CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Clemson looks ready for another year as the Atlantic Coast Conference favorite in a division that has long been the league’s center of power.
It’s the teams behind the three-time defending ACC champion Tigers in the Atlantic Division that are sporting a different look.
Florida State has a new coach in Willie Taggart. Louisville has lost a Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Lamar Jackson after he spent the past two seasons terrorizing division defenses. And North Carolina State, which finished second to Clemson last year, faces significant questions after defensive player of the year Bradley Chubb was among four defensive linemen selected in the NFL draft.
So how will all that change among Clemson’s top contenders affect the divisional race?
“We’re about to find out,” Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said Thursday during the ACC Kickoff preseason media days.
“I think that’s greatest thing about the game. We can do all this talking in the offseason and spring and summer, but then the season starts. And that’s when you find out who’s going to be where, and who’s going to challenge Clemson. Obviously it has to go through Clemson. But it’s time for someone to get them.”
The Tigers are trying to become the first team to win four straight ACC titles since Florida State’s nine-year run began in the 1990s. They’ve lost only four games in three seasons, with two coming against ACC opponents and one — at Syracuse last year — coming within the Atlantic Division.
From there, there are plenty of changes in a division that has claimed seven straight league titles — the biggest coming in Tallahassee.
The Seminoles brought in Taggart after a year at Oregon to take over for Jimbo Fisher, who left for Texas A&M after eight seasons as Bobby Bowden’s successor. And that makes Taggart only the Seminoles’ third coach since 1976.
Fisher’s Seminoles ran a pro-style offense, though Taggart is expected to bring a faster tempo in what is described as a “Gulf Coast” offense rooted in the spread.
And he’s got two experienced possibilities at quarterbacks in James Blackman and Deondre Francois.
“It’ll be faster than what we’ve been before,” Taggart said. “We’re not a team that’s trying to get 100 plays. We don’t do tempo to get 100 plays. We’re trying to get explosive plays. ... And we have the players to do that.”
The offense isn’t the only change at FSU, to listen to running back Cam Akers.
“Accountability — that’s one of the biggest ones,” Akers said. “Just people doing what we’re supposed to do as a team. Class, being late for things, there’s no more. You’ve got to be accountable for everything. There’s real consequences for everything.”
At Louisville, the question is how to replace Jackson, the 2016 Heisman winner and last season’s ACC offensive player of the year who had a national-best 5,261 yards of total offense.
That job falls to Jawon Pass, a 6-foot-4 redshirt sophomore who appeared in five games and has 33 college passes on his resume.
Yet Petrino has the unexpectedly optimistic public position that the offense will be better in 2018 by being more balanced.
“They’re still going to have their doubts about what we can do without Lamar,” receiver Jaylen Smith said. “So yeah, it feels like we’re kind of sliding under the radar.”
At N.C. State, the Wolfpack finished 6-2 in the ACC last year and played Clemson within single digits in tough losses in each of the past two seasons. The Wolfpack had a school-record seven players drafted into the NFL.
“Five years ago we had zero wins in the ACC, this year we tied the school record,” Doeren said.
“Five years ago we had no draft picks, this year we broke the school record. So the progress is there. Everyone sees it. Now it’s just continuing to get better and just raising the standard for this program again — and that’s what this year is about.”