The oddsmakers are high on Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech in the ACC this year, but there's some depth in the conference that could push those favorites. With that in mind, ACC bloggers David Hale and Jared Shanker picked a dark horse candidate for a conference title that might be a wise wager before the season kicks off.
Shanker says NC State is a sleeper: I've written this before, but I'll reiterate that the Wolfpack are a team that could generate a surprised look among people scanning the end-of-the-season standings. NC State will need to experience a great deal of growth and some luck to make a run for an ACC title, but there's enough pieces that, when coupled with a manageable schedule, make NC State a worthy dark horse candidate.
Offensively, the Wolfpack have the quality to be one of the more potent attacks. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett was inconsistent, but his brilliance was displayed in several games in 2014. It shouldn't be forgotten either that last season was Brissett's first as a full-time starter. Although he's older than most first-time starters, he deserves the opportunity to grow like all signal-callers.
Surrounding Brissett is a strong stable of running backs, and Shadrach Thornton rarely gets tackled for a loss, which puts Brissett and the rest of the offense in solid second- and third-down positions. That should prove advantageous for an inexperienced receiver corps as it plays against a defense weary of both the pass and rush.
Defensively, there is talent on the line. If the Wolfpack can develop some depth, an experienced group behind the line could lead to a revitalized effort from a defense that allowed opponents to score in the 30s on six occasions last season.
The schedule is often overlooked when evaluating teams and few programs have a more favorable schedule in 2015 than NC State. The Wolfpack should devour a puff pastry nonconference schedule, and Atlantic contenders Louisville and Clemson travel to Raleigh. The Wolfpack travel to Florida State, but the Seminoles are coming off a tough stretch that ends with Clemson the week before NC State rolls into Tallahassee.
With Clemson and Florida State recovering from mass departures and in a transitional period, the Atlantic could have a Coastal feel in 2015. A 6-2 or even 5-3 conference record could be enough to reach the ACC title game, and anything short of five ACC wins should be considered a disappointment at NC State. Split with Clemson and Florida State, and NC State has a chance to advance on a tiebreak.
Hale says a Pitt bet is good value: It's tough to predict a conference title for a program with a first-year head coach coming off a six-win campaign that included losses to Akron, Houston and Virginia. On the other hand, there's a lot to like about Pitt in 2015.
Let's start with the obvious: Pitt may have the ACC's best offense. James Conner is the defending ACC offensive player of the year, Tyler Boyd has two straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons, and QB Chad Voytik was massively underrated in 2014 (62 percent completions, 75.8 adjusted QBR, 12 total TDs, 3 INTs from Oct. 1 on). Pitt topped 30 points in eight of its 13 games last season, including each of its final five. The Panthers can put up points, but the question is whether they can also stop their opponents from time to time, too.
Last year's Pitt defense was abysmal. The Panthers lost four games in which they scored at least 28 points (most in the ACC), but this year, Pat Narduzzi -- the architect of Michigan State's recent run of defensive dominance -- takes over as head coach, and he'll bring a philosophy that should play well in Pittsburgh. After winning its first three games last season, Pitt finished 3-7 while its D allowed 6.13 yards per play (100th nationally), so there's plenty of room to improve. But Narduzzi's scheme could make for a disruptive unit, and Georgia Tech showed last season that a ball-control offense that consistently puts up points can go a long way if the D is simply opportunistic.
And that leads to the last check in Pitt's column: While Georgia Tech is the clear favorite in the Coastal, the rest of the division looks balanced. Pitt's not going to be outclassed in many games, it has a manageable schedule (Syracuse and Louisville from the Atlantic), and its showdown against the Yellow Jackets may not be completely lopsided. Last year's ugly 56-28 smackdown was a result of five early turnovers that led to 28 Tech points. Smarter football in 2015 can go a long way, which won't make the Panthers a favorite to win the ACC, but it at least keeps them in the discussion -- and makes them a smart wager this summer.