Clemson’s CFP title game win over Alabama put a bow on the 2016 college football season. But it’s never too early to take a look ahead at the ACC landscape moving forward.
There is a new standard-bearer in the world of college football, as Clemson toppled Alabama on Monday evening in Tampa to claim its first national championship since 1981.
The Tigers fell behind by 14 points early but rallied back behind an offense that wore out a ‘Bama defense that had been one of the most ferocious we have seen in recent seasons. Dabo Swinney earned his first national title, and the Tigers are expected to be a premier program for as long as Swinney is roaming the sidelines.
Is there a team that can dethrone the Tigers in their own league?
Let’s take a look at some of the storylines for each ACC program as they prepare for the 2017 season.
The Tigers dominated Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, handing Urban Meyer his first shutout ever as a head coach. The win led to a date with Alabama for the second straight season in the College Football Playoff national championship game, and the Tigers exacted revenge on the Crimson Tide despite being down by double digits entering the fourth quarter. Dabo Swinney’s squad claimed consecutive ACC titles for the first time in 28 years, and Deshaun Watson and Co. brought home a national championship to Clemson for the first time since 1981.
Swinney continues to bring in high-level talent to his program, so the Tigers are not going anywhere any time soon. They have replaced Florida State as the top dog in the league—not too shabby for a head coach who has been doubted throughout his career.
Despite losing Watson to the NFL, the Tigers will still field a productive offense. But there’s a reason why Watson was a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist: he’s a special talent and leader. And that leadership void will be tough to fill in 2017, especially after seeing how effectively he led his team on the game-winning drive against the Tide. Expect FSU wrestle ACC supremacy away from Clemson in ’17.
The Cardinals really struggled in the season’s final moments. Bobby Petrino’s squad dropped its final three games, including the Citrus Bowl against LSU. Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson was sacked 22 times over his final three games, so he didn’t have much help down the stretch from his O-Line. But this was a program that was in the hunt for a CFP berth even after its wild, close loss to Clemson.
Giving Jackson enough time to throw and holes to run through is what makes this offense tick, and he wasn’t given such luxury that much in the late-season losses to Houston, Kentucky and LSU. The good news for Cardinal fans is that this is a different program from the one we saw in C-USA and the AAC. Petrino needs to continue to further develop depth and improve the talent level across the roster. It’s a talented team that needs to take the next step and beat a team like Clemson to really arrive on the national stage.
The Cardinals don’t have a very difficult non-conference slate in ’17, so running the table in the ACC may be necessary to advance to the CFP. Even with Jackson, the Cards aren’t quite there yet, and will be unable to claim a spot in the ACC title game next season.
The Seminoles undoubtedly suffered through a disappointing season, as they had early season losses that knocked them out of the College Football Playoff race. However, it’s a testament to Jimbo Fisher and his staff for re-focusing their players and having them not throw in the collective towel. The ‘Noles finished the season strong, punctuated by a nice performance against Michigan in the Orange Bowl. Star tailback Dalvin Cook rushed for 145 yards and a touchdown in a 33-32 win in a game that FSU controlled most of the way before needing a rally in the final moments.
One of the biggest takeaways from this season was the development of quarterback Deondre Francois, who showed toughness and grit from Game 1. The redshirt freshman signal-caller wasn’t perfect, but he was productive despite being battered all season. He’s also the latest proof that talent will never be the issue in Tallahassee.
The annual FSU-Clemson tilt will continue to have CFP ramifications, but the defense needs to improve. I think it will look much better for the duration of the 2017 season. Even if it drops the season opener to Alabama in Atlanta, FSU could run the table and claim a CFP bid. A win in Death Valley will be necessary, however.
The Wolfpack earned a berth to the Independence Bowl, where they had an easy time with Vanderbilt in a 41-17 win in Shreveport. It was a nice way to end a disappointing season. Boise State transfer quarterback Ryan Finley helped deliver the ‘Pack their third victory in their final four games to finish with a winning record.
Still, there’s no question that Dave Doeren’s team underachieved this season, suffering some tough, close losses—including a near-upset of Clemson that started a four-game losing streak. 2017 will be an important year for Doeren, as the talent base has improved in Raleigh, which means that more should be expected. Defensive end Bradley Chubb will return for his senior season, which is big for a defense that is expected to return 16 starters. Chubb had 10.5 sacks and 22 tackles for loss on a defensive line that was stout. That aggressiveness will carry over to 2017, and the Wolfpack will be good for one major upset next fall.
The Demon Deacons earned a berth to the Military Bowl against Temple despite ending the regular season on a three-game losing streak and losers of five of their last six. Despite the rough closing stretch, it was a nice season for head coach Dave Clawson, who received an eight-year contract extension shortly after the team’s 34-26 win over the Owls. The victory gave Wake its first winning season in eight years.
This was an offense that left a lot to be desired in 2016, though. Quarterback John Wolford threw more interceptions than touchdowns, and the unit did not help out the defense nearly enough. Wake won more games this season (7) than in Clawson’s first two years combined (6), and the win over the AAC champion Owls was an impressive way to close out the year. In order to consistently reach bowl games, the offense needs to be much better. It won’t be a heck of a lot better next year, but it will be good enough to send the Demon Deacons bowling and avoid long losing skids.
The first year of the Dino Babers era was a success, as not many Orange fans could have predicted the former Bowling Green head coach coaxing four wins out of this team. Wide receiver transfer Amba Etta-Tawo broke school records for receptions (94) and receiving yards (1,482) to lead the ACC in both categories.
The Orange will get some defensive help for next season, as Notre Dame cornerback Devin Butler will play his final college season at ‘Cuse after a suspension kept him off the field entirely in 2016. He will be eligible to play immediately as a grad transfer. He appeared in 37 games and started three for the Irish, with six pass breakups, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and one interception. Babers will reach his first bowl game as the ‘Cuse head coach next year because his offense has been successful at each stop.
The Eagles advanced to the Quick Lane Bowl, where they claimed a 36-30 win over Maryland. Steve Addazio’s squad finally had a breakout offensive game, but the fact is that this offense once again struggled mightily and failed to complement the nation’s eighth-ranked defense throughout the year.
The Eagles had last won a bowl game in 2007, so this was a nice win for the program. But moving forward, Addazio must be able to field a more consistent, competent offense if the Eagles want to be serious league contenders. And it needs to be more creative. An offense can be run-based, but it needs to have more variety. I’m eager to see if Addazio loosens things up offensively next season, because it’s been unfair to the disciplined, physical BC defense.