What did each ACC team learn in 2015?
It’s been a little more than a month since Alabama celebrated its latest national championship inside University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., but that doesn’t mean it’s too soon to review the 2015 season. For the Crimson Tide, it was mostly smooth sailing, but other teams endured plenty of turbulence. Over the next week, SI.com will lay out the biggest lessons learned by each squad from the Power 5 conferences and explain how those lessons can be instructive for 2016. We begin with the ACC.
Boston College: Time for a makeover on offense
Boston College fielded one of the nation’s top defenses last season; it ranked fourth in points allowed per game and third in Football Outsiders’ S&P + ratings. But the Eagles’ success stopping opponents didn’t lead to wins because they were inept on the other side of the ball. Boston College did not crack 17 points in any game after September and finished with an 0–8 record in the ACC. The Eagles will hope new coordinator Scot Loeffler can transform their offense into something respectable.
Clemson: The Tigers can reload on defense
Clemson entered last season needing to replace seven starters from a defense that led the nation in yards allowed per play, including star defensive linemen Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett. Those losses hurt the Tigers, but they still featured one of the top defenses in the ACC in 2015. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables faces a similar task in 2016, with defensive backs Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green and defensive ends Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson off to the NFL. Still, don’t expect the Tigers’ D to slip too much, if at all.
Duke: It’s important that Thomas Sirk gets healthy
Sirk ruptured his left Achilles tendon during a workout earlier this month. There’s no timetable for the quarterback’s recovery, but it’s clear the Blue Devils need Sirk to recover as quickly as possible. Last season the rising redshirt senior led Duke with 803 rushing yards, ranked third in the ACC in total offense and was named co-MVP of the Pinstripe Bowl after helping the Blue Devils notch their first postseason victory since 1961. Duke’s offense will suffer with Sirk out or if he isn’t fully healthy.
Florida State: Dalvin Cook is a Heisman contender
Cook didn’t generate as much buzz as Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry or LSU’s Leonard Fournette last season, but he may have been the nation’s best running back. The rising junior ranked second nationally in yards per carry (minimum 100 carries), recorded 19 rushing touchdowns and helped prop up Florida State’s offense in the first season following the departure of former Heisman winner Jameis Winston. And Cook did all of that despite battling multiple injuries. What will he be able to do if healthy in 2016?
Georgia Tech: Depth is key to success
When several pundits picked Georgia Tech to win the Coastal Division prior to last season, they were betting the Yellow Jackets could overcome the departure of four of their top five rushers and two top pass catchers. Those losses turned out to be crippling, and Georgia Tech’s offense sputtered as it won only one game in conference play. A rash of injuries further thinned the Yellow Jackets’ depth and made Paul Johnson's team one of the season's biggest disappointments. Unfortunately for Georgia Tech, it’s tied for last in the ACC with 11 returning starters in 2016, according to analyst Phil Steele.
Louisville: Lamar Jackson has a bright future
The rising sophomore quarterback shined in the postseason. Jackson accounted for 453 total yards and four touchdowns in Louisville’s 27–21 win over Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl. That performance offered a glimpse of Jackson’s potential, and he’ll be even more difficult to defend if he can make strides as a passer (54.7 completion percentage in 2015, good for 10th in the ACC). The 2016 season will only be Jackson’s second in college, but already he looks capable of developing into one of the top dual-threat QBs in the country.
Miami: Brad Kaaya is a star
It’s been a long time since Miami had a quarterback as talented as Kaaya, but he didn’t garner much attention nationally last season because of the constant speculation regarding coach Al Golden's job (he was fired in October). Kaaya could thrive under Miami’s new coach, Mark Richt, whose pro-style offense should be an excellent fit for the rising junior. Kaaya will also benefit from the return of 10 offensive starters and Miami’s addition of one of the nation’s top wide receiver recruits, Sam Bruce.
NC State: The rushing attack is the future
One of NC State’s primary objectives this off-season is finding someone to fill the void left by dual-threat quarterback Jacoby Brissett, an all-ACC honoree in 2015. That won’t be easy. The good news is the Wolfpack should have a strong running game to fall back on. Four of NC State’s top five rushers from last season—Matthew Dayes, Jaylen Samuels, Reggie Gallaspy II and Nyheim Hines—are back, and the Wolfpack are set to add former four-star recruit Johnny Frasier, who redshirted in 2015, to the rotation.
North Carolina: Losing Marquise Williams will hurt
The senior quarterback finished second in the ACC Offensive Player of the Year voting, behind only Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, after accounting for 4,020 total yards and 37 touchdowns while leading North Carolina to 11 wins and a 10th-place finish in the final version of the College Football Playoff rankings. The Tar Heels would have been taken more seriously as a playoff contender had Williams not thrown three picks in a puzzling season-opening loss to South Carolina. North Carolina will likely turn to rising junior Mitch Trubisky, who showed well in limited action in 2015.
Pittsburgh: Jordan Whitehead is an emerging star
A former top-150 recruit, Whitehead chose the Panthers over scholarship offers from Ohio State, Notre Dame and Michigan, among others. Even still, he managed to outperform expectations last season. Whitehead was named the ACC’s Rookie of the Year after leading Pitt with 109 tackles and recording six tackles for loss, six pass breakups and an interception. He already looks like one of the best defensive backs in the conference and should continue to improve under defensive-minded head coach Pat Narduzzi.
Syracuse: It was time to press the reset button
After winning only seven games combined from 2014-15, Syracuse needed to move on from coach Scott Shafer. It would have been difficult for it to land a more qualified successor than Dino Babers, who led Bowling Green to a MAC title last season after helping develop Jimmy Garappolo into an NFL draft pick while at Eastern Illinois. A former Baylor assistant, Babers brings elements of coach Art Briles’ high-octane offense, which will pose a major challenge for ACC defenses even if Syracuse isn’t bringing in high-level recruits.
Virginia: An easier schedule will help the Cavaliers
Virginia was a long shot to contend in the ACC last season (media members voted it to finish seventh in the Coastal), but the Cavaliers didn’t do themselves any favors with their nonconference schedule. After opening with losses to then-top-15 teams UCLA and Notre Dame, Virginia beat FCS foe William & Mary before falling to Mountain West power Boise State. That’s a tough slate for a squad with playoff aspirations. For Virginia, it was predictably brutal. The Cavaliers will benefit from a more manageable September in 2016 under new head coach Bronco Mendenhall.
Virginia Tech: Believe in Justin Fuente
Last season made clear that the Hokies needed to make a coaching change. They recorded eight or fewer wins for the fourth straight year and didn’t crack the AP Poll after previously posting eight consecutive double-digit win campaigns. Turning the page on the Frank Beamer era may not be easy for many fans, but they should have faith in former Memphis coach Fuente. If he could build a winner at a “basketball school" with no football legacy, Fuente should be able to succeed given the strong foundation Beamer left behind.
Wake Forest: Look past the win-loss record
It would be easy to look at Wake Forest’s win-loss record from 2015 and conclude that it didn’t get better in coach Dave Clawson’s second season. The Demon Deacons finished 3–9 again and notched only one conference win, but there is some evidence of progress. Wake Forest improved from 112th to 92nd in S&P and its average scoring margin went from -14.1 to -11.3. Don’t expect Wake Forest to make a massive leap in the ACC standings this season, but the situation is not as dire as it appears on the surface.