Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell (99), a former Benedictine standout, celebrated with Austin Bryant after a first-half play against Miami in the ACC championship game last season. Clemson appears likely to keep its title.
The ACC has had a team in the College Football Playoff and a Heisman finalist in each of the past three seasons. As the league’s coaches and selected players gather in Charlotte, N.C., for this week’s ACC Kickoff, there is reason to believe both streaks can continue and that the conference can continue to rival the SEC as the most successful in the CFP era. Mike Barber provides six of the storylines to watch this season:
Spend a few days hanging around the defending ACC champions and you’ll see Clemson has a lot of veterans working like rookies with something to prove. The decisions of a number of NFL prospects to return for this season, including star defensive end and Richmond native Clelin Ferrell (Benedictine), give coach Dabo Swinney the thing all coaches say they desire — a player-led team. The Tigers are deep, talented and driven, and this year they may be led by their defense.
Who’s No. 2?
If Clemson is the obvious league favorite, who’s the ACC’s next-best team? Chances are, it’s a team in Florida — either Coastal Division favorite Miami or Florida State. At Florida State, new coach Willie Taggart has a big decision to make soon. Should junior Deondre Francois, coming off an injury and some off-field issues, or sophomore James Blackman (above) start at quarterback? Mark Richt’s Hurricanes need quarterback Malik Rosier to take another step in his development, but he’ll be helped by weapons such as running back Travis Homer and wide receiver Ahmmon Richards.
Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech could be sleepers in the Coastal, while North Carolina State, Wake Forest and even Boston College are worth watching in the Atlantic.
The new guy
Taggart takes over at a pivotal moment for Florida State. Miami is threatening to challenge the Seminoles as the Sunshine State’s top team, and Clemson has dominated the Atlantic Division. The Francois-Blackman choice is a major call for the former South Florida and Oregon coach to make. Taggart also will call the plays for the Seminoles’ offense. If it all comes together, Taggart has a chance to be the first FSU coach named ACC coach of the year. But it needs to come together fast.
ACC teams aren’t waiting until October for serious tests. Two teams expected to battle for division titles — Florida State and Virginia Tech — meet in Tallahassee in their season openers on Labor Day night, an unusually early conference opener for both squads. Most ACC teams have three or four nonconference games on the schedule before starting league play. But Tech and FSU aren’t alone with early challenges. Miami plays LSU the day before in Texas, and Louisville takes on Alabama in Florida the day before that. In Week 2, league favorite Clemson plays at Texas A&M and Pittsburgh hosts rival Penn State.
Quarterback Ryan Finley (below) isn’t a household name outside North Carolina State’s fan base. But after this season, he will be. Finley already ranks fifth in career passing yardage for the Wolfpack. The former Boise State quarterback — and graduate — opted to return to State for a final season, and he may be the league’s top player behind center.
Risers poised to continue?
Boston College, Wake Forest and North Carolina State outperformed expectations in 2017. Can Steve Addazio, Dave Clawson and Dave Doeren continue their programs’ upward trajectories in 2018?
Each has an offensive star around whom to build his attack. Running back A.J. Dillon is a workhorse for the Eagles, wide receiver and return man Greg Dortch (Highland Springs High School) is a do-it-all weapon for the Demon Deacons, and Finley is an experienced playmaker at quarterback for the Wolfpack.
Mike Barber’s predictions
Conference champion: Clemson
2. Florida State
3. N.C. State
4. Wake Forest
5. Boston College
2. Virginia Tech
3. Georgia Tech
7. North Carolina
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