NCAA Football 2018 Season Preview: ACC
Complete ACC preview for the 2018 season.
Clemson is once again the pick to win the ACC title for the 2018 college football season, but the conference has continued to improve its depth in recent years. Miami took a step forward under coach Mark Richt last season by winning its first Coastal Division title and are the pick to win the division once again in 2018. Virginia Tech isn’t far behind, with Georgia Tech and Pitt next in line as contenders. Clemson should be picked No. 1 or No. 2 nationally by most this preseason and holds a significant edge over the rest of the Atlantic. New coach Willie Taggart should have Florida State in the mix for a New Year’s Six bowl and is the top threat to the Tigers in the Atlantic. Behind projected first-team All-ACC quarterback Ryan Finley, NC State ranks just outside the top 25 and headlines the next tier of teams in the division. It’s a close call behind the Wolfpack, as Boston College, Wake Forest and Louisville each finished 4-4 in the league last fall and not much separates this trio once again in 2018.
This should be one of coach Steve Addazio’s best teams, even though it may not show up in the record, as the Eagles draw both Miami and Virginia Tech out of the ACC Coastal Division and travel to an improved Purdue in the non-conference slate. Still, RB AJ Dillon should have a big year, and the defense has enough returning firepower to keep games close. If either Anthony Brown or EJ Perry provides a real threat in the passing game, the Eagles can win more than seven games under Addazio for the first time in his six years at the Heights.
Upsets happen, as Clemson knows after losing to Syracuse last year and Pitt in 2016. But this team is just so much more talented than almost everyone it will play. A fourth consecutive playoff appearance seems like the baseline for this team. Clemson-Bama Part 4 sounds fun.
After Jimbo Fisher bolted for Texas A&M, FSU’s administration wanted a head coach who could take the football program in a completely new direction. Willie Taggart checked every box. The biggest change, of course, is the swapping of Fisher’s plodding pro-style offense for the up-tempo, spread attack Taggart employed at Oregon and USF. FSU’s defense also will take a more aggressive stance under former Michigan State co-coordinator Harlon Barnett. Judging by the excitement during spring drills and offseason workouts, FSU’s players are fully on board. That alone should help the Seminoles improve upon their dismal 7–6 campaign from a year ago. How much they improve will depend largely on how quickly they can execute their new schemes at a high level.
The Cardinals have more questions in 2018 than they’ve had during any season of Bobby Petrino’s second tour of duty at the school. Louisville must solve significant issues on defense and replace a former Heisman-winning quarterback. And they must do so against a schedule that begins with Alabama in Orlando and includes a road trip to Clemson. Another season in the middle of the ACC Atlantic pack looms.
NC State got a preview of life without DE Bradley Chubb in the Sun Bowl. The offense did the heavy lifting behind QB Ryan Finley and the receivers and put up 52 points in a win over Arizona State. With so many personnel changes on defense, the same formula will have to work in 2018 for the Wolfpack to avoid a step back after their first top-25 finish under Dave Doeren and only third in the past 20 years.
Syracuse enters Year 3 of the Dino Babers era with reason to believe that a four-year bowl drought could end this fall. The Orange bring back experienced lines, have quality quarterback depth and feature an experienced secondary. The schedule is slightly less of a gauntlet, too.
There are questions, though, on both sides of the ball. How will SU replace its linebackers, including three-time captain Zaire Franklin? Can the receiving corps pick up the production that graduated with Steve Ishmael and Erv Philips?
This projects to be a season in which Babers’ reputation begins to take shape. A postseason appearance would invite talk of a contract extension. But another disappointing finish would hurt much more than the last two seasons.
The building blocks are there for a third straight bowl appearance. That starts on both lines, where Wake finally boasts talent and experience. Depth is always a concern, and a couple key injuries could eliminate a small margin for error. Coach Dave Clawson has rebuilt the facilities and the culture, and this is now a program that expects to win.
There’s reason to believe Duke will once again be stout on defense. It could be up to the offense — which averaged only 19.8 points in ACC games — to determine whether the Blue Devils will be a borderline bowl team or emerge as a contender in the Coastal Division. The schedule certainly gets tougher, with non-conference road games at Baylor and Northwestern and a crossover game at Clemson.
Coach David Cutcliffe likes what he sees from his group. “We know this team can run,” he says. “[This] was the most physical Duke football that has been out here in quite some time. This is something we’ve got to build on; I’m anxious to see.”
Coach Paul Johnson’s teams traditionally outperform expectations, but last year’s 5-6 record was disappointing because a play here or there in games they led late against Tennessee, Miami or Virginia cost them a bowl berth. With nearly the entire offense returning and a defensive philosophy that should better fit the personnel, it’s easy to envision those games going their way in 2018. There’s never a huge margin for error at Tech, but with even small improvements in TaQuon Marshall’s passing, offensive line play and the kicking game, Tech should return to the postseason and factor into the ACC Coastal race.
Last year was a rude awakening for the Hurricanes, who elbowed their way into the College Football Playoff discussion in November only to get thrashed by Clemson in the ACC title game. No one in Coral Gables will forget that feeling, and confidence is high on campus that Miami is building the type of team that can compete with the top dogs in any conference. They’re not playing at a championship level consistently, but they’re showing flashes, and Mark Richt’s last two recruiting classes have been excellent. The former Miami quarterback has restored the shine to his alma mater.
The Tar Heels have plenty of room for improvement after limping to a 3-9 record in 2017, but it remains to be seen whether they have enough talent to make much progress. Top priorities on offense are patching together a passable offensive line and getting consistent play at quarterback. On defense, UNC must avoid major breakdowns after allowing five runs of more than 50 yards and five TD passes longer than 65 yards a year ago. With a non-conference schedule that includes two road games and a matchup against UCF, a bowl game would be a good accomplishment.
In the past two seasons, Pittsburgh has pulled off major upsets against Miami, Clemson and Penn State. But at what point do the Panthers advance past the occasional stunning win and start to develop more consistency across the board? Coach Pat Narduzzi’s program took a step back in 2017. It finished 5-7 (3-5 in the ACC) after posting 8-5 records in each of his first two seasons. The mission in 2018 is to prove the program is trending upward, as was the case in 2015 and ’16.
In Year 2 at Virginia, coach Bronco Mendenhall took the team from two wins to six and helped the Cavaliers reach their first bowl game since 2011. He may be hard pressed to continue that upward trajectory this season, at least in terms of wins and losses. The team lost key seniors in key spots, robbing the lineup not only of production but also of leadership.
The offensive and defensive lines are being largely rebuilt, and the entire offense figures to have a different feel as Virginia moves to a dual-threat quarterback and a scheme more reminiscent of what Mendenhall and his staff employed at BYU. There’s enough depth on defense to be optimistic, and if Bryce Perkins shines at quarterback, the offense could be interesting.
Virginia Tech fans couldn’t have asked for much more from coach Justin Fuente in his first two years in Blacksburg, where he’s gone 19–8, won a division title and seamlessly handled the transition from legend Frank Beamer. It’s possible that 2018 might be his greatest challenge so far, however, with three-quarters of the roster being sophomores or younger. Fuente and his staff have recruited well, but those classes are just now starting to hit a turning point in their development.
The schedule’s manageable, with Clemson rotating off, Miami at home and the Coastal Division not overwhelming, but the Hokies will need to do a lot of growing up at key positions if they’re going to make a run at the division title again.