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2019 ACC Atlantic Preview

By Dave Holcomb
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The division could come down to one fateful September night in upstate New York.

There’s no other way to slice it -- there’s a gap about the size of the grand canyon between Clemson and the other six teams in the Atlantic Division, really the entire rest of the ACC. But the biggest threat to the Tigers reign is a private school up north known more for basketball.

Clemson will look to earn its fifth straight ACC Championship Game berth in 2019, and the only team seemingly standing in the way are the Syracuse Orange. The only loss the Tigers have suffered in the ACC over the last two seasons was against the Orange in 2017, and for the first time since then, Clemson will return to the Carrier Dome on Sept. 14.

In 2018, Syracuse went undefeated at home, but if the Tigers win that game, the division race could be complete.

Clemson lost several key players from its 15-0 championship team last year, but most of them were on defense, particularly the defensive line, and the Tigers have simply reloaded in their front seven.

Dabo Swinney has turned Clemson into a football factory, but a lot of the defensive credit should be awarded to coordinator Brent Venables. The Tigers have seen six of their defensive players drafted in the first round alone over the last five years, and yet with Venables, Clemson’s defense has remained consistently the best in the ACC every year.

Offensively, the Tigers had no key departures, which makes them perhaps the most explosive team in the country. Rising sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence will be behind center from the start of the season, and he enters the year as a Heisman contender.

Running back Travis Etienne and wide receivers Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross are back as well. Together the trio combined for more than 3,600 yards from scrimmage in 2018.

If anyone is going to beat Clemson in the ACC this year, they are going to have to score. Syracuse can definitely do that, but the Orange will be counting on rising sophomore Tommy Devito behind center. Devito started a couple games last year but his inexperience plus the lost leadership with the departure of quarterback Eric Dungey has some analysts doubting Syracuse’s chances of repeating its 10-win season.

Considering Syracuse visits Florida State, N.C. State and Louisville -- the Orange are a combined 1-8 in those places since joining the ACC in 2013 -- 10 wins might be a lofty goal, but heading into the season, there isn’t another team (other than Clemson) that stands out as a playoff contender in the division.

N.C. State finished third in the 2018 Atlantic Division standings, but the Wolfpack is replacing everything on offense.

When I say everything, I mean it. Quarterback Ryan Finley leaves the biggest hole, but the Wolfpack also lost their top rusher and best two wide receivers.

Furthermore, N.C. State promoted two new coaches to serve as co-offensive coordinators, and the team will start three new offensive linemen. With that amount of offensive turnover, it’s hard to argue this is finally the year N.C. State breaks through and tops Clemson or even wins 10 games for the first time since 2002.

If N.C. State isn’t the wild card of the division, Florida State certainly is. The Seminoles were the other premiere team of the Atlantic just a couple years ago, but Florida State snapped their bowl streak last year with a 5-7 record.

Quarterback Deondre Francois is out after getting dismissed from the team because of multiple off-the-field problems. Sophomore James Blackmon, who started in 2017 for a hurt Francois, is expected to become the starter again. Blackmon is best suited to run Florida State’s new up-tempo offense, which newly hired offensive coordinator Kendal Briles will run, but graduate transfer Alex Hornibrook from Wisconsin could make things interesting.

Still, nothing will change for Florida State if it doesn’t solve its offensive line problems. The Seminoles were last in the ACC with 91 rushing yards per game (the next closest, Louisville, averaged 141 rushing yards per contest) and allowed 36 sacks, third-worst in the conference.

Florida State faces Boise State and Virginia in the first three weeks of the season. Another poor start could send the Seminoles off the rails again.

Boston College and Wake Forest should compete for a bowl appearance once more, but neither Steve Addazio nor Dave Clawson has turned its program into a true Atlantic contender. Although the Eagles will have one of the more recognizable quarterback-running back duos in the division (Anthony Brown and A.J. Dillion) Boston College has yet to finish better than 7-5 in six years under Addazio.

While Louisville is in much better shape now than the program was eight months ago under Bobby Petrino, the Cardinals should bring up the rear again in the division. There’s too much to fix in Louisville to expect an immediate bowl appearance.

Without a doubt, there are some terrific storylines in the ACC Atlantic, but as far as the division crown goes, the race could be finished by the end of September. Clemson is the heavy favorite, and no one else is close.

Holcomb’s ACC Atlantic 2019 Standings Prediction

1. Clemson
2. Syracuse
3. Florida State
4. N.C. State
5. Boston College
6. Wake Forest
7. Louisville