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ACC's biggest wild cards: Atlantic Division

We’re creeping ever closer to the start of fall camp, but at this point in the year, there are still a lot more questions than answers for college football, and the most hotly debated topics in the ACC Atlantic begin with the names on this list -- the division’s biggest wild cards.

Florida State linebacker Matthew Thomas

To say Thomas has had a turbulent tenure in Tallahassee, Florida, would be an understatement. Even before he officially arrived on campus, he was a controversial subject, and the former five-star recruit has hardly seen the field since. Now, however, Thomas appears ready to grab a starting job in a linebacking corps that desperately needs a star to emerge. Is he a late-bloomer or a full-fledged bust? The 2016 season will likely tell the story. (*Note: Yes, FSU QB Deondre Francois certainly belongs on this list, too, but we tried to limit it to one player per team.)

Louisville’s offensive line

It’s a bit of a cheat to include the entire line, but the truth is that Louisville’s hopes of winning the Atlantic rest almost entirely on the backs of the big boys up front. Last year’s unit was dreadful. Louisville’s running backs finished 10th in the ACC in yards before contact, and only Boston College allowed a higher rate of pressure on its quarterbacks. Still, it was a young unit, and both starting tackles this season -- Geron Christian and Kenny Thomas -- will be true sophomores who got crucial experience in 2015. Will that year of growing pains produce a better unit this season? If it does, the Cardinals could challenge Florida State and Clemson for the division.

Clemson cornerback Mark Fields

Dabo Swinney insists he’s comfortable with the depth of his secondary, but with five underclassmen from last year’s team gone, it’s hard to know how legitimate that enthusiasm is. Either way, depth isn’t the same as established talent, which is what the Tigers had at corner last year. Now they’ll need to replace one of the country’s top shutdown corners in Mackensie Alexander (30 percent completions allowed last season, per STATS LLC), and Fields would seem to be the most talented of Clemson’s options. That Fields didn’t emerge from spring as the front-runner either speaks to Swinney’s perceived depth or Fields’ lack of progress. Fall camp should offer a clearer picture, and Swinney expects a serious competition.

NC State running back Johnny Frasier

The top recruit of the Dave Doeren era at NC State spent his first season on the sidelines after a slow fall camp (his weight being one big issue) and a loaded depth chart made a redshirt season inevitable. But Frasier is still a top-flight talent, and after the Wolfpack parted ways with Shadrach Thornton and dealt with injuries to Reggie Gallaspy last season, it was clear they needed another bruiser to handle the ball. A backfield of Gallaspy, a healthy Matt Dayes and an effective Frasier could make NC State’s offense particularly tough to handle.

Syracuse safety Kielan Whitner

Big changes are in store for Syracuse in 2016 on both sides of the ball, and Dino Babers’ high-octane offense has fans optimistic that a bowl berth could await. But for the offense to truly emerge, the defense has to make some strides, too, as it transitions to a Tampa-2 style attack. Last year’s secondary was a disaster, with the Orange ranking 102nd in yards per attempt and 118th in completion percentage, while allowing a league-high five opponents to throw for at least 300 yards. Whitner wasn’t a big part of that debacle, but he’s rocketed up the depth chart this spring and could be the fulcrum of the Orange’s new attack if he continues to develop. With a boatload of questions in the rest of the secondary -- including the offseason stabbing incident involving two DBs -- Babers would love to see Whitner emerge as a foundation.