Florida State owns the ACC in projected standings for 2015
Who will win the ACC in 2015? We dug into our PFF college football data — which includes grades for every player on every play of every game involving at least one FBS opponent last season — to help produce projected standings for this season.
Here’s how we expect things to turn out, based on the strength of each team’s rosters, and the quality of talent they saw leave after the 2014 season.
1. Florida State Seminoles (projected champions)
Offensive snaps lost: 7,578 (67.1 percent)
Defensive snaps lost: 3,923 (33.9 percent)
Florida State has won the past three conference championships, and despite significant roster turnover they are well-placed to try for a fourth. The departure of Jameis Winston is tempered by the arrival of Everett Golson (79.2 overall rating), assuming Golson beats out Sean Maguire for the job. Star running back Dalvin Cook (81.1) can alleviate the pressure on the QBs. He showed big play potential as a freshman, gaining 50 percent of his yards on breakaway runs (those of 15+ yards), and should see more of the ball in 2015. The Seminoles suffered less attrition on defense, where they can call on the services of the team’s sole representative on our top 50 list, Jalen Ramsey. Ramsey (83.5), with an 85.0 coverage grade is the ACC’s best returning cover corner. The Seminoles look more vulnerable ahead of the 2015 season, but it’s not certain that any team is primed to take advantage.
2. Clemson Tigers
Offensive snaps lost: 5,231 (45.8 percent)
Defensive snaps lost: 5,343 (55.3 percent)
There is a lot to be optimistic about for the Tigers. If they can keep him fit, Deshaun Watson (83.7) may be the most dangerous dual-threat quarterback in the country, and he has talent around him. Receivers Mike Williams (85.5) and Artavis Scott (79.2) are complementary big play threats — Williams makes plays downfield while Scott makes opponents miss in space. Clemson have more issues on defense, where they must replace a number of starters who’ve moved on to the NFL. There is plenty of talent to work with, such as safety Jayron Kearse (80.4), edge rusher Shaq Lawson (78.2) and corner Mackensie Alexander (77.9). However, there will be a heavy reliance on less proven players. If the defense gels quickly, and Watson stays fit, then Clemson has the firepower to unseat the Seminoles.
3. Louisville Cardinals
Offensive snaps lost: 6,147 (56.7 percent)
Defensive snaps lost: 5,447 (55.0 percent)
It’s year two for Bobby Petrino, and after a 9-4 2014 season, it’s safe to say the first hurdle has been cleared, and yet, the challenge is no less in 2015. The biggest challenge may be in fielding a competitive offensive line right from the start of the season, having lost four of the top six linemen from 2014. A fast start is essential with games against Auburn and Clemson in the first three weeks. With an unsettled situation at quarterback, the offense may run through tailback Brandon Radcliff (75.3) early in the season. With the imposing Sheldon Rankins (89.9) at nose tackle, the Louisville defense is led by one of the best defenders in football. Rankins leads all returning interior defenders with a 93 run defense grade. The offense likely isn’t where it needs to be to unseat Florida State, but the Cardinals should be competitive once again.
4. North Carolina State Wolfpack
Offensive snaps lost: 3,513 (35.7 percent)
Defensive snaps lost: 3,237 (29.2 percent)
The Wolfpack enter the 2015 season with a potent ground attack, led by dual-threat quarterback Jacoby Brissett (90.2 rushing grade). It’s not all about Brissett either, running back Shadrach Thornton (77.9) is a dangerous rusher in his own right, and both operate behind a strong line led by guard Joe Thuney (88.5) and center Quinton Schooley (73.4). There have been losses of course, but the Wolfpack return a solid pair of pass rushers on the line. Defensive end Mike Rose (83.1) finished second on the team in 2014 with five sacks and 39 total pressures, while tackle T.Y. McGill (78.7) grabbed five sacks and 19 total pressures on the inside. Corner Jack Toncho (81) is the key member of an experienced secondary.
5. Boston College Eagles
Offensive snaps lost: 7,248 (71.0 percent)
Defensive snaps lost: 5,085 (53.8 percent)
On the back of a 7-6 2014 season, Steve Addazio’s Eagles team might be expected to take another step forward, but with the scale of attrition 2015 may turn out to be a transition season as the next wave of talent beds in. Not that the 2015 Eagles will be toothless — running back Jon Hilliman (71.8 rushing grade) showed promise as a freshman. Yet with the departure of the starting quarterback, top three receivers and the five starting offensive lineman, the Eagles offense has much to prove. Defensively tackle Connor Wujciak (80.6), end Kevin Kavalec (78.6) and linebacker Steven Daniels (77) form a solid core. This has the feel of a roster that is a year away from taking the next step forward under Addazio.
6. Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Offensive snaps lost: 3,189 (36.0 percent)
Defensive snaps lost: 2,925 (29.7 percent)
A 3-9 record may not have been inspiring, but year one in Winston-Salem probably went about as well as could be expected for head coach Dave Clawson. The offense was a train wreck, but defensively they were competitive, and with most key players back on both sides of the ball, the Demon Deacons are trending in the correct direction. Senior right tackle Dylan Intemann (83) is expected to slide inside to play guard this season, and his experience will be crucial in helping a young line gel. Tight end Cam Serigne (75.2) is the chief playmaker in the passing game. The talent is more evenly spread on defense, with defensive tackle Tylor Harris (73.2), linebacker Hunter Williams (72.8) and safety Ryan Janvion (79) the key players at each level.
7. Syracuse Orange
Offensive snaps lost: 5,376 (56.6 percent)
Defensive snaps lost: 6,847 (70.3 percent)
Last year was a large step back for the Orange under Scott Shafer, as a struggling offense held them to a 3-9 record. Since then they have lost a large chunk of the team, which may make it difficult to rebound as they might like. Dual threat quarterback Terrel Hunt (70.7) isn’t an ideal fit for the Syracuse passing attack, but was the team’s most dangerous rusher in 2014. If he can improve as a passer he has promising sophomore receiver Steve Ishmael (73.7) to aim for. Defensive end Ron Thompson (76.2) is the best returning defender for the Orange, but they lack experience around him. With so many starters gone, defensively this is a different team, and that is a problem given the defense was the best thing about Syracuse in 2014.
1. Pittsburgh Panthers
Offensive snaps lost: 3,084 (28.9 percent)
Defensive snaps lost: 3,000 (30.8 percent)
Pittsburgh is arguably the home to the ACC’s two most dangerous skill players on offense, running back James Conner (87.6) and wide receiver Tyler Boyd (87.2). The powerful Conner forced 88 missed tackles in run game last season, more than any other player. While Boyd’s 4.42 yards per route run against Power-5 schools was the best mark among wideouts. Two starters are gone on the line, but road grading Dorian Johnson returns. Defensive tackle Khaynin Mosley-Smith (78.4) anchors the Panthers defense against the run, and Reggie Mitchell (77.1) is the team’s best cover corner. Overall there are more issues to fix on the defensive side of the ball, but that is the specialty of new head coach Pat Narduzzi, if he can make improvements right from the start then Pitt’s offensive stars may just give them the edge in the Coastal Division.
2. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Offensive snaps lost: 5,327 (46.7 percent)
Defensive snaps lost: 2,631 (24.8 percent)
Opponents know exactly what to expect from Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech, but simply knowing the option is coming doesn’t mean they can stop it. They rode it all the way to an 11-3 season in 2014, falling to a two point defeat in the ACC title game, before triumphing over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl. High turnover at the offensive skill positions could make the Yellow Jacket offense less potent, but as long as they have a dangerous rusher such as Justin Thomas (86.1 rushing grade) under center, they will offer a threat. The stars of the defense are in the secondary, with safety Jamal Golden (84.2) and corner D.J. White (79.4) both grading well in coverage.
3. Duke Blue Devils
Offensive snaps lost: 4,628 (41.6 percent)
Defensive snaps lost: 3,569 (31.3 percent)
When David Cutliffe took the Duke job ahead of the 2008 season, he inherited a program that had amassed just 22 wins in 13 seasons, which shows just how impressive it is that his Blue Devils have won 25 games in the last three. Turning Duke into a winning team was a huge step, the next is maintaining the wins as players cycle through the roster, and that is the challenge Cutliffe faces in 2015. The return of running backs Shaun Wilson (75.6) and Shaquille Powell (75.4) is key for the offense. On limited touches as a freshman, Wilson averaged 4.74 yards after contact per attempt, and had an impressive 113.6 elusive rating. The offensive line lost two top players to the NFL, but guard Lucas Patrick (81.9) and center Matt Skura (80.2) remain. Defensively, Duke’s strength lies in the secondary, where they are led by the versatile slot corner Jeremy Cash (81.4). Cash has a hybrid role — he led the team with 49 stops in 2014, tied for the team lead with six sacks and yet his highest grade came in coverage. It’s a rebuilding year of sorts, but the Blue Devils have plenty of established talent to call upon.
4. Virginia Tech Hokies
Offensive snaps lost: 3,320 (29.0 percent)
Defensive snaps lost: 2,936 (29.1 percent)
In recent seasons there has been a recurring theme in Blacksburg, an ineffective offense undermines a generally excellent Bud Foster defense. Will it be any different in 2015? Certainly the defense looks like it will be strong. Corners Kendall Fuller (79.6) and Chuck Clark (76.7) are among the best in the ACC. While defensive tackle Corey Marshall, along with ends Dadi Nicolas and Ken Ekanem combined for 23 sacks and 127 total pressures in 2014, giving the defense some bite upfront. Offensively sophomores Isaiah Ford (78.7) and Bucky Hodges (78.8) are the key playmakers in the passing game, the key is to get the ball in their hands more often. That means better play from quarterback Michael Brewer.
5. North Carolina Tar Heels
Offensive snaps lost: 1,325 (11.3 percent)
Defensive snaps lost: 3,036 (26.3 percent)
There are few tougher teams to predict than the Tar Heels, they had talented players in key positions on offense 2014, yet still went 6-7. Now that much of that talent returns, with an extra year of experience under their belts, it’s logical to expect much more from them, but logic doesn’t always apply to Chapel Hill. The offense runs through dual threat QB Marquise Williams (76.9), and he has some notable talent to work with in receiver Quinshad Davis (76.5) and running back T.J. Logan (78.6). Right tackle Jon Heck (79) allowed just three QB hits in 2014. Interior defender Nazair Jones (78.1) was disruptive against both run and pass as a freshman, and should claim a larger role in 2015. There is little in the way of proven talent around him, however, and if the Tar Heels are to cash in on their dangerous offense, they need a more experienced defense to fulfill their end of the bargain.
6. Miami (FL) Hurricanes
Offensive snaps lost: 4,269 (44.4 percent)
Defensive snaps lost: 3,928 (37.5 percent)
It promises to be a seminal season for Al Golden’s tenure at Miami. After 7-5 and 9-4 seasons in 2012 and 2013, respectively, the Hurricanes slumped to 6-7 in 2014, and have lost a number of key players since. Quarterback Brad Kaaya flashed potential on his way to an average 80.56 PFF QB rating as a freshman, much more is expected from him in his second season. However, he must do that without his left tackle and top three targets from a year ago, including dynamic running back Duke Johnson. Gus Edwards (74.2) and Joseph Yearby (70.8) are vying to replace Johnson, but it’s a tall order. Defensively, safety Deon Bush (81) is a stand out, but the team struggled to get to the passer last season and have lost two of their top pass rushers. The most productive returning edge rusher, Tyriq McCord, had just three sacks and 24 total pressures in 2014.
7. Virginia Cavaliers
Offensive snaps lost: 4,203 (40.9 percent)
Defensive snaps lost: 5,231 (53.1 percent)
Much like their rivals in Blacksburg, the Cavaliers have excelled at combining solid defense with struggling offense under head coach Mike London. Except where the Hokies are able to churn out winning seasons, the Cavaliers have managed just the one in seven years. The good news is that mobile quarterback Matt Johns (78.4) looked good in limited action in 2014, and is set to assume the starting role fulltime as a junior. Johns will need to develop a good rapport with wide receiver Canaan Severin, who had a solid 114.4 WR Rating in 2014, despite being part of a struggling offense. Early declarations for the NFL draft caused something of a talent train for the defense, but the well is certainly not dry. The skill sets of interior defenders David Dean (78) and Mike Moore (74.2) dovetail nicely — Dean is stout against the run, while Moore is a disruptive pass rusher.