Florida State Seminoles 11-2 (7-1)
When the Florida State Seminoles hired Jimbo Fisher to be their head football coach in 2010, they brought him in with the premise of returning the school to being a national power on the gridiron. In six years at the helm of Florida State, Fisher has a sparking record of 68-14 which includes three Atlantic Coast Conference Championships, and a national title. The Seminoles have finished each year under Fisher ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll as they are getting back to the dominance that they had in the 1980’s and 1990’s under former head football coach Bobby Bowden. And although that the 2015 college football season didn’t end in the fashion that the ‘Noles would have intended as they lost in the Peach Bowl to the Houston Cougars on New Year’s Eve, the bar of expectations will once again be high in Tallahassee.
After splitting time last year with Everett Golson at the quarterback, Sean Maguire won’t be looking over his shoulder in this his senior campaign. It could be very easy for Maguire to attempt to do everything himself, but instead he must lead while also relying on the talent that is around him.
If not for the rule that requires a collegiate player to be out of high school for at least three years before entering the National Football League, running back Dalvin Cook could have been a first-round pick this past April. But the NFL’s loss is Florida State’s gain as Cook is back for his junior season which is bad news for defenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Last year Cook rushed for 1,691 and 19 rushing touchdowns as he was a first-team All-ACC member. Cook has that rare blend of size, speed, and elusiveness which makes him a logical candidate to be the ACC Player of the Year.
The Seminoles also have speed at wide receiver position in the form of junior Travis Rudolph and he should see his fair share of one-on-one matchups due to the respect that defenses will give Cook.
Last year saw the ‘Noles ranked 19th in the nation in total defense. And even though that Fisher must replace some talent on that side of the ball, the Seminoles still have quality athletes as they are led by senior defensive end DeMarcus Walker.
The Seminoles will get things started on September 5 when they travel to Orlando, Florida to face the Mississippi Rebels of the Southeastern Conference before they embark on a relatively easy conference schedule. Florida State will face their biggest test in the Atlantic Coast Conference on October 29 when they host the Clemson Tigers in a game that will more than likely determine the winner of the Atlantic Division.
Clemson Tigers 11-1 (7-1)
The Clemson Tigers are in the midst of their most prolonged success on the gridiron. Each of the last five years has seen Clemson win at least 10 games. But after going 14-1 last year with a spot in the national championship game, Clemson knows that they will have a bulls eye on them; especially in the Atlantic Coast Conference where they haven’t lost a game since November 15, 2014.
For Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney, he enters the 2016 college football season with one of his deepest teams ever. Junior quarterback Deshaun Watson enters this year as the reigning Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year. Last year Watson accounted for 5,209 all-purpose yards, and after finishing third in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2015, he is one of the favorites to win the award this December. Watson simply frustrates defenses with his elusiveness, and his pocket presence. Watson has a strong arm which sees him get the football to an array of wide receivers such as juniors Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, along with sophomore Hunter Renfrow.
The Tigers will return three starters on the offensive line and this unit which is led by senior center Jay Guillermo as they are set provide protection for one of the best group of play makers in nation.
Clemson was 10th in the nation in total defense last year. Although that the Tigers lost impact players such as defensive end Shaq Lawson and Mackensie Alexander to the National Football League, the defense under defensive coordinator Brent Venables will still be able to be stingy against offenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Senior linebacker Ben Boulware was third on the team in tackles last season with 82, and he is set to be on of the top linebackers in the ACC in 2016.
Under Swinney, Clemson cannot be accused of playing a soft schedule which is evident by them opening this season on the road against the Auburn Tigers from the Southeastern Conference. The Tigers will begin conference play on the road against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets which won’t be an easy trip. But Clemson’s season will come down to their meeting with the Florida State Seminoles on October 29th as these two schools have accounted for the last seven Atlantic Division winners.
Louisville Cardinals 9-3 (6-2)
Although that the Louisville Cardinals went 8-5 in 2015, it might have been one of the best coaching jobs that their head football coach Bobby Petrino has ever done. The Cardinals began the year with a record of 0-3 before they rallied to win eight of their final 10 games which included a Music City Bowl victory over the Texas A&M Aggies of the Southeastern Conference. Since joining the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2014, Petrino and Louisville have been a second-class citizen to the Clemson Tigers and Florida State Seminoles in the Atlantic Division, and in order for Louisville to reach the conference title game, that must change.
Petrino is known for having one of the best offensive minds in college football and it will be put to good use he has some talent to work with this year at Louisville. The Cards return 10 starters on offense and they will be led by sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson. As a freshman in 2015, Jackson dealt with his fair share of ups downs, but that experience should help him to navigate here in 2016. Aside from being Louisville’s starting quarterback last season, Jackson was also their leading rusher which is something that must change if the Cardinals want to become a serious contender for the Atlantic Coast Conference Title.
Senior running back Brandon Radcliff needs to take some of the rushing load off of the legs of Jackson as he needs to provide some balance for Louisville’s passing attack, while senior wide receiver James Quick and sophomore wide receiver Jaylen Smith need to be more consistent with their pass catching.
Louisville does have four starters returning of the offensive line, but none of them are seniors, with junior in guard Skylar Lacy having the potential to be a standout.
As the 2015 college football season progressed, Louisville’s defense improved. And in 2016, there are some impact players on that side of the football that includes senior defensive end Devonte Fields, junior cornerback Trumaine Washington, and senior middle linebacker Keith Kelsey.
Over a three-week stretch that begins in mid-September, Louisville will itself face both Florida State and Clemson and these two games will go a long way in determining the Cardinals chances in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
North Carolina State Wolfpack 6-6 (3-5)
It’s been more than 10 years since the North Carolina State Wolfpack contended for the Atlantic Coast Conference Title, and you have to go back to 1979 to find the last time that they won it. Like most of the original remaining members of the ACC, North Carolina State has been caught up in the wash as the conference has now expanded to 14 members, and it won’t get any better for them or their head football coach Dave Doeren here in 2016.
Last year as a redshirt freshman, quarterback Jalan McClendon saw limited action for the Wolfpack, but he is expected to be the guy this year. McClendon checks in at 6’5″ and weighs 212 lbs., and Doeren is hopeful that the youngster is ready to lead the Wolfpack offense full-time. Last year as a junior, running back Matthew Dayes led the team in rushing, but a foot injury prematurely ended his season. Dayes is now healthy and he will be big part on any success that they Wolfpack intend on having in 2016.
But overall North Carolina State will be dealing with their fair share of growing pains in 2016 as there is a youth movement on the offensive line that has four sophomores and one junior in the starting lineup.
The same can be said on the defensive side of the football where there were plenty of underclassmen who saw valuable time last year. Junior linebacker Airius Moore was the team’s leading tackler last year with 77 and he should once again be an impact player.
The Wolfpack should be able to start 2016 strong, but things will get difficult during October and early November where they will have a brutal stretch that includes games against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Clemson Tigers, Louisville Cardinals, and Florida State Seminoles.
Syracuse Orange 4-8 (2-6)
2016 finds the Syracuse Orange in a very familiar situation as they are once again starting over. Dino Babers is set to begin his first year as the head football coach of the Orange and he will be the school’s fifth different head football coach since 2004. And with the constant turnover for Syracuse at the head coaching position, it isn’t that much of a surprise that they’ve only managed to have three winning seasons since then.
It is going to take Babers some time, but he is looking to revamp the Syracuse offense. Babers comes to Central New York after having the fourth-ranked offense in the nation last year with the Bowling Green State University Falcons, but only he made the trek up north and not his former players.
With a new head football coach in place, you can expect an open competition at every position; including at quarterback as Babers isn’t attached at the hip to any of the current Syracuse roster. The Syracuse offense will be a work in progress, but defensively there is one standout player in junior linebacker Zaire Franklin who should garner some recognition in the Atlantic Coast Conference as one of their top defensive players.
The main thing that Syracuse must focus on in 2016 is competing because they have a long uphill battle in front of them if they expect to contend in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Boston College Eagles 5-7 (2-6)
2015 wasn’t a good one for the Boston College Eagles as they became the first team in the Atlantic Coast Conference to go winless in the conference since the Virginia Cavaliers in 2013. In spite of Boston College’s struggles, the school decided to stick by head football coach Steve Addazio as they feel that he is still the right man for the job, while they are also committed to upgrading the team’s facilities in order to compete in the ACC.
Last year saw the Eagles with some near misses as they lost three conference games by three points or less, and they had a very young team. Of B.C.’s projected 22 starters for the upcoming campaign, only five will be seniors. The main thing that held the Eagles back last year was that they lacked the play makers that could step up and make those critical plays.
Addazio was able to skate by with a subpar season in 2015, but that might not the case again in 2016.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons 1-11 (0-8)
It’s been a tough go at it for the Wake Forest Demon Deacons on Tobacco Road as they have been caught up in the wash that is the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Demon Deacons last made a bowl appearance in 2011, while they haven’t posted a winning record since 2008. Dave Clawson is in his third year as the head football coach at Wake Forest as he has so far compiled a record of 6-18. And by the looks of things, it won’t be getting any better in Winston-Salem anytime soon.
What Wake Forest needs is to find some more consistency on offense. Last year the Demon Deacons were 114th in nation in total offense and it is important that players such as junior quarterback John Wolford and sophomore wide receiver Cortez Lewis are able to next step to propel this squad into contention.
Wake Forest began 2015 with a record of 3-3 before they dropped their final six contests. And if wins are few and far between for the Deacons here in 2016, it won’t turn out pretty for Clawson.
Miami Hurricanes 11-2 (6-2)
Life in the Atlantic Coast Conference hasn’t been kind to the Miami Hurricanes. Since joining the ACC in 2004, Miami has failed to record a 10-win season or participate in a major bowl game. This is a far cry from what the Hurricanes were able to do from 1983-2003 when they finished in the top 10 of the Associated Press Poll 14 times while being a frequent participant in the Orange, Sugar, and Fiesta Bowls. Typically head football coaches at Miami don’t last that long as in the past they’ve pursued other ventures such as jobs in the National Football League. But each the last three head football coaches that the school employed have been fired as each man was unable to return the program to prominence.
With the ‘Canes looking to once again become a national power, the school reached out to an alum in Mark Richt to turn things around. Richt spent the last 15 years as the head football coach of the Georgia Bulldogs where he compiled a record of 145-51 to go along with a pair of Southeastern Conference Championships. But apparently Richt didn’t win enough big games at Georgia which led to his dismissal. Miami has welcomed Richt with open arms and they are hopeful that he will be able to bring some of his magic from Athens with him to South Florida. But as Richt comes to Miami, there will be definitely be some talent in place for him to work with.
As a freshman in 2014, quarterback Brad Kaaya was the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Rookie of the Year, and if he can make a smooth transition to Richt’s offense in 2016, he could find himself in the running to be the conference’s player of the year. Richt loves to run the football, while he also relies on smart quarterbacks that don’t make mistakes. In Kaaya’s first two years with the ‘Canes, he has done a solid job of protecting the football which bodes well for the success of the team this season.
At 5’9″, 202 lbs., junior running back Joe Yearby is a speedster, but he will definitely get his fair share of carries this year for the Hurricanes as Richt looks to establish the running game. Led by senior guards Trevor Darling and Daniel Isidora, Miami returns all five starters on the offensive line from 2015 as they should be one of the better units within the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Led by senior middle linebacker Jermaine Grace, the ‘Canes will have their top four tacklers on defense return this year as this unit looks to become more aggressive under Richt.
With the exception of a road game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Miami finds themselves with a very winnable slate of games. But when conference play begins for the Hurricanes, they will be running the gauntlet. In Richt’s first Atlantic Coast Conference game, he will face a familiar foe in the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets who he dominated during his time at Georgia. The meeting against the Yellow Jackets will be the first of five consecutive tough games for Miami as they will also face the Florida State Seminoles, North Carolina Tar Heels, Virginia Tech Hokies, and Pittsburgh Panthers.
Richt’s teams are typically very mentally tough, and it will be interesting to see how he will adjust to life at Miami.
Pittsburgh Panthers 10-2 (6-2)
The first year for Pat Narduzzi as the head football coach of the Pittsburgh Panthers was a successful one. 2015 was Narduzzi’s first go round as a head football coach and he led Pittsburgh to their first 8-win season since 2009. And after finishing second in the Coastal Division last year to the North Carolina Tar Heels, Pitt is hopeful that they have what it takes to make the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game for the first time in school history.
Last year as a junior, quarterback Nathan Peterman had his first season as the Panthers starting quarterback and he was solid in helping Pittsburgh win 8 games. Peterman has solid pocket awareness, and if he is able to continue improving as a quarterback, it could be a fantastic year in Western Pennsylvania.
Running back Qadree Ollison was a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Second-team as a redshirt freshman. Ollison averaged 5.3 yards per carry, along with 11 rushing touchdowns, and in 2016, he stands to once again be one of the better runners within the conference. Senior running back James Conner is one of the feel good stories in college football as after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2015, he has been undergoing treatment and he looks to play football once again. But what Conner has become is an inspiration to his teammates, coaches, and the entire Pittsburgh community.
Narduzzi has built his reputation on the defensive side of the football which has seen him be the defensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bearcats and Michigan State Spartans as they are merely two of the stops along his coaching journey. Last year the Pittsburgh defense was a work in progress, but this unit should be improved here in 2016 with the likes of junior defensive back Avonte Maddox and senior linebacker Matt Galambos leading the way.
This year will see Pittsburgh’s non-conference schedule include bragging rights within the State of Pennsylvania against the Villanova Wildcats, and Penn State Nittany Lions. Pitt won’t have that many soft spots in their conference schedule as they’ll have road games against the North Carolina Tar Heels, Miami Hurricanes, and Clemson Tigers who will all be in the running to win the Atlantic Coast Conference.
North Carolina Tar Heels 8-4 (5-3)
It hasn’t taken head football coach Larry Fedora that long to turn around the fortunes of the North Carolina Tar Heels. Fedora just completed his third season at Chapel Hill and he led the Tar Heels to their first 11-win season since 1997. And after reaching the Atlantic Coast Conference Title Game for the first time in school history last December, Fedora wants to make sure that his Tar Heels squad doesn’t go in reverse in 2016.
With quarterback Marquise Williams having graduated, North Carolina will some competition between junior Mitch Trubisky and sophomore Caleb Henderson to get the nod to be the team’s starting quarterback. But whoever will be Carolina’s starting quarterback in 2016, he will have the luxury on handing the football off to one of the best running backs in the nation.
Last year as a sophomore, running back Elijah Hood tore up the Atlantic Coast Conference to the tune of 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns. With Carolina lacking a quality passing game, Hood will once again be the focal point of the offense as defenses will be stacking the box in the effort to stop him.
Junior defensive back M.J. Stewart has some of the best hands of the defensive side of the football in the Atlantic Coast Conference as he had 4 interceptions last year, and he’ll be looking to improve his status this season for the 2017 National Football League Draft.
North Carolina and the Atlantic Coast Conference overall are still searching for respect on the college football scene in spite of putting a team into the College Football Playoff in each of the last two years. And for the Tar Heels, they will begin their season at the Georgia Dome against the Georgia Bulldogs of the Southeastern Conference, while their ACC schedule will see them face the Pittsburgh Panthers, Florida State Seminoles, Virginia Tech Hokies, and Miami Hurricanes in consecutive conference games as winning 11 wins in 2016 won’t be as easy as it was in 2016.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets 7-5 (4-4)
During Paul Johnson’s eight-year run as the head football coach of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, he has a pair of 11-win seasons under his belt. But each time that the Yellow Jackets have won 11 games, they have taken a huge step backwards in the following year. After the Jackets won 11 games in 2014, they managed to go 3-9 last year for their worst season since 1994. And although that Johnson and his triple-option attack are down, they are far from out.
Georgia Tech lives and dies by their triple-option attack and they need to get more consistency in 2016. Last year saw junior quarterback Justin Thomas and a pair of freshman running backs in Marcus Mitchell and Clinton Lynch as the Yellow Jackets top three runners, but the trio only combined to gain 1,608 yards which is a number that must increase drastically in 2016 in order for Georgia Tech to be a contender in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Georgia Tech offensive line in 2016 will be young with just one senior in center Freddie Burden as a starter, but they will need to develop some cohesion early on.
Linebacker P.J. Davis led the Yellow Jackets in tackles last season with 77 and here in 2016 as a senior, he could be one of the better linebackers in the conference.
Last year saw Georgia Tech lose six games by eight points or less, and they have to find a way to win those tight affairs this season. Georgia Tech will get their frequent flyer miles to begin the college football season as they’ll travel to Ireland to meet the Boston College Eagles, and a victory there could be just what the doctor ordered for this year to be much more beneficial than 2015 was.
Duke Blue Devils 6-6 (4-4)
Being that the Duke Blue Devils don’t have a strong football history, the school has been patient with head football coach David Cutcliffe which has paid off. In each of Cutcliffe’s first four years at Duke, the Blue Devils had a losing record. But in each of the last four years, Duke has gone bowling while also winning the Coastal Division in 2013 as Cutcliffe is showing that this is no longer just a basketball school. Aside from winning, Duke has also sent several players to the National Football League which should add some appeal of the program to recruits. But with all of the recent success by Duke, they will be fighting an uphill battle in 2016.
Senior quarterback Thomas Sirk is a solid field general for Duke, but he cannot do it by himself as he was also the team’s leading rusher last year as well. However aside from Sirk, Duke is lacking playmakers on both sides of the football for the upcoming college football season which will test Cutcliffe’s ability as a coach. And with an improved Coastal Division this year, it will be difficult for the Blue Devils to not get caught up in the wash.
Virginia Tech Hokies 6-6 (4-4)
It’s the dawn of a new day for Virginia Tech Hokies football as their new head football coach Justin Fuente is charged with replacing a legend. For the past 29 years, each time that Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blared from the pubic address system at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Virginia, it was Frank Beamer that led the Hokies onto the field as their head football coach. Beamer put Virginia Tech on the map with his famed “Beamer ball” that relied on an opportunistic defense and quality special teams. Under Beamer, Virginia Tech became a pipeline for the National Football League which included the likes of quarterback Michael Vick and strong safety Kam Chancellor, while the Hokies had a stranglehold over the top football recruits within the State of Virginia. But the Hokies have recently fallen on hard times as they have finished each of the last four years not ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll for the first time since 1992.
There will be an open competition to be Virginia Tech’s starting quarterback this year between junior Jerod Evans and senior Brenden Motley. Evans spent the last two years at Trinity Valley Community College and his ability to be a dual-threat quarterback can immediately be beneficial to Virginia Tech. Last year as freshman, running back Travon McMillan continued the Hokies tradition at running back when he rushed for 1,042 yards. And even though that there is a plethora of talented running backs within the Atlantic Coast Conference, McMillan can hold his own. If junior wide receiver Isaiah Ford is able to put some weight on his 6’2″ frame, he could become one of the most imposing figures in the conference as the Hokies look to make it 24 consecutive years with a bowl appearance.
Led by senior left tackle Jonathan McLaughlin, Virginia Tech plenty of experience in their offensive line which should benefit them during their adjustment period under Fuente.
Fuente made sure to maintain longtime Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster who has been at Blacksburg since 1987 when Beamer took over. Last year was a down year for the Hokies defensively as they were 44th in the nation in total defense, and if they are going to get things turned around here in 2016, it is going to begin with junior middle linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka who was third on the team in tackles last year with 73 to get the ship righted.
The road to a 24th consecutive bowl game won’t be an easy one as it includes a contest against the Tennessee Volunteers of the Southeastern Conference, and road games within the Atlantic Coast Conference against the Duke Blue Devils, North Carolina Tar Heels, and Pittsburgh Panthers will put immense pressure on the Hokies.
Virginia Cavaliers 2-10 (0-8)
After only being able to lead the Virginia Cavaliers to one winning season during his six-year stint in Charlottesville, Mike London was relieved of his duties as the school’s head football coach. The search for a new Cavaliers head football coach took school officials to Provo, Utah where they were able to convince longtime Brigham Young University head football coach Bronco Mendenhall to leave his cozy post after 11 years at the school where he compiled a record of 99-43 which included a pair of Mountain West Conference Championships, in favor of a Virginia program that has struggled mightily in the Atlantic Coast Conference as they’ve only managed to have one winning season since 2008.
I’m sure that Mendenhall and his staff has been thoroughly evaluating Virginia’s roster from his first day on the job and he does have a veteran quarterback in senior Matt Johns and a leader on defense in junior linebacker Micah Kiser to work with, but as of right now the overall talent pool simply isn’t there in Charlottesville.
Mendenhall will definitely be fighting an uphill battle at Virginia in 2016, and the most important thing for him to do is to find a way for his squad to compete as he builds his foundation.
ACC Championship Game: Florida State vs. Miami
Conference Champion: Miami
Coach of the Year: Mark Richt-Miami
Offensive Player of the Year: Deshaun Watson-Quarterbck-Clemson
Defensive Player of the Year: M.J. Stewart-Cornerback-North Carolina
Sources: NationalChamps.net, Cfbstats.com, Ourlads.com, Sports-reference.com