If college football conferences were to be compared to Game of Thrones houses—an entirely novel concept, to be sure—the ACC would likely be House Targaryen. Fictional historical implications aside, it owns a handful of not-so-baby dragons (Florida State! Clemson! Georgia Tech!) and has acquired a couple of important resources (Louisville and Notre Dame, sort of) over the past few years. However, it still feels multiple seasons away from truly staking a claim that it’s the best. And while we’re at it, Tallahassee is basically Meereen, anyway.
Make sense? Spark outrage? Good! This is why we are here. Real college football games remain six months away, but with spring practice kicking off across the nation, it’s time to put the sport back in the thick of the national conversation.
Without further ado, here are the big questions facing each ACC team this spring.
• Boston College: Can a rebuilt offensive line keep the ground game rolling?
It’s no secret that Boston College likes to run: The Eagles ran on 72.3% of their offensive plays in 2014, behind only Georgia Tech (79.6%) in the conference. It’s also no secret that the offensive line is set for a major transformation: All five starters from last year, including standout center Andy Gallik, are gone. Coach Steve Addazio and staff should use this spring to break in a new unit up front, which will pave the way for an veteran backfield. The success of tailback Jon Hilliman, who rushed for 860 yards with 13 touchdowns last fall, depends on it.
• Clemson: Will new leaders step up on defense?
The majority of attention this spring will focus on the rehab efforts of quarterback Deshaun Watson, who dazzled last fall before suffering a knee injury, and new co-offensive coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott, who replace the departed Chad Morris. But Clemson’s real concern should come on the other side of the ball, where the Tigers lose seven starters from a defense that led the country in yards allowed per play (4.03). Among them: Grady Jarrett, Vic Beasley, Stephone Anthony and Corey Crawford. Can lauded defensive coordinator Brent Venables find the players to lead his mostly green group?
• Duke: Can a new wave of players learn to keep Duke competitive?
Other than coach and noted offensive wizard David Cutcliffe, almost all of the key figures from Duke’s remarkable run over the last few years have moved on. That includes quarterback Anthony Boone, receiver Jamison Crowder and guard Laken Tomlinson. So, who will be tapped to take their place? Redshirt junior Thomas Sirk takes the reins under center, while Max McCaffrey brings back the most experience at wideout. Also, look for tailback Shaquille Powell to assume a leadership position. The former Bishop Gorman (Nev.) High star paced the Blue Devils—who hosted their final scrimmage Saturday, because Duke opens spring football in the heart of winter—with 618 rushing yards in 2014.
• Florida State: Can the linebacking corps round into form?
The Seminoles lose All-America-caliber players on both sides of the ball. Jameis Winston, Cam Erving and Rashad Greene headline the offensive departures, while Eddie Goldman, Mario Edwards Jr. and P.J. Williams are among the key losses on defense. Yet the biggest question for the program surrounds a position group wrecked by injuries in 2014. Linebackers Terrance Smith and Matthew Thomas have battled nagging issues, and leading tackler Reggie Northrup tore his ACL in the Rose Bowl loss to Oregon. Now a unit that was a weakness last fall will be asked to become a strength. Guys like Smith, Thomas, Ro’Derrick Hoskins and Jacob Pugh will look to prove themselves this spring.
• Georgia Tech: Beyond Justin Thomas, who will make the offense go?
The Yellow Jackets were the surprise of the league last year, going 11-3 behind a triple-option attack that simply steamrolled opponents. Quarterback Thomas led the charge with 1,086 rushing yards, but he had plenty of help: Synjyn Days (924), Zach Laskey (851) and Charles Perkins (443) all gashed foes on the ground. That trio is gone, meaning others will need to step up. With Broderick Snoddy recovering from a brutal leg injury, look for redshirt freshman C.J. Leggett and early enrollee Quaide Weimerskirch to get reps.
• Louisville: Can a wave of transfers mitigate the effect of roster turnover?
The Cardinals lose a ton of key players from last year’s squad, including receiver DeVante Parker, tailback Michael Dyer, linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin and safety Gerod Holliman. That leaves lots of holes on a team looking to contend for an ACC crown. But Bobby Petrino has several big-name transfers who will try to lock up spots this spring, most notably former Texas A&M receiver JaQuay Williams, former Georgia linebacker Josh Harvey-Clemons and former Georgia defensive back Shaq Wiggins. That list doesn’t include former TCU star defensive end Devonte Fields, who signed with Louisville in February and plans to enroll this summer.
• Miami: What kind of impact will Al-Quadin Muhammad make?
A former blue-chip defensive end prospect out of Ramsey, N.J., Muhammad was suspended from the university for the entire fall semester stemming from his role in an off-campus fight with another student. His return brings both big questions and expectations, as the 260-pounder will seek to anchor a defense that ranked 15th nationally in yards allowed per play (4.79) last fall. Muhammad’s presence on the line has facilitated Tyriq McCord’s move to strongside linebacker, where he will attempt to shore up a unit losing Denzel Perryman and Thurston Armbrister.
• N.C. State: Can the offense establish some viable options at receiver?
The Wolfpack were quietly effective on the ground last season: They averaged 5.23 yards per carry, fourth in the ACC. Yet while quarterback Jacoby Brissett put up impressive passing stats—he posted a 23-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio—he lacked a go-to target. Bo Hines led the team with 616 receiving yards, but both he and Marquez Valdes-Scantling announced their transfers earlier this winter. Look for Jaylen Samuels, who caught three passes for 41 yards with a touchdown in the Bitcoin Bowl win over UCF, to see an expanded role this spring.
• North Carolina: Can the Tar Heels put last year’s failings behind them?
For a quick summation of North Carolina’s 2014 campaign, check out this column after the Tar Heels' 40-21 Quick Lane Bowl loss to Rutgers. Receiver Ryan Switzer was among several players to question the effort put forth in the locker room. “We’ve got some soul-searching to do,” he said. “A lot of guys need to really figure out whether they really want to be here or not.” The talent is there, as 17 starters—led by quarterback Marquise Williams and defensive tackle Nazair Jones—return. But can a team that underwhelmed take steps to come together?
• Pittsburgh: Will Pat Narduzzi begin to make his mark on the defense?
First-year coach Narduzzi inherits two of the league’s most dangerous offensive playmakers with the return of tailback James Conner and receiver Tyler Boyd. But the decorated former Michigan State coordinator will be expected to reinvent the defense, which surrendered 26.3 points per game last fall, tied for 58th in the FBS. Sophomores Avonte Maddox and Rori Blair will work to keep developing, while the secondary will strive to emulate Narduzzi’s renowned groups in East Lansing. One player who is not on campus for the spring, four-star cornerback signee Jordan Whitehead, should bolster that latter cause upon his fall arrival.
• Syracuse: Will the offense show any signs of life?
The Orange attack was abysmal last season: It ranked 111th nationally in yards per play (4.91) and 121st in scoring offense (17.1 points per game). If Syracuse hopes to improve upon its 3-9 record from last fall, that group will need to be dramatically better in 2015. Quarterback Terrel Hunt is healthy after breaking his fibula in a loss to Louisville last October, and coordinator Tim Lester is expected to install a scheme that features multiple formations and inside runs. Syracuse will need to replace leading rusher Prince-Tyson Gulley and left tackle Sean Hickey.
• Virginia: Can Andrew Brown start to realize his lofty potential?
Put aside the future of coach Mike London for a minute, as athletic director Craig Littlepage announced before Virginia’s season-ending loss at Virginia Tech last November that London would stay for at least one more year. This spring attention should be paid to Brown, the former five-star defensive tackle prospect who was slowed by shoulder and toe injuries as a freshman. While fellow top recruit Quin Blanding blossomed into a second-team All-ACC safety in 2014, Brown failed to break out. Following the exits of Eli Harold, Max Valles and Henry Coley, who amassed a combined 24 sacks last fall, Brown's emergence could prove critical.
• Virginia Tech: Will Michael Brewer and company continue to grow up?
After winning the starting quarterback job just two months after transferring from Texas Tech, Brewer delivered his share of big moments. He threw two touchdown passes in an upset of Ohio State on Sept. 6 and nearly rallied Virginia Tech from a 21-point deficit against East Carolina a week later. But Brewer also made too many mistakes—he had 15 interceptions—behind an offensive line decimated by injuries. Brewer will look to further his development this spring, something that should be made easier by the return of targets Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges.
• Wake Forest: Can a slightly older offensive line show improvement?
The root of Wake Forest’s (many) offensive problems last year was inexperience along the line. The Demon Deacons’ two-deep depth chart included only one senior on the unit, which combined with a freshman quarterback (John Wolford) and a pair of freshmen running backs to produce an average of 3.38 yards per play, dead last in the FBS by seven-tenths of a yard. Wolford, Dezmond Wortham and Isaiah Robinson are all older, and three starters on the line are back. Can Wake generate some offense to bail out a defense that was formidable in 2014?