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.

Boston College

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.

Clemson

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.

Florida State

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.

Louisville

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

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

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.

Wake Forest

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.

Duke

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.”

Georgia Tech

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.

Miami

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.

North Carolina

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.

Pittsburgh

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.

Virginia

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

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.

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March Madness Round 64 Preview

North Carolina State vs. Seton Hall

Ninth-seeded North Carolina State takes on eighth-seeded Seton Hall in the first-round of the Midwest Region from Wichita, Kan., on Thursday. The Wolfpack and Pirates had successful regular seasons but both are coming off early losses in their conference tournaments, with N.C. State losing to Boston College 91-87 in its first ACC tournament game and Seton Hall being upset by Butler 75-74 in its opening match at the Big East Conference tournament.

N.C. State scored 56 second-half points as it erased a 14-point halftime deficit but BC’s Jerome Robinson broke a tie with 17 seconds remaining and then forced a turnover on an inbounds play to give the Eagles the upset win. “Every time we made a basket, they would come down and make a basket,” N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts told reporters after the game after he watched his team tie the contest five times late in the second half but saw its only lead on the game’s opening basket. Seton Hall’s loss in the Big East quarterfinal was a heartbreaker as Khadeen Carrington converted a three-point play with 11 seconds to play, giving the Pirates a one-point lead, but Butler’s Tyler Wideman scored on a putback with 4 seconds remaining to give the Bulldogs the win. “It’s a tough loss,” Carrington told reporters after the game. “You never want to lose, but I feel like everyone put it out on the floor, but we knew it was going to be a tough battle when we came in, so it was a tough Big East game.”

TV: 4:30 p.m. ET, TBS

ABOUT NORTH CAROLINA STATE (21-11): Senior guard Allerik Freeman, the team’s leading scorer at 15.4 points per game, had a team-high 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting — including 5-of-7 from behind the arc — against the Eagles while All-ACC third-team center Omer Yurtseven added 20 points and nine rebounds. Markell Johnson, the ACC assists leader with 7.4 per game, had 10 points and six helpers, but also committed a crucial mistake when he asked for a timeout with 7.3 seconds left even though the Wolfpack didn’t have any, resulting in a technical foul and two made free throws for BC. “I knew in my head we didn’t have any,” Johnson told reporters after the loss. “I was so caught up in the game.”

ABOUT SETON HALL (21-11): The Pirates are a veteran team that features four senior starters, including Carrington and leading scorer Desi Rodriguez who averages 17.8 points and 4.9 rebounds. And then there’s senior center Angel Delgado, the Big East’s all-time leader in rebounds and just the second player in history to lead the Big East in rebounding in three different seasons. But don’t sleep on sophomore guard Myles Powell who was named the Big East Most Improved Player after averaging 15.4 points per game — second-most on the team — and is shot 38.5 percent from behind the 3-point arc this season.

TIP-INS

1. Seton Hall has lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in each of the last two seasons and hasn’t won a tournament game since 2004.

2. The Pirates average 38.2 rebounds per game, third in the Big East.

3. The Wolfpack have allowed opponents to shoot at a generous 46-percent clip this season.

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Clemson at North Carolina State

Fresh off an upset over Duke, North Carolina State looks to take down a second consecutive ranked opponent when it hosts No. 17 Clemson on Thursday. The Tigers are riding a 10-game winning streak and have won their first three ACC games for the first time since 2006-07, and only the sixth time in history.

Clemson has won three straight against the Wolfpack, including a 78-62 home win on Dec. 30 to open conference play. Big man Elijah Thomas posted a double-double and recorded a career-high six blocks in the first meeting, and Donte Grantham was one rebound shy of a double-double as the Tigers dominated inside. The Wolfpack followed that game with an ugly 88-58 loss at Notre Dame, but they rebounded for a 96-85 home win over the then-No. 2 Blue Devils on Saturday. It was the second major upset of the season for N.C. State, which also beat then-No. 2 Arizona on Nov. 22, but the inconsistent Wolfpack also had a head-scratching 81-76 home loss to UNC Greensboro on Dec. 16.

TV: 9 p.m. ET, ESPN

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ABOUT CLEMSON (14-1, 3-0 ACC): Coach Brad Brownell’s teams typically are known for their stingy defense, but all five of the Tigers’ starters average double-digit scoring. Guard Marcquise Reed (15.9 points) and forward Grantham (14.6 points, 7.3 rebounds) lead the balanced attack. The Tigers still get after at the defensive end, though, ranking 21st in scoring defense (63.5 points per game) and 46th in field goal defense (40.2 percent).

ABOUT N.C. STATE (11-5, 1-2): The Wolfpack also boast five double-digit scorers, which is to be expected in first-year coach Kevin Keatts’ up-tempo style. Guards Allerik Freeman (15.3 points) and Torin Dorn (13.4 points, 7.3 rebounds) lead the charge, but freshman guard Braxton Beverly has increased his output to 12.3 points per game during ACC play. The frontcourt had a tough time defending the Tigers in the first meeting, but 7-0 Omer Yurtseven (11.7 points, 6.9 rebounds) had a double-double.

TIP-INS

1. Reed is one of 15 players in the nation who average at least 15.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, three assists, and 1.5 steals.

2. The Wolfpack forces 16.1 turnovers per game, which ranks in the top 45 nationally.

3. Brownell is tied with Oliver Purnell for third on Clemson’s all-time list with 138 wins.

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Posted in CBB

NCAA Football 2017 Season

ACC Atlantic Division Preview

The ACC Atlantic division stuffed the trophy case last season. Clemson defeated Alabama for the national title, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson won the Heisman Trophy, Florida State defeated Michigan in the Orange Bowl, and six out of the seven teams finished with a winning record. The new season of fantasy college football kicks off Saturday August 26 at FanPicks.

Louisville Cardinals

After climbing as high as third nationally in mid-September and ranking fifth in the College Football Playoff poll after Week 12, the Cardinals wobbled down the stretch. Too many sacks and fumbles. Too many missed tackles and blown assignments.

The defensive issues have been assigned to Peter Sirmon, who has only one season of experience as a coordinator. Associate coach Mike Summers built solid offensive lines for head coach Bobby Petrino at Arkansas and during his first run at Louisville. Petrino has drilled his team over the 22 fumbles lost last season. Odds are the Cards are looking at another third-place Atlantic Division finish behind Florida State and Clemson.

Clemson Tigers

Clemson reached college football’s pinnacle with its win over Alabama, but staying there won’t be easy. Over the last 25 years, only two teams (Alabama and Nebraska) have repeated as consensus national champions.

The Tigers must overcome significant offensive skill position losses as well as the graduation of linebacker Ben Boulware, the emotional leader of the defense. The schedule sets up well, with Auburn and Florida State at home, but given the offensive uncertainty, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a very slight step back this fall.

Florida St. Seminoles

Despite a somewhat disappointing 10–3 campaign in 2016, the Seminoles again will begin the season with sky-high aspirations. They bring back nearly everyone from a defense that ranked in the top 25 nationally, as well as a talented quarterback in Deondre Francois and some dynamic skill players.

If the offensive line can jell in time for a season-opening clash with Alabama in Atlanta, the Seminoles could be a legitimate national championship contender. A loss there wouldn’t knock them out of the race, but the remaining schedule is daunting with road trips to Clemson and Florida in a span of 14 days in November.

NC State Wolfpack

Head coach Dave Doeren hopes that experience translates into a breakthrough after a season of “almosts” in 2016. NC State almost beat national champion Clemson. NC State almost beat perennial power Florida State. Including those two heartbreakers, four of the Wolfpack’s six losses were by seven points or fewer.

The Wolfpack return 22 seniors, half of whom start, from a team that finished the 2016 season with a flourish. There is a sense among Wolfpack fans that this could be Doeren’s best team, but it also could be his last chance, if things don’t go right.

With so many of the same parts back from last year, led by DE Bradley Chubb and slot receive Jaylen Samuels, the Wolfpack have a chance break out of the seven- and eight-win rut and be a legitimate factor in the ACC.

Wake Forest Demon Deacons

The Deacons had only seven seniors play more than 100 plays last year, and every player who scored is back. Still, this team is young, with only nine scholarship seniors. Head coach Clawson faces a much more difficult schedule, has four new assistants and questions about depth everywhere. Wake Forest has little margin for error, and injuries could wreak havoc. The Deacons are 6–24 in November over eight seasons, and they could need two late wins to go bowling. Clawson could field a better team but end up worse off in the standings.

Boston College Eagles

Coach Steve Addazio was squarely on the hot seat after his team dropped to 4–6 last year and suffered back-to-back losses to Louisville and Florida State by a combined 97–14 margin. But the Eagles earned wins over Wake Forest, UConn and Maryland, and Addazio had his third bowl trip in four seasons, a feat that is well within reach this season as well.

New athletic director Martin Jarmond will certainly give his own assessment of the state of the program, but right now Addazio seems to have the Eagles in that second tier of the Atlantic Division.

Is that BC’s ceiling under Addazio? It could be. As experienced as the Eagles are this season, don’t expect them to break that barrier just yet.

Syracuse Orange

Head coach Dino Babers hopes to replicate the second-season growth he experienced with Eastern Illinois (five more wins) and Bowling Green (two) at Syracuse in 2017. But after achieving a 4–8 mark in Year 1, he faces one of the toughest schedules in the nation. In addition to games with Atlantic Division foes Florida State, Clemson and Louisville, SU travels to Miami and LSU. The plan is for Babers’ offense to reach peak performance around Weeks 4-6. The team will need to maintain that production while making significant strides on defense if it wants to make its first bowl game since 2013.

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Independence Bowl Preview

NC State Wolfpack vs Vanderbilt Commodores

Vanderbilt and NC State visit Shreveport, Louisiana, with momentum on their side for the Independence Bowl (Enter Contest). Both programs scored huge victories over their in-state rival in Week 13, which earned the all-important sixth victory and clinched bowl eligibility.

The Commodores have showed steady improvement in coach Derek Mason’s three seasons in Nashville. Mason’s decision to take over the play-calling duties on defense in 2015 paid big dividends, and the offense showed signs of life at the end of the 2016 campaign thanks to the emergence of quarterback Kyle Shurmur. The sophomore’s development has helped to ease some of the pressure on running back Ralph Webb (1,172 yards). The junior could find limited running room against a standout Wolfpack line, which ranked first in the ACC against the run. When NC State has the ball, the Wolfpack will have to keep tabs on Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham. The junior is one of best defender in the SEC. Cunningham will be tasked with containing running back Matt Dayes (1,119 yards) and versatile tight end Jaylen Samuels (704 total yards).

ABOUT VANDERBILT (6-6, 3-5 SEC)

The Commodores averaged 13.2 points in going 1-5 in the first six SEC games but totaled 83 points in the final two games as junior running back Ralph Webb piled up 237 yards and five touchdowns on 41 carries. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur threw for a career-high 416 yards in the win over Tennessee. He threw four TD passes in the last two games, marking the only two times this season that he threw for multiple TDs in a game. Vanderbilt already had a bowl berth sewn up thanks to its strong Academic Progress Rate before the finale but wanted to make a statement that it belonged in the postseason with a win.

ABOUT N.C. STATE (6-6, 3-5 ACC)

Wolfpack senior running back Matthew Dayes was a second-team All-ACC selection after running for 1,119 yards and saved his best for last with six touchdowns in the final three games of the regular season. Dayes was fortunate to be running behind a fellow All-ACC second-teamer in guard Tony Adams, and tight end Jaylen Samuels made it as a third-team selection after leading N.C. State with 49 receptions. The defense is led by defensive end Bradley Chubb, who led the nation with 21 tackles for loss.

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