The 2016 ACC football preview, featuring the key games, players, pro prospects and coaches on the hot seat. It’ll again be Clemson and Florida State battling for the top spot, while the Coastal Division has beefed up its coaching roster with the additions of Miami’s Mark Richt and Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente.
– 2016 Previews
Boston College | Clemson | Duke | Florida State
Georgia Tech | Louisville | Miami | North Carolina
NC St | Pitt | Syracuse | Virginia | Virginia Tech
Wake Forest | CFN 2016 All-ACC Team | 25 Best Players
There are two ACCs dividing the conference along an unmistakable line. The haves, Clemson and Florida State, are perennial contenders for everything from a conference crown to a national title. Everyone else, the have-nots, are essentially grappling for third place, in terms of pecking order, recruits and general notoriety.
The ACC is as distinctly stratified as any other Power Five conference. And it’s working for a league that not long ago was struggling for respect on the football landscape.
The Tigers and the Noles give the conference brand identity and clout. They land the best recruits, prepare the most kids for the NFL and have essentially built a wall around the league’s hardware. Either Clemson or Florida State has won the last five ACC championships, and it’s been eight years since a different team captured the Atlantic Division.
And there’s no reason to believe that the league hierarchy will be much different in 2016.
Clemson and Florida State still rule the ACC world. No one will stop the Deshaun Watson-led Tiger offense this fall. And the Noles are typically loaded, from RB Dalvin Cook to the best overall line play in the conference. Plus, FSU gets to host Clemson in Week 9 in a monster matchup that’ll propel the winner into the pole position.
Now, just because there’s a tempered glass ceiling in the ACC does not mean the league lacks impressive depth. Quite the contrary. The conference boasts a deep roster of next-level players and upwardly mobile teams. In the Atlantic, for instance, Louisville has massive sleeper potential now that QB Lamar Jackson is an important year older. And Boston College might finally pair a competent offense with its salty D, adding Kentucky transfer Patrick Towles to the quarterback picture.
In terms of intrigue, there’s the Clemson-Florida State head-to-head battle, and then there’s the Coastal Division race, which will again be wide-open.
In stark contrast to the Atlantic, the Coastal has crowned four different winners in the last five years. And there’s no indication that the parity that’s marked this half of the conference will subside. Actually, an uptick in the caliber of coaches means the competition will be as tight as ever going forward.
Carolina’s Larry Fedora and Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi have already made their marks by finishing first and second, respectively, in the division in 2015. And Duke David Cutcliffe and Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson are proven veterans, with divisional crowns in the last three years. But now that the Coastal has added Mark Richt (Miami), Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech) and Bronco Mendenhall (Virginia), it’s actually surpassed the Atlantic in one critical—coaching depth and prowess.
While the Atlantic produces the national contending heavyweights, the Coastal gives the ACC its storylines and five-team traffic jams in the race for divisional control. It’s the yin and yang of a highly competitive and entertaining conference that’s found its voice, adding football prominence to its more recognizable identity as a basketball league.
ACC Team That Will Surprise
Pittsburgh – To the ACC’s credit, it has a number of viable candidate for this space, including Louisville, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. The Panthers, though, are closest to being ready to take the next big step.
If Pat Narduzzi can guide Pitt to eight wins and the brink of a Coastal Division crown in his debut, what can he achieve now that he’s had a year to plant roots? Win the Coastal, that’s what. Narduzzi is building the Panthers in the image of his former employer, Michigan State. His defense is salty, his ground game will thrive behind a deep backfield, especially if James Conner returns, and QB Nathan Peterman provides the steady hand of a senior. If the receivers can collaboratively replace Tyler Boyd’s production, this team has 10-win potential for the first time as an ACC member.
ACC Team That Will Disappoint
Miami – The Canes made their best football hire this century when they landed Mark Richt. But too many people are jumping the gun on Miami being ready to storm the Coastal Division and Top 25 gates.
There’s good reason to finally be optimistic about the Canes now that Richt is at the helm. And the Brad Kaaya-led backfield is championship-caliber. But Miami is still facing a talent gap, particularly on the lines, that’ll prevent a first-ever appearance in the ACC title game. The program only had two players drafted in April, and not a single all-star returns on D. Things are definitely looking up for the Hurricanes, but folks need to tap the brakes on the talk that this team is poised to make a quantum leap in 2016.
ACC Game of the Year
Clemson at Florida State, Oct. 29 – Win this matchup and you’ve punched your ticket to an ACC championship. At least that’s been the case for the past five years. And based on trends and returning talent, both on the grass and on the sidelines, it would surprise no one if that streak reaches six this December. The Tigers and the Seminoles are clearly the conference’s two marquee programs, perennially churning out all-stars and first or second-day NFL Draft picks. This season’s momentous matchup will take place in Tallahassee, where Florida State has not dropped a game in more than three years.
Five Big-Time ACC Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight
The following five ACC players are bona fide stars, yet they often get overshadowed, even by players in their own locker room. Each deserves more national recognition this season, and have the talent to earn it.
1. RB Wayne Gallman, Jr. Clemson
2. RB Elijah Hood, Jr. North Carolina
3. DE DeMarcus Walker, Sr. Florida State
4. LB Matt Milano, Sr. Boston College
5. FB/TE Jaylen Samuels, Jr. NC State
Top 5 ACC Coaches on the Hot Seat
Listed below are five ACC coaches who really need to deliver better results than they did last season. Now, appearing on a hot seat doesn’t mean a firing is imminent, but the pressure to meet or exceed expectations is higher than it was at this time in 2015.
1. Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech
2. Steve Addazio, Boston College
3. Dave Doeren, NC State
4. Dave Clawson, Wake Forest
5. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State
5 Non-Conference Games the ACC Better Take Very, Very Seriously
The ACC will be tested by marquee opponents, like Ole Miss, Georgia, Auburn, Notre Dame, Oregon and Tennessee, in the opening month of the season. Still, there’s a smattering of lower-profile teams that must also be treated with the utmost respect and focus during the first half of the year.
1. Georgia Southern at Georgia Tech, Oct. 15
2. North Carolina at Illinois, Sept. 10
3. Louisville at Marshall, Sept. 24
4. Miami at Appalachian State, Sept. 17
5. Florida State at South Florida, Sept. 24
5 Best ACC Pro Prospects
1. QB Deshaun Watson, Clemson (Jr.)
2. RB Dalvin Cook, Florida State (Jr.)
3. QB Brad Kaaya, Miami (Jr.)
4. OT Roderick Johnson, Florida State (Jr.)
5. WR Mike Williams, Clemson
5 Biggest ACC Shoes to Fill
1. Florida State CB Tarvarus McFadden for Jalen Ramsey
2. Clemson DE Austin Bryant for Shaq Lawson
3. Pittsburgh WR Dontez Ford for Tyler Boyd
4. Louisville DL Drew Bailey for Sheldon Rankins
5. Florida State PK Ricky Aguayo for Roberto Aguayo