In about a month, the 2019 college football season gets started. It’s almost hard to believe. With that in mind, though, The ACC Sports Journal staff decided to huddle up and look at several key ACC Football questions before the games kickoff.
David Glenn and Josh Graham join me for Part 1 of the 2019 ACC Football Roundtable to talk ball and explain why it rules to have last names that start with the letter G. Make sure to check back here tomorrow for Part 2.
1. Who wins the Coastal Division this season, and can that team threaten Clemson?
Over the last six seasons, six different teams have won the Coastal Division. All six of those teams have lost in the ACC Championship Game. In fact, the last time the league champion came from the Coastal was back in the 2010 season.
Miami, and probably not.
Frankly, it’s Virginia’s turn. Here are the last six Coastal winners, in order: Duke, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Miami and Pittsburgh. In a seven-member division, that means only one team is missing. Under Bronco Mendenhall, UVA definitely has become relevant again, and if the Wahoos somehow win their way to Charlotte this season, it will be Parity Perfection: seven seasons, seven teams, one trip each.
Like everyone else in the Coastal, Miami is far from a sure thing. The Hurricanes have a first-time head coach in Manny Diaz, although as an internal candidate (putting aside that brief Temple marriage last December) he may have a better chance of avoiding a bumpy transition. UM also continued to have significant questions at quarterback this spring, despite the presence of a trio of 4-star prospects, Tate Martell (an immediately eligible Ohio State transfer), N’Kosi Perry and Jarren Williams.
— Canes Football (@CanesFootball) July 29, 2019
Working in Miami’s favor are proven difference-makers all over the depth chart, especially on Diaz’s defense. The Hurricanes’ line (led by end Jonathan Garvin), linebackers (Michael Pinckney and Shaquille Quarterman) and secondary (Trajan Bandy) all have returning stars capable of leading another elite unit.
The ACC schedule (no Clemson) is manageable too, with potential Coastal contenders Virginia Tech and Virginia both visiting Hard Rock Stadium, on back-to-back weekends in October.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: once again, there’s no clear-cut favorite to win the Coastal Division. Ah, yes, it’s everyone’s very fall jam in The Footprint: who will win the Coastal? (Note: if you flip that record over and play the B-side, it asks the question: is Miami back this year? Those are two timeless classics.)
As tempting as it may be to go with Virginia and quarterback Bryce Perkins, a trendy pick to win the division in 2019, I’ll roll once more with the shiniest object in the room — the Miami Hurricanes.
With Manny Diaz at the helm, and plenty of talent back, Miami should have a high floor and profile as a good defensive team. Up front, Jonathan Garvin returns to anchor a defensive line that helped Miami average 10.5 tackles for loss per game last season. In the middle of the field, Michael Pinckney and Shaquille Quarterman have seen it all; those two have combined to account for 452 total tackles in three seasons.
The last few seasons, Miami’s defense hasn’t been the team’s problem; it’s been the offense, which has repeatedly stalled and caused all sorts of issues. Can new offensive coordinator Dan Enos team up with transfer quarterback Tate Martell to get this thing going in the right direction?
If so, Miami has a surplus of skill position players chomping at the bit, too, like tight end Brevin Jordan and wide receiver Jeff Thomas, who led the Canes in targets (59), receptions (35) and receiving yards (563) last season.
As it pertains to competing with Clemson: well, unfortunately, no. It’s just that simple — Clemson is in a class all to itself.
Let’s start with the Clemson portion of this. It’s not realistic to expect any team in the league to threaten the Tigers. However, I think that’s more of a compliment to what Dabo Swinney has built than a sweeping indictment on the league.
— The ACC (@theACC) July 22, 2019
As for the Coastal, there will be three new head coaches in the division alone. So it’s pretty difficult to get a feel on what has already been arguably college football’s most enigmatic division this decade. With that said, I expect a bounce-back season from Virginia Tech.
The Hokies had their first losing season since 1992 due in large part to unexpected personnel losses last summer. Take Bud Foster’s defense as an example. The Hokies returned just three defensive starters heading into the season, then endured the losses of linebacker Mook Reynolds (dismissal) and defensive backs Jeremy Webb (achilles tear) and Adonis Alexander (ineligibility).
Justin Fuente today: "I’ve never been more optimistic about the future of Virginia Tech football than I am at this moment. …
“I think part of it is, I know we’re doing the right thing. (The transfers) all individual cases. That’s the key to think about."
— David Teel (@DavidTeelatDP) February 6, 2019
The offense wasn’t immune to the injury bug either — as quarterback Josh Jackson sustained a season-ending ankle injury in a loss to Old Dominion. In stark contrast from last year, the Hokies will return 10 defensive starters in 2019 and with junior Ryan Willis returning at quarterback, I expect Justin Fuente to open up the playbook a little more this fall.
My biggest reservation for the Hokies this season is their schedule. While Virginia Tech will not have to face Clemson, three of its most difficult conference games — Boston College, Miami, Virginia — will be played away from Lane Stadium. Plus, the Hokies will go on the road to play Notre Dame in South Bend. Despite that, I predict Virginia Tech to be Coastal Division champions
2. How much — if any — will Clemson miss key veterans from its defense? Or is this team’s offense so good that it won’t even matter?
After its second national title in three years, Clemson waved goodbye to an awful lot of NFL-ready defensive talent. However, a new generation of Tigers look ready to pounce.
They’ll be missed, possibly even a lot, but it probably won’t matter quite enough to knock the Tigers (four straight conference titles) off their ACC pedestal.
Clemson never had produced three first-round picks in a single NFL draft, remember, until the Tigers did that earlier this year, with Clelin Ferrell (fourth overall), Christian Wilkins (13th) and Dexter Lawrence (17th) all plucked from their stunningly talented defensive line. The other starter, Austin Bryant, went in the fourth round.
Replacing that sort of four-man skill, experience and production, all at the same time, even in an elite program, and especially in the trenches, can’t possibly be a seamless transition, can it? That’s the challenge for eighth-year coordinator Brent Venables, one of the highest-paid ($2.3 million per year!) assistants in the country, with Xavier Thomas and Nyles Pinckney among the promising new starters worth watching.
Even if the Tigers’ defense (which yielded only 13 points per game last season) takes a step backward, which certainly would be understandable and even expected, an explosive offense (44 points per game last season) that returns quarterback Trevor Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne, wide receivers Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, and three senior linemen has a chance to be the most prolific in the entire nation.
Clemson certainly parted ways with seriously electric talent from its defense this offseason — four defensive linemen selected in the first four rounds of the 2019 NFL Draft, including three inside the top 20. Christian Wilkins is one of the absolute stars from Clemson’s rise as a national power; his production (41 career tackles for loss) and leadership will be missed. The same goes for sack-master Clelin Ferrell, who recorded 27 sacks during his three seasons with the Tigers.
Guys. Christian Wilkins is good. pic.twitter.com/7rLcaAc1dO
— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 19, 2018
However, the next generation of Clemson stars will emerge, quickly. Isaiah Simmons, the team’s leading tackler from a season ago (89 total), is a freak in the middle of the field; Tanner Muse is a steady playmaker in the defensive backfield, and sophomore defensive end Xavier Thomas (3.5 sacks in 2018) looks like a superstar in the making.
Isaiah Simmons was a well-balanced defender for the Tigers last season. pic.twitter.com/vHAw2kDFpL
— PFF College (@PFF_College) May 29, 2019
With all of the talent Clemson has on offense, though, the Tigers could likely carry a defense that should see some regression. At the quarterback positions and skill positions, Clemson seems to be unmatched:
- Trevor Lawrence: 259-of-397 pass attempts (65.2%) for 3,280 yards, 30 touchdowns, 4 interceptions
- Travis Etienne: 204 carries, rushing 1,658 yards (8.1 per carry), 24 touchdowns
- Justyn Ross: 46 receptions, 1,000 yards (21.7 per catch), 9 touchdowns
- Tee Higgins: 59 receptions, 936 yards (15.9 per catch) 12 touchdowns
We will learn pretty quickly just how much the Tigers miss that all-time great defensive line from the last few years. In Week 2, Clemson will face Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond, who is one of the SEC’s best quarterbacks, and then will travel to the Carrier Dome the following week to face Syracuse for its first road game.
SEC quarterbacks vs. Clemson's secondary this season.
A&M's Kellen Mond: 23-40, 430 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT
S.Carolina's Jake Bentley: 32-50, 510 yards, 5 TD, 1 INT
— Brandon Zimmerman (@BZSEC) January 4, 2019
Tommy DeVito will replace the Orange’s all-time leading passer Eric Dungey, but I expect Syracuse to maintain a potent passing attack.
If the Tigers are to take a step back with their pass rush, it will be evident in those two games. However, examining how Swinney and defensive coordinator Brent Venables have recruited over the years and specifically defensive linemen, I’m not too concerned about the state of Clemson’s defense. Also, don’t forget, linebacker Isaiah Simmons and safety Tanner Muse are both key upperclassmen who will be returning this season.
3. Who will be the surprise team in the ACC during the 2019 season?
Every year in college football, it feels like there’s a surprise team that jumps up and outperforms its preseason expectations.
After answering “Syracuse” (from 4-8 in 2017 to a shocking-to-most 10-3 in 2018) a year ago, I would like to announce my permanent retirement from this question, and just ride off into the sunset in prognostication jubilation. Alas, the rules won’t allow that.
Dino Babers of @CuseFootball on DG correctly picking the Orange (4-8 to 10-3) as the league's surprise team last year at #ACCKickoff:
I remember that positive energy you gave us at this time last year. Is there any way you'll pick us to be a @CFBPlayoff team this year? (Laughs.)
— David Glenn Show (@DavidGlennShow) July 18, 2019
So, Wake Forest.
This may sound obscene, especially to fans of Clemson, Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech, which at their peaks have cranked out 10-or-more-win campaigns with regularity, but the Demon Deacons have only two seasons ever of NINE or more wins, in a football history that dates all the way to the late 1800s. Both happened not too long ago, under coach Jim Grobe, who went 11-3 (ACC title) in 2006 and 9-4 in 2007.
Like Grobe, Dave Clawson is a perfect fit for Wake Forest in every conceivable way. As with Grobe in 2006, Clawson has had six years to build his program, will have one of the most experienced teams in the league, and will tackle a mostly manageable schedule this season. With the enormous exception of Clemson, the ACC lacks apparent heavyweights right now, just as it did the last time the Deacons won big.
Clawson: We feel like we can accomplish a lot more here at Wake Forest, and we're excited to stick around and accomplish those things.
— David Glenn Show (@DavidGlennShow) July 6, 2018
With a Coastal Division that’s wide open, there exists a real possibility that Virginia could prove to be a strong contender. Bryce Perkins returns at quarterback for his second season in coordinator Robert Anae’s system. If his 2018 season is any indication, Virginia has a strong foundation to build upon.
During his first season at UVA, Perkins became just the third ACC quarterback since the 2000 season — joining Lamar Jackson (twice) and Deshaun Watson — to throw for 2,500 yards and at least 25 touchdowns, while also rushing for at least 900 yards.
At wide receiver, Olamide Zaccheaus — 93 receptions on over 100 targets last season — will be missed, but Hasise Dubois (52 receptions, five touchdowns) and Joe Reed, a star special teams player as well, return.
On defense, the Cavs lose key players like Juan Thornhill, a second round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs, and Chris Pierce (7.5 sacks in 2018). However, Bronco Mendenhall brings back plenty of talent, too: Bryce Hall, Eli Hanback, Charles Snowden, Jordan Mack and Zane Zandier. This could be one of the best groups of linebackers in the country.
How good was UVA’s Bryce Hall last year? He had nearly as many passes defended (22 PBU + 2 INT) as completions allowed (29). He was 1 of just 4 ACC corners to allow < 40% completions (min 25 targets) and tied for 2nd lowest yards/att allowed (behind Michael Carter).
— That's so David (@ADavidHaleJoint) March 5, 2019
Under Tony Bennett, we’ve seen Virginia emerge as a basketball powerhouse — winning titles and putting players into the NBA. While not on the same trajectory, UVA Football is on the rise as well.
I think it’s Wake Forest.
Every year, it feels like the same song and dance with the Deacons. They get picked to finish in the bottom third of the Atlantic Division, then end up exceeding expectations by playing in *and winning* a bowl game. This narrative has become so familiar that during spring practice head coach Dave Clawson joked that the first time his team appears on a bowl projection list, “I’ll die of heart attack and my career will be over.”
#Wake’s first 6 opponents of the season last year (not counting Towson & Rice) averaged 1.78 yards/rush & 1.23 yards/pass better than their season averages vs other FBS teams. Their next 5 managed 1.66 yd/rush & 1.02 yd/pass less than season averages. DC change was HUGE. pic.twitter.com/PLaggqtJXk
— That's so David (@ADavidHaleJoint) July 22, 2019
Here are the facts. The Deacs enjoyed their third consecutive bowl-winning season last year — a program-first — despite having to replace four-year starting quarterback John Wolford and then losing his replacement, Sam Hartman, in November.
With sophomore Jamie Newman at the controls, Wake Forest won three of its last four games, which included road wins at NC State and Duke.
Most TDs responsible for by ACC QBs from Nov. 1 to end of season:
Ryan Willis, 15 (424 touches)
Trevor Lawrence, 15 (432)
Ryan Finley, 13 (426)
Bryce Perkins, 13 (311)
Jamie Newman, 12 (285)
— That's so David (@ADavidHaleJoint) March 25, 2019
I don’t think an eight-win season is out of the question in 2019. Hartman and Newman will both be competing for the starting job in fall camp, plus All-ACC left tackle Justin Herron and safety Coby Davis will be back after both players were lost for the year in last season’s opener.
Justin Herron did not allow a single sack last season – on 469 pass-blocking snaps pic.twitter.com/yvkmXG4Pl9
— PFF College (@PFF_College) July 8, 2018