All this week, we’re taking a fresh look, position by position, at how ACC teams stack up, from the best of the conference to the units that might surprise to the positions that will prove to be an Achilles' heel for some teams’ 2017 title hopes.
Next up: Running back
Of the top 10 leading rushers in the ACC in 2016, only two are set to return. One is Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson. The other is Miami running back Mark Walton, who rushed for 1,117 yards in 2016. Quick translation: This is a transition year at running back, where it is somewhat hard to tell who will emerge from a field full of talented but inexperienced players.
Best overall: Florida State. This was one of the toughest calls to make when doing the rankings because this one is based on potential alone. Dalvin Cook is gone after putting together a record-setting Florida State career. To replace him, the Seminoles have: two of the top four running backs in the class of 2017 in Cam Akers (No. 1) and Khalan Laborn (No. 4); Amir Rasul, the No. 7 running back in 2016; and Jacques Patrick, the No. 3 running back in the class of 2015. On paper, this is the most talented group in the ACC. But will these players live up to their advance billing and high expectations?
Runner-up: Pittsburgh. Like Florida State, the Panthers lose their workhorse and team leader in James Conner, whose inspirational story was impossible to ignore. But Pitt has talent, depth and experienced players returning at the position: 2015 ACC Rookie of the Year Qadree Ollison, Chawntez Moss and Darrin Hall. Add in two ESPN 300 running backs in A.J. Davis and Todd Sibley, and there’s every reason to believe the Panthers will excel at running the ball again.
Potential sleeper: Boston College. The Eagles have struggled to mount an effective ground attack over the past few seasons, but there is reason for optimism headed into 2017. Jon Hilliman and Davon Jones return, and the Eagles added A.J. Dillon, who expects to contribute right away. If Anthony Brown wins the starting quarterback job, his ability as a runner should help revive the ground game.
Achilles’ heel: Virginia Tech. Sure, Travon McMillian returns, but he’s the only known running back in the mix, and he had a down year in 2016. In fact, the Hokies struggled at times to rush the ball with their running backs when they really needed to last season: On non-quarterback runs, Virginia Tech averaged 2.64 yards per rush between the tackles last year, worst rate among Power 5 teams. To win the Coastal again, the Hokies must do a better job on the ground, especially with so many other holes that have to be filled.
Our Top Five
1. Florida State. 2. Pittsburgh. 3. Georgia Tech 4. Miami. 5. Clemson.