2018 ACC Power Rankings: It's Clemson and everyone else

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2018 conference previews. With the official start of the 2018 season just days away, we’re doing things a little differently this year. We’re power ranking the teams in each FBS conference. Like our preseason top 25, these rankings will undoubtedly be wrong.

Previously: Group of Five conferences

14. Syracuse (2017 finish: 4-8, 7th Atlantic Division)

Eric Dungey is a senior in 2018 and we hope he can make it through a full season. He’s started fewer than 10 games in each of his first three seasons with the Orange. Dungey is one of those guys you want to stash on your roster in Yahoo’s College Fantasy Football game. When he’s healthy he puts up strong numbers in coach Dino Babers’ offense.

Syracuse does have to find Dungey some new targets. Receivers Steve Ishmael and Ervin Phillips combined for 194 catches in 2017 and are both gone. A run game would be nice too. Dungey was the team’s leading rusher with 595 yards.

And, finally, some defensive improvement is necessary if Syracuse wants to sniff a bowl game. The Orange has given up more than 30 points a game in each of the last three seasons. The schedule is tough given the landscape of the ACC Atlantic and a neutral site game against Notre Dame. A 6-6 season would be a big accomplishment.

13. Virginia (6-7, 5th Coastal)

The Military Bowl was a disaster but the 2017 season has to be considered a success for the Cavaliers. The 49-7 loss to Navy was Virginia’s first bowl appearance since the 2011 season. A Week 4 upset at Boise State was part of a 5-1 start that made fans wonder just what the heck was happening.

They probably started asking themselves the same question over the second half of the season. A 5-1 start transitioned into a 1-5 finish as Virginia only beat Georgia Tech in its final six games.

WR/RB/Do-it-all Olamide Zaccheus should be one of the most fun players in the ACC and running back Jordan Ellis could challenge the 1,000-yard mark. The defense brings back eight starters but has to replace star players Micah Kiser and Quin Blanding. They combined for 282 tackles.

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12. Pittsburgh (5-7, 4th Coastal)

Who is Pitt going to upset in 2018? The Panthers beat Clemson 43-42 in 2016 and stunned Miami in the final week of the regular season in 2017 to break the Hurricanes’ undefeated season. Miami is on the schedule again in 2018 and so is Central Florida and Notre Dame. All three of those are road games for the Panthers, but so was that Clemson game in 2016.

Led by QB Kenny Pickett, the offense returns just four starters but that may not be a terrible thing. Pitt’s offense took a major step backward in 2017. With offensive coordinator Matt Canada off to LSU — and now the interim head coach at Maryland — the Panthers scored 17 fewer points per game and had 80 fewer yards per game. Those offensive declines offset improvement by the defense. Pitt didn’t have to win shootouts in 2017, but it didn’t have an offense capable of getting into a shootout in the first place.

The defense brings back eight of the team’s top nine tacklers from a year ago. If Pat Narduzzi gets the defense to improve again, an improved offense could put Pitt in the mix in an open Coastal.

11. North Carolina (3-9, 7th Coastal)

Will America decline if North Carolina doesn’t finish in the top half of the division? UNC coach Larry Fedora oddly linked the potential decline of football to the decline of America while at ACC media days. And then a few weeks after that, North Carolina suspended 13 players for selling team-issued shoes on eBay.

One of those players suspended is Chazz Surratt, a player widely expected to be the team’s starting quarterback. He’ll miss the first four games of the season, opening the door for Nathan Elliott to be the team’s starting QB.

Defensive linemen Malik Carney and Tomon Fox are also suspended, though their suspensions will be staggered throughout the season. It’s nice for the Tar Heels that the two starters won’t be absent at the same time. But entering the season knowing you’ll be without a starter on the defensive line for eight games isn’t ideal.

10. Wake Forest (8-5, 3rd Atlantic)

The Demon Deacons have the potential to go bowling again in 2018 but are on the wrong side of the ACC. Quarterback Kendall Hinton is suspended to start the year so the team is rolling with true freshman Sam Hartman to start the season.

Running back Matt Colburn is back and so is receiver Greg Dortch. Dortch was having an extremely productive year — 53 catches in eight games — before he was sidelined with an abdominal injury halfway through the season. Replacing QB John Wolford’s production will be hard, but Hartman has plenty of weapons to work with before Hinton inevitably returns to the lineup.

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9. Georgia Tech (5-6, 3rd Coastal)

Long live the option. Georgia Tech was a game short of making a bowl in 2017 because of a canceled game due to a hurricane. To be fair, that probably saved the Yellow Jackets from going 5-7 instead of finishing at 5-6. It was against UCF.

Eight starters return on offense including all skill position players. That’s good for the passing game because TaQuon Marshall was absolutely dreadful throwing the ball in 2017. Marshall completed 37 percent of his passes for less than 1,000 yards. He was dynamic on the ground, rushing for 1,146 yards and 17 scores. He should be great running the ball again. But GT’s offense really hums when defenses have to keep a deep pass in the back of their minds.

The Yellow Jacket defense was better overall both against the run and the pass in 2017 but has to replace six starters and the defensive coordinator. Passing improvements plus a new defense under Nate Woody should be enough to get Georgia Tech to a bowl game.

8. Louisville (8-5, 5th Atlantic)

Juwan “Puma” Pass takes over as Louisville’s quarterback. If only the Cardinals had a contract with Puma and not with Adidas.

Pass could post passing stats similar to what Lamar Jackson did in 2017. That’s not to say Jackson is a system quarterback; he has a chance to be an NFL star. But Pass inherits an offense that returns receivers Jaylen Smith, Dez Fitzpatrick and Seth Dawkins. They caught 20 of the 29 touchdowns that Louisville quarterbacks threw a year ago.

An abysmal defense could get better simply by sheer turnover. Louisville has to replace seven starters from a unit coordinated by Peter Sirmon a year ago. Sirmon was hired from Mississippi State to replace Todd Grantham and the Cardinals allowed nearly four more points a game and 60 more yards per game than in 2016. His tenure lasted just one season. We’ll see what former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder can do with the unit in 2018.

7. NC State (9-4, 2nd Atlantic)

As Clemson’s star defensive line returns completely intact, NC State’s entire defensive line must be replaced. That includes Bradley Chubb, the Denver Broncos’ first-round draft pick. He had 10 of NC State’s 30 sacks in 2017. Add in the other players that NC State must replace and just 5.5 sacks return in 2018.

Quarterback Ryan Finley is back on offense along with Kelvin Harmon, the team’s leading receiver in 2017. They’ll be one of the best connections in the ACC. But RB Nyheim Hines and the versatile Jaylen Samuels are gone, leaving a large hole in the offense. The two players combined for 2,265 rushing and receiving yards and 28 total touchdowns.

North Carolina State quarterback Ryan Finley throws during the warmups before the start of the Sun Bowl NCAA college football game against Arizona State in El Paso, Texas, Friday, Dec. 29, 2017. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)
North Carolina State quarterback Ryan Finley throws during the warmups before the start of the Sun Bowl NCAA college football game against Arizona State in El Paso, Texas, Friday, Dec. 29, 2017. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

6. Virginia Tech (9-4, 2nd Coastal)

The Hokies are quite ready for football games to begin. The defense has to replace eight starters after an offseason that saw CB Adonis Alexander ruled academically ineligible, incoming junior college transfer CB Jeremy Webb out for the season because of a torn Achilles and DB Mook Reynolds dismissed from the program.

Co-defensive coordinator Galen Scott resigned after it came out that he carried out an extramarital affair while on recruiting trips. Oh, and rumors swirled about the status of quarterback Josh Jackson, but he’s back and will be the starting quarterback once again.

Jackson threw for 20 touchdowns and rushed for six in 2017, his first season as a starter. He should take a step forward in the passing game in his second season but the size of that step may be determined by the progress Virginia Tech’s run game makes. The Hokies haven’t averaged over 4 yards a carry since the 2011 season.

A trip to Florida State opens the season on Sept. 3 but VT has both Notre Dame and Miami at home.

5. Duke (7-6, 6th Coastal)

We’re buying high on the Blue Devils, who return 15 starters including QB Daniel Jones. Jones is a sleeper candidate for your Yahoo College Fantasy Football team. He threw for 14 touchdowns in 2017 and ran for seven more. He could have 25 or more scores in 2018.

The team’s top three receivers are back and running back Brittain Brown should take over as the lead running back.

Duke’s defense was quietly one of the better units in the country in 2017. Duke allowed 20 points a game and just 333 yards per game. Those are stellar numbers for a major conference school. The schedule isn’t helpful with games at Northwestern and Clemson, but Duke could end the season at 8-4 and second in the Coastal.

4. Boston College (7-6, 4th Atlantic)

If you’re looking for a surprise team in 2018, you can do far worse than Boston College. The Eagles return sophomores A.J. Dillon and Anthony Brown. Dillon rushed for almost 1,600 yards and 14 touchdowns while Brown showed flashes after taking over as BC’s starting quarterback before hurting his knee.

Tight end Tommy Sweeney is back too. He was the team’s leading receiver with 36 catches for 512 yards a year ago. RB Jon Hillman is the only player on the offense who isn’t back in 2018; he grad transferred to Rutgers.

The Eagles’ defense took a big step back against the run in 2017, giving up 191 yards a game after giving up 109 a game in 2016. But BC allowed fewer points than it did a year ago thanks to a pass defense that allowed less than 200 a game and prevented opponents from completing 52 percent of their passes. Defensive lineman Zach Allen emerged as Harold Landry missed time in 2017 and should be one of the best defensive players in the ACC.

Boston College running back AJ Dillon (2) is a sleeper Heisman candidate as a sophomore. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Boston College running back AJ Dillon (2) is a sleeper Heisman candidate as a sophomore. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

3. Florida State (7-6, 6th Atlantic)

For more on Florida State, the No. 19 team in our preseason top 25, click here.

The Seminoles need to figure out if James Blackman or Deondre Francois is the team’s quarterback. But leading rushers Jacques Patrick and Cam Akers return and should be the focal point of the offense. Four starters on the offensive line are back as well. With an offensive philosophy shift under new coach Willie Taggart, both Akers and Patrick could each challenge the 1,000-yard mark — Akers especially.

Taggart has high expectations in his first season in Tallahassee. And his defense needs to find seven new starters. There’s plenty of talent to choose from. There will be growing pains in 2018 but it’ll be a much smoother season.

2. Miami (10-3, 1st Coastal)

For more on Miami, the No. 9 team in our preseason top 25, click here.

The Hurricanes are the class of the ACC Coastal. We think. We’re anticipating an ACC Championship Game rematch in 2018 between Miami and you-know-who.

To get through the Coastal, Miami will need to survive a likely turnover regression. The Hurricanes rode a positive turnover differential — you may have heard of the Turnover Chain — in all 12 regular season games to an 11-1 record in 2017. But when Miami played Clemson and Wisconsin to end the season the Hurricanes were a combined -4 in turnovers.

Malik Rosier is back as Miami’s starting quarterback and Travis Homer should break the 1,000-yard barrier as the team’s leading running back. Safety Jaquan Johnson leads a defense that will be very good again even if it forces fewer turnovers.

1. Clemson (12-2, 1st Atlantic)

For more on Clemson, the No. 2 team in our preseason top 25, click here.

The Tigers are, quite simply, the best team in the ACC. Having anyone else here would be negligent or simply taking a wild guess for the sake of being contrary. There’s no reason to put anyone else but Clemson at the top of the ACC.

Like every team, the Tigers have questions. Like at quarterback, where Kelly Bryant could be pushed by Trevor Lawrence. Or at wide receiver, where Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud need to be replaced. But there’s plenty of talent on the outside. And whoever ends up being the quarterback will have an offensive line with an All-American tackle and three returning running backs.

Oh, there’s the defensive line too. Clemson has had over 40 sacks in four-straight seasons. It’ll be a stunner if that streak doesn’t go to five.

ACC commissioner John Swofford, left, gives Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, left, the trophy after winning the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game against Miami in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
ACC commissioner John Swofford, left, gives Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, left, the trophy after winning the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game against Miami in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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