In football’s quest to become a year-round sport, it’s never too early to look ahead to the 2017 season.
The national title Clemson claimed Monday night was the ACC’s second in four years, and the league has been represented in the College Football Playoff all three years. The Tobacco Road league known for basketball appears poised for another year of challenging the SEC for football supremacy. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the SEC to gain ground on the ACC in basketball.
Expected favorite: Clemson.
I wanted to pick anyone besides Clemson, but I can’t. I wanted to avoid the safe pick largely because of how tough it was for the Tigers to win back-to-back conferences titles. So how tricky is it for three in a row?
Don’t forget amid all the praise for the new national champions that the Tigers easily could have come up short of the ACC Atlantic Division title in 2016 and finished second to Louisville. The Tigers would have missed out on the ACC Championship Game and thus the College Football Playoff.
Pitt ended Clemson’s unbeaten season in the 10th game, but the Tigers also should have lost to N.C. State in their sixth outing. All N.C. State needed was Kyle Bambard to connect on a 33-yard field goal as time expired. Instead, Clemson survived in overtime.
I reluctantly settled on Clemson because the Alabama Death Star won its third straight SEC title this year despite losing to Clemson in the final. No team’s roster resembles an Alabama depth chart better than Clemson’s.
CU loses quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has declared for the NFL Draft, but Alabama won big this past year with freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts and dominating play in the trenches. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has been stockpiling top-ranked QBs to succeed Watson. Kelly Bryant, a four-star recruit in the Class of 2015, enters his junior year; Zack Cooper (four-star, 2016) redshirted; and two incoming QBs are five-star Hunter Johnson and four-star Chase Brice.
Swinney also returns a defense led by defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence. The mammoth 6-foot-5, 340-pounder dominated as a true freshman and was a second-team All-ACC choice. Most freshman linemen — even highly touted ones — are redshirted, but Lawrence has always focused on techniques in addition to being a physical wonder of power and quickness. Watch out for next season. Lawrence is among three returning defensive linemen, and on the offensive line side there are four offensive linemen.
Team with the most pressure: N.C. State
This might finally be N.C. State’s breakthrough season, but there is still pressure on head coach Dave Doeren entering his fifth year. Doeren was on the edge of being fired until his team finished the regular season with an upset of North Carolina — which was needed for bowl eligibility — and routed Vanderbilt 41-17 in the Independence Bowl.
N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow was smart to recognize Doeren has laid a foundation. She has never had her in hand in the dirt – yes, that’s a shot at former Auburn coach Pat Dye for saying Condoleezza Rice doesn’t deserve a seat the CFP panel) — but she wisely recognized all the returning talent on the depth chart.
The Wolfpack return quarterback Ryan Finley, four offensive linemen led by second-team All-ACC second-team pick Tony Adams, and dynamic skill players Nyheim Hines and Jaylen Samuels. Defensively, Bradley Cubb turned down the NFL to lead four returning defensive linemen.
Don’t be surprised if N.C. State is challenging Clemson for the ACC title, and this time beats the Tigers at home at Carter-Finley Stadium.
Coach with the most to prove: Larry Fedora, North Carolina.
Fedora doesn’t get enough credit for overcoming NCAA sanctions and the cloud that still hangs over the Tar Heels, with an ongoing NCAA investigation now centered on a no-show class that provided athletes special benefits.
However, the 2016 season started with a disappointing loss to Georgia and ended with three losses in four games. UNC (8-5) failed to defend its 2015 ACC Coastal title or repeat in the Top 25.
Now Fedora enters 2017 without his two best players, who both declared for the NFL Draft: junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky and junior running back Elijah Hood. Defensive tackle Nazair Jones is another junior who declared early.
Fedora also lost some credibility to start the season with his tone-deaf decision to appoint fired Illinois coach Tim Beckman as a volunteer assistant coach. Yes, he was trying to help an old friend save his career, but he did it at the expense of an unnecessary distraction for his team. Beckman had been fired for abusing players.
Most intriguing team: Wake Forest
Wake Forest broke through with bowl eligibility a year earlier than predicted in Dave Clawson’s third season. The Demon Deacons finished 7-6 after they upset No. 23-ranked Temple in the Military Bowl, 34-26.
Wake Forest returns 10 starters on offense on six on defense. Of the five seniors lost on defense, all of them were backed up by a returning player. Clawson has benefited from patience the school granted him to build from the bottom up. He has been rewarded with a contract extension through the 2424 season.
Wake Forest won’t match up with Clemson and other ACC schools physically, but the Demon Deacons have a smart coach and a lot of experience returning on offense.
Key player: Daniel Jones, Duke
Jones learned under fire when thrust into the starting role due to a season-ending injury suffered by senior Thomas Sirk at the end of fall camp. The 6-foot-5, 210-pound Jones has size. He can throw strongly and accurately (the NFL likes the accurate part). He can run, he can read defenses, and he has a quarterback guru developing him, head coach David Cutcliffe.
Jones set 23 school records, but with a year of experience he will be more consistent in 2017. He finished the year completing 270-of-430 passes (.628) for 2,836 yards with 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He rushed for 486 yards and seven scores. He’ll double those TD passes while cutting his turnovers.
As a redshirt sophomore next year, he’ll be three years removed from high school and thus eligible for the NFL Draft. Don’t be surprised if his name starts climbing up the mock draft charts.
League’s direction in 2017: The ACC will continue to be known for quarterback play.
One reason the ACC has closed the gap on the SEC for domination in college football, if not just the South, has been quarterback play. The expectation might be a drop-off since many of them won’t be back next season.
Four juniors – Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, Miami’s Brad Kaaya and Virginia Tech’s Jerod Evans — have declared for the NFL Draft. Seniors using up their eligibility include Pitt’s Nathan Peterman and Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas.
However, there is talent returning. The aforementioned Daniel Jones might be a preseason all-conference pick in other leagues, but Louisville Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson has that distinction locked up by returning for his junior year.
Other talented returning quarterbacks are Virginia rising senior Kurt Benkert, N.C. State rising junior Ryan Finley (Finely was granted an NCAA medical redshirt year and reclassified), and Wake Forest rising senior John Wolford. Clemson will have a new starter, but one of the talented QBs in the stable will emerge.
Team that changed national perception in the bowl season: Boston College.
The Eagles were a punching bag entering the 2016 season with an eight-game losing streak in ACC play that grew to 12 before the B.C. won at N.C. State, 21-14. However, the Eagles (7-6) finished strongly with three straight wins, including a defeat of former ACC member Maryland in the Quick Lane Bowl, 36-30.
It’s easy for pundits to kick a team when it’s down, but Boston College was making progress under a proven head coach, Steve Addazio. ACC pundits overlooked how challenging a rebuilding task Addazio faced. They also didn’t take into account how tough it has become to win in the ACC.
B.C. returns nine starters on offense and seven on defense. Most important of all, the Eagles enter the season with a three-game winning streak.
Follow Tom Shanahan of FanRagSports.com on Twitter @shanny4055