Spring practices around the ACC are in the books, and now the long wait for fall camp begins. So what did we learn? Clemson’s QB battle is still wide open. The same can be said for Miami and Virginia Tech. Cam Akers looks like the real deal. Pitt’s defense remains a question. There’s energy at places like Duke and NC State. There’s lingering concern about the O-line at Louisville. So, where does the ACC stand as we turn the calendar to May? Here are our post-spring power rankings.
Akers leads a deep corps of running backs that was impressive enough this spring to ease any concerns about the loss of Dalvin Cook. The return of Derwin James adds to a defense that should be excellent, too. Our big concern: Who’s catching the football? It’s a legitimate worry, but one FSU can find an answer to, and that makes the Seminoles our preseason favorite and a serious contender for the College Football Playoff.
The spring game didn’t exactly instill much confidence that there’s a good answer at QB. No one looked great. Or, perhaps it’s just that the defense is really good? The Tigers should be so talented on that side of the ball, in fact, that even if QB remains a concern into the season, they still have enough to win. Add the significant progress made by Hunter Johnson, and Clemson remains as intriguing a team as any.
If spring began with hope Jack Allison would secure the starting job and ended with him deciding to transfer, it might be viewed as a bad month of practices for the Hurricanes. And indeed, the QB battle -- which won’t end until N'Kosi Perry gets a nice, long look -- is the big question mark. But the defense appears strong, a bunch of early enrollees got their feet wet, and the buzz around Miami finally feels justified. Our general rule of thumb is, if you’re good on both sides of the line, we like your chances. Miami should be good on both sides of the line.
Consider this a big vote of confidence for Lamar Jackson, who understood this spring he needed to make some strides with his pre-snap reads and decision making. That the Heisman winner enters the season with a chip on his shoulder is definitely a good thing. But the rest of the roster? There are big questions on the O-line, huge changes on defense, and the Cardinals have to replace their top running back, tight end and receiver.
Here’s the Wolfpack’s biggest problem right now: We have them as the fifth-best team in the ACC... and the fourth-best team in their own division. Ryan Finely is solid, the playmakers on offense -- Stephen Louis, Jaylen Samuels, Nyheim Hines -- are very good, and the defensive front will be one of the best in the country. The catch, of course, is we could say the same or better about most of the rest of the ACC Atlantic.
Ostensibly, the QB battle remains open, but Matthew Jordan is a solid option, so if he is beaten out, it will be because someone else truly earned the job. The line is solid, Dedrick Mills is possibly the best back in the league, and the defense should be serviceable. We want to see more from the defensive line, but Georgia Tech looks like a legitimate contender in the Coastal once again.
7. Pitt Panthers
There were only so many answers Pitt could find this spring. The big questions still loom. Can this secondary take a big step forward? Can the defensive front replace Ejuan Price? Is Max Browne the answer at QB? Can the offense thrive without James Conner? Let’s call Pitt a wild card. There’s enough talent on the roster for the Panthers to make a run at the division, but there are plenty of question marks, too.
While the rest of the Coastal is trying to figure out its QB situation, Duke might make the case for having the league’s best. Daniel Jones made huge strides last season, and he should pair well with a solid receiving corps. The front seven looks strong, too, but the secondary and ground game remain worrisome enough that we’re not ready to predict a division title for the Blue Devils.
Who’s rushing the passer? We didn’t find much out this spring due to injuries. Who’s playing QB? The deck only seemed to get shuffled more when Hendon Hooker performed so well in the spring game. Who’s lining up at receiver? In the backfield? We have a lot more questions than answers for the Hokies at this point.
The team, overall, made big strides in 2016. The offense, however, still has a long way to go. There was hope either Kendall Hinton or John Wolford would appear ready to own the starting QB job, but that didn’t exactly happen. The loss of stalwarts like Brad Watson and Marquel Lee on defense leaves big shoes to fill, too. We like Wake, but the division is brutal.
Maybe Brandon Harris solves lots of problems, but he wasn’t the answer at LSU, and the Tar Heels are essentially starting from scratch on offense. We’re going to need to see a lot more from this team on both sides of the ball before we’re feeling particularly confident that UNC is ready to even push for a bowl bid.
BC did a good job of winning games against mediocre (or worse) competition last year. Against better teams though? It was a train wreck. This season largely depends on the continued strong play of the defense and the development of an in-house QB.
13. Syracuse Orange
The defense is still young, and until we see evidence the Orange are ready to stop a few teams on that side of the ball, it’s hard to be overly enthusiastic about the progress of the offense. We love Eric Dungey, and Dino Babers’ system should put up points, but in the brutally tough Atlantic, that may not be nearly enough.
The offensive line is in rough shape. The ground game is a question mark. The playmakers on the outside are marginal. The defense needs work. Bronco Mendenhall at least understands this is a big-picture project, and while we expect improvement in 2017, there’s such a long way to go it’s hard to envision a major turnaround.