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ACC power rankings: Clemson leads the way

ClemsonQuarterbackDepthFootball11239jpg88f2a
Rusty Costanza | AP
Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant passes in the first half of the Sugar Bowl NCAA college football bowl game against Alabama, in New Orleans. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is not concerned about his quarterback spot, even though the once-loaded depth at the position has been cut in half.
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Keith Srakocic | AP
Pittsburgh defensive lineman Shane Roy celebrates after the Pitt defense stopped Virginia on a fourth down near the goal line during the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh won 31-14.
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Mike Ehrmann | Getty Images
Lawrence Cager of the Miami Hurricanes makes a touchdown catch over Juan Thornhill of the Virginia Cavaliers during a game at Hard Rock Stadium on Nov. 18, 2017 in Miami Gardens, Fla.
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Mark Wallheiser | AP
Florida State defensive coordinator Charles Kelly, left, talks to defensive back Tyler Hunter in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Clemson in Tallahassee, Fla. Florida State's defense returns nine starters to a unit that struggled the first half of last season before rounding into form.

New recruits are on campus. Position battles have been settled, by and large. New coaches have acclimated themselves to their new surroundings.

Football is almost here. USA Today Sports will spend the next two months breaking down the power rankings in each conference in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

First comes the Atlantic Coast Conference. Clemson is the undisputed class of the league heading into September.

1. Clemson

This isn’t just the best team in the ACC but perhaps the best team in all of college football. Naysayers will point to the Tigers’ offseason quarterback competition as cause for concern, but look at things another way: Either Kelly Bryant steps up his game to fend off true freshman Trevor Lawrence or Lawrence proves too talented to keep out of the lineup. That’s a win-win scenario for Dabo Swinney and the Tigers. But it’s the nation’s best defensive line that will prove the difference in more games than not.

2. Miami (Fla.)

Miami should be viewed as a heavy favorite to win the Coastal Division and earn a rematch with Clemson in early December to settle the conference championship. The Hurricanes’ biggest issue remains quarterback play, repeating a theme from the tail end of last season. There’s talent, if a little young in some spots, and there’s no question about the coaching along the sidelines. The question is whether Malik Rosier responds to adversity as a senior or if Mark Richt opts to go elsewhere under center. I think Miami is getting close.

3. Florida State

The Willie Taggart era begins with expectations similar to the start of Jimbo Fisher’s tenure: eight or nine wins and a huge uptick in energy and optimism. Positivity does reign as Taggart takes over a team hungry for a rebound after a dreadful 2017. The Seminoles will get to eight wins and flirt with the Top 25, but I’m not sure if the entire structure is strong enough today to challenge Clemson in the Atlantic Division.

4. Virginia Tech

Tech sits in the middle of the pack nationally in returning production. But the personnel losses are significant: Cam Phillips at receiver, Greg Stroman in the secondary and star Tremaine Edmunds at linebacker, to name a few. It pays to trust to Justin Fuente, one of the nation’s most underrated coaches, and it’s also wise to expect improved play from sophomore quarterback Josh Jackson. The Hokies still look like the second-best team in the Coastal.

5. Louisville

A question to start: Has the second Bobby Petrino era been a disappointment? There’s a Heisman Trophy winner and a pair of national rankings but no push into major-bowl contention, as was the case during his first stint at Louisville and at Arkansas. This year’s team loses Lamar Jackson but seems very similar to the past four seasons — namely, a team that will win eight games and put up points but fail to take home even a division title.

6. Boston College

Don’t sleep on Boston College beating a team no one thinks it should in 2018, whether that’s Clemson, Miami or Florida State. The Eagles tout the best depth of Steve Addazio’s tenure, a top-flight running back in A.J. Dillon and a run defense that should improve after an awful 2017. This is a definite bowl team and potentially one of the great surprise teams in the Power Five. I don’t have the guts to go that far, but B.C. is going to make things interesting in the ACC.

7. Pittsburgh

Look for the Panthers to rebound and return to bowl play thanks in large part to the projected improvement from a defense that returns most of last year’s production. That alone should be enough to eke out six or seven wins. Whether Pittsburgh can do more depends on the offense and on quarterback play in particular. It’s fair to be in prove-it mode with that side of the ball heading into September.

8. North Carolina State

N.C. State has one of the elite players in college football in quarterback Ryan Finley, a strong offensive line anchored by center Garrett Bradbury and a very good cast of skill players headlined by potential All-America receiver Kelvin Harmon. And the rest? Well, it’s not great. I have big concerns about the Wolfpack’s defense and, generally speaking, about depth across the board. This looks like a six-win team with the potential for seven.

9. Duke

David Cutcliffe has a team more than capable of getting back into bowl play and even finishing third in the crowded Coastal, though the Blue Devils’ chances hinges on how well quarterback Daniel Jones fares as a junior. The big issue might be the schedule, which pits Duke against three potential bowl teams in September, draws Clemson from the Atlantic and has likely toss-up games with Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh on the road.

10. Wake Forest

This might be too low for Wake when considering the work Dave Clawson has done transforming this program into an annual bowl participant. There’s no reason to think that will change in 2018 — Wake will go bowling out of the Atlantic. But FSU will be better. As noted, B.C. is going to be a tough out. Louisville’s fine. Clemson’s a powerhouse. What does that mean for Wake? That there will again be few easy outs for a team with question marks at quarterback, linebacker and the pass rush.

11. Georgia Tech

The Yellow Jackets have now sandwiched a nine-win finish with two losing seasons. Is the bloom off the rose for Paul Johnson? Uh, yeah. But Tech always has the potential to pop in any odd year, with this coming season no exception. There’s enough talent surrounding quarterback TaQuon Marshall to be successful on offense, though Marshall needs to complete more than just a tick over a third of his attempts. The shift in defensive style under new coordinator Nate Woody is a plus, though it may take a little time for the unit to get on the same page. Here’s Tech in 2018: as few as four wins and as many as eight. This is the toughest team in the ACC to peg.

12. Syracuse

We’re still waiting for Syracuse to pop under Dino Babers. More patience would be good. I can’t figure out why this would be the year, unless you believe quarterback Eric Dungey takes a mammoth step forward in 2018 and leads this offensive scheme to its full potential. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Orange got to six or seven wins, but nor would I be shocked by another year at 4-8.

13. North Carolina

Who knows? UNC could storm back into the eight-win range. Or the Tar Heels could stick at or near the bottom of the Coastal Division. I have no idea. Larry Fedora has a better grasp on things, I hope.

14. Virginia

Let’s take Bronco Mendenhall at his word when he says that just a third of Virginia’s roster is ACC-caliber. If true, the Cavaliers will be the worst team in the conference. But didn’t last year’s team get to a bowl game? Yeah. These Cavaliers need to find a new quarterback, rebuild at receiver, turn over the offensive line and replace three defensive standouts in Quin Blanding, Micah Kaiser and Andrew Brown.

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