Ahead of ACC media days 2015, excitement and uncertainty define the conference’s outlook in the coming season. The ACC finished last year with some highs — Georgia Tech and Clemson’s Orange and Russell Athletic Bowl wins, a winning record against the SEC on Thanksgiving weekend — and decided lows, like three-time defending champion Florida State’s Playoff flop against Oregon.
Those highs and lows combined make for the most unpredictable ACC season in some time. Florida State has thoroughly dominated the conference along the way to three straight titles, last losing to an ACC opponent on the road against NC State, early in 2012.
The Seminoles’ ACC win streak should surpass three calendar years by the time Miami visits Tallahassee on Oct. 10, as road games against Boston College and Wake Forest should be wins — though Steve Addazio has BC going in the right direction.
Miami is one of several ACC opponents that gave Florida State all it could handle in 2014. For the Seminole streak to continue, Florida State needed to either fend off or rally against the Hurricanes, Louisville, NC State, Clemson and Georgia Tech. Given how integral Jameis Winston was late in a few of those wins, forecasting the Seminoles’ first ACC loss in three years is hardly going out on the limb.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that much of the ACC is improved, either. But much like Florida State — which may be without its top, returning offensive weapon in running back Dalvin Cook and could be entrusting its offense to Everett Golson, who lost the Notre Dame job after a dismal November 2014 — each contender to Florida State’s throne has question marks.
Clemson won the last ACC title not awarded to Florida State, and the Tigers are favorites to challenge the Seminoles in 2015. Returning a defense that was one of the nation’s best, and featuring arguably the ACC’s best quarterback in Deshaun Watson, faith in Clemson is justified.
Dabo Swinney told TigerNet.com that Watson is looking good for a full return heading into 2015, further validating the vote of confidence:
We’re as confident as you can possibly be in a guy. He’s done everything and not missed anything. He’s been at all of the workouts and skills and drills. He’s an above and beyond guy, whatever you tell him he needs to do, he will do above and beyond what he needs to do and go above that. He looks great, great summer and excited to get back there. When we start in a couple of weeks, he’ll be leading the charge with no restrictions and he has been doing that and has not missed anything.”
Watson’s return from injury is good news in an offseason filled with negatives for the Tigers. Clemson lost Isaiah Battle unexpectedly, among others, living Swinney with holes he and his staff were not anticipating having to fill coming off the postseason rout of Oklahoma.
Louisville’s bowl-game loss to Georgia was uninspired, but the Cardinals exceeded expectations in their ACC debut campaign with nine wins. They really should have made it 10, but suffered a late collapse the week of Halloween against Florida State.
We’ll get a sense of where Louisville is early when it faces trendy SEC title pick Auburn in the season opener.
Clemson and Louisville are the chief competitors to Florida State in the Atlantic, the division which has won the ACC championship four years running, but NC State is a dark horse worth keeping an eye on. Dave Doeren’s Wolfpack turned a corner in 2014, finishing an 8-win campaign with an emphatic bowl win over UCF. Florida transfer quarterback Jacoby Brissett is very quietly one of the most dynamic playmakers in the ACC, and is one of nine starters returning on offense.
NC State may not win the Atlantic, but the Pack will spoil the championship aspirations of at least one of the division’s three favorites.
The top-heavy Atlantic might make it the new Coastal. For several years running, the Coastal was impossible to get any real beat on, even as seasons progressed. That may still be the case in 2015, but Georgia Tech asserted itself as a clear team-to-beat last year.
The Yellow Jackets defense made strides throughout 2014, which should carry over into 2015 as eight starters return. Georgia Tech also welcomes back Justin Thomas. Thomas isn’t the ACC’s best quarterback in the traditional sense, but there may not be another quarterback as valuable to his team anywhere in the conference.
After Georgia Tech, it looks like pretty standard Coastal fare. Any one of Virginia Tech, Miami, Pittsburgh, Duke or North Carolina has a case to be the divisional champion. And, given Georgia Tech emerged from relative obscurity to claim it last year, it wouldn’t be shocking if any of these five do the same and stake their claim to the ACC championship.
Moreover, just like the ACC at large, each has questions that could ultimately squash their respective championship bids.
Virginia Tech is always stout defensively under Bud Foster, but the Hokie offense has to improve to be labeled anemic. Pittsburgh is loaded with offensive talent, namely wide receiver Tyler Boyd and running back James Conner, but how will the Panthers mesh under the program’s eighth head coach in less than six years? North Carolina is the most experienced team in the division and Miami has the most talent based on recruiting rankings, but both have routinely underachieved. Conversely, can Duke continue to overachieve?
There’s so much unknown, of which this week’s ACC media days will only begin to scratch the surface. The coming season could be the most fun the conference has seen in a long time, and the #GoACC could take on a whole new meaning.