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Early 2014 ACC Atlantic power rankings: FSU, Clemson, Louisville lead crowd.
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Early 2014 ACC Atlantic power rankings: FSU, Clemson, Louisville lead crowd.

Early 2014 ACC Atlantic power rankings: FSU, Clemson, Louisville lead crowd.

[Image: 20140101_kkt_mb2_075.0_standard_783.0.jpg]
The ACC's less-chaotic division should be heavy at the top, but it should also be competitive throughout. Also, say hello to the Cardinals. Even though coach-hiring season, Signing Day, and spring ball aren't out of the way yet, Pete Volk stacks up the Atlantic way ahead of time.

There's a newcomer in the ACC Atlantic -- will Florida State and Clemson have any trouble against new conference mate Louisville? We'll find out, as the 2014 ACC Atlantic should be one of the toughest divisions in the nation.

1. Florida State Seminoles

2013 finish: 14-0, ACC champions, No. 1 in AP, Coaches Poll

Returning starters: 13

The national champions will be heavy favorites to defend at least their divisional title, and will be one of the main contenders to win it all once again. Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston returns for what is likely his final season in Tallahassee, with six other offensive starters returning alongside him.

The Seminoles lose defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to Georgia, with no replacement hire yet. The unit could be an area of concern. Former blue-chip recruit Eddie Goldman will have to step up, since fearsome nose tackle Timmy Jernigan will leave a sizable void as he leaves for the NFL. The 'Noles lose two of their three starting linebackers and two of their four starting secondary players, including consensus All-American LaMarcus Joyner.

Four starting offensive lineman will return for a unit that will likely start five seniors, but the running game could be a question. After riding one of the nation's best rushing attacks to the national title, Florida State loses Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. from its three-headed running back attack. Converted safety Karlos Williams will assuredly receive a larger role in the offense, but Ryan Green, Mario Pender, or five-star recruit (and spring enrollee) Dalvin Cook will have to be reliable options as well.

2. Clemson Tigers

2013 finish: 11-2, second in ACC Atlantic, No. 8 in AP, No. 7 in Coaches Poll

Returning starters: 12

The Tigers had traded the previous four divisional titles back and forth until FSU's national title run. Clemson was unable to win back the Atlantic in the last year of star offensive playmakers Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, but a decisive Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State spelled bright things for the future. The Tigers will likely have a senior quarterback under center again in 6'4, 200-pound Cole Stoudt, although former four-star prospect Chad Kelly could give him a run for his money.

Whoever plays quarterback, both of Boyd's top two targets (Watkins and Martavis Bryant) are both gone to the NFL. But Adam Humphries returns for his senior year after catching 41 passes for 483 yards, Mike Williams is a solid deep threat, three four-star wide receivers enrolled in the spring semester, and Stanton Seckinger could be one of the better tight ends in the ACC.

Clemson returns three starters on the offensive line, but their running game will see an overhaul. Running back Roderick McDowell is gone, but rising juniors Zac Brooks and C.J. Davidson showed promise in limited action, and D.J. Howard should play a major role as well.

The Tigers return seven starters on defense, including defensive end Vic Beasley, who led the ACC in sacks in 2013. In fact, all four defensive line starters return, but Clemson could run into some problems behind them. Starters Quandon Christian and Spencer Shuey both graduate from the linebacking unit, while both starting cornerbacks will not be returning. That could spell trouble for the Tigers when they have to face Winston and the prolific Florida State attack.

3. Louisville Cardinals

2013 finish: 12-1, second in American, No. 15 in AP, Coaches Poll

Returning starters: 12

It's hard to think of a team with more change heading into the 2014 season than Louisville. Head coach Charlie Strong left for Texas, replaced by Bobby Petrino. Star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater left for the NFL, replaced by one of three players who will likely battle it out during camp. The AAC (formerly known as the Big East) is also out as the team's conference, replaced by the ACC.

Will Gardner, Kyle Bolin, and Brett Nelson will all be in competition to take over for Bridgewater and lead the Cardinals to success in the ACC. Gardner, a rising sophomore, is the only one of the three who has seen playing time at Louisville, completing eight of 12 passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns in 2013, while Bolin is a former four-star recruit and Nelson is a junior college transfer. Whoever wins the job will inherit an offensive line with four returning starters, as well as star receiver DeVante Parker, who passed up overtures from the NFL to return to school.

Only four starters return on the defense, and that unit will be tested with new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, brought over from Georgia. One starting defensive lineman, one starting linebacker and two starting cornerbacks return, but the rest of the defense has either graduated or left for the NFL. Some of the younger players, like former four-star prospect Gerod Holliman, will have to step up and bring some leadership to what will be a very young unit.

4. Syracuse Orange

2013 record: 7-6, third in ACC Atlantic

Returning starters: 15

After Louisville, there's a pretty steep drop-off in the Atlantic, but Syracuse has a chance to make a little noise. The Orange had an impressive first year under Scott Shafer, which ended in a Texas Bowl win over Minnesota. Syracuse lost star running back Jerome Smith to the NFL, but much of the rest of the offense stays in place, including rising junior quarterback Terrel Hunt.

Hunt showed his ability as a true dual-threat quarterback in 2013, and will see four of his starting offensive linemen return, including star left tackle Sean Hickey. With Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley gone, Hunt will need some help in the backfield to take the pressure off of him, and rising sophomores George Morris II and Devante McFarlane will be among those expected to take that load. H-back/slot receiver Ashton Broyld led the team in catches in 2013 and will return, as will deep-threat Jarrod West.

Seven starters return for the Orange on defense, including five of their top six leading tacklers. Durell Eskridge is a ball-hawking safety who is more than adept at tackling, and Julian Whigham also returns for what should be a very fierce secondary unit. The problem could come up front, as Syracuse has to find a way to replace Jay Bromley and Marquis Spill's combined 28 tackles for loss.

5. NC State Wolfpack

2013 record: 3-9, seventh in ACC Atlantic

Returning starters: 13

Dave Doeren had a rough time in his first year with the Wolfpack, as the team went winless in conference play and struggled to adjust to the new system. There's one big reason to think that could change in 2014 -- the addition of Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett at quarterback, who seems a perfect fit for the offense the head coach ran at Northern Illinois. Brissett was a four-star prospect coming out of high school, and combines a live arm with the kind of power running (he weighs 230 pounds) Doeren was able to utilize with Jordan Lynch and Chandler Harnish.

Four starters return on the offensive line in front of Brissett. With starting running back Shadrach Thornton's career at the school in jeopardy after a second legal incident, rising sophomores Matt Dayes and Bryant Shirreffs can both take a larger workload. The Wolfpack lose their top two receivers from 2013, but Brissett should help improve a receiving corps of Jumichael Ramos, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Travares Copeland.

Three starting defensive linemen return for NC State, as do three starters in the secondary. The strength will certainly be on the line, where Thomas Teal and Art Norman return and should be a consistent presence in opposing backfields -- they had 19.5 tackles for loss in 2013. The Wolfpack lose two of three starters at linebacker, however.

6. Boston College Eagles

2013 record: 7-6, fourth in ACC Atlantic

Returning starters: 11

2013 was a step forward for Boston College football, but was it also a small disappointment? With seniors everywhere -- quarterback Chase Rettig, Heisman-finalist running back Andre Williams, wide receiver Alex Amidon, three starting offensive linemen, and five defensive starters, including star linebackers Steele Divitto and Kevin Pierre-Louis -- Steve Addazio put together a seven-win season. Perhaps the most impressive accomplishment was being the team second-closest (behind Auburn) to beating national champion Florida State.

Next up for the Eagles at quarterback is probably rising senior Josh Bordner, who saw time as a running option in 2011 and hasn't played much since. Rising sophomores Myles Willis and Tyler Rouse showed promise as freshmen at running back, but they'll have big shoes to fill without Williams. Just as big a loss could be Amidon, who made nearly half of Boston College's catches. He had 77 catches on the year, and the next-leading target (tight end Jake Sinkovec) had 14, and he's leaving as well. Dave Dudeck and Spiffy Evans will be among those taking much larger roles in the offense, but it looks like the Eagles could have a rough time scoring points.

Besides Divitto and Pierre-Louis, Boston College also loses three starters on the defensive front, including TFL leader Kasim Edebali. The lone returning starting linebacker, rising junior Steven Daniels, has shown some promise, and the departing starters could be replaced by a pair of rising seniors in Sean Duggan and Josh Keyes. The strength for the Eagles' defense will be in the secondary, where all four starters return. Manuel Asprilla and Bryce Jones each recorded two interceptions in 2013, and Asprilla led the team with six passes broken up.

7. Wake Forest Demon Deacons

2013 record: 4-8, sixth in ACC Atlantic

Returning starters: 11

Much like Boston College, 2013 was a year in which the Demon Deacons could have expected more success than they ended up with. Quarterback Tanner Price, running back Josh Harris, star wide receiver Michael Campanaro, three starting offensive linemen, and more than half of their defensive starters (including stars Nikita Whitlock and A.J. Marshall) were all seniors, but the Demon Deacons were only able to post a 4-8 record in Jim Grobe's final season.

New head coach Dave Clawson, fresh off a MAC Championship with Bowling Green, will have a tough task ahead of him in Winston-Salem.

Whitlock and Campanaro are the big losses. But former three-star recruit James Looney (whom Clawson recruited at Bowling Green) should be ready to step in at nose guard, and the rest of the receiving corps returns, with some promising weapons in Jonathan Williams and Orville Reynolds.

The running game was a huge issue in 2013, as the Demon Deacons averaged less than three yards per carry, and it's hard to see that improving with three linemen and the team's two leading rushers all departing.

Wake Forest's defense is nearly as depleted, losing all three starters from what was a very successful defensive line as well as two starting linebackers and Marshall in the secondary. Marshall, like Campanaro, was injured during the season, at least allowing his replacement to get experience ahead of the new year. Some able playmakers return for the defense, led by safety Ryan Janvion, linebacker Brandon Chubb, and cornerbacks Merrill Noel and Kevin Johnson, but it could be a long first year.
01-22-2014 01:46 PM
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