in conference history, the ACC will get the matchup they probably envisioning happening much more frequently when Miami joined the conference. Florida State and Miami are scheduled to meet in Week 6 in Miami, which Florida State should win. They should also win the second time around as well. Florida State has much more big-game experience for one thing, but they also have much more talent than Miami. Regardless of the edge Florida State has here, this will be a good start for Mark Richt with the Hurricanes. It will also set the stage for yet another Mark Richt championship game loss, something he has a few of from his time in the SEC (he’s won a couple too, to be fair).
ACC Game of the Year
Florida State vs. Clemson
The Big Ten has Ohio State-Michigan. The SEC has Alabama-LSU. The Pac-12 has Oregon-Stanford. The ACC has one too. It’s Florida State-Clemson. Since 2011, the winner of the Florida State-Clemson game has gone on to represent the ACC Atlantic Division each season, and the winner of the last three meetings has gone on to play in the BCS National Championship Game or College Football Playoff. The stakes have been raised in this series, and both teams will be all in this fall when they collide in Tallahassee. The winner likely takes the ACC Atlantic Division once again, and each team gets a bye week to prepare for the contest. Forget the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte. This is the real ACC title game.
Offensive Player of the Year
QB Deshaun Watson, Clemson
Arguments for Florida State running back Dalvin Cook will be entertained, but Clemson’s “don’t call me a dual-threat” quarterback is the best player the ACC has to offer. Deshaun Watson is coming off an amazing 2015 season that was worthy of Vince Young at Texas comparisons in the College Football Playoff national championship game. Though it came in a losing effort, Watson’s performance drew high praise from anyone who watched. Now he gets to do it all again in 2016. I expect Watson to make a run for a second straight trip to New York City this fall.
This is the second straight season I am picking Watson as my offensive player of the year in the ACC.
Defensive Player of the Year
LB Devonte Fields, Louisville
I almost forgot Devonte Fields was still around tackling guys at Louisville, but he is. The former TCU freshman standout got back to looking like his football-self last season, and he should once again be one of the top defensive playmakers in the ACC. That’s great news for Louisville, who also returns key players that passed on the NFL Draft. Fields is a former Defensive Player of the Year in the Big 12, and after working his way back into the good graces of the football gods, he has a chance to be just as good in the ACC this fall.
Coach of the Year
Mark Richt, Miami
I have made it pretty clear that I am expecting good things at Miami under Mark Richt. While the work will not all be done this season, I think guiding Miami to the ACC Championship Game should be worthy of ACC Coach of the Year honors. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney won the award last year, as he should have with an undefeated team entering the College Football Playoff as the No. 1 team, but the previous four winners and seven of the last nine have come from the ACC’s Coastal Division. Dabo and Jimbo Fisher may be the best coaches, but the ACC seems more likely to go with a coach who takes his team to new heights. Richt could do just that with Miami, and that is why he will be my preseason pick.
That’s how I see the ACC shaping up in 2016. Now share your ACC predictions in the comments below or on Facebook.