Has Any ACC Challenger Upgraded Enough to Scare Clemson?

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Spring practice is the chronological midpoint of the long college football offseason, but with signing day, the final spins of the coaching carousel and a substantial portion of the graduate transfer market in the rearview mirror, the balance of the offseason intrigue has been settled until the media day circuit begins in July. Before the on-field news slows to a trickle as schools break for summer, SI writers are examining the most notable storylines and performances from each Power 5 conference during the spring session. Up first: the ACC.

The Big Picture

There was a glaring absence at the top of the ACC standings last season. Florida State, a popular College Football Playoff pick leading up to Week 1, needed to beat a middling Sun Belt team (Louisiana Monroe) during conference championship week to preserve its nation-leading bowl eligibility streak. Less than a week later, the Seminoles had effectively hit the reset button, bringing in Oregon’s Willie Taggart as head coach after Jimbo Fisher bolted for Texas A&M.

This spring, a vision of Florida State’s future under Taggart came into view. The school-record 53,974 fans who showed up at Doak Campbell Stadium for the Garnet and Gold Game in April got a look at a new up-tempo offense; two participants in an intriguing three-man quarterback battle; and a host of other players Taggart will count on to correct last season’s missteps. The Seminoles won’t be the conference favorite coming out of media days in July, but the good vibes emanating from Tallahassee will raise expectations for a program that isn’t about to start settling for 7–6.

State of the defending champs

Clemson is in better shape than most expected it would be after reaching the playoff for the third consecutive year. The Tigers brought back a handful of key contributors who could have left school for the NFL, including defensive linemen Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell and linebacker Kendall Joseph. Those draft decisions kept intact the most terrifying front seven in college football and firmed up Clemson’s position near the top of early preseason polls and power rankings. The Tigers’ blend of seasoned returnees and high-upside youngsters will make them the obvious team to beat in the ACC this fall and a strong bet to get back to the national semifinals.

Most compelling QB battle

Clemson’s competition between senior Kelly Bryant and underclassmen Trevor Lawrence, Hunter Johnson and Chase Brice is one to monitor, but let’s turn to the team the Tigers took down in the ACC championship game last season: Miami. Redshirt senior Malik Rosier remains the favorite after leading the Hurricanes to a 10–3 record as the starter last season, but he’ll need to fend off multiple highly regarded underclassmen to hold onto the job. Early enrollee true freshman Jarren Williams and redshirt freshman N’Kosi Perry, both former four-star recruits, could push Rosier for snaps. Based off comments from head coach Mark Richt after Miami’s final spring scrimmage, a resolution does not appear imminent. “Absolutely,” Richt said when asked if the QB battle was open, according to the Miami Herald. “Until the very bitter end.”

One awesome highlight, one adorable highlight

Florida State sophomore Cam Akers should rival Boston College sophomore A.J. Dillon for the unofficial title of ACC’s best running back this season, but defenses trying to shut down the Seminoles’ ground attack will need to account for another home run hitter out of the backfield. This is redshirt freshman Khalan Laborn turning on the jets for a 91-yard touchdown in Florida State’s spring game.

Here’s a cool moment from before NC State’s spring game, captured by ABC reporter Bridget Condon:

Post-spring, pre-summer favorite

The identity of the ACC frontrunner heading into the summer is not in doubt. It’s Clemson. The Tigers are loaded again on defense, and they have a deep group of quarterbacks competing to lead an offense flush with big-play threats at the skill positions. A better question is which, if any, teams in the conference can rise up to dethrone the Tigers. Florida State may make a leap in Taggart’s first season, and Virginia Tech will be a serious threat as long as Justin Fuente is stalking the sidelines. Yet Miami might be the strongest candidate, particularly if the QB derby the Hurricanes are waging results in an enhanced passing game, though even that probably isn’t enough to close the gap.

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