Mandel’s ACC picks: Clemson, FSU will watch title game from the couch

After winning or playing for championships in six of its first eight years in the ACC, Virginia Tech has taken a slide the past three seasons. Frank Beamer hit a modern low point in 2014, suffering his first losing record in league play (3-5) since 2002 in the Big East. All the while, cross-division foes Florida State and Clemson have emerged as the conference’s clear powerhouses.

But I’m here to tell you now: Beamer will bounce back in a big way this fall, at the very least winning the bunched-up Coastal Division and possibly the league crown as well.

Coordinator Bud Foster will field one of the best defenses of his already distinguished tenure, led by All-America candidates like CBs Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson and defensive linemen Dadi Nicolas and Luther Maddy. (Facyson and Maddy missed most of last season.) And for once, the Hokies will field a competent offense, thanks to the improvement of QB Michael Brewer and more production from a backfield decimated by injuries last year.

And I’ve got a surprise champ coming out of the Atlantic as well.

While Florida State is still the most talented team in the country, three years of NFL churn will finally catch up with the Seminoles this fall (at least a little). And I’m puzzled by the hype surrounding Clemson. Yes, sophomore QB Deshaun Watson is a game-changer, but last year’s stacked defensive front will be going through near-total rebuilding (save for stud DE Shaq Lawson).

That opens the door for Louisville to rise up in Bobby Petrino’s second year back and win the division. QB Reggie Bonnafon showed promise last year, the front seven is still stacked, and a bevy of high-profile transfers should help ease the loss of 10 NFL draft picks. There’s still plenty of Charlie Strong-recruited talent on hand. (Listen to the podcast clip at the top for more on the Cardinals)

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

A few other thoughts:

–Georgia Tech is not sneaking up on anybody this year. Not with Orange Bowl hero Justin Thomas back running the triple-option. But the Jackets’ daunting schedule — Notre Dame and Georgia out of conference, FSU and Clemson as crossovers — could preclude another double-digit wins record.

–Pittsburgh, UNC and Duke all have surprise potential in the Coastal (I chickened out a bit and picked all three to go 8-4/4-4). New coach Pat Narduzzi’s Panthers are particularly intriguing, what with stars RB James Conner and WR Tyler Boyd. Could they upset Notre Dame at home?

–NC State QB Jacoby Brissett is an exciting, if erratic, star. But I’m not buying the Wolfpack as a legit Atlantic contender. Dave Doeren’s team will beat only one in the group of FSU, Clemson, Louisville and Virginia Tech.

–It’s going to be a rough year for hot-seat coaches if these standings prove true. Virginia’s Mike London (whose team stands little chance against UCLA, Notre Dame and Boise State), Miami’s Al Golden and Syracuse’s Scott Shafer are all likely toast.

Predicted standings:

ATLANTIC

TEAM RECORD (LEAGUE)
Louisville 10-2 (7-1)
Florida State 10-2 (6-2)
Clemson 8-4 (5-3)
NC State 8-4 (4-4)
Boston College 4-8 (2-6)
Wake Forest 3-9 (2-6)
Syracuse 2-10 (0-8)

COASTAL

TEAM RECORD (LEAGUE)
Virginia Tech 10-2 (7-1)
Georgia Tech 9-3 (7-1)
Pitt 8-4 (4-4)
North Carolina 8-4 (4-4)
Duke 8-4 (4-4)
Miami 5-7 (2-6)
Virginia 3-9 (2-6)

Championship: Virginia Tech over Louisville

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel and Facebook. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.

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