Six Suitors Trail Clemson in Atlantic Division

Ken Cross

August 19, 2018 at 4:43 pm.

Sep 23, 2017; Clemson, SC, USA;  Clemson running back Travis Etienne (9) runs 50 yards to score against Boston College during the 4th quarter at Clemson Memorial Stadium. Photo Credit: Bart Boatwright/Greenville News via USA TODAY Sports

Sep 23, 2017; Clemson, SC, USA; Clemson running back Travis Etienne (9) runs 50 yards to score against Boston College during the 4th quarter at Clemson Memorial Stadium. Photo Credit: Bart Boatwright/Greenville News via USA TODAY Sports

Lindy’s columnist Ken Cross gives his perspective on how the ACC Atlantic Division shapes up for the 2018 season.

There’s no drama or question in the ACC Atlantic as the Clemson Tigers look like a cinch to repeat once again and get to the ACC Championship game where they will be favored …again … over anyone the ACC Coastal presents as a challenge.  This division is worth watching though. The race for second will be most interesting, as the case can be made for any of the six teams to finish next behind the Tigers.

The interesting thing is that the Tigers are already being adorned with the crown while many excellent players and, of course, teams in the ACC Atlantic are being overlooked.  Although Lamar Jackson graduated and left Louisville for the NFL, the Cardinals are going to be sneaky good.

Here’s a look at what could happen.

1. Clemson

On Offense: The Tigers could find themselves in the middle of a quarterback controversy when their season commences on September 1 against Furman. This is Kelly Bryant’s team as he led the Tigers to a resounding win over Miami in the ACC title game and picked up where Deshaun Watson left off in placing the Tigers in the Final Four. Freshman Trevor Lawrence has a gun for an arm, but using Bryant’s experience and designing an offense to fit his skills seems like the right thing for the Tigers

On Defense: A line of Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence in the middle and Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant on the ends.  Need we say more?

Schedule: The Tigers have a tough road schedule that begins with a trip to Texas A&M on Sept. 8, then features an Oct. 27 tilt at Florida State. Upset alert Nov. 10 when Clemson visits Boston College.

Outlook: Anything less than a trip to the Final Four would be considered a letdown. The expectations for Dabo Swinney’s program rise with each year.

2. Louisville

On Offense: A 6-4, 231, Jawon Pass is big and talented enough to lead the Cardinals into a potential showdown at Clemson on Nov. 3. He may have the best receiver trio in college football in Jaylen Smith, Seth Dawkins and Dez Fitzpatrick.

On Defense: This is where the Cardinals can solidify themselves as the top threat to the Tigers as Brian VanGorder is their third defensive coordinator in three years. They gave up a combined 154 points in four consecutive losses to N.C. State, Wake, BC and Florida State last season.

Schedule: The Alabama opener in Orlando is intriguing, as are road games at Boston College, Clemson and Syracuse in late October and early November.

Outlook: VanGorder’s defenses apply lots of pressure, so read and react will not be an option. With improvement here, healthy playmakers, and Coach Bobby Petrino’s play-calling prowess, Louisville could push out 10 wins.

3. Florida State

On Offense: Whether it is Deondre Francois or James Blackman at quarterback, Cam Akers will help make a solid nucleus in the backfield as a young receiving corps develops.

On Defense: Refurbishing a unit hit by graduation is a must for the Seminoles to compete.  Pass rusher Brian Burns will be the focal point of game plans early.

Schedule: Assuming FSU wins the home opener on Labor Day night against Virginia Tech, they should roll into Louisville at 4-0 on September 29. After the Cardinals, FSU travels to Miami the next week in what will be the turning point of the season.

Outlook:  The FSU brass made a great hire in getting lifelong Seminoles fan Willie Taggart to come to Tallahassee after one year at Oregon. Injuries derailed the offense last season and with Taggart’s new quicker attack, Florida State’s offensive team speed will be a tough out.

4. Boston College

On Offense: Running back AJ Dillon was voted the ACC Preseason Player of the Year and could push for 2,000 yards this season behind an experienced offensive line that is stacked with four seniors.

On Defense: The Eagles’ run defense must improve as they gave up 190.9 yards per game last season.  Zach Allen will be a major playmaker on the front-4.

Schedule: Four of BC’s first five games are non-conference matchups as a Sept. 13 match up at ever-improving Wake Forest could slide the Eagles to 5-0 as they head to NC State on Oct.6.

Outlook: Steve Addazio’s enthusiasm and energy was infectious at ACC Media Day once again this season. The talent is here to challenge Clemson as the Tigers head to Chestnut Hill on Nov. 10. Remember that one was 7-7 after three quarters before Clemson pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 34-7 win last season.

5. Wake Forest

On Offense: The Demon Deacons lose a stellar performer at quarterback in John Wolford, but junior Kendall Hinton is a dual-threat quarterback who will give WFU a different offensive look. Athletic Greg Dortch will be back at wide receiver, as he was injured near the end of last season.

On Defense: This unit has improved in talent and aggression every season under head coach Dave Clawson. The Deacons need pressure up front to support an experienced secondary, led by senior safeties Chuck Wade, Jr. and Cameron Glenn.

Schedule: The Deacons have four consecutive home games that include BC, Notre Dame and Clemson, followed by back-to-back weekends at Louisville and Florida State.

Outlook: Clawson is one of the best coaches in America and it’s hard to see the Demon Deacons finishing fifth. Improvement in the pass defense and stability at quarterback could move them higher.

6. N.C. State

On Offense: Ryan Finley is one of the top passing quarterbacks in the nation, so it’s likely the Wolfpack will finish higher than six. Kelvin Harmon should rise as one of the top go-to receivers in college football.

On Defense: The Wolfpack had four defensive linemen drafted into the NFL and still had problems in covering the pass. Conventional wisdom says the run-stop won’t yield what it did, although defensive end Darian Roseboro returns on the front and is a big time playmaker.

Schedule: The opener against FCS National champion James Madison is far from a gimme, then two weeks later the Wolfpack face West Virginia in Raleigh before visiting Marshall on back-to-back September weekends. They could be 1-3 going into the home game against Virginia on Sept. 29.

Outlook: Finley will throw for tons of yardage, but a shaky defense will be the undoing of the Wolfpack.  They desperately need to repeat last seasons (+8) turnover margin.

7. Syracuse

On Offense: Quarterback Eric Dungey looks like the type that will match up on Sunday, as he as accentuated his passing skills and led the Orange in rushing in third year coach Dino Babers’ hurry-up, spread style. The key is who steps up at wide receiver with the losses of talented Steve Ishmael and Ervin Phillips.

On Defense: The ‘Cuse has to develop a tenacity on defense and turn its opponents over. Last season, the Orange only recorded 12 takeaways which included only four interceptions.

Schedule: A win over Florida State at home on Sept. 15 would go a long way in confidence building and priming Syracuse to take a step toward being a tough out for the entire season. The Orange visit Clemson and Pitt on back-to-back weekends to end the first half of the schedule.

Outlook:  It is hard to believe the Orange will improve enough on defense to be a player for the upper echelon of the Atlantic. Syracuse will need a healthy Dungey to eke out six wins and return to a bowl game.