Just two years ago, the ACC was home to the National Champions when the Clemson Tigers won their second ever championship, defeating the almighty Alabama Crimson Tide to win it all. Deshaun Watson, the hero of that championship game for Clemson, has since proven that he has what it takes to be a superstar in the NFL, not just in college.
Fast Forward two years, and things look very similar for the ACC. Clemson is once again a favorite to win the National Championship with a quarterback that will compete for the Heisman Trophy. Florida State returns a team that may be the most talented in the nation and finds their schedule looking promising in their favor. Miami has returned to glory, coming oh so close to a berth in the College Football Playoff one year ago, and bringing back a team that will likely make a run once again at a Playoff berth.
With any football conference, there are bound to be upsets, surprises, disappointments, and the outright bizarre as the season rolls along. Just look at Florida State, who had a game cancelled early in the season due to Hurricane Irma, but then decided to make it up so that they could record a sixth victory and therefore be eligible to go to a postseason bowl game. Don’t forget Miami, who a few years ago completed a miracle touchdown play with no time on the clock that took close to 90 seconds to complete.
So as to avoid stalling any further, here are some teams to watch in the ACC during the 2018 season.
Clemson University Tigers (Clemson) – Quarterback Kelly Bryant had the biggest possible shoes to fill in 2017. He was the replacement for the Clemson legend, and now Houston Texans, Quarterback Deshaun Watson. Somehow, Bryant was able to lead the Tigers to yet another berth in the College Football Playoff after guiding Clemson to their third consecutive ACC Championship. Clemson returns nearly everyone from last year’s Playoff team, including their top 3 rushers from 2017 as well as nine of their eleven starting defenders. With only Florida State looming on the schedule as a formidable road opponent, the path for the Tigers to return to the ACC Championship game, and potentially the College Football Playoff, is once again wide open.
University of Miami Hurricanes (Miami, The U) – The U returned to their winning ways in 2017 under new Head Coach Mark Richt. The Swagger that the Hurricanes have been known for had been dormant for years as they struggled to regain the success that had been a staple of Miami football for nearly 20 years. With a return to national prominence brought that swagger, dominating victories, and the debut of the “Turnover Chain”, a gold chain adorned with a large University of Miami logo, which was worn by a defensive player that forced a turnover on the previous play. In fact, if it hadn’t been for a loss to Pittsburgh on the final week of the regular season, the ACC Championship game would have featured an undefeated Miami team facing Clemson for a chance at not only a conference championship but also a berth in the College Football Playoff. Although Clemson got the better of the Hurricanes in that matchup, the prospects for Miami in 2018 could not be brighter. A favorable schedule, featuring only one difficult road game at Virginia Tech, and the return of 8 out of 11 starters on offense and defense, including Senior Quarterback Malik Rosier, has The U thinking not just of recapturing ACC Championship glory, but of striking gold and winning their first National Championship since 2001.
Florida State University Seminoles (Florida State, FSU) – In a word, the 2017 Florida State season can be described a disappointing. What should have been a potentially magical sophomore season for Quarterback Deondre Francois turned into a nightmare in the first game, as the budding superstar missed the rest of the season after suffering an injury against Alabama to start the season. While there are 22 positions on offense and defense in football, the loss of a key offensive component affected the entire Florida State season, as the Seminoles struggled to just seven wins including their Independence Bowl victory over Southern Mississippi. To add insult to injury, Head Coach Jimbo Fisher left Florida State after the season to become the new Head Coach at Texas A&M, with Willie Taggart filling the void left by Fisher beginning in 2018. Francois will be healthy to return for the 2018 season, and will be joined on offense by 7 of the other 10 starters from a 2017 team that was supposed to compete for an ACC championship before the injury. With Francois back healthy, and nearly every game against top tier teams taking place at home, 2018 may be a banner year for the Seminoles as they take their first step towards returning to glory under new Coach Taggart.
North Carolina State University Wolfpack (North Carolina State, NC State) – It has been since 1979 that the Wolfpack won an ACC Championship. While it has been nearly 40 years since the ACC saw North Carolina State win the crown, there have been some close calls over the years, including 2002 when now Los Angeles Chargers Quarterback Phillip Rivers led the charge to a team record 11 wins and a victory over Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl. In 2017, NC State saw another “close but no cigar” season, which saw the Wolfpack finish just one victory behind Clemson in the ACC Atlantic division with 9 total victories. Senior Quarterback Ryan Finley is back for a final season at the helm of an offense that scored more than 30 points eight times a season ago. While the defense will need to fill several holes, with 9 of the 11 starters from the 2017 season no longer at NC State, the offense should more than make up for those deficiencies early on as the defense gets back on its feet. While the ACC Atlantic division is extremely talented in 2018, with both Clemson and Florida State expected to compete for an ACC Championship, there is still a good chance for a Ryan Finley led Wolfpack team to compete for a Division crown, and even an ACC Title for the first time since 1979.
University of Louisville Cardinals (Louisville, UL) – File the Louisville Cardinals failing to live up to their previous success under the “most unsurprising results” category of the 2018 season. Heisman Trophy winner and first round NFL Draft pick Lamar Jackson was Louisville Football for two full seasons. Perhaps the most gifted athlete college football had seen since Michael Vick nearly 20 years prior, the explosive Jackson was responsible for 5,261 yards of offense and 45 touchdowns in 2017, accounting for an incredible 74% of the Cardinal offense. Head Coach Bobby Petrino now faces the impossible task of replacing the unquestionably the most talented football player in the history of the University of Louisville. Petrino, now in his second stint as the man in charge at Louisville, does not have an athlete on the team as dynamic as Jackson in 2018. As a result, the Cardinals have no chance of equaling their success from the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Don’t count out Louisville in the years to come, though, as Bobby Petrino has an impressive track record of success to his credit, and won’t see his Cardinals struggle for long.
Virginia Tech University Hokies (Virginia Tech, Va Tech) – For 29 years, “Beamerball” reigned supreme in Blacksburg, Virginia, home of the Virginia Tech Hokies. Longtime Head Coach Frank Beamer was known for coaching his team to play a complete game, with an emphasis placed on elite defensive and special teams play. Two years after the retirement of Beamer, now it is Justin Fuente leading the charge for the Hokies as Virginia Tech looks to continue their 25 year streak of reaching a bowl game, the longest active streak in college football. Thus far, Coach Fuente has seemingly continued the defensive excellence put forward by Coach Beamer, with the 2017 Hokies allowing fewer than 20 points in 8 of their 12 regular season games, recording three shutouts along the way. Meanwhile, the offense at Virginia Tech has looked promising as well. Sophomore Quarterback Josh Jackson is coming off a Freshman season which saw him throw for nearly 3,000 yards and account for 26 total touchdowns. With a full season under his belt, he should be capable of leading an impressive charge for the Hokies offense. An early season test at Florida State will prove difficult for Virginia Tech, but after that, the schedule becomes manageable as their next difficult test does not come until mid-November when Va Tech welcomes Miami to Blacksburg. While Miami may be too tough of a test for the Hokies, if Virginia Tech is able to pull the upset, they may yet find themselves in the ACC Championship Game as the winners of the ACC Coastal division.
The traditional powers of the ACC have risen back to the top in recent years, as Florida State, Clemson, Miami, and Virginia Tech all find themselves at or near the top of the conference in 2018. It was envisioned when the conference first expanded in 2004 that putting Florida State and Miami in separate divisions would lead to the rivalry game being played twice a year. That has yet to occur, although the 2018 season may be the best chance we have had to see such an event. Clemson will have something to say about that when they travel to Tallahassee, Florida to take on Florida State, as will Virginia Tech when they host Miami. How will it all go down? Come back on August 24 to find out!