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.
ACC Football Predictions, Storylines For 2017 Season (cont.)
Virginia Tech (10-4, 6-2)
The Hokies enjoyed a memorable Belk Bowl win over Arkansas, battling back from a 24-0 halftime deficit to claim a 35-24 decision over the Razorbacks to win 10 games in a season for the first time since 2011. The comeback was a staple of VT in 2016, as first-year head coach Justin Fuente's squad came back from a 17-0 deficit to beat Notre Dame on the road and nearly overcame a two-touchdown deficit in the ACC title game against Clemson.
The marriage of Fuente's offense with coordinator Bud Foster's defense was very successful in Blacksburg, though the Hokies received tough news when dual-threat quarterback Jerod Evans announced that he would enter the 2017 NFL Draft. His arrival was huge for an offense that had its share of issues during the later years of the Frank Beamer era. Fuente knows quarterbacks, so he will be able to recruit his type of signal-callers to Blacksburg - though Evans was set up for a special 2017 campaign if he returned to school.
A repeat Coastal division title seems a little out of reach without Evans, but the division's other top contenders have questions as well. I don't think the Hokies return to the league title game, but they are still capable of winning nine or ten games in '17.
The Tar Heels ended their season on a sour note, dropping a 25-23 decision to Stanford in the Sun Bowl. The bad news didn't end there, though, as quarterback Mitch Trubisky announced on Monday that he has decided to leave school and enter the 2017 NFL Draft. The fourth-year junior helped lead the Tar Heels to late comeback victories over Pitt and Florida State, completing 68.2 percent of his throws for 3,748 yards with 30 touchdown passes and just six interceptions this season.
With Trubisky departing, head coach Larry Fedora will be left with little experience at the quarterback position. Logan Byrd and Chazz Surratt both redshirted during their freshman season, while redshirt freshman Nathan Elliott played very little as Trubisky's backup. Former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire reportedly has some interest in UNC, and he can play as a grad transfer with one season of immediate eligibility remaining. That veteran presence would be nice for this program, although Fedora will likely be able to coax production out of most any QB.
Fedora knows how to field productive offenses, so expect the Tar Heels to remain competitive either way. Fedora's name has been linked to head-coaching openings the last few offseasons, but UNC football is in good hands as long as he stays in Chapel Hill. That will always be the question surrounding him, though: how long will he stay before getting a more high-profile gig?
The Hurricanes are coming off of a 31-14 victory over West Virginia in the Russell Athletic Bowl, where fans of the program watched star quarterback Brad Kaaya throw four touchdown passes in his final collegiate game. He will be moving on to the NFL Draft after foregoing a final year in Coral Gables.
Mark Richt's first season back at his alma mater was a success, as he helped change the culture within the program and ended the school's 10-year bowl-victory drought. But the expectations will only continue to grow, especially with Clemson competing for a national championship two years in a row and winning one on Monday night. The Tigers are now the new ACC standard, so Richt will need to continue to reshape this team, defeat the likes of Clemson and Florida State and make it a national title contender again. That won't happen in 2017, but watch out in 2018. It will more closely resemble the Hurricane teams that helped make the program "The U."
The Panthers dropped their Pinstripe Bowl game to Northwestern, 31-24, as both quarterback Nathan Peterman and running back James Conner were knocked out of the game, which affected the team's offensive production. But Pat Narduzzi's squad never quit, just as it didn't when being down to Clemson on the road. The Panthers rallied back to hand the Tigers their first and only loss of the season, and they also defeated Big Ten champ Penn State as well. While the loss to Northwestern was certainly a disappointing way to close the year, it was a successful 2016 campaign for the Panthers.
Pitt will have to replace Conner in the backfield and find a new offensive coordinator, as Matt Canada took the same position at LSU. The defensive-minded Narduzzi also has to improve a pass defense that was woeful. However, under his watch, the Panthers should continue on their upward trajectory. The offense will take a slight step back next year without Canada, although the defense will be improved. Another eight-win season is on the horizon.
The Yellow Jackets put behind their brutal 3-9 campaign in 2015 by making the Taxslayer Bowl, where freshman Dedrick Mills' career-high 169 yards and a touchdown propelled them in a 33-18 victory over Kentucky. Paul Johnson didn't see his offense click as well as he would have liked at times, but Mills will be a big part of this offense moving forward—especially with quarterback Justin Thomas and running back Marcus Marshall being gone. Mills is a talent who will continue to thrive in this offense as long as he is on the field, as he dealt with two suspensions this past season.
The Yellow Jackets will get another SEC opponent in the 2017 season opener, as they are scheduled to face Tennessee on Labor Day in Atlanta. It will be a tough task, but expect Johnson's crew to be ready. After all, this is the same head coach who took GT to two Orange Bowl appearances.
Losing Thomas is tough, because he has been the best passer Johnson has had during his time in Atlanta. It's still a run-based attack, but it will be hard to win nine games next year without the veteran presence of Thomas. However, backup quarterback Matthew Jordan rushed for 121 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Yellow Jackets to a 30-20 upset of Virginia Tech when Thomas was hurt this season. GT won't win the division in '17, but it will remain a tough "out" each and every week.
The Cavaliers endured a rough first season under Bronco Mendenhall, who failed to make a bowl game for the first time as a head coach. If he didn't quite realize the lengths to which he would have to go to get the program on track, he certainly does now after a 2-10 first season.
The Cavaliers did get some good news after the regular season, as all-ACC safety Quin Blanding announced that he would return for his senior season. Blanding has 358 career tackles, which is the most among all retuning FBS players next season. Linebacker Micah Kiser previously announced he would play his senior season. Expect Mendenhall to pursue another grad transfer to compete with Kurt Benkert, who was benched late in the season. He may even prefer to bring in a more dual-threat option. Nonetheless, expect the Hoos to improve on their win total but still fall short of a postseason bid in '17.
David Cutcliffe's Blue Devils took a step back this season, which is surprising considering they have a road win over Notre Dame to their credit - though that's more of an indictment of the Fighting Irish's lackluster year. The Blue Devils had a streak of four straight bowl games snapped, and that run included the program's first postseason win in 54 years.
Injuries and inexperience contributed to a rough 2016, but the future is still bright in Durham. Redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones was forced into the lineup after senior Thomas Sirk's injury, and he improved as the season progressed. Over his final six games, he threw nine touchdowns and just one interception. The Blue Devils will return to the postseason next year because of the strong play of Jones and a defense that continues to make strides.