2018 ACC Preview; Favorites and Contenders

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2018 ACC Preview
Clemson's Kelly Bryant (2) runs as Miami's Trent Harris (33) defends during the first half of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

From 1992-2014, the ACC was largely controlled by one program, the Florida State Seminoles. They won 15 ACC titles in that time frame. Only Virginia Tech won more than one title during FSU’s dominant run. The Hokies won the conference four times after joining in 2005. The Clemson Tigers have taken over the top spot in ACC football recently, casting a large orange shadow over the rest of the teams. The Tigers have won three consecutive conference titles, and are the overwhelming favorite to do so again in 2018. With the season fast approaching, take a look at the favorites, the contenders, and the possible dark horses in our 2018 ACC preview.

2018 ACC Preview

Offensive Player of the Year

Ryan Finley – Quarterback – North Carolina State Wolfpack

Ryan Finley is the latest in a growing line of star quarterbacks in Raleigh. He follows in the footsteps of former Wolfpack QBs Russell Wilson, Mike Glennon, and Philip Rivers. Since transferring from Boise State, he has had back to back 3,000-yard seasons in the ACC. He returns along with his top three pass catchers from a season ago. Finley should once again be around the 3,000-yard mark in 2018.

Defensive Player of the Year

Christian Wilkins – Defensive Line – Clemson Tigers

While he may make some waves with his eccentric behavior off the field at times, Christian Wilkins abilities on the field are unquestioned. Despite likely being an early round draft pick, he decided to join his fellow lineman and return to Clemson. Wilkins is a versatile player who can man the tackle or end spot along the defensive line. He had nine tackles for loss and five sacks a season ago. The big man also has 13 pass deflections for his career.

The Favorites

Clemson will once again go into the season as the heavy favorites to win the ACC. The Tigers return a load of talent, especially on the defensive front. Coordinator Brent Venables’ group should once again be dominant. Kelly Bryant is back under center, but he will be without two of his top three receivers from 2017. The reliable Hunter Renfrow is also back along with their top two running backs. The Tigers will need to find more explosive plays in the passing game. If Bryant struggles, then high profile freshman Trevor Lawrence may get a shot. Clemson avoids both Miami and Virginia Tech from the Coastal division. Road trips to Georgia Tech, Florida State, and Boston College will be their toughest test in conference play.

The Contenders

The Miami Hurricanes took a big step forward in year two under Coach Mark Richt. They finished 10-3 and lost to the Tigers in the ACC Championship game. They return a 3,000-yard passer in Malik Rosier, and leading rusher Travis Homer on offense. The offense was hit or miss at times in 2017, so they will need to find more consistency. The defense should be stout once again. Last year the Turnover Chain became a national story. This was in part because of it’s flashy, even gaudy, appearance. But, mostly because the Canes defense was constantly forcing turnovers. If they can continue that trend and find a little more consistency on offense, the Canes should get another crack at Clemson in the ACC title game in December.

Florida State is in a state of flux right now. Since winning the national title in 2013, and making the inaugural College Football Playoff the following season, the Seminoles have been trending in the wrong direction. Now, they have a new coach in Willie Taggart and will look to regain the stranglehold they once had on this conference. Health was their main issue a season ago, losing starting quarterback Deondre Francois in the first game. True freshman James Blackman filled in admirably, but FSU had too many issues to overcome. They still have loads of talent, including tailback Cam Akers and receiver Auden Tate. How quickly they adjust to the new staff could determine how this season goes. The schedule is unforgiving, hosting both Clemson and Virginia Tech, along with conference road games at Louisville, North Carolina State, and Miami.

Dark Horses

The championship match-up is likely to come down to the three teams featured above, but in college football nothing is certain. North Carolina State will look to build off last season’s success and challenge the Tigers and Seminoles in the Atlantic division. The Wolfpack should have a very productive offense, led by Finley. They will, however, have to replace the bulk of their front seven on defense.

Coach Bobby Petrino and the Louisville Cardinals will also have something to say about how this ACC race shakes out. First, they must replace the school’s best quarterback in Lamar Jackson. Jawon Pass is likely to get the first shot at the open spot under center. Leading receiver Jaylen Smith returns to help the new QB’s progression. The defense allowed 388 yards per contest last season, so they will need to shore things up on that side of the ball.

Virginia Tech had a tumultuous offseason. They have had to suspend or remove multiple players from the team this summer. Most recently it was the returning starter at quarterback, Josh Jackson. If not for disciplinary issues, the Hokies would likely be listed as contenders for the ACC title. They have the talent and have improved under Coach Justin Fuente in each of his two seasons there. If their personnel issues clear up and they can move forward with their best players eligible, Virginia Tech has the talent to challenge Miami for the Coastal division crown.

Looming Large

Clemson is aiming for a fourth straight ACC title, a feat they have never accomplished. It’s also something the conference hasn’t seen since FSU’s dominance in the 90s. With all their returning talent on defense and a quarterback with a year’s experience under his belt, all signs point to the orange shadow continuing to be cast over the ACC. It will be up to Miami, Florida State or maybe one of the dark horses to end their reign.

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