Ranking the Rankings: ACC’s best teams

“Although we’ve come to the end of the road, still I can’t let go.” – Boyz II Men

OK, we made it through each set of position rankings in the ACC, and where did it leave us? Well, Media Days is upon us, so the good news is we’re ever so close to real football. But we’re not quite done with talkin’ season yet, because now’s the time when the real predictions begin.

And that brings us to this post: Ranking the rankings. We projected out each position group, so let’s tally ’em all up and decide on some overall rankings.

The chart below shows how we ranked each position group, but you can find the specifics here for QB, OL, WR/TE, RB, DL, LB, DB, ST.

Below, we simply added all the rankings up, then ranked those totals from smallest (best) to highest (worst).

(Note: Please appreciate my color selections. I feel it really ties the chart together.)

Screen Shot 2019-07-07 at 9.57.12 AM

What’d we get? Honestly, about what I expected.

Who’s the best team in the ACC?

That’s not a hard one. It’s Clemson, and we didn’t need all this math to decide that. The offense should not only be the best in the ACC, but it could be the nation’s best, too. Brent Venables’ history with the defense suggests they’ll weather all the turnover just fine, but I do have some concerns about stopping the run.

Who’s No. 2? The conventional wisdom (and last year’s records) say it’s Syracuse, and so do our rankings. I have my concerns about the Orange this year based on luck factors, but I also think Tommy DeVito will be fine at QB, and the Orange return one of (if not the) best defensive fronts in the ACC. So, there’s still a lot to like, too.

Who’s the best team in the Coastal? Well, I’ve been high on Virginia, and the ‘Hoos placement here is a bit disconcerting. Have I been a little too focused on the things I really like (LB, DB, QB) and ignoring the real problems (RB, WR)? Perhaps. But the other thing about ranking the teams this way is that it views all position groups the same, and I’m not sure that’s fair. Which leads us to…

Miami. Ask me who the most talented team in the Coastal is, and I wouldn’t hesitate in saying it’s the Canes. But when QB and OL (and WR, to an extent) have struggled as they did last year, it’s hard to win a lot of football games. So Miami is sort of the inverse of Virginia. Miami has more talent and no QB. Virginia has a very good QB and less talent elsewhere. Which situation would you rather be in? Honestly, the answers will likely vary.

What these rankings do show about the Coastal, however, is the other thing most folks seem to be predicting (mostly because it’s always a safe bet): It’s going to be close. Miami, Virginia Tech, Virginia and Pitt are all fairly closely aligned here, and I can’t say I’d be shocked if any one of those four won it. Miami and Pitt need better QB play. Virginia needs more from its backs and receivers. Virginia Tech needs to figure out its D-line and have its secondary grow up a good bit to support a pretty good offense. All have real strengths and all have obvious flaws. So these rankings should make perfect sense intuitively.

If there’s a real shocker on the list, it’s the team at No. 4. Thing is though, I’m not too surprised by Wake Forest. If you asked me for a team that could be “this year’s Syracuse” — i.e. the team no one is talking about preseason that turns into a real contender — it’s Wake. Why? Well it’s easy to overlook the Deacons because I’m not sure they’re elite at anything right now. QB is the only position I have them ranked in the top 3, and that might be optimism on my part. But they’re also not awful at anything either. Receivers is the only group I had them ranked worse than eighth, and with two talented freshmen in the mix, that group could certainly take a big step forward. The schedule has some potential hiccups — Utah State in Week 2 — but it’s manageable if Wake plays well. There’s not a ton of depth at most spots, which is not unusual for a school like Wake, but if they have good health luck (as Syracuse did last year) the top-end guys — Essang Bassey, Sage Surratt, Carlos Basham, Justin Strnad, Cade Carney — all represent some serious All-ACC contenders.

The bottom half of the rankings also plays out according to my expectations, too. FSU, Boston College and NC State are effectively in a dead heat. I’d probably put NC State a tick ahead of the other two for the same reasons I like Wake Forest — they’re not truly awful anywhere. BC, on the other hand, could have some major issues on defense, and Florida State’s O-line and special teams are a nightmare. They’re just offset, to a degree, but players like A.J. Dillon and Cam Akers, Anthony Brown and Levonta Taylor. As we saw with FSU last year though, it’s a lot harder to overcome a black hole in one major area, even if the rest of the team might be good. So I’ll roll with the guys I think aren’t terrible anywhere and hope a few unexpected stars rise up.

At the bottom, we have the four teams I think are clearly in the biggest holes in the ACC: UNC, Duke, Louisville and Georgia Tech.

You can make a fair case that both UNC and Louisville are undervalued here.

For the Heels, they may not be as far off as most people think, as we wrote about earlier this year. And, of course, it’s hard to know for sure what Mack Brown’s version of this team will look like. But the youth at QB and the turnover on the O-line worries me, and I think there aren’t enough obvious wins on the schedule for the Heels to contend for the division this year. A bowl game? Maybe.

At Louisville, the path to success would seem steeper, mostly because last year’s team was so, so bad. But those stats can often be a bit deceiving. For example:

Team A: 0-5, 110 points scored, 216 points allowed, .583 opponent win%

Team B: 0-5, 94 points scored, 295 points allowed, .742 opponent win%

Team B is the final five games of the year for Louisville. Team A is the final five games of the year for Syracuse in 2017.

Now, that’s hardly and apples:apples comparison. Louisville ended on a 10-game losing streak, not five. And they were bad all year, whereas Syracuse fell off a cliff after the Clemson upset. But it’s also true that things deteriorated quickly last year for Louisville, and I’m not sure a single person in that locker room still wanted to be there by late October. So can we really judge the talent level when the effort wasn’t there? Moreover, Louisville’s schedule was no joke down the stretch. After a stunning snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory against FSU, every team they played the rest of the way went to a bowl game, and three of those opponents finished ranked in the top 15.

All of this is a long way of saying that Scott Satterfield’s biggest job is to take a train wreck and get it back on the tracks. Once that happens, it’s really anyone’s guess how far the train can go.

And that leaves Duke and Georgia Tech.

For the Yellow Jackets, it’s a huge rebuild. We all knew this would be the case. Geoff Collins has done a great job putting a positive spin on things, and he’s certainly marketing Tech better than anyone has done in a long time. I like the longterm future there. But the short term is this: No team in recent memory has endured such a massive offensive makeover, and that is compounded by the fact that Georgia Tech has arguably less established talent on defense than probably half the Group of 5 teams out there. If Collins gets Tech to five wins this year, he probably deserves a few coach of the year votes.

And Duke. Maybe I’m way off here. David Cutcliffe is a good enough coach that I wouldn’t be surprised if this team made me look like an idiot. But I look at the depth chart right now and I don’t see much to really like aside from the defensive backfield. Before digging into the numbers, I thought the running backs could be solid — so perhaps they will be. But the deeper dive stats sure didn’t show it. And maybe Quentin Harris becomes a true dual-threat star at QB. But Daniel Jones was a first-round draft pick and still didn’t put up monster numbers last year in his third season as the starter. Maybe the D-line improves and pushes the defense into the top tier of the ACC. Maybe. There are a lot of maybes with this team. I hate picking against Cut, but that’s where I’m at.

OK, so are these my official ACC picks for the year? Clemson vs. Miami in the ACC title game. Wake as the surprise team. A close battle in the Coastal between the Canes, Hoos, Hokies and Pitt?

Possibly. That all sounds about right to me. But I’m not quite ready to put it all in ink and mark it with my official seal just yet. Let’s see how camp goes, how some key position battles unfold, what injuries crop up and take a deeper look at the schedules before committing.

Ranking the ACC’s defensive lines

“I wish I could tell you Clemson’s defensive line fought the good fight, and 2019 will be different. I wish I could tell you that. But the ACC is no fairy tale world.” – Morgan Freeman, if he covered the ACC

Sure, Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Dexter Lawrence are gone. But…

Xavier Thomas is back, and he might end up better than any of them.

Nyles Pinckney is back, and he’s been biding his time, licking his chops.

And Tyler Davis and KJ Henry and Justin Mascoli and Justin Foster and Jordan Williams and Logan Rudolph… all blue-chip recruits, all in a Clemson uniform on the defensive line again in 2019.

The names change. The results… well, here’s Clemson’s sacks and tackles for loss rankings under Brent Venables:

Sacks
2012 – 20th
2013 – 12th
2014 – 7th
2015 – 2nd
2016 – 3rd
2017 – 2nd
2018 – 1st

TFL
2012 – 28th
2013 – 1st
2014 – 1st
2015 – 1st
2016 – 1st
2017 – 6th
2018 – 1st

And so let’s start here: Clemson will be very, very good again. Can anyone else touch them on the D-line?

Here’s a look at last year’s numbers (Click the chart to open in Google docs, stats courtesy ESPN Stats & Info)…

Screen Shot 2019-07-04 at 11.49.11 PM

If I’d not looked at a single stat and simply guessed who the top four defensive fronts were last year and in which order I’d rank them, well… it’d look exactly like this.

Much like with our look at linebackers, there’s little real difference between Miami and Clemson in terms of production here, which certainly won’t make Miami fans feel any better about how much that elite defense was wasted. No surprise either that Syracuse comes in third after exceptional seasons by Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman. Florida State’s D-line is really good, too, but was overshadowed, like Miami, by an offense that offered no help. Truth be told, I might’ve guessed the next two, too, though I would’ve certainly had Pitt ahead of NC State by a noticeable margin.

The point of all this, however is that there were six good D-lines in the ACC last year and eight that really didn’t play all that well. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that’s pretty much how things look again in 2019.

Let’s start with Clemson. It’s tough to project too much with all four starters moving on, but when you consider the history under Brent Venables and the fact that the line didn’t miss a beat following Dexter Lawrence’s suspension in the playoff last year, there seems to be no reason to think there’ll be a significant drop-off. The one concern, as I wrote earlier in the offseason, is the run defense. Clemson allowed barely more than 1 yard before first contact on average, and while there’s plenty of pass-rushing talent lined up and ready to go, I think there’s a real concern that stuffing the run — particularly with turnover at LB, too — will be a bigger chore.

Miami actually had more runs stopped for a loss or no gain last year than Clemson, which is pretty darned impressive. But the Canes also lost a couple pretty good linemen to the NFL with Gerald Willis and Joe Jackson moving on, but Jonathan Garvin remains one of the league’s best pass rushers, transfer Trevon Hill could be a boon off the edge, and there are some recent blue chippers — Nesta Silvera, Jahfari Harvey — waiting their turn. It should again be a very good group, but depth may be a concern if injuries arise.

Syracuse returns its two edge rushers for 2019. Fun fact: Robinson got pressure last season on 16.4% of his pass rushes. That was better than Brian Burns, Clelin Ferrell, Joe Jackson or anyone else in the ACC. Chris Slayton is gone, but McKinley Williams, Josh Black and KJ Ruff all have experience in the middle of the line. The yards-before-contact number is a bit higher than you’d like to see, and the consistent knock you hear from scouts is that this is a better pass rushing line than a run-stuffing one. But it’s not like the group can’t improve either, and there’s a lot here to work with.

In totality, it’s hard to say how good Pitt’s line will be, but Amir Watts is strong at tackle, and Rashad Weaver may be the most under appreciated pass rusher in the country. Here’s a quick “Guess Who” for you…

Player A: 16% pressure rate, 5 sacks, 15 tackles at or behind LoS, 3 missed tackles
Player B: 16.4% pressure rate, 5.5 sacks, 15 tackles at or behind LoS, 4 missed tackles

Player B is Mr. Weaver, from Oct. 1 through the end of the season. Player A is Florida State’s Brian Burns, who was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. So, no, Weaver is no slouch.

As for Florida State, the loss of Burns and Demarcus Christmas hurts. Both were impact performers. Joshua Kaindoh didn’t break out as I would’ve expected in his sophomore campaign, but he still has the potential to be an All-American caliber of player. His pressure rate in 200 pass rush attempts last year was a solid 11 percent, which puts him in the same group with Zach Allen and Jonathan Garvin. He just needs to finish more of those plays. Meanwhile, Marvin Wilson could easily blossom into the best interior lineman in the ACC — and maybe the country. This can be a special group if it all comes together. (We’ve been saying that a lot about FSU’s defense.)

NC State lost a ton of star power to the NFL after the 2017 season, but still turned in a decent year. James Smith-Williams is solid, though his pressure rate was just 27th among ACC defenders with at least 100 pass rush attempts, Latrell Murchison is a nice piece in the middle, and C.J. Clark and Alim McNeill offer some potential among younger guys. Look at NC State’s pressure rate without bringing the extra pass rusher (11th in ACC) and its QB contact rate (also 11th), however, and it’s clear there’s got to be some real improvement if the Wolfpack want to get back to the genuine impact line they had two years ago.

We’ve talked a lot about the insane lack of fundamentals on Virginia Tech’s defense a year ago, and it shows up again here: The Hokies allowed 2.72 yards before contact on run plays, second-worst in the league. Brutal. That the line didn’t get a ton of pressure and didn’t do a great job of getting off the field in winnable situations only served to underscore the weaknesses elsewhere on D. But while I’d expect some real improvement in the back end for VT, the line is the big question mark for me. Houshun Gaines is still recovering from an ACL injury. Ricky Walker’s gone. There are just a ton of question marks and not much depth.

UNC’s place on the list is troubling, given that their best rusher, Malik Carney, is gone now. Tomon Fox arrived with a ton of talent but has yet to truly blossom into a star. Maybe that happens this year. Jason Strowbridge has a lot of experience under his belt, and the new defensive coordinator should improve things. This could be a decent group, but the stats from last year offer a reminder of how far it has to go.

A lot has been made of the job Geoff Collins has in moving away from the option offense, but honestly, there may be bigger concerns on D for the Yellow Jackets. The stats are brutal from last year, and Georgia Tech lost its best lineman for 2019. Moreover, depth was less of an issue with the offense running the option. It meant fewer plays for the D. What happens now when Tech has a 3-and-out and only takes 75 seconds off the clock? And look at that stop rate on thrid-and-long. That’s not just bad. That’s historically bad. I don’t know how that even happens. I think Collins will eventually make Georgia Tech relevant, but boy they could be in for a long, long year.

Which brings us to Louisville. As we’ve said so often, simply turning the page from Bobby Petrino and Uncle Rico – er, we mean Brian Van Gorder — should help. But hoo-boy. Louisville stopped just 10 percent of run plays for a loss or no gain last year. That’s 50% worse than the next worst ACC team. Meanwhile 87% of third-and-short runs were converted for a first down. That’s 16 percentage points worse than the next worst team. Setting up traffic cones for the offense to run around might’ve been more effective last year.

One quick note on Duke: The numbers weren’t great, which is surprising from a Ben Albert-coached unit. But the back end of the D was terrific. So, if Duke can improve just a bit on the D-line — and they have some real players with Victor Dimukeje and Drew Jordan — the D could be pretty darned good in 2019.

OK, on with our last rankings of the summer…

1. Syracuse (consider this a favor to Dabo)
2. Clemson
3. Miami
4. Florida State
5. Pitt
6. NC State
7. Virginia
8. Wake Forest
9. Duke
10. North Carolina
11. Virginia Tech
12. Boston College
13. Louisville
14. Georgia Tech

Ranking the ACC’s special teams

Special teams is always tacked on to the end of any analysis, but we’re not doing that because we respect punters in our household (#RileyDixonForHeisman). So, while we still have a few more position groups to cover, let’s dig into the overlooked geniuses who play special teams.

(BTW, if you missed my story from earlier this year on how punters and kickers keep themselves entertained during practice, you can find it HERE.)

Let’s start, as usual, with some stats (click the chart to open in Google Sheets).

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Special teams is a pretty broad term. Connecting on your field goals is likely the most impactful thing they do because it actually changes the score, but there are dozens of little things that happen on special teams that can add up to something big.

Case in point: Syracuse and Florida State.

We typically assume that, in the aggregate, the difference between the best punter and the worst, or the best kickoff team and the worst, is still relatively small. But that’s not exactly true. In the fat part of the bell curve, sure. (See our average kickoff starting field position differentials, in which 8 of 14 teams are between +2.1 and -2.1.) But on the outskirts – being really good or really bad — there’s a genuine impact.

Last season, Syracuse’s average starting field position was 7.3 yards better than its opponents. Florida State’s was 9 yards worse.

Think about that for a second. That’s the difference of 16 yards per possession in field position between being the Orange or the Seminoles. That matters a lot.

Of course, a lot goes into starting field position, right? Good offenses nab first downs, so even when they punt, they’re punting from further downfield. Same is true on the opposite end with a great defense. But even when we filter that out and look, for example, just at kickoffs, FSU was nearly 4 yards worse than its opponents, while Syracuse was 3.5 yards better. How much difference does 7 or 8 yards per possession make? Maybe not enough to turn a 5-win team into a 10-win team (as was the margin for FSU and Syracuse, respectively) but certainly enough that it could flip a close game here or there.

Syracuse was a perfect example of a team that got better all around last year — but got a lot better on special teams, and it made a huge difference. Andre Szmyt was the nation’s best kicker, but punter Sterling Hofrichter was exceptional, too. We created our own metric here called effective punt rate. It’s a bit oversimplified, but it’s essentially adding up punts from inside your own 40 that resulted in a fair catch or no return plus punts from outside your 40 that were downed inside the other team’s 20. Syracuse’s rate of effective punts was 53 percent — more than double what Florida State managed. That’s the kind of stuff that sets a defense up for success, and of course, the Orange saw marked improvement defensively in 2018, too.

It’s worth mentioning how important blocking and tackling is, too. North Carolina needed all the help it could get last year, and it got a good bit on special teams, where it netted more than 5 yards differential on punts. That’s in part due to a terrific punt returner in Dazz Newsome (back for 2019) and in part due to really great coverage skills on the other end, where Carolina allowed 7 or fewer punt return yards in nine of 12 games (and allowed more than 20 just once).

On the other side of the coin, there’s Miami, which sheds few tears over the transfer decision of punter Zack Feagles, but got nothing more from replacement Jack Spicer either. The Canes ranked 119th in net punting, were 12th in the ACC in effective punt rate and 13th in special teams efficiency overall. Of course, we’ll assume this will all change in 2019 as Miami brings in the most badass punter in sports history.

Of course, that was nothing compared with Florida State. For as much criticism was leveled at the offensive line, the special teams may have been worse. FSU opponents had 12 drives start in plus territory following a punt last year. Only Arkansas was worse among Power 5 teams. Only 18.1 percent of Florida State’s punts were downed inside the opponent’s 20. Only Charlotte was worse in FBS (and interestingly, Alabama was the next worst Power 5 team at 20.8%). No ACC team had a lower rate of effective punts. Ricky Aguayo missed six field goals, second-most in the ACC. Opponents averaged 25.4 yards per kick return, the seventh-worst in the country. The numbers were just brutal all around.

An ugly stat for Virginia, too: The Hoos missed seven field goals overall, including six of less than 40 yards. For a team that lost three games by 4 points or less, that’s a big issue. As we noted in an earlier preview of Virginia, the Hoos played about as close as anyone last season, so mistakes in special teams loom large.

BC is another example of some atrocious kicking. This has been an ongoing issue for the Eagles for a while. Last season, they missed five PATs (only Buffalo and Alabama missed more) and only attempted nine field goals (only New Mexico tried less). As a result, BC went for it on fourth down inside the opponent’s 33 (what would’ve been a 50-yard field goal or less) 17 times (12th most nationally). Usually we’re big fans of going for it on fourth, but doing so because you don’t have an alternative is suboptimal. BC’s special teams were salvaged by an astonishingly good season from Michael Walker (1,294 return yards) but he’s gone for 2019, and that leaves a big hole to fill.

A quick word on Georgia Tech: The best part of switching away from the option is that the Yellow Jackets may punt more, so we’ll get to see more of Pressley Harvin. We love Pressley Harvin. How can you not?

 

Then, there’s Clemson. I suppose you can make the case that if Clemson and Alabama were the two best teams in the nation last year, and both were abysmal on special teams, maybe special teams don’t matter all that much. That’s probably true for teams with elite talent on offense and defense, but likely not so true for everyone else. But what’s clear is that Clemson was indeed awful on special teams. The Tigers ranked dead last in the ACC in special teams efficiency, dead last in net punting margin, committed 15 penalties on special teams, had three fumbles on punt returns, and missed six field goals on the season. Will any of that matter if the offense and defense play like they did last year? No. But after looking at how dominant the Tigers were in every other category, might as well relish this moment if you’re a fan of another ACC team.

And while we’re knocking Clemson, might as well offer a rare tip o’ the cap to Louisville, which ranked second in the ACC in special teams efficiency. Why? Ya got me. They were bad in a number of the categories we looked at and committed 32 penalties on special teams (most in FBS) but smarter people than me calculate efficiency numbers, so maybe I missed something. How’s that for a backhanded compliment?

OK, time to rank ’em for 2019. Here goes…

1. Syracuse
2. Georgia Tech
3. Virginia Tech
4. Wake Forest
5. NC State
6. North Carolina
7. Duke
8. Louisville
9. Virginia
10. Clemson
11. Miami
12. Pitt
13. Boston College
14. Florida State

Ranking the ACC’s receivers

The last of our offensive groups: Receiving production.

We’re including receivers, tight ends and catches out of the backfield in this discussion, and when it comes to the passing game, it’s obviously impossible not to take QB production into consideration, too. But for the purposes of this analysis, we’re trying to look more closely at the stats that define receivers. To wit: Drop rate, % of catchable targets completed, yards after the catch, red zone TD rate, % of catches that resulted in a first down or TD and yards rushing beyond 10, which we’re using as a stand-in for downfield blocking.

Here’s how the numbers look (click the chart to open in Google Sheets):

Screen Shot 2019-07-06 at 11.53.03 AM

Is this a perfect analysis? Of course not. I’d be hard pressed to make the case that UNC, Pitt, Virginia Tech or Syracuse had a better receiving corps than NC State last year. And while Virginia’s passing game may have been more effective than Miami’s, I’d swap the names on receiver depth chart any day of the week. And as we see in S&P+’s passing down rankings or something simpler like yards per catchable target, there are some obvious inconsistencies.

So, what’s the point? Well, we’re hoping to isolate some issues and highlight some areas that perhaps flew under the radar.

For example, look at Virginia Tech. The Hokies actually ranked fourth in our analysis overall, 35th nationally in passing down S&P+ and second in the ACC in yards per catchable target. That’s all very encouraging. Then look at where VT came up a bit short: Drop rate and downfield blocking. Those are two areas where fundamentals are the likely bigger issue, and that often means they can improve dramatically year over year. So, take what was a pretty good receiving corps last year and add a year of improved fundamentals and, voila, you’ve got potentially the best receiving group in the ACC outside of Clemson. Then look at the names: Damon Hazelton, Tre Turner, Dalton Keene — all will play on Sundays, and all were freshmen or sophomore last year. There’s a lot to be excited about in Blacksburg when it comes to the passing game in 2019.

On the flip side, it’s fair to wonder how much Miami‘s quarterbacks are to blame for the struggles of the passing game last year. Yes, the Canes have guys with talent. But boy, that group did not perform particularly well last season. Miami was 13th in the ACC in reception rate on catchable targets, 13th in percentage of catches that went for a first down or touchdown and last in the ACC in yards per catchable target. Was that a function of the style of play? The performance of the guys throwing the ball? The lack of production from receivers? All of the above? Your answer may vary, but the bottom line is that if Miami’s going to get better QB play in 2019, it also needs to have more impact performances from its receiving corps.

Here’s the scary number on Clemson: The drop rate and catch rate were both fine, but probably suffered a bit from a young group getting used to working with Trevor Lawrence. And to look at any group that includes Justyn Ross, Tee Higgins and two of the top incoming freshmen in America and suggest it has some real room to improve? Well, that’s a scary thought.

Virginia has a star at QB in Bryce Perkins. But does he have any real weapons to work with in the passing game? High drop rate, few yards after the catch, bad downfield blocking and a passing down S&P+ that was the fifth-worst in FBS. Now remember that Virginia lost its best receiver in Olamide Zaccheaus. The lack of big plays killed Virginia last year in both the rushing and passing game, and it’s tough to see how that changes a ton this year. Hasise DuBois was serviceable last year. Joe Reed had some big plays in the return game, so could blossom if UVA can find him in space more often. Bronco Mendenhall is high on Terrell Jana. So maybe there are some diamonds in the rough here, but for now, I’d be concerned.

Louisville’s numbers, not surprisingly, were brutal across the board. But like we’ve discussed earlier, can we really evaluate a team that clearly checked out at midseason because its coaching staff had given up? We saw Seth Dawkins and Dez Fitzpatrick perform well when Lamar Jackson was leading the offense, so I have to believe there’s a chance to return to form in 2019. Charles Atwell had a nice freshman campaign last year, and Hassan Hall proved to be a solid option out of the backfield. I’m bullish on this group and wouldn’t be surprised if Louisville’s offense overall takes a sizable leap forward in 2019.

Duke’s drop rate of 9.3% was awful — especially for a team that prides itself on doing all the little things well. The lack of an elite receiver has plagued Duke since Jamison Crowder and Max McCaffrey departed, which is yet another reason I think Daniel Jones was unfairly critiqued for his college numbers. Now the Blue Devils turn to a QB who’s primary skill set is as a runner not a passer, and they lose their four leading receivers from last year. Things just aren’t shaping up well for this Duke offense in 2019.

Wake’s red zone production was exceptional, and the group had one of the league’s lowest drop rates. But the rest of the stat line was problematic, including the 101st-ranked passing down S&P+. They also lost Greg Dortch and Alex Bachman. So, there are some red flags. On the other hand, Sage Surratt really blossomed, Scotty Washington is a terrific physical threat in the passing game, Kendall Hinton is just starting to come into his own, and Wake nabbed two pretty good freshmen in the recruiting class in Donavon Greene and Nolan Groulx. Dave Clawson is actually pretty high on this group, and with the advancement at QB, I can see reason for optimism.

NC State is an interesting team. There’ll be a new QB, and two elite receivers are gone. What’s left though is solid. Emeka Emezie is a burgeoning star, and a couple different coaches have mentioned him as a guy who played beyond his reputation last season. Thayer Thomas had a nice year as a freshman, too. And while we didn’t see a ton from transfer tight end Cary Angeline, the guy has NFL talent and could become a much bigger part of the passing game in 2019. I’d be more concerned about QB than the guys he’s throwing to in Raleigh.

Wrote a little last year about the horrendous run of receiver recruiting at Florida State, and the 2019 numbers certainly didn’t change that. Sure, FSU has had some guys come through and perform adequately, including Nyqwan Murray last year. But they’ve not had a 1,000-yard guy since Rashad Greene left, and they’ve watched a bunch of blue-chippers flame out entirely. There’s reason for some optimism this year though. For one, the passing game almost has to improve. Secondly, there’s every reason to believe Tamorrion Terry becomes the superstar receiver FSU has been waiting for after a stellar freshman campaign. D.J. Matthews and Tre McKitty add options, too, and Keith Gavin is a guy I like in 2019. A lot of his targets last season were well out of his catchable zone and, yes, drops were an issue. But he’s got talent, and with a little refinement and better luck, he could end his FSU career on a high note.

No one put up stellar numbers in Pitt‘s receiving corps last year, but as we noted in our QB analysis, that’s probably more about Kenny Pickett. The numbers here underscore that notion, with Pitt’s guys looking solid in everything outside of red-zone performance, which again feels like more of a QB issue. The duo of Taysir Mack and Maurice Ffrench has a ton of potential, and if the play-action game can improve, they can be elite big-play guys. That Mack had just one touchdown last year is less an indication of his flaws than Pitt’s offensive hiccups. New coordinator, improved QB play, and this can be a pretty good (if not particularly deep) group.

So, how do we rank ’em for 2019? Argue away…

1. Clemson
2. Virginia Tech
3. Syracuse
4. Pitt
5. Florida State
6. NC State
7. UNC
8. Miami
9. Wake Forest
10. Louisville
11. Boston College
12. Virginia
13. Duke
14. Georgia Tech

Ranking the ACC’s ground games

So far we’ve previewed the ACC’s QBs, offensive lines, linebackers, and defensive backs.

Next up: The ground games. (And again, we’ll refer often to “running backs” here, but the discussion is larger than that… this is more about how we expect each team to perform running the ball in 2019.)

Another caveat here: It’s tough to separate out the work a running back does from the work his O-line does. We’re going to try, but none of these stats are a panacea. They tell us something, but certainly not everything.

As you’ll see with a team like Florida State, the more OL independent a stat is, the better their backs look. But the OL was so bad, that it was hard to truly gauge the performance of their RBs. On the other hand, you can look at a team like NC State, that really struggled in the backfield, and it’s not hard to envision a scenario whereby the line was pretty good (they were excellent pass blockers) and the runners did little to help.

Anyway, let’s start with the numbers from last year. You can click on the chart to bring it up in Google Sheets.

Screen Shot 2019-07-05 at 12.44.12 AM

There’s a lot to digest here, but let’s start with Clemson because, like virtually every position we’ve looked at, the Tigers weren’t just No. 1 — they were No. 1 by a country mile.

A lot of the credit here belongs to Travis Etienne, who is as good a big-play back as there is in the country. Some credit goes to Trevor Lawrence, who forced defenses to respect the passing game (less than 4% of first down runs were against a stacked box) and was smart about getting the offense into the right play call. And, of course, a good bit of credit goes to the line, which was far more physical in 2018 than any of the previous playoff teams Dabo Swinney has put out there.

None of this should come as a big surprise, though I’ll point out one number that really seemed worth noting: Clemson actually allowed a lower sack rate on blitz plays than non-blitz plays. Sure, that’s great recognition from the QB, but for a group of backs that’s heard a ton from Tony Elliott over the years about pass protection, they seemed to do a really good job in 2018.

*More than a few folks might be surprised to see North Carolina at No. 2 on the list, but the Heels’ backfield was actually quite good last season. The O-line did a nice job of run blocking, and Michael Carter & Co. were excellent at finding yardage downfield. The line will be a bigger question mark heading into 2019, but the running back stable remains exceptional, and with marginally improved QB play, this should remain one of the ACC’s better units.

*Pitt and Georgia Tech should come as no surprise. What stands out is that the Panthers performed nearly as well as Clemson when facing 7 or fewer defenders in the box, but that was far less common for Pitt than it was for Dabo’s crew. Pitt faced an extra defender in the box nearly four times as often as Clemson on first-down runs last season. And as we noted in the QB post, that didn’t translate well to success on play-action either. Now, Pitt says goodbye to both its 1,000-yard rushers, and I think there are real questions about whether that kind of performance is repeatable if the passing game doesn’t pick up some slack.

*There’s little doubt Georgia Tech has a nice stable of backs. If there’s one thing Paul Johnson managed to recruit, it was running backs. But what should we make of this group in a different system behind an O-line with an entirely different blocking style? I certainly wouldn’t expect 7 yards a carry on first down again, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if Tech remains in the top half of the league here.

*The lack of second-level yardage for backs at both Miami and Duke seem strange. Both teams have guys who should thrive on speed and elusiveness, but that just wasn’t routinely the case. At Duke, in particular, their backs offered virtually nothing downfield, finishing last in the league in missed tackle rate, second-to-last in second-level rushing and 11th in yards after contact. If one’s going to improve, my money’s on Miami. A better passing game — better, right? — will help, and DeeJay Dallas and Lorenzo Lingard should make for a dynamic duo.

*Can we take a second here to stand in awe of Louisville‘s 21.11% missed tackle rate? Finally, a stat Louisville led the ACC in that wasn’t something bad. A lot can be credited to mobile QBs, but Louisville’s ground game was actually pretty good overall, and the Cards were exceptional at creating yardage downfield when the opportunity presented itself. This is one reason I think Louisville needs to find a way to get Malik Cunningham on the field regularly — even if Puma Pass remains the starting QB.

*Oh, Florida State. Poor Cam Akers. Look at the first three categories there — all which include a pretty hefty dose of blocking in the mix. FSU is awful across the board. But look at things like second-level yardage and yards after contact, and the backs suddenly don’t look so bad. What’s most telling is that FSU saw a stacked box virtually never — because frankly, why bother respecting the ground game when the Noles could barely muster 4 yards a clip when defenses didn’t stack the box?

*With a runner like A.J. Dillon, it’s strange to see Boston College so far down the list… but then look over at how often Dillon & Co. were running into 8 defenders in the box. That’s an astonishing number — nearly double the next highest rate in the ACC. All things considered, BC wasn’t bad when running into the teeth of the defense, particularly considering that Dillon was banged up a lot last season, and as we noted in our QB roundup, that actually translated to some really strong numbers for Anthony Brown throwing vertically. A healthy Dillon this season should make BC’s offense extremely dangerous.

*There was a lot to like about Virginia‘s season, but the big missing link is the big-play thereat. The Hoos simply didn’t have it in the passing or running game, but here we see just how dramatic it was. Virginia was dead last in the league in second-level yardage and yards after contact. UVA backs had just 26 runs of 10 yards or more last season — worst in the ACC and 124 nationally. If the Cavaliers are going to take the next step and win the Coastal this season, that has to change. I’m far from sold that PK Kier is the guy to do it, so Virginia should be hoping one of the young guys blossoms in fall camp.

*Syracuse’s overall performance was pretty meh, with the backs not doing much to gain yards that weren’t handed to them by the line. Still, the arrival of Abdul Adams will help, and I’ve been told by a number of folks that Moe Neal was one of the most improved runners in the league last year.

*Similar questions for NC State, which was just dismal running the ball way too often last season. Against Clemson, Syracuse, Wake Forest and Texas A&M — all losses — NC State’s backs managed just 3.77 yards per carry with 3 TDs and 29 runs stopped for a loss or no gain. A healthy Ricky Person should add some power running against better defensive fronts, and three freshmen could figure into the mix, too, with Zonovan Knight making for an intriguing big-play threat.

*Virginia Tech is another big mystery. The Hokies haven’t had the same player lead the team in rushing in consecutive years since Brandon Ore in 2006 & 2007 (and that streak is guaranteed to continue in 2019). VT hasn’t had three straight games with 200 rushing yards since 2011. They haven’t had a back with 1,000 yards and 10 TDs since 2009 (Duke is the only ACC team with a longer stretch).

Of course, there’s some reason for optimism for the Hokies. Deshaun McClease returns after a dalliance with the transfer portal. And last year’s non-QB average of 5.11 yards-per-rush on first down — while good for just 6th in the ACC — was the Hokies’ best mark since at least 2003 (I couldn’t go back any further without a lot of effort).

On the other hand, McClease saw his role diminish as last year went on, and Justin Fuente has never seemed to feel overly comfortable with his running backs. And as we noted in our QB piece, Ryan Willis didn’t exactly stretch the field to open up the run last year.

So what’s the answer? Like with almost everything VT this year, I think there’s upside. But there’s too much history here for a ton of optimism.

My rankings:

1. Clemson
2. UNC
3. Boston College
4. Miami
5. Wake Forest
6. Syracuse
7. Pitt (a wait-and-see approach is probably warranted here)
8. Georgia Tech
9. Virginia Tech
10. Louisville (RBs are a huge question, but QBs offer an alternative)
11. NC State (lots of room to move up… but need to see it to believe it)
12. Florida State (love their backs, if only that’s all that mattered)
13. Duke
14. Virginia

Ranking the ACC’s LB groups

We took a look at the back end of the ACC’s defenses a few weeks ago. Today, let’s look at the guys in the middle.

It’s worth stating right off the bat that, while we’re taking the easy road and simply referring to this as “linebacker performance,” it really is much more (and sometimes less) than that. After all, in today’s game, what exactly constitutes a linebacker? Is Isaiah Simmons a linebacker? He plays the run, he’s an edge rusher, he works as as safety or nickel — he kind of does it all (and will be rewarded handsomely for it next year). Is an edge rusher in a 3-4 scheme a linebacker? Is your nickel corner a linebacker at times? So, instead, we’re looking at what traditional linebackers are expected to do: Tackle, cover the tight ends and running backs, stuff the run, etc. Call it what you will.

With that in mind, we’re using six statistical categories here to get a rough look at how those units performed in 2018: Yards/Attempt when targeting tight ends and backs; yards-per-rush after first contact; missed tackles on run plays; tackles made within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage; passer rating on short throws; conversion rate on third-and-short. (All courtesy ESPN Stats & Info.)

Put it all together, and here’s what we came up with (click to chart to open in Google Sheets):

Screen Shot 2019-07-03 at 12.18.51 PM

The first two teams on the list should be no surprise. Clemson and Miami figured to have the best group of linebackers entering the season, and sure enough, they were essentially neck-and-neck throughout 2018.

The third team though? That’s a little more intriguing.

Linebacker has been something of a black hole at Florida State since Telvin Smith & Co. departed after the national championship. It’s not that there’s been a complete lack of talent. From Terrance Smith to Matthew Thomas to Dontavious Jackson, the Noles have had some quality players. It’s just that they’ve not had a lot of them at any one time, and those guys have never felt like real stars.

But look at last year’s numbers: FSU was the surest tackling defense in the ACC on run plays. Opponents struggled to find yardage underneath, with results approaching Miami’s level of success. Short throws didn’t turn into big plays. That’s all the marks of a really good unit, and essentially all that production — including Jackson and safeties/star LBs Jaiden Lars-Woodbey and Hamsah Nasirildeen — returns for 2019. As we noted in our look at the secondaries, Florida State’s defense is shaping up quite nicely for this season. If Emmett Rice blossoms and Jaleel McRae or Kalen DeLoach can make an instant impact, it has a shot at being one of the ACC’s best.

Some other tidbits worth noting:

– Just a brutal look for Virginia Tech. The Hokies struggles on covering backs and tight ends isn’t really a big deal. It’s sort of a tradeoff in how Bud Foster wants to play defense (Brent Venables’ D typically has the same issue). But those missed tackles. Yikes. In 2017, with the Edmunds brothers patrolling the defense, the Hokies allowed just 3.36 yards-per-rush. Last year, they allowed 3.22 per rush — AFTER CONTACT. There’s too much talent in this group for it to flounder again in 2019 though. While the job of renovating this defense is a big one, Rayshard Ashby and Dax Hollifield are exactly the types of guys you build a defense around. If you’re betting on anything being the key to a turnaround for the Hokies this year, bet on the LB corps.

– We should say a bunch of nice things about Miami, but after this group has played together for so long what’s left to say? The Canes will have the best LB corps in the ACC and, arguably, the best in the nation.

Wake Forest is an interesting case. The Deacons have a good one in Justin Strnad, but D.J. Taylor is probably their best linebacker overall, and he’s now lost for the season with an injury. There were some encouraging signs for the unit as the season progressed, but anyone who watched Travis Etienne run all over that D last year will be unsurprised that the Deacs ranked dead last in the ACC in missed tackle rate.

NC State was near the top of these standings last year, but the Wolfpack lost one of the league’s best linebackers in Germaine Pratt. Isaiah Moore got a lot of work as a redshirt freshman and will handle the middle this year, but he needs to continue to develop. Jarius Morehead at strong safety is one of the better back-end defenders against the run, too. But NC State is really going to need some additional talent to step up this year to fill out what could be a solid group.

Virginia lost Chris Peace, but what remains is a potentially dominant group. Jordan Mack is a prototype MLB for a Bronco Mendenhall defense (even the name sounds like a Mendenhall MLB, right? Like, doesn’t it seem like Bronco’s had at least 3 guys named Jordan Mack play for him before?) Then there’s Charles Snowden, a 6-7 former hoops player who is developing into a seriously scary edge rusher. Robert Snyder, Zane Zandier (another great name) and Matt Gahm all have experience and return, too. Virginia’s returning LBs combined for 258 tackles, 22.5 TFL, 10.5 sacks, 16 QB hurries and three picks last year. Just another reason I’m high on the Hoos for 2019.

– We might’ve expected a big drop-off at linebacker for Syracuse after losing two veterans from the 2017 team. Instead, the unit was… pretty good. The Orange had a tendency to let some big plays develop that should’ve been stopped for just a few yards, but the overall performance was solid. Of course, the two seniors that led that charge are gone now, too, and Syracuse will be relying on former JuCo transfer Lakiem Williams to hold down the fort. It’s not a stretch to think it’ll work out just fine again, but the key for Syracuse to take the next step is to cut down on some of those big plays that managed to humble the entire back end of the D last year.

– I’ve liked Jonathan Smith since he arrived at UNC, but he’s never quite put it all together (mostly due to injuries). He also sat out the spring due to academic issues, so there’s no telling what – if anything – the Heels will get from him. If he can get on the field and stay there though, he’s a nice fit for Jay Bateman’s D. There’s little established depth behind Smith and Dominique Ross though, so like most spots on UNC’s roster, the margin of error is incredibly thin.

– As much as the discussion has been about the massive turnover on Clemson‘s defensive line, I actually think linebacker is the far bigger concern. Yes, Simmons is a superstar and first-round NFL talent. But Clemson needs to replace veteran starters Kendall Joseph and Tre Lamar, too, and frankly, the depth chart doesn’t have clear answers on who’ll step up — particularly after the surprising departure of Shaq Smith. Lamar, in particular, was one of the most efficient and consistent linebackers in the ACC last year, and while his work wasn’t the most high profile, he was critical to the Tigers’ success. Look at the stats in yards after contact, missed tackle rate, tackles within 5 yards of the line — those are off-the-charts good, and Lamar was a big reason why. Whether someone like Baylon Spector (a great Game of Thrones name) is ready to perform near that same level is a big “if” at the moment.

– I was a bit surprised by Pitt‘s numbers above. It felt like the Panthers were better, but the stats suggest otherwise. What’s more concerning is that Pitt also loses its two best LBs and will be relying on a lot of younger guys to step up. We like the Pitt D-line a lot, which should help the linebackers. But boy, this feels like a real red flag area.

BC is a lot like Virginia — losing its top guy but returning some real talent that, its reasonable to assume, will take a step forward in 2019. The unit was a mixed bag last year — some very good, some not-so-good. John Lamot, Isaiah McDuffie and Max Richardson make for a pretty solid unit though, and while BC will certainly miss Connor Strachan, there’s a lot to like about this group. They’d certainly be helped by a little more consistency up front, and there are big questions about how the Eagles fill out the back end, but BC has a long history of producing talented LBs, and I think this year could be one where they have some guys emerge as legitimate stars again.

– The less said about Louisville the better.

OK, here’s how I’ve got the LB groups ranked for 2019.

1. Miami
2. Virginia
3. Clemson
4. BC
5. Florida State
6. Virginia Tech
7. NC State
8. Wake Forest
9. Syracuse
10. Duke
11. Pitt
12. North Carolina
13. Georgia Tech
14. Louisville

Ranking the ACC QB situations

It’s fair to wonder if there’s even any sense in ranking quarterback situations these days. What does depth at QB even mean? Take a look back at what Clemson had on its roster or signed on Dec. 31, 2017:

Kelly Bryant
Hunter Johnson
Zerrick Cooper
Tucker Israel
Chase Brice
Trevor Lawrence
Ben Batson

Then remember that, when Lawrence was knocked out of a game in Week 5 — just nine months later — Clemson’s QB depth chart looked like this:

Chase Brice
Hunter Renfrow
Jimmy Greeenbeans

In other words, the transfer portal has complicated things.

Take Wake Forest, as another example. Today, the Deacons have, arguably, the second-best QB depth chart in the ACC. Both Jamie Newman and Sam Hartman saw significant action last season, and both played well. Add in former QB (who could return in a pinch from WR) Kendall Hinton and a solid freshman recruit in Michael Kern, and you’ve got a really good situation in Winston-Salem.

Of course, what are the odds that both Newman and Hartman stick around? Both have multiple years of eligibility left, which makes the idea of riding the pine in the age of the transfer portal seem a bit unlikely. And sure, Kern is in no hurry to bolt, but if Hartman wins the job and looks good again, that mindset could certainly change by year’s end. It’s happened elsewhere.

Clemson has the luxury of a guy like Brice. He’s talented enough to win some games for the Tigers (as he did vs. Syracuse in that Week 5 contest) and he could probably start at a lot of places. But he’s not a guy who came in with tons of recruiting hype, he’s seen first hand how close he is to seeing action, and he’ll be in position to start for a full season when Lawrence leaves for the NFL eventually (though, odds are, with the guys Clemson has signed, he’ll have more than a bit of competition for that job). Brice is the rarest of commodities at this point: A good QB willing to bide his time on the bench. And, of course, this assumes that Brice won’t get the itch to move on, too, at some point. It’s happened elsewhere.

No matter where you look, no matter how good the situation, QB depth charts are an inherently fluid thing. There are no safe situations.

Of course, there are some situations that are safer than others, and certainly there’s a pretty clear line of demarcation when it comes to the starters around the league. Some teams have answers right now. Some teams don’t. Predicting the future from there is a fool’s errand.

So, let’s rank ‘em right now, without overthinking things too much. The criteria is simple:

1.) Who’s got the best starting QB?

Bonus points for teams with a solid Plan B in place. More bonus points for teams that at least have options, if not exactly answers on their depth chart.

There are certainly some teams we’ll rank higher here based on anticipating success (Syracuse) and those that could get a lot better by year’s end but seem like immense wild cards today (UNC). But this is what I came up with for now, and we can forget this even happened by November. At least I feel pretty confident I got No. 1 right.

ELITE TIER

1. Clemson

The only question here is how much better Trevor Lawrence will be in 2019, which is something I wrote about a few weeks ago.

2. Virginia

If you pay attention to my offseason social media ramblings, you’ll have seen this before, but it’s worth sharing again.

QB A: 64.2% completions, 7.8 yards/att, 148 passer rating, 17 TD, 3 TO, 2,239 total yards on 293 plays

QB B: 66% completions, 7.7 yards/att, 152.4 passer rating, 20 TD, 4 TO, 2,078 total yards on 291 plays

Pretty good numbers for both QBs, right? And you’d expect that from QB A, who happens to be Trevor Lawrence. Those are his stats from Week 8 through Clemson’s Cotton Bowl win over Notre Dame (8 games). The other QB though? That’s Virginia’s Bryce Perkins over the same span (7 games). Impressed? You should be. Perkins is arguably the most under appreciated QB in the country right now. He’s incredibly tough to bring down, but he’s also really athletic and has good downfield vision. Considering he played behind a mediocre O-line and doesn’t have Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross and Travis Etienne surrounding him, those stats are downright eye popping.

Long story short: If Perkins is healthy all year, Virginia’s going to be a pretty darn good offense.

IN GOOD SHAPE TIER

3. Wake Forest

We mentioned the work of Hartman and Newman above. It’s worth remembering, too, that it was Hinton who was set to the starter before a three-game suspension shifted plans. Neither had significant experience before 2018, and both more than held their own. It wasn’t all highlights, of course. But the aggregate performance was pretty solid: 57 percent completions, 25 TD, 12 INT, 130 passer rating, 3,067 passing yards. A few INTs aside, those numbers match up pretty comparably to Kellen Mond, Daniel Jones and Nate Stanley.

4. Boston College

Plenty of room for argument here because, when Anthony Brown was bad last year — hi, Purdue! — he was really bad. But when he was good, well he was pretty darned good, too. Here’s Brown’s stat line from the Eagles’ seven wins: 60% completions, 156 passer rating, 8.1 yards/attempt, 14 TD passes and 1 INT.

Another notable stat from Brown: On throws of 20+ yards downfield, he completed 49 percent with 12 touchdowns and just one pick. His 246 passer rating on such throws was better than Trevor Lawrence, Eric Dungey, Ryan Finely… actually, the entire ACC.

The big question is whether Brown can become more consistent in the intermediate game, and whether he’ll have a healthy A.J. Dillon to siphon an extra defender into the box as routinely in 2019.

5. Syracuse

We’re making some assumptions with Tommy DeVito, who played intermittently throughout last season, with some impressive games (UNC) and some less-than-stellar performances (Notre Dame). Still, he was an ESPN300 recruit, has two years in the system, and has the full confidence of Dino Babers. He’ll likely be a more traditional inside-the-pocket passer than Dungey was — and honestly, matching Dungey’s ability to extend plays is a near impossible task — but that may actually be a better fit for what Babers wants to do. Plus, he’ll be working with one of the league’s better O-lines, deepest running back corps and a solid group of targets downfield.

6. Virginia Tech

Here’s another example of a guy who compiled some pretty solid numbers last year, even if no one seemed to notice. From his first start on Sept. 29 vs. Duke through season’s end, Willis’ stat line — 2,521 passing yards, 59 percent completions, 23 passing TD and 9 picks — essentially matched Oklahoma State’s Taylor Cornelius, who was widely considered one of the pass-happy Big 12’s top QBs (and the numbers aren’t that far off from Will Grier’s either). The Hokies averaged 2.02 points-per-drive during his time as starter, which isn’t exactly great, but it was better than what they’d averaged under Josh Jackson in 2017.

Here’s the big red flag though: Virginia Tech’s offense looked different under Willis, and there are questions about how dynamic his arm can allow the Hokies to be.

On throws of 20+ yards downfield:
Jackson: 43% completions, 187 passer rating
Jerod Evans: 44% completions, 191 passer rating
Willis: 29.6% completions, 142 passer rating

Willis threw to receivers at or behind the line more often than his predecessors, threw deep less often, and his yards-per-attempt was a full yard less than Evans’ in 2016 and nearly a half-yard less than Jackson’s tenure as starter.

The good news for VT, however, is there are other options, too. Hendon Hooker and Quincy Patterson both have tons of upside and could see some regular action even with Willis as the starter. Add in an intriguing receiving groups – particularly at tight end – and the Hokies’ passing game should be an asset in 2019.

IT COULD BE WORSE TIER

7. Florida State

I’ve talked to multiple coaches who’ve suggested James Blackman should’ve been FSU’s starter last year. Perhaps. Obviously from an off-field standpoint, Deondre Francois was a problem. But Blackman also may have gotten killed behind that line, and that remains the biggest concern for 2019. The combo of Blackman and Wisconsin transfer Alex Hornibrook gives FSU a pair of veterans who have upside. The question is whether the O-line can give them a chance to utilize their skills. As we saw in our O-line look, too, the pass blocking was at least borderline manageable at times last season, but if FSU can’t get any help from the ground game, it’s going to be impossible for either guy to have success. (And, of course, the longterm questions loom as FSU hasn’t inked a QB in its recruiting class since 2017.)

8. Louisville

What? Louisville? Really?

I know, I know. But it’s hard to judge by what happened last year when last year was such an unmitigated disaster across the board. Scott Satterfield told me he can’t remember seeing a QB whose confidence was as low as Puma Pass’s when the new regime arrived, but he was impressed this spring. Add in a decent backup in Malik Cunningham, who can be valuable as a runner even if he’s not getting regular reps as the starter, and there’s the makings of a good unit — and one that should be markedly improved simply by not having to work with Bobby Petrino anymore.

THIS COULD GO EITHER WAY TIER

9. NC State

Here’s the one QB group I just don’t quite know what to do with. Gone is the steady success of Ryan Finley. Gone, too, are some of the team’s top weapons in the passing game. A lot of folks around NC State really like Matt McKay, but he also has a ton left to prove. Bailey Hockman, the FSU transfer, will get better as he has more time in the system. Devin Leary had a solid spring. There’s upside here. But given the turnover on the O-line and the receiving corps and the loss of offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz, it’s hard to bet too much on that upside for 2019. We’re sticking the Wolfpack at 9 because, frankly, we’re not sure where else to put them.

10. Miami

Should we be cautiously optimistic? Manny Diaz’s take on N’Kosi Perry’s spring certainly was. He felt Perry showed some things he simply didn’t appear capable of in the past. After getting a lot of experience – both good and bad in 2018 – you’d hope Perry is ready to take a big step forward. If he’s not, Miami has transfer Tate Martell, too, though the reports from folks who’ve seen him are mixed. He’s not a sure thing, despite his recruiting pedigree. Jarren Williams might be the most intriguing option. He’s gotten a year to watch and learn, and he has talent. The hope is that, somewhere in this mix, there’s a legitimate starter. Miami is in good shape on D and at the skill spots, but they’ll go only so far as this group and the O-line can take them.

HOPE THEY DON’T SCREW THINGS UP FOR THE REST OF THE OFFENSE TIER

11. Pitt

The Panthers were never going to be a pass-first offense, so there’s really only so much Kenny Pickett needs to do. Still, there are big questions remaining as to whether he can consistently do those things. He had some strong games last season — UNC, Duke, Wake — and he threw just one pick over his final eight games. But here’s the real red flag: On play-action throws last year — what should be the bread-and-butter of an offense like Pitt’s — Pickett posted a passer rating of 109.9. That was good for 105th out of 113 qualifying QBs, just behind Miami’s N’Kosi Perry. No other P5 QB with at least 100 play-action throws had a rating worse than 129. Pickett doesn’t need to be great, but he has to be better at supporting what the rest of the offense does well.

12. Duke

I should probably have more faith in David Cutcliffe. And, of course, Quentin Harris wasn’t too bad when he played last year (though 50% completions and 6.4 yards/attempt when half that production came vs. NC Central isn’t exactly ideal). Still, with an O-line I don’t think will be very good, Harris figures to be running a lot, and he simply hasn’t shown he’s a true threat as a passer. Again, I’ll probably be wrong here. Won’t be the first time.

WE’LL GET ‘EM NEXT YEAR (OR MAYBE 2021) TIER

13. North Carolina

Mack Brown says he likes his guys a lot. Says he had no interest in pursuing a transfer. Said he thinks they can run a modern offense with any one of his three options – freshmen Sam Howell, Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder – and I think that might be true. Just not in 2019. By 2020, this could be one of the ACC’s better groups, with Phil Longo running the show on offense. But they’re going to endure some growing pains in Year 1.

14. Georgia Tech

Geoff Collins said the three QBs he had on campus all ranked among the top performers this spring for Georgia Tech. That’s a good thing. But no one with experience was meant to be playing in this system, they’ll have virtually no established weapons to throw to, and they’ll be playing behind a line that’s learning how to block while moving backwards for the first time in their college careers. It’s gonna get rough.