The season just ended early Tuesday morning, with the ACC’s second national title in four years, but it’s never too early (is it?) to look ahead to 2017.
Clemson, national champions for the first time since 1981 after a 35-31 upset of Alabama in the College Football Playoff, will have to reload. The Tigers, ACC champions the past two years, will go for a three-peat without quarterback Deshaun Watson and be pushed in the Atlantic Division again by Louisville and Florida State for league supremacy.
The Coastal Division side, as usual, is wide open with only Duke and Virginia returning quarterbacks with starting experience.
The ACC will return the Heisman Trophy winner, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, but there will be a talent drain at the position with the exits of Watson, North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, Miami’s Brad Kaaya and Virginia Tech’s Jerod Evans – all early entrants in the NFL draft.
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Alabama gets another crack at the ACC in the season opener. The Crimson Tide start with Florida State in Atlanta in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff. The league will have four other neutral-site games with Power 5 opponents to open the season, including N.C. State’s tilt with South Carolina in Charlotte.
How the schedule, with crossover opponents and outside the ACC, shakes out:
An early snapshot of what the league standings might look like come December:
1. Florida State (10-3 overall, 5-3 ACC in 2016): The Seminoles’ defense will be bolstered by the return of safety Derwin James. The offense will lose running back Dalvin Cook but will only get better in sophomore quarterback Deondre Francois’ second season.
2. Louisville (9-4, 7-1): The Cards flopped down the stretch and cost themselves some hype for next year. There will be some key exits on the defensive side, notably tackle DeAngelo Brown, and the offensive line must improve, but Jackson is a dynamo.
3. Clemson (14-1, 7-1): The Tigers have won the league two years in a row and Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence will be terrifying on the defensive line but they have to replace Watson and the guts of their high-powered offense.
4. N.C. State (7-6, 3-5): The Wolfpack will have the advantage of continuity, with as many as 16 starters back, but it has to figure out a way to win more close games.
5. Wake Forest (7-6, 3-5): The schedule helped the Demon Deacons start quickly last year. With a tricky game at Appalachian State, a visit to Notre Dame and ACC crossover at Georgia Tech, it could be difficult to continue the momentum from 2016.
6. Syracuse (4-8, 2-6): The health of quarterback Eric Dungey will be key for the Orange in Year 2 under coach Dino Babers, who needs more time to add talent, but has the offense going in the right direction.
7. Boston College (7-6, 2-5): The return of Fayetteville’s Harold Landry at defensive end will help the Eagles on defense but they’re starting over (again) at quarterback and on offense.
1. Miami (9-4 overall, 5-3 ACC in 2016): One of these year’s this prediction is going to come home. The Canes certainly have the defense to breakthrough for their first division crown.
2. Virginia Tech (10-4, 6-2): If Evans comes back for his senior year, instead of going pro, this is likely a Hokies repeat. Instead, they’re back in the mixing bowl. A crossover game with Clemson won’t help their title odds.
3. Georgia Tech (9-4, 4-4): Paul Johnson’s crew generally does better with lower expectations, and after a strong finish, that won’t be the case. Still, another 4-4 conference split seems about right.
4. Pittsburgh (8-5, 5-3): The Panthers will take a step back without running back James Conner and two key blockers up front. The schedule – no Louisville/FSU/Clemson – does work in their favor.
5. UNC (8-5, 5-3): The talent drain on offense (Trubisky, Elijah Hood, Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard, Mack Hollins) will probably cost the Heels a win or two in conference play. Hard to imagine they won’t win 7 or 8 games, though.
6. Duke (4-8, 1-7): The Blue Devils actually have two options at quarterback, 2016 starter Daniel Jones and 2015 starter Thomas Sirk, which should give them some punch. With some better health, and luck, they can get back to a bowl after last year’s blip.
7. Virginia (2-10, 1-7): Progress will come for second-year coach Bronco Mendenhall, it’s just going to take a little patience and an infusion of talent on offense.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio