Well, would you look at that. The ACC Atlantic is stacked up at the top, again.
Florida State and Clemson have dominated the division, finishing 1-2 four straight years and representing the Atlantic in six straight ACC championship games. Louisville has finished third the last two years, and is hoping for its best season yet in Year 3 in the ACC.
All three teams are featured in the Way-Too-Early Top 25: No. 1 Clemson, No. 6 Florida State, No. 24 Louisville. But in this regard, the ACC Atlantic is not alone. Each Power 5 conference has at least three teams from one division featured in the early rankings. The Pac-12 has the most, with four:
ACC Atlantic: Clemson-FSU-Louisville Top 25
Big Ten East: Michigan-Ohio State-Michigan State
Pac-12 North: Stanford-Oregon-Washington State-Washington
SEC West: Alabama-LSU-Ole Miss
So divisional imbalance is everywhere. But the Atlantic in 2016 could feature its best top-three teams ever. Though Louisville also finished 2014 ranked in the Top 25 with Clemson and Florida State, its team this year has more potential, at least on paper.
The Cardinals return 18 starters -- more than Florida State and Clemson. That includes dynamic quarterback Lamar Jackson and linebacker Devonte Fields, who flourished in the second half of the season and finished with 22.5 tackles for loss. They do lose key players in Sheldon Rankins, Pio Vatuvei and James Burgess, but for the most part coach Bobby Petrino has high expectations for 2016 and so do many who have closely followed this program.
But what to do about the two Atlantic giants that have stood in the way? Unfortunately for Louisville, both Clemson and Florida State return dynamic players and talented teams, too. There is a reason both are going to be ranked in the preseason Top 10.
Florida State has 17 starters back, including Dalvin Cook, DeMarcus Walker and Derwin James. Clemson has fewer, though it does return eight starters on offense, including Deshaun Watson, leading rusher Wayne Gallman, leading receiver Artavis Scott and tight end Jordan Leggett. Plus All-ACC receiver Mike Williams, who missed 2015 with a neck injury.
Those two programs have an edge, simply because they have been recruiting at a much higher level than Louisville has over the last seven years. The top recruiting classes Jimbo Fisher and Dabo Swinney have signed are the reason why Florida State and Clemson are now consistent Top 10 programs. The Tigers played in the national championship game after losing eight starters on defense, after all.
As for the matchups between them the last two years, Louisville played Florida State close for a half in both 2014 and 2015 before losing by double-digits in each game. It had chances to upset Clemson in both 2014 (ill-fated goal-line spike!) and 2015 (missed 38-yard field goal with 2:28 left would have tied it), losing those two games by a combined nine points.
Still, there is a good possibility Louisville wins 10 games this year, even with games against the Seminoles, Tigers and Houston, another team that will be ranked high in the preseason. If that happens, the Atlantic could have three 10-win teams for the first time ever. If that happens, all three will have a chance to be ranked in the Top 15, and that would inevitably enhance the league’s overall perception. A strong Atlantic has served the ACC well. An even stronger Atlantic would be that much better.