ACC preseason power rankings 2018: Clemson rocks, Virginia flops

CLEMSON, SC - APRIL 14: The Pregame walk on the field by the team during the Clemson Spring Football game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on April 14, 2018 in Clemson, SC.. (Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
CLEMSON, SC - APRIL 14: The Pregame walk on the field by the team during the Clemson Spring Football game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on April 14, 2018 in Clemson, SC.. (Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

The ACC season keeps off this Thursday when Wake Forest travels to Tulane. That means it’s time to start the year with preseason power rankings.

College football is finally back in our lives and ACC action will kick off on Thursday. Wake Forest at Tulane may not be a marquee matchup, but it does mark the beginning of the conference slate. That’s why it’s time to kick off our weekly power ranking series with our preseason edition.

The ACC seems pretty set at the top, but the choices get a lot tougher the further down the standings you go. In particular, expect to see a lot of changes in the middle of these rankings as the year progresses. There’s a thin line between eight wins and six wins in the league this year. Expect coaches to fight tooth and nail to reach achieve bowl eligibility.

Without further delay, let’s jump into the preseason rankings. We start by examining one of the stronger favorites the ACC has seen in recent years.

There’s no reason to get cute here. Clemson deserves to be the overwhelming favorite. Dabo Swinney’s team isn’t a lock to make it through the conference schedule undefeated, but they will e favorites each time they take the field. The quarterback controversy between Kelly Bryant and Trevor Lawrence is getting all the headlines, but it’s the defense that will carry this team early.

The loss of Jimbo Fisher is going to hurt the Seminoles more than their fans seem to think. That isn’t a shot at Willie Taggart, but Fisher is a brilliant offensive mind. Look for the Seminoles’ offense to sputter a little bit early due to their coaching change. FSU should be glad they host Virginia Tech in the opener as opposed to being forced to play in Blacksburg.

Josh Fuente has quarterback Josh Jackson poised to have a gigantic campaign for the Hokies. Don’t be surprised if the sophomore signal caller works his way into the conversation for ACC Offensive Player of the Year. It might be a year too early for him to garner that sort of accolade, but he’s going to have a big season.

Mark Richt has the Hurricanes headed in the right direction, but he’s still a year or two away from getting Miami back into ACC title contention. The ‘Canes do have a big chance early to earn a huge win for the conference. Beating LSU on a neutral field would be a nice victory over a quality SEC opponent. Miami will enter the game as the favorite and they need to take care of business.

The Wolfpack aren’t going to blow anyone away with highlight plays this season, but they are going to force opponents to beat them. That’s the blueprint Dave Doeren has worked hard to install in Raleigh. The only question is how this team will do without obvious NFL talent populating the roster. NC State lost a lot of guys to the pros last year, they will need some young guys to step up and fill the void.

Slowly but surely, Pat Narduzzi is building a winner in Pittsburgh. Darrin Hall might be the best running back in college football you haven’t heard of. He broke the 1,000-yard barrier in 2017, but he only burst onto the scene late in the year. 1,500 yards isn’t out of question for Hall if he can stay healthy in 2018.

The Eagles are everyone’s trendy pick to break into the upper echelon of the ACC this season. To do that, they’ll need an absolutely monster season from running back A.J. Dillon. He rushed for 1,589 yards last year, but opposing defenses will be focused on him this year. If Boston College can find some balance on offense they can move up this list. If not, they may sink down into the morass at the bottom of the ACC instead.

No defense enjoys preparing for Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets can run the triple option to perfection. That gives them a puncher’s chance to beat anyone on their schedule. Unfortunately for Paul Johnson, shortening the game via the ground game also keeps lesser opponents in games. As always, turnovers will be the key for Georgia Tech’s success this year.

Dave Clawson’s team has quarterback issues to start the season. Four-year starter John Wolford is no longer in Winston-Salem and Kendall Hinton will miss the first three games of the year due to suspension. That means true freshman Sam Hartman is starting at Tulane.

Don’t expect the coaching staff to put the game into his hands. Instead, the Deacons will try to grind out results behind their physical offensive line. That group will give Clawson a chance to return to a Bowl game in 2018, but Wake’s margin of error is very thin.

Under David Cutcliffe, the Blue Devils are always going to be capable of scoring points in bunches. The question is whether or not they can consistently stop their opponents from doing the same thing. This year’s defense doesn’t boast a ton of talent. Look for Duke to compete in a lot of shootouts in 2018.

All eyes will be on Jawon Pass to try to fill Lamar Jackson’s gigantic shoes at Louisville. He’s got some talent, but his numbers are going to pale in comparison to his predecessor’s. The Cardinals will play some entertaining football games with their ability to score, but this isn’t an overly talented team. Look for the Cardinals to struggle to achieve Bowl eligibility.

The rash of NCAA suspensions in Chapel Hill is going to make this team difficult to evaluate for the first month of the season. They won’t lose everyone at once, which means they’ll be short key players for the first three or four games.

Even when everyone is eligible, this team lacks the talent to compete in the upper echelon of the ACC. The Tar Heels might pull off a few fun upsets when their opponents overlook them, but they’re a team that can get beat by everyone on their schedule. That’s not a recipe for a strong season.

Wahoos fans are dreaming of the good old days when George Welsh quietly piloted them to Bowl eligibility on an annual basis. Bronco Mendenhall would love to know what that feels like. Don’t expect him or the Cavaliers to find out in 2018.

No team in the ACC is hopeless, but the Orange are as close as it comes in the league. Dino Babers will need everything to go right to even flirt with a .500 season. A Bowl appearance isn’t impossible, but it is highly unlikely. If Syracuse can notch more than two ACC wins they should be pleased with their progress.