The 2014 season is over, and we at the ACC blog are already looking forward to next season. This past season, the Atlantic Division was Florida State and everyone else, while the Coastal wasn't secure for Georgia Tech until the next-to-last week of the regular season. Who are the favorites to meet in 2015 ACC championship? Let's find out.
Adelson: While it is true the Tigers are losing the heart of their No. 1-ranked defense, the motto for Clemson headed into 2015 is pretty simple: In Deshaun Watson we trust. Now, there should be an asterisk attached to that motto because we don't know whether he can play a full season just yet. But if he can, that Clemson offense could be an unstoppable force when you look at all the skill players returning to complement the young QB. Look at the college football landscape today. Teams can win championships with a far superior offense. Banking on that to be the case for Clemson in 2015.
Fortuna: Clemson returns arguably the league's best player at quarterback, along with a stout running back in Wayne Gallman and a dynamic one-two punch at receiver in Artavis Scott and Mike Williams. Sure, the Tigers need to replace key pieces from the nation's top-ranked defense, but there is no shortage of young talent ready to take another step, from Shaq Lawson on the line, to Ben Boulware at linebacker, to Mackensie Alexander in the secondary. Florida State has recruited so well under Jimbo Fisher that the Seminoles are capable of reloading, but the uncertainty at quarterback -- not to mention the "embrace the hate" mantra that they seemingly relied on so often in 2014 -- makes them the hunter, not the hunted, in 2015.
Hale: Perhaps I'm overestimating the impact losing Jameis Winston and Rashad Greene, Mario Edwards and P.J. Williams will have on Florida State in 2015, and perhaps I'm underestimating how tough it will be to replace all those departing seniors from Clemson's top-ranked defense. But the thing I can't move past is Deshaun Watson. He was so clearly a perfect fit for Clemson's offense when healthy in 2014, and while those injuries were costly, perhaps he's gotten the worst of the bad luck out of the way early. Moreover, so many talented young players stepped up on offense around him, too — from Mike Williams to Artavis Scott to Wayne Gallman. And while there's rebuilding to do defensively, there are still stars like Mackensie Alexander and Shaq Lawson to pick up the slack, and Brent Venables clearly knows what he's doing.
Shanker: With Bryce Petty, Jameis Winston and likely Marcus Mariota off to the NFL, they will bestow the preseason Heisman hype on a new name this offseason. How about Deshaun Watson, guys? Maybe it seems premature considering he threw only 137 passes as a true freshman, but look at what he accomplished with such a small sample size. He threw 14 touchdowns to just two interceptions and had an efficiency rating of 188.6, which is more than four points better than Mariota's. Watson is the reason the Tigers should be the favorite in the ACC Atlantic. There are other offensive weapons to complement Watson, and defensively, while the Tigers could take a step back, Brent Venables is among the best coordinators in the country and only Florida State has recruited better among ACC teams. The schedule offers some relief, too, as FSU and Georgia Tech both travel to Clemson.
Adelson: Count me among the many to have learned a lesson in 2014. I will never count Georgia Tech out again. Well, not for 2015 anyway. With Justin Thomas back, Georgia Tech should be considered the favorites to win the crazy Coastal. Forget about who is gone. Yes it will hurt to lose Synjyn Days, Zach Laskey, Shaq Mason and DeAndre Smelter. But the key to the triple-option show is the quarterback, and the Jackets will be in good hands as long as Thomas is taking snaps behind center. Go back and watch the Orange Bowl against Mississippi State if you don't believe me.
Fortuna: Georgia Tech should enter 2015 as the closest thing to a favorite this division has seen since Virginia Tech's run through 2012. But the Yellow Jackets have thrived on being the underdog, and Justin Thomas won't be sneaking up on anyone anymore after the way he finished 2014. Enter the Hokies, a ridiculously young team that was ravaged by injuries in 2014, a season that saw them notch the ACC's best nonconference win, a 14-point victory at Ohio State. Seven starters are back on another strong defense. Luther Maddy and Brandon Facyson at full-strength add another dynamic to the unit, too. Virtually all of the offensive production returns, as 26 of the Hokies' 36 touchdowns in 2014 came from freshmen. And quarterback Michael Brewer will have more than just a summer to take over the offense. If Virginia Tech can stay healthy and avoid turnovers, Frank Beamer could find redemption in 2015.
Hale: Much like with Clemson in the Atlantic, this pick revolves greatly around the quarterback. Justin Thomas is a difference-maker, and he's the perfect QB to run Paul Johnson's offense. He helped direct one of the most potent offensive attacks in the country in 2014, and now he's got a year of experience as the starter under his belt and Johnson is bringing in his best recruiting class in years to help supplement the roster. As always, the defense needs to do its part, but the progress that unit made throughout the season offers plenty of encouragement for 2015, too.
Shanker: The Yellow Jackets nearly won the ACC this past season before falling just short in the championship game to Florida State. The Jackets have the underrated Justin Thomas at quarterback, and there might not be a better option quarterback in the country. Although the Yellow Jackets don't throw much, Paul Johnson has opened up the aerial playbook with Thomas. He's an asset to Johnson's offense. Defensively, the Jackets are not going to shut teams down, but they improved in the second half of the season. Florida State rotates onto the Jackets' schedule this season, but even a two-loss Tech should find itself atop the chaotic Coastal.