The 2017 ACC season saw the Clemson Tigers win the league and advance to the College Football Playoff for the third consecutive year. That may sound a little boring, but year after year, the ACC is filled with parody, making it anything but boring.
Last year saw the likes of Florida State and Louisville struggle while N.C. State made a surprising run into the top 25. Most importantly, 2017 saw the return of the Miami Hurricanes, who won the Coastal Division before getting trampled by Clemson in the ACC Championship Game.
I’m going to outline my predictions for the 2018 ACC season. This will include a prediction on each team’s record, where they will finish in either the Atlantic or Coastal divisions and a brief preview of what to expect from each team for the upcoming season.
Few coaches are able to reload after losing key players better than Dabo Swinney. Even returning quarterback Kelly Bryant will be facing stiff competition in order to keep his job. The Tigers won’t be lacking for talent defensively, especially up front, nor will they have a problem giving Bryant plenty of support on offense. There’s a good chance the Tigers will slip up at some point in the ACC schedule like they did last year against Syracuse. They also have an early-season trip to Texas A&M, which could be a stumbling block. But in the end, Clemson should have little problem winning the Atlantic and being in the mix for a playoff spot.
Watch for the Eagles to be this year’s surprise team in the ACC. Running back AJ Dillon is a powerful runner who could become a Heisman candidate, especially with an experienced offensive line in front of him. Anthony Brown isn’t a sure thing at quarterback, but having a good running game and a strong defense should help. A road trip to Purdue will be the team’s toughest non-conference game, opening the door for the Eagles to win 10 games, especially since they get both Miami and Clemson at home.
The Seminoles will be a tough team to predict this season. They have a lot to prove after a disastrous season in 2017, but how quickly will they adjust to new head coach Willie Taggart? They also have to sort out the quarterback situation between Deondre Francois and James Blackman. Florida State’s schedule is no picnic either, as they start the season with Virginia Tech and then have to play Notre Dame and Florida in November. There are also road trips to Syracuse, Louisville, and Miami on the schedule, so it’ll be tough for Taggart to get the Seminoles back to the top in his first year.
Syracuse is ready to take that jump into the middle of the pack. After all, they beat Clemson last season, so the ability is definitely there. The Orange has a deep and experienced offensive line, which should help their up-tempo offense run the better and keep quarterback Eric Dungey healthy. Dungey has struggled to finish the season healthy in his first three years, but he’s a special player when healthy. Syracuse also has plenty of opportunities to win games early in the year, so this is their year to make a big leap.
A step backward is inevitable for the Wolfpack in 2018. They lost some dynamic playmakers on offense and a ton of talent on defense, most notably Bradley Chubb, the fifth overall pick in the NFL Draft. Senior quarterback Ryan Finley returns, so the stability he brings should be enough to get N.C. State to a bowl game. The Wolfpack, as usual, also has a manageable non-conference schedule, which will help them secure at least seven wins.
Wake Forest has one of the best offensive lines in the ACC, which should be enough to get them to a bowl game. However, replacing four-year starter John Wolford under center won’t be easy. It doesn’t help that replacement Kendall Hinton will miss the first three games of the season due to a suspension. Playing Boston College without Hinton and Notre Dame the following week with him will make it tough for Wake to start fast. The Deacons will get it together in November and reach a bowl, but they won’t do anything spectacular in 2018.
The Cardinals have more problems than people realize. Lamar Jackson gave an all-world effort just to make Louisville 8-5 last season, so replacing him will be problematic, no matter how much Bobby Petrino likes sophomore Jawon Pass. The Cardinals will also be using their third defensive coordinator in as many years. The Louisville defense was a disaster for much of last year and getting things turned around right away seems unrealistic. In short, the Cardinals could be in for a long season if they don’t find some answers early in the season to many of the questions they face.
During the offseason, the Hokies had their defense, especially their secondary, decimated by expulsions and injuries. But if there’s one defensive coordinator who’s capable of handling those problems, it may be Bud Foster. More importantly, Virginia Tech will have Josh Jackson back at quarterback after he dealt with some academic issues over the summer. Jackson showed incredible promise as both a passer and runner as a freshman last season. With that experience under his belt, he and the Hokies will be poised to dominate a rather mediocre ACC Coastal Division.
Can the Hurricanes replicate their success of last season? Let’s not assume that will be the case. The defense should be in good shape, especially since the infamous turnover chain keeps them motivated. However, there are some questions about the Miami offensive line, which is not a place you want to have questions heading into the season. Quarterback Malik Rosier was also inconsistent last year, which is another problem. Also, now that the Hurricanes are more of a target, the wins may not come so easily.
Quarterback Daniel Jones showed just enough last year to make us think he can take a step forward in 2018 and make the Blue Devils a decent team. However, Duke’s schedule is what makes anything better than 6-6 hard to envision. The Blue Devils have two September road trips to Northwestern and Baylor, as they are challenging themselves in the non-conference season. Duke then has to visit both Miami and Clemson in November, so the Blue Devils could struggle to start fast and finish strong.
Georgia Tech and its vaunted triple-option are always difficult to face, but that doesn’t always equal wins for the Yellow Jackets. They missed out on a bowl game last year, and 2018 could be another trying season for them. The Yellow Jackets have a new defensive coordinator and a new scheme, so there could be growing pains on that side of the ball. Georgia Tech also has a challenging schedule, with a road trip to South Florida early and in-state rival Georgia late. Just getting to a bowl will be a great accomplishment, but it won’t be easy.
There’s plenty of excitement around sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett, especially after he helped the Panthers upset Miami to close out last season. Of course, Pickett still lacks experience and the same will be true for most of the receivers he’ll be throwing to. The Panthers have also done themselves no favors with their non-conference schedule, as they’ll host Penn State and have to play road games against Central Florida and Notre Dame. On top of that, they’ll play three of their last four on the road, so a bowl game may not be in the cards this year.
The Tar Heels were crushed by injuries a year ago, but things may not get any better for Larry Fedora and company in 2018. The Tar Heels are still unsure who their best quarterback is between Chazz Surratt and Nathan Elliott. There also isn’t a lot of experience on the offensive line. That could mean another tough season in Chapel Hill with Fedora ending up on the hot seat by season’s end.
Bronco Mendenhall knew winning at Virginia wouldn’t be easy, and after reaching a bowl game last year, the Cavaliers may have to take another step backward. Virginia has the benefit of returning eight defensive starters, but their most dynamic playmakers on that side of the ball are all gone. It’ll also be difficult to replace quarterback Kurt Benkert, who the Cavs relied on heavily for much of last season. The talent level at Virginia is still not on par with most of the ACC, which could mean another tough year for Mendenhall and company.