It was not so long ago ACC commissioner John Swofford set the public challenge to the entire conference to step up their game on the big stage when the opportunities to impress and change the narrative about the ACC as a whole was needed. Fast-forward a few years, and the ACC has done just that. Heading into the 2018 season, the ACC is in position to once again make a solid case for being considered the top conference in the sport.
Leading the way once again should be Clemson, with Dabo Swinney looking to take the Tigers to a fourth straight postseason berth. The Tigers begin the season ranked second in the major polls (and sitting on top of our own CFT Top 25), which has become the new norm for the three-time defending ACC champions. The biggest question Clemson seems to have is who should play quarterback, but that should not get in the way of what Clemson’s season could yield. Whether it is Kelly Bryant or Trevor Lawrence, the Tigers offense should continue humming right along to the ACC Championship Game, with a playoff spot within sight for a fourth consecutive season. Only Alabama has a longer streak of playoff appearances going, as Clemson is well aware after playing the Crimson Tide each of the past three years, including twice in the national championship and last year’s semifinal round. Clemson wasn’t quite up to par to take on eventual national champion Alabama last year, but this year’s Tigers will grow from that experience and thrive behind arguably the nation’s top defensive line starring Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence, and Christian Wilkins.
If Clemson is the model of consistency in the ACC, then Miami is the program looking to prove last year was not a fluke. Mark Richt took Miami to its first appearance in the ACC Championship Game in his second season on the job, but Miami’s playoff bubble burst by losing the final game of the regular season at Pitt and then against Clemson in the conference championship. Miami’s season ended with a third straight loss in the Orange Bowl against Wisconsin so the ‘Canes will look to take their turnover chain swag and shrug off a rough ending to the 2017 season. Miami’s offense may still have room for improvement even with Malik Rosier returning at quarterback, but the defense should make Miami a formidable foe once again. With Shaq Quarterman and Jaquan Johnson leading the defense, the Hurricanes will look for an early statement to start off the year in the season opener against LSU in Arlington. If Miami beats LSU, then the Hurricanes will be in great position to flirt with an undefeated regular season once again, at least until a showdown in Blacksburg against Virginia Tech in mid-November.
Justin Fuente has done well with the Hokies, although he will have one of his youngest teams yet hoping to make a run in the ACC Coastal Division this fall. That may not be a tremendous setback given how the schedule will allow for that talent to come together and find their groove before the bulk of the ACC schedule (Virginia Tech opens on the road at Florida State though). Virginia Tech should be a team that improves as the season plays on, and they could be a team capable of knocking Miami out of the ACC title hunt. At the very least, Virginia Tech could be Miami’s biggest division threat, although nobody should ever underestimate a Georgia Tech team returning nine offensive starters, including senior quarterback TaQuon Marshall, this could be one of those years Georgia Tech makes something happen. The Yellow Jackets could pull a pivotal conference upset with home games against Clemson and Miami.
This could be a year of lower expectations at programs like Louisville (so long Lamar Jackson and nearly everyone on defense, but hello wide receiver Jaylen Smith) and NC State (although the Wolfpack do have Ryan Finley at QB, but like Louisville, nearly everyone on defense is gone, including Bradley Chubb). And a program like Boston College (perhaps the best Steve Addazio has coached yet with nine returning offensive starters including sophomore running back stud AJ Dillon and a strong defensive ability). Syracuse might even sniff a bowl game, while North Carolina and Virginia could have tough paths to the postseason.
And, of course, Florida State is coming in with some new energy provided by new head coach Willie Taggart. Expecting the Seminoles to flip a switch and dethrone Clemson may be premature this season, but after a rough 2017 season, Taggart may be just the guy to turn the page as Florida State begins bouncing back to being what you expect from Florida State. Having running back Cam Akers sure helps. The defense may not have all of the pieces in place just yet with so much roster turnover, but the defensive line is solid with senior Demarcus Christmas and potential breakout player Marvin Wilson. Florida State won’t stay down for long, but making a serious run at Clemson in 2018 may not be likely. 2019, however, could be a different story.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
ACC ATLANTIC DIVISION
- Florida State
- NC State
- Boston College
- Wake Forest
ACC COASTAL DIVISION
- Virginia Tech
- Georgia Tech
- North Carolina