Atlantic Division preview: Clemson and then what?

The media will get an easy chance to bump up its “winning percentage” at the ACC kickoff in Charlotte this week when it fills out its preseason predictions for the Atlantic Division.

Clemson, which has won the division four years in a row, should be the unanimous choice. What happens after the Tigers is up for debate.

One guess at the predicted order of finish:

1. Clemson

Coach: Dabo Swinney, 12th season (116-30 overall)

2018: 15-0, 8-0 ACC; ACC champions, national champions

S&P+ rankings: offense (5), defense (3)

Key games: Texas A&M (Sept. 7), at Syracuse (Sept. 14)

They’re gone: DT Christian Wilkins, DE Clelin Ferrell

They’re back: QB Trevor Lawrence, RB Travis Etienne

Clemson played exactly one ACC game last year that was decided by single digits (a 27-23 home win over Syracuse) and that was when quarterback Trevor Lawrence was injured.

With Lawrence settled in after starting the season in a rotation with Kelly Bryant, the Tigers beat Wake Forest by 60, N.C. State by 34, FSU by 49 and Louisville by 61 before throttling it back in a 20-point win at Boston College and a 29-point home win over Duke.

Clemson’s point differential, in seven ACC games with Lawrence as the starter, was plus-285. That’s fairly ridiculous. You’re certainly welcome to argue, “Yeah, but that was against the ACC,” but that doesn’t really explain a 27-point win over Notre Dame or a 28-point win over Alabama in the playoffs.

Lawrence (30 TDs, 4 INTs), only a sophomore, is a generational supernova. Like Joe Montana in his prime, it’s unfair that Lawrence is surrounded by such a talented cast. With defenses focused on Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne put up huge numbers (8.8 yards per carry, 1,658 yards) and will again. Justyn Ross had 1,000 receiving yards despite catching three passes or fewer in 10 games.

Even with a new cast up front on defense, don’t expect the Tigers to fall back too much from the No. 1 scoring unit in the country.

ACC coaches (and Nick Saban) are counting the days until Lawrence goes pro, which can’t happen until after the 2020 season at the earliest. The best plan for the rest of the ACC is to load up and prepare for 2021.

Syracuse quarterback Tommy DeVito (13) throws a pass during an NCAA college football game against Notre Dame, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, at Yankee Stadium in New York. Howard Simmons AP

2. Syracuse

Coach: Dino Babers, fourth season 18-19 (55-35 overall)

2018: 10-3, 6-2 ACC

S&P+ rankings: offense (44), defense (60)

Key games: at N.C. State (Oct. 10), at Florida State (Oct. 26)

They’re gone: QB Eric Dungey, WR Jamal Custis

They’re back: DE Alton Robinson, RB Moe Neal

Syracuse’s jump from 4-8 to 10-3 was not rocket science. The Orange scored more points last season (40.2 points per game, up from 27.4 in 2017) and gave up fewer points (27.0 ppg, compared to 32.2 in 2017).

Many of the same parts on the improved defense, led by senior defensive ends Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman, are still in place. That’s the good news for coach Dino Babers.

There’s a good chunk of the offense returning from last year’s group, too. There’s a plug-and-play element to Babers’ offense at receiver but Sean Riley and Nykeim Johnson are effective options in the slot.

The big question is how will quarterback Tommy DeVito handle going from safety net to featured role? DeVito had some moments in relief of Eric Dungey last season, notably in an overtime win over UNC.

Dungey’s running ability (he ran for 15 touchdowns) was a key element to Syracuse’s success. The Orange won’t have that option with DeVito, a pocket-passer.

Still, as long as the defense stays on track, Syracuse’s schedule sets up for a quick start and another second-place finish in the division.

Wake Forest quarterback Jamie Newman (12) passes during the second half of Wake Forest’s 27-23 victory over N.C. State at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. Ethan Hyman

T3. Wake Forest

Coach: Dave Clawson, sixth season 28-35 (118-115 overall)

2018: 7-6, 3-5 ACC

S&P+ rankings: offense (48), defense (64)

Key games: at Boston College (Sept. 28), Duke (Nov. 23)

They’re gone: WR Greg Dortch, G Phil Haynes

They’re back: RB Cade Carney, QB Sam Hartman, QB Jamie Newman

After going 3-9 in each of the first two seasons under Dave Clawson, the Demon Deacons have posted 7-6, 8-5 and 7-6 marks. Jim Grobe is the only other Wake Forest coach, since the ACC was formed in 1953, to post three straight winning seasons.

There’s no reason to think that winning trend can’t continue. There’s also no reason to think there’s going to be a higher breakthrough, either.

Clawson, one of the game’s best tacticians, wins the games he supposed to and he has shown that he can pick off a team (usually N.C. State) or two even with inferior talent. But mostly, when the Deacs punch above their weight class, they lose (Clawson is a combined 0-10 vs. Clemson and FSU).

Clawson has two good options at quarterback in Sam Hartman and Jamie Newman. It’s a good problem to have. Both showed, as true freshman, they were capable of winning games. Newman, who ran for 91 yards and three touchdowns in the bowl win over Memphis, is the more versatile option.

The program improvement was directly tied to the offensive line, which will be solid again. Cade Carney (1,005 rushing yards) is a capable back and receiver Sage Surratt (41 catches, 581 yards) is poised for a breakout season.

Depth is a concern on defense, as is stopping the run, but Clawson’s going to figure out how to win most of the home games and steal a game or two on the road.

Florida State running back Cam Akers (3) pulls Notre Dame defensive lineman Julian Okwara (42) into the end zone for a rushing touchdown in the second half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind.,Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. Paul Sancya AP

T3. Florida State

Coach: Willie Taggart, second season 5-7 (52-57 overall)

2018: 5-7, 3-5 ACC

S&P+ rankings: offense (97), defense (37)

Key games: at Virginia (Sept. 14), Miami (Nov. 2)

They’re gone: DE Brian Burns, WR Nyqwan Murray

They’re back: RB Cam Akers, WR Tamorrion Terry

If the Seminoles can fix the offensive line, they’ll at least be able to walk. And at this point, after going 12-13 the past two years, that would be progress.

Running with the big dogs, like they did at the beginning of the decade, will be more of a long-term project. Second-year coach Willie Taggart hired former Baylor assistant Kendal Briles to jump-start the offense. The same spread scheme has done wonders for Syracuse.

The Noles still have talent. Running back Cam Akers, in spite of playing behind one of the worst lines in college football, ran for 706 yards and six touchdowns.

Briles needs to clean up the penalties, and get some continuity, up front to get the offense back on track. One of Taggart’s big mistakes last year: he picked the wrong quarterback.

That can’t happen again. Sophomore James Blackman is probably the answer but Taggart brought in Wisconsin grad transfer Alex Hornibrook.

Either way, there’s ample talent at receiver and enough on the defensive side to get back to .500 in the league and on the road to respectability.

N.C. State wide receiver Emeka Emezie (86) avoids the tackle by Marshall linebacker Tavante Beckett (24) during the second half of N.C. State’s 37-20 victory over Marshall at Joan C. Edwards Stadium at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. Ethan Hyman

T3. N.C. State

Coach: Dave Doeren, seventh season 43-34 (66-38 overall)

2018: 9-4, 5-3 ACC

S&P+ rankings: offense (29), defense (54)

Key games: East Carolina (Aug. 31), Syracuse (Oct. 10)

They’re gone: WR Kelvin Harmon, LB Germaine Pratt

They’re back: DE James Smith-Williams, WR Emeka Emezie

This is a transition year for Dave Doeren and the Wolfpack with so many new parts on offense and four new assistant coaches. Doeren has proven he can develop recruits, when given the time. He needs a year, or two, to get the most recent classes up to speed.

There’s talent on the depth chart, just not as much experience or continuity as the most recent teams, which posted back-to-back 9-4 seasons.

After three years with Ryan Finley, Doeren needs a new quarterback. The answer might be more than just one guy with Matt McKay, Bailey Hockman and Devin Leary vying for snaps.

The receivers are in good shape, even without Kelvin Harmon or Jakobi Meyers. The health of running back Ricky Person will be a key as will the work of new offensive line coach John Garrison.

Chris Dunn solved a long-running problem at kicker and he gives Doeren a red-zone luxury.

On the defensive side, N.C. State struggled against the pass last year. The pass rush was part of the problem but Doeren hasn’t been able to develop skill players on defense at the same rate as he has on the offensive end.

The schedule is trickier than it looks. ECU will be motivated by that 58-3 beating to close the regular season and any trip to West Virginia is dicey. Trips to division foes Wake Forest and Boston College are never easy for State.

One benefit for Doeren, in Year 7, is he gets five coaches in their first season. There is a higher ceiling coming in the 2020s for Doeren and the Wolfpack, it’s just a question of what the floor will be for this season.

Boston College running back AJ Dillon (2) carries the ball past Miami defensive lineman Scott Patchan (19) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Boston, Friday, Oct. 26, 2018. Michael Dwyer AP

6. Boston College

Coach: Steve Addazio, seventh season 38-38 (51-49 overall)

2018: 7-5, 4-4 ACC

S&P+ rankings: offense (88), defense (32)

Key games: Virginia Tech (Aug. 31), N.C. State (Oct. 19)

They’re gone: G Chris Lindstrom, DE Zach Allen

They’re back: RB A.J. Dillon, RB Ben Glines

Sometimes your window closes and you don’t even realize it. Steve Addazio had been building up for the 2018 season. The Eagles were even 4-1 and 7-2, despite some key injuries, last year.

Then the Eagles, lost to Clemson (no shame there), to a poor FSU team (ugh) and didn’t compete in the regular-season finale at Syracuse (oof). And suddenly the only thing Addazio’s best team in six years had to show for its efforts was a 7-5 record.

The bowl game against Boise State was canceled in the first quarter because of lightning. That about sums up the season for the Eagles. So much promise but ultimately nothing to show for it.

The problem for Addazio, and every other team in the ACC not named Clemson, is chances like that don’t come around every year. It’s a process and now, like N.C. State, BC has to figure out how to reload and get back to that point where it can get in position to take another swing at the fences.

The offense still has super back A.J. Dillon but the offensive line has to be rebuilt.

Thanks to everyone selling out to stop the run, quarterback Anthony Brown was in enough passer-friendly situations to throw for 20 touchdowns (with nine interceptions). Brown has to find a way to make more plays.

The Eagles are basically starting over on defense, their strength last year. Addazio has won seven games in five of his six seasons but it doesn’t look there are that many wins on the schedule for this rebuilding team.

Louisville place kicker Blanton Creque kicks a field goal during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Boston College in Boston, Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018. Michael Dwyer AP

7. Louisville

Coach: Scott Satterfield, first season (51-24 overall)

2018: 2-10, 0-8 ACC

S&P+ rankings: offense (102), defense (99)

Key games: Boston College (Oct. 5), Virginia (Oct. 26)

They’re gone: WR Jaylen Smith, S Dee Smith

They’re back: WR Dez Fitzpatrick, K Blanton Creque

Louisville has a good kicker.

If you’re working under the “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” rule that would be the extent of this Louisville preview.

The departed Bobby Petrino left Louisville a hot mess. The Cardinals did hire a good, young coach to replace Petrino. Scott Satterfield won a lot of games (51) in five years at Appalachian State but it’s telling his two most notable results were a pair of overtime losses (20-13 at Tennessee in 2016 and 45-38 at Penn State last year).

He ran roughshod through the Sun Belt (38-10) but he often had the luxury of superior talent. That won’t be the case at Louisville.

Malik Cunningham might be a good fit for Satterfield’s spread rushing attack. There are also a few talented receivers still in place.

On defense, the Cards gave up 44.1 points per game. That was 128th in the FBS, in the same group as Oregon State and Connecticut. That is not the company you want to keep.

This is a full-on “we just need to play hard” kind of season for the Cards. After last year’s disaster, one ACC win would be progress and anything better than a 3-9 record would be gravy.

Joe Giglio has worked at The N&O since 1995 and has regularly reported on the ACC since 2005. He grew up in Ringwood, N.J. and graduated from N.C. State.
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