Here at the ACC blog, we like to think of ourselves as optimists. After all, the league boasts the national champs, the Orange Bowl champs, the Heisman winner and a host of talented youngsters ready for action in 2017. What's not to like?
But amid all the spring optimism, we figured it was time to throw a little cold water on your plans for a December championship game vacation and take a look at the dark clouds looming over each program instead.
And, if this look at why each team won’t win the ACC wasn’t the type of good news you needed today, blame our pals in the Big Ten and SEC. They did it first.
There was a lot to be excited about by the way BC ended its season in 2016, but here’s the only number you really need to know to sum up how far the Eagles are from really contending for a division title: Against teams that won eight games or more in 2016, BC was outscored by an average of 37 points per game.
The ground game has too many questions. Last season’s national champs weren’t entirely effective running the ball, and that was with the best quarterback in school history taking the snaps. This year, the Tigers need to find a lead back and break in a new QB, so the job is even tougher. There aren’t a lot of flaws on this team, but the ground game is a concern. In a division as tough as the Atlantic, it won’t take much to keep you out of the championship game.
With a veteran defensive backfield, Duke allowed nearly 9 yards per pass attempt last season, good for 126th nationally. That’s nearly a first down every time a QB dropped back and threw a pass. This year, Duke will have a bevy of new starters in the secondary, which may be a good thing given the results with the old guard, but no team wins consistently when allowing so many chunk plays downfield. Duke will need a major turnaround to cut its numbers to something more respectable.
The offensive line might struggle badly. It’s not as if this was a particularly good unit even last year, and now veterans Rod Johnson and Kareem Are have moved on. There’s optimism surrounding some of the younger players such as Landon Dickerson, but Deondre Francois took a beating last season. If FSU can’t make big strides up front, opposing pass-rushers could have a field day once again in 2017.
ESPN tracks a stat called "disrupted dropbacks," which is essentially all the times when a defense records a sack, interception, batted pass or pass defended. Divide that by the number of dropbacks that defense has faced, and you get an idea at how effective it is at rattling opposing QBs. Georgia Tech? It ranked dead last among Power 5 defenses last year. So, um, not real good.
Have you seen the play against Houston where Louisville’s left guard rocks back before the snap in preparation for the pass rush, then simply tumbles backward? That about sums up where the Cardinals’ starting point on the O-line is. Lamar Jackson is a magician, but even Houdini couldn’t find his way out from behind that mess of a line.
Mark Richt hasn’t won a conference championship since 2005. Miami has never won the ACC. That’s a lot of bad mojo. We actually really like the Hurricanes this year, specifically for the stout defense and improved offensive line. But there are questions at QB, depth concerns at receiver and in the backfield and, of course, history is hard to ignore. Then again, we’re living in an age when the Cubs are World Series champs and a reality TV star was elected president. Maybe this really is Miami’s year.
How many question marks are there on North Carolina’s offense this spring? We can’t even decide if their former QB should be called Mitch or Mitchell Trubisky! There are holes on the O-line, in the backfield, at receiver and, of course, at QB, where Brandon Harris figures to be the guy but won’t arrive from LSU until this summer. In fact, it’s been at least eight years since any team has returned a lower percentage of its previous year’s offensive yards than UNC will this year.
Experienced QB? Check. Playmaking offensive supporting cast? Check. Dominant defensive front? Check. Things are actually looking pretty good for NC State. But still, few teams have managed to pull defeat from the jaws of victory quite like the Wolfpack, and in a division that could very well be decided by a field goal somewhere along the way, we’re not betting too heavily on the team that’s made missing kicks an art form.
The good news is, the pass defense can’t be any worse. The bad news is, it’s going to need to be a lot better if Pitt wants to win the ACC in 2017. Of course, as bad as things were last year, Pitt was the only team to knock off Clemson in 2016, so maybe those ACC championship hopes aren’t so crazy. It’s just tough to get excited about a defense that allowed 35 points or more seven times last season, including 61 points to Syracuse.
No, Syracuse isn’t ready to contend yet. The Orange still need to develop a running game, still need to bring along a young defense, still need to get more talent on the roster. But here’s something of a silver lining: Syracuse may well be the reason why one of the other contenders doesn’t win the ACC this year. The Orange are going to be frisky enough to win a few games no one is predicting today (see: last year’s upset of Virginia Tech), which might get them to a bowl and keep one of the big boys from winning a title.
It was pretty clear after Week 1, when Virginia lost to Richmond, that Bronco Mendenhall had a big job ahead of him. That job isn’t nearly complete. Virginia has so many holes on both sides of the ball, it’s tough to envision even a bowl trip in the Cavaliers’ future. Sure, the Coastal is known for chaos, but it’ll have to be completely nuts if Virginia is going to smell the ACC title game this year.
Who’s throwing the ball? Who’s catching it? Can anyone run it? Justin Fuente inherited a ton of talent last year and got the most out of it, but the reward is that most of the key contributors are now eyeing the NFL. Fuente is confident he has a QB on the roster worthy of the starting job, but even he admits that finding the right supporting cast is a huge concern right now.
Assuming coach Dave Clawson’s game plans are secured in Fort Knox this year, there should be more progress for the Demon Deacons. And Wake played both FSU and Louisville close last season, which offers some hope the Deacons can hang with the big boys. But the bottom line is, however much this O-line has improved, it’s still undersized and underprepared to handle the big-time defensive fronts it will face in the ACC in 2017.