Few will dispute that Florida State and Clemson are the frontrunners in the ACC this season. Yet while it would be surprising if any other squad from the conference reached the College Football Playoff, a few should challenge the Seminoles and Tigers along the way. Atlantic Division foe Louisville, led by one of the ACC’s top quarterbacks in Lamar Jackson, will push Florida State when they meet at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in September, and the Coastal Division features several good, if not quite elite, outfits such as North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Miami. It’s difficult to project how things will shake out in this league, given the lack of clarity beyond the top two, but the combination of national title contenders at the top and a strong middle class should make for an exciting season.
Projected 2016 ACC standings
Conference title game: Florida State over UNC
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeOffensive MVPDeshaun Watson, QB, Clemson2015 stats: 4,104 passing yards, 35 passing TDs, 13 INTs; 1,105 rushing yards, 12 rushing TDs2016 projected stats: 4,300 passing yards, 38 passing TDs, nine INTs; 950 rushing yards, 10 rushing TDsWatson isn’t just the most valuable offensive player in the ACC; he’s arguably the best player in the country and on the shortlist of candidates to claim the Heisman Trophy in December after finishing third in the voting last year. With a group of dynamic playmakers around him—including wide receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, tight end Jordan Leggett and running back Wayne Gallman—Watson should deliver another sensational season while helping Clemson compete for a spot in the playoff. His only obvious competitor for this award is Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, but Watson gets the edge because of his overall value to the Tigers’ attack.
Alex Menendez via APDefensive MVPDerwin James, DB, Florida State2015 stats: 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, five pass breakups, two forced fumbles2016 projected stats: 110 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, six sacks, eight pass breakups, three forced fumblesJames arrived at Florida State as the No. 6 overall recruit in the class of 2015, according to Scout.com, but he still managed to exceed expectations during his true freshman season. James’s listed position is a bit misleading. While he’s officially a “defensive back,” opposing offenses have to account for James all over the field. He can hang with speedy pass catchers, run down ball carriers in space, toss aside 295-pound linemen standing in his way and get after the quarterback. Pro Football Focus suggested earlier this year that James may already be the best defender in the nation. The good news is we’ll get to watch him develop for at least two more seasons.
Scout.comImpact FreshmanTrayvon Mullen, DB, Clemson2016 projected stats: 40 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss, seven pass breakups, three INTsClemson lost a lot of talent to the NFL this off-season, but none of its position groups was depleted more than the secondary. Safeties Jayron Kearse and T.J. Grean and cornerback Mackenzie Alexander all turned pro (though fellow cornerback Cordrea Tankersley decided to return for his senior season). That presents an opportunity for Mullen, a four-star prospect out of Coconut Creek (Fla.) High who picked the Tigers over Florida State and LSU on National Signing Day. Mullen reportedly has worked with the first team in preseason camp, but even if he doesn’t lock down a starting spot, expect him to earn significant playing time for a unit stripped of key contributors from last season’s run to the title game.
AP Photo/Michael DwyerCoach On the Hot SeatSteve Addazio, Boston College2015 record: 3–9 (0–8)Overall record at Boston College: 17–21 (8–16)There aren’t many great candidates for this spot. The ACC has undergone a lot of coaching turnover in recent years—four programs (Miami, Syracuse, Virginia and Virginia Tech) made changes this off-season alone—and few seemingly enter the 2016 season on shaky ground. Addazio, though, could be in trouble if the Eagles don’t show signs of progress. After Boston College posted 7–6 records during his first two seasons in Chestnut Hill, it slipped to 3–9 with an 0–8 mark in conference play in 2015. The Eagles’ defense was superb last season (they led the nation in yards allowed per play), but coordinator Don Brown left for Michigan in December. For Addazio to make it to 2017, he needs that unit to avoid major slippage in Brown’s absence and get better production on the other side of the ball, where Kentucky transfer Patrick Towles is competing with redshirt sophomore Darius Wade for the starting quarterback job.
Key nonconference games
Clemson at Auburn (Sept. 3)
While the Tigers’ most important game of the season comes in late October (see below), they’ll need to survive this early test to avoid taking a major hit to their playoff resume before conference play begins. Auburn was one of the nation’s biggest disappointments in 2015, finishing 7–6 after being a popular pick to win the SEC last summer. But there’s plenty of talent on coach Gus Malzahn's roster, and the game is at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Clemson’s the better team, but this is a difficult way to open a season.
Louisville at Houston (Nov. 17)
Is Louisville a threat to either Clemson or Florida State in the Atlantic Division? Probably not, but we’ll know if that’s the case by the middle of November, as the Cardinals will have already faced both squads. This matchup, however, offers a chance for Louisville to prove its worth against an elite out-of-conference opponent. Two of the most exciting quarterbacks in the country—Jackson and the Cougars’ Greg Ward Jr.—will square off at TDECU Stadium on a Thursday night with a potential playoff (or New Year’s Six bowl) bid on the line for Houston.
Florida at Florida State (Nov. 26)
If Florida State is as good as its depth chart suggests, it will be in the hunt for a playoff berth by this point of the season. The Gators could be the last hurdle the Seminoles need to clear to make the top four. After blowing out Florida in The Swamp last year, Florida State will get Jim McElwain’s team in Tallahassee in 2016. The Seminoles shouldn’t have to sweat too much against a Gators squad with an impotent offense led by an unproven quarterback (likely Luke Del Rio), but that doesn’t diminish the game’s importance to Florida State's postseason fate.
Key conference games
Florida State at Louisville (Sept. 17)
The Cardinals may not be in serious contention for a playoff spot, but they very well could upend the Seminoles' chances. Fortunately for Florida State, it faces a weak opponent (Charleston Southern) the week before traveling to Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. Still, Louisville has enough talent back on defense to make Cook and Co. work, and it’ll have the better quarterback. This is Florida State’s biggest game before its biggest game (see below).
Pittsburgh at North Carolina (Sept. 24)
If the Atlantic Division is defined by a dominant duo (Clemson and Florida State), the Coastal stands out for its top-to-bottom quality. It would not be a huge shock if any of the division’s teams other than Virginia finished first. This game should help sort out the pack of competitors. The bet here is that the Panthers and Tar Heels will rise to battle for a spot in the conference title game, which could double as an opportunity to deny a conference rival a berth in the playoff.
Clemson at Florida State (Oct. 29)
This is it: the biggest game of the year in any conference. Both teams are loaded with talent, led by highly regarded coaches, powered by Heisman contenders and slotted in the top three of our preseason rankings. The winner will add a massive chip to its playoff CV while taking pole position in the Atlantic Division race. The loser will need to regroup—and probably go undefeated from then on—to have a shot at the national semifinals.
Five key questions
Can Clemson and Florida State both make the playoff?
Consider this an addendum to the blurb about this year’s game between the Seminoles and Tigers. The answer is yes, the Tigers and Seminoles both can make the playoff. Let’s say Clemson loses by three points in Tallahassee then wins the rest of its games, Florida State runs the table, one of the other Power 5 leagues produces a two-loss champion and neither Houston (or another Group of Five squad) nor Notre Dame (or BYU) compiles a strong resume. Could such a scenario get it done? Sure. Is that likely to happen? Probably not.
Will this conference feature the Heisman Trophy winner?
There is no league with two more compelling candidates to win the award. Watson came pretty close to pulling it off last year, and he may well get the nod if he leads Clemson to the playoff again. Cook, meanwhile, could claim it if he upstages Watson in their meeting at Doak Campbell Stadium and then helps Florida State earn an invitation to the final four. You should feel comfortable going with either player as your preseason pick to hoist the bronze trophy in New York.
Who’s the third best team in this conference?
Louisville has the quarterback (Jackson), skill-position talent (wide receivers Jamari Staples and James Quick) and defensive standouts (linebackers Devonte Fields and Keith Kelsey, safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and defensive tackle DeAngelo Brown) to earn this designation. And with games against Florida State (Sept. 17) and at Clemson (Oct. 1), the Cardinals will get to show how they stack up against two major players in the national title race—to say nothing of the aforementioned bout with Houston. But North Carolina, Pitt, or possibly even Miami, could eclipse Louisville in the conference hierarchy by season’s end.
Which first-year coach is poised for instant success?
Mark Richt walked into a pretty favorable situation at his alma mater. For all the hype Louisville's Jackson has generated this off-season, Miami probably features the conference’s best quarterback, non-Watson division, in Brad Kaaya. And Kaaya will be aided by a talented supporting cast. Another coach who could surprise in year one is Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech, though he won’t have a QB like Kaaya to guide his offense (junior college transfer Jerod Evans and senior Brenden Motley are vying for the starting job).
Who’s the favorite in the Coastal Division?
This is one of the most difficult divisions to project in the country. There are several teams with realistic chances to win it, but none of them stands out as an obvious No. 1. North Carolina will have a say in the matter if quarterback Mitch Trubisky proves a capable replacement for Marquise Williams, Richt could have Miami in the race in his first year on the job and Pitt should make strides in year two under Pat Narduzzi. The Tar Heels are the pick here, but expect a really close race.