By Marc Lawrence of Playbook.com
The 2018 ACC football season will be the 66th season for the conference. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, Duke’s David Cutcliffe and Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson are the loop’s longest-tenured coaches with 11 seasons each at their respective schools.
Johnson leads the victory parade with 182 career wins, while Swinney’s 101-30 career record at Clemson stands out as the best mark.
Florida State’s Willie Taggart is the only new coach in the conference this season. Taggart’s 47-50 overall mark is the only one in the league with a losing record.
According to the NCAA, Florida State will take on the most difficult schedule of all Power Five teams this 2018 season. The Seminoles’ foes were 97-56 (.643) last season, ranking FSU ahead of Nebraska (.628), Michigan (.627), Auburn (.618), and Texas A&M (.617).
The Seminoles will take on a whopping 10 opponents that finished the season with winning records in 2017.
Orange Bowl Roll
Prior to Miami’s 34-24 loss to Wisconsin last season, the ACC had won the previous five Orange Bowl games, the longest winning streak for a conference in the Orange Bowl in 72 years.
Note: Team write-ups are excerpts from the 2018 PLAYBOOK Football Preview Guide magazine, on sale at newsstands nationwide. The numbers following each team name represents 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 – *10/5 Def – 6/3 37 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: BAD GAS
After ranking in the nation’s Top 10 overall defenses each of the previous two seasons, the Eagles’ stop-unit somehow had trouble stopping a fart in 2017. It flat out stunk and as a result, Boston College concluded its third 7-win season in the last four years. Complicating matters this year, they lost star DE Harold Landry as the 41st pick in this year’s NFL draft. However, they do get former leading tackler Connor Strachan back from an injury that caused him to miss the entire 2017 season. HC Steve Addazio does welcome back a loaded offense, one that improved 112 YPG in 2017, keyed by RB AJ Dillon who led all running backs in the ACC with 1,589 yards as a freshman last year. Facing 9 straight bowlers from Games 3-11, the Eagles will be hard-pressed to snap an 8-year skein of seven or fewer victories in 2018.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Eagles are 1-9 SU and 2-7-1 ATS as home underdogs since 2014.
PLAY ON: at Wake Forest (9/13)
CLEMSON Off – *7/3 Def – 8/4 62 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: BUILT TO LAST
The Tigers were so deep and talented last season, they were one of only four teams that did not start a single freshman. This on a team that is 40-4 the last three seasons, winning three ACC championships and a College Football Playoff championship, while making three CFP appearances. With 51 players selected the NFL draft in nine seasons under head coach Dabo Swinney, it’s no wonder he commands the 2nd highest salary ($8.5 M) in all of the FBS. And they are so deep and talented this season, they welcome back 62 lettermen – including 4 first-team All-Americans (the most in school history) as well as three 600-yard rushers. In addition, 8 starters are back from a defense that ranked 2nd in scoring and 4th overall. Whew. Facing 7 straight bowlers to close out the season, the Tigers benefit from not playing consecutive away games for the third straight season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Tigers have the longest current streak (85 games) without losing back-to-back games.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. NC State (10/20)
DUKE Off – *7/2 Def – 8/3 48 Lettermen
One glance at the Blue Devils’ stat-logs below tells you all you need to know about their season in 2017: they were 7-0 SUATS in games when they won the stats (first four and final three) and 0-6 SUATS in games when they didn’t (middle games 5-10). Even with that midseason siesta, Duke earned a bowl bid for the fifth time in the last six years – despite facing a schedule that featured only one losing foe from the previous season. As we’ve alluded to in the past, head coach David Cutcliffe is widely recognized as a quarterback whisperer, having coached 11 QBs who either earned all-conference honors or led their school to a bowl game victory. That will be Daniel Lewis, last year’s Quick Lane Bowl MVP, this season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Duke started a total of 28 different players last season – the fewest in the nation.
PLAY ON: at Pittsburgh (10/27)
FLORIDA STATE Off – *8/4 Def – 4/2 54 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: TAG, YOU’RE IT
After losing a jaw-dropping 6 of their first 9 games to start the 2017 season, the Seminoles rallied with four straight victories to salvage a winning season for the 41st year in a row. But it wasn’t enough to retain Jimbo Fisher, who moved on to Texas A&M at season’s end. Fisher’s 85 wins in 8 seasons at FSU sets a mighty high bar for incoming coach Willie Taggart. Having QB Deondre Francois back following a season-ending injury in Game One last year is a great starting point. Good news is a ton of experienced young players return, including 95.8% of FSU’s total yards on offense. However, the Seminoles were still hit hard by player losses with 6 NFL defections (no team with more). Yes, SOB Cam Akers broke Dalvin Cook’s freshman rushing record last year (1,024 yards), but the fact that the Seminoles will take on nine foes which were in bowl games last season promises to make Taggart’s debut anything but cushy.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Notre Dame holds the college football record with 42 straight winning seasons from 1889-1932.
PLAY ON: at Miami Florida (10/6) – *KEY as a dog
GEORGIA TECH Off – *9/3 Def – 6/3 42 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: UNFINISHED BUSINESS
It’s seldom you’ll find a team go 4-4 in conference play and fall short of bowl eligibility. Disgruntled Yellow Jackets’ head coach Paul Johnson realizes his crew became the first ACC team to do so since Virginia in 2006. FYI: The Cavaliers won 9 games the following season. The good news for the Yellow Jackets’ last season is they had the 2nd fewest penalties in the nation. However, it couldn’t overcome a stop-unit that ranked dead last in Red Zone Defense. Finally, from our research department: a total of 12 teams gained an average of less than one turnover per game last season. Only one had a winning record (7-6 MTSU). They went 41-102 combined. The Jackets were one of the dirty dozen, and Paul Johnson knows it.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: In his 16 years as an FBS head coach, Johnson’s teams have each averaged at least 5 Yards Per Rush per season while winning 8.5 games per season.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Virginia (11/4)
LOUISVILLE Off – 7/4 Def – 4/2 47 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: PETRINO EXPOSED
This was not a report Bobby Petrino looked forward to seeing. According to Fansided.com, from the Big Hit List, Louisville ranks #12 overall in teams hit the hardest by losses from last season. Among the losses are 2 NFL defections, 10 returning starters and 12 players from the 2-deep. The biggest loss, of course, is Heisman Trophy-winning QB Lamar Jackson, who was the team’s leading passer (9,043 and 69 TDs) and rusher (4,132 and 50 TDs) over the last three seasons. The quarterback and running back tallies include 63 lost team starts with zero returnees. Complicating matters, the Cardinals will face 9 bowlers in 2018, including five in their last six games. Petrino will need to dig deep into his bag of scheming tricks, especially while taking on nine bowlers this season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Bobby the Louse is 0-17 away versus AP Top 15 ranked opponents.
PLAY ON: at Boston College (10/13)
MIAMI FLORIDA Off – *7/3 Def – 7/1 41 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: RICHTER MAGNITUDE
Despite the fact that the Hurricanes dropped each of their final three games of the season in 2017, including a crushing loss to Pittsburgh that snapped a nation-best 15-game win skein – and effectively KO’d the Canes from the CFB playoffs – UM managed to improve its record for the third straight year. Mark Richt is fully rooted in Miami and it’s showing fundamentally as Miami’s defense was No. 4 nation in Tackles For Loss as well as No. 5 in Turnover Margin (+1.00) last season. With the D-line undergoing massive changes with two senior graduates and two juniors opting out for the NFL Draft, the linebackers are the strength of the defense. Meanwhile, QB Malik Rosier returns after tossing for 3,120 yards and 26 TDs in 2017.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Mark Richt is 45-15 SU away in conference games in his career, including 34-4 as a favorite of more than 2 points.
PLAY ON: vs. Pittsburgh (11/24) – *KEY
NC STATE Off – *6/3 Def – 3/0 38 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: A SENIOR MOMENT
With 22 seniors dotting the 2017 roster, it was a pivotal season for head coach Dave Doeren as Wolfpack seniors started 51.6% of the games last season. The team responded, enjoying one of its best seasons in school history winning 9 games, including the Sun Bowl. To put it in perspective, in 125 years of football, the 2017 squad was one of just six to win 9 or more games. Ten players earned All-ACC honors and the Pack finished with its highest national ranking in 15 years. The biggest loss is DE Bradley Chubb, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and No. 5 pick in this year’s NFL draft. However, redshirt senior QB Ryan Finley has decided to return for his final year of eligibility.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Wolfpack is 31-6 SU and 22-10-1 ATS in games in where they outgain their opponent under head coach Dave Doeren.
PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite vs. Florida State (11/3)
NORTH CAROLINA Off – *5/1 Def – 8/3 47 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: TARRED AND FEATHERED
It all went to hell in a handbag for UNC head coach Larry Fedora last season. After losing star QB Mitch Tribusky as the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft in 2016, and failing to make necessary adjustments following DC Gene Chizik’s sudden retirement, the Tar Heels garnered a mere 3 victories after managing to win the stats in only three contests in 2017. As a result, they’ve now averaged 6 losses a season the last 4 years, no thanks to a rush defense that has surrendered an average 232 rushing yards in the process. Making matters worse, they must replace four starters on the OL. The good news is QBs Chazz Surratt and Nathan Elliott – who split duties last year – return in 2018.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Fedora is 12-1 SU and 11-2 ATS in regular season games versus opponents who were upset as a favorite in their previous game
PLAY ON: at Miami Florida (9/27)
PITTSBURGH Off – 4/2 Def – 9/4 49 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: RUSH HOUR
A total of 15 redshirt freshmen made their collegiate debuts last season, six of which made starts. One of them was QB Kenny Picket, who engineered Pittsburgh’s 24-14 upset win over Miami in the season finale – the second of two wins for Pitt against No. 2 ranked foes under Pat Narduzzi the last two seasons. Speaking of whom, Narduzzi’s Panthers have rushed for 200+ yards 15 times, going 12-3 in those games. They have also held foes under 100 rushing yards 13 times, going 11-2 in those contests. Together, that’s a 23-5 mark. With nine starters back on defense, including the entire line, the formula to success this season is simple for these Cats: control the ground game. If they do that then three non-conference foes they’ll face in 2018 that went 34-5 combined last year will no have walks in the park.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: 21 of Pitt’s 24 losses under Narduzzi have occurred against teams that went on to play in a bowl game.
PLAY ON: at North Carolina (9/22)
SYRACUSE Off – *8/4 Def – 6/3 42 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: ONE STEP AT A TIME
With 15 wins the last four seasons, including consecutive 4-8 efforts behind Dino Babers, the Orange appear to be stuck in quicksand. A closer look, though, spins a different tale. Not only did the Orange improve their stats on both sides of the ball last year, Syracuse amassed 5,476 yards last season, and 5,290 yards in 2016 under Babers, the second-and-third highest totals in the 128-year history of the program. In fact, of the three active quarterbacks with 5,000+ passing yards and 1,000+ rushing yards, Eric Dungey is the only one with more than 6,000 passing yards (Duke’s Daniel Jones and Ball State’s Riley Neal the other two members). If they can win early and often, a salty season-ending schedule – five bowlers in final five games – might not matter.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Syracuse will face three teams in 2018 that are coached by former Orange assistants: Boston College, Connecticut and Western Michigan.
PLAY ON: vs. Florida State (9/15)
f – 5/2 Def – 8/1 43 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: IT DON’T COME EASY
After debuting at 2-10 in 2016, Bronco Mendenhall organized a dramatic turnaround from his first season with the Cavaliers to last year when he took his troops bowling for the first time since 2011. It wasn’t easy, though, as UVA finished 1-6 after a 5-1 start. And it won’t be easy this season as well with the offense taking a major hit to graduation, including QB Kurt Benkert, who signed with the Atlanta Falcons. The hope is dual-threat JUCO QB Bryce Perkins can fill his shoes (Perkins led his team to the NJCAA title game last year). Only four away games dot the schedule, but they face 9 bowlers, including 7 of them in their final seven games of the season. Ugh.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Virginia is 2-20 SU in its final two games of the season since 2007.
PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Miami Florida (10/13)
VIRGINIA TECH Off – *7/3 Def – 6/3 40 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: THIS BUD’S FOR YOU
Eight true freshmen saw significant playing time for Tech in 2017. Included was QB Josh Jackson, whose 2,991 passing yards set a Hokies’ record and were the most by any FBS freshman in 2017. In addition, five of the top six rushers return in 2018. It’s noteworthy that the Hokies’ 25-game bowl streak is the longest in the nation and the third longest in NCAA history. It’s also no coincidence that associate head coach/defensive coordinator Bud Foster has been on the VT staff for 32 seasons, making him the longest-tenured active coach at any FBS school. FYI: Tech owns 58 games of starting experience on the defensive line – the highest total of any group on the squad. Expect more of the same from last year’s 4th best scoring defense. In late breaking news, though, Virginia Tech announced CBs Adonis Alexander (academics – 15 starts) and JUCO transfer Jeremy Webb (Achilles tendon) will miss the season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Hokies are 17-0 when leading at halftime under Fuente.
WAKE FOREST Off – 8/5 Def – 6/2 41 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: GIMME FOUR
After ranking 12th or worst in the ACC in scoring the previous five seasons, an infusion of suddenly seasoned underclassmen helped the Demon Deacon explode in head coach Dave Clawson’s 4th season, averaging 35 points and 466 YPG. And with it Clawson has to consider ‘four’ his lucky number. He just completed his 4th season with Wake Forest in his 4th coaching stop. In his 4th season at Fordham, he led the Rams to a 10-2 season and a trip to the FCS playoffs. In addition, he took an 11-win Richmond squad to the FCS semifinals in this 4th year with the program. And at Bowling Green in his 4th season, his troops won 8 games en route to a bowl game.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Wake Forest had 11 players selected for 12 All-ACC positions and beat six bowl teams in 2017.
PLAY AGAINST: at NC State (11/8) – *KEY