ACC

Your guide to the 2016 ACC football season

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson drops back to pass during the first half of an NCAA College football game against Miami, on Oct. 24, 2015in Miami Gardens, Fla. Alabama coach Nick Saban said that he thinks Watson is the best college football player since Cam Newton.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson drops back to pass during the first half of an NCAA College football game against Miami, on Oct. 24, 2015in Miami Gardens, Fla. Alabama coach Nick Saban said that he thinks Watson is the best college football player since Cam Newton. AP

Nick Saban is never wrong.

Just ask Alabama fans or fans from any other SEC school who find a perverse pleasure in the Crimson Tide’s continued national success.

So when Saban tells ESPN that Deshaun Watson is the best college football player since Cam Newton and the Tigers should be the favorites to win the national title, who are we to disagree?

The Tigers, who fell five points shy of Alabama in the national title game last year, have the ability on offense to run the regular-season table again. Clemson has not only Watson, who threw for 4,104 yards last season and ran for 1,105, but the best cast of skill players in college football (and a tough offensive line, too).

There are changes on defense, and new stars (hello, Wake Forest’s Dexter Lawrence) will have to emerge, but Clemson’s biggest obstacle might not be a trip to Florida State or a potential rematch with Alabama, ranked No. 1 again after its fourth title in seven years, but revving back up mentally.

Losing in the national title game isn’t quite the soul-crushing experience that has ruined Super Bowl losers since the Buffalo Bills’ remarkable run in the 1990s, but the “year after” hasn’t exactly been kind recently to college runners-up.

Since Ohio State went to (and lost) back-to-back title games in 2006 and ’07, there has been a significant dropoff in the record for teams the season after losing in the championship game.

Oregon went 9-4 last season after reaching the inaugural College Football Playoff title game in 2014. Auburn stumbled to 8-5 the year before after losing to Florida State in 2013 Bowl Championship Series title game.

Texas, from the 2009 title game to 5-7 the next year, took the biggest fall. The average “year after” record of the past seven teams to reach the title game is 9-4. Now, Clemson’s not going to lose four games, but stranger things have happened.

There is a precedent, in the CFP/BCS era, of a team losing in the title game and coming back the next year to win the title. Florida State, Clemson’s main challenger in the ACC this season, lost in the first BCS title game in 1998 and came back the next season to win the national title.

Can Clemson pull off the same trick? This is one (and only?) time Saban would hate to be right.

Your guide to the 2016 ACC football season:

Five games to watch

1. Ole Miss vs. Florida State (Sept. 5)

Under the “Alabama Rules,” a loss to the Rebels equals a spot in the College Football Playoff. The Noles have won four straight against SEC foes.

2. Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech (Sept. 10)

The “Battle for Bristol” will set a new attendance record for college football. The Hokies would like to put a dent in Tennessee’s big reclamation project, too.

3. UNC at Miami (Oct. 15)

The Tar Heels obliterated and embarrassed Miami last year, punctuated by a “D-Generation X” celebratory chop by receiver Ryan Switzer. The problem with running it up and rubbing it in on a division opponent is you have to see the foe again the next year.

4. Clemson at Florida State (Oct. 29)

Normally a winner-take-all game between the ACC’s two best teams, but there’s a chance the loser could run the table and still make the CFP.

5. N.C. State at UNC (Nov. 25)

The Wolfpack might not be a factor in its own division, but how it does against UNC and Miami to close the regular season could determine who wins the Coastal.

Five names to watch

1. Deshaun Watson: The Tigers have never had a Heisman Trophy winner. The junior quarterback has every chance to change that.

2. Dalvin Cook: Of all his preposterous stats, the junior running back averaged 7.4 yards per carry, the most by the ACC’s leading rusher since 1954.

3. James Conner: Jon Snow has nothing on the Pittsburgh senior running back. Major knee surgery and cancer couldn’t keep him off the field.

4. Lamar Jackson: Louisville’s win total has gone down each year since Bobby Petrino returned, but the dynamic sophomore quarterback will help put an end to that trend for the talent-laden Cardinals.

5. Elijah Hood: Only one player in UNC history ran for more yards than the junior running back from Charlotte did last season (1,463). Hood’s numbers could be even better this season with a pass-first quarterback.

Welcome

1. Mark Richt: Back at Miami (his alma mater), back in the ACC (he was a key assistant during FSU’s glory days), Richt just might be the right coach to lead the Hurricanes to their first division title.

2. Dexter Lawrence: Clemson has a need, the freshman defensive tackle has a talent. The Tigers had three defensive linemen taken in the NFL draft. Enter the five-star prospect from Wake Forest, who enrolled in January.

3. Dino Babers: Most ACC fans don’t realize it, but Syracuse has a proud tradition in football. Babers’ offense, from Bowling Green via Baylor, gives the Orange hope for a brighter future.

4. Ruffin McNeill: East Carolina decided to go in a different direction after six successful seasons, so McNeill joined Bronco Mendenhall’s staff at Virginia. The Pirates’ loss is the Cavaliers’ gain.

5. Joe Scelfo: N.C. State added three graduate transfers, perhaps none more important than the All-Sun Belt center from South Alabama, who instantly stabilizes the Wolfpack’s rebuilt offensive line.

We’ll miss

1. Frank Beamer: Virginia Tech’s not a football power, and not a member in the ACC, without Beamer’s contributions across 29 years in Blacksburg.

2. Marquise Williams: Those are big shoes for Mitch Trubisky to fill. Williams threw for a total of 7,140 yards and ran for 1,736 in 2014 and ’15. He also accounted for 72 touchdowns in those two seasons.

3. Jeremy Cash: It’s usually not a good sign when safeties make too many plays, but Cash was everywhere in his career at Duke and one of the main reasons for the program’s turnaround under David Cutcliffe.

4. Joe Thuney: The former N.C. State offensive lineman is so good, he will make Boston haters root for the New England Patriots. OK, at least not curse their bandwagon fans or every mention of Bill Belichick’s post-Cleveland genius.

5. Don Brown: Jim Harbaugh leads the league in hype, but the Michigan coach made at least one smart move this offseason – he hired Brown from Boston College. The longtime ACC mainstay is one of the best defensive coordinators anywhere.

Predicted order of finish (with projected record in parenthesis)

Atlantic Division

1. Clemson (12-0 overall, 8-0 ACC)

The return of receiver Mike Williams, injured in the first quarter of the opener last year, will make Clemson’s offense even better.

2. Florida State (11-1, 7-1)

The last time the Seminoles turned the offense over to redshirt freshman QB, they won the national title. Deja vu with Deondre Francois?

3. Louisville (9-3, 5-3)

The Cards are 0-4 against Clemson and FSU and 10-2 against the rest of the ACC. Can Jackson and a tough defense crack the division ceiling?

4. N.C. State (8-4, 4-4)

The “Law of the Wolfpack:” When you expect less, you get more. After last year’s disappointment, this is an “expect less” kinda year.

5. Boston College (7-5, 3-5)

Losing Brown and hiring Scot Loeffler (as offensive coordinator) doesn’t exactly inspire confidence but the Eagles were much better than their record last year.

6. Wake Forest (4-8, 1-7)

Still the most bizarre stat anywhere: The Deacs have yet to win an ACC game under Dave Clawson when they’ve scored a touchdown.

7. Syracuse (2-10, 0-8)

Love the Babers hire, and the schedule is a lot easier than last year, but Scott Shafer didn’t leave the talent cupboard empty, he broke it into a thousand tiny pieces.

Coastal Division

1. Miami (9-3 overall, 6-2 ACC)

Feels like the perfect storm for the Canes with a real coach (Richt) and a real quarterback (junior Brad Kaaya) for the first time in forever.

2. UNC (10-2, 6-2)

A half step back from last year (the loss of Williams is being overlooked) but the Tar Heels can post consecutive double-digit win seasons for the first time since Mack Brown left for Texas almost 20 years ago.

3. Georgia Tech (7-5, 4-4)

The Jackets can’t be as bad up front as they were last year. Former Millbrook running back Marcus Marshall should help the Jackets bounce back from a 1-7 ACC disaster.

4. Pittsburgh (7-5, 4-4)

Receiver Tyler Boyd was Pittsburgh’s offense last year. Now he’s in the NFL. Conner and running back Qadree Ollison should be productive on the ground but the passing game will be the Panthers’ downfall.

5. Virginia Tech (7-5, 4-4)

Who really knows? Under first-year coach Justin Fuente, the Hokies might jump in and win the division. Safer to just pick them to go .500.

6. Duke (5-7, 3-5)

Don’t like selling Cutcliffe short but the schedule is a lot tougher and the coaching upgrades around the division put a dent in what has been Duke’s advantage.

7. Virginia (4-8, 1-7)

Bronco Mendenhall’s going to work at Virginia, just not this year. Neither line is in good shape and you can’t name a receiver on their roster.

Player of the year: Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson

Coach of the year: Mark Richt, Miami

ACC championship: Clemson beats Miami

Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio

This week

Thursday

William & Mary at N.C. State, 7:30 p.m., ESPN3

Saturday

UNC vs. Georgia, at Atlanta, 5:30 p.m., ESPN

N.C. Central at Duke, 6 p.m., ESPN3

Western Carolina at ECU, 6 p.m., ESPN3

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