On The Rise: 10 early storylines to track in ACC next season
For the third time in as many seasons, the Atlantic Coast Conference found itself in the middle of the national championship picture, so the bar is already set high for 2016. While Clemson and Florida State remain the cream of the league's crop, up-and-coming programs like North Carolina and Louisville and high-profile coaching hires add intrigue to next season's preseason conversation. Here are 10 early ACC football storylines to keep an eye on in 2016.
How will Clemson handle early NFL departures?
The Clemson Tigers should be a unanimous preseason top-five team after coming up six points short of a national title and bringing back the lion’s share of their explosive offense, led by Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson. In short, Dabo Swinney’s program remains loaded with talent. However, the defensive side of the ball offers question marks for the second straight year thanks to early NFL departures. Disruptive ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, the nation’s leaders in tackles for loss, shutdown corner Mackensie Alexander and safety Jayron Kearse will be missed. Coordinator Brent Venables has put together standout defenses in back-to-back seasons, but his hands are full once again.
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY SportsMatt Kartozian
Will Coastal coaching changes pay immediate dividends?
Outside of Clemson’s effort to become the first-ever 15-0 team, the ACC’s postseason was highlighted by its four open spots on the coaching carousel. The Coastal Division, in particular, added three high-profile names in Mark Richt (Miami), Bronco Mendenhall (Virginia) and Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech). How quickly can those coaches turn things around? Fuente and Richt inherit the most talent and, given how the Coastal has become a free-for-all in recent years, there’s opportunity for both coaches to put their signature on the conference race as early as 2016.
Is Sean Maguire the quarterback to lead Florida State back into the national conversation?
After losing just one game during the Jameis Winston era, three losses felt like a borderline collapse for Florida State in 2015. The Seminoles may not be down long, though. Jimbo Fisher’s staff has recruited better than any other program in the ACC over the past few years, and FSU returns all 11 starters on offense. While there are some holes to fill on the defensive side, the primary concern remains at quarterback where the Everett Golson experiment did not pan out and late-season starter Sean Maguire was sporadic. The rising redshirt senior finished the campaign with a 392-yard, four-interception effort against Houston. He’ll need to show improvement next year.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY SportsKim Klement
Is North Carolina here to stay?
The eight-win glass ceiling shattered. The Year 4 magic worked for the second time in Larry Fedora's career as he led North Carolina, which had not finished a season ranked since 1997, to an 11-3 record and the program’s first-ever ACC title game. The offense clicked (No. 9 in scoring) and the defense dramatically improved under coordinator Gene Chizik … so what’s next? Record-breaking passing duo Marquise Williams and Quinshad Davis are gone along with a few key seniors, but there is enough returning talent to keep UNC in Coastal contention. The question will be whether Fedora can continue to lead the program forward — an ugly bowl loss to Baylor underscored that there’s more work to do defensively — or if the division will simply catch up.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY SportsBob Donnan
Will Louisville break through in Year 3 under Bobby Petrino?
Coastal curiosity aside, the Atlantic Division has been the conference’s meal ticket, and if the Louisville Cardinals are poised to contend it’s only going to get tougher. The ACC’s newest member has won 17 games over the past two seasons but has never challenged the likes of Clemson and Florida State at the top. However, Bobby Petrino now has a quarterback for the first time since his return (rising sophomore Lamar Jackson) and there are playmakers galore to work with. The Cards’ defense received a huge boost when standouts Devonte Fields (third nationally in tackles for loss), Keith Kelsey and Josh Harvey-Clemons announced their decision to stay in school — meaning Louisville could be challenging for top-10 recognition.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAChristopher Hanewinckel
Can Deshaun Watson make another Heisman run?
If there was any lingering doubt concerning his immense talent, Watson’s record-breaking performance against the nation’s No. 1 defense despite missing two of his top three receivers pretty much erased it. The sophomore is the nation’s top quarterback and, coming off the first-ever 4,000-1,000 FBS season, the Tigers return practically everyone at the skill positions. Expectations add pressure. Not only will Clemson be a preseason title favorite, but Watson will be expected to replicate his Heisman-type campaign as he (presumably) auditions for NFL scouts. It’s difficult to project another historic dual-threat season, but this time last year Watson was still recovering from a torn ACL. The sky's the limit.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY SportsJoe Camporeale
Who leads the conference in rushing next season?
Deshaun Watson will not be the only preseason Heisman candidate worth mentioning in 2016. The conference is stocked with ultra-talented running backs, starting with Florida State’s Dalvin Cook. Despite a quiet bowl game against Houston — his worst performance of the season — the 5-foot-11 speedster finished fifth nationally in rushing yards per game and tied for eighth in touchdowns. Throw in Clemson’s Wayne Gallman (1,527 yards, 13 TDs) and North Carolina’s Elijah Hood (1,463 yards, 17 TDs) and the rising junior crop of ACC running backs is loaded.
Melina Vastola-USA TODAY SportsMelina Vastola
After four coaching changes, is there an ACC hot seat worth monitoring in 2016?
Nearly one-third of ACC programs changed coaches this offseason, including the conference’s reigning hot-seat candidate in Virginia’s Mike London. There is not a pressing situation left behind by the upheaval as the likes of Dave Doeren, Steve Addazio and Dave Clawson are still inside a four-year window with their respective schools. Doeren, NC State’s head coach, might be under the most pressure after posting a forgettable 6-18 league record in his first three seasons without an out-of-conference win worth mentioning … as in-state rivals North Carolina and Duke captured division titles. At Boston College, Addazio needs to turn his 121st-ranked offense around quickly because another winless conference mark might not cut it.
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY SportsRob Kinnan
Is a bounce-back seasons in store for Georgia Tech?
From 2013 to 2014, Georgia Tech won 18 games, played for the ACC championship and captured an Orange Bowl title. That run came to a screeching halt last season. The Yellow Jackets slogged through their worst season of the Paul Johnson era by winning only three games, plummeting out of the early polls, despite bringing back dynamic quarterback Justin Thomas. With the Coastal Division in the middle of a makeover, the program will look to get back on track in 2016.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY SportsSteve Mitchell
What effect will Dino Babers have on Syracuse’s offense?
Scoring points proved to be problematic for Syracuse under former coach Scott Shafer: The Orange ranked 77th nationally with 27.3 points per game this past season … and that was by far the best of his three offenses. Enter Dino Babers, the 54-year-old new hire who’s been running high-flying offenses at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green the past four seasons. A prominent branch on the Art Briles coaching tree, Babers will bring a Baylor-esque offensive style to Syracuse’s attack. Just how long will it take to get off the ground? A few pieces, including rising sophomore quarterback Eric Dungey, return to the mix, but Babers has his work cut out for him.