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Your guide to the 2017 ACC football season: names and games to watch, and predictions

N.C. State quarterback Jalan McClendon (2) knocks off the helmet of North Carolina safety Dominquie Green (26) as he is tackled during the first half of the Wolfpack’s game against UNC at Kenan Stadium on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016.
N.C. State quarterback Jalan McClendon (2) knocks off the helmet of North Carolina safety Dominquie Green (26) as he is tackled during the first half of the Wolfpack’s game against UNC at Kenan Stadium on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016. ehyman@newsobserver.com

The ACC has never had a better season in football than the one it enjoyed in 2016.

National champions (Clemson), Heisman Trophy winner (Louisville’s Lamar Jackson), a record nine bowl wins and four top-20 teams.

The year after “The Best Year Ever!” starts on Thursday with Presbyterian at Wake Forest. What will the league do next?

Here are names and games to watch, and some predictions. Your guide to the 2017 ACC football season:

Five conference games to watch

1. Clemson at Louisville (Sept. 16): The Tigers have won 17 straight Atlantic division games. That streak could be in jeopardy in this sweet September home-cooking spot for the Cardinals.

2. Clemson at Virginia Tech (Sept. 30): These conference stalwarts don’t play nearly enough. This is their first regular-season meeting since 2012 and a rematch of last year’s ACC title game (a 42-35 Tigers win).

3. Virginia Tech at Miami (Nov. 4): The Hokies’ 37-16 win in Blacksburg, Va., last year turned out to be the difference in the Coastal division race. This game will mean just as much.

4. Florida State at Clemson (Nov. 11): Great stat alert! Clemson’s Dabo Swinney has won 10 of his past 14 games against a coach with a national title.

5. UNC at N.C. State (Nov. 25): Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora enters the season with almost as many ACC wins (two) at Carter-Finley Stadium as Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren (three).

Five nonconference games to watch

1. Alabama vs. Florida State (Sept. 2, Atlanta): Pick a stat, any stat: A) Nick Saban has never lost (10-0) to one of his former assistant coaches; B) Nick Saban is unbeaten (10-0) in season-openers with Alabama; C) Nick Saban hasn’t lost consecutive games since the end of the 2008 season.

2. South Carolina vs. N.C. State (Sept. 2, Charlotte): The Gamecocks are 9-0 against N.C. State, North Carolina and ECU this century. A pair of those wins (UNC in ’15 and ECU in ’11) came in season-openers in Charlotte.

3. Pittsburgh at Penn State (Sept. 9): Who knew last September a 42-39 road loss to Pitt would keep the Nittany Lions out of the College Football Playoff?

4. Virginia Tech at East Carolina (Sept. 16): The Pirates’ arduous schedule includes only one crack at the ACC. The Pirates have won three straight home games against ACC foes.

5. Wake Forest at Appalachian State (Sept. 23): They haven’t met since 2001 and this will be the first time in Boone. The Apps got too good, when they were a Division I-AA team, for the Deacs. The Apps won three of the last five meetings in the long-running series before Wake cut it off.

Five names to watch

1. Lamar Jackson: All the Louisville quarterback did was rack up 51 total touchdowns and become the ACC’s first Heisman Trophy winner from a school other than Florida State. Many national pundits are down on him after a sluggish finish to 2016. That’s a mistake.

2. Dexter Lawrence: The Wake Forest High product is the ACC football version of Tim Duncan: whichever year the Clemson sophomore defensive tackle decides to enter the draft, he’ll be the No. 1 overall pick.

Clemson Preview Football(2)
In this Oct. 7, 2016, file photo, Boston College running back Davon Jones (16) is brought down by Clemson defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence (90). Lawrence is a graduate of Wake Forest High School. Elise Amendola AP

3. Bradley Chubb: What better way to honor Mario Williams than to break his school career sack record? The N.C. State senior defensive end needs 10 to do just that this season.

4. Derwin James: ESPN ranks the Florida State third-year safety as the best player in all of college football. The Seminoles certainly weren’t the same when he was sidelined with a knee injury for 11 games last season.

5. Mark Walton: The ACC had five running backs rush for at least 1,000 yards last season. The Miami junior (1,117 yards) is the only one who returns this season.

Welcome

1. Cam Akers: Big shoes to fill at FSU in Dalvin Cook (1,765 yards, 19 TDs in ’16) but the No. 1 running back recruit in the country is a special talent.

2. Brandon Harris: Didn’t work out at LSU, but the graduate transfer quarterback could shine with a fresh start at UNC in Fedora’s QB-friendly offense.

3. Max Browne: No shame in losing your job to Sam Darnold at USC. Browne graduated and landed at Pitt, where the veteran quarterback will be expected to do a little more in the James Conner-less offense.

4. Tee Higgins: Another hot-shot recruit for Clemson and the 6-4, 200-pound freshman is expected to be the next in a long line of great receivers the Tigers’ offense has produced.

5. Tommy DeVito: Maybe a year away but the highly touted freshman quarterback will soon enough put up huge numbers in Dino Babers’ offense, and he gives Orange fans hope moving forward.

We’ll miss

1. Deshaun Watson: The former Clemson quarterback won two ACC titles, a national title and 28 games in his two full seasons as a starter. No one would trade those numbers for a Heisman.

2. Ryan Switzer: Caught a bunch of passes (244 in his career), helped UNC win the ’15 division title and helped make Mitch Trubisky a bunch of money.

3. Matt Dayes: A pure gamer, Dayes made plays when N.C. State needed them most. The Wolfpack will miss its top running back this season.

IMG_IMG_dayes.display_2__12_1_OAC4S37H_L335166544
N.C. State running back Matt Dayes (21) breaks free for an 18-yard touchdown run during the first half of the Wolfpack’s game against UNC at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C., Friday, Nov. 25, 2016. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

4. Dalvin Cook: Quietly left FSU as the ACC’s career leader in rushing yards per game (117.5). The Noles will have to quickly learn how to swim without their life jacket this season.

5. Matt Canada: Football’s a funny business. Fired by N.C. State (2015), riding high at Pitt (2016) and now the offensive coordinator, and toast, of LSU (at a princely sum of $1.5 million per year).

Atlantic Division

Predicted order of finish (with projected record in parenthesis)

1. Florida State (10-2 overall, 7-1 ACC): Lots of talent but an unrelenting schedule. The Noles have to split with Alabama early and Clemson late to return the CFP for the second time.

2. Louisville (11-1, 7-1): This year’s Ohio State? Maybe there’s a way for the Cards, and Jackson, to make it to the CFP without winning their own division.

3. Clemson (10-2, 6-2): So much talent lost to the NFL (Watson, Mike Williams, Wayne Gallman) but so much talent back, especially on the defensive line. Can Dabo keep it rolling?

4. N.C. State (9-3, 5-3): The best chance N.C. State will have to break out of its rut of mediocrity. Running back Reggie Gallaspy, a revamped secondary and new kicker Carson Wise are the keys to a top-25 finish.

5. Wake Forest (4-8, 2-6): Not indicative of a step back for Dave Clawson’s program, after a 7-6 uprising, rather the reality of a more difficult schedule.

6. Syracuse (4-8, 2-6): The Orange have the makings of a surprise sweetheart but that schedule (ouch) has “wait till next year” written all over it.

7. Boston College (4-8, 1-7): If Steve Addazio could convince his team every game was against N.C. State, he’d be onto something. As it is, there’s no direction (and little skill) here.

Coastal Division

Predicted order of finish (with projected record in parenthesis)

1. Miami (10-2 overall, 6-2 ACC): Finally? Finally! Behind Walton and a stout defense, the Canes will win their first division title and immediately the hyper-aggressive Miami fans on Twitter will make everyone wish they hadn’t.

2. Virginia Tech (9-3, 5-3): Good D, not-so-sure on O. We sure Beamer Ball’s dead? Just kidding. For an encore, second-year coach Justin Fuente tries to repeat as division champs with a new quarterback (Josh Jackson).

3. UNC (7-5, 4-4): Pressure-free, “hit the reset button” kind of year for the Tar Heels. The schedule does not set up well but if the new parts can click on offense, there’s room for another win or two.

4. Pittsburgh (6-6, 4-4): Super smooth league path for the Panthers, similar to the one that helped Duke (’13), Carolina (’15) and Virginia Tech (’16) win the Coastal. The suspect Panthers’ defense will need some rewiring to pull it off.

5. Virginia (6-6, 3-5): Here’s your official “surprise!” team. The Cavaliers, 2-10 a year ago, parlay a manageable schedule and an improved defense into their first bowl trip since 2011.

6. Duke (4-8, 2-6): Before Duke’s big break under David Cutcliffe, it posted back-to-back 3-9 seasons in 2010 and ’11. Here’s a bookend 4-8 to go with last year’s before a charge up in ’18.

7. Georgia Tech (4-8, 2-6): And here’s your official “step-back” team. Mad respect for Paul Johnson and his stubborn ways, which netted a 9-4 finish in ’16, but just don’t see how it comes home for the Jackets without QB Justin Thomas or RB Dedrick Mills against a bear of a schedule.

ACC championship: FSU beats Miami

ACC awards

ACC Preview Football
In this Nov. 26, 2016, photo, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson (8) looks for an open receiver during the first half Kentucky in Louisville, Ky. Timothy D. Easley AP

Player of the year: Lamar Jackson, Louisville

Offensive player of the year: Jackson

Defensive player of the year: Derwin James, FSU

Coach of the year: Mark Richt, Miami

Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio

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