Feldman’s ACC picks: Clemson has too many weapons to be denied in 2015

Florida State's 24-game ACC win streak has kept the Tigers away from the league title since 2011. Here's guessing QB Deshaun Watson and Co. take it back this year.

Joshua S. Kelly/Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

FSU has won 21 consecutive regular-season ACC games — 24 if you throw in conference title games — but I think the ‘Noles’ dominance is going to end in 2015. Jimbo Fisher has to replace so many key pieces to his offense. Not only Jameis Winston, the star QB and team leader, but also four O-linemen, standout WR Rashad Greene and reliable TE Nick O’Leary. The status of game-breaking RB Dalvin Cook is up in the air due to him being charged in an incident where a woman claimed he struck her. (Cook’s case goes to court in late August.) Even if he is cleared and back on the field for FSU, there are still big questions lingering about the offense.

Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson has lots of experience, a strong arm and more running ability than Winston, but he’s had to get a crash course in the FSU offense. Back-up Sean Maguire, who played well in the spring and in a win over Clemson when Winston was suspended, is the other option. The D, led by cornerback Jalen Ramsey, should be very good. The ‘Noles also should be very good on special teams, headlined by the great kicker Roberto Aguayo, and the schedule does give the new QB about a month to get settled in. Only a road trip in mid-September to a decent Boston College team looks remotely challenging.

The downside: The ‘Noles have to face their two toughest opponents — Georgia Tech and Clemson — on the road this year. 

The Tigers, with their budding star QB Deshaun Watson, are my pick to win the Atlantic Division. All Watson did as a true freshman was put up a 14-2 TD-INT ratio and also run for five more touchdowns. The 6-3, 205-pounder had the best rating of any QB in the nation last year on third downs (179.85). He’s played on the road at FSU (Clemson lost in OT) and thumped arch-rival South Carolina. The Tigers did suffer a blow when OC Chad Morris took the SMU head coaching job, but the good news for Clemson is Watson also has the most firepower of any QB in the conference thanks to a pair of big-time wideouts in Mike Williams and Artavis Scott along with RB Wayne Gallman. Eric Mac Lain and strongman Ryan Norton (No. 20 on this year’s ‘Freaks’ list) will anchor the O-line. Defensively, the Tigers lost a bunch of studs to the NFL. DE Shaq Lawson, though, does return and he should have a strong season. The Tigers were already lean on experience and suffered a blow when starting DB Korrin Wiggins tore his ACL this week and is done for the season. That’ll mean even more pressure on big-talking CB Mackensie Alexander and safety Jayron Kearse.

In the Coastal, I like Virginia Tech — although not quite as much as Stew. As good as the Hokies D will be, I’m skeptical that their offense will be consistent enough to win the division. That’s why I’m picking the Yellow Jackets, who return dynamic triggerman Justin Thomas (1,086 rushing yards and an 18-6 TD-INT ratio). GT also gets FSU and Va. Tech at home.

A few other thoughts:

–The ACC has been a punchline for a lot of folks, but if the fourth- and fifth-best QBs in the conference are Miami’s Brad Kaaya and NC State’s Jacoby Brissett, that means the league is really, really deep. I think Kaaya, the cool 6-4 Californian, is the best quarterback prospect to come to UM in over a decade. Brissett, the former UF transfer, is big, bright and has terrific pocket presence. I would not be shocked if Brissett ended up as a starting QB in the NFL down the road.

–Bud Foster has cranked out a lot of elite defenses. This Hokies group should be nasty. Kendall Fuller is a shutdown corner. But it’s the D-line that could really, really be something. Dadi Nicolas (who will be very high on the Freaks list) is the fastest edge rusher in college football — and with Luther Maddy and Corey Marshall working the inside, it’s going to be tough to deal with all three of them. Expect Ken Ekanem (9.5 sacks and 14.5 TFLs) to also keep piling up the big plays. As a group they should make a run at 60 TFLs and 30-plus sacks.

–Stew is big on Bobby Petrino’s Louisville team. I’m more skeptical. No one in the ACC has fewer returning starters than the Cards. They do get some talented transfers in Devonte Fields (TCU) and ex-UGA DBs Shaq Wiggins and Josh Harvey-Clemons. But I don’t like how their schedule sets up (aside from getting Clemson at home): I think they’ll lose to two SEC teams, Auburn in Atlanta and an improving UK squad in Lexington. Plus going to FSU won’t be easy.

–Virginia’s Mike London is on the hot seat and UVA’s non-conference schedule is as rough as anyone’s: vs. Notre Dame, at UCLA and vs. Boise State with a visit from William & Mary mixed in. I think they go 1-3 with that, and then start the ACC slate at Pitt. Even without games against Clemson or FSU in 2015, I still don’t see the Cavaliers winning enough games to save London’s job this year.

–Of all the Power 5 conferences, I think the ACC this year has the best shot of being shut out of the playoff.

Predicted standings:

ATLANTIC

TEAM RECORD (LEAGUE)
Clemson 10-2 (6-2)
Florida State 10-2 (6-2) 
Louisville 7-5 (5-3) 

NC State  8-4 (4-4)
Boston College 5-7 (3-5)
Syracuse 4-8 (1-7)
Wake Forest 2-10 (0-8)

COASTAL

TEAM RECORD (LEAGUE)
Georgia Tech 9-3 (6-2)

Virginia Tech 9-3 (6-2)
Duke 8-4 (4-4) 
Miami 7-5 (4-4)

North Carolina 7-5 (4-4)

Pitt 7-5 (4-4)  
Virginia 5-7 (3-5)

Championship: Clemson over Georgia Tech

Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. He is also a New York Times Bestselling author. His new book, "The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks," came out in October 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB and Facebook.