2017 ACC Football Preview: Maybe we should pump the brakes

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The ACC undoubtedly had one of its best football seasons in conference history last season, eding with Clemson winning a national title.

Florida State won the Orange Bowl, Georgia Tech won the Taxslayer Bowl, even Virginia Tech won the all-important Belk Bowl. In fact, only three ACC teams lost their bowl games.

Lamar Jackson of Louisville won the Heisman, with Deshaun Watson of Clemson finishing second.

Of the 11 teams that finished with seven or more wins, three recorded 10 or more.

Because of the success in 2016, some, especially certain head coaches, have argued that the ACC is now the best conference in college football, taking the title from the SEC.

But it isn’t just Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher making this argument for the ACC. A Google search can help you find no shortage of stories from the media.

Maybe it’s true, maybe it is the best conference in college football. The ACC undoubtedly had an incredible 2016 season.

However, I’m not sure I’m ready to crown them (or anyone for that matter) as the best football conference. I’ve never been big on the whole best conference thing.

It’s dumb to do the whole X is the best conference thing. How do you determine that? Is it based solely on one year? A couple years? A decade? A millennium?

I’d be interested to know who the best conference was back during the middle ages. Hopefully, you would too!

If we go based off the last 10 years, it might be a different story. How many different SEC teams won national titles during that time span? How many have the ACC won?

All I’m saying is, maybe we shouldn’t declare a new best conference when the reported favored candidate also features a Virginia team that hasn’t won a bowl game since 2005.

I realize this will never stop. But hey, I can dream, can’t I?

Teams to Beat: Clemson Tigers/Florida State Seminoles

It’s tough to pick between these two teams, because they’re both outstanding, and they’ve both won national titles within the last five years.

However, the Tigers are the defending national champions. They’ve won back-to-back ACC titles for the first time since the ’80s and it’s the sixth straight season they’ve won 10 games or more.

Clemson will certainly face their challenges in 2017. They have 13 starters returning from last year’s national championship team, including five on offense.

The good news for the Tigers is four of those five play on the offensive line. They need to find a new center.

Defensively, Clemson returns seven starters, including most of their defensive line, one notable player on the line being sophomore defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence.

Last year, Lawrence won the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year. Lawrence finished fourth on the team in total tackles with 62.

Meanwhile, Florida State really pulled it together in 2016 after early losses to Louisville and North Carolina to get that Orange Bowl victory. The preseason conference poll easily favors Florida State.

I think the Seminoles get into the College Football Playoff this season. This team is loaded with talented players, especially on defense.

The Noles have one of the top cornerbacks returning this season in Tarvarus McFadden, who happened to lead the NCAA in interceptions last season with eight.

More importantly, Florida State gets back safety Derwin James, whom ESPN is calling the No. 1 college football player for the upcoming season. James missed most of last season with a knee injury.

With James in the secondary, that’s a solid defense and they’ll definitely be tough this season.

Besides, something tells me that Mr. James is interested in facing Lamar Jackson again.

Team Most Likely to Surprise: Syracuse Orange

Call me crazy, but I think Syracuse makes it to a bowl game this season. I think they can get to six wins (or five if the APR works in their favor).

How they’ll get to six wins, that is the mystery. It’s simultaneously fascinating and terrifying.

Head Coach Dino Babers has really livened up the offense in his short time with Syracuse. The Orange finished 11th last season in the nation in passing yards per game.

Most of the offense is back for 2017, including quarterback Eric Dungey. I have no idea how they’ll do it, but they have the ability to upset some teams. That’s an offense you don’t want to take lightly.

They certainly proved it last year with their upset victory over Virginia Tech. Syracuse gets Clemson at home on a Friday night. I’m not saying the upset is a lock, but the Tigers might want to watch themselves.

Team Most Likely to Disappoint: Miami Hurricanes

I must admit, I’m really reaching out on a limb here with this pick. This is a pretty good team and it’s clear Mark Richt has the program going in the right direction.

However, the team picked most likely to win the Coastal has quite the baffling schedule for 2017. Of course, they also had a baffling 2016 season.

How many teams do you know win four straight, lose four straight, then win their last five games? That’s precisely what happened to Miami.

This season, the Hurricanes will make the a week two trip to Jonesboro, Arkansas to take on Arkansas State. And they do this a week before heading to Tallahassee to play Florida State.

If that’s not enough, the Hurricanes end the regular season Nov. 24 with a road game at Pittsburgh. Weird scheduling could cost Miami.

The biggest question mark for Miami will be the quarterback position. Brad Kaaya had an outstanding season behind center.

It could be an issue for the Hurricanes if they struggle to find a quarterback to fit the line-up.

Offensive Player to Watch: Deondre Francois, Florida State Quarterback

All eyes will be on Louisville Quarterback Lamar Jackson this season. The pressure will be there for the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. Defenses have had an entire offseason to really scout Jackson.

This gives Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois a chance to really shine in the spotlight this season.

Francois threw for 3,350 yards and 20 touchdowns last season as a redshirt freshman. Because of this, Francois won both the ACC Rookie of the Year and ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year.

The challenge for Florida State will be replacing running back Dalvin Cook and wide receiver Travis Rudolph.

Francois does have some good news in that the Seminoles will return an experienced offensive line, led by center Alec Eberle.

If Francois has skill players to get the ball to, that offense could be very fun to watch.

Defensive Player to Watch: Christian Wilkins, Clemson DL

Look, I’m a sucker for dancing defensive linemen. If you can dance and do the splits, you should get recognition. Granted, this happened too. In a way, Wilkins had an interesting College Football Playoff last season.

Wilkins had a solid season in 2016, too. He finished as a finalist for the Nagurski Award. This season, he’s on the watch list for the Nagurski again, along with the Bednarik, Maxwell, Walter Camp and Outland awards.

Versatility is a significant trait for Wilkins, who has played both on the end and in the middle as a tackle.

Last season, Wilkins had 48 total tackles, including 13 for a loss, as well as 3.5 sacks. With Wilkins, Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell, that’s a tough defensive line already.

ACC Referee to Watch: I don’t know!?!?!

Ordinarily (okay this is the first time) we’d pick an ACC referee to watch for this season, because hey, it’s ACC referees.

However, the default name for this option, Ron Cherry, recently retired from being an official. Cherry now has an advisory role within the ACC.

That said, we wish Mr. Cherry the best on all his future endeavors and we now look forward to figuring out who will be the ACC ref that everyone talks about.

Maybe the referees from the Miami-Duke game a couple years ago? I don’t know!