2016 ACC Atlantic Preview: Can DeShaun Watson Carry The Tigers Back To The Playoff?

By Ryan Mayer 

College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, sleepers, and the rest. Can your team truly challenge for conference supremacy? Are they being underrated? Stay tuned.To give you an idea of what each tier means, teams that are marked contenders are considered legitimate division and conference title contenders. Sleepers are teams that if everything breaks their way could pull a few upsets and steal a spot in the conference title game. The rest is teams that likely won’t contend for the division or conference title but are more likely to be fighting for a bowl spot.

Today, we look to the ACC Atlantic division, where the national runners-up Clemson are going to have some serious competition from Jimbo Fisher’s Florida State Seminoles.

Preseason Media Poll- Atlantic

1) Clemson Tigers

2) Florida State Seminoles

3) Louisville Cardinals

4) NC State Wolfpack

5) Boston College Eagles

6) Syracuse Orange

7) Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Contenders

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Running back Dalvin Cook is a Heisman candidate heading into this season. Credit: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Florida State Seminoles

Jimbo Fisher’s squad took a small step back last season after losing Jameis Winston and other key contributors to the pros. Still, the Seminoles were 10-3 and played ACC winner Clemson pretty tight in Death Valley. This year, Fisher returns his offense completely intact and some very talented guys on the defensive side. This could be a rebound right to the top of the ACC.

On offense, Sean Maguire returns for his senior season after starting infrequently in relief of Everett Golson last season. He threw for 1,520 yards 11 TDs and 6 INTs but there is no guarantee that the job is his heading into the season. All reports have red-shirt freshman Deondre Francois pushing Maguire for the starting spot. It will be interesting to see how that battle plays out over the next few weeks. Whoever it is at the QB spot benefits from an offensive line that returns everybody and the presence of stud running back Dalvin Cook who should get more Heisman hype than he currently does. Cook averaged 7.4 yards per carry last year totaling 1,691 yards and 19 TDs on 226 carries. As for the receivers, the top nine are back led by Travis Rudolph and Kermit Whitfield who combined for 116 catches 1,714 yards and 13 TDs. The Seminoles averaged 32 points per game last year and I’d expect that number to climb.

Defensively, there was some star power lost to the NFL, in particular do-everything defensive back Jalen Ramsey who was the #3 overall pick in the draft. However, there’s still plenty of talent here starting on the defensive line with DeMarcus Walker, the lone returnee in that starting group, but he was 1st team All ACC last year. The linebacker group brings back Josh Sweat who showed some promise in his freshman year and they get back Trey Marshall who was injured after just five games last season. The secondary loses Ramsey and also safety Lamarcus Brutus, but return corner Marquez White and safety Nate Andrews who both started all 13 games last season.

The Seminoles also benefit from a schedule that features three of their most difficult games coming at home, including the big one against Clemson. The October 29th game between the Tigers and Seminoles in Tallahassee will determine this division.

Toughest Games: vs. Ole Miss (9/5, Orlando), @ Louisville (9/17), vs. UNC (10/1), @ Miami (10/8), vs. Clemson (10/29), vs. Florida (11/26)

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Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Clemson Tigers

Dabo Swinney has just been racking up the wins over the last five years. Clemson has had double-digit wins in each of those seasons and their total record is 56-12 including an appearance in the National Championship game last season. The offense looks primed for another huge year, while the defense, like last year, has some questions to answer.

The offense begins and ends with quarterback DeShaun Watson. He became the first player in NCAA history to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in a season. Let that sink in. His numbers were insane. Completed 67 percent of his passes for 4,104 yards 35 TDs and 13 INTs and adding 1,219 yards and 12 TDs on the ground. The crazy thing is, Watson was just a sophomore last year and could be better this season after two full years in the system. Plus, he has workhorse running back Wayne Gallman back who combined with Watson for a lethal read-option game as Gallman ran for 1,527 yards and 13 TDs on 283 carries. Those guys will be protected by and offensive line that returns three starters from last year. To make things a little more unfair, Watson gets expected top receiver Mike Williams back after he missed all of last year to pair with Artavis Scott, Deon Cain and tight end Jordan Leggett making for a potent passing attack once again. Clemson will light up scoreboards again this season.

Last year, we wondered how Clemson would survive with just four returning starters on defense. They went 14-1. Now, the same question is being asked. Can defensive coordinator Brent Venables work his magic again after the loss of star players corner Mackensie Alexander, defensive ends Shaq Lawson ans Kevin Dodd and 1st team All ACC linebacker BJ Goodson? Well, the defensive line brings back talented sophomore ends Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins and adds in top recruit defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence. Linebacker Ben Boulware, who was also 1st team All ACC last year is back to help the two young starters beside him. The big question really comes in the secondary where three key guys (Alexander and safeties Jayron Kearse and TJ Green) are gone. Finding key contributors in that unit will be the main focus heading into the year.

The schedule is relatively kind to the Tigers as outside of the game at Florida State, they get Louisville and Pitt at home. As I said above, the October 29th meeting in Tallahassee is where this division will be settled.

Toughest Games: @ Auburn (9/3), vs. Louisville (10/1), @ Florida State (10/29), vs. Pittsburgh (11/12)

Sleepers

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Louisville will be hoping #8 QB Lamar Jackson will continue to progress on the numbers he put up in his freshman season. Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Louisville Cardinals

Bobby Petrino’s group isn’t getting as much talk as the Tigers and Seminoles coming into the year, but the Cardinals could certainly make some noise here. 17 starters are back from a team that went 8-5 last year and they have a quarterback who now has a solid amount of starting experience under his belt.

Sophomore QB Lamar Jackson started seven games last season including the bowl game against Texas A&M in which he ran for 226 yards and seemed to solidify himself in that spot carrying over into this year. He threw for 1,840 yards with a 12-8 TD to INT ratio last year and added nearly 1,000 yards on the ground with 11 TDs there. Those rushing numbers were important considering the fact that he led the team in rushing with Brandon Radcliff coming in second with just 634 yards. Radcliff is back again this year and the offensive line brings back three starters so the running game should improve as should the pass protection as they gave up 44 sacks last year. Jackson will have all of his top receivers back with seniors James Quick and Jamari Staples leading the way. Louisville should definitely improve on the 29 points per game they averaged last year.

On defense, some star power is gone with the loss of DE Sheldon Rankins and LBs James Burgess and Keith Brown. The defensive line will look to nose tackle DeAngelo Brown to lead in the absence of Rankins. Linebacker gets to add Devonte Fields to the outside after he saw most of his time at defensive end last season and adds Josh Harvey-Clemons who played in the secondary last year to the other outside spot so there will be some good athleticism on the edge of the front seven. Shaq Wiggins, Trumaine Washington and Chucky Williams all return in the secondary which should make for a strong defense against the pass.

Louisville avoids the big boys out of the Coastal (UNC, Miami, Pitt) and gets the Seminoles at home. Both games against Florida State and Clemson come in the first five weeks of the year, so we’ll know early on if Louisville is a significant player in the ACC race.

Toughest Games: vs. Florida State (9/17), @ Clemson (10/1), @ Houston (11/17)

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Credit: Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Boston College Eagles

Steve Addazio’s bunch had a rough year last year and it was largely the fault of the offense as the defense was one of the stingiest in the country giving up just 15 points per game and allowing opponents to rush for just 83 yards per which was 2nd in all of FBS. This season, the offense returns mostly intact and they get a potential impact grad transfer at QB. Will it be enough to put them squarely in the Atlantic division race?

Former Kentucky QB Patrick Towles transferred to the Eagles in the spring and could be the guy for Addazio’s group this season. His main competition is junior Darius Wade who started two games early in the season before being lost for the year due to injury. Towles was inconsistent at UK so the job isn’t definitely his, but we’ll put him out front for the moment. The running backs group returns intact with Jon Hillman, the number one guy heading into last season, back from injury. They’ll be working behind an offensive line that loses just two starters from last year and should be more experienced considering a couple of freshman were starting by the end of the year last year. The top three receivers are back and should increase in production as the QB merry-go-round that was last season shouldn’t be the case with better health this year.

On defense, the biggest loss is defensive coordinator Don Brown, who left to take the same job at Michigan. New coordinator Jim Reid will have to break in two new defensive linemen and find production to replace their top tackler in linebacker Steven Daniels. That said, the secondary brings back three of four starters and gets corner Kamrin Moore back from injury so the back end is very solid and there’s plenty of experience in the front seven with four starters returning.

BC’s schedule doesn’t look overly tough, but it does have some quirks including both the Clemson and Florida State games coming on Friday nights the week after the Eagles play a Saturday game. That means one less day of preparation for their two biggest opponents of the year which I’m sure head coach Addazio isn’t thrilled about.

Toughest Games: @ Virginia Tech (9/17), vs. Clemson (10/7), vs. Louisville (11/5), @ Florida State (11/11)

The Rest

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Credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

NC State Wolfpack

Dave Doeren enters his 4th season with the Wolfpack needing to replace a major hole at the QB spot with the departure of Jacoby Brissett. The team is coming off a 7-6 year and breaking in a new offensive coordinator and a new quarterback so a step back from the offense is likely. Combined with a brutal schedule, this looks like a tough year for the Wolfpack.

Eli Drinkwitz, formerly the OC at Boise State, takes over this year and brings with him grad transfer QB Ryan Finley. His familiarity with Drinkwitz’s system makes him the likely starter over sophomore Jalan McClendon. The new OC-QB combo will have top rusher Matt Dayes to work with (134 carries 865 yards 12 TD). The offensive line lost three key starters but does gain South Alabama transfer Joseph Scelfo to try and offset those losses a little. At wide receiver, basically everyone is back which gives Finley plenty of targets.

Defensively, the Wolfpack lose their top defensive lineman in Mike Rose (10.5 sacks), along with corner Juston Burris and safety Hakim Jones. Despite the star power gone there, the team does return top tackler Airius Moore at linebackers and get corner Jack Tocho back fully healthy after he started just three games last season.

The biggest problem is the schedule where after the first four games things get rough. Notre Dame, Clemson, Louisville, Boston College and Florida State in a run of five straight weeks before ending the season with Miami and UNC in back-to-back weeks. Yikes.

Toughest Games: vs. Notre Dame (10/8), @ Clemson (10/15), @ Louisville (10/22), vs. Boston College (10/29), vs. Florida State (11/5), vs. Miami (11/19), @ UNC (11/25)

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Credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Syracuse Orange

The Orange have a new coach as Dino Babers takes over after two years at Bowling Green in which he went 18-9. Babers inherits a team that has some turnover at the QB position and hasn’t had a winning season since 2013. The schedule does him no favors in Year 1.

Terrel Hunt wasn’t awarded a sixth year of eligibility so the likely starter at the QB spot is Eric Dungey who had the Orange off to a 3-0 start last season before being injured, coming back starting five more games and then being lost for the year. Keeping him healthy will be the main concern and that might be an issue behind an offensive line that has one returning starter in center Jason Emerich. The top three running backs are back which should help alleviate pressure on the passing game, though no back had more than 607 yards last season. Steve Ishmael, Brisly Estime, and Ervin Phillips return at wide receiver and with Babers wide open offense I would expect the group to improve on the 1,149 yards they combined for last season.

On defense, the big question for coordinator Brian Ward is the defensive line which loses both starting defensive ends in Ron Thompson and Donnie Simmons, along with tackle John Raymon who started seven games last season. Finding answers at those spots will be key as the rest of the defense is solid with all three linebackers back and most of the secondary back as well including safety Antwan Cordy, who was second on the team in tackles with 68 last season.

Like NC State, Syracuse has a tough schedule that will likely keep them from being a factor in the division race, though they could find themselves fighting for a bowl game.

Toughest Games: vs. Louisville (9/9), vs. Notre Dame (10/1 East Rutherford), vs. Virginia Tech (10/15), @ Boston College (10/22), @ Clemson (11/5), vs. Florida State (11/19), @ Pitt (11/26)

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Credit: Lance King/Getty Images

Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Wake Forest is coming off back-to-back 3-9 seasons in Dave Clawson’s first two years and the program hasn’t made a bowl game since 2011. He has his most experienced group to work with this year and the schedule is fairly favorable so it’s possible they could end that drought this year.

The two QB system that Clawson used throughout last season returns intact as junior John Wolford (60.9% 1,791 yards 9 TD 11 INT) and sophomore Kendall Hinton (52% 929 yards 4 TD 5 INT, 390 rush 7 TD) are back. They’ll go to work behind an offensive line that returns four starters from last year, which means the running game and pass protection should improve from the dismal 105 yards per game and 40 sacks given up last season. That in turn means sophomore back Tyler Bell’s numbers should improve from the 451 yards and 1 TD he had last season and I look for the receivers numbers to go up as well particularly top guy Cortez Lewis (47 receptions 611 yards 4 TD last season). Wake averaged just 17 points per game last year and I would expect that number to go up with nine starters returning.

On defense, the entire defensive line is back which you would hope means improved production considering that the Demon Deacons had just 20 sacks last year. They lose two starters at the linebacker spot leaving senior Marquel Lee to try and get his two young counterparts up to speed. With one corner and a safety leaving, the secondary might look weaker, but sophomore corner Dionte Austin started the last four games and he’ll pair with last year’s other starter Brad Watson for a solid corner combo while safety Ryan Janvion was the top tackler in 2014 and the 3rd leading tackler last year with 72. All in all, DC Mike Elko has plenty to work with on this side of the ball.

I mentioned the schedule being favorable and that’s because the Deacs have games against Florida State, Louisville, Clemson and Boston College but, they don’t draw any of the tougher teams from the Coastal getting Duke and Virginia (though Duke always overachieves). There’s winnable games on the schedule it’s just a question of how much the offense can improve and whether they can take advantage.

Toughest Games: @ Florida State (10/15), @ Louisville (11/12), vs. Clemson (11/19), vs. Boston College (11/26)

Division Winner- Clemson

Yeah, I know. Ryan, you raved about the Seminoles and all the talent they have back. They have more starters back than the Tigers. Their entire offense returns and the Tigers have to travel to Tallahassee. You are correct loyal reader. However, there are two reasons I will take Clemson over Florida State. First, DeShaun Watson. It doesn’t matter who the Florida State QB is, that guy won’t have nearly the same impact on games that Watson does. His combination of rushing and passing (accurate passing at that) would seem to be the next evolution of what we’ve seen from Michael Vick, Cam Newton, etc. Despite the Tigers having to travel to Tallahassee, I think the Tigers win that game. Secondly, the Seminoles have the tougher of the two schedules drawing Miami and UNC out of the Coastal and having to travel to Louisville. Clemson, on the other hand, hosts Louisville and gets Pittsburgh at home as well. The Tigers go back to the playoff looking for revenge.

Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.

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