Will Gus Malzahn be able to lead the Auburn Tigers to a berth in the College Football Playoff?
Y-Florida State Seminoles 11-2 (9-0)
In seven years as the head football coach of the Florida State Seminoles, Jimbo Fisher has been able to build off of the success that his predecessor Bobby Bowden was able to achieve. Fisher is 78-17 as a head coach, while the Seminoles have finished in the top 25 of the Associated Press’ Poll in each of his seasons in Tallahassee which included winning the national championship during the 2013 college football campaign. The ‘Noles went 10-3 in each of the last two years, but they were overshadowed in the Atlantic Coast Conference due to the dominance of the Clemson Tigers. But with Clemson expected to take a step back this season after they were able to win the national championship last season, will Florida State be able to take advantage in order to win the ACC?
Last year as a freshman, quarterback Deondre Francois flourished for Florida en route to being the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Rookie of the Year. Francois was able to throw 20 touchdown passes while also completing nearly 60% of his throws. Even more will be expected of Francois this season as if he’s able to build off of his solid freshman campaign, he could overtake Louisville Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson in regards to being the ACC’s Offensive Player of the Year.
Coming into this season there could be some concern in regards to who will be able to replace the contributions of running back Dalvin Cook as Florida State’s running back after he rushed for 1,765 yards and 19 touchdowns last year, but in Tallahassee the cupboard is never bare. Jacques Patrick spent 2016 as Cook’s understudy and in a limited role he was able to average 5.7 yards per carry. Now as Patrick is entering his junior campaign, he will have to be the guy that must be able to offset Francois in the Seminoles running game.
The offensive line could be a concern for Florida State to begin the season as Fisher is going with two freshmen and a sophomore in the starting lineup, while it will be up to senior right tackle Rick Leonard to anchor this unit.
In 2016, the ‘Noles were able to show flashes of brilliance at times on defense, and heading into the new campaign there is once again talent on this squad that is worthy of playing the National Football League.
Last year as a freshman, defensive end Brian Burns was able to tally 9.5 sacks. However Burns was able to accomplish this as he played opposite of defensive DeMarcus Walker. But with Walker now in the National Football League, will Burns be able to be the guy? Burns should be able to answer the call as Florida State as a team was able record 51 sacks last season with the “meet me at the quarterback play” once again being in effect in Tallahassee.
Junior cornerback Tarvarus McFadden is coming off a season in which he recorded 8 interceptions and here in 2017, his name will be mentioned in regards to winning the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back. But whereas McFadden was able to register 8 picks last season, I don’t see him getting as many chances this time around to display his pass catching skills as opposing offenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference will think twice about testing him.
The Seminoles will be tested to begin the new season as they’ll face the Alabama Crimson Tide of the Southeastern Conference in what will be the first college football game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. And after the ‘Noles lost to Louisville 63-20 last year, revenge will be on their minds heading into the rematch on October 21 in what could decide who wins the Atlantic Division.
X-Louisville Cardinals 10-2 (6-2)
The transition to the Atlantic Coast Conference has been a seamless one for the Louisville Cardinals. Overall the Cardinals are 26-13 since joining the ACC, but they must find a way to contend with the big boys of the conference. Louisville has gone a combined 1-5 versus the Florida State Seminoles and Clemson Tigers which has held them back from winning the conference title. And as head football coach Bobby Petrino and his team are set to embark on a new campaign, they must find a way to finish. After the Cards started 9-1 last year and they were in the hunt for a berth in the College Football Playoff until they finished the season on a three-game losing streak. And it will be interesting to see if the Cards are ready to bounce back in order to take that next step in 2017.
In 2016, quarterback Lamar Jackson had a season for the ages. Jackson accounted for more than 5,000 yards of total offense to become the first player in school history to win the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s top college football player. Now as Jackson is set to begin his junior campaign, he must be able to channel out the white noise.
There will be talk of Jackson seeking to become the first player since Archie Griffin in 1975 to win consecutive Heismans, while people will also be discussing the possibility of him being the first overall pick in next year’s National Football League Draft. And we cannot forget about the fact that defenses around the Atlantic Coast Conference will put a target on Jackson’s back as they are seeking to slow him down. But even with all of that if Jackson is able to remain focused on helping his team win games this fall, the Cardinals nor he should falter.
Like Jackson, the Cardinals entire starting offensive line is comprised of juniors which includes left tackle Geron Christian. And due to Jackson’s athleticism, it will be important for Louisville’s offensive line to keep their heads on a swivel because you never know in which direction that he will take the play.
When you think of Petrino led football teams, you think of offensive football; however this year’s Louisville team can be better on defense than expected. Peter Sirmon is set to begin his first season as Louisville’s defensive coordinator and he has some talent to work with.
Senior linebackers James Hearns and Issac Stewart each have the potential to play in the National Football League and the same can be said in regards to junior cornerback Jaire Alexander. These players solid play making ability on the defensive side of football and that’ll be important as they must consistently be able to offset the Cardinals high-octane offense.
In order for the Cardinals to win the Atlantic Coast Conference they will definitely have to earn it as their first two conference games will be against the North Carolina Tar Heels and Clemson. But Louisville’s chances of winning the ACC will come down their October 21st meeting with Florida State which will more than likely decide who wins the Atlantic Division.
X-Clemson Tigers 8-4 (5-3)
Dabo Swinney has nine years under his belt as the head football coach of the Clemson Tigers while the last five seasons have been the best stretch in program history. Over this stretch Clemson is 60-9 which includes them going 14-1 in each of the last two years. Clemson was able to culminate this by winning the national championship last season and the party is still going on. But after the Tigers were able to reach the top of the mountain, what will they be able to do for an encore?
There is no way that the Tigers will be able to replace quarterback Deshaun Watson and what he meant to their program over the last three years, but somebody must try.
Junior quarterback Kelly Bryant appears to be the favorite to be Clemson’s next starting quarterback. Bryant only attempted 9 passes last season and now he will get his chance to show what he can do.
It’s not just Watson who Clemson must replace on offense as running back Wayne Gallman along with wide receivers Artavis Scott and Mike Williams are now in the National Football League as after the Tigers had the 12th ranked offense in the nation last season, they should take a step back here in 2017.
Defensively Clemson will miss the leadership of linebacker Ben Boulware, but there are some players who should be ready to step up for defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Sophomore defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence is solid on the interior of the Tigers defensive line, while junior middle linebacker Kendall Russell has the potential to be one of the better players at his position within the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Clemson will have a different look when they take the field as compared to the last few years, but don’t expect their opponents to let up on them as they will still be viewed as the defending national champs. This is a rebuilding year for the Tigers, but they should still be respectable.
X-North Carolina State Wolfpack 7-5 (5-3)
With the exception of a minor uprising here and there, the North Carolina State Wolfpack are consistently a middle of the pack football program in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Wolfpack only have one double-digit winning season in their history which gives you an idea as to how consistently inconsistent that they are. Each of the last two years have seen N.C. State go 7-6, and can we expect anymore for this team under head football coach Dave Doeren?
In 2016, Ryan Finley was given his chance to be the starting quarterback for the Wolfpack and he did not disappoint. Finley passed for 3,055 yards and 18 touchdowns as he gave the folks in Raleigh some hope for the future. Finley also showed poise as he was able to complete more than 60% of his passes. And now it will be interesting to see if Finley is able to take that next step for both himself and North Carolina State.
Finley will be protected by a veteran offensive line that consist of four juniors and a senior in right guard Tony Adams as they will be important to any potential success for this offense.
Defensively the Wolfpack have a strong core of linebackers that is led by a pair of seniors in middle linebacker Jerod Fernandez and outside linebacker Airius Moore. Both Fernandez and Moore are solid tacklers that possess good lateral movement which will be on display as they seek to slow down the quarterbacks and running backs that that the Atlantic Coast Conference has to offer. Senior defensive end Bradley Chubb could be a first-team All-ACC performer as he has the potential to be the best pass rusher in the conference. Chubb was able to record 10 sacks last season and he should be able to build off of that by tallying at least 12 this year.
The Wolfpack face a daunting schedule which includes road games against the Florida State Seminoles and Pittsburgh Panthers, while home showdowns with the Louisville Cardinals and Clemson Tigers will more than likely keep them as a middle of the road squad within the conference.
X-Boston College Eagles 6-6 (3-5)
You have to go back to 2009 to find the last time in which the Boston College Eagles were able to win more than 7 games in a season. Three of the last four years have seen Boston College go 7-6 with a 3-9 campaign in 2015. But for Boston College head football coach Steve Addazio, will 2017 be the year that he and his program are finally able to buck their trend of mediocrity?
Defense was the name of the game in 2016 for the Eagles and you can expect more of the same this season. Under defensive coordinator Jim Reid, Boston College was ninth in the nation in total defense last season, and if they are going to be successful this season they’ll need to again win ugly.
It would have been easy for defensive end Harold Landry to head to the National Football League last season after he tallied 16.5 sacks in his junior campaign. However Landry decided to return to to school, and the NFL’s loss will be Boston College’s gain. Landry has tremendous edge rushing ability which will be on full display once again. However after Landry was able to get to the quarterback at will last season, I expect more attention this year from opposing offenses for him which should open things up for his teammates to make plays. As a team Boston College was fourth in the nation in sacks with 47 and with Landry leading the way I expect that trend to continue this season.
And that defense will have to once again be rock solid since the BC offense is stagnant at best. Last year the Eagles were 127th in total offense which won’t cut it again. This offense needs to develop some cohesion under Addazio if they want any chance of staying afloat in the Atlantic Coast Conference as they need to provide some balance for a defense that is able to make it happen.
In 2016, the Eagles were able to make a bowl game in spite of the fact that they were only able to win two conference games. That might not cut it again in 2017 as Boston College is going to have to knock off some of the big boys that the conference has to offer in order to gain some respect, and more importantly victories.
Syracuse Orange 4-8 (2-6)
Life on the gridiron in the Atlantic Coast Conference has not been easy for the Syracuse Orange. Syracuse’s best year in the ACC was 2013 when they went 7-6. However since then the Orange have never won more than four games in a season. Dino Babers is set to begin his second season as Syracuse’s head football coach and he is attempting to transform the offense in Central New York. Babers has been known to produce offenses that put up solid numbers and last year Syracuse was 11th in the nation in passing offense. Now it’ll be interesting to see if the Orange will be able to build off of that and sneak up on some teams in the ACC.
Junior quarterback Eric Dungey could be a dark horse as far as being the best signal caller within the Atlantic Coast Conference. Last year saw Dungey complete nearly 65% of his passes and he also threw for more than 400 yards in a game twice. Syracuse’s offense is conducive to Dungey’s passing ability which could be good news for both he and the Orange.
Senior wide receiver Ervin Phillips was able to haul in 90 receptions in 2016 and he should be able to do more of the same this time around. At 5’11”, speed is the name of the game for Phillips who could again be Dungey’s go-to-guy in the Syracuse passing game.
However as good as Babers’ offenses have been, the same cannot be said in regards to his team’s defensive prowess. Last year the ‘Cuse was 122nd in the nation in total defense which included them surrendering 40 points in six games. Syracuse does have a trio of solid senior linebackers in Jonathan Thomas, Zaire Franklin, and Parris Bennett, but the unit needs to find more play makers on the defensive line.
Syracuse must take advantage of the early portion of their schedule which is easy. But things will get difficult in a hurry for the Orange with a road meeting against the LSU Tigers of the Southeastern Conference, along with road games within the Atlantic Coast Conference versus the North Carolina State Wolfpack, Miami Hurricanes, Florida State Seminoles, and Louisville Cardinals.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons 5-7 (2-6)
The Wake Forest Demon Deacons were able to raise some eyebrows last season when they began the season with a record of 5-1. The competition got tougher in the second half of the season for the Demon Deacons, but they still managed to go 7-6 with their first bowl appearance since 2011. It was not pretty at times, but Wake Forest was able to display an effective brand of football under head football coach Dave Clawson. And although that the Deacons will once again fly under the radar, will they again be able to shock enough teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference in order to become bowl eligible for the second consecutive year?
Defensively Wake Forest must replace three of their top four tacklers from last season. However the Deacons have the luxury of leaning on senior defensive end Duke Ejiofor. Last year Ejiofor was one of the best pass rushers in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and his skills will once again be needed if Wake Forest wants to be in contention to make a bowl game. Sophomore free safety Jesse Bates is coming off of a stellar freshman campaign which saw him be a Second-team All-ACC member as he tallied 5 interceptions. Bates is a player that has solid football instincts which will once again be on display on Tobacco Road.
However as good as Wake Forest’s defense can be, their offense cannot be held in the same regard. Last year Wake Forest failed to score at least 20 points in a game seven times and their offensively is still not recognized as a juggernaut. And that inability for the Demon Deacons to consistently put up points will hurt them in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Seeing Wake Forest make a bowl game last year was a feel good story, but 2017 might not produce too much for them to cheer about.
X-Miami Hurricanes 10-3 (6-3)
The 2016 college football season was a Jekyll and Hyde campaign for the Miami Hurricanes. The Hurricanes began the season with a record of 4-0 before they proceeded to lose their next four contests. However Miami would rebound to win their final five games which included them winning a bowl game for the first time 2006. And as Miami won 9 games last season, will this be the year in which they are finally able to win the Atlantic Coast Conference?
Mark Richt has one year under his belt as the head football coach at Miami. Prior to coming to Miami, Richt comprised a record of 145-51 in 15 seasons as the head football coach of the Georgia Bulldogs which including winning a pair of Southeastern Conference Championships. In one year at Miami, you can see that Richt is attempting to provide his team with stability, while getting them back to being a consistent force on the college football scene.
Miami is a school which has been known to produce quality running backs and they could have another one in junior running back Mark Walton. Walton averaged 5.3 yards per carry last year and he plays for a head coach in Richt that is dedicated to the running game which means that he’ll have plenty of opportunities to carry the Hurricanes offense.
Walton’s ability to run the football will be important as junior quarterback Malik Rosier is projected to be Miami’s starting signal caller. Rosier only attempted 4 passes last season as he was the backup to Brad Kaaya. But with Kaaya now in the professional ranks, Rosier has to be the guy for Miami.
But being that Richt loves to run the football, along with the fact that the Hurricanes are going with an inexperienced starting quarterback in Rosier, it will be important that they can rely on an experienced offensive line. Led by center Nick Linder, Miami will have three senior starters on the offensive line which plays right into what Richt wants to do on offense and that is to run the football.
Last year Miami was stingy on the defensive side of the football which could once again be the case this year. The Canes were 20th in total defense last year under defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and some underclassmen were able to gain some valuable playing time. Sophomore defensive end Joseph Jackson will be in the discussion to be the pass rusher in the Atlantic Coast Conference, while another pair of sophomores in middle linebacker Shaquille Quarterman and outside linebacker Michael Pickney have tremendous instincts and lateral ability to slow down opposing offenses. However Miami must be able to create more turnovers as they only produced 19 last season which would enhance their chances of winning the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Three of Miami’s four losses last season were decided by a touchdown or less which shows how close that they are to breaking through. And although that the Hurricanes biggest rival in the Atlantic Coast Conference are the Florida State Seminoles, their meetings with the North Carolina Tar Heels and Virginia Tech Hokies on October 28 and November 4 respectively will decide their fate in regards to whether or not that that they’ll finally get the shot to play in the conference title game.
X-Virginia Tech Hokies 10-2 (6-2)
One of the highlights for the 2016 college football season in the Atlantic Coast Conference was the success that first year head coaches were able to have. For the Virginia Tech Hokies, first year head football coach Justin Fuente was able to lead them to the ACC Championship Game for the first time since 2011, and he was also able to guide them to their fourth bowl victory in the last five seasons. Fuente found a way to awake a sleeping giant in Blacksburg, but will he able to avoid the “sophomore jinx”?
Whereas Fuente was able to rely on a veteran quarterback last year in Jerod Evans, this time around it will be the untested redshirt freshman in Josh Jackson that’ll be taking the starting reps for the Hokies. But Jackson’s job will be made a little bit easier due to the fact that he can rely on a dependable senior at wide receiver in Cam Phillips.
But make no mistake about the fact that Virginia Tech’s bread is buttered on the defensive side of the football. Bud Foster is set to begin his 31st season in being affiliated with Virginia Tech and his 23rd as the team’s defensive coordinator. Foster has sent his fair share of players to the National Football League, and he has several pro prospects on this year’s unit.
Senior middle linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka set the tone with his instincts along with the fact that he is a fierce competitor. Junior outside linebacker Tremaine Edmunds is no slouch either as he is one of the most athletic players at his position in the Atlantic Coast Conference. As a unit the Hokies were able reel in 16 interceptions last year and led by junior free safety Terrell Edmunds, points will be at a premium against Virginia Tech.
The Hokies will begin the season by facing an old rival in the West Virginia Mountaineers of the Big 12 Conference at FedEx Field as this will mark their first encounter since 2003 when they were members of the Big East Conference. The Hokies find themselves with a manageable conference schedule and their ability to get to Charlotte for the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game will come down to whether or not that they can get by the North Carolina Tar Heels at home on October 21st, and the Miami Hurricanes on the road on November 4th.
X-Pittsburgh Panthers 6-6 (4-4)
2016 saw the Pittsburgh Panthers go 8-5 for the second consecutive season. However things could have been much better for Pitt being that four of their losses were decided by a touchdown or less. Pittsburgh head football coach Pat Narduzzi has been able to get his program to a bowl game in each of his first two years in Western Pennsylvania, but will he be able to get them to take that next step and contend for the top spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference?
Last year saw Max Browne begin as the starting quarterback for the USC Trojans. However after just three starts, Browne was benched in favor of Sam Darnold who ended up leading USC to a Rose Bowl victory. Subsequently Browne would transfer and he has found himself a new home with Pittsburgh. The Panthers needed a new starting quarterback with the departure of Nathan Peterman, Browne will look to finish off his collegiate career on a positive note with the Panthers. Browne will have the luxury of being protected by an experienced offensive line which features three seniors and a pair of juniors in the starting lineup.
Narduzzi’s specialty is defensive football as prior to taking over at Pitt, he was the defensive coordinator of the Michigan State Spartans for eight years. However Pittsburgh struggled last year on defense as they were 100th in the nation in total defense which included surrendering at least 35 points on six occasions. And if Pittsburgh wants any shot to be relevant in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season, they are going to have to get stingy on that side of the football.
The non-conference season won’t be kind to the Panthers as they’ll travel to face the Penn State Nittany Lions who are the defending Big Ten Conference Champions, while also hosting the Oklahoma State Cowboys of the Big 12 Conference. And road games within the Atlantic Coast Conference versus the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and Virginia Tech Hokies will keep Pittsburgh in chase mode all season long.
X-Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets 6-6 (4-4)
After going 3-9 in 2015 for their first losing season since 2010, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets were able to bounce back in a big way as they went 9-4 which included their second victory over the Georgia Bulldogs in the last three years. For Georgia Tech head football coach Paul Johnson, his triple-option rushing attack can be very frustrating at times for opponents as the Yellow Jackets tend to lull you to sleep before exploding for the big play. And as the Jackets are looking to be a player in the Atlantic Coast Conference, will their run game be able to carry them?
After being ninth in the rushing last season, the Yellow Jackets will have a new quarterback operating their triple option in junior Justin Thomas. Thomas will take his fair share of carries with the football, while he will also be handing off to a bevy of ball carriers; however one of those won’t be sophomore running back Dedrick Mills who was dismissed from the program after an athletics department violation. Georgia Tech will have one of the youngest offensive lines in the Atlantic Coast Conference as there will be just on senior in right tackle Andrew Marshall, while there will be three sophomore starting in the unit.
And even though that their are not any standout players defensively for Georgia Tech, this unit will fly around the football, while playing with plenty of passion.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta will be rocking on Labor Day night when the Yellow Jackets take on the Tennessee Volunteers of the Southeastern Conference, while they will look to survive in the Atlantic Coast Conference with road meetings versus the likes of the Miami Hurricanes and Clemson Tigers.
Virginia Cavaliers 5-7 (3-5)
It’s been some time since the Virginia Cavaliers were relevant in the Atlantic Coast Conference as their last appearance in a bowl game came in 2011. Virginia has never won the ACC Title outright and through conference expansion they only finished second in the Coastal Division twice. Bronco Mendenhall has one year under his belt as the head football coach at Virginia as he and his team took their lumps in 2016. The Cavs went 2-10 last season, while only being able to muster one conference win. And after the Cavaliers finished tied for last place in the Coastal Division of the ACC, how will Mendenhall be able to improve his team?
Last year as a sophomore, quarterback Kurt Benkert took his lumps as he was guy who endured nine of Virginia’s ten losses. However Benkert showed toughness and grit as he never gave up while providing Mendenhall with a quarterback that he could rely on. And if Benkert is able to complete 60% of his passes this season, it could symbolize that Mendenhall is getting things turned around in Charlottesville.
Benkert has the potential to get the job done for the Cavaliers, but Virginia’s offense needs more balance. Last year the Cavs were 121st in the nation as they were only able to average 3.5 yards per carry. And although that it more than likely that it will be a running back by committee for Virginia, there needs to be more of a focus on being able to establish the running game; especially with three seniors on the offensive line.
Even though that the Cavaliers were 93rd in the nation last season in total defense, there is a glimmer of hope for them heading into a new campaign. Senior middle linebacker Micah Kiser and junior strong safety Juan Thornhill are playmakers who can make those around them better and they will have to be on point if they want to help get things turned around this year for their program.
The Cavaliers will need to get as many victories as possible early on in the season to get some confidence for themselves which could pay huge dividends in the second half of the season.
X-Duke Blue Devils 6-6 (3-5)
2012-2015 saw the Duke Blue Devils have one of their best stretches in program history. The Blue Devils were able to make four consecutive bowl appearances which was highlighted by making the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game for the first time in school history in 2013. However Duke to a step back last year as they went 4-8 which included them losing five out of their last six games. David Cutcliffe has been Duke’s head football coach since 2008, and after doing more with less, he once again has a tough sell job on his hands to recruits being that the Blue Devils football facilities and overall tradition don’t measure up against some of the other schools in the ACC. Now Cutcliffe must once again go to the well once in order to get things turned around in Durham.
Cutcliffe’s pedigree is working with quarterbacks and he has another solid one to work with in Daniel Jones. Last year as a freshman, Jones was able to complete nearly 63% of his passes, and outside of a 5-interception performance against the Virginia Cavaliers, he did a solid job of not forcing the football. At 6’5″, 210 lbs., Jones has solid size for the position, along with good instincts which will have to be at the forefront if the Blue Devils are going to get things turned around.
Junior wide receiver T.J. Rahming was Jones’s go-to-guy last season in the passing game as he led Duke in receptions with 70. And I expect the combination of Jones and Rahming to once again be on the same page.
As Duke took their lumps last season, it meant that there were some underclassmen who had a chance to get their feet wet. Sophomore outside linebacker Joe Giles-Harris and junior middle linebacker Ben Humphreys were first and second respectively in tackles for the Devils in 2016. And I expect Giles-Harris and Humphreys to become leaders on the defensive side of the football for Duke as the program seeks to get back to its winning ways.
Duke’s journey in the Atlantic Coast Conference won’t be easy, but if they are able to survive which includes road games versus the North Carolina Tar Heels and Virginia Tech Hokies, the Blue Devils could sneak into a bowl game this season.
North Carolina Tar Heels 5-7 (2-6)
Larry Fedora’s time as the head football coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels has been successful as his program has been one of the better ones in he Atlantic Coast Conference. Only the Clemson Tigers and Florida State Seminoles have won more games in the ACC over the last two years than North Carolina which gives you an idea of how consistent that Fedora has been. But with key talent such as quarterback Mitch Trubisky now in the National Football League, how will the Heels be able to stay afloat in 2017?
Quarterback Brandon Harris began his collegiate career with the LSU Tigers before transferring to North Carolina. And after sitting out due to the NCAA’s transfer rules, Harris will bring some athleticism to the quarterback position at Carolina that has not been seen at Chapel Hill in a long time. Harris’ ability to create plays with his legs will be very important for a North Carolina team that will be inexperienced on the offensive side of the football.
For first year North Carolina defensive coordinator John Papuchis, his unit has the chance to be special. Senior linebackers Andre Smith and Cole Holcomb will tackle anything that moves, while junior defensive end Malik Carney is a solid edge rusher who needs to take the next step in order to help North Carolina surprise some teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference. But the biggest thing that the Tar Heels must improve on defensively are takeaways as they only recorded one interception in 2016. And winning the turnover battle will be very important for a team such as Carolina who needs to win the field position battle.
With the exception of facing the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Carolina’s non-conference schedule will be easy. However when Atlantic Coast Conference play begins, the Heels will have to tango with the Louisville Cardinals and Miami Hurricanes at home, while going on the road to meet the Virginia Tech Hokies which is a daunting task.
Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game: Bank of America Stadium-Charlotte, North Carolina: Miami vs. Florida State
Conference Champion: Florida State
Y-Conference Champion X-Bowl Eligible
Sources: Cfbstats.com, Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com
Since 2008, the Alabama Crimson Tide have been the premier team in college football as they’ve claimed four national championships while steamrolling over the competition in the process. After the Tide went 6-6 in their first year under head football coach Nick Saban in 2007, they’ve managed to go 112-13 since then while only producing one three-loss campaign. Saban has built a dynasty at Alabama which is not easy to do in this day with parity, but they are the team that college football fans love to hate.
And what has set Alabama apart from the other football programs is that they shine the best in the big games which included going 4-0 in national championship games heading into the 2016 college football season. The Tide won the national championship last year and after entering this past season ranked as the top team in the land, they were looking to become the first squad since the USC Trojans to go wire-to-wire in order to repeat as national champions.
Alabama was able to accept the challenge as they mowed down the competition in the Southeastern Conference and when the regular season was over, they were the only undefeated team in the nation. The Tide would easily defeat the Florida Gators 54-16 in the SEC Championship Game which sent them to the College Football Playoff for the third consecutive year. And after the Crimson Tide made short work of the Washington Huskies in the Peach Bowl, it was back to the title game for them.
The team that had the indubious pleasure of watching Alabama claim the championship trophy last January were the Clemson Tigers. In nine years under head football coach Dabo Swinney, Clemson has become a national power which has seen them win three Atlantic Coast Conference Championships and defeat national recognized teams such as the Ohio State Buckeyes, Oklahoma Sooners and LSU Tigers. During the 2015 college football season Clemson was the feel good story as they were the underdog for the majority of their games. And even in defeat to Alabama, they held their own as they lost 45-40.
But whereas the close loss to Alabama might have broken the spirits of some teams, Clemson used it as fuel to their fire as led by junior quarterback Deshaun Watson and senior linebacker Ben Boulware, they took all of the body blows that they could absorb during the regular season which included getting by the Auburn Tigers of the Southeastern Conference 19-13 on the road to start the campaign. And when Atlantic Coast Conference play began, Clemson was pushed to the limit by teams such as the Louisville Cardinals, North Carolina State Wolfpack, and Florida State Seminoles. Clemson did slip up once during the season as they lost at home to the Pittsburgh Panthers 43-42 on November 12. But after the loss to Pittsburgh, Clemson would rebound to win their remaining games which included defeating the Virginia Tech Hokies in the ACC Championship Game which sent them back to the College Football Playoff for a second consecutive year.
And just like the previous season, the Tigers would head to the College Football Playoff as heavy underdogs. Clemson would meet the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Fiesta Bowl who were looking to win their second national title in the last three years. But for the second time in the last four seasons, Clemson got the best of Ohio State in a bowl game. However this time was in dominating fashion as the Buckeyes were taken behind the woodshed 31-0 which paved the way for Clemson to have a rematch with the Tide after they easily dispatched of the Washington Huskies in the Peach Bowl 24-7.
The scene was changing from last year’s battle between these two teams which took place at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona to Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. And having the game in Tampa provided more of a buzz for both of these schools which are located in the Southeast; especially for Clemson who had more fans in attendance for Monday night’s championship tilt.
As always there was plenty of anticipation and excitement leading up to the kickoff as one thing was for sure was that the Tigers would not be afraid of intimidated of Alabama when they met them. But when Alabama took a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter after a pair of pulverizing touchdown runs from sophomore running back Bo Scarbrough, it appeared to be a familiar tune as the Crimson Tide were ready beat the brakes off of another opponent.
But we forgot to measure the heart of Clemson as they clawed back into the game. And even after the Tigers were trailing 24-14 heading into the fourth quarter, they had Alabama right where they wanted them.
Swinney never wavered from his offensive game plan which called for the Tigers to go uptempo. Clemson wasn’t making substitutions which meant that neither could Alabama as the top-ranked defense in the land was beginning to run out of gas.
Clemson ran 99 plays on offense as they possessed the football for nearly 35 minutes of game time. And when the fourth quarter rolled around, Watson channeled his inner Vince Young as he baffled the Alabama defense, while seeing his stock rise for the 2017 National Football League Draft in the process.
The Tide didn’t have an answer for Watson who led Clemson on three, fourth quarter touchdown drives, and when Scarbrough suffered a broken leg in the second half, he took the Alabama offense to the sideline with him as well.
With just six seconds left in regulation and Clemson traling 31-28 with the football at the Alabama two-yard line, Swinney had a choice as he could get conservative by going for the game-tying field goal, or throwing caution to the wind and becoming a legend in the Palmetto State. Swinney opted to win the game as a field goal would have killed all of Clemson’s momentum heading into overtime. And with just one second left, Watson found sophomore wide receiver Hunter Renfrow in the end zone to give the Tigers their first national championship since 1981. But as much as Clemson’s victory over Alabama will be celebrated throughout the State of South Carolina from now until the cows come home, their victory was huge for the overall landscape of college football.
The Tide have been the team over the last decade and although that they have suffered losses against other marquee programs such as Oklahoma and Ohio State, they’ve never lost in the national championship game; especially when they were presented with a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter. Along with Saban’s time as the head football coach at LSU, he was 5-0 in title games before Monday night as he always knew how to push the right buttons. But Saban was done in by a head coach in Swinney that not only had seen his act, but also had the personnel in which he could slay the dragon.
College football may be seeking parity for its game, but in the three years of the College Football Playoff, Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State have all made multiple trips to the field of four with each program claiming the trophy once, while the top seed entering the tournament has never claimed the title which is good for the game.
But as Alabama left Raymond James Stadium on Monday night watching purple and orange confetti rain down, they’ll once again be set for another title push as Saban continues to recruit and develop talent that will be playing in the National Football League in the very near future. However on Monday when Clemson won the title, they won it not only for themselves, but for all of those people who were told they weren’t good enough to accomplish a goal.
When Dabo Swinney was named as the interim head football coach of the Clemson Tigers in 2008, nobody knew what to expect as he appeared to be a stop-gap guy. But under Swinney, Clemson would go 4-2 down the stretch which included them beating their in-state rivals in the South Carolina Gamecocks which led to him getting the job on a full-time basis. By 2009, Swinney would have the Tigers in the Atlantic Coast Conference Title Game for the first time in school history which gave him some traction. But when the Tigers went 6-7 in 2010, Swinney appeared to be on the hot seat. However Clemson’s decision to stick with Swinney has been extremely beneficial for everyone involved as the program has gone to new heights.
In 2011, Swinney would lead Clemson to their first Atlantic Coast Conference Championship since 1991. And although that Clemson’s season didn’t finish on a positive note as they were blown out by the West Virginia Mountaineers in the Orange Bowl 70-33, they were headed in the right direction. Since then Clemson has won at least 10 games in each season while they’ve defeated some of the nation’s elite programs such as that of the LSU Tigers of the Southeastern Conference and the Oklahoma Sooners of the Big 12 Conference. The last two years have seen Clemson win the ACC, while also having a spot in the College Football Playoff.
In 2015, Clemson had their moment in the spotlight which saw them as the top-ranked team for the majority of the season. The Tigers set a school record by winning 14 games and they played for their first national championship since 1981. But unfortunately for Swinney and the Tigers, the Alabama Crimson Tide were too much for them in the title game. But instead of sulking after the 45-40 loss to Alabama, the Tigers set out to take their experience from 2015 and improve on it.
With quarterback Deshaun Watson returning for his junior season, the Tigers began the 2016 college football season ranked second in the Associated Press Poll, and unlike 2015, they wouldn’t be able to sneak up on anyone.
Clemson took everyone’s best punch this year which included losing by a point at home to the Pittsburgh Panthers on November 12, while also having close calls against the Auburn Tigers, Troy Trojans, Louisville Cardinals, North Carolina State Wolfpack, and Florida State Seminoles. And after Clemson survived a fierce battle with the Virginia Tech Hokies in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game, they were headed for the College Football Playoff for the second consecutive year.
Just like last year’s Orange Bowl against Oklahoma, along with the title game versus Alabama, Clemson would be the underdog when they took the field against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Fiesta Bowl which was one of the national semifinals. The Buckeyes were national champions in 2015, and aside from winning the Fiesta Bowl at the end of the 2016 college football season, they were led by a head football coach in Urban Meyer that has won three national titles.
Clemson would begin the contest with Watson throwing an interception on their first drive. But Clemson’s defense would shut down one of the best offenses in the nation, while Watson and the Tigers offense would navigate through a defense that was expected to give the Heisman Trophy finalist fits. And when it was all said and done, Clemson defeated Ohio State 31-0 and they would be heading back to the title game as they won at a place in University of Phoenix Stadium that saw them denied a national title last January.
So now Clemson is headed back to the title game and they’ll be facing a familiar foe in Alabama. The only things that have changed heading into the title game are that this year it will be at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, while Alabama will be the designated home team. Clemson is still the underdog as Alabama is led by head football coach Nick Saban who has won five national titles and is one of the most revered minds that college football has ever seen.
On the other hand there is Swinney who is originally from Birmingham, Alabama and played for the Tide on their national championship team in 1992 as he is once again looking to lead Clemson to college football’s holy grail. Swinney was initially a walk-on at Alabama before earning a scholarship and just as he had to earn his stripes at ‘Bama, the same can be said about his coaching career at Clemson. Swinney has never been afraid to slay the giant as most of the Tigers recent success within the Atlantic Coast Conference has come at the expense of the Seminoles who dominated the conference for nearly two decades. And that lack of fear will once again be on display this Monday night when the Tigers clash with the Tide.
America has been long known as a country where people get second chances and after being so close to toppling Alabama last January, Clemson and Swinney will get another chance to forever etch their names into college football lore.