By Marc Lawrence of Playbook.com – 2016 Atlantic Coast Conference Football Betting Preview
In a conference loaded with talent if would be safe to surmise a potential Heisman Trophy winner or two resides here. Looking deeper, that estimate appears to be on the low side. Let’s make it five Heisman contenders. In descending order they would include…
• Louisville QB Lamar Jackson – with a cannon for an arm and the agility of a top-notch running back, Jackson has all the tools.
• Miami QB Brad Kaaya – a potential first-round NFL quarterback with leadership skills beyond his years.
• Pitt RB James Conner – a sleeper choice with size and speed and a new lease on life, we’ll be watching him on Sundays next year.
• Florida State RB Dalvin Cook – future NFL star out to prove Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette come up short.
• Clemson QB Deshaun Watson – the best quarterback in college football at the close of the season last year is looking for retribution in 2016.
The 26 selections in this year’s NFL draft gives the ACC 115 draft picks over the past three years, the second-highest total by any conference during that period.
Clemson led the way for the ACC with nine selections and is the only ACC team to have had had four or more players chosen in the Draft in each of the last eight years.
A very young league in 2015, the ACC returns many of its top performers in 2016. The ACC is set to return nine of its top 10 rushers; nine of its top 10 passers; nine of its top 10 in receiving yardage and eight of its top 10 in total offense. The ACC had a league-record seven 1,000-yard rushers in 2015 and all seven return in 2016.
Note: Team write-ups are excerpts from the 2016 PLAYBOOK College and Pro Football Preview Guide magazine, on sale at newsstands nationwide beginning July 5th. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.
BOSTON COLLEGE Off – *8/3 Def – 7/2 37 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: TAKE A LOOK AT ME NOW
In 2014, Boston College was one of only 3 schools that finished in the top 15 in the nation in both rushing offense and rushing defense. Last year, however, the rushing offense suffered a crushing blow when star RB Jon Hillman bowed out with a broken foot in Week Four. Once again the defense held its own, but the offense went into total hibernation. New OC Scott Loeffler (Virginia Tech) will rely on Hillman’s return and Kentucky graduate transfer QB Patrick Towles, a 6’5”, 235-pound veteran that tossed for 5,099 yards and 24 TDs in 3 years with the Wildcats. Now, behind a top-ranked defense that returns a solid nucleus, the Eagles’ new-look offense looks to fly right in 2016.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Eagles were the first FBS team to lose back-to-back games since 1989 despite allowing less than 10 points in each loss.
PLAY ON: at Wake Forest (11/26) – *KEY
CLEMSON Off – *8/3 Def – 4/2 52 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: UNFINISHED BUSINESS
Despite losing 8 starters from 2014’s top-ranked defense, and OC Chad Morris to SMU, the Tigers were edged by Alabama in the College Football Playoff championship game last season. Indeed a job well done by the winningest senior class in school history (46-8) – despite also being the 5th youngest FBS team in the nation last year (played 28 freshmen). Yes, they were hit hard by graduation and NFL defections but with star QB Deshaun Watson
back – this year’s cover boy and the only quarterback to ever have 4,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in a single season – a matter of unfinished business becomes Priority One for Dabo’s kids this season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Tigers were 51-0 SU in games when leading after 3Q until last year’s loss in the Football Playoff championship game.
PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite at Florida State (10/29)
FLORIDA STATE Off – *11/5 Def – 6/3 57 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: LARGE AND IN CHARGE
How many different ways can you say loaded? For a team that last year lost 8 starters from a prolific offense, including Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Jameis Winston, it could have been calamitous. Instead, the Seminoles enjoyed a 10-win season thanks to a defense that improved 60 YPG. Suffice to say, with 17 starters back, including all 11 on offense (with 3 WRs compiling at least 50 catches), it’s safe to say Florida State is rolling in it this season. Star RB Dalvin Cook – the only player in the nation to rank in the Top 10 offensively in YPR, Yards Rushing, All Purpose Yards, Rushing TDs and Scoring – leads the charge.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Seminoles and Alabama are the only teams that enter the 2016 season having gone to 4 consecutive BCS/New Year’s Six bowl games.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Wake Forest (10/15)
LOUISVILLE Off – *10/4 Def – 8/1 46 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: DEEP AND EXPERIENCED
After a puzzling 0-3 start, the Cardinals won 6 of their final 7 games to put the wraps on a 6th consecutive winning season. The Redbirds were led by dynamic SO QB Lamar Jackson, who started the final 7 games of the season and led the team in rushing (980 yards, 11 TDs) while passing for 1,840 yards, 12 TDs. A star in the making, Jackson dominated the spring game, going 24-for-29 for 519 yards and 8 TDs. In addition, Louisville’s entire RB, WR and TE receiving corps return. Eight starters back on defense, including SR LB Devonte Fields (led the nation in tackles for a loss last season), insures that Louie’s stop-unit will be among the best in the ACC in 2016. Color the Cards as the sleeper team in the ACC.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Bobby the Louse’s teams are 91-18 SU when scoring over 20 points in a game, and 60-3 SU when allowing 14 or fewer points.
PLAY ON: at Houston (11/17)
NC STATE Off – 6/2 Def – 8/3 45 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: DRINKING THE KOOL-AID
The Wolfpack find themselves riding a current wave of prominent underclassmen, as freshmen and sophomores made a total of 143 starts last season. Only the Washington Huskies made more. Adding to the juvenile rush, head coach Dave Doeren will be breaking in a new offensive coordinator, Eliah Drinkwitz from Boise State, and a new starting quarterback. Drinkwitz, an assistant on Auburn’s 2010 national championship squad, will be ramping up the attack in 2016 while looking to replace Jacoby Brissett behind center. Still, Doeren is 11-1 SU and 6-2 ATS during the first four games of the season with NC State and after a soft opening, NCSU should be undefeated entering back-to-backers with Notre Dame and Clemson. If Drinkwitz lives up to expectations, the Pack could be back.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Wolfpack are 16-1 SU and 11-3 ATS in games in which they outgain their opponent under head coach Doeren.
PLAY ON: at Louisville (10/22)
SYRACUSE Off – *8/2 Def – 8/1 45 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: ORANGE OVERHAUL
Despite SU and ATS improvement last year, the Orange took major steps backward in both offensive and defensive production when they were outyarded by 151 YPG in conference play. The call immediately went out for new head coach Dino Babers, aka ‘Instant Offense’ from Bowling Green, who inherits 99.6% of last year’s offensive production. FYI: Babers had 17 all-MAC performers in his 2 years with the Falcons. Dino’s defense (an oxymoron if there ever was one) will need to improve on a Syracuse squad that never stopped a 4th down attempt last season. And god forbid should the Orange mimic his Bowling Green gang that led the nation in penalty yards in 2015. Fasten your seat belts.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Orange are 11-1 SU and 10-2 ATS in their last 12 bowl games versus sub .800 opponents.
PLAY ON: at Wake Forest (10/8)
WAKE FOREST Off – *9/4 Def – 8/4 45 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: EASY AS 1, 2, 3
Known for his prowess in building football programs (Fordham, Richmond, Bowling Green), head coach Dave Clawson has shown dramatic improvement at every stop, including a noticeable increase in Year Three. Clawson’s teams averaged 3.25 wins in his first year and 4.25 wins in his second year, and 6.0 wins in his third year, while also managing to deliver a conference championship at every stop. Year Three of the Clawson regime at Wake Forest kicks off in 2016. Following the same successful script that’s benefitted many teams of late, Clawson’s freshmen made a total of 71 starts last season, the 3rd most in the land. In fact only 6 seniors dotted last year’s roster, the fewest in the FBS.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Demon Deacons were the only FBS team in the nation in 2015 whose top 3 rushers were all true freshmen.
PLAY ON: at Duke (9/10)
DUKE Off – *6/3 Def – 6/1 45 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: UNFORTUNATE SIRKUMSTANCES
A 6-1 start last season was the Devils’ best since 1953. A repeat performance in 2016, however, appears unlikely.Coach David Cutcliffe has been a very good judge of quarterback talent since taking over the Duke program, finding the right signal callers to fit his offense, and it appeared QB Thomas Sirk had the makings to be the best of the bunch. Unfortunatley, Sirk ruptured his left Achilles tendon during a team conditioning session and underwent surgery in February. Sirk, who tore his other Achilles and missed the entire season in 2012, was one of only four Power 5 quarterbacks to lead his team in both rushing and passing during his first year as a starter. Backup QB Parker Boehme becomes Plan B.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Blue Devils are 4-5 SU vs. ranked opponents under Cutcliffe. They were 0-47 SU vs. the same prior to his arrival.
PLAY AGAINST: at Georgia Tech (10/29)
GEORGIA TECH Off – *7/2 Def – 9/3 43 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: REPATCHED ROOF
In his previous 18 years as a head coach, Paul Johnson had led his teams to either the FCS playoffs or FBS bowl games 17 times. In 7 previous seasons with Georgia Tech, Johnson has produced thirteen 1,000-yard rushers. And Tech appeared well on its way again last year, opening the season 2-0 before the roof caved in. (And we don’t mean DC Phil Roof). Due largely to a rush game that was down 90 YPG, the Yellow Jackets shockingly suffered losses in 9 of their final 10 games of 2015. The leading rusher was true freshman Marcus Marshall (654 yards) but behind a team that led the nation in fewest penalties (38) last year, look for most of the leaks to be addressed this season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Yellow Jackets were 1-5 in one-possession games last season.
PLAY ON: at Pittsburgh (10/8)
MIAMI FLORIDA Off – *9/4 Def – 6/2 41 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: BATTEN DOWN THE HATCHES
After 15 seasons at Georgia, Mark Richt has returned home to his alma mater in what could prove to be the best coaching hire in 2016. Richt brings glossy numbers, including 85-40 SU in conference games and 49-16 SU in an opponent’s stadium. The best news for Richt is that QB Brad Kaaya
has the total command and respect of this team and returns for his 3rd season as the starter. One of 9 starters back on offense, Kaaya tossed for 3,238 yards with 16 TDs and 5 INTs last season. If Manny Diaz’s new attacking defense holds up its end of the deal, long-suffering Canes fans just may enjoy a double-digit win season for the first time since 2003.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Hurricanes ranked dead last in Penalties Per Game (9.31) last season.
PLAY AGAINST: at Virginia (11/12)
NORTH CAROLINA Off – 7/4 Def – 6/3 41 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: WELL-HEELED TARS
The addition of DC Gene Chizik to the Tar Heels last season cannot be underestimated. That UNC improved 62 yards and 14.5 points (best in the nation) per game defensively was not a coincidence. Nor was the fact they won 11 consecutive games for the first time in their school history. New QB Mitch Tribusky, a former 4-star recruit from Ohio, backed up departed Marquise Williams the past two seasons, completing 40 of 47 passes for 555 yards and 6 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Eliah Hood is one of only 5 returning Power 5 RB’s with 1,000 rushing yards, 10 TD’s and a 6.0 YPR last season. Interestingly, North Carolina faces 7 teams with new coaches this season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Larry Fedora is 11-0 SU and 10-1 ATS in regular season games versus opponents who were upset as a favorite in their previous game.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Georgia Tech (11/5)
PITTSBURGH Off – *8/4 Def – 8/3 52 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: NAILING IT
New coach Pat ‘Nails’ Narduzzi led the Panthers back from a 6-win abyss in 2014 when his young troops registered 8 victories last year. Much to his chagrin, he did it without the services of star RB James Conner, who sustained a season-ending knee injury in the first game of the year and then announced he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in December. Like us, the Panthers are praying he’s back on the field in 2016. His backup, redshirt FR Qadree Ollison, was named the ACC’s Offensive Rookie of the Year after rushing for 1,121 yards and 11 touchdowns. Starting QB Nate Peterman also returns. FYI: Pitt was the only squad in the nation that had no games decided by more than 20 points.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Panthers’ 5 losses last year came against five bowl teams that went 52-15 combined on the season.
PLAY ON: at Virginia (10/15)
VIRGINIA Off – *7/3 Def – 6/0 37 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: LOOK HOOS RISING
Little did new head coach Bronco Mendenhall realize that when he agreed to bolt BYU in favor of Virginia, he would inherit a team that has recorded the largest decline in recruiting talent of all teams playing in Power 5 conferences over the previous 5 years. Along with new assistant and DL coach Ruffin McNeill (former East Carolina mentor), the new faces will look to take the Cavaliers places they have not been in a while – namely to a bowl game. Coupled with 1 postseason appearance in the last 8 years, the Cavs’ metamorphosis begins as Mendenhall led the Cougars to a bowl game in each of his 11 years in Provo. The only place to go is up.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Cavaliers have 9 players returning along the offensive line, each of who started for UVA at some point in their career.
PLAY ON: at Virginia Tech (11/26)
VIRGINIA TECH Off – 9/4 Def – 7/2 42 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: OFF THE BEAM
After 23 straight bowl seasons, the longest in the nation, nothing speaks to success like the legendary Frank Beamer. The iconic coach has finally retired and with it, after orchestrating a dramatic turnaround at Memphis, new head coach Justin Fuente steps into a mighty large pair of shoes this year. The best news for Fuente is the return of DC Bud Foster who is back again for his 30th season at Virginia Tech. Foster’s famed Lunch Pail Defenses have ranked in the Top Five among FBS teams in scoring defense on 6 different occasions, and have led the FBS in sacks (749) and interceptions (337) since 1996. Once again, the heat is on.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Justin Fuente finished his playing career as a QB at Murray State, the same school that Frank Beamer coached prior to VT.
PLAY ON: as a dog at Duke (11/5)
Be sure to check back here next week for Marc’s 2016 Big Ten Football Preview!