ACC mailbag: Coastal's chances, Clemson's QBs & best games of 2017

It’s been too long since we’ve last had a mailbag. I blame myself. Let’s get to it.

Short answer: No.

Long answer: Florida State looks like a national title contender to me. Clemson is still going to be really good. Louisville has the Heisman winner, and the rest of the Atlantic is no joke either. It’s not that the Coastal is bad, it’s that the Atlantic might be the toughest division in football in 2017.

While I don’t see the Coastal champ winning the ACC title game, I do see a good scenario where that team makes a New Year’s Six game. There’s so much room for parity in the Atlantic because those teams are so good, while Miami, Georgia Tech and Pitt have relatively manageable schedules. The Hurricanes are my early Coastal favorite, and while I’d probably set the over/under at 9 regular-season wins, 11-1 isn’t a crazy prediction. (And while FSU fans are going to groan, perhaps rightfully, it’s worth noting the last three losses by Miami in this series are by a combined 10 points.)

If I’m handicapping the race today, I’d put it at 50 percent Zerrick Cooper, 30 percent Kelly Bryant, 10 percent Hunter Johnson and 10 percent multiple QBs play. That’s a big guess based on ability, time in the system and what figures to be the strengths of the Clemson offense, and obviously a lot can change during the spring. But the setup actually looks quite a bit like the Cole Stoudt/Chad Kelly/Deshaun Watson battle from 2014, and had Kelly not gotten the boot at the end of spring practice, I think he would’ve been the Week 1 starter. That’s sort of how I see Cooper — only with a better head on his shoulders.

Let me flip on the Syracuse game film and ...

Your scholarship offer will be on your desk by Monday.

(Actually, I can’t fathom a scenario in which Pitt’s pass defense is that bad again. They won’t be great, but a healthy Jordan Whitehead and growth from Damar Hamlin, Jay Stocker and Dane Jackson, and this could be at least a league-average unit.)

Brisly Estime and Amba Etta-Tawo are gone, but the Orange still have some interesting options. Steve Ishmael had a solid 2016 and could take the next step into an Etta-Tawo role. Ervin Philips is also coming off a strong year, and Dontae Strickland could move into the slot and become an asset there.

If you’re looking for a breakout guy, however, Adly Enoicy and Jamal Custis have nice physical skills (both are 6-foot-5) and while they combined for just one catch last season, the year of exposure to Dino Babers’ scheme could translate into production in 2017.

I’m going with Duke. The two things I look for in a team are QB and defensive line, and Duke should be very good at both spots. Daniel Jones blossomed late last season, but he’s got a strong receiving corps and a solid O-line to work with. Ben Albert is building something special on the D-line, and the linebacking corps is solid. If Duke can figure out the back end of the defense and establish a bit better power running game, the Blue Devils could get back to 10 wins in 2017.

There’s a reasonable chance this is Justin Fuente’s rebuilding year. Frank Beamer’s staff left so much talent behind that Fuente was able to right the ship quickly. But the job gets bigger now as oodles of offensive talent depart, and the big concern for me — beyond QB or replacing Isaiah Ford — is how the Hokies will find answers on the ground. Virginia Tech backs averaged 2.64 yards per carry between the tackles last year, and now they won’t have Jerod Evans to count on as the big-bodied runner. I think this year represents a small step back for the Hokies as Fuente starts to retool more seriously.

In 2017, I’m leaning Wake Forest. The Deacons have already played Clemson, Florida State and Louisville close in recent years, and this is a veteran team that’s played together for the better part of three seasons. The Deacons need more chunk plays on offense, but the pieces are there to pull some upsets.

In the long term, however, I like what Babers is building at Syracuse. The Orange have by far the best QB situation of the bunch, and they have the advantage of not trying to beat FSU and Clemson at their own game. They’re doing things their own way, and that’s smart.

Well, we can probably assume there will be five big guys wearing jerseys in front of Lamar Jackson. Beyond that though? Well, there’s nowhere to go but up.

My top games of 2017 involving ACC teams:

  1. Alabama-Florida State

  2. Pitt-Penn State

  3. Florida State-Clemson

  4. Clemson-Louisville

  5. Auburn-Clemson

* Note: I'd include Virginia Tech-North Carolina at No. 2 if you can promise a massive rainstorm.