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Why ACC football will look more like the SEC in 2017

Almost all of the league’s good QBs leaving, plus tons of returning defensive talent, could make points hard to come by.

Florida State v Mississippi
FSU’s Derwin James returns as the best safety in the country.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

In recent years, the ACC has been an exceptional league for offenses. With Jameis Winston, Deshaun Watson, and a host of other elite QBs, points were the currency.

But before the last few years, there was a long stretch during which the ACC was a very defensive league. A bevy of defensive-minded coaches contributed to this style, but the ACC’s NFL draft numbers show the defensive talent was very real.

If draft numbers are any indication, though, there is a real chance those low-scoring games are coming back for the 2017 season.

In the last 20 drafts, 70 more ACC defensive players than offensive players have been selected (344-274).

Nine times in those 20 drafts, at least five more defensive players were picked than offensive players, but the reverse had never happened — until 2017. In this most recent draft, nine more offensive players were picked than defensive prospects, more than double the previous offensive surplus of four. It is a huge statistical outlier in the last 20 years.

It’s unprecedented since the ACC expanded for it to lose significantly more offensive talent to the draft than defensive talent.

And it’s not just the numbers game. It’s real impact talent. The league’s top five picks (Nos. 4, 7, 12, 29, and 41) were all on offense.

The ACC lost five of its top six passers by QB rating in conference play. Gone are Deshaun Watson, Mitch Trubisky, Nathan Peterman, Brad Kaaya, and Jerod Evans. That is an enormous amount of talent to replace at the position. Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson does return, but he can only carry a single offense.

I examined every qualified QB over the last eight years (it is as far back as goes). I found that 2016 QBs accounted for 27 percent of the seasons in top quarter of the last eight years by QB rating in conference play. That’s striking, because the average expected distribution would be 12.5 percent (one in eight). So 2016 was a huge outlier production wise, at more than double the expected rate. The modern ACC has never lost even close to this much production in one year.

The age of the departed QBs also matters. Four of the five losses were underclassmen. In the data I looked at, the ACC has never had four QBs turn pro early in the same season. While Watson and Kaaya were expected pre-season, I do not believe most, including the schools, expected Trubisky or Evans to declare early. That makes the expected replacements even younger, pressed into duty often before they are ready. Miami could potentially be counting on a true freshman who did not even enroll in time for spring to quarterback this year. Virginia Tech was not prepared for Evans to go pro early. The North Carolina and Clemson folks I talk to expect major regression as well, which is normal when losing a first-round QB.

Aside from Jackson, how many returning ACC quarterbacks can you name? Deondre Francois was promising for a redshirt freshman, but a completion percentage of 47.2 against five ranked teams shows he has a long way to go. Other than Francois, you’re probably going to have to cheat with Google.

Seven of the league’s top 10 receivers (and 13 of the top 20) are also gone, including names like Mike Williams, David Njoku, Ryan Switzer, Isaiah Ford, Bucky Hodges, and Stacy Coley.

Also gone are the league’s top four running backs in Dalvin Cook, James Conner, Wayne Gallman, and Matt Dayes.

That’s just so much firepower lost. And pair that with all of the elite defensive talent coming back.

Florida State’s defense, led by the return of Derwin James, figures to be nasty. So does Clemson’s, which could have three future first-round picks on the defensive line alone. And Miami could have the league's best front seven. Same goes for NC State and Boston College. And Pitt’s defense could be in for a turnaround.

In fact, SB Nation’s way-too-early mock draft for 2018 has an incredible eight (8!) defensive players from the ACC projected in the first round, but just two on the offensive side of the ball.

And they are not just pro prospects. Many are elite, proven college producers. The ACC leads the nation with 18 defenders on the Bednarik Award watch list, an honor presented to the top defensive player in the country. That is more than the Big Ten’s 15, or the SEC’s 14.

If this goes the way it looks like it might, the next question will be: Is this bad offense, as it is usually labeled, or great defense, as it is described by SEC observers?

(Thanks to the Pro Football Reference Draft Finder database for this research.)