ACC champion Clemson won the national championship with a win over Alabama. Which teams in the league have a chance to compete with the Tigers heading into the 2017 season?
The Atlantic Coast Conference enjoyed its best football season since expanding its membership, as the league compiled a 9-3 mark in the postseason, capped off by Clemson’s exhilarating 35-31 win over defending national champion Alabama in the College Football Playoff title game.
The Tigers won their first national crown since 1981, so they will begin the 2017 season with a target on their collective back.
While next season is still several months away, it is never too early to take a look at each ACC team and see where each one ranks compared to the league competition.
How does your team stack up as we start to crave for spring football?
Early ACC Football Rankings For 2017
First, let’s start with partial conference member Notre Dame…
I have the Fighting Irish slotted at No. 31 in my way-too-early No. 1-128 rankings for 2017, which is a big jump from their disastrous 4-8 campaign in 2016. But I think Brian Kelly’s squad will get stellar play from new quarterback Brandon Wimbush, the one-time Penn State commit who will have a chance to show off the skill set that made him an Elite 11 participant. Wimbush could have started for many college football teams last season, but he prepared as if he were the starter in South Bend and did everything asked of him by the coaching staff. The ND defense, meanwhile, will be better after gaining valuable experience in ’16.
Bronco Mendenhall will begin his second year of an uphill climb in Charlottesville coming off of his first bowl-less season as a head coach. A 2-10 first season was made a bit better by the news that all-ACC safety Quin Blanding announced that he would return for his senior season, and he’ll be joined by linebacker Micah Kiser as stalwarts on that side of the ball. Expect the Hoos to improve on their win total from this season but still fall short of a postseason bid in ’17.
13. Boston College
The Eagles struggled mightily again on offense, not giving their eighth-ranked defense enough support throughout the year. Steve Addazio needs to be more creative and loosen things up offensively next season, but it’s hard to imagine that being the case because he’s been a bit stubborn up to this point in his tenure.
David Cutcliffe went into South Bend and beat Notre Dame, but the Blue Devils were still unable to capture a bowl bid, snapping their streak of consecutive bowl appearances at four. Duke was beset by injuries and inexperience, but redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones threw nine touchdowns and just one interception over his final six games. Expect the Blue Devils to return to the postseason because of the strong play of Jones and a defense that continues to make strides.
The Orange notched four wins in former Bowling Green head coach Dino Babers’ debut season, as wide receiver transfer Amba Etta-Tawo broke school records for receptions (94) and receiving yards (1,482). This is a passer-friendly system, so expect the Orange to have few problems scoring points in 2017.
Defensive help is on its way, as former Notre Dame cornerback Devin Butler is on his way and will be eligible to play immediately as a grad transfer. Babers will have a chance to reach a bowl game next year, but nonconference games against Middle Tennessee, Central Michigan and LSU will be key. The Orange will probably need to win the first two considering the heightened level of league play.
10. Wake Forest
Dave Clawson’s Demon Deacons snapped a three-game season-ending losing streak with a win over AAC champion Temple in the Military Bowl. While the second half of the season was a struggle, the program was still able to notch its first winning season in eight years. But moving forward, the offense needs a lot of work, as quarterback John Wolford threw more interceptions than touchdowns, and the unit as a whole did not help out the defense nearly enough.
9. NC State
The Wolfpack had a disappointing 2016 campaign despite claiming three victories in their last four contests. Boise State transfer quarterback Ryan Finley needs to play cleaner football, and Dave Doeren’s team needs to have a breakthrough win. The ‘Pack were involved in a near-upset of Clemson, but the setback started a four-game losing streak. The talent base has improved in Raleigh, which means that more should be expected in ’17. It will be a big season for Doeren.
8. Georgia Tech
Paul Johnson, who has taken the Yellow Jackets to two Orange Bowls, bounced back nicely from a rough 3-9 season in 2015. Dedrick Mills will be a big part of this offense moving forward, especially with quarterback Justin Thomas and fellow running back Marcus Marshall not returning in ’17. A tough season opener looms against Tennessee on Labor Day in Atlanta, though quarterback Matthew Jordan should help the offense remain solid and help deliver another postseason appearance.
The Panthers handed setbacks to Big Ten champ Penn State as well as ACC champ—and national titlist—Clemson, which was the Tigers’ first and only loss of the season. Pat Narduzzi’s squad will have to replace James Conner in the backfield and find a new offensive coordinator, as Matt Canada took the same position at LSU. The defensive-minded Narduzzi also must improve a pass defense that was woeful. The Panthers will continue on their upward trajectory, but expect a slight setback on offense while the defense is improved in ’17.
6. North Carolina
Larry Fedora’s Tar Heels had a bit of a disappointing season, and the news after the bowl loss wasn’t very sobering, as quarterback Mitch Trubisky announced that he has decided to leave school and enter the 2017 NFL Draft. With Trubisky departing, little experience is left at the quarterback position unless former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire arrives as a grad transfer with one season of immediate eligibility remaining. Logan Byrd and Chazz Surratt both redshirted during their freshman season, while redshirt freshman Nathan Elliott played very little as Trubisky’s backup. Fedora knows how to field productive offenses, but he’ll need to work his magic under center.
5. Virginia Tech
The Hokies won 10 games in Justin Fuente’s debut season, and it was capped off by a memorable comeback win over Arkansas in the Belk Bowl. The offense, led by star dual-threat quarterback Jerod Evans, was the perfect complement to coordinator Bud Foster’s defense. However, Evans is leaving early for the NFL, so a repeat Coastal division title seems a little out of reach without him.
Mark Richt came back to his alma mater and helped end the school’s 10-year bowl-victory drought. But star quarterback Brad Kaaya is moving on to the NFL Draft after foregoing a final year in Coral Gables. Expectations will only continue to grow at Miami, especially with ACC foe Clemson being in the national championship two years in a row and winning one. Richt will get this program to more closely resemble those that we have seen during the heyday of The U, but the Hurricanes are not quite there yet.
The Cardinals dropped their final three games of this past season, as Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson was sacked 22 times over his final three games. But this is clearly a different Cardinals program than the one we saw in Conference USA and the American Athletic Association. Head coach Bobby Petrino will continue to cultivate depth, but it’s a team that needs to take the next step to arrive on the national stage. The Cards do not have a very difficult non-conference slate in ’17, so running the table in the ACC may be necessary to advance to the College Football Playoff.
With two-time Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson off to the NFL, all eyes will be on rising junior Kelly Bryant, rising redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper and incoming true freshman Hunter Johnson as the Tigers look to replace the elite productivity at the QB position. Mike Williams has also declared, so has Artavis Scott, and it’s likely Wayne Gallman will leave early, too. Additionally, the defense will have to replace veterans such as linebacker Ben Boulware and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley. The cupboard isn’t bare, though, as Swinney can plug in replacements and not see too much drop off. But the big question is who will fill that leadership void left by Watson and others.
1. Florida State
Redshirt freshman quarterback Deondre Francois showed his toughness starting with the wild season-opening victory over Ole Miss, and another tough opener looms in ’17: Alabama in Atlanta. FSU could lose that game and still get into the College Football Playoff, however, by winning the ACC. Jimbo Fisher’s squad will be loaded, and it will be looking to knock off Clemson from its perch atop the ACC.