Florida State has reigned supreme in the ACC for the past three seasons, but is the year someone knocks the Seminoles off? And if someone does, will that leave the ACC out of the College Football Playoff? There's plenty of uncertainty in both divisions and the most wide-open race for the conference title in years. Let's get a sense of how it might all play out with some ACC team superlatives.
Most improved: Virginia Tech
The Hokies’ defensive prowess last season was mostly overshadowed by their offensive struggles. As a result, a unit that ranked in the top 10 in defensive S&P+ went largely ignored. That defense could be even better this year thanks to exceptional talent on the line and at cornerback. Star defensive ends Dadi Nicolas and Ken Ekanem (33.3 tackles for loss and 19 sacks combined in 2014) are back while defensive tackle Luther Maddy (13.5 tackles for loss in 2013) returns after missing most of last season due to knee injuries. Kendall Fuller, Chuck Clark and Kendall Facyson give the Hokies three elite cornerbacks.
As for the offense, it’d be unreasonable to expect Virginia Tech to light up the scoreboard. But the Hokies should make some improvement on last year’s 4.6 yards per play simply by being more experienced (eight returning offensive starters) and healthy (running backs Trey Edmunds, Shai McKenzie and Marshawn Williams, and receivers Demitri Knowles and Kalvin Cline were limited by injuries last season). If the defense lives up to its potential, the offense won’t have to be much better than average to put Virginia Tech in the mix in the ACC Coastal.
Most on the decline: Duke
The class that led Duke to its wondrous rise is gone now, and while coach David Cutcliffe may continue to make progress with the Blue Devils, the turnover is bound to cause at least a temporary setback. Duke returns just 12 starters from last year’s nine-win squad and loses quarterback Anthony Boone, speedster Jamison Crowder and first-round guard Laken Tomlinson. On defense, the Blue Devils will have to break in new starters at both linebacker spots. After 19 wins over the past two seasons, Duke’s overall trajectory still seems upward, but the positive momentum will likely have to overcome a blow this season.
Toughest schedule: Georgia Tech
The ACC Coastal Division champion has lost at least two regular season games every year since 2012, a streak the Yellow Jackets appear to have the talent to snap. Although nearly the entirety of Georgia Tech’s running backs are gone, Justin Thomas is back to lead the option offense while eight starters return to a defense that could sorely use improvement after allowing 6.2 yards per play last season. Still, to enter the ACC title game with only one defeat, the Yellow Jackets will need to survive a daunting slate. In addition to divisional crossover games at Clemson and versus Florida State, Georgia Tech also faces stern nonconference challenges at Notre Dame and against Georgia.
Easiest schedule: North Carolina
With the Tar Heels seemingly on the cusp of their annually expected breakthrough, they could get an extra boost this year from a generous schedule. North Carolina draws Wake Forest and NC State for its cross-division foes and catches Georgia Tech in between the Yellow Jackets’ road trips to Duke and Clemson. Though the Tar Heels battle two Power Five opponents in their nonconference schedule, Illinois has faced an onslaught of distractions this off-season and South Carolina will be breaking in a new quarterback in the Sept. 3 opener. That could inject some confidence into a defense that was among the nation’s worst last year.
Biggest range: Florida State
Florida State was already facing some major questions on offense before Dalvin Cook’s arrest put his future on the team in jeopardy. Now the Seminoles’ attack features a skilled but turnover-prone quarterback learning a new, complicated offense in just over three months; a rising star at running back who may not be with the team by September; and an offensive line that returns just one starter. The defense also must find answers to improve on its 3.88 sack percentage (112th in the country), though Jalen Ramsey should headline a dominant secondary. Jimbo Fisher has recruited plenty of talent to fill Florida State’s holes, but will that talent show some growing pains? The ‘Noles could easily pull off another undefeated season, but at least one or two losses is much more likely and as many as four or five is possible.
Most overrated: Miami
Those expecting this year to be the season Miami finally breaks through in the ACC Coastal are likely to be disappointed. Yes, Brad Kaaya gives the Hurricanes one of the top passers in the conference and the secondary returns the bulk of its playmakers, but there are major holes everywhere else. Miami loses its top three pass catchers—the only targets with more than 25 receptions last season—and Duke Johnson’s departure leaves the Hurricanes without their all-time leading rusher. While running backs Joseph Yearby (5.9 yards per carry last year), Gus Edwards (5.9) and four-star true freshman Mark Walton have potential, they’ll have to replicate Johnson’s production behind a line that loses three starters, including two all-ACC honorees. The front seven also has some questions without Denzel Perryman and excellent pass-rusher Thurston Armbrister. Overall, not a single Hurricanes player made the preseason All-ACC first team, and Miami’s schedule is intimidating, too. It opens ACC play at Florida State before taking on Virginia Tech and Clemson. Things could quickly spiral downhill if the Hurricanes lose all three of those.
Most underrated: Pittsburgh
A team with clear offensive stars and a below-average defense brings in a renowned defensive mind? That sounds like highly touted Auburn or Texas A&M…or the Panthers. Although Pat Narduzzi’s squad almost surely won’t be competing for a College Football Playoff berth like the Tigers or Aggies could—unlike the two SEC teams, Pittsburgh’s defense isn’t filled with elite recruits—there are still plenty of reasons for optimism for a team projected to finish sixth in the Coastal Division in the preseason media poll. ACC Player of the Year James Conner is back at running back after bulldozing for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns last year. And Tyler Boyd gives the Panthers one of the top receiving threats in the country. After throwing an interception in six straight games early in the season, quarterback Chad Voytik tossed just one in the final six contests. Former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi knows how to make stars out of lesser-heralded recruits, so expect some improvement on defense even if the Panthers don’t resemble the shutdown units of the Spartans just yet. Pittsburgh could easily rise into the upper echelon of the Coastal Division this fall.
Most at stake: Virginia
Mike London was on the hot seat entering the 2014 season, and a 5–7 season did little to cool things down. He could have easily been axed last year, so ’15 is clearly a sink-or-swim moment for the sixth-year coach. The Cavaliers have already squandered all momentum from 2011’s 8–5 campaign, but can their touted recruiting classes of ’12 and ’13 spark some new life? Virginia has talent on both its offensive and defensive lines, and former five-star recruit Quin Blanding anchors a strong secondary. But nonconference matchups against UCLA, Notre Dame and Boise State hardly ease the Cavaliers into the season, and they’ve won just five conference games in the past three years. London has his work cut out for him to earn another year.
Best path to the playoff: Clemson
No ACC team is without question marks, and the Tigers certainly have some big ones—Deshaun Watson’s fragility, an offensive line that returns just one starter and a defense that loses eight starters—but they’re still the safest bet in the ACC to reach the playoff. Although recurring injuries forced Watson to miss all or most of seven games last season, one injury was a fluky broken hand. The offensive line concerns are real, but the rest of the offense is loaded with firepower, especially at receiver. And while Clemson loses several defensive stars—Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Stephone Anthony—it has plenty of talented backups ready to fill the spotlight. Defensive end Shaq Lawson could be a stud, there are three more-than-capable options at defensive tackle and Ben Boulware anchors a strong linebacker corps.
But realistically, the parity at the top of the ACC—Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Louisville—means no team is likely to finish the season unbeaten. Last year’s undefeated Seminoles team dropped to No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings and likely would not have made the playoff with a loss. So who combines the best chance to go at least 11–1 with a strong resume of wins to possibly finish in the top four even with a defeat? The Tigers, who can add a nice nonconference victory to their case with a win over Notre Dame on Oct. 3.