The ACC Atlantic Division is divided into two very distinct tiers of teams. Clemson and Florida State are the heavyweights, and it would be a shock if the division winner were anyone else. The Tigers and Seminoles are also good enough to be the co-favorites for the conference overall, and to be the conversation as a possible national title contender.
After the Big Two, you have five teams that can all make credible arguments—based on either returning personnel or recent history—to be the third-best team in the division. Therefore, our college football coverage of the Atlantic Division will divide into two distinct parts that represent the division as a whole.
Florida State: The Seminoles won the ACC crown a year ago and then manhandled Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl. Quarterback E.J. Manuel has moved on to the NFL and the Buffalo Bills, but if Jimbo Fischer is a good offensive mind—and that’s how the FSU head coach built his reputation coming up through the ranks—then the pieces are there for the ‘Noles to produce points.
Fischer can fall back on a veteran offensive lineman, with four returning starters and mostly upperclassmen in starting roles. The 1-2 punch of Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. in the backfield ensures that the new quarterback—probably freshman Jameis Winston—can grow into the job with a lot of ground support, along with a good target in receiver Rashad Greene.
The quarterback transition is still enough of a concern to keep Florida State out of the ranks of national championship contenders, but the ACC hopes are more likely to swing on how quickly the defensive front seven can be rebuilt. There’s a good secondary here, led by corner Lamarcus Joyner, but the line and linebackers need to get up to speed.
Clemson: Tajh Boyd has a great run as the Clemson quarterback, leading his team to a conference championship in 2011, and a bowl victory over LSU in 2012. There’s one more step to take—win not just the ACC, but win the Orange Bowl on top of it.
Boyd’s best playmates—receiver DeAndre Hopkins and running back Andre Ellington—have moved on but the quarterback can still target explosive wideout Sammy Watkins. And Boyd will be protected by an offensive front as experienced as the one in Tallahassee.
Clemson improved defensively a year ago, the humiliation of giving up 70 points to West Virginia in the ’11 Orange Bowl undoubtedly being a motivator. Their challenge this year is the opposite of FSU’s—the Tigers have their key people back up front, but need to get new players up to speed in the secondary.
THE FIVE CHALLENGERS
This group is an eclectic mix of new arrivals from the Big East, coaching newcomers and sideline veterans, all with their own unique case for why they can move up the ranks and make a decent bowl game.
N.C. State: The Wolfpack said goodbye to Tom O’Brien after a tenure that saw N.C. State consistently make bowl games, but never make a serious run at the conference title. Dave Doeren, who guided Northern Illinois to their great year (and did not coach in the Orange Bowl), is the new man in town.
Doeren’s advantages are a program that at least had the track record of being a consistent, winning bowl team. His problem is that virtually the entire squad, save the defensive line, needs to be rebuilt. The D-Line can be the core of a success over a two-year run, as three kids who started as sophomores, return this season.
Boston College: BC let go of Frank Spaziani after starting to fall on hard times and hired Steve Addazio away from Temple. I absolutely love this hire and think Addazio will fit in well at Chestnut Hill. He’s got a an experienced team in both trenches, a tough running quarterback in Chase Rettig and an emerging wideout in Alex Amidon.
What’s going to hinder the Eagles is a youthful secondary, and the new coaching staff likes to be aggressive, meaning its trial by fire for the developing defensive backs.
Syracuse: Head coach Doug Marrone took the Orange to a couple bowl games and turned that into the Buffalo Bills job. Nothing against Marrone, but how did that make him more qualified than Lovie Smith to get the Bills’ gig? Sorry, I digress. Marrone left behind an offense that can build around the running game, with three returning lineman and an 1100-yard rusher in Jerome Smith, plus a veteran defense.
The only weakness in Syracuse is the passing game, where a new quarterback and new receivers must be found.
Maryland: Randy Edsall hasn’t worked the magic in College Park the way I thought he would after enjoying such success in UConn, but it is still just the third year of Edsall’s tenure here in Maryland. After running through multiple quarterbacks last year, he’s got C.J. Brown back healthy and ready for a sixth year of eligibility. The offensive line should be okay, albeit not great, but the defense looks young everywhere.
I might be too generous in including Maryland in the group of teams who could finish third, rather than just confining them to a tier all their own, but Edsall’s track record of taking UConn to a BCS game in 2010 deserves respect and if Brown stays healthy, there’s no reason Maryland couldn’t go 3-1 against the other four teams at this level.
Wake Forest: Jim Grobe enters his 13th year in Winston-Salem and it seems like quarterback Tanner Price is doing the same. The senior signal-caller has been a starter his entire college career, and it’s been a mix of ups and downs, usually tied to the quality of the personnel around him. Last year, it wasn’t very good and Wake went 5-7. This year, things look a little better.
Price has senior receiver Michael Campano back in the fold, a decent offensive front to protect him, and a defense that looks like it will be significantly better. Nose tackle Nikita Whitlock holds down the middle of the 3-4 scheme, and there’s a lot of experience in the back seven.
I’ll take Clemson over Florida State for the division crown. The Tigers have the more experienced quarterback and the head-to-head game on October 19 in Death Valley. At the next level, I think Wake Forest is going to emerge as the best of that group and the Deacons will win at least eight games. I’d see Maryland and Syracuse as the teams that fall apart, N.C. State being mediocre and Boston College at least making a bowl game.