2017 College Teams to Watch: ACC

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

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.

Boston College

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.

Clemson

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.

Florida State

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.

2017 College Teams to Watch: Big 10

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, starting with the Big 10 Conference. The B1G had a strong year last season, with four of the top ten spots in the College Football Playoff rankings. That could stay the same this year, with plenty of talent all around. Let’s look at what we could see in the college ranks next season.

Michigan

Last year’s 10th overall team is going to look a lot different this season. The Wolverines lost virtually all of their defensive starters after the 2016 season to the NFL Draft. Names like Jabrill Peppers, Jourdan Lewis, and Taco Charlton are gone, and it will be interesting to see who can step up to fill in those spots. One name to watch on the defensive line is former number one overall recruit Rashan Gary, who spent his freshman year playing behind a talented group of upperclassmen. He collected 23 tackles and a sack as a sub last year, and many were raving about how he played during Michigan’s spring game. Another returning player on defense is linebacker Mike McCray, who was the centerpiece of the front seven last season. He could be a draft riser once the season begins.

The major question with the Wolverines in 2017 will be their offense. The team returns just two players that had over 100 receiving yards last season, and their top trio of Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh, and Jake Butt have departed. Sophomore receiver Grant Perry, freshman receiver Eddie McDoom, and senior tight end Khalid Hill will look to the fill the holes left by the recent draftees. McDoom is a name to watch, as he played well as a slot receiver in 2016 for Jim Harbaugh. Former running back De’Veon Smith will need to be replaced after leaving for the pros, and freshman Chris Evans appears to be rising to a starting role.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin impressed greatly last year, rising to #9 in the College Football Playoff rankings and securing a 24-16 win in the Cotton Bowl over Western Michigan. The team returns the majority of its players on both sides of the ball, and has plenty of talent that will be interesting to see develop over the course of the year. On offense, freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook impressed last year, and he takes the reins as the full-time starter going into the summer. While Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale are out, the Badgers saw freshman Bradrick Shaw rush for 5.2 yards per carry last year, and will likely be the starter for the team, with Pitt transfer Chris James and Taiwan Deal shoring up the “committee” approach the team enjoys. Receiver Jazz Peavy and tight end Troy Fumagalli will be pass-catchers to watch, as they will only improve as time goes on. The two leading receivers are legitimate NFL prospects and can grow their stock with strong years. Junior receiver George Rushing and freshman Quintez Cephus will likely be the other two wideouts for the team.

On defense, the team lost some important pieces, especially their pass-rushing group. Linebackers TJ Watt and Vince Biegel are gone, and they leave behind a young stud in Jack Cichy, as well as Leon Jacobs, to fill the hole. Isaiahh Loudermilk, Connor Sheahy, and Garrett Rand will be names to watch on the defensive line after impressing in the spring game for Wisconsin. In the secondary, young guns Madison Cole and Eric Burrell will be in the back half, as well as Leo Musso and Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson. Derrick Tindal and a group of freshmen will look to impress this year and help propel the Badgers to the College Football Playoff.

Maryland

The Terrapins have had a string of down years recently, but with new coach DJ Durkin on the field, the recruiting has stepped up its game and should pay off this year. The team sees senior quarterbacks Perry Hills and Caleb Rowe leave the team, with new recruit Kasim Hill ready to take the field. The four star athlete will be competing with Caleb Henderson and Max Bortenschlager when summer comes around. The Terrapins second leading receiver, Teldrick Morgan, left for the pros, and DJ Moore will be left to carry the team in passing offense. Star running back Ty Johnson returns his big play ability, with a 1,000 yard rushing season in the bag from 2016. Lorenzo Harrison will play behind him after a rough prior year that included an airsoft gun incident. DJ Turneris another receiver that may be able to show something for the Terps. He had an impressive six catches for 126 yards in the spring game. With a bevy on firepower on offense, the team may be able to score much more than their paltry numbers in 2016.

On the other side of the ball, the team will look to create some turnovers and stop teams, unlike last year. Senior edge rusher Jesse Aniebonam will look to have a breakout year, similar to 2016 pick Yannick Ngakoue. Aniebonam has impressive athleticism and can bring the heat from the outside. RaVon Davis and Darnell Savage Jr. will be in the defensive backfield to make some plays. There haven’t been plenty of names that stick out on the defensive line or in the linebacker core, but Antoine Brooks will be a name to watch after a decent year as a freshman in Durkin’s defense. If the offense makes a turnaround, this team could do better than the 6 games they won last season.

Penn State

The Nittany Lions were justifiably placed at 5th in the final rankings going into the College Football Playoff, although many argued they should’ve replaced Ohio State, especially after their shutout loss to Clemson. Regardless, Penn State has plenty of talent returning the year, and the team will likely be in a situation close to what they saw this past year. The offense, led by athletic freak running back Saquon Barkley, will be very impressive, along with quarterback Trace McSorley, tight end Mike Gesicki, and receiver DaeSean Hamilton. The team returns other 300+ yard receivers in DeAndre Thompkins and Saeed Blacknall. Juwan Johnson is a big target for McSorley that impressed greatly in the spring game, with seven catches for 81 yards and a touchdown. Miles Sanders and Andre Robinson will be running behind Barkley after having freshmen seasons that had some success within. There will be no shortage of offense for this team.

The team lost a few players on its defense, like Garrett Sickels and Malik Golden, but there are plenty ready to take their place and take steps forward. Defensive linemen and edge rushers are looking to stand out, and players like Shareef Miller, Torrence Brown, and Shane Simmons are looking to stand out. The linebacker core looks to be the heart and soul of the defense, with veteran Jason Cabinda leading a group that includes Jarvis Miller and Cam Brown, who looked like stars in the spring. Koa Farmer is a weak-side linebacker that looks great, especially when pass rushing. The secondary is looking great, even after starting cornerback John Reid injured his knee. A new five star recruit in Lamont Wade will likely see some action for the team, with Grant Haley and Amani Oruwariye poised to make plays. Marcus Allen will be in the defensive backfield at safety, and there will be some competition across from him with players like Troy Apke, Will Blair, and Garrett Taylor. Considering the immense talent on this team, it will be a surprise if they don’t creep into the top four in 2017.

Minnesota

There are two major reasons for a possible Minnesota turnaround this season: the arrival of head coach PJ Fleck and the departure of quarterback Mitch Leidner. Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft will be in a tight competition until the fall, and Fleck will likely need to see more from both of them. It may be a hard competition considering the receiving talent, or lack thereof. Two of the top three 2016 receivers are gone, with Drew Wolitarsky graduating and Brian Smith being dismissed. Aside from Tyler Johnson and Rashad Still, there aren’t many standout talents for the Gophers. Brandon Lingen is a tight end to watch, though his 2016 season was limited. The running back group looks impressive for 2017. Rodney Smith, who had 1,158 yards in 2016, looks just as impressive this season, with Jonathan Femi-Cole coming in behind him as a strong power back. The Gophers’ offensive line will be an average group as long as everyone is healthy, though that isn’t the case at the current moment.

On defense, the line looks impressive and should show some growth. Tackle for loss leader Steven Richardson, who had 7 sacks in 2016, returns to lead the team, along with Winston DeLattiboudere and Tai’Yon Devers. Carter Coughlin will be leading the edge rushers after only scoring two sacks last season. the linebacker group looks strong for this defense, with Jonathan Celestin and Thomas Barber looking to lead a younger group on the field. Cody Poock looks to have a healthy season after missing half the year, and Jaylen Waters looks to grow after a solid first year. A real issue lies within the secondary, as Damarius Travis and Jaylen Myrick are both departed for the pros. Kiondre Thomas and Coney Durr will likely be the starting corners, and the safety spots are still questionable. Antoine Whitfield and Duke McGhee could be the leading role players. If everything comes together on both sides of the ball, this team could be special. But that’s a big “if,” and it’s likely that the team regresses after overachieving in 2016.