David M. Hale 500d

Defense should dominate, but offense might still decide ACC champ

The NFL draft came and went, and with it, the ACC waved goodbye to the likes of Deshaun Watson, Mitch Trubisky, Mike Williams, Bucky Hodges, Jordan Leggett, Dalvin Cook, James Conner — the list goes on and on.

Funny thing about that list: It includes a whole lot of offensive players.

And a funny thing about another list — Mel Kiper’s way-too-early big board — is it includes only defensive players from the ACC.

Long story short, the league is stacking up to be a bit one-sided this season, and the folks at SB Nation offered even more evidence as to why the ACC in 2017 “will look more like the SEC.”

From SB Nation:

In the last 20 drafts, 70 more ACC defensive players than offensive players have been selected (344-274). Nine times in those 20 drafts, at least five more defensive players were picked than offensive players, but the reverse had never happened -- until 2017. In this most recent draft, nine more offensive players were picked than defensive prospects, more than double the previous offensive surplus of four.

That’s pretty astounding, and the story goes on to highlight the significant departures at quarterback, too. Watson, Trubisky, Brad Kaaya and Jerod Evans all left as underclassmen, joining senior Nate Peterman in the draft. As we wrote last week, half of the ACC teams lost their top running backs, too, with the bulk of the remainders coming off down years.

And while it hasn’t been quite as dramatic in terms of departures, the ACC also waved goodbye to its top four receivers (by yardage) and 14 of 22 receivers with 600 yards or more last season.

Another fun fact: The defensive lines in the ACC figure to be very good in 2017 (led by Miami, Clemson, NC State and Florida State), but several talented teams (Louisville, FSU, Duke) are coming off seasons in which their offensive lines were huge question marks.

Add that all up, and the balance of power in the ACC looks to be so heavily tilted toward defense, it's fair to wonder if low-scoring games will be the norm.

Is it really that simple though? Isn’t this college football, where new stars emerge every year? After all, the supposedly depleted ranks of quarterbacks still include Deondre Francois, Daniel Jones, Eric Dungey and, oh yeah, the Heisman Trophy winner, Lamar Jackson.

In the accompanying chart, let’s look back at scoring in the league since 2010 for some perspective (in ACC play only).

The ACC's 28.08 points per game in conference play last season ranked ahead of the SEC (26.52) and Big Ten (25.52), but still well behind the American, Pac-12 and Big 12. The ACC was, effectively, smack in the middle. FBS schools, in conference play, averaged 28.8 points per game.

Of course, that might be a bigger concern if you’re a fan of offense in the ACC. After all, it’s one thing to lose a lot of offensive talent all at once from a league that scored a lot. It’s another to say goodbye to that talent after a year that wasn’t terribly outside the norm.

But really, what we’ve seen in the long term is a typical, cyclical trend in scoring. From 2010 to 2012, the league had a 20-percent increase in scoring, followed by a drop in the next two years, then another 12 percent increase from 2014 to 2016. Coaches push the envelope on offense and defensive coaches adjust. A host of offensive talent departs for the NFL and young defenders get a chance to showcase their skills.

In fact, looking back to 2014, that might be the ACC’s best template for what to expect this fall. It was a year in which a four freshmen received significant playing time at quarterback (Watson and Kaaya among them). It was a year that followed the departures of six of the eight leading passers in the league. It was a year when, hands down, the best returning quarterback was the defending Heisman winner (Jameis Winston). And it was a year when scoring plummeted.

Again, it’s not as if the ACC doesn’t have talent. At Clemson, Miami and Virginia Tech, there’s a good chance freshmen will lead the offense. While Duke and Syracuse haven’t been traditional contenders, they have quarterbacks who could post big numbers this year. Recruiting across the league has improved. But what that’s more likely to mean is that 2017 will be a down point in the cycle, and by 2018 and (more likely, 2019) the league will again have dominant offenses.

And if you’re looking to use this information to predict winners, here’s another fun fact: When offense was down in 2014, the two teams that played for the ACC championship ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in scoring offense, but No. 9 and No. 10 in scoring defense. So perhaps the defenses will be the theme for 2017, but there’s still a good chance that offense will decide the league’s champion.

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