With media days wrapping up this week, it's time to turn our attention to the ACC.
The ACC media days will begin Tuesday in Charlotte, North Carolina, with much to discuss. Florida State has a level of preseason hype it hasn't seen in nearly a decade, while Clemson is breaking in a new -- but familiar -- quarterback and North Carolina has a true Heisman Trophy contender under center.
Elsewhere in the conference, is this the year coach Mario Cristobal can turn around Miami? And who else outside of the preseason favorites could make a run at the ACC title?
These are the biggest questions facing the ACC as we head into media days.
Is Florida State deserving of all the hype?
Hale: It's probably easier to doubt the Seminoles. After all, it's been nine years since they last won an ACC title. But all the buzz surrounding Mike Norvell's upstart team feels like more than hype. After a 10-win campaign in 2022, this FSU team actually has all the players it needs to win big.
Start with the QB: Jordan Travis was at ACC Kickoff two years ago alongside McKenzie Milton, with Norvell acknowledging he had no idea who would win the team's QB job. It wasn't until midway through the 2021 season that Travis actually secured the job full time, but since then, he has been a revelation. Travis' story echoes Florida State's: a remarkable rise from the gutter to the penthouse. His talent and leadership represent the foundation upon which the Seminoles' expectations are built.
But after years of misery in Tallahassee, the Seminoles might have the deepest roster in the ACC too, thanks to Norvell's magic in the transfer portal, where this year, FSU added wide receiver Keon Coleman, cornerback Fentrell Cypress, D-lineman Braden Fiske, O-lineman Jeremiah Byers and tight end Jaheim Bell, among others.
ACC Kickoff will have a far different feel for Florida State this year. The weight of expectations can be tough to carry. But this team has embraced the hype, and talking to other coaches around the league, the Seminoles definitely have their attention.
Adelson: Florida State is deserving of all the hype, but whether they live up to that hype is the bigger question. Off a 10-win season, with virtually every key player returning on offense and defense, the Seminoles should be pegged as a possible playoff contender. Travis is terrific; the receivers should be better; the running back room should be better; and maybe most important, the offensive line should be the best collective group the Seminoles have had since Jimbo Fisher was still the coach.
End Jared Verse leads the defense, and a line featuring Verse, Fabien Lovett and Pat Payton has the potential to be among the best in the ACC. There is plenty to like about this team, and we will have our answers quickly about the Seminoles -- with the opener against LSU and a trip to Clemson in Week 4 sure to shape the narrative. If the Seminoles fall short of the playoff but win 10 games again, will that feel like a letdown considering what is expected? Or will it be viewed as another step toward making the program a national championship contender again?
Is Miami capable of finally breaking through?
Hale: There's no way to put a positive spin on last year's 5-7 disaster, but Cristobal used this offseason to largely clean house and start fresh. Stop me if you've heard this story before, though. Miami wins the offseason routinely, but once September arrives, the narrative changes.
There are ample questions for this Hurricanes team -- namely at the skill positions -- but few will loom larger entering ACC Kickoff than the ability of QB Tyler Van Dyke to thrive in a new offensive system. Two years ago, he looked like an emerging star; but last year, he battled injuries and seemed lost in former coordinator Josh Gattis' offense. Enter Shannon Dawson from Houston with hopes of reigniting Van Dyke's career. Plenty of lip service will be given to the new relationship when ACC Kickoff begins, but the truth is, it might be now or never for Van Dyke, Cristobal and Miami.
Adelson: I will tell you why Miami is capable: The Hurricanes are building an offensive line that has the potential to be among the better units in the league, and that has myriad benefits.
First, Miami was simply unable to run the ball effectively a season ago -- averaging 3.7 yards per carry. Some of that had to do with injuries that hit the running backs room hard, but the offensive line was a major factor there too.
Second, Miami struggled at pass protection last year. Van Dyke injured his shoulder on a sack in October and was not the same when he returned. In all, the Hurricanes allowed 36 sacks. When you rank in the bottom third in rushing offense and sacks allowed, then you know there is a problem to address. Cristobal, a former offensive lineman, knows this all too well. The spring provided some glimpses at where the O-line improvements will come, starting with transfers Javion Cohen (Alabama) and Matt Lee (UCF). True freshmen Francis Mauigoa and Samson Okunlola look like future stars. An improved line will no doubt translate into an improved offense, which will help Miami improve on 5-7.
Is Cade Klubnik going to blossom into a star?
Hale: Clemson spent the bulk of the 2022 season hoping Klubnik would emerge as the obvious starter at QB, and while he certainly had his moments of success, he never seemed to be able to string together enough good days to win the job. That changed when Klubnik picked apart the North Carolina defense in the ACC championship game, leading to DJ Uiagalelei's benching and eventual transfer. But Klubnik regressed again in the bowl game, as he looked completely disoriented in the pocket against Tennessee.
That performance led to what might be the most seismic change of the offseason in the ACC, as Clemson fired O-coordinator Brandon Streeter and brought in Garrett Riley from TCU. Riley's job is to modernize the offense overall, but priority No. 1 is maximizing Klubnik's immense talent. The track record -- for both Riley and, of course, his older brother, Lincoln -- is exceptional, so the odds are in Klubnik's favor. But while ACC Kickoff almost certainly will come with a parade of platitudes about how great the new partnership is going, the past two years of struggles for Clemson's offense mean a sizable bit of caution is still warranted.
Adelson: That caution is justified because we still do not have a great idea about how the talent around Klubnik will perform. Running backs Will Shipley and Phil Mafah are the only two proven players returning to the offense. Wide receiver continues to be a major question mark because players have underperformed at the position over the past several seasons. There is talent in that room, but Adam Randall, Beaux Collins, Antonio Williams and Cole Turner have to step it up.
If this all sounds familiar, it should. These are the same questions that were previously asked when Uiagalelei was the starter. It is clear the blame for the lack of offensive production lies with a combination of everything -- the quarterbacks, the system and the skill players. The reason for real hope is because Riley has tangible results. But scheme is only successful if players are able to make plays.
Has North Carolina developed a supporting cast worthy of Drake Maye's talent?
Hale: Much like at Clemson, North Carolina used its own frustrating finish to the season as an impetus for big changes. New O-coordinator Chip Lindsey was brought in with a goal of building out an offense that can take some pressure off Maye. The Tar Heels dove into the transfer portal to nab a couple of wide receivers capable of picking up some of the slack for departed star Josh Downs. And the defense, which was downright awful at times last year, waved goodbye to a host of transfers -- particularly in the secondary -- while adding some fresh blood via the portal.
Is it enough to make a difference for a team that threaded the needle for much of last season before collapsing in the final stretch?
Maye's talk this offseason about an offense more reliant on the run game and smarter with the football certainly inspires hope, and there will no doubt be more of that sales pitch at ACC Kickoff. But that defense has so far to go from how last year ended to where it needs to be to challenge for the conference crown in 2023 that it's hard to buy in just yet. If the pass rush, secondary, ground game and O-line all take strides -- well, that's a lot of ifs. One thing is certain though: Maye is so good, the rest of the team might not need a full-scale turnaround. Small steps forward could be enough when the QB is this talented.
Adelson: Even after watching North Carolina practice in the spring, I think it is too early to say. Hale mentions nearly every aspect that has to get better except a pretty big one -- the offensive line. North Carolina struggled here; Maye often had to scramble away from pressure, and the run game was simply unable to be consistent enough to keep defenses from merely dropping everyone into coverage.
The run game talk is not just lip service; offensive linemen wore "Run the Dang Ball" T-shirts during the spring, knowing how much this must be a point of emphasis. I do think there were lessons learned with Maye a season ago that the Tar Heels will take with them, especially as Lindsey takes over the playcalling. Part of the reason they want to run the ball is to keep Maye from doing it. But it also helps control the game, as it will keep the defense off the field. Because Hale is right: No matter who replaces Downs and Antoine Green at wideout, a lot of what happens this season will rest on the defense.
Who's best suited to contend for an ACC title beyond Clemson and Florida State?
Hale: If all goes according to plan in the ACC, Florida State and Clemson will face off in late September then have a rematch in the conference title game with a playoff spot on the line.
But how often do things go according to plan in the ACC?
Louisville likes its chances against a favorable schedule with new head coach Jeff Brohm at the helm. North Carolina, of course, played for a championship just last year. Wake Forest was in the title game in 2021, and the Demon Deacons return a lot of talent too. NC State has reunited QB Brennan Armstrong with O-coordinator Robert Anae, a combination that translated to serious points for Virginia two years ago. Oh, and Duke won nine games last year -- even if most people outside Durham, North Carolina, didn't realize it.
But if you're looking for a sleeper in the ACC, I'll go with the team that won the league in 2021: Pitt.
Don't be surprised if Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi is the star of ACC Kickoff. He has made headlines all offseason with some tough talk on tampering and coaches cleaning house via the portal, and he'll probably have a few hot takes at ACC Kickoff too. But what's not gotten nearly enough talk is the team Narduzzi plans to put on the field. He has to deal with a lot of turnover on defense from last year, but he loves his new-look D-line; the team returns a veteran secondary; and now the Panthers have the right QB to lead the offense with transfer Phil Jurkovec.
Pitt has 20 wins over the past two years, and yet the Panthers largely seem to be lurking in the shadows this offseason.
At ACC Kickoff, they should probably be front and center.
Adelson: Pitt has been a good choice here recently, but I am going with Louisville. Hale mentioned a favorable schedule and coach Brohm, and those are two huge reasons the Cardinals should be considered a contender -- especially with divisions going away. Louisville, formerly of the Atlantic Division, does not get Clemson or Florida State this year. Instead, the Cards will play all five ACC teams that failed to make a bowl game a year ago. Favorable schedules play a role in ultimate outcomes, especially when there is a first-year coach in charge.
That brings us to Brohm, who also has done a terrific job with the transfer portal. Quarterback Jack Plummer knows the offensive system after having played for Brohm at Purdue. Wide receiver Jamari Thrash was an all-conference player at Georgia State. Eric Miller (Purdue) and John Paul Flores (Virginia) should help the offensive line, and six key additions to the secondary -- including veterans who were once ACC starters -- will help. Brohm is coming off a Big Ten championship team a year ago. He knows how to maximize the talent he has. In a short period of time, he has overhauled the roster and gotten the good fortune of a favorable schedule. Louisville is the answer.