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Clemson Footballs route through ACC is not a walk, but it should lead to playoffs

Clemson Defensive Linemen, from left, Dexter Lawrence, Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell. (Sean Rayford / Associated Press)

The College football season started on Saturday with a limited menu of four games before the buffet opens on Labor Day weekend. To get you ready, we counted the days by arranging all 130 Football Bowl subdivision teams by conference. Now up: the Atlantic Coast, including our choice for the # 1 team in the nation.

Further conference rankings: SEC | Big Ten | Great 12 | Pac-12 | Non-Power Five (plus Notre Dame)

Can Florida beat state Clemson? Can NC state? Or Georgia tech? Or somebody?

It's a slightly shortsighted question because the tigers did not throttle everyone on their way during their three consecutive ACC title races. They lost their home in Pittsburgh two years ago. They fell in mid-October last season to a Syracuse team that would not win again. Clemson has been one of the country's top two programs for the past five years. But nothing is inevitable.

Granted, it's hard to see an extraordinary defense anchored by the top line of the country with many bad days against below average opponents. The front team with Austin Bryant, Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins is the best reason to believe that the Tigers will make it to the fourth playoff appearance in a row.

However, chances are good that someone in Clemson will make a good run. Maybe NC. Condition as it comes from a bye. Or Boston College as the tigers complete their run through the ACC Atlantic Division.

On this point: The Atlantic is probably as deep as it has been since the ACC divisions in 2005. Maybe Florida State is not at the level it was a few years ago, and Louisville lost Lamar Jackson to the NFL. But Boston College and Wake Forest are improving, and Syracuse should be better. There will not be many easy outs.

Nevertheless, the tigers are here and probably the most popular nationwide. But nothing, not even Dabo Swinne's consistently excellent program, is a sure thing every week.

Atlantic Department

1. Clemson (# 1 national, 12-2): There is not much more to be said about defending the tigers. As talented as Clemson's offensive players are, there is some uncertainty.

Senior Kelly Bryant is the reigning starting quarterback, but the freshman Trevor Lawrence is considered the future. Both Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster gave a brief glimpse of the Rushers last year, but none of them is a proven Bell Cow back (not that it's as important as it used to be). The corps is not particularly proven beyond Hunter Renfrow, though Tee impressed Higgins late in the season.

All these questions are considered questions, though Clemson can answer them very quickly and effectively. Even if this is not the case, the tigers should achieve at least 10 victories. This is a luxury few programs enjoy.

2nd Florida State (# 21, 7-6): Here comes the offensive on the Gulf Coast, an up-tempo program touted by new coach Willie Taggart. Florida State became a strangely stale Jimbo Fisher team within just three years of a playoff team, and it is Taggarts task to revive the ACC's flagship program since the beginning of his career in the early 1990s.

The Seminoles team ran sideways in 2017 when quarterback Deondre Francois was injured in the opening game and some recruits had missteps that did not provide any serious experience. James Blackman did what he could as a true freshman behind a vulnerable line, and he should be better for the often harrowing experience.

Florida State now has two quarterbacks tested (Francois was named the starter for the opener on Monday against Virginia Tech), but the big beneficiary of Taggart's arrival might be Cam Akers in the second year. If anyone has the A.J. Dillon the league rushes crown, Akers is the best bet.

3. State (Nos. 32, 9-4): Yes, Dave Doeren's team lost a lot in the defense, including Bradley Chubb. But if we strictly follow the wolfpack law – when you most expect, you get the least; If you expect the least, you get the most – you have a good chance of surpassing some surprisingly modest expectations.

The Wolfpack should be able to win some shootings, with the umpteenth senior Ryan Finley at quarterback and Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers as his top goals. The defense will probably not be that good, but Doeren and his staff have stabilized this side of the ball. The difference between a good season and a 4-4 in the ACC is likely to be whether the N.C. State has solved the kickbug that has plagued him in recent years.

4. Boston College (# 41, 7-6): If you're building a list of teams that could put themselves in a time machine, go back to the 1970s, and get on well, then Boston College is close by. The Eagles are the ball with rugged back A.J. Dillon, and her defense will be a pain to most offenses, even if her best player (Ende Zach Allen) is not the familiar name he should be.

As tempting as it is to jump on the BC train, that's the thing with this schedule. The Eagles are probably the worst possible group of opponents (Miami and Virginia Tech) and still have to deal with Clemson-Florida State-Louisville-N.C. Staatsgantlet. Oh, and Boston College faces these six opponents one after another before closing against Syracuse. Steve Addazio's squad could be a lot better than last year's 7/6 team and finish at around .500 at the end of the season.

5. Louisville (# 43, 8-5): Yes, Lamar Jackson has disappeared after three seasons (and two radiant ones) and the Jawon Pass replaced the Cardinals quarterback. Remember that this is a Bobby Petrino team, and as long as the line holds, it will make points.

Can the Cardinals now stop enough enemies to get to their typical 9-3 or 8-4 level? It is the sensible question that a team must face in three years' time over its third defensive coordinator (Brian VanGorder this time). Do not draw too many conclusions from the opener; Alabama will do things like Alabama. It's what Louisville does after dealing with the Crimson Tide Moloch, who will determine how his season unfolds.

6. Wake Forest (# 45, 8-5): Coach Dave Clawson needed time to rebuild relevance for the Demon Deacons. He did not inherit much but methodically followed his work. You'd think back-to-back bowl wins might qualify as a just reward, but Wake Forest is ready to get better in Clawson's fifth season.

One problem: the rest of the Atlantic Division. It is a quarter that has become much more competitive in the last three years, and while the improvement of the Demon Deacons is part of this trend, others have also improved. And like Boston College, a team that would be the best team ever under its current coach could end around 7-5 anyway.

The suspension of quarterback Kendall Hinton for three games does not help, but there are two obvious strengths that are unaffected by this issue – an offensive line dotted with veteran starters and a solid defensive scheme that keeps Wake in just about every game. The final record might look similar to last year, but no one will be eager to deal with the demoniacs.

7. Syracuse (Nos. 70, 4-8): Dino Babers scored a remarkable victory in the Carrier Dome in the two years with Orange – Virginia Tech in 2016 and Clemson last year. Now and then things come together for Syracuse, which is not everyone's idea, but much more interesting than in the last decade and a half.
It can be assumed that the Orange will do a lot against the middle and poorer defense. It is also expected that they will give many points. Until Syracuse solves its defensive problems, it will have a limited upper limit in the polluted Atlantic.


1. Miami (# 9, 10-3): The funny thing about the Hurricanes' first trip to the ACC title game last year is that the motivational trick most associated with this team – the Turnover chain – is based on statistics that are hard to replicate year after year.

Nonetheless, coach Mark Richt has raised his alma mater's talent over the last three years, he has a strong defensive position, he will start an experienced quarterback (Malik Rosier) and his team is in the more manageable half of the conference. The Hurricanes are not the most overwhelming league favorites in a Power Five league (ahead of Southern California and Wisconsin), but they should return to Charlotte in early December.

2. Virginia Tech (# 22, 9-4): It was not a big off-season in Blacksburg, and superficially, it seems all the magic of Defense Coordinator Bud Foster is keeping things together.

Then you look at the schedule of Hokies and realize that things really have to unravel so that this team gets worse than 8-4. Foster's defense is always good. Coach Justin Fuente's infractions were almost always effective. Maybe this year is against the story, but someone else can rely on it. Even in a transitional year, Virginia Tech will be a tough one.

3. Georgia Tech (# 39, 5-6): Hard to believe Paul Johnson begins his second decade as coach of the Yellow Jackets. Remember all these questions about whether the triple option would work in a power conference? Well, it's clear that Georgia Tech is at least a huge nuisance and, at best, more than three hours of misery for the opponents.

It has a capable quarterback (TaQuon Marshall) and a new defensive coordinator who promises a more aggressive approach (like pretty much all of them). The Yellow Jackets are well able to finish in the top half of the division.

4. Pittsburgh (# 58, 5-7): Probably the wildcard of the Coastal. The Pat Narduzzi era has brought some compelling wins – over Clemson and Penn State in 2016, a surprise Miami unbeaten Thanksgiving weekend last year – and lots of clothes. Toss in the sense that Narduzzi just feels good in the Steel City, and that's an interesting program.

The questions are the same as last year. Will the Panthers have an above average quarterback game and can they hold their own at the back end of the defense? The first did not happen in 2017, although Kenny Pickett caused the excitement in Miami in the regular season finale and he is back this year. The jury will not wait long for Pitt's improvement. It hits Penn State on the second weekend of the season at home.

5. Duke (Nos. 62, 7-6): Sometimes the numbers match the results. The Blue Devils went 7-0 last year when they topped 380 yards, 0-6 when they did not. They were 0-4 if they allowed 380 yards, 7-2 if they did not. Basically things worked either in the whole field or not. There was not much in between during a tight season in which Duke won the first four, lost the next six and won the last three games.

Coach David Cutcliffe brings back the majority of the starting eleven. Joe Giles-Harris is one of the ACC's best linebackers and quarterback Daniel Jones starts as a starter in his third year. Do not be surprised if the Blue Devils achieve their overall victory from last year.

6. Virginia (# 71, 6-7): The good feeling of a 5-1 home-run broke up a little last season as the Cavaliers were outperformed by 18.4 points per game in the 1-6 final. Yet there is no reason to weaken Virginia's offer in the first six years. The Cavaliers made progress.

The addition of junior college transfer Bryce Perkins at quarterback offers some hope that an always inertly running game. At best, Perkins is the conference's most valuable newcomer, allowing Virginia to run in the upper half of the Coastal Division with the help of a defense that has lost its two best players but returns almost all the others.

Big picture, Virginia does not need a best-case scenario, however much it may. What coach Bronco Mendenhall needs is to have some success on the success and to rebuild the Cavaliers as a thoroughly competitive program. For the first time since 2002-05, you could achieve that goal, and it's an achievable goal.

7. North Carolina (# 76, 3-9): Coach Larry Fedora drew some attention last month for declaring that football was besieged and that society would seriously miss it if she left the stage in the next 10-15 years. Throw some unwise comments on concussions and Fedora was talking about the ACC's media days for the wrong reasons.
So much is true: if the Tar Heels go 3-9 again – and between the many barriers, a tricky nonconference slate and an always broken early defense, it is not unthinkable that North Carolina fans would not miss Fedora Scene in the next 10-15 weeks. Given the issues, a bounce back bowl bid would make this a solid enough season at Chapel Hill.



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