ACC mailblog: Tar Heels' outlook, top freshmen and playoff chances

Cracking open the mailbag to find some answers to your burning ACC questions:

I wrote a bit about the Tar Heels’ defense Thursday, and I think that side of the ball will be key to how far they go in 2016. Some weaknesses were exposed late last year, and it’ll be on Gene Chizik & Co. to find ways to plug those holes.

Having said that, I’ve still got UNC as my preseason favorite in the Coastal, and I don’t think it’s particularly close. And given that they were an onside kick away from potentially upending Clemson in the ACC title game a year ago, I’d say their chances of a conference title are solid. My gut still tells me the winner comes from the Atlantic, but UNC will have the easier path to the title game, and from there, it’s a one-week season.

If we’re including redshirts, my picks would be Florida State's Deondre Francois on offense and Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell on defense, but I’d expect NC State’s Johnny Frasier, Shaq Smith and Tre Lamar at Clemson, Florida State’s Levonta Taylor, Miami’s Shaquille Quartermann and North Carolina’s Tomon Fox to be in the mix, too. And I wouldn’t be surprised if someone on offense outside the typical blue-chip recruit circle emerges to post some big numbers.

Sure, insofar as its chances will be better than zero. But what seems obvious from the first two years of the playoff is that the committee strongly prefers to have the four best conference champions.

In the 10 years before the playoff (2004 through 2013), only once did we arrive at bowl season with teams from four conferences in the top four spots in the AP poll. That came in 2009, when both Cincinnati and TCU were represented from outside the Power 5 leagues. However, in the two years with the playoff, we’ve not come particularly close to having two teams from the same conference crack the final top four.

In other words, the committee has shifted our thinking on how rankings work, so the only way we’re likely to get two teams from the same league would be if multiple Power 5 champs (and Notre Dame) have at least two losses and the strength of schedule disparity between the team that didn't win the conference and the two-loss champ significantly favors the former.

Can that happen for Clemson or Florida State? Sure, but it’s a long shot.

The entire offense should be strong this year, with the exception of wide receiver. Can someone -- or some combination of players -- come close to replacing what Tyler Boyd provided? That will be tough, but the O-line and ground game should be very good. On defense, the Panthers really need to develop some pass-rushers around lineman Ejuan Price.

No. 1 is unquestionably Dalvin Cook. The No. 2 spot though? It’s a fair debate. I’d lean Elijah Hood over Wayne Gallman, but James Conner’s return at Pitt could certainly put him in the mix. Add in Matthew Dayes and Taquan Mizzell, who are more versatile players but not necessarily top-tier runners and emerging talents like Joseph Yearby and Travon McMillian, who both cracked 1,000 yards last season, and there’s a ton of depth at this position in the ACC.

The love for Tennessee seems to have reached its apex about a month ago, and more and more we’re seeing folks backing off that early bandwagon. But I’m still fairly high on the Vols this year, and that game will be a particularly big challenge for a new starting QB. If Virginia Tech’s going to win, the defense is going to have to keep it a low-scoring affair, and McMillian will have to have a big day. As for total wins for Virginia Tech? I’d put the over/under at 7½, with key swing games being vs. East Carolina, at Pitt and vs. Georgia Tech.

I won’t be upset. A snarky, confident Paul Johnson is by far the best Paul Johnson. And given the perfect storm of schedule, injuries and bad luck last season, Georgia Tech seems the most likely team to have a big rebound in 2016. I wouldn’t pick them to win the division, but the Yellow Jackets should certainly be in the mix. And, as one defensive coach told me, aside from Deshaun Watson and Cook, there’s still no one in the league more difficult to prepare for than quarterback Justin Thomas.

Given the money invested in those two programs and the level of talent they’re accumulating on the recruiting trail, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which anyone else overtakes FSU and Clemson as the ACC’s elite. Still, the Justin Fuente hire at Virginia Tech should have the Hokies’ ship righted within a couple of years; Miami’s potential appears closer to being realized under Mark Richt, and the investment in football from places like North Carolina and Louisville could put both programs in the mix of nationally elite schools in five years. Long story short, I’d bet the ACC is a more competitive league five years from now, but I’d also wager the favorites will remain the Tigers and Seminoles.