After 1,589 yards and 14 touchdowns in his freshman season, the expectation for an even better performance is in place for running back AJ Dillon as an entire starting offensive line returns to create open lanes. Quarterback could be a question early this season as Anthony Brown is recovering from a knee injury last fall. The Eagles receiving corps however is one of the best under Steve Addazio that compliments one of the country’s top tight ends in Tommy Sweeney.
The strength of the defense will be the front seven. Defensive end Zach Allen will be the player who commands extra attention from opposing teams after totaling 100 tackles and 6 sacks in 2017. Linebacker Connor Strachan, the team’s leading tackler in 2016, is back following a 2017 injury.
When a team finishes 12-2, makes the College Football Playoff and has their starting quarterback returning, usually there is no question at his position. That doesn't seem to be the case at Clemson. Kelly Bryant out-performed expectations last season, but the arrival of freshman Trevor Lawrence has caused a controversy. The Tigers are well set in the backfield with both Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne being capable of explosive running. Whomever the quarterback may be, he'll have a group of receivers that can be among the best in the country including sophomore Tee Higgins who is set for a breakout year. The offensive line really only has one new spot at left guard. Junior John Simpson will have that opportunity to make his name known beside All-American left tackle Mitch Hyatt.
The defense speaks for itself. Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables is going to be starting basically an NFL defensive line with Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, and Austin Bryant. With Dorian O'Daniel gone, look for veterans Kendall Joseph and Tre Lamar to step up as leaders behind the line. The secondary sustained a slew of injuries last fall, and this group needs to stay healthy after losing three starters from 2017. Trayvon Mullen could move himself into the discussion of a high round NFL draft pick if he performs at his highest level at cornerback.
With FSU now in the Willie Taggart era, if it’s anything like his previous stops, there will be a big emphasis on the run game. All-ACC back Cam Akers set an FSU freshman rushing record with 1,024 yards last season, and now he’s poised to push for All-American honors. The biggest question marks for the Seminoles sit at both quarterback and offensive line. Deondre Francois and James Blackman are both in contention for the starting job, but if 32 sacks are surrendered again this season, it won’t matter who the quarterback will be because he won’t have a chance.
Defensive tackle Demarcus Christmas returns for his third year starting and pairs with former 5-star recruit Marvin Wilson on the interior. Willie Taggart will be tasked with finding three new starting linebackers and also filling open holes in the secondary left by Derwin James and Tarvarus McFadden who left for the NFL.
The key for Louisville will be replacing Lamar Jackson’s production both in the air and on the ground. Jawon Pass is the next man up, and while he doesn’t have the same speed as Jackson, he is bigger and has a better touch on his passes. A group of receivers that combined for 2,300 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2017 all return to give Pass weapons on the outside, and the running backs will have more opportunities and an increased workload behind a talented and experienced offensive line
One interesting aspect of the Cardinals defense is that is might not feature a senior. Dorian Etheridge was the spark that this group needed last season with a team-leading 83 tackles. In order for Bobby Petrino’s team to be successful this season, they’ll need strong run stoppers up the middle and playmakers in the secondary.
This offensive unit should rank among the best in the ACC this season with the centerpiece of quarterback Ryan Finley back. On the outside Finley will have his top three receivers, Stephen Louis, Kelvin Harmon, and Jakobi Myers all back in Raleigh. Although three starters return of the offensive line, the running game could be a weak spot for the Wolfpack in 2018.
With one of the toughest tasks in the conference, NC State must replace 8 starters from last season including ACC Defensive Player of the Year Bradley Chubb. The secondary struggled with injuries and inexperience last year, but add Tennessee transfer safety Stephen Griffin to the group for depth.
Quarterback Eric Dungey now has 3 years of starting experience with the Orange and through injury, he’s proven to be a tough playmaker. One aspect that could help Dungey be able to finally play an entire season, is an improvement in pass protection. After having an All-American receiver the each of the last two seasons, it will be interesting to see who steps up to be Dungey’s go-to playmaker on the outside. This will once again be a fast-paced offense in 2018, after leading the country with a play every 21.1 seconds last year.
One of the most underrated forces in the ACC is defensive tackle Chris Slayton. Coming off the line, he’s a dominant force with great lateral quickness. The strength of 2017’s defense was the linebackers. Now Syracuse will be playing with a brand new rotation in the second level. The secondary returns three starters, and a potential x-factor could be free safety Antwan Cordy.
From the top scoring team in school history, 3 All-ACC offensive lineman return to lead the charge in the trenches. Kendall Hinton, the presumed new name under center for the Wake, struggled to stay in the pocket and with accuracy at times last season in limited action. He’ll be suspended for the first three games of the season, so Matt Colburn and the running game should see an increased workload early on. Greg Dortch will be a threat to the whole conference both in the slot and on special teams in 2018.
The defense needs to learn from their mistakes last season as often times, it seemed like everyone wasn’t on the same page. The strength will be the interior line with fifth year players Zeke Rodney and Willie Yarbury. The secondary must improve in pass protection and avoiding the big, explosive plays.