Monday, June 8, 2015

NCAA Football 2015: ACC Preview - Atlantic Division

In our first conference preview installment of the summer we are breaking down the ACC, starting with the Atlantic Division, the better of the two divisions having won the last four conference championships.  This portion of my preview will look at each team using an opening, good news, bad news & bottom line breakdown; before the season starts I will project division & conference winners using these previews along with schedule breakdowns. 

The SBPI, or SportsBoss Power Index, referenced often in breakdowns below including a chart at the end of this article, is a ratings system I developed that uses a mix of approximately 20 statistical categories on both offense & defense, grading each team on each statistic followed by adjusting for SOS to reach a final rating.  You can read more about this topic on my blog that will provide further background on SBPI and show ratings from prior seasons.  I have back tested my model to 2009 as that was as far back as all the statistics I use were available.

For now, teams are listed in alphabetical order.

Boston College Eagles: the Eagles appear to be trending in a favorable direction under 3rd year Head Coach Steve Addazio as when he took over BC ranked #118 in the SBPI, but they climbed to #76 in 2013 and finished last year surprisingly at #40 (which was actually just 8th best in the ACC).
·      Good news: last season BC went 7-6 including three conference road wins & a home win over USC.  Four of their six losses were by 4 points or less including 3-point losses to Clemson & at Florida State.  Their rush defense, which ranked 2nd in the country last season (behind Michigan State) should be solid once again with five of the front seven starters returning to Chestnut Hill.
·      Bad news: the Eagles lose their best offensive player in QB Tyler Murphy & do not have any experience behind him.  In addition they will have a new OC & be breaking in five new offensive linemen.  Lastly their FG kicking game is surrounded by questions.
·      Bottom line: with all the new pieces in critical spots a .500 season would be a success despite the fact they will play 8 of their 12 games at home (one of the 8 is at Gillette Stadium vs. Notre Dame).  This is clearly a season of transition for BC as they are still searching for a QB & will struggle more than usual with their rushing game breaking in new starters across the OL.

Clemson Tigers: heading into the last few seasons Clemson has found themselves on the fringe of the national championship discussion; however they were never able to get over the hump vs. their rival Florida State – if that is going to change anytime this year figures to offer the best opportunity roster & schedule wise.
·      Good news: they went 10-3 last year; they lost at Georgia (off the schedule in 2015), and twice in conference at Florida State & at Georgia Tech (get both those games in Death Valley this year).  QB Deshaun Watson returns; he was a dynamic playmaker when on the field last season, but was injured often and without his services the Tigers offense looked brutal.  K Ammon Lakip is solid.
·      Bad news: Watson must prove he can stay healthy & on the field following a season with injuries; he did not play in 5 games & only saw partial action in another 4.  Only two OL starters return, as Clemson must replace both guards & their RT.  The biggest questions are clearly on defense as they lose their entire starting front seven from a unit that was #1 in the nation as measured by yards allowed & #3 in points allowed.
·      Bottom line: the Tigers must take advantage of what will be sure step-back by the Seminoles this season by winning the Atlantic division – anything less will be a major disappointment.  The schedule sets up favorably for at least that; their trip to South Carolina to close the season isn’t as brutal as it has been recently with Spurrier’s team not on that elite level – so the possibility is there to reach the CFB Playoff if Watson can stay healthy & the Tigers stay focused weekly.

Florida State Seminoles: despite reaching the CFB Playoff last season the Seminoles were an overrated squad according to SBPI, checking in at #57 on the season; that came on the heels of a #2 ranking in 2013 (they won National Title & were ranked only behind Alabama) & a #4 ranking in 2012.  With the loss of Heisman Trophy winning & #1 overall NFL Draft pick QB Jameis Winston this is a season of transition for the Noles.
·      Good news: this is Florida State, and Head Coach Jimbo Fisher has done a fine job recruiting (their last four recruiting classes were ranked #1, #2, #9 & #3) thus FSU and their fans would say they reload & there is plenty of untapped talent in the pipeline waiting for their opportunity to shine on the field.  Offensively Sophomore RB Dalvin Cook will be one of the best backs in America, while a couple of junior college OL look to fill in the gaps up front.  Defensively the interior of the line will be strong, and their special teams units are always amongst the best in America; 2015 will be no different led by K Roberto Aguayo, who won the Lou Groza award in 2013 and is the favorite heading into this season.
·      Bad news: losing QB Jameis Winston is right at the top obviously.  He is likely to be replaced by Sean Maguire, who looked average at best in his only action last year at home against Clemson’s tough defense.  His transition into the starting role will be critical to the Seminoles success as there are some holes on defense, in particular rushing the passer, at LB and some secondary spots.
·      Bottom line: FSU has gone 27-1 the last 2 seasons with Jameis Winston under center – which has expectations super high in Tallahassee.  This season competing for the Atlantic division crown, something they have won 3 straight seasons, will be a challenge in itself & should be the goal.  But with road trips to Georgia Tech & Clemson it will be tough to four-peat.

Louisville Cardinals: last year the Cardinals joined the ACC under first year Head Coach Bobby Petrino (his 2nd stint with team) and had moderate success in a transition season on many levels posting a 9-4/5-3 mark.  The program came alive under former Head Coach Charlie Strong (now at Texas) in 2010 when they improved from an SBPI ranking of #95 in 2009 to #31 in 2010, and they leveraged that success to check in right behind Clemson the last two seasons at #14 last year & #11 in 2013 according to SBPI.
·      Good news: Bobby Petrino’s influence on the offense should come through more in his 2nd season as in his first go-around with Louisville they posted the same 9-4 mark in his 1st season which jumped to 11-1 in his 2nd year.  There is experience at QB although none of the three options (likely down to two in Bonnafon & Gardner) separated from the pack during spring practice.  Transfers could play big roles on both sides of the ball with former Northwestern RB Malin Jones, former Texas A&M WR Ja’Quay Savage, former UAB WR Jamari Staples, former TCU DE Devonte Fields (former Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year) & former Georgia S Josh Harvey-Clemons all in line for likely starting roles.  The kicking game, in particular K John Wallace, will be strong.
·      Bad news: the Cardinals remain unsettled at QB (mentioned above), just like most of last season as there does not appear to be a “star in the making” that will put up video game like stats in Petrino’s high powered offense.  They also lost their top 3 WR’s, 3 of their 5 starting OL & their entire secondary.  There is some talent that is waiting for their opportunity to step in, particularly on the defensive side of the football where Charlie Strong did a solid job recruiting.
·      Bottom line: there are likely too many question marks for Louisville to challenge for the Atlantic Division crown especially with a tough road slate that includes Florida State along with cross-overs against NC State & Pittsburgh (both figure to be in the mix for the Coastal Division title).  Opening on a neutral site vs. Auburn & closing at improving Kentucky will make matching last year’s 9-4 mark difficult.  Settling on a QB is the biggest key – with both main challengers for the job having at least 2 years of eligibility remaining things could be looking up for Louisville next season if they get the right guy under center as there are only two projected offensive starters that are in their final season of eligibility.

NC State Wolfpack: ranked #39 in SBPI last season, slotting them 7th in the conference – which is where they typically reside, as a middle pack team in the ACC.  Last year’s ranking was their 2nd best of the last 6 years, just behind their 2010 team that checked in at #38 and was 9-4/5-3 (tied for 2nd in the Atlantic) finishing the season ranked #25 in the AP Poll.  Can they build on last season & become a threat in the rugged Atlantic Division?
·      Good news: Sr. QB Jacoby Brissett, the former Florida Gator, flourished in his first season in Raleigh but consistency sometimes eluded the big playmaker.  With a year of experience under his belt, the leader of what could be the best backfield in the ACC should have an even bigger season.  Speaking of that backfield the RB spot is also in excellent shape returning its top 2 backs and adding three highly touted recruits that should push for immediate playing time (last year NC State rushed for its most yards per game since 1992).  The defensive backfield is solid as the entire secondary returns in tact.
·      Bad news: the OL will have two new starting tackles including a likely freshman starting at LT.   The rush defense, which ranked 65th last season, loses both DT’s and one of the two starting LB’s in the 4-2-5 scheme and could remain an issue although the aggressive style implemented late last year by 1st year DC Dave Huxtable should help offset that partially.  The special teams will replace their kicker, punter and long snapper while the return game is below average.
·      Bottom line: the offense has some upside for certain as statistically they finished middle of the pack nationally last year, but protection & finding WR’s will be key to a balanced attack.  Defensively they will be solid against the pass, but must find the bodies to play effective run defense to challenge for the Atlantic Division title.  NC State could surprise everyone this season and win their division for the first time since the split – if they can get a split at Florida State & at Virginia Tech they could be in the driver’s seat.

Syracuse Orange: the Orange were the 2nd worst ACC team in the SBPI last year checking in at #93, which was their worst ranking since the SBPI’s inception in 2009.  After peaking at #36 in 2012 they have gone downhill each season, and need to approach .500 in 2015 if Scot Shafer is going to keep his job.  Offense was the issue last year, mostly driven by the injury to starting QB Terrel Hunt – when they scored a modest 21+ points in a game they were 3-0 – so his health will be key to the 2015 campaign.
·      Good news: mentioned above Terrel Hunt, the 5th year Sr. is one of the few bright spots for an offense that struggled mightily last season averaging just 17.1 points per game, slotting them #118 in the country.  Although there may be some shuffling along the OL there are 10 players back that have started a game for the Orange there.  Ashton Broyld is a dynamic playmaker (most likely the most talented / athletic player on the roster) that will see plenty of action but has yet to really settle into a position that maximizes his value.  Senior P Riley Dixon could challenge for the Ray Guy award on special teams.
·      Bad news: lots of it, sadly for Orange fans.  They lose nearly 75% of their RB production, have just 1 WR returning who was productive last year, lose starting LT Sean Hickey who was taken in the NFL Draft and have just 3 starters returning to a defense that was easily the strength of the team in 2014 ranking 26th in yards allowed – which says a lot about how good that unit was considering how poor Syracuse’s offense was.  In addition there is uncertainty at PK.
·      Bottom line: Cuse is likely to once again be ranked in the SBPI 90+, which obviously is not a good spot for success.  Their offense should take a small step forward if Hunt takes a majority of the snaps, but the defense is likely to take a big step backwards with all the talent & experience they lost.  Matching last year’s 3 wins could be tough without a fast start in September.

Wake Forest Demon Deacons: since shocking the college football world nine years ago (wow time flies) winning the ACC there has not been much to talk about when it comes to Wake Forest football, especially over the last five years according to SBPI.  During this stretch their best year was 2011 when they checked in at #71; the other four seasons they have been ranked between 92 and 107, including last year’s 106.  Much like Syracuse offense has been their major Achilles – last year they scored 22+ points in 3 games (in games 2, 3 & 4 of season) and went 2-1 in those; the rest of the season they only managed to score more than 17 twice – not a good recipe for success.
·      Good news: yes the offense was awful last year ranking near the bottom of FBS in yardage & points scored – but perhaps there will be some improvement based on the lone fact the offense was extremely young last year & almost everyone returns.  Two transfers could make a huge impact at RB as former Tennessee commit Rocky Reid & former Louisville commit Matt Colburn should add a nice athleticism Wake typically does not feature.  Wake’s rush defense should be much improved with 6 of the front seven returning including a LB unit that is near the top of the ACC.  The kicking game is in great shape with Ray Guy challenger Alex Kinal & PK Mike Weaver.
·      Bad news: the OL was one of the worst in the ACC last year & is still very young and inexperienced.  Their downfield passing game needs help in all areas: the OL needs to protect better, So. QB John Wofford needs to be willing to throw ball downfield more often, and the WR’s have to cut back on the drops in a big way.  Their secondary, a strength last year leading Wake to a #12 finish in passing yards allowed, loses three of four starters & currently has a ton of injuries to deal with.
·      Bottom line: Wake will once again be one of the youngest teams in the country, especially that offense which was a major issue last season.  Their schedule does them no favors either with only one likely win in their opener at home vs. Elon.  Dave Clawson is in his 2nd year with the Deacons & will have to wait until at least 2016 and perhaps 2017 to be competitive in the ACC.


The above matrix shows where each Atlantic Division teams finished each season ranked in the SBPI since 2009, the first year I have released these rankings.

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