As the players and coaches gear up, we take a look at one major storyline expected for each team to dominate over the two-day event on Monday and Tuesday, beginning with the Atlantic Division. ICYMI, check out the Coastal Division preview earlier this morning.
Boston College: Can lightning strike a third time?
BC's produced 7-5 regular season records each of the first two seasons but will face an uphill climb to their third straight bowl berth. They need to replace virtually their entire offense with a new quarterback, tight end, wide receiver, and offensive line. They return running backs, but the secret is out. The major question surrounding BC is that offense, if it can come back together and gel for a third straight year.
Underlying storyline: We all know about the well-documented issues with the kicking game a year ago. What has BC done to improve the situation after a disastrous 2014?
Clemson: How can the Tigers protect Deshaun Watson?
A true sophomore, Watson had an incredible freshman year and is already heralded as the best quarterback in the ACC. He's wearing a number that was unretired by former Tiger great and NFL quarterback Steve Fuller. He's the "next one" in the line of ACC signal callers...if he can stay healthy. Watson broke a bone in his hand last year against Louisville and missed three subsequent games. Returning for Georgia Tech, he suffered what was first believed to be a LCL strain before being diagnosed with a torn ACL, which he played on against South Carolina.
All of this was done behind an experienced offensive line. Next to BC, Clemson has one of the most inexperienced offensive lines in the ACC. If they can't keep Watson upright, Clemson could be in big trouble, only without an experienced backup like Cole Stoudt there to pick them up.
Underlying storyline: the defense lost three solid linebackers to the draft, including all-everything Vic Beasle, and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. How do they replace them without taking a step back?
Florida State: Can Jimbo Fisher control his program?
It's pretty obvious that Fisher's started losing control of his program. The transgressions allegedly committed over the past two seasons, along with the attention on every move Jameis Winston made, is taking media scrutiny on one of the nation's most successful teams to the next level. This offseason, instead of figuring out how to win a third ACC championship and get over the hump of "national semifinalist" to get back to the title, he dealt with multiple allegations of violence against women, including a video involving a young quarterback.
Ever since the Ray Rice saga, this comes with a heightened state of awareness. As he faces the full media throng this week, you can bet Jimbo Fisher will face questions about what's going on with his program. Although not the only coach to deal with this, he's the most visible at the moment, and this will really be the first sanctioned arena for him to illustrate how he can change the perception of his team.
Underlying storyline: after two seasons of Jameis Winston, Jimbo has to find a clear-cut starter, either using Sean Maguire or transfer Everett Golson. No matter who starts, the performance is going to be heavily scrutinized, even if this is a decidedly weaker non-conference schedule than last year.
Louisville: Are the Cardinals the Dark Horse candidate for ACC Champion?
Last year, the Cardinals finished with nine wins as the #24 team in the nation. They did it in their first year of former and current head coach Bobby Petrino's second stint, and they did it as a very quiet, yet undeniably solid team. This year, they jump out of the gate with an immediately tough schedule, opening up against the team picked in the preseason by the media to win the SEC Championship: Auburn.
If Louisville comes out of the gate strong with a win or a close loss, they'll announce their arrival as a dark horse candidate to win the ACC Atlantic. Florida State reloaded, but they might have lost just enough to open the door for a new team—which could be the Cardinals if Clemson can't protect its quarterback or has lost enough defense to allow teams to score points. With an incredibly strong defense, it could the The Ville's time to rise in their second year.
Underlying storyline: Can they overcome the hurdle of their offense? We know the defense is going to be stout, but the offense could be a disaster passing the ball. They never settled on a quarterback last year, and they enter the season without a clear cut QB1. On top of all that, they lost their entire receiving corps.
NC State: Will the Wolfpack ever try to improve their non-conference scheduling?
Last season, NC State went 7-5 in the regular season but only 3-5 in conference after opening up the season 4-0. The reason? The played Georgia Southern, Old Dominion, South Florida, and Presbyterian.
This year, they open up with Troy, Eastern Kentucky, Old Dominion, and South Alabama. With an offense that's underrated and good, that paves the road back to another bowl berth. But their reputation as a football team relies heavily on whether they can do better in conference play. Figuring they beat Wake Forest and Syracuse but lose to Louisville, Virginia Tech, Clemson, BC, Florida State, and UNC, they all of a sudden are a 6-6 team with a 2-6 league record. That's a bad look, and it's something they'll be hammered for in the court of public opinion.
Scheduling is no easy task—we know that at BC better than anyone—but having at least one decent out-of-conference team would help raise the profile of the skillset of NC State's players. If they beat up on small teams but can't beat a big-time opponent, then that's something that hurts players who have very high ceilings. That said, it is a formula for a bowl berth and the pay windfall that comes with it.
Underlying storyline: If they're going to beat some tougher opponents, they'll do it behind an underrated offense. Jacoby Brissett leads an offense with two very good running backs in Shadrach Thornton and Matt Dayes. They need someone to establish themselves as a pass catcher, but if these three play up to potential, they could easily be a nine-win team just by winning a couple of extra conference games.
Syracuse: Should Orange fans brace for the worst, pray for the best?
Last season, the Orange defense ranked 38th in points allowed, one of the elite units in the country. In spite of this, they went 3-9, winning only one game in the ACC (against fellow bottom-dweller Wake Forest). The reason? Their offense was one of the nation's worst, averaging 17 points per game and ranking 121st. They demoted their offensive coordinator (who is now gone altogether) and never developed any weapons. By the end of the year, head coach Scott Shafer destroyed as many podiums as he won ACC games.
If they're going to improve this year, they'll have an uphill battle from which to do it. The defense, so good a year ago, needs to replace four linemen, three linebackers, and four defensive backs. That puts pressure on the Orange to not be a complete disaster on offense, despite the fact they have a new coordinator and a head coach who is primarily a defensive-minded guy. Unless something drastic and unexpected happens, this could be a long year in New York.
Underlying storyline: If there's an X factor in this whole thing, it's Terrel Hunt. After throwing for 1,600 yards in 2013, he struggled in '14 with ineffectiveness and injury, ending his year after the fifth game. If he can be reasonably effective, can Syracuse bounce back? In a best case scenario, they can win four of their first five games against URI, Wake Forest, Central Michigan, and South Florida, and the fifth game—against LSU—is at home. In order to make a bowl game, they reasonably only need two other wins to become bowl eligible.
Wake Forest: Can the offense not be as brutally bad as last year?
At first glance, the '15 Demon Deacons are essentially a more extreme version of the '14 Syracuse team. They have a very good to elite defense, but they enter the season with an offense believed to be one of the worst, if not the worst, in college football.
While entirely possible to replicate a horrifically bad season offensively, even reasonable improvement could make this team a five-win team. They have games against Elon, Syracuse, Army, and Indiana to open the season—winnable games as long as they don't average 3.4 yards per play like they did all of last season.
There are weapons. Cam Serigne is one of the best ACC tight ends, and they received a couple of good recruits in the backfield. John Wolford has a full year in an offense that got him sacked 48 times, but he could bounce back as long as the offensive line develops. Even if they lose a bunch of games, there should be some cause for optimism if they can make a couple of plays here and there.
Underlying storyline: Alex Kinal is being sent to the ACC Media Days, and he's by far one of the nation's best punters. As comical as it sounds, keep an eye on him as one of the specialists to watch for the NFL scouts.