The ACC faces another daunting nonconference slate to open the season. Check out what Week 1 has to offer:
South Carolina vs. North Carolina
Louisville vs. Auburn
Virginia at UCLA
Ohio State at Virginia Tech
Can the ACC come out of the weekend with a winning record? At .500? With any wins at all? Already, the Buckeyes are a near 3-touchdown favorite over the Hokies -- even though Virginia Tech won their meeting in Columbus, Ohio, a year ago. It might not look good for the ACC on paper, but there should be reason for optimism. ACC reporters Andrea Adelson and Jared Shanker pick the games they believe are most winnable among the four.
Andrea says: Don’t count out Louisville
There are some who have installed Auburn as a favorite to make it to the College Football Playoff. Colleague Mark Schlabach has the Tigers ranked No. 4 in his latest way-too-early preseason Top 25. The high expectations are understandable, especially with Will Muschamp on board as defensive coordinator.
But neither team goes into the game with an exorbitant amount of game experience. Auburn returns 12 starters; Louisville nine. Both teams will have a new starting quarterback, but the Cards could have an edge should Reggie Bonnafon win the starting quarterback job. Bonnafon played in and started games last season as a true freshman. Let’s not forget his efforts late against Notre Dame to help the Cards pull off the upset.
Though Louisville coach Bobby Petrino hasn’t named a starter, Bonnafon was the most impressive signal caller on the roster in the spring. He had 120 pass attempts last season; In two years as the backup, Auburn's Jeremy Johnson has 78 attempts combined.
Though he has earned his own set of raves, Johnson will be facing an aggressive, attacking defense whose strength -- at least at the outset -- should be in the front seven. How will he handle the constant pressure that defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is sure to apply? Though Louisville has veterans that must be replaced, including linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin and safety Gerod Holliman, defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins is vastly underrated and so is linebacker James Burgess. Both are deserving of preseason All-ACC consideration.
Excitement in Louisville has also grown about Josh Harvey-Clemons' potential, now that he is eligible to play. During the spring, Grantham had Harvey-Clemons playing five different spots on defense to take advantage of his immense talent. Former TCU defensive end Devonte Fields should also make an immediate impact.
Auburn should be better on defense with Muschamp onboard, but it’s also important to keep in mind the Tigers had a tendency to give up way too many big plays last season and struggled to get after the passer. Eight starters do return, but they will be learning an entirely new scheme. There could be some growing pains in Week 1.
Also keep in mind Petrino and Grantham are SEC veterans, so they will be ready for whatever the Tigers throw their way. Petrino and Gus Malzahn have faced each other four times, all when Petrino was in Arkansas, and Malzahn served as an offensive coordinator at Tulsa and Auburn. Petrino went 3-1.
The Tigers are getting more preseason hype, but of the four big ACC opening week games, this one has the most evenly matched teams -- and the best potential for an upset.
Shanker says: UNC can make an early season statement
This might not be the most exciting game, but it certainly comes with its own set of intrigue. Both programs are coming off forgettable 2014 campaigns, and the situations on defense were so ugly in Chapel Hill and Columbia that new talent has been infused at defensive coordinator in both places.
If the difference in defense is negligible -- both teams were downright bad last season -- this opener could feature the offenses trying to keep pace with the other. As of now, the advantage on offense belongs to North Carolina, which has a seasoned quarterback to lead a group that returns nearly everyone from a season ago.
Las Vegas oddsmakers pegged North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams as a dark horse Heisman candidate after he orchestrated the ACC’s No. 3-ranked scoring offense in 2014. As a junior, Williams completed 63 percent of his passes for 3,073 yards and 21 touchdowns to only nine interceptions. He doubled as the Tar Heels’ leading rusher, too, with 783 yards and 13 scores on 193 touches.
North Carolina likely has the best player on the field in Williams. And he’ll have the same five offensive linemen blocking for him and a group of running backs led by young talent Elijah Hood and upperclassmen T.J. Logan and Romar Morris.
That experienced group will stand opposite a South Carolina defense that ranked 13th in the SEC and 94th nationally. Only 13 Power 5 schools were worse defensively.
Of course, UNC was one of the schools that had uglier numbers than South Carolina. However, the Gamecocks will be breaking in a new quarterback, redshirt sophomore Connor Mitch. His experience (two seasons) equals his career completions (two).
Defensively, the Tar Heels return seven starters, and the biggest addition to that group comes outside of the chalk boundaries. Gene Chizik might have floundered as a head coach, but few assistant coaches can match his pedigree as a defensive coordinator. In his first stint at Auburn, he had a top-five defense in two of his three seasons, and the Tigers were No. 1 in scoring defense in 2004 when they went undefeated.
A season-opening win against South Carolina and the SEC would silence many of UNC coach Larry Fedora’s critics, and it would hardly be a surprise to see the Tar Heels favored leading up to the game.