Even though Florida State technically won the last BCS national championship, the College Football Playoff has been far kinder so far to the Atlantic Coast Conference than the previous system. The season before, the Seminoles knocked off Northern Illinois in a BCS Buster game that went bust, drawing the short end of the stick for the power conferences. It was almost as if the impending end of the BCS allowed the ACC to let go and play looser in the contests, resulting in a 3-0 record over the 2013 and 2014 seasons after the conference went just 2-13 between 1999 and 2012.
It isn’t as though the ACC has done appreciably better in terms of success rate, but the perceptions about the conference have flipped. Florida State bombed out against the Ducks in the first semifinal, while Clemson played a spirited championship against Alabama. They are also 1-1 in CFP-affiliated bowls that aren’t in the playoff picture, with Georgia Tech upsetting Mississippi State two years ago and the Seminoles getting upset by Houston last year. Whether or not they can continue to sustain even that success rate is another question.
The ACC is perfectly healthy from a financial standpoint, though the $22.1 million per school that the league distributed in 2015 is just two-thirds of what the SEC was able to deal out to its member institutions. While the conference has separated itself clearly from the mid-majors, it is also at the low end of the Power Five in terms of revenue generation. If the TV bubble pops before they renegotiate, it could prove a dampener on future successes. But for now, there’s no reason to think that the ACC champion would merit any less consideration for the CFP bracket.
So let’s dive in and assess the ACC pecking order, using the preseason PRS rankings as our guide to evaluate where each team stands heading into the 2016 season. (NOTE: While the PRS rankings are used as a guideline in determining the conference preview rankings, they are not a hard-and-fast rule. We try to contextualize the rankings as one facet of the analysis along with deeper evaluation of scheduling and personnel that impact what is likely to happen in 2016.)
7. Wake Forest — There are few destination schools in the ACC that can reasonably be considered powerhouses, and Wake Forest is by no means one of them. As their 2006 conference championship drifts a decade into the rearview mirror this year, it becomes even more apparant just how amazing an accomplishment that really was in Winston-Salem. Over the seven following years Grobe couldn’t maintain or build upon the momentum, and now Dave Clawson enters year three of his rebuild hoping that his methodical building of experience pays off. Just seven of the 16 returning starters are seniors, leaving plenty of room for growth among their sophomore- and junior-laden roster. The defense provides the foundation for any potential creep up the Atlantic standings in 2016, with shutdown corner Brad Watson providing leadership from the secondary. Only Indiana the can confidently be written off as a likely loss out of conference on a schedule that includes Tulane, FCS Delaware, and Army. Getting three ACC wins will require several upsets, though, a tough ask for a still-young team.
6. Boston College — BC is a lot like Wake Forest in that it isn’t exactly the type of school that is bound to attract a ton of blue-chip recruits. Yet first Tom O’Brien and then Jeff Jagodzinski were able to turn the Eagles into a consistent eight- or nine-win team. O’Brien left for NC State after a decade, and Jagodzinski was there for just two years before getting fired for interviewing with the New York Jets. Under Frank Spaziani the team cratered, and Steve Addazio has at least reached two bowls in the past three years. 2015 was not one of them, though, with Boston College falling to 3-9 after a pair of seven-win campaigns. Also similar to the Demon Deacons is the prevalence of young and developing experience, with just a handful of seniors scattered throughout the roster. The defense lost a few key parts up the spine, but should remain solid if healthy. Opening right away with a game at Georgia Tech in conference play, the Eagles will likely reach the midway point no better than 3-3 and will struggle to reach six wins through the rest of a disjointed schedule.
5. Syracuse — Hope returns to Syracuse this year in the form of new head coach Dino Babers, newly arrived after just two years at Bowling Green. Babers takes over a squad that has high upside, and while it is young it returns eight offensive and seven defensive starters that were baptized by fire in last year’s 4-8 slog. One big question is how quarterback Eric Dungey will adjust to an offense that is likely to skew more toward the pass than it did last year. Another is how to compensate for the loss of three veterans on the offensive line with at least 30 starts apiece, including versatile four-year starter Rob Trudo. On the other side of the ball, the corps of defensive tackles and linebackers is deep, but nobody with experience returns at defensive end. The Orange are one of the teams to draw Notre Dame this season, and they also have AAC contender South Florida on the non-conference schedule. To go bowling for the first time since 2013, Syracuse will probably need to win all of its conference toss-up games against teams like Wake Forest and Virginia Tech and Boston College.
4. NC State — After a first season where the Wolfpack finished 3-9 in 2013, Dave Doeren has steered the program to a place of consistency — two straight 7-5 regular seasons, 3-5 in conference play, with a bowl result the difference between ending the year 7-6 and 8-5. Can NC State go beyond that threshold, though, in a tough division? They lost Jacoby Brissett, their two-year starter at quarterback, and will turn to either Boise State transfer Ryan Finley or one of two youngsters at the position. Whoever wins the job will get to throw to the top four receivers from last season, and Matthew Dayes will be the offense’s best weapon out of the backfield as long as he stays healthy. Losing All-American left tackle Joe Thuney and two other starters on the line could stunt the overall productivity of the offense, though. A defense that returns eight starters should round into form early with an easy non-conference schedule, and NC State will probably be 4-0 entering a brutal three-game stretch of Notre Dame, at Clemson, at Louisville. There is no margin for error this season in Raleigh.
3. Louisville — Had the Cardinals been put into the other division after ACC expansion brought the former Big East school into the fold, they would probably have won the division at least once if not both times. After rising to prominence under Bobby Petrino in the mid-2000s, they entered their next phase as an ACC member with Petrino back in the fold. The coach has to deal with a thin offensive line, but basically every skill player who contributed in 2015 — including sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson — is back with at least one year of experience under their belts. The defense, which was the Cardinals’ stronger side of the ball last year, lost several key defensive ends and linebacker James Burgess but has plenty of depth and should perform better especially against the pass. Marshall and Houston, mid-major Access Bowl contenders, both feature on the non-conference schedule, and while bowl eligibility should be no worry it might be too much to ask a still-young Louisville team to push the Tigers and Seminoles for the Atlantic title.
2. Florida State — The PRS rankings love the Seminoles largely because of their tougher schedule, which will bolster their case for CFP inclusion if they win the ACC in 2016. But while the team returns all 11 offensive starters from 2015 and will once again have a stout defense, the depth behind the starters is largely unproven. Dalvin Cook should have another monster season steamrolling opponents on the ground, but senior quarterback Sean Maguire will need to be more effective for Florida State to reclaim the Atlantic crown. The loss of Roberto Aguayo in the kicking game could also be a less-heralded setback for the Seminoles should they get bogged down in the red zone. Opening against Ole Miss in Orlando, FSU also plays USF and the Gators during the season out of conference. The most important games will come in league play, though — they have to play road gamesat Louisville, Miami, NC State, and Syracuse, and at least one of these trap trips could prove to be the Seminoles’ undoing in 2016 — in addition to the home game against Clemson.
1. Clemson — Last year Clemson was one quarter away from claiming its first national championship since 1981, but a 24-point fourth quarter by Alabama ended that dream. Now Dabo Swinney must rebuild a defense that ranked among the top dozen in the country in most categories last season, with Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd gone on the line, two of the three starting linebackers departed, and both safeties no longer in Clemson orange. The offense is in fine shape, needing to replace several players on the line again but with one of the nation’s most dangerous backfields in quarterback Deshaun Watson and tailback Wayne Gallman. The receiving corps are especially deep after the return of 2014 standout Mike Williams, who fractured a bone in his neck in the season opener last year and returns to a loaded unit this year. A road game against Auburn is never easy, especially to open the season, but the game that should decide how far the Tigers go in 2015 will be their October 29 date with Florida State.
7. Virginia — After going to just one bowl game in six seasons and finishing with a 14-34 conference record, Mike London was run out of Charlottesville about two or three years later than anyone expected. Their replacement, Bronco Mendenhall, was an even bigger surprise. The former BYU head coach will work on the east coast for the first time in his career, taking on one of the biggest perennial rebuilding projects in the sport. The team Mendenhall inherits has plenty of senior experience, but loses five starters from each side of the ball and will need to adjust quickly to their new coach. Both lines were especially hard hit by attrition, with the offense losing both guards and the defense losing all three starters. After getting to ease into the season with FCS Richmond, the Cavaliers head west to take on Oregon at Autzen Stadium and face UConn and Central Michigan before ACC play begins. One thing working in Virginia’s favor is that they did not draw Florida State, Clemson, or Notre Dame in league scheduling, but bowl eligibility will likely be out of reach regardless.
6. Virginia Tech — 2015 marked the end of an era in Blacksburg, as Frank Beamer led the Hokies to a 23rd straight bowl game and then retired after a third 7-6 season in his last four years at the helm. In comes Justin Fuente, a hot commodity after turning Memphis from afterthought into AAC champion. Fuente arrives at a school that has seen its fortunes diminish but which still expects the giddy double-digit winning seasons of the recent past. Fuente inherits a team with plenty of returning skill and a mostly-intact offensive line, but it remains to be seen just who will fit properly into his system. In what should be a more run-heavy offense, Travon McMillan could break out at tailback as a sophomore. Bud Foster remained the defensive coordinator after missing out on the head job at Tech, hoping that injuries don’t bottom out what was still a decent (if not Hokie vintage) result. They play Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway this year, along with a game at Notre Dame, and the Hokies will have to scramble if Fuente is to keep the bowl streak going in his first season.
5. Duke — Last year the Blue Devils went to their fourth consecutive bowl game, and a missed Indiana field goal that flew over the upright in overtime allowed Duke to walk away with their first postseason win in 54 years. Even with that win, though, David Cutcliffe’s team has seen its win totals drop each year since winning the Coastal in 2013. This year could be no different, as Duke returns one of the least experienced teams in the ACC. Explosive tailback Shaun Wilson and dual-threat quarterback Thomas Sirk are back for the Blue Devils, but new receivers must step up into the void left by the departure of four of the top six from last year and the interior line is looking for a new center and left guard. The defense allowed a touchdown or less four times last year… and just as many times they allowed five touchdowns or more. They will need consistency from a rebuilt defensive line and better defending in the secondary. Duke should be 4-2 heading into its trip to Louisville on October 14, but they might need an upset or two to get to bowl eligibility.
4. Pittsburgh — After firing Dave Wannstedt for going 7-5 in 2010, the Panthers under Todd Graham and Paul Chryst rattled off four straight 6-6 seasons before both bolting for bigger-profile opportunities. In his first year after coming over from Michigan State, Pat Narduzzi restored some competitiveness to Pitt. They only lost twice by double digits, at Notre Dame and in the bowl against Navy, and return more talent than any other team in the ACC. James Conner returns from his battle with MCL surgery and Hodgkin’s Lymphoma for his junior year, giving the Panthers two 1000-yard backs along with sophomore Qadree Ollison. The team will likely lean more toward the run with receiver Tyler Boyd moved on to the NFL. As long as they find a new center, the offense will be fine, and the defense has just a few key holes to plug at every level. With Penn State, Oklahoma State, and Marshall on the schedule, the only near-lock win out of conference is FCS Villanova. With road trips to North Carolina, Miami, and Clemson, Pitt must clean up at home to ensure bowl eligibility.
3. Georgia Tech — 2015 marks just the second time in Paul Johnson’s 19 seasons as a head coach that his team missed out on postseason play, making his brand of option offense one of the most consistently producing systems in the game. Injuries and youth played major roles in a 3-9 season, but the Yellow Jackets also went 1-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less (and also lost 30-22 to Notre Dame in what could also conceivably be considered a one-score game). Justin Thomas is back for his senior season at quarterback, there is plenty of depth in the backfield at slotback and fullback a slew of big young receivers in the pipeline. The option will only work as well as the line allows, though, and replacing three starters could affect the running game that sets up everything else. Injuries allowed the defense to develop depth, and they should continue to improve in 2016. With FCS Mercer, SEC cellar dweller Vanderbilt, and Sun Belt threat Georgia Southern on the schedule, Tech is set up to return to bowl eligibility but is a year away from really returning to Coastal contention.
2. North Carolina — Last year the Tar Heels played in the ACC Championship Game for the first time in school history, coming oh-so-close against Clemson before later falling to Baylor in their bowl game. North Carolina has been on an upswing under fifth-year head coach Larry Fedora, and now the team will try to maintain that momentum with a team that will be deep on both lines but which will replace Marquise Williams with Mitch Trubisky at quarterback and is thin in the defensive secondary. Elijah Hood, 25th nationally in rushing yards per game as a sophomore, will be leaned on more in the offense, while Fedora will hope that the first-team defense stays fully healthy. UNC takes on Georgia in Atlanta in the season opener, then travels to Illinois the next weekend. A cross-division road game against Florida State is another tough test, and the Coastal could come down to the October 15 trip to Miami. Eleven wins might not happen again, but the Tar Heels will definitely be bowling a fourth straight year.
1. Miami — In 15 seasons at Georgia, Mark Richt led the Bulldogs to six division titles and two SEC crowns. Of course, just like his alma mater and new employer, those successes have been fading into the rearview mirror. It isn’t as though the Hurricanes have been bad, necessarily, but rather mired in mediocrity after five years of dealing with sanctions and treading water under Al Golden. It isn’t as though there is no talent in Coral Gables, with Brad Kaaya headlining an offense that loses a couple of key receivers but not much else. The defense was anything but impressive in 2015, and if Miami is going to go anywhere this season it will need this unit to find another gear and improve drastically. The Canes should be 4-0 heading into their showdown with Florida State, though tricky road games at Appalachian State and Georgia Tech could trip them up at least once. If they can get to November with no more than a loss or two, Miami has the raw talent to put together its first division-winning season since moving to the ACC in 2004.