CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The ACC is coming off the best season in conference history, with national champion Clemson, Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and preseason College Football Playoff favorite Florida State leading the way.
So what are the most pressing questions as ACC Kickoff begins Thursday in Charlotte? Atlantic teams will answer them starting Thursday, with Coastal teams set to take the podium Friday.
What does the league do for an encore? The ACC supplanted the SEC as the top conference in college football last season. But a conference’s reputation is only as good as its most recent performance, and that is why this season is so crucial for the league. After spending years climbing up the mountain, the ACC must figure out how to stay on top. The league’s strength looks roughly the same this year: Florida State and Clemson lead the way, and Louisville, Miami and Virginia Tech appear to be strong Top 25 teams. NC State, Pitt and Georgia Tech could make a push, too. All those teams face early-season tests against Power 5 opponents, most especially Florida State (Alabama), Clemson (Auburn), NC State (South Carolina), Virginia Tech (West Virginia), Pitt (Penn State/Oklahoma State) and Georgia Tech (Tennessee). The ACC won the vast majority of these types of big games a year ago, so it must keep that up if it wants to show how much things have changed in the conference.
And the Clemson quarterback is? Expect Clemson coach Dabo Swinney to field more than one inquiry about whether Kelly Bryant will, in fact, be the opening day starter when the Tigers begin their season against Kent State on Sept. 2. At the end of spring, Swinney said Bryant gave his team the best opportunity to win but also said Hunter Johnson and Zerrick Cooper would continue to compete for the starting job. With Deshaun Watson gone, the most obvious question surrounding Clemson and its national title hopes rests on what happens at quarterback.
Florida State vs. Alabama and FSU's College Football Playoff hopes. It appears Florida State will open the season ranked in the top three and as the ACC's preseason favorite to reach the College Football Playoff. The focus this offseason has been squarely on the season opener against Alabama and how that game could potentially affect the Seminoles' playoff chances. Coach Jimbo Fisher will field his fair share of questions about that game, safety Derwin James and quarterback Deondre Francois, and the increased expectations heading into the season. But pay close attention to the offensive line and the strides the Seminoles have made there. That could be the one area that determines how the 2017 season goes.
Is Miami for real? No, we did not copy and paste that question from our last 10 ACC Kickoff preview stories. Unlike in past years, the hype around Miami feels warranted. The Hurricanes return what should be an elite defense led by a formidable front seven. They should have a much stronger offensive line, and both 1,000-yard running back Mark Walton and freshman All-America receiver Ahmmon Richards return. The biggest question is at quarterback, where the Hurricanes could start true freshman N’Kosi Perry. But with a schedule that largely plays to their favor and a defense that has what it takes to lead the way, don’t be surprised if the Canes are the preseason choice to win the Coastal.
What can we expect to see from Jackson? Jackson won the Heisman after posting one of the best seasons by a quarterback in NCAA history, but most of those numbers came over an incredible nine-week span to start the season. In two of his final three games, Jackson looked rattled and decidedly un-Jackson-like. To help him improve and combat defensive schemes that focused squarely on him, Jackson worked hard this offseason to improve his game in a variety of ways; he concentrated on reading defenses better, making more checks at the line, perfecting his handoffs from under center and staying patient. He's sure to get plenty of questions about that and his hopes for the new season now that he's one of the best-known players in the country.
BONUS STORYLINE! And the best-dressed player goes to … Let’s rewind to a year ago, when Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware made the fashion statement of the preseason in hot pink and capri pants. Who will win the Ben Boulware Memorial Fashion Award this time around? Boulware already has made his case on Twitter, saying nobody will ever take his crown.
But what if Jackson shows up wearing the red jacket and menacing eye shoes (sans socks) that he sported at the Heisman presentation? What if Christian Wilkins decides to one-up his former teammate with his own eye-popping outfit? Can’t wait until Thursday.