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Sunshine State squads lead the way in way-too-early ACC rankings

 

A total of 18 ACC underclassmen have been granted eligibility for this year’s NFL Draft. With a clearer picture, it’s time to look ahead at which league teams are best positioned to make noise in 2017.

 

ATLANTIC DIVISION

1. Florida State

Returning offensive/defensive starters: 15

Departed current/former All-ACC players: 6

Returning current/former All-ACC players: 4

Four-year national recruiting ranking average: 4

National championship aspirations are far from unheard of in Tallahassee. After all, the Seminoles took a No. 4 ranking into the 2016 season before injuries and Lamar Jackson crushed their playoff hopes early in the year.

FSU will have to adjust to life after Dalvin Cook, but the future is bright. Nine starters are back on defense, and that doesn’t even include the return of All-American hopeful Derwin James in the secondary. Sophomore quarterback and reigning ACC Rookie of the Year Deondre Francois will lead the Seminoles in their pursuit to reclaim the league crown.

 

2. Clemson

Returning offensive/defensive starters: 12

Departed current/former All-ACC players: 10

Returning current/former All-ACC players: 5

Four-year national recruiting ranking average: 13

Hey, ACC coaches — raise your hand if you’re excited to face Clemson’s defense next season. Anyone? Someone? OK, so no one.

The talk of the offseason will be how the Tigers replace their outgoing offense stars — namely Deshaun Watson. But don’t forget about what they have on the other side of the ball. Dabo Swinney’s squad finished No. 5 nationally in 2016 in yards allowed per play (4.63), and several familiar faces — Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell, to name a few — will be back to wreak havoc again next fall.

No one in the conference lost more top-end talent than the Tigers, and questions at quarterback have them taking a back seat to Florida State for now. However, the coaching staff has this roster loaded with future NFL players, and a seventh consecutive season of double-digit wins shouldn’t be out of reach.

 

3. NC State

Returning offensive/defensive starters: 17

Departed current/former All-ACC players: 1

Returning current/former All-ACC players: 3

Four-year national recruiting ranking average: 41

The 7-6 finish doesn’t reflect it, but Dave Doeren’s fourth team at NC State was unquestionably his best. Four of the Wolfpack’s losses came by a touchdown or less, including the overtime heartbreaker at Clemson that would’ve turned out differently had kicker Kyle Bambard not missed a 33-yard field goal at the end of regulation.

NCSU has the potential to field an elite defense (noticing a trend?), particularly with Bradley Chubb turning down the NFL Draft for one more go-round in Raleigh. Offensively, touchdown machine Jaylen Samuels and speedster Nyheim Hines give quarterback Ryan Finley some deadly weapons.

 

4. Louisville

Returning offensive/defensive starters: 12

Departed current/former All-ACC players: 6

Returning current/former All-ACC players: 3

Four-year national recruiting ranking average: 35

Lamar Jackson joins Jameis Winston as just the second ACC player to win the Heisman Trophy in the last 16 years. Unlike Winston, Jackson won’t have the majority of his weapons back when he attempts to win the award a second time.

Louisville’s offense, which averaged a jaw-dropping 7.21 yards per play last season, has said goodbye to all of its other starters at offensive skill positions, save for quarterback-turned-receiver Reggie Bonnafon. Those departures, combined with a shaky offensive line, leaves college football’s most outstanding player with his work cut out for him. By no means will the Cardinals fall to the bottom of the division, but don’t expect any playoff talk this year.

 

5. Boston College

Returning offensive/defensive starters: 14

Departed current/former All-ACC players: 0

Returning current/former All-ACC players: 2

Four-year national recruiting ranking average: 63

The good news for Boston College is that eight offensive starters are back. The bad news is that those players were part of the third-worst offense in FBS this past season (4.42 YPP).

The Eagles, though, welcome back the nation’s sacks leader (16.5) in defensive end Harold Landry. That side of the ball isn’t the problem for Steve Addazio, who put to rest season-long whispers regarding his job security by improving BC’s 2015 win total by four games. The 2017 nonconference slate isn’t too rough, and Virginia will be the Eagles’ rotating Coastal opponent. With a few breaks, Boston College could find itself bowling again.

 

6. Wake Forest

Returning offensive/defensive starters: 15

Departed current/former All-ACC players: 1

Returning current/former All-ACC players: 3

Four-year national recruiting ranking average: 60

Rarely ever does a quarterback start his first three seasons only to lose his job as a senior, but that’s the situation John Wolford might be facing. He’ll compete with Kendall Hinton for the first-team spot this offseason as the Deacons look to build off their first winning season since 2008.

Dave Clawson’s foundation is set, and many of the players he invested in during his first couple seasons are now seasoned upperclassmen. The defense lost a handful of key pieces both on the roster and on the staff, but the offense should be Clawson’s best in his four years with the Deacons.

 

7. Syracuse

Returning offensive/defensive starters: 17

Departed current/former All-ACC players: 2

Returning current/former All-ACC players: 2

Four-year national recruiting ranking average: 58

A brutal road lies ahead for an Orange group that will play 11 teams that competed in 2016 bowl games. As if that wasn’t enough, record-breaking receiver Amba Etta-Tawo is gone, along with electrifying return man Brisley Estime.

Second-year head coach Dino Babers is in the early stages of building a program. The cupboard isn’t totally bare, but the growing pains will continue in 2017. On the bright side, Syracuse has one of the more exciting quarterbacks in the conference in rising junior Eric Dungey.

 

COASTAL DIVISION

1. Miami

Returning offensive/defensive starters: 14

Departed current/former All-ACC players: 5

Returning current/former All-ACC players: 2

Four-year national recruiting ranking average: 19

Few teams in college football posted as strong a finish to 2016 as Miami. While “offseason momentum” is nothing more than a term coaches like to utter to rile up players and fans, the arrows are pointing in the right direction in Coral Gables.

Baptism by fire was the story for a handful of players in Mark Richt’s first (partial) recruiting class. That group included wide receiver Ahmmon Richards, linebackers Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud, and defensive end Joe Jackson.

Those experiences will pay off for the Hurricanes in 2017. It’s not time to start chirping about national titles yet, but if Richt, a quarterbacks guru, can find a suitable replacement for Brad Kaaya, Miami could be looking at its first-ever Coastal Division title.

 

2. Georgia Tech

Returning offensive/defensive starters: 18

Departed current/former All-ACC players: 2

Returning current/former All-ACC players: 0

Four-year national recruiting ranking average: 54

No other team in the ACC returns more starters than Yellow Jackets, who just enjoyed a 9-4 campaign. But just like everyone else in the Coastal not named Duke or Virginia, they’ll have to find a new starter under center.

Whoever replaces Justin Thomas at quarterback will have plenty to work with. Georgia Tech’s offense produced 6.53 yards per play (No. 19 nationally) in its bounceback season, and 10 starters return from that unit. The defense, led by twin defensive backs Lance and Lawrence Austin, is stacked with juniors and seniors.

 

3. Virginia Tech

Returning offensive/defensive starters: 13

Departed current/former All-ACC players: 6

Returning current/former All-ACC players: 6

Four-year national recruiting ranking average: 31

Virginia Tech’s chances of maintaining its place atop the division looked a lot better before Jerod Evans, Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges declared for the NFL Draft. And sure, those are major blows, but don’t lose sight of who’s coming back to Blacksburg.

Eight starters return on Bud Foster’s defense, including Tremaine Edmunds, Andrew Motuapuaka, Greg Stroman and Brandon Facyson. That group will keep the Hokies in games even if a rebuilding offense struggles.

 

4. Pittsburgh

Returning offensive/defensive starters: 10

Departed current/former All-ACC players: 4

Returning current/former All-ACC players: 4

Four-year national recruiting ranking average: 35

No more James Conner, no more Ejuan Price and no more Nate Peterman.

Pitt’s depth will be tested in Year 3 under Pat Narduzzi, and reaching eight wins for a third straight season will be a challenge. Not all hope is lost, though. The Panthers have recruited well in recent years, and they’ll have a former 5-star recruit at quarterback in USC graduate transfer Max Browne.

Defensively, the trenches will require some rebuilding, but an atrociously bad secondary can’t get any worse. A division title is probably out of the question, but hey — each of the last four teams to win the division were picked fourth or lower in the preseason.

 

5. North Carolina

Returning offensive/defensive starters: 13

Departed current/former All-ACC players: 10

Returning current/former All-ACC players: 1

Four-year national recruiting ranking average: 29

Only two ACC teams are losing 10 current/former all-conference players this offseason: national champion Clemson and 8-5 North Carolina. Unlike the Tigers, the Tar Heels can’t point to more than one returning All-ACC player (M.J. Stewart).

UNC has three scholarship quarterbacks who will battle to replace Mitch Trubisky, and it’s possible the coaching staff could bring a graduate transfer into the mix. For now, however, the Heels have gigantic holes to fill and few clear answers. Larry Fedora might be looking at his toughest year to date in Chapel Hill.

 

6. Duke

Returning offensive/defensive starters: 15

Departed current/former All-ACC players: 2

Returning current/former All-ACC players: 1

Four-year national recruiting ranking average: 45

After steadily improving the talent level in Durham in his first years as Duke’s head coach, David Cutcliffe saw the program’s recruiting take off with the 2016 class. That trend has continued with the class of 2017, and the future of Blue Devils football might be brighter than ever.

It will take another season or two before the on-field results show, but Duke shouldn’t have any trouble leaving its 4-8 finish to last fall in the rear-view mirror. Injuries to key seniors in 2016 gave younger players the opportunity to play early, and that should serve the team well moving forward. The coaching staff has high hopes for quarterback Daniel Jones, who showed significant improvement in the second half of last season.

 

7. Virginia

Returning offensive/defensive starters: 13

Departed current/former All-ACC players: 2

Returning current/former All-ACC players: 2

Four-year national recruiting ranking average: 50

UVA couldn’t do much of anything right in Bronco Mendenhall’s first season in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers were one of the nation’s least efficient teams on both offense and defense, and now their best offensive player — running back Taquan Mizzell — is out of eligibility.

On the positive end, safety Quin Blanding and linebacker Micah Kiser opted to stay in school and will be back on a defense that returns nine starters. There are few answers on offense, though, which will make it difficult for Virginia to break out of the ACC cellar.