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After previewing every ACC team for 2018, here’s how I think the conference stacks up

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There might not be a single bad team in the ACC this year, but there might only be one elite.

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Clemson vs Miami
Mark Richt and Dabo Swinney
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

At the end of each conference previews run-through, I take a look at how I perceive the conference’s balance of power heading into the season. This is in no way based on schedules, so they are not predictions. This is just how I would rank the teams after writing thousands of words about each of them. We have already completed the Sun Belt, C-USA, MAC, MWC, AAC, Pac-12, Big 12, and Big Ten.

Bill C’s ACC power rankings

Here’s a link to every team’s data, and each team’s name below is linked to its preview.

Tier 1

1. Clemson

The thing that most caught my eye while writing this year’s batch of ACC previews is that every single team in this league has top-40 potential.

  • UNC was the league’s worst last year but finished in the S&P+ top-30 in the two years before it got crushed by injuries and youth.
  • In 2017, Virginia and Syracuse faded after showing legitimate potential.
  • Georgia Tech returns its quarterback and just made its most exciting defensive assistant hire in years.
  • Pitt played like damn near a top-25 team over the last couple of games of 2017, when this year’s starting QB took over behind center. Duke and BC were legitimately good down the stretch, too (and, unlike Pitt, for more than two games).

Et cetera.

Not everyone will play at a top-40 level, mind you; injuries always strike down some teams. But the potential depth here is staggering.

All that said, there’s still only one surefire national contender. In a conference full of exciting possibilities, the Tigers are the sure thing.

Tier 2

2. Miami
3. Florida State

If the conference produces a second title contender, you have to figure it’s one of these two.

Miami looked the part for a good percentage of 2017 but succumbed to depth issues. FSU looked the part as recently as 2016 before laboring through a strange fall of QB injury and coaching staleness. There’s a chance Willie Taggart needs a year to get FSU rolling, but the new energy could click immediately.

Tier 3

4. NC State
5. Louisville
6. Wake Forest
7. Virginia Tech
8. Duke
9. Boston College
10. Pitt
11. Georgia Tech
12. UNC

You know how, when you were working on an essay in school, you agonize over it and tweak it 4,000 times and then, at some point — either because it was due or you were about to go insane — you just said, “Screw it, this is good enough?” That’s me with this tier.

These nine teams are mostly interchangeable. Any of them could play at a top-25 level, but only probably three or so will. Most will play more at a top-50 level, and a couple will disappoint. But it’s really damn difficult to figure out who is who.

I stuck NC State at the top because I think the Wolfpack’s passing game is one of the most known entities in the tier and because I think the athleticism is still where it needs to be on defense (even if the coaching is still a bit suspect). But if I waited another 15 minutes, someone else would be in that No. 4 slot.

Screw it, this is good enough.

Tier 4

13. Syracuse
14. Virginia

Let’s call this Tier 3A instead. I think these two teams have almost as much potential as the teams in the loaded Tier 3; the only difference is that there’s maybe not quite as much upside.

Syracuse’s Dino Babers needs one more year to get his receiving corps to where it needs to be, and Bronco Mendenhall needs another year to build the depth to sustain UVA’s early-2017 level. But these teams could still get to six or seven wins.

How does S&P+ see things?

Here’s how my statistical system has the ACC laid out for 2018, with zero equating to an average FBS team. (You can find full 2018 S&P+ projections here.)

2018 projected standings (per S&P+)

Total projected wins are in parentheses.

Atlantic Division

  1. Clemson 6.9 (10.5)
  2. Florida State 4.4 (7.1)
  3. Louisville 4.4 (7.1)
  4. NC State 4.0 (7.0)
  5. Wake Forest 3.8 (6.7)
  6. BC 2.8 (5.7)
  7. Syracuse 2.4 (4.9)

In the Big Ten West, Wisconsin rules over everyone else but is still projected just 1.6 games ahead of second-place Iowa. In the Big 12, Oklahoma is the most proven entity, but three other teams project within 1.8 conference wins. S&P+ adores Washington but still has the Huskies only 2.3 conference wins ahead of everyone else in the Pac-12 North.

Meanwhile, Clemson is an average of 2.5 wins ahead of the field here, and that’s despite a pretty confident FSU projection.

By the way, check out those overall win totals, too. While there might not be a lot of drama in the conference race unless FSU is better than expected, all six other teams are projected between 4.9 and 7.1 wins. Any of these teams could bowl, and any could be left home for the holidays, depending on the close games.

Coastal Division

  1. Miami 6.0 (9.3)
  2. Virginia Tech 4.9 (8.1)
  3. Pitt 3.8 (5.3)
  4. North Carolina 3.6 (6.2)
  5. Duke 3.5 (6.2)
  6. Georgia Tech 3.0 (5.3)
  7. Virginia 2.5 (5.1)

As noted in the Virginia Tech preview, these S&P+ projections were created before the Hokies lost a couple of key defensive starters to dismissal. When I re-run the projections in August, their numbers will fall a bit. I’m guessing they’ll still be a hair ahead of an otherwise crowded field (only 1.3 projected conference wins separate No. 3 from No. 7), but it’ll still create more space for a Miami that has to deal with high expectations for the first time in a while.

How these teams looked in 2017

ACC offenses heading into 2018

This wasn’t an amazing offensive conference last year, but teams like BC, Syracuse, and, if healthy, UNC, have the pieces to become more consistent. And an FSU team with Taggart’s USF tempo could be deadly. Eventually.

ACC defenses heading into 2018

This was, however, quite a good defensive conference. Granted, NC State was disappointing, considering how much NFL talent it had on the line (which is now in the NFL instead of Raleigh), but returning production suggests defense will still be an overall strength, led by Clemson.

Best 2018 offensive players by team (best overall in bold):

  • BC: RB AJ Dillon
  • Clemson: LT Mitch Hyatt
  • Duke: QB Daniel Jones
  • Florida State: RB Cam Akers
  • Georgia Tech: OG Parker Braun
  • Louisville: WR Jaylen Smith
  • Miami: WR Ahmmon Richards
  • NC State: QB Ryan Finley
  • North Carolina: WR Anthony Ratliff-Williams
  • Pitt: OG Alex Bookser
  • Syracuse: QB Eric Dungey
  • Virginia: SLOT Olamide Zaccheaus
  • Virginia Tech: RB Deshawn McClease
  • Wake Forest: C Ryan Anderson

When healthy, Richards can be a transformative presence for the Miami offense. He’s been healthy for basically 1 1/3 seasons at this point but has six games with 99 or more receiving yards; in those six games, the Canes went 6-0 and averaged 36 points per game.

NCAA Football: Virginia at Miami
Ahmmon Richards
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Best 2018 defensive players by team

  • BC: DE Zach Allen
  • Clemson: DE Clelin Ferrell
  • Duke: CB Mark Gilbert
  • Florida State: DE Brian Burns
  • Georgia Tech: DE Anree Saint-Amour
  • Louisville: DE/OLB Jonathan Greenard
  • Miami: S Jaquan Johnson
  • NC State: LB Germaine Pratt
  • North Carolina: DE Malik Carney
  • Pitt: LB Oluwaseun Idowu
  • Syracuse: DT Chris Slayton
  • Virginia: CB/SS Juan Thornhill
  • Virginia Tech: DT Ricky Walker
  • Wake Forest: CB Essang Bassey

For the Clemson selection, I waffled between four different linemen. Whichever one I chose was going to end up in bold.

NCAA Football: Clemson Spring Game
Clelin Ferrell
Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

How do you rank the 2018 ACC?