Five ACC questions: Can FSU overcome its offseason?

Dabo Swinney, Al Golden and Jimbo Fisher all have their own challenges to overcome this season.

As Week One of the college football season approaches, we take closer look at some of the storylines in the ACC.

1. Can Florida State overcome its offseason losses?

Florida State’s offseason can be defined by one word: losses. Sixth-year head coach Jimbo Fisher’s roster was raided by the NFL, then freshman QB De’Andre Johnson and 1,000-yard rusher Dalvin Cook were sidelined amid accusations of violence against women.

Johnson was dismissed from the team on July 6 after a video surfaced of him apparently punching a woman in a bar.

Cook, who figured to be a major piece of FSU’s offense this year, is contesting the charges of misdemeanor battery that have been brought against him and has been suspended from the team indefinitely. The 6-1, 203-pound sophomore is scheduled for arraignment on Sept. 2.

During the ACC Football Kickoff Fisher took full responsibility for his the actions of his players.

"Just like it is anywhere else in the country, you as the head coach take responsibility, and you continue to educate," Fisher said. "You hope they don’t make mistakes, and when they do, you punish and adjust and continue to educate so they don’t do it again."

Fisher must figure out a way to replace the school-record-tying 11 FSU players that were selected in the 2015 NFL Draft, who helped the Seminoles go 13-1 (8-0) last season and reach the College Football Playoff.

Chief among them being quarterback Jameis Winston, who was selected No. 1 overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In two seasons as the Seminoles’ starting QB, Winston won one national championship and lost only one game.

While FSU’s offseason has been highlighted by subtractions, there was one notable addition: The Seminoles landed Everett Golson, the star senior quarterback who transferred from Notre Dame for his final year of college football.

It’s true, Golson will not be handed the starting job in Tallahassee. He must compete with Sean Maguire, who has a leg up on Golson when it comes to knowledge of the playbook. However, Golson has already proved he has what it takes to carry a team to a title game and could be exactly what No. 8 FSU needs to get back to the Playoff.

Florida State will kick off the 2015 season on Sept. 5 when it hosts Texas State at 8 p.m.

2. Will Clemson’s defense continue to dominate?

In 2014 Clemson’s defense was arguably the best in college football, as the Tigers ranked No. 1 in total defense (260.8), third in scoring defense (16.7 ppg) and sixth in sacks per game (3.46).

Clemson’s dominance on that end allowed it to withstand the loss of its star quarterback Deshaun Watson to a knee injury and finish the season 10-3 (6-2).

That defense will look a lot different this season, as DE/LB Vic Beasley, inside linebacker Stephone Anthony, outside linebacker Tony Steward and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett all were chosen in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Beasley, the No. 8 overall pick by the Atlanta Falcons, is by far the toughest to replace. The ultra-athletic 6-3, 246-pound first-team All-American racked up 28 tackles and 12 sacks in 2014.

The good news for the Tigers is they still have Brent Venables, who was named the National Defensive Coordinator of the Year by FootballScoop last season.

Also returning is 6-3, 275-pound junior defensive end Shaq Lawson and 5-10, 190-pound sophomore cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who were both named to Athlon Sports’ preseason all-ACC second-team.

Perhaps most important for the Tigers: how well that tandem steps up and fills the leadership void left by all of the departed stars.

"I think any really good football team and any good or organization, whether it’s a Fortune 500 company or it’s a football program, it’s driven by good leadership," Venables told the State. "It’s successful with good leadership."

The duo of Lawson and Alexander along with junior linebacker Ben Boulware should keep the Tigers defense above par, while the offense will lean on the return of Watson as they pursue an ACC title this season.

Clemson will begin its 2015 campaign Sept. 5 at home against Wofford at 12:30 p.m.

3. Is this the year Scot Loeffler’s offense takes off for Virginia Tech?

The pressure is on for Virginia Tech’s third-year offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, who has not yet been able to establish a consistent attack in Blacksburg.

Loeffler’s first year was spent introducing his system, while in year two he had to deal with key injuries and an inexperienced unit.

Virgnia Tech, the only team to beat national champions Ohio State last season, averaged 24.1 points per game and finished the year with a 7-6 (3-5) record.

As Loeffler heads into his third year he has the benefit of returning senior quarterback Michael Brewer, who threw for 2,692 yards and 18 touchdowns.

Brewer, a Texas Tech transfer, also threw 15 interceptions last year, but some of that can be attributed to trying to learn a new offense on the fly.

"For what Michael Brewer had to do last year, God bless him. He got an offense crammed down his throat in one month and had to run out there and couldn’t visualize things the way you’re supposed to," Loeffler told ESPN. "There were some things he did really well, and there were some things that were absolutely horrific. We’re going to eliminate the horrific items we had."

Brewer will have a chance to throw to some familiar targets as the Hokies return dangerous wide receivers Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips, who combined for 1,207 yards last year.

Brewer will also benefit greatly from the return of 6-7, 242-pound sophomore tight end Bucky Hodges, who broke the Hokies record for receptions for a tight end with 45 in 2014.

Virginia Tech will play its first game of the year on Sept. 7 when it hosts defending champions Ohio State at 8 p.m.


4. Can Gene Chizik turn around the North Carolina defense?

With electric dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams at the helm, North Carolina has a chance to be more than just competitive in the Coastal Division, but that’s only if newly hired defensive coordinator Gene Chizik can turn around a defense that was historically bad last season.

In 2014, UNC allowed 497.8 yards per game, the second-worst total in school history, and surrendered more than 40 points in a contest six times.

The Tar Heels went on to finish last in the ACC in total defense, scoring defense, pass efficiency defense, rushing defense and red-zone defense, which led to the firing of defensive coordinator Vic Koenning.

"If you look at a lot of the stats, they’re not flattering," Chizik told the Raleigh News & Observer. "But again, I’m not going to hang my hat on just the black and white stats because I don’t know all of the issues. I wasn’t here."

Gone is Koenning’s flexible 4-2-5 scheme, which Chizik, who won a national title as Auburn’s head coach in 2010, has replaced with a more traditional 4-3 formation. Chizik is also looking to replace the team’s whole mental approach to playing defense.

"A lot of this game defensively is a mental thing. And it’s how you approach everything," Chizik told the Raleigh News & Observer. "And so we’re really trying to kind of change the mindset and get them to understand that the game defensively can only be played one way. And physicality is the name of the game."

The Tar Heels defense will get its first test on Sept. 3 when they play South Carolina in Charlotte at 6 p.m.


5. Will Al Golden still be Miami’s coach after this season?

It wasn’t too long ago that Al Golden could do no wrong. The golden boy of college football helped turn longtime basketball school Temple into a formidable football opponent.

That transformation helped transplant Golden to Miami in 2011, but things have not been so sunny in the Sunshine State since.

Coaching at a school where the expectations are sky-high every season, Golden’s group has underperformed.

Heading into the 2015 season, there may not be a seat in the country hotter than his after the Hurricanes went 6-7 (3-5) last year despite having seven future NFL draft picks, including Ereck Flowers, Phillip Dorsett and Denzel Perryman.

"He understands the importance of the University of Miami football program winning," Miami AD Blake James said in a recent interview with WQAM. "We both looked at it as, ‘Hey, 6-7, we need to change that.’ And how we change that? That’s something I’m confident Al is going to figure out.

"Everyone knows we have to get better. Everyone has high expectations for our team. It starts at the top. … I want to win every game in every sport," James said. "I don’t like losing in anything. To have our football program not be where we want it is disappointing to me. It’s disappointing to everyone.

"At the same time, I think I would say, it’s disappointing to Al. Al wants to win. He didn’t come to the University of Miami to not be competing for ACC titles, national titles and to be a premier program in the country."

Miami’s first chance to turn it around will come Sept. 5 when it hosts Bethune-Cookman at 6 p.m.