2018 ACC Atlantic Preview

1. Clemson Tigers– They have run this division for the last three seasons and it’s no shocker to see Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers entering the 2018 season as the favorites to win the ACC Championship once again. Quarterback Kelly Bryant enters this season with a full season of experience under his belt and the pressure will be released off of him enormously after a year of having to replace Deshaun Watson last season. This football team is stacked with talent all over. They have a nice 1-2 punch at running back in Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne and the receiving core will return a veteran in Hunter Renfrow, the hero from the title game in 2017, Amari Rodgers and Tee Higgins will lead a new wave of receivers and try to replace Deon Cain. The defense will remain one of the best in the country with Brent Venables calling the plays. This defense will return 15 starters from last season. It could be another special year for Dabo’s Tigers and they’ll be itching to make a statement after the way their season ended last year.

2. Florida State Seminoles– After Deondre Francois went down with a torn ACL, the Seminoles season went down the drain and I can honestly sit here and say that if he doesn’t go down, this is the biggest threat to Clemson not only in the division but to win the ACC conference title. Jimbo Fisher is gone and the university hired Willie Taggart as their new head coach and his main priority will be to implement his offense which will be more uptempo than anything Jimbo ran during his time in Tallahassee. Running back Cam Akers will have this offense built around him and I’m expecting him to have a big season for the Seminoles in 2018. Who will coach have under center as his quarterback in the fall? Will it be Francois or James Blackmon? The defense will look to get better under new coordinator Harlon Barnett as he inherits a defense that allowed 21 points a game and struggled to make stops on third down and in the red zone. The Seminoles will be without Josh Sweat, Derwin James and Tavaraus McFadden to the NFL while linebackers Matthew Thomas, Ro’Derrick Hoskins and standout tackle Derrick Nnadi have expired their eligibility. Let’s not worry too much though. Brian Burns and Joshua Kaindoh should be a productive tandem off the edge along with Levonta Taylor and Stanford Samuels III in the secondary.

3. North Carolina State Wolf Pack– NC State saw their best season under head coach Dave Doern and they also finished in the AP’s top 25 for the first time since 2010. Trying to duplicate last year’s success will be tough for Doern and the Wolf Pack as the team will look to rebuild its defensive line which was the strength of this team. This line featured B.J. Hill, Justin Jones, and star defensive end Bradley Chubb. The defense will also be without linebackers Jerod Fernandez and Airius Moore, nickel Shawn Boone and cornerbacks Mike Stevens and Johnathan Alston. With these key loses, the Wolf Pack will need their offense to step up big time in 2018 and I don’t think that will be much of a problem with the talent they have returning and one piece coming back will be quarterback Ryan Finley who is looking to build off a successful 2017 season that saw him throw 17 touchdown passes and he completed 65 percent of his passes. Kelvin Harmon, Stephon Lewis, and Jakobi Meyers will be one of the ACC’s top receiving trio’s. Replacing running back Nyheim Hines will be tough.

4. Boston College Eagles– They finished their 2017 season on a high note winning four of their final six games and lost two of those games by a touchdown or less. I look for Steve Addazio’s build off that success from last year into a new season. Quarterback Anthony Brown and standout running back A.J. Dillion both return, two solid receivers in Kobay White and Tommy Sweeney will give Brown solid targets on the outside and the offensive line will return all five starters from a year ago. The defense will take the biggest hit of them all as they lose Harold Landry, defensive tackle Noa Merritt, linebacker Ty Schwab and cornerback Issac Yiadom. However, this unit should still remain in good shape under defensive coordinator Jim Reid with defensive end Zach Allen, linebacker John Lamot and safety Lukas Denis anchoring the defensive in 2018. Could this be a sleeper team in the division?

5. Wake Forest Demon Deacons– It was a rocky beginning in the tenure of Dave Clawson with the team putting up a 6-18 record. There’s been a steady improvement over the last two seasons with the team recording a 15-11 record and claiming back to back bowl bids. Even with a few key pieces leaving, I still see this team returning to another bowl game. Quarterback John Wolford departs after an All-ACC year in 2017. However, backup Kendall Hinton has plenty of experience and should keep the offense performing at a high level. Hinton’s supporting cast is in good shape with the return of receiver Greg Dortch (53 catches) from injury, along with running back Matt Colburn (904 yards). Tight end Cam Serigne is the biggest loss outside of Wolford on offense. The line struggled in Clawson’s first two years but has made big strides and this unit should be a strength once again with all five starters returning. The defense will be without the services of Wendell Dunn, Duke Ejiofor, linebackers Grant Dawson and Jaboree Williams and safety Jessie Bates. Despite losing the big names, they will look to improve overall defensively after giving up 28 points a game.

6. Louisville Cardinals– It will definitely be different this year for Bobby Petrino and his football team. Lamar Jackson is gone and leaves big shoes to fill at the quarterback spot. Sophomore Jawon Pass is an intriguing possibility for Petrino. He will more than likely be the starter and will inherit an offense that will be without their top offensive lineman in Geron Christian, its top two running backs from 2017 in Malik Williams and Reggie Bonnafon. However, the good news for Pass is the receiving core will return its top targets in Jaylen Smith, Dez Fitzpatrick, and Seth Dawkins. The defense will need to improve if they want to be taken seriously. They struggled big time as they gave up close to six yards per play and ranked at the bottom in ACC play in third-down defense. The secondary will need to play together as a unit without Jaire Alexander and the defense as a whole is losing a ton of talent. It will be a potential rebuilding year for Bobby Petrino.

7. Syracuse Orangemen– There’s not much separates the teams after NC State in the early ACC predictions for 2018. With that in mind, whichever team finishes seventh next December should have a good shot at bowl eligibility. For now, Syracuse is the pick here but that could change later this offseason. The Orange catch three swing games on the road next year – Wake Forest, Pitt and Boston College – but host Louisville and North Carolina. Expect the offense to lead the way for coach Dino Babers’ team once again. Quarterback Eric Dungey is back but the receiving corps loses standouts Ervin Phillips and Steve Ishmael. The offensive line should be a strength with only one senior from the two-deep leaving, along with the return of Aaron Roberts from injury. In order for Syracuse to challenge for a bowl, the defense has to take a step forward after giving up 32 points per game in 2017. Linebackers Zaire Franklin and Parris Bennett are the biggest losses for coordinator Brian Ward.

Prediction: The Clemson Tigers will once again win the Atlantic division. This team is itching to get back on the field after being slapped around by Alabama in the playoffs in January. I’m expecting a big year from Kelly Bryant in year two. He has the full year of experience under his belt, he has a running game he can lean on and a defense that’s amongst the top in the country. This is a team that will be favored to win its conference once again and they will be a playoff contender in the end.