The ACC had the title belt taken away from it last year and is suddenly in rebuilding mode. Can the powers at the top remain strong enough to keep the conference in the thick of the playoff race?
Will enough young talent step up for FSU?
11 draft picks must be replaced, including Jameis Winston, all-time leading receiver Rashad Green, the entire offensive line, and now running back Dalvin Cook's season is in jeopardy due to suspension. Golson arrives, as do a couple JUCO linemen but several young players will be forced to step up from the Seminoles' deep recruiting reservoir.
2 starters on defense enough for Clemson?
Nickel corner Korrin Wiggins was injured recently and is lost for the season. Now, just two defensive back starters return with zero returning starters in the front seven. Super sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson and a couple dynamic wideouts carry the bulk of the responsibility to carry this team with massive holes all over the roster.
Georgia Tech as secretly (or not) everyone's conference favorite
Quarterback Justin Thomas had one of the major breakout seasons across the country last year. Most of the line is back but questions remain everywhere else on offense. There's enough talent on defense to significantly improve a leaky unit from a year ago. If that happens their first full ACC title is within reach.
Va Tech ready to end their 3-year division drought?
Former Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer is back for a second season and could finally bring a good (let's not get too crazy) offense to the Hokies. There's enough proven talent around him, and honestly it's about time anyway. The defense should typically be one of the league's best, too. They miss FSU and Clemson across the division--plenty of opportunity in 2015 for Beamer & Co.
NC State looking to surprise
An injection of improved recruiting, a friendly schedule, and a budding star at quarterback. Like last year, the Wolfpack should start 4-0 but will need to improve upon that 3-5 record in league. A couple early season games versus Louisville and Virginia Tech could set up a sneaky run to the ACC title game, if some of the traditional powers falter ahead of them.
Louisville reloads in the secondary
All things considered a 9-4 season was a good start for Louisville in the ACC. They are re-tooling a little bit on offense and could really benefit from someone stepping up as a difference maker at quarterback. The defense could be stout up front but the secondary was decimated by losses. An early season schedule could bury the Cardinals (a 2-4 start is very possible) yet the back end is very friendly with a 6-0 finish clearly attainable.
Can UNC get help from the defense?
The Tar Heels gave up 46.5 points per game in their 7 losses last year and fired their defensive coordinator. Now, Gene Chizik is in town and hopefully does a whole lot better. The offense welcomes back most of its pieces and has the power to average 40 points per game. This could be a dangerous team if the defense becomes average but if not Larry Fedora is on the hot seat.
4 straight bowl games for Duke?
The Blue Devils are 19-8 over the past 2 years, including a solid 11-6 mark in ACC play. An experienced secondary come back but there are new bodies in the front seven and plenty of questions on offense without quarterback Anthony Boone and receiver Jamison Crowder. There's no FSU or Clemson to face so an above .500 league record is possible once again.
Narduzzi rebuilding Pitt's defense
The Panthers have a nice trio of playmakers on offense but a typically stout defense has fallen off in recent years. New head coach Pat Narduzzi may be just the man for a quick turn around. Still, the pass rush needs a lot of help and 6 starters have to be replaced.
Can Miami save Golden's job?
Most really like the future of rising sophomore quarterback Brad Kaaya after he finished 2014 with nearly 3,200 passing yards and 26 touchdowns. Beyond that, half the starters need to be replaced on the roster and there are major questions at the skill positions in support of Kaaya. A 2-0 start looks very likely but the Hurricanes could go through a 6 game stretch from September 19th to Halloween where they are never favored.
Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh
The only new ACC head coach was with Mark Dantonio for 3 seasons at Cincinnati and for an additional 8 seasons at Michigan State. Back in late 2006, Narduzzi was one of the favorites to take over the head job for the Bearcats but it went to Brian Kelly instead. Now for the first time in his career, Narduzzi picks up his first head job.
The Favorites and Confidence in Said Favorites
Florida State vs. Georgia Tech
We haven't had the same 2 teams in the league title game for the past 6 seasons so there's that to think about. If you believe that a few of the top ACC teams from last year could take steps back then the league is wide open. You could probably convince that as many as 7 or 8 teams have a legitimate shot at winning their division.
This could be a really fun season in the ACC with constant jockeying for position--although probably less so for the league's chances of getting a team in the playoffs.
Top Non-League Matchup
Ohio State at Virginia Tech
There are a couple other games that could potentially have a big impact on the national stage (ND visiting Death Valley, for example) but this is the opener and an upset by the Hokies could enormously change the outlook for the rest of the country right out of the gate.
Who will be rooting for Ohio State? We'll all be cranking up "Enter Sandman" in a couple weeks.
Top League Matchup
Florida State at Georgia Tech
Most expect the November 7th visit to Clemson by Florida State to be the biggest game because it has the greatest likelihood of deciding the Atlantic Division. True enough.
However, the Seminoles visit to Atlanta (or even Georgia Tech's visit to Clemson) might be an elimination game for the loser with implications for both divisions.
Freshman to Watch
Derwin James, S, Florida State
The nation's top safety recruit is drawing comparisons to fellow Seminole Jalen Ramsey and has the size (6-3, 212) to play a whole plethora of positions for Florida State. With a couple open spots in the FSU secondary you can bet James will make a case for freshman All-American honors.
Sell that Stock
Boston College and Miami would be my other top choices here but Virginia's schedule is just so absolutely brutal that I don't see any way they improve upon last year with as many questions on offense as anyone in the ACC. The Cavaliers do miss Clemson, Florida State, and NC State from the Atlantic division so there is some hope. Still, they'l face UCLA, Notre Dame, and Boise State out of conference with road trips to Pitt, UNC, Miami, and Louisville. An October 24th visit from Syracuse might be Virginia's lone league game where they're favored.
Buy that Stock
Things to like: 4 gimmes out of conference. A quarterback waiting to emerge as one of the nation's best. A really good amount of starters back on each side of the ball. And both the Clemson and Florida State games coming later in the season and surrounded by easier opponents.