The 14-school ACC conference has quite a few tough teams with fighting chances to make it to the conference championships in December. The conference has been heavily dominated by the Florida St. Seminoles the past few years, but this year the season will be much different as the ACC football teams have stepped up their level of game.
6) N.C. State Wolfpack
N.C. State seems to be a dark horse every year and much remains the same for 2015. The team returns starting quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who has the potential to be a Heisman trophy candidate if he can improve upon his already impressive statistics of 2,606 passing yards, 529 rushing yards, 26 touchdowns, and only five interceptions from last year. The senior will need to maintain consistency during the season to avoid another midseason slump. The Wolfpack run game welcomed the return of Shadrach Thornton and Matt Dayes while also adding highly recruited running backs Johnny Frasier and Reggie Gallaspy. The defensive backfield also had five starters return. N.C. State’s major downfall is their strength of schedule. The first four non-conference games involve weak opponents, and if the Wolfpack doesn’t start the season 4-0 then they’ll lose all hope of playing in the conference championship. They may face a test against the Louisville Cardinals, but the first real tough opponent for the Wolfpack isn’t until the end of October when they take on the Clemson Tigers on Halloween.
5) Duke Blue Devils
Duke has won its last 19 of 22 regular season games, just one among many school records created amidst the David Cutcliffe era. Junior Thomas Sirk took over as quarterback for the successful Anthony Boone and already has spread his attempts across 12 different wide receivers. The Duke running game also includes a lot of speed and power among three running backs in Jela Duncan, Shaun Wilson, and Shaq Powell. The strength of Duke’s defense lies in its secondary, where all five starters returned led by Jeremy Cash. Cash already has 10 solo tackles this season. However, in order to make the conference championship, the Blue Devil’s defensive front will need to learn to hold its own this season as Carlos Wray was the only returning starter and linebacker Kelby Brown is out for the 2015 season.
4) UNC-Chapel Hill Tarheels
UNC revamped quite a bit of their football program in the off-season, hiring an entirely new defensive coaching staff led by a talented defensive coordinator in Gene Chizik. Almost every lineman and defensive back returned, including Jeff Schoettmer, who finished last season with the second-most tackles. The Tarheels already held their first two opponents to fewer than 20 points, a major improvement from last year. Senior quarterback Marquise Williams, who attended the Manning Passing Academy during the offseason, leads the offense. Last year, Williams set 18 records, and in two games, he’s completed 34 of 51 passes for a 66.7% completion rate. At then end of week two, Williams is averaging 8.7 yards an attempt. Williams also has three wide receivers over 6’3” in Quinshad Davis, Bug Howard, and Mack Hollins. The running backs are led by sophomore standout Elijah Hood. Hood was noted to squat over 600 pounds by the summer and is running behind a more experienced offensive line including Jon Heck and Landon Turner. Though already one loss to USC on the books (a loss which many attribute to Hood not being in the game), UNC has a strong upcoming schedule. The team just needs to continue to gain confidence, which a win against Georgia Tech would improve.
3) Florida State Seminoles
Florida St. lost a wealth of players to the NFL Draft after the 2014 season, most notably Heisman winning quarterback Jameis Winston. The team’s offense also lost its number one wide receiver, number one tight end, and four starting offensive linemen. To replace the famed Winston, Jimbo Fisher recruited Notre Dame transfer Everette Golson who continues the dual-threat of rush and pass in the position. However, Golson struggled against USF making only 14 of 26 attempts and 163 yards passing. He also has to watch his turnovers, as that was a major reason Brian Kelly benched him at Notre Dame. Dalvin Cook, the sophomore running back, is the Seminoles greatest offensive weapon. In his first game against Texas St., Cook finished with two touchdowns and 156 yards on 19 carries. The Florida St. defense lost a great deal of starters to the NFL. The off-season brought in a strong recruiting class that had a strong showing in the season opener against Texas St. However, the season will show how well this young talent can be cultivated.
2) Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Georgia Tech returns 13 starters and most importantly, quarterback Justin Thomas. Coming off a big Orange Bowl win in 2014, Thomas continues to assume the option quarterback with speed, elusiveness and intelligence. The Yellow Jackets lost a trio of strong running backs, but brought in Stanford graduate and transfer Patrick Skov for the B-back position. The offense is extremely detailed, making it hard for opposing defenses to force mistakes. Eight different players scored a touchdown against Tulane in the Yellow Jackets 65-10 win. The Georgia Tech defense struggled last year; however, Jabari Hunt-Days is now academically eligible and bulked up to 295 pounds. The secondary also enlists Jamal Golden, the senior safety, who made 61 tackles and four interceptions last year. The Yellow Jackets have a tough and unrelenting road ahead of them with one loss already to Notre Dame, and a schedule facing the toughest teams of the ACC along with a season closer at home against the Georgia Bulldogs.
1) Clemson Tigers
The Clemson Tigers have the strong potential to not only be ACC champions but BCS National Champions as well. Quarterback Deshaun Watson returns full strength after a torn ACL in 2014. He is the first player to wear the number four since it was retired after Steve Fuller. The Tigers have one of the top five receiving groups in the country. The team unfortunately lost wide receiver Mike Williams to a small fracture in the neck after he collided with the goal post in the team’s season opener against Wofford. However, Williams’s back-up, Charone Peake, is every bit as good with cross-training at all receiver positions, and he is looking to lead during his final season after an injury-struck 2014. Running back Artavis Scott is a playmaker with the ball in his hands, and sophomore running back Wayne Gallman had 24 carries for 139 yards against a tough Louisville opponent. A young offensive line will keep Watson on his toes, but if he stays healthy then the Tigers’ offense could be unstoppable. The Tigers’ defensive line is also young, however, it is filled with four or five star recruits that hope to maintain Clemson’s feat as being the nation’s top defense overall in 2014. Sophomore Mackensie Alexander is a top five cornerback in the country, and safety Jayron Kearse is expected to improve upon Clemson’s top two pass defense nationally from 2014. With such a stacked team on both sides of the ball, Clemson’s biggest enemy this year comes down to possible injuries or beating themselves.