College football 2017: Florida State, Clemson lead the ACC, the nation's best league


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SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports Paul Myerberg previews the 2017 ACC football conference.
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If you still had reservations about the Atlantic Coast Conference’s claim to being the best league in the Football Bowl Subdivision — and are willing to ignore the statistics and numbers that back up this claim — just listen to its head coaches.

“This is a deep league,” Clemson’s Dabo Swinney said at ACC media days in July. “The best conference in football,” Boston College’s Steve Addazio called it. Not that they’d say anything else.

But the best proof to support this assertion? There’s that Heisman Trophy, for one. And that national championship. And that other national championship — the ACC has won two of the past four, in fact.

There’s that 10-4 mark in games last fall against the Southeastern Conference. The 6-2 record against the Big Ten. In total, a 17-9 finish against fellow Power Five competition. Eleven teams with winning records, six with nine or more wins.

CONFERENCE PREVIEWS

GROUP OF FIVE: AAC | C-USA | MAC | MWC | Sun Belt

INDEPENDENTS: Expect Notre Dame to bounce back in 2017

Still don’t believe it? Check out the ACC in 2017.

Clemson is one of the elite programs in the country — and might be the second-best team in its own division, let alone the conference. Louisville touts one of the nation’s most electric quarterbacks and offenses. Miami (Fla.) quietly is piecing together the roster and coaching staff needed to reclaim its perch. Virginia Tech has its coach in Justin Fuente.

Take if from Swinney, who said this after Clemson’s win against Alabama in January:

“I watched all the Big Ten film and all that stuff. This is the best conference in college football. It’s the deepest, it’s the most competitive.

“You don’t want to play a team from this conference. You just don’t. I don’t care; name one.”

PRESEASON ALL-CONFERENCE

OFFENSE

QB: Lamar Jackson, Louisville

RB: Mark Walton, Miami (Fla.)

RB: Jon Hilliman, Boston College

WR: Deon Cain, Clemson

WR: Jaylen Samuels, N.C. State

TE: Cam Serigne, Wake Forest

OL: Mitch Hyatt, Clemson

OL: Phil Haynes, Wake Forest

OL: Alec Eberle, Florida State

OL: Tyrone Crowder, Clemson

OL: Brian O’Neill, Pittsburgh

DEFENSE

DL: Harold Landry, Boston College

DL: Dexter Lawrence, Clemson

DL: Christian Wilkins, Clemson

DL: Bradley Chubb, N.C. State

LB: Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech

LB: Shaq Quarterman, Miami (Fla.)

LB: Micah Kiser, Virginia

CB: Tarvarus McFadden, Florida State

CB: Jaire Alexander, Louisville

S: Quin Blanding, Virginia

S: Derwin James, Florida State

SPECIALISTS

K: Michael Badgley, Miami (Fla.)

P: Tom Sheldon, North Carolina

RET: Quadree Henderson, Pittsburgh

BEST UNITS

Quarterback: Louisville. Lamar Jackson is good at football.

Running back: Florida State. The Seminoles are set to unleash their next great running back, Cam Akers, in a key role.

Wide receivers and tight ends: Clemson. Not that Florida State’s group isn’t outstanding, but the Tigers continue to hold the deepest receiver corps in the conference despite losing All-America pick Mike Williams and all-conference tight end Jordan Leggett.

Offensive line: Clemson. Now a junior, potential All-America tackle Mitch Hyatt headlines an offensive line that will be better than last season’s unit.

Defensive line: Clemson. This line is going to be scary — tackles Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins are listed above, but don’t forget about end Clelin Ferrell.

Linebacker: Florida State. One year after standing as a weakness entering the season, this crop of linebackers is one of the Seminoles’ unquestioned strengths.

Secondary: Florida State. Derwin James, Tarvarus McFadden … this is the best secondary in the country.

Special teams: Miami (Fla.). The Seminoles’ talent level is an advantage here, but the team’s offseason losses in the return game give the Hurricanes the edge.

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RANKING THE STARTING QUARTERBACKS

1. Lamar Jackson, Louisville. Maybe the most overlooked, under-discussed reining Heisman Trophy winner in recent college football history.

2. Deondre Francois, Florida State. The Seminoles’ only concern at the position is where to turn if Francois misses any meaningful amount of time due to injury.

3. Ryan Finley, N.C. State. Finley is due for a very solid season for the Wolfpack and offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz.

4. Max Browne, Pittsburgh. The graduate transfer from Southern California will provide the Panthers with high-level quarterback play.

5. Daniel Jones, Duke. His breakthrough might not come in 2017, but the combination of Jones, a sophomore, and noted quarterback whisperer David Cutcliffe is a very interesting one.

6. Kelly Bryant, Clemson. He’s the starter for the opener, at least, though Dabo Swinney and his co-offensive coordinators might not wait long to pass the baton to one of the Tigers’ two freshmen.

7. Eric Dungey, Syracuse. It’s hard not to put up crooked numbers running Dino Babers’ system.

8. Brandon Harris, North Carolina. He won’t match Mitch Trubisky’s numbers, but if Harris can get on the same page during fall camp the Tar Heels should feel comfortable with their situation under center.

9. Josh Jackson, Virginia Tech. Starting a redshirt freshman is a concern — but Justin Fuente has more than earned the benefit of the doubt.

10. Malik Rosier, Miami (Fla.). Rosier has done enough this offseason to earn the job coming out of fall camp, but whether he can fend off the Hurricanes’ other options depends entirely on his play in September.

11. Kurt Benkert, Virginia. It’s all about turnovers — avoiding them, namely — for the Cavaliers’ senior.

12. Matthew Jordan, Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets have four options under consideration, but here’s betting Paul Johnson eventually settles on his backup the past two seasons.

13. Darius Wade, Boston College. It’s probable that Wade earns the starting nod, but he’ll have to keep an eye on redshirt freshman Anthony Brown.

14. Kendall Hinton, Wake Forest. It seems like Hinton is Dave Clawson’s guy, but junior John Wolford’s play this month might make this a difficult decision.

GALLERY: PRESEASON AMWAY COACHES POLL

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TOP NEWCOMERS

Florida State RB Cam Akers. The five-star recruit will be asked to shoulder a heavy load in the running game for a team with championship aspirations.

Clemson QB Hunter Johnson. Bryant’s going to start, as noted above, but Johnson can’t be far behind in the pecking order.

Boston College OT Marcel Lazard. The graduate transfer from West Virginia is going to be a key asset in the Eagles’ running game.

Miami (Fla.) OL Navaughn Donaldson. I also could go with freshman quarterback N’Kosi Perry, but Donaldson seems even more likely to earn snaps along the offensive front.

Virginia Tech DB Devon Hunter. He’ll almost certainly play and perhaps even grab a starting role in what should be one of the top defensive backfields in the country.

Duke WR Scott Bracey. Once a four-star recruit, Bracey is healthy and poised to contribute in a key role for the Blue Devils’ underrated receiver group.

GAMES OF THE YEAR

Florida State vs. Alabama (in Atlanta), Sept. 2. It might be the most anticipated season opener in the past few decades of college football.

Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia (in Landover, Md.), Sept. 2. WVU won’t be great, but it’s an interesting first test for redshirt freshman quarterback Josh Jackson.

N.C. State vs. South Carolina (in Charlotte), Sept. 2. If the Wolfpack are for real — and maybe they are — they will beat the Gamecocks on a neutral field.

Auburn at Clemson, Sept. 9. This is a show-me-something game for both teams, though Auburn clearly has more to prove than does Clemson on a national scale.

Pittsburgh at Penn State, Sept. 9. The Panthers look to make it two in a row against their in-state rivals.

Clemson at Louisville, Sept. 16. The Cardinals have firepower, but I can’t help but think Clemson’s defensive line eats Louisville’s offensive line for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Miami (Fla.) at Florida State, Sept. 16. The Hurricanes are getting closer in terms of overall talent, but topping FSU on the road in 2017 still seems like a tall order.

Virginia Tech at Miami (Fla.), Nov. 4. That the Hurricanes get the Hokies at home is one key reason why I’m pegging them to win the Coastal Division.

Florida State at Clemson, Nov. 11. Once again, the game of the year in the ACC and one of the defining games across the entire FBS.

Notre Dame at Miami (Fla.), Nov. 11. The Irish. The Hurricanes. Yes, please.

Florida State at Florida, Nov. 25. Maybe Florida can knock off Florida State … but probably not.

North Carolina at N.C. State, Nov. 25. No love here whatsoever.

BEST CHANCE AT THE PLAYOFF

Let’s first map out the Playoff odds for the two perceived leaders in the Coastal Division, Miami (Fla.) and Virginia Tech.

Start with the Hurricanes. It’s easy to fall in love with the team’s makeup nearly across the board, and the two lines and defensive front seven in particular. There’s simply a lot to like — including, in a general sense, the program’s growth and direction since Mark Richt’s arrival.

But the lack of experience at quarterback is an obvious issue. I’m not the first to make this statement: If Miami had brought back Brad Kaaya, this would be a very real Playoff dark horse. As it is, the Hurricanes don’t seem ready to make that leap.

And Virginia Tech? The Hokies have a similar question mark under center, though Justin Fuente’s track record breeds optimism. But Virginia Tech’s not doing more than winning eight or nine games and potentially taking the division — which is nothing to sniff at. You have to like where the program is headed.

But let’s be real: Clemson and Florida State are the teams to beat, continuing a recent trend. That the Tigers and Seminoles again look dominant removes Louisville from the equation, mathematically speaking.

Begin with Clemson. How good can the Tigers be? There’s no doubt that this is a team capable of defending its national championship. Both lines are superb; the defensive front may be the best in college football. The receiver corps is again a strength. There is clearly a sense of confidence and cockiness within this program that can’t be overlooked. But what about quarterback play? Not even Clemson, elite as the program may be, can replace a guy like Deshaun Watson without missing a beat. I think the Tigers win 10 games during the regular season and reach a New Year’s Six bowl but don’t make a third trip to the Playoff in a row.

It’s the Seminoles’ year, in my opinion. Deondre Francois is a Heisman Trophy contender. This is the best backfield, linebacker corps and secondary in the conference — and probably the best secondary in the FBS. There are no weaknesses on the roster.

Jimbo Fisher has pointed to 2018 as the year his program would burst back to the forefront of the championship picture. I don’t disagree. Given the depth and talent in this conference, the ACC winner is headed to a national semifinal — and I think it will be FSU.

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USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken reveals the preseason poll, which includes four Big Ten teams in the top 10.
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