2016 ACC Football Preview: Staff Roundtable Part 1


College football is officially back with Hawaii and Cal kicking off the season Friday night in Sydney, Australia. A little closer to home, associate editor Mike McDaniel and staff writer Jeff Greenberg join me to look at the big picture in ACC football this season.


Who are your preseason offensive and defensive players of the year?

Mike: It’s tough to pick against Deshaun Watson as far as Offensive Player of the Year is concerned in the ACC. Watson accounted for 5,000 all-purpose yards last season as a sophomore for Clemson en route to their National Championship appearance. If he puts together similar numbers this season, it will be hard to envision him not winning the Heisman Trophy and planning his return appearance to the College Football Playoff. Regardless, he’s the best quarterback in the country hands down, and it will be interesting to see how he lives up to expectations this season.

For Defensive Player of the Year, my money is on Louisville’s stand-up defensive end Devonte Fields. Fields led the country in tackles for loss last year with 22.0, and his 10.5 sacks led the team and stacked up as fourth in the ACC. This is important to note, because most of these above average numbers came in the second half of the season, where he was seemingly much more productive that he was in the first few games for Louisville. If Fields can compete at a high level from start to finish this season, he should be able to easily eclipse these numbers and emerge as one of the top pass rushers in the entire country, which is the potential that he has always had, but has only truly realized in one season, when he was a freshman at TCU.
Jeff: Deshaun Watson will be the ACC Offensive POY. There are offensive playmakers throughout the conference, but at the end of the day, Watson should be the one representing the ACC in NYC at the Heisman ceremony. He led his team to the CFP Title Game and will have the Tigers in the mix again this season. Watson has the weapons around him to equal or better his stats from last season.

My pick for ACC Defensive POY is Devonte Fields. Louisville’s defensive end had a breakout season last year. Although, can a guy have a breakout season when he was previously named Big 12 Defensive POY? Yes, he can. All eyes were on him to live up to those lofty expectations after transferring from TCU. He delivered and should only be stronger for the Cardinals. He’s got talent around him on defense which only help him wreak havoc on ACC backfields.
Justin: Deshaun Watson will only be able to surprise people this season by being less than outstanding. The guy can do everything and his receiving corps should be even better than last season with the return of Mike Williams who missed almost all of last year with a neck injury. Something truly unexpected would have to happen for Watson not to be the offensive POY.

Defensively, I’m really excited to see Derwin James from Florida State. As a sophomore, he tallied 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks as a safety. The Seminoles use him a lot like Duke used ACC Defensive Player of the Year Jeremy Cash. Cash — who is reportedly making a smooth transition to NFL linebacker — played deep in coverage but also played up near the line much like James. The ‘Noles like to use him to help pressure the quarterback as well as slow the run. He’s going to have a big year as part of a lock-down secondary.

Which new coach will have the biggest impact?

Mike: My money is on Dino Babers to have the biggest impact at Syracuse. The Orange had one of the worst offenses in the country last season, and by bringing in Babers, the athletic department is banking on his offensive prowess that he has displayed in the past to revive the sputtering unit. While their record may not necessarily indicate great progress in year one under Babers, I do believe that the team will be much better coached this season, and the offense, at the very least, will have a more exciting scheme with higher upside than in years past. It may just take a couple of seasons before the record indicates the progress that I believe the team will make.

Jeff: Miami’s Mark Richt is my pick for the new coach having the biggest impact, at least in the short term. He has injected new life into a program that started to have internal issues with regards to booster support and the support of former players. For a program like Miami that depends on strength from within at “The U”, that was unacceptable. Richt has brought the alumni back into the fold in a major way and the season ticket sales prove it. Add in recent news of a new practice facility getting approved and he has all of the operations side of things back on track. Results could come quickly on the field as well if he hits the mark on the recruiting trail.

Justin: Justin Fuente has had a huge impact simply by refreshing the culture in Blacksburg. Things had gone stale during the lean seasons at the end of Frank Beamer’s tenure so an injection of new blood was critical. Up-tempo practices and improved weight training will yield big results in time. On the field, any improvement on offense will be huge and while wins might not come in bunches up front, the long term outlook of this hire is very good.

Which under the radar player do you expect to break out?

Mike: This is entirely predicated on whether or not he is ultimately named the starting quarterback, but NC State’s Jalan McClendon is not getting nearly enough hype as he deserves, especially when considering what kind of player he was when being recruited out of high school. The former four star standout should emerge as one of the top young guns in the conference if he’s able to seize the starting job in Raleigh. I liken his situation to that of Lamar Jackson at Louisville, who last year did not garner nearly as much hype as he deserved when he exploded onto the scene as one of the more elite playmakers in the entire conference. I expect NC State to have a better season record-wise in 2016, and I believe that McClendon will be a big reason why.

Jeff: My under the radar player is Matt Dayes from NC State. He was on pace to an All-ACC season last year at running back before going down with an injury. He can do a lot of things well for Coach Dave Doeren and should be healthy again heading into the season. Nobody is talking about him because he wasn’t able to finish last season. If the Wolfpack improves at all over last year, Dayes will have a major role in their success.


Justin: Tight end Cam Serigne from Wake Forest. Last season he pulled in 46 receptions and finished third on the team with 562 receiving yards while dealing with rotating quarterbacks. He was just honorable mention All-ACC after that performance, but at 6’3″, 250 with good hands he should have plenty of scouts keeping close tabs on him.

Check back tomorrow for part 2 of our roundtable where we’ll give you our division winners and conference champion picks.

Follow us on Twitter @jeffgberg, @MikeMcDanielACC, and @BestCates and follow @InsideTheACC for more Atlantic Coast Conference coverage.

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