Today, Monday the 29th of August, marks the beginning of game week for college football programs across the country with football just days away and only seven sleeps until Florida State’s 2016 season opener against Ole Miss. As such, the timing feels perfect to introduce a new aspect of Tomahawk Nation’s football coverage for the upcoming season: a weekly power ranking of the ACC football programs. Without further ado, here’s the preseason edition of our Atlantic Coast Conference power rankings:
It’s nearly impossible to deny the top spot in these rankings to the national runner-ups from last year who returned their Heisman finalist, defending ACC Player of the Year quarterback Deshaun Watson as well as the rest of the ripe-with-talent offense from 2015. The Tigers lost a number of key defenders from last year’s squad but a relatively soft schedule could go a long way towards aiding Clemson’s possible return to the College Football Playoff. The Tigers, ranked No. 2 in both the AP and Coaches Polls, get their 2016 campaign underway on Saturday with a trip to Alabama to take on an Auburn team projected to be among the worst in the SEC West.
2. Florida State
The Seminoles find themselves in a good place entering the 2016 season. They return all 11 offensive starters from a season ago and have found their next quarterback in redshirt freshman Deondre Francois. The defense, however, is the more heralded unit for the Seminoles, chock full of talent at each position group. The game being circled on calendars nationwide as the ACC game of the year pits FSU against Clemson in an October 29th showdown in Tallahassee. That being said, Florida State’s schedule features a number of challenging opponents before the Seminoles have the chance to dethrone Clemson, beginning with a Labor Day matchup against Ole Miss in Orlando to close out a fantastic slate of games in week one of the 2016 season.
After the obvious top two selections of Clemson and FSU, Louisville is the next most hyped ACC team entering the 2016 season Sophomore signal caller Lamar Jackson showed flashes of brilliance in 2015 and all indications show that he has taken a big step forward over the offseason. He is surrounded by a supporting cast that returns more production from last year’s team than anyone else in the country. UL’s 2016 campaign begins on a light note when the Cards play host to the Charlotte 49ers on Thursday, currently sitting at nearly 40-point favorites according to Vegas.
4. North Carolina
UNC looks to respond from its highly successful 2015 season which saw them come up just short of upsetting Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. The Tarheels will have to do that without quarterback Marquise Williams, who graduated after last season, but have a serviceable replacement in Mitch Trubisky, who has impressed in limited playing time so far in his collegiate career. Regardless of the QB change, the Heels were named the preseason favorites to win the ACC Coastal in a landslide and a return trip to Charlotte seems like a distinct possibility. North Carolina kicks off its 2016 season with a neutral-site game against the Georgia Bulldogs in Atlanta in the first of three ACC/SEC matchups in the opening weekend.
The Panthers have a lot to like about their team entering the 2016 season. Redshirt junior running back James Connor, back with the team and cancer-free after missing last season, is poised for a monster season and he will be aided by redshirt senior quarterback Nathan Peterman. Together, those two, along with a supporting cast that returns 16 starters from 2015’s squad, give Pitt its best chance to win the ACC Coastal Division in its still-young career in the conference.
The Hurricanes find themselves in an interesting position heading into the 2016 season. The positives surrounding the program include Brad Kaaya, widely heralded as the second-best QB in the conference, and a lot of positive buzz surrounding the hire of Mark Richt as the Canes’ new coach. However, a illegal benefits scandal has caused the dismissals of three Hurricanes players, including two of their most experienced linebackers, raising many questions about the experience and readiness of UM on the defensive side of the ball. Additionally, Miami does itself no favors with a strict schedule which adds road games at Notre Dame and Sun Belt upstart Appalachian State in addition to the ACC slate. However, Miami faces no stiff challenge in week one, playing host to Florida A&M.
7. NC State
The Wolfpack find themselves smack dab in the middle with little cause for drastic concern but also little to look forward to in a season where they will be hard pressed to finish any higher than fourth in the Atlantic Division standings. NCSU is faced with the tough task of replacing talented quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who graduated, and running back Shadrach Thornton, who was dismissed from the team before the conclusion of his senior season. Although the ceiling for this team appears limited, NC State begins its 2016 season easily enough with a Thursday night game against William & Mary in Raleigh.
8. Virginia Tech
VT made maybe the biggest splash of the offseason coaching carousel, Justin Fuente as the replacement to longtime head coach Frank Beamer. Fuente, who led Memphis to a combined 19-6 record over his last two seasons with the Tigers, does not have the roster talent to make an instant impact in Blacksburg but is on pace for one of the quicker turnarounds among the ACC’s new coaching hires of the offseason. The Hokies’ premier early-season game sees them travel to Bristol, TN for a primetime matchup with the Tennessee Volunteers in front of an unprecedented crowd. However, Virginia Tech must first face off against FCS foe Liberty in the opening weekend of the 2016 season.
9. Georgia Tech
A season ago, Georgia Tech managed to defeat only one FBS opponent over the entire season, finishing the year with a dismal 3-9 record, due in large part to horrific injury luck. Arguing that the talent on the roster is good enough for GT to emerge as a Coastal contender in 2016 is a dubious point at best but there is no denying the continuous misfortune that the Yellow Jackets underwent last year and the fact that a similar result this year would come as a legitimate surprise. GT starts its 2016 campaign in the only conference matchup of week one, facing off against Boston College in Dublin, Ireland in Saturday’s first game, scheduled for a 7:30 AM EST start.
Dino Babers, the Orange’s new head coach brought over from Bowling Green to replace Scott Shafer, has been saying and doing the right things up to this point in his brief tenure at Syracuse. However, many of those things have been attempts to temper expectations for this year’s team. The Orange do return 15 starters from last year’s team (8 offense, 7 defense) but the three offensive departures were offensive lineman, severely damaging an OL unit that surrendered only 21 sacks last year. Although I’m a definite fan of the Babers hire, the strides he makes in year one will be limited. SU’s 2016 schedule begins Saturday with a home game against Colgate.
Duke, a perennial Cinderella in the Coastal Division race of late, received devastating news over the weekend in learning that fifth-year quarterback Thomas Sirk has suffered a torn Achilles and will miss the entire 2016 season. This coupled with the fact that the Devils return only 10 players from its 2015 squad, tied for the least among ACC teams, does not shape up for a highly successful 2016. Duke’s 2016 slate kicks off on Saturday when it hosts North Carolina Central.
12. Wake Forest
Progress under head coach Dave Clawson has been slow for the Demon Deacons. The record may have been the same in year two as it was in year one, 3-9, but there was progress to be seen by looking a bit closer. The best news for Wake, especially beyond this year, is that no quarterbacks, running backs, or wide receivers who contributed on last year’s team are seniors this year. That being said, Wake is probably still on the outside looking in come bowl season, at least for one more year. WF’s 2016 schedule abruptly starts on Thursday when the Demon Deacons play host to the Tulane Green Wave in a game they will be favored to win by 2+ touchdowns.
13. Boston College
Boston College has nowhere to go but up this year after a 3-9 record (0-8 in ACC games) a season ago. The Eagles have the benefit of getting back running back Jon Hilliman and quarterback Darius Wade from injuries. Additionally, BC snagged Kentucky graduate transfer QB Patrick Towles as another possible option to run the offense in 2016. Don’t count on another 0-8 conference record but don’t expect too large a step forward either. Boston College looks to get its first conference win out of the way early this season when facing Georgia Tech in a week one matchup in Dublin.
What’s there to say about Virginia? The Cavaliers return just 10 starters from last year’s team, tied for the fewest in the conference with Duke, including two of their top three receivers from a season ago. On the bright side, the Hoos do return nearly all of their rushing production from a season ago. Another thing working in UVA’s corner is new head coach Bronco Mendenhall, a solid hire lost in the middle of some of the more flashy hires made by ACC schools this offseason. Virginia looks to start its 2016 season on a high note by going up against the Richmond Spiders, an FCS foe, in a 3:30 game on Saturday.