This part of the year is the most “down” part in all of football. Spring games have wrapped up, the draft and OTAs are coming to a close, and we will be in a month-long dead space with no football to watch. We can always look ahead to the next season, and here we have done that. There will be plenty of teams that improve or regress in 2017 comparative to last year, and it is likely to happen in every conference. Whether it be to a new coach, a star departure, or something else, there will be plenty of turnover in college football. So let’s see which teams are the ones to pay close attention to, moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference (we covered the Big 10 here). The ACC saw a big year for the group in 2016, with member school Clemson knocking off the Alabama Crimson Tide in the College Football Championship. There will be plenty of competition within the conference this upcoming season, with plenty of stud players that can improve their draft stock and hopefully propel their teams further than in years prior. Let’s take a look.
Louisville returns its Heisman Trophy winner and star quarterback Lamar Jackson to the team, who will look to the lead them into a possible playoff position or bowl game. Jackson is one of the top draft-eligible quarterbacks for 2018, despite what you may hear about him from members of the media. Any quarterback that can collect 5,100 all-purpose yards and 51 touchdowns can play on my team. Alongside him on offense the team returns its third and fourth leading rushers, Jeremy Smith (382 yards, 8 TD) and Malik Williams (145 yards, 1 TD). The two will be taking off for Brandon Radcliff, who is now in the NFL. The Cardinals lost their top three receivers, but could see big years from sophomores Jaylen Smith (599 yards, 6 TD) and Traveon Samuel (230 yards, 1 TD), and could bank on freshman Seth Dawkins to step up and make things happen for the team. Redshirt freshman Dez Fitzpatrick shined in the spring game, catching nine passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns, and could end up being a top target for Jackson.
On defense, the team looks to replace stout defensive lineman Deangelo Brown, who is now in the NFL. The defensive line is likely going to be headlined by junior Drew Bailey, who had only half a sack as a bench player in 2016. Bailey is looking to increase his role, and he played well in the spring. The linebackers will likely be the stars of this defense, with Stacy Thomas and Malik Staples highlighting them. In the defensive backfield, the Cardinals will look for big years from Jaire Alexander (one of the best athletes on the team) and Lyn Strange to make some plays, as well as Trumaine Washington, who is the second leading returner in interceptions on the team. The Cardinals could end up as a very good team if the defense holds up.
The Eagles lost some good talent after 2016, but a bowl win at the end of the year likely showed some positives to carry into the next season. The offense lost Patrick Towles at quarterback, but will likely replace him with one of Darius Wade or Anthony Brown. Wade looked good in the team’s spring game, but it is unknown which one really has a lead on the signal caller position. The Eagles return their top two leading rushers, sophomore Jon Hilliman (542 yards, 6 TD) and freshman Davon Jones (361 yards, 2 TD). Hilliman averaged a paltry 2.9 yards per carry, but will look to improve it with more opportunity this year. Both top sophomore receivers Michael Walker (420 yards, 4 TD), Jeff Smith (395 yards, 3 TD), and sophomore tight end Tommy Sweeney (353 yards, 3 TD) will be back for the team in 2017, and they will need to be a big part of the Eagles’ offense for them to succeed. Redshirt freshman Kobay White will likely be another factor for the team, as he has been a stud in spring practices.
The defense is the leader of the team, returning the 9th ranked defense in the NCAA. The leader of this group is without a doubt Harold Landry. Leading the NCAA in sacks with 16.5, Landry is the top returning edge rusher and will end up being selected in the top half of the 2018 draft without a doubt. Along with him on the defensive line will be Zach Allen, who had six sacks and 10 tackles for loss in 2016. The linebacker core lost Matt Milano this year, but still has Connor Strachan and Ty Schwab, as well as young gun Sharieff Grice. Strachan is a smart and sound player, being one of the best tacklers on the team. In the secondary, the team lost John Johnson, but still looks good as a unit. Will Harris, Taj Amir Torres, and Gabe McClary will likely all be starters that will make noise for the team, but Lukas Denis will also be a very important player for a team that looks to its defense to make plays often. Look for the Eagles to make moves, but they won’t be stars in the CFB world.
The Clemson Tigers had an extremely successful run last year, coming back in the second half of the College Football Championship to knock off the Alabama Crimson Tide as time expired. While many of the players, especially on offense, departed for the NFL, the team still looks impressive and could be a top 10 contender. With star quarterback Deshaun Watson leaving for the Houston Texans, the quarterback position will be left to fight for with Kelly Bryant, Zerrick Cooper, Hunter Johnson and Tucker Israel left to compete. Bryant and Israel were both on the team last year, but Johnson was a highly touted recruit that could be in play for the Tigers. Running back Wayne Gallman is gone, as well as second leading rusher Watson. Freshman Tavien Feaster and sophomore CJ Fuller were the next two in line, and they will both be returning, as well as dual threat Ray-Ray McCloud. Top two receivers Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett are gone as well, but Deon Cain and Hunter Renfrow will remain to lead the receiving core, as well as McCloud. This team’s offense could be in a good situation even after losing a huge chunk of talent.
On defense there are still some stars that will be on the field for the Tigers. Clelin Ferrell had a great season in 2016, but will return to play the edge. Christian Wilkins was a possible first rounder this year that returned to the Tigers. Dexter Lawrence is another name to watch inside, replacing Carlos Watkins. The linebacker group lost Ben Boulware, but they have two good replacements in Shaq Smith and JD Davis. The secondary has plenty of talent, as per usual, even after Cordrea Tankersley and Jadar Johnson leaving. Trayvon Mullen looks like a legitimate man corner for the Tigers, and almost recorded multiple interceptions in the spring game. Van Smith and Denzel Johnson are other names to watch, although they may be lower on the depth chart. The Clemson Tigers are looking like a real team for 2017, and though they likely won’t be title contenders again, they could be seriously in the mix.
The Seminoles pulled off a great win in their bowl game against Michigan with a beautiful pass in the final seconds. The quarterback, Deondre Francois, will be an interesting name to watch in the 2017 season. While he may not project to be a top signal caller in the class, there are some great traits he possesses to go along with his incredible toughness. Considering the offensive line he plays behind, he requires some mental and physical toughness. FSU loses their top running back Dalvin Cook to the Vikings, but they have some interesting names in Jacques Patrick (5.7 yards per carry) and true freshman Cam Akers, the top running back in last year’s recruiting class. Akers will likely be the lead back, with Patrick and Ryan Green to play behind him. The receiver group lost leading receivers Travis Rudolph and Cook, but returns two very impressive names in Auden Tate and Nyqwan Murray, who caught the game-winning TD vs. Michigan. Tate is a big-bodied target that many are already falling in love with. Another name to watch for pass catchers is tight end Ryan Izzo, who finds a way to excel even while having average athleticism. If the pass-blocking can hold up, Francois and the Noles will have a great year.
The defense has some very interesting names in all areas. On the defensive line, Josh Sweat is gaining steam as a name to watch on the edge, and tackles Demarcus Christmas and Derrick Nnadi will be big players for the team. Jacob Pugh is another name that either comes off the edge or plays linebacker, and can do well at both. Matthew Thomas racked up 32 tackles and a sack in his last three games, and he should see a bigger role next to Ro’Derrick Hoskins (2.5 sacks last year). The secondary has a bona fide star in Derwin James, who could be a top 10 pick next year. He will play along with freshman Stanford Samuels and Kyle Meyers for a team that needs to regain its composure in the secondary. Look for this team to be in the mix for a playoff spot if their offensive line can hold up. The defense looks strong, and they have a for-real quarterback playing for them.
North Carolina State
NC State is a team that deserves more respect in the ACC than they get, and the Wolfpack may get their chance to earn it this year. They had strong play from quarterback Ryan Finley last year, who replaced now-Patriots third stringer Jacoby Brissett well. His 3,055 yards and 18 touchdowns were a positive for the team. The Wolfpack lose top running back Matthew Dayes, but return interesting players in Reggie Gallaspy II and Swiss army knife Jaylen Samuels. Samuels rushed for 189 yards and 6 touchdowns, while throwing a 59 yard touchdown on 1 attempt and catches 55 passes for 565 yards and 7 touchdowns. He will be one of the top threats for the offense, along with top receiver Stephen Louis, Nyheim Hines, and Kelvin Harmon. A team returning the majority of its offensive talent is likely to compete just as it did last year, as long as they can keep their running game moving like it was with Dayes.
On defense one big name comes to mind; Bradley Chubb. A cousin of Georgia’s star back Nick, he recorded 10.5 sacks in 2016, and will be a top edge rusher in the 2017 class if he declares. Justin Jones, BJ Hill, and Kentavius Street are all seniors to pay attention to. The defensive line collected 27 of the 36 sacks the Wolfpack had in 2016. The back of the front seven is no joke either, with linebackers Airius Moore (85 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Jerod Fernandez (89 tackles, 4.5 TFL) shoring up the middle. The Wolfpack had 10 interceptions last year, and Mike Stevens provided one of them. He will be a starter for the team across from Nick McCloud, with James Valdez suiting up behind them. Shawn Boone and Dexter Wright will patrol the back of the field, and hopefully make the Wolfpack defense a scary sight that demands respect.