- Clemson's dominance in the ACC has become an expectation, but Florida State could rebound into contention after a disappointing 2017.
The 2018 preseason outlook for the ACC presents a pretty clear hierarchy: Clemson, and then everybody else. In a post-Deshaun Watson 2017 campaign, the Tigers entered the season as +300 to win the conference, odds that trailed only those of Florida State (+110). Of course, things went south quickly for the Seminoles, while Clemson rolled 38-3 over Miami in the ACC Championship Game to claim a conference title for the third consecutive year.
This year, the Tigers are the favorites in the ACC at -200 to pull off a four-peat, with Miami (+350) and FSU (+600) billed as their biggest challengers. Below are complete team odds to win the ACC (courtesy of William Hill), individual team previews and, finally, our best bets to win the ACC.
Odds to win ACC:
Florida State +600
Virginia Tech +1000
NC State +3300
Boston College +5000
Georgia Tech +5000
Wake Forest +5000
North Carolina +10000
(In order of predicted finish)
If last year's 12-win season was a reloading year for Dabo Swinney, try and imagine the level of dominance the Tigers could reach in 2018. A defensive line that returns Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant could eventually be remembered as one of the best in college football history. Incumbent QB Kelly Bryant will face pressure from five-star freshman Trevor Lawrence, but the dynamic RB duo of Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne will provide a solid cushion for either. Clemson has suffered shocking midseason upsets each of the last two seasons (Pittsburgh in 2016, at Syracuse last year), and Swinney's hardest job this season will be keeping his loaded roster focused each and every week.
2. Florida State
Willie Taggart takes over a messy situation in Tallahassee, as last season began with CFP hopes and ended with an Independence Bowl victory that pushed the team over .500. But much of that title-caliber talent is still in town. Cam Akers was one of the most heralded freshman rushers in recent memory last season, and he delivered with over 1,000 rushing yards. A quarterback battle between Deondre Francois and James Blackman could stretch into the season, but the offense should be fine. The defense, however, has many starters to replace. That paired with a difficult schedule means Taggart has lots working against him in Year 1.
3. Boston College
There's plenty of buzz in Chestnut Hill this summer, as the Eagles seem ready to field a formidable offense for the first time in years. QB Anthony Brown was competent as a freshman before getting injured, and RB AJ Dillon was a beast, tearing up Louisville on the road with 272 yards on 39 carries in a 45-42 win. And unlike divisional foes FSU, Louisville and NC State, BC returns plenty of talent on defense (minus second-round draft pick Harold Landry). But a four-game stretch against Miami, Virginia Tech, Clemson and Florida State will test just how improved this team is.
The bad news: The Lamar Jackson era is over, with the Cardinals' iconic Heisman-winning quarterback gone to the NFL. The good news: The Jawon Pass era has begun. A sophomore, the aptly named Pass represents a drastic stylistic departure from Jackson's scrambling at the position, and he seems equipped to feed returning wideouts Jaylen Smith, Dez Fitzpatrick and Seth Dawkins. The defense suffered major losses—and wasn't particularly good as a unit, anyway—but maybe new coordinator Brian VanGorder can generate better outcomes.
5. NC State
Dave Doeren is building tremendous momentum in Raleigh, and a nine-win 2017 was nearly even more impressive as an upset bid over Clemson in November fell just short. The fact that seven NC State players were selected in this past NFL draft speaks volumes about the program he's developed, but also foretells a defense that will be short on experience in 2018. Fortunately, there's plenty of ammo back on the offensive side of the ball, including QB Ryan Finley and 1,000-yard wideout Kelvin Harmon.
6. Wake Forest
Like Doeren at State, Dave Clawson has built this Demon Deacons team steadily upward over his time at the helm. The roster this season is all-around solid, but replacing departed QB John Wolford (29 TDs, 6 INTs last year) will be a massive challenge—one made harder by presumed starter Kendall Hinton's three-game season-opening suspension. If he's named starter when he returns, he'll need to find a rhythm quickly: The Deacons' fourth game is against Notre Dame.
The highlight of the 2017 season for Syracuse was a stunning home upset over Clemson, a game the Orange entered as 23-point underdogs. The lowlight was, well, every single game after that: 'Cuse lost all five of them, and each of the last three by at least three touchdowns. Eric Dungey is still around as starting quarterback, but his durability issues have contributed to late-season collapses like last year's. This defense tends to struggle against the pass, and an inexperienced secondary this year doesn't offer much promise for remedying that issue.
Miami was "back" in 2017—and then it wasn't. A 10-0 record gave way to three straight losses to end the season, but it was clear that Mark Richt has a good thing going at Hard Rock Stadium. The defense that became famous for its celebratory turnover chain returns playmakers like LB Shaquille Quarterman and S Jaquan Johnson, although there's churn along the line. Plenty of weapons are back on offense, as is mercurial quarterback Malik Rosier. If he can stay consistent, the Hurricanes could find themselves in the conference title game for a second straight season.
A young Duke team was up and down last year, winning four straight, losing six in a row and then capping off the season with three more wins. More consistency should be on the way, though, as star quarterback Daniel Jones returns to steer the offense and running back Brittain Brown will be alongside him. Cornerback Mark Gilbert is the leader in a vicious secondary, one that new co-defensive coordinators Ben Albert and Matt Guerrieri are eager to set loose. Duke has visits to Miami and Clemson on the schedule, so it can't afford to drop games against less-talented teams.
3. Virginia Tech
There are some things to be optimistic about in Blacksburg, including the progression of gifted quarterback Josh Jackson as he enters his redshirt sophomore season, Jackson's growing connection with wideouts (and fellow sophomores) Sean Savoy and Hezekiah Grimsley, and three senior starters on the offensive line. But between graduations and injuries, things are looking bleak on the defensive side of the ball. Long-time defensive coordinator Bud Foster is the guy you'd want leading an inexperienced unit, though, and the schedule lines up nicely for the Hokies.
4. Georgia Tech
This is where talent starts to get thin in the Coastal Division. Paul Johnson's Yellow Jackets have trended downward over the last few seasons, and even though he's fresh off of signing a strong recruiting class, his veteran talent will be somewhat lacking this year. Quarterback TaQuon Marshall needs to hone his option-running ability, and it would help if he could complete a pass now and again—he was 43-of-116 passing (37.1%) last season.
A brutal out-of-conference slate (Penn State, at UCF, at Notre Dame) would seem to put a low ceiling on Pittsburgh's win total this season. That said, fans of the Panthers will have an exciting team to watch. Now-sophomore Kenny Pickett took over the reigns at quarterback late last season, and he helped propel his team to an upset over undefeated Miami with two rushing touchdowns in Pitt's season finale. The defense returns almost everybody, which should give Pickett some decent margin for error as he continues to grow into his role as a starter.
6. North Carolina
Things got ugly in Chapel Hill last season, where a Tar Heels team with a preseason Vegas win total of 7 stumbled to a 3-9 record. Needless to say, Mitch Trubisky was missed. Much of the trouble was indeed at quarterback, but Nathan Elliott had some decent games at the end of the year. Whether he or Chazz Surratt starts, speedy wideout Anthony Ratliff-Williams and experienced RBs Jordon Brown and Michael Carter provide an intriguing array of weapons. The defense should improve after an injury-plagued 2017.
Last year was a tale of two seasons for the Hoos: A 5-1 start that included a 19-point win at Boise State, and then a 1-7 finish topped with a 49-7 loss to Navy in the Military Bowl. The D should be solid this season, especially given Bronco Mendenhall's track record of fielding strong defenses. The issues come on offense. Gone is QB Kurt Benkert (25 TDs, 9 INTs) and three starters along the offensive line.
Pick to win the ACC: Clemson
With three straight conferences titles and CFP appearances under its belt, and a roster that looks even better than last year's, there's no reason to believe Clemson won't do it again—even coming out of the much tougher Atlantic Division. A bruising defensive line figures to leave opposing offenses limping long past their actual game with the Tigers.
Best value bet: Florida State +600
Given that a seven-win season was considered absolutely disastrous for the Noles, it's tempting to imagine what this year could look like if things break in a more positive direction. At +600 to win the ACC, it's very tempting.