Clemson practically ran away with the conference title last season, which leads to the question of whether anyone else has a chance this season. Miami led the Coastal Division last season and is the front-runner to win it again, but Virginia Tech has some momentum under third-year coach Justin Fuente. Plenty of eyes will be on Florida State and new coach Willie Taggart as he tries to get the Noles back in national title contention. And don't forget about Boston College, which has a strong sophomore back on the rise.
Check out everything you need to know before Wake Forest kicks off the ACC regular season against Tulane on Thursday, Aug. 30.
Five most important conference games
The Hokies have had a miserable offseason, with off-field issues, injuries and transfers on top of the loss of a host of veteran talent to the NFL. The Seminoles are turning the page on the Jimbo Fisher era, and while they're saying all the right things about Willie Taggart, there are obvious questions about how the transition will unfold. We'll learn a lot about the two teams most likely to challenge Clemson and Miami for division titles right off the bat.
Oct. 6: Florida State at Miami
The Canes finally snapped a seven-game losing streak to FSU last year on a last-minute drive, but this will be a much different Seminoles team, and one that hasn't lost in Miami since 2004. Taggart's team will be five weeks into the year, so early questions about the quarterback, the scheme and the new-look defense should have answers by the time the Seminoles head south.
Oct: 20: NC State at Clemson
Two years ago, NC State missed a chip-shot field goal as time expired that would've knocked off the eventual national champions on their home turf. Last year, the Wolfpack gave Clemson all it could handle again in a 38-31 loss in which NC State racked up 491 yards of offense. Now, Ryan Finley & Co. get another crack at unseating the Tigers from their perch at the top of the Atlantic Division, and it doesn't hurt their cause that Clemson might be looking ahead a week to another tough matchup.
Oct. 27: Clemson at Florida State
The schedule is tough for the Seminoles, so who's to say whether this game will be the usual battle for division supremacy or just another potential stumbling block for the Tigers? One thing is for certain though: This remains the best rivalry in the ACC, and even when FSU was down last season, the Noles still gave Clemson a run for its money. Meanwhile, the Clemson seniors -- Christian Wilkins, Kendall Joseph & Co. -- have a chance to wrap their careers with a 4-0 mark against Florida State.
Nov. 17: Miami at Virginia Tech
Last year's route by Miami marked a clear turning point in Coastal Division supremacy, but a lot can change in a year. Sure, the Canes are still the heavy favorite to win the division again in 2018, but going on the road to Blacksburg this late in the season will still be a huge chore, and it won't be surprising if this is a head-to-head showdown to effectively determine which team moves on to Charlotte for the ACC Championship Game.
Boston College running back AJ Dillon rushed for 1,589 yards and 14 touchdowns last season as a true freshman, a performance that led to an offseason filled with heightened hype and expectations.
Dillon welcomes them all, and his plastic water jug is proof.
As he worked to get into better shape and improve his stamina this offseason, Dillon reshaped his nutrition, too. Dillon dropped soda and dedicated himself to drinking one gallon of water each day. Dillon began carrying a gallon jug with him everywhere, and to increase his motivation, he took a black Sharpie and listed his goals:
Heisman. ACC Player of the Year. First-team All-American. 6.3 yards per carry. 2,200 yards. 23 touchdowns.
"I'm not so focused on the stat goals," Dillon said in a phone interview. "There's a lot I can do, and I hold myself to a really high standard. For me, it's a big shift over where I was, trying to grow up I guess. Last year was really fun, kind of got the feel for everything, opened up some eyes doing what I did. But this year, I feel like it's time I become a leader on the team and be somebody who's accountable and has their priorities in order. I'm really focused. And that's not something that only I'm doing. There's a bunch of guys making a ton of sacrifices on the team."
With Dillon returning for his sophomore season, along with a host of talented teammates, Boston College has seen its profile rise. Dillon is fully aware of that, but he also knows he has to show more versatility this season to keep defenses off balance.
"There are some agility some things I didn't show, not that I didn't have them, but I relied on my power last year," Dillon said. "There's a lot of tricks I have up my sleeve that I didn't put on display last year so I feel like I'm going to be a more complete package. I don't view myself as just a power back. I see myself as an all-purpose back, somebody who doesn't necessarily need to be taken off the field for anything. I just want to be able to be reliable so if my coaches need me in any situation they can count on me to be out there.
"Last year was a great year, but I feel how I can play this year and help my team is night and day in comparison."
Coaches on the hot seat
It has been three years since a coach involuntarily departed the ACC, which speaks to the quality of recent hires. Jimbo Fisher's exit to Texas A&M came with a $75 million payday, but aside from that, it has been smooth sailing for the league's coaches. That could come to an end in 2018, however, as a few ACC stalwarts could be facing a do-or-die season.
At North Carolina, last year's 3-9 finish is just the tip of the iceberg for Larry Fedora. He has dealt with off-field issues, a seemingly endless NCAA investigation, myriad injuries and a stunningly controversial take on CTE's relationship to football. Thirteen players have been suspended at least one game for an NCAA violation after they were caught selling school-issued Nikes. The recruiting has been a problem, and while last year's unprecedented run of injuries offered some explanation for the Tar Heels' struggles, that wasn't going to be a good team regardless. He has a fairly high buyout, and he has had more success at UNC than any other coach in the past 20 years, but there's definitely some pressure on Fedora now to get the ship righted.
At Georgia Tech, the idea of moving on from Paul Johnson still feels like a long shot, but with a difficult schedule ahead and the possibility of missing a bowl game for the third time in four years, the natives are definitely getting restless. Johnson brought in a new defensive coordinator this year in hopes of fixing his most obvious problem, but Georgia Tech has a new athletic director (Todd Stansbury, hired last year) and a cross-state rival eating up all the local headlines. A bad season could make change inevitable.
Perhaps the most intriguing name on the ACC's (admittedly mild) hot seat, however, is Louisville's Bobby Petrino. It's not that Petrino has struggled in his return to Louisville, but there are tons of outside factors that could play a part in a changing of the guard there. For one, the university is dealing with a wave of controversy and working to improve its image. Petrino's history doesn't help that. Petrino has taken some heat for employing three family members as assistant coaches, too. A new AD and university president could be ready to move on -- particularly if the on-field results, without Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, take a step back.
All three of those coaches have a strong track record of success, however, and none appear to be obvious candidates for the hot seat. But all three face some serious obstacles that make success on the field a bit more significant in 2018 than it has been in quite a while.
Q&A with ACC commissioner John Swofford
Clemson goes into the season as the prohibitive favorite to win the ACC and make it back to the College Football Playoff. How do you view the Tigers' dominance over the past few seasons?
JS: What Clemson has done has raised the bar again within the league. Florida State did that for a number of years, and I suspect there are multiple programs that aren't that far behind Clemson. But I think what Clemson has done nationally has certainly been a positive for our league. I don't think there's anything wrong with having a dominant team for a period of time as long as you've got other quality programs in the league. ... When you look at Clemson the last two years, their regular-season loss had both been against conference teams, and conference teams that were sort of middle of the pack in terms of the league. As long as your dominant team is a primary player from a national standpoint that can be a very good thing for a league.
How do you think the ACC is viewed from a national perspective?
JS: The optics have changed, and rightfully so because of what's been accomplished on the field in terms of the Playoff, and two of the last five national champions have come from the ACC. If you take a five-year look, practically every measurable aspect of how we've done football wise is definitely on the plus side. I said publicly and told our athletic directors and coaches going back six, eight, 10 years that we had to schedule the right games, had to win the right games, had to have more depth in the league and simply had to get better overall in order to achieve what we all wanted to achieve, and our schools have really responded extraordinarily well to that. Now we have to continue on the path we've been on and have similar successes going forward. But we've made tremendous progress and the optics have caught up with the reality -- with the quality football in this league.
So what do the next five years look like?
JS: More of the same. A team that's in the playoff. We've been fortunate in having one in the playoff every year. I'm sure a year will come where that won't happen, but hopefully it won't come very frequently, and continued scheduling in a way that gives you an opportunity to win quality nonconference games and winning those games and continuing the competitive nature of our games within the conference itself. With the launch of the ACC/ESPN channel, that will give us that much more frequency of those optics from a national perspective and with ACC fans, so I think we're on an excellent path and certainly intent to continue that path. There has been so much discussion about the upcoming ACC Network, slated to launch in 2019, and in particular the large revenue gap that currently exists between the ACC, SEC and Big Ten.
In 2016-17, the ACC brought in $418.1 million, compared to $650 million for the SEC and $513 million for the Big Ten. How much has that gap hurt the conference, and will the ACC network help close that gap?
JS: I don't think it's hurt the conference in any way. All you have to do is look at the success of the conference in recent years, not only in football, but across the board. We've never been in a better position, we've never been more successful competitively. If you're at an institution, the more money you have to work with the better. From a conference standpoint, the channel gives us the best opportunity to take a significant jump revenue-wise and we'll all be working very diligently to make sure that happens as will our partners in Bristol and Charlotte, but I don't think it's hurt us at this point in time. You don't want that gap extended any longer than it can be extended, but we're in great shape right now, and I think that shows on the field and across multiple sports. Dollars are not everything. If they were, you'd have three or four schools winning everything, and those three or four schools that generate the most revenue are not winning everything, from a national perspective.
Team with the most to prove
Florida State failed to meet its own lofty standards a season ago, and now it is up to new coach Willie Taggart and his staff to get the Seminoles back to an elite level. There is no time to waste, either.
Not with Clemson exerting its dominance over the past three seasons. Or in-state rival Miami appearing to turn a corner after more than a decade mired in mediocrity. There cannot be a rebuilding season or a waiting period. Not when the stakes are so high. Florida State simply cannot afford to lose any more ground or have another average season.
Taggart knows this, especially given his history in the state. He grew up near Bradenton, Florida, as a huge Florida State fan. He understands Florida State must be in the national championship conversation year in and year out. But he also must understand he himself has plenty to prove, leaving Oregon after just one season as a head coach at a Power 5 program.
The stakes are much higher in Tallahassee, where everything Taggart does will be under a bigger microscope. The talent is there, from Deondre Francois to Cam Akers, Brian Burns or Levonta Taylor. But talent was not the problem last year. Playing like one cohesive team was, and that is something Taggart emphasized to his players throughout the offseason.
Nobody at Florida State wants to go through another 7-6 season. Nobody wants to see Clemson keep widening the gap, or Miami close in on what had recently been a lopsided rivalry. This season is not only about moving past 2017, but proving last season was an anomaly.