ACC preview: Defense keeps Clemson strong; Lamar Jackson gains motivation

Seminoles' Francois poised for big sophomore season (0:45)

The reigning ACC Rookie of the Year looks to build on his promising freshman campaign. (0:45)


Boston College Eagles

Last year's record: 7-6

Key returning players: DE Harold Landry, RB Jon Hilliman, C Jon Baker, LB Connor Strachan

Key losses: QB Patrick Towles, CB John Johnson, LB Matt Milano, RB Myles Willis

Reason for optimism: Landry has the ability to change games with his presence on the outside, and the offensive line should be vastly improved and help the Eagles get back to their physical run game.

Cause for concern: There's still no decision on a starting quarterback between Darius Wade and Anthony Brown, and game-breaking ability with the skill position players remains a question mark.

X factor: RB AJ Dillon. The former Michigan commit became one of BC's top signees in February and is working to find a role in the backfield. His frame (6-foot, 240 pounds) makes him an ideal fit in Steve Addazio's offense.

Game to watch: vs. Notre Dame, Sept. 16

Clemson Tigers

Last year's record: 14-1

Key returning players: WR Deon Cain, OT Mitch Hyatt, DT Christian Wilkins, DT Dexter Lawrence, LB Kendall Joseph

Key losses: QB Deshaun Watson, RB Wayne Gallman, WR Mike Williams, TE Jordan Leggett, LB Ben Boulware

Reason for optimism: Clemson returns what should be another elite defensive group, led by an aggressive, relentless line that will have the opportunity early on to set the tone for the defending champions.

Cause for concern: Any time a team loses a once-in-a-generation player like Watson, there are questions about how he will be replaced. Kelly Bryant takes over with new faces to rely on at running back, tight end and receiver.

X factor: Ray-Ray McCloud. One of the fastest players on the team, McCloud has spent time taking reps at cornerback in fall practice. Whether he plays both ways, or moves permanently to defense, he's one of the most intriguing players on the roster.

Game to watch: vs. Florida State, Nov. 11

Florida State Seminoles

Last year's record: 10-3

Key returning players: QB Deondre Francois, S Derwin James, DT Derrick Nnadi, DE Josh Sweat

Key losses: RB Dalvin Cook, DE DeMarcus Walker, WR Travis Rudolph, LT Roderick Johnson

Reason for optimism: The Seminoles return nine starters on defense, including the versatile James and three starters up front. Plus, Francois returns after a redshirt freshman season in which he threw for over 3,000 yards.

Cause for concern: The offensive line, shaky for much of last year, remains a work in progress. Depth at receiver beyond Nyqwan Murray and Auden Tate is also a concern headed into the season.

X factor: Cam Akers. With Cook gone, Jacques Patrick and Akers look to take on the rushing responsibility. Patrick is the more experienced player, but Akers comes in with the hype after an outstanding prep career in Mississippi.

Game to watch: vs. Alabama, Sept. 2

Louisville Cardinals

Last year's record: 9-4

Key returning players: QB Lamar Jackson, LB James Hearns, CB Jaire Alexander, WR Jaylen Smith

Key losses: LB Keith Kelsey, RB Brandon Radcliff, LB Devonte Fields, TE Cole Hikutini

Reason for optimism: Two words: Lamar Jackson. Even though the last three games of 2016 were less than ideal, Jackson won the Heisman for a reason. He spent the entire offseason working on improving his overall game, and is motivated to show the results.

Cause for concern: If the offensive line and Jackson can't work in concert, the Cards won't show anything in the way of improvement. Depth must also be developed on the defensive line and at linebacker, as a new coordinator works to instill more discipline.

X factor: DE Trevon Young. Young has made a remarkable comeback since a major hip injury nearly ended his career in the 2015 bowl game. Young was second on the team in sacks that season and is cleared and ready to go for 2017.

Game to watch: vs. Clemson, Sept. 16

NC State Wolfpack

Last year's record: 7-6

Key returning players: QB Ryan Finley, HB/TE Jaylen Samuels, DE Bradley Chubb, NT B.J. Hill

Key losses: RB Matthew Dayes, S Josh Jones, DB Jack Tocho

Reason for optimism: NC State returns 17 starters from a team that was only a few plays away from beating Florida State and Clemson last season. More than that, its strong defensive line ranks among the best in the nation.

Cause for concern: The Wolfpack have yet to prove they can get past the upper echelon in the Atlantic Division, so overcoming that hurdle is vital. Can the passing game improve to the point where explosive plays can be made down the field on a consistent basis?

X factor: Samuels. Everybody knows Samuels, but NC State coaches have all said he must take on a much larger and varied role in the offense with Dayes gone. That means getting more reps and taking more snaps in the backfield and as a tight end/receiver.

Game to watch: vs. Louisville, Oct. 5

Syracuse Orange

Last year's record: 4-8

Key returning players: QB Eric Dungey, LB Zaire Franklin, RB Dontae Strickland, WR Ervin Philips

Key losses: WR Amba Etta-Tawo, CB Corey Winfield, WR Brisly Estime

Reason for optimism: If Dungey is able to stay healthy and play the entire season, watch out. The Syracuse offense returns most of its speedy, athletic playmakers and will be in Year 2 in Dino Babers' system. Dungey already has raved about how the difference is evident in practice.

Cause for concern: If Dungey can't stay healthy, the optimism might drain away. The defense is still relatively young. And the schedule is the toughest in the ACC, with games against LSU, Miami, Clemson, Florida State and Louisville.

X factor: Philips. With Etta-Tawo gone, watch for Philips to take charge among the receivers. The speedy Philips has game-breaking capabilities and came oh-so-close to a 1,000-yard season a year ago.

Game to watch: vs. Pittsburgh, Oct. 7

Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Last year's record: 7-6

Key returning players: QB John Wolford, QB Kendall Hinton, TE Cam Serigne, DE Duke Ejiofor, S Jessie Bates

Key losses: LB Marquel Lee, S Ryan Janvion, CB Brad Watson, LB Thomas Brown

Reason for optimism: The Deacons are headed into Year 4 under Dave Clawson and boast the best depth and talent since his arrival. Wolford beat out Hinton for the staring quarterback job and with experience on his side, Wake Forest hopes to vary its approach and be less one-dimensional.

Cause for concern: The run game remains a work in progress. Do the Deacons have enough returning to improve their passing game with much-needed big, explosive plays on offense?

X factor: WR Scotty Washington. Wake Forest has worked on stretching the field with its receivers during fall practice, and Clawson is banking on a big year from Washington, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound sophomore with vast potential.

Game to watch: vs. Duke, Nov. 25


Duke Blue Devils

Last year's record: 4-8

Key returning players: QB Daniel Jones, WR T.J. Rahming, C Austin Davis, LB Ben Humphreys, LB Joe Giles-Harris, CB Bryon Fields

Key losses: RB Jela Duncan, WR Anthony Nash, DT A.J. Wolf, DB DeVon Edwards, DB Deondre Singleton, CB Breon Borders

Reason for optimism: Jones might be the most underappreciated quarterback in the ACC. While the rest of the Coastal is trying to figure out life with a new starter at the position, Duke has quietly developed a rising star.

Cause for concern: Last year's defense allowed 8.9 yards per pass -- 125th nationally -- and yet Duke fans are more concerned about the lack of presence up front. In other words, the defense needs to make major progress all around.

X factor: No player earned more praise from coach David Cutcliffe during the offseason than safety Jeremy McDuffie. He has track-star speed. If he blossoms into a true playmaker, he could be the steadying force Duke's secondary desperately needs.

Game to watch: vs. Northwestern, Sept. 9

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Last year's record: 9-4

Key returning players: WR Ricky Jeune, OL Parker Braun, AB Clinton Lynch, DE KeShun Freeman, CB Lance Austin, CB Step Durham

Key losses: QB Justin Thomas, RB Dedrick Mills, OL Freddie Burden, LB P.J. Davis, DE Patrick Gamble

Reason for optimism: Georgia Tech might have been the nation's quietest nine-win team last season, and Paul Johnson returns the bulk of what was a sturdy defense to go with his always reliable option offense.

Cause for concern: The loss of Mills, just days before camp broke, is big. He was a powerful runner. While Johnson's offense allows for some level of plug-and-play in the backfield, Mills was a difference-maker.

X factor: Freshman linebacker Bruce Jordan-Swilling could see early work, and at a position where Georgia Tech doesn't have a ton of experience he could prove to be a boon for the defense.

Game to watch: at Miami, Oct. 12

Miami Hurricanes

Last year's record: 9-4

Key returning players: RB Mark Walton, WR Ahmmon Richards, TE Christopher Herndon, LB Shaq Quarterman, DE Joe Jackson, DT Kendrick Norton

Key losses: QB Brad Kaaya, WR Stacy Coley, OL Danny Isidora, CB Corn Elder, S Rayshawn Jenkins

Reason for optimism: The defense employed four true freshmen in starting roles last season and was still one of the top units in the country. Miami returns enough talent up front to play with anyone.

Cause for concern: The quarterback spot was the biggest topic of offseason conversation, but the lack of depth behind Walton at running back might be an even bigger concern. If Walton gets dinged up, Miami could be in trouble on offense.

X factor: Dee Delaney. If there's a knock on Miami's defense, it's the lack of experience in the secondary. Delaney transferred in from The Citadel, where he was an FCS All-American, and he could easily blossom into one of the ACC's better defensive backs.

Game to watch: at Florida State, Sept. 16

North Carolina Tar Heels

Last year's record: 8-5

Key returning players: LT Bentley Spain, WR Austin Proehl, LB Andre Smith, LB Cole Holcomb, CB M.J. Stewart, DE Malik Carney

Key losses: QB Mitch Trubisky, RB T.J. Logan, RB Elijah Hood, WR Ryan Switzer, WR Mack Hollins, WR Bug Howard, CB Des Lawrence, DL Nazair Jones

Reason for optimism: The defense, long an Achilles' heel for UNC, appears ready to turn the corner. Up front, a bevy of talented youngsters will get a chance to prove the unit is for real.

Cause for concern: It's rare that any offense loses so many parts in one offseason, and aside from Spain and Proehl, there are virtually no established holdovers to build around.

X factor: QB Brandon Harris shouldered much of the blame for LSU's offensive struggles. Now that he's at UNC and working in a more wide-open offense, Tar Heels fans are hoping he'll finally make good on his obvious talent.

Game to watch: vs. Notre Dame, Oct. 7

Pitt Panthers

Last year's record: 8-5

Key returning players: WR Jester Weah, WR Quadree Henderson, OL Alex Officer, OL Brian O'Neill, CB Avonte Maddox, S Jordan Whitehead

Key losses: RB James Conner, QB Nathan Peterman, TE Scott Orndoff, WR Dontez Ford, DE Ejuan Price, LB Matt Galambos, DL Shakir Soto

Reason for optimism: QB Max Browne, a transfer from USC, should provide a steadying force for an offense that still has lots of weapons and was among the most potent in college football a year ago. Plus, Pitt can build off beating Penn State and Clemson last season.

Cause for concern: The defense, particularly on the back end, was brutal last season. While that unit has gotten younger -- and arguably more talented -- it's the defensive front that has tons of questions after Price graduated and Rori Blair and Jeremiah Taleni were dismissed from the program.

X factor: Defensive end Dewayne Hendrix arrived as a transfer from Tennessee three years ago with great promise, but a redshirt year and a season-ending injury have limited him to just a handful of snaps. He'll be essential this season if Pitt's defense is going to turn things around.

Game to watch: at Penn State, Sept. 9

Virginia Cavaliers

Last year's record: 2-10

Key returning players: QB Kurt Benkert, WR Doni Dowling, WR Olamide Zaccheaus, LB Micah Kiser, S Quin Blanding, DE Andrew Brown

Key losses: RB Taquan Mizzell, RB Albert Reid, LB Zach Bradshaw, DB Kelvin Rainey

Reason for optimism: For one, it really can't get much worse than last year's 2-10 campaign. Coach Bronco Mendenhall admitted he didn't realize how far behind the program was until the season started, but now he has had a full year to get the Cavaliers up to speed.

Cause for concern: The offensive line could be woeful in 2017. Without the bulk of last year's running game, the pressure could all fall on Benkert to make plays.

X factor: Mendenhall. When he arrived at Virginia from BYU, plenty of folks scratched their heads about why a veteran, successful coach would take on such a massive project. But Mendenhall has a unique approach. It didn't pay dividends in Year 1, but it was also the first losing season he has had as a head coach.

Game to watch: vs. Virginia Tech, Nov. 24

Virginia Tech Hokies

Last year's record: 10-4

Key returning players: WR Cam Phillips, OL Wyatt Teller, LB Andrew Motuapuaka, LB Tremaine Edmunds, S Terrell Edmunds, CB Greg Stroman

Key losses: QB Jerod Evans, WR Isaiah Ford, TE Bucky Hodges, DT Woody Baron, S Chuck Clark, DE Ken Ekanem

Reason for optimism: Justin Fuente led Virginia Tech to a Coastal Division title in his first year as coach. Although he has to replace a lot of departed skill position talent on offense, he has proven he can find answers. Meanwhile, the defense should again be exceptional under coordinator Bud Foster.

Cause for concern: Fuente said all along he wasn't worried about the quarterback position, where he announced redshirt freshman Josh Jackson as his starter. Whether Jackson has any playmakers around him -- particularly at running back -- remains a far bigger question.

X factor: DT Tim Settle arrived amid much hype and seemed to take a nice step forward last season, racking up seven tackles for loss in a reserve role. His job gets much bigger this year, but if he continues to progress, he has All-American potential.

Game to watch: vs. Clemson, Sept. 30