The college football season ended early Tuesday morning like many of us thought it would with Clemson and Alabama playing in an instant classic for the national championship.
The Tigers came out on top in the heavyweight bout, winning the ACC’s second national title in four years and capping a 9-3 bowl season for the league.
Clemson, the ACC Champions the past two years, is set to lose most of its offensive weapons, including quarterback Deshaun Watson, running back Wayne Gallman and wide receiver Mike Williams to the NFL Draft.
With the Tigers reloading in a competitive Atlantic Division and the Coastal Division wide open with only Duke and Virginia returning quarterbacks with starting experience, a new champion could rise to the top in 2017.
Here’s a way-too-early look at how I see things shaking out next season:
1. Florida State: Coming off a thrilling win against Michigan in the Orange Bowl, the Seminoles look to carry some momentum into 2017 as one of the early favorites to win the College Football Playoff. The loss of star running back Dalvin Cook will hurt, but five-star back Cam Akers will make his own way in time and redshirt sophomore quarterback Deondre Francois should take another step forward in his second season. Safety Derwin James headlines a Seminole defense returning most of its starters. First test? Alabama to open the season in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff.
2. Clemson: The Tigers will be in rebuilding mode next season with major losses on the offensive side of the ball, but a vaunted defense led by former Wake Forest standout Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell should help take pressure off an offense that will need time to adjust to personnel changes. Clemson will be fine.
3. Lamar Jackson. … I mean, Louisville: Quarterback Lamar Jackson, the Heisman Trophy winner, returns to lead a Louisville squad that lost some of its hype heading into next season because of a limp to the finish line. If the Cardinals hope to stay in contention in the Atlantic next season, they’ll have to be more than a one-man show.
4. NC State: With a slew of expected returners on both sides of the ball, including 16 players on defense, expectations will be high for the ‘Pack entering 2017. The return of defensive end Bradley Chubb to anchor the defensive line and all-purpose offensive player Jaylen Samuels could have N.C. State in a position to make some noise — if it can start winning close games.
5. Wake Forest: Despite the “WakeyLeaks” controversy, Wake Forest took a step in the right direction this past season with a winning record and bowl victory. With 10 returning starters on each side of the ball, the pressure will be on the offense next season. The unit must improve as the schedule looks to be tougher for the Demon Deacons.
6. Syracuse: As Dino Babers continues to help the Orange build an identity, it’s clear quarterback Eric Dungey is at the center of the plan. The Orange were impressive as an offensive unit this past season. If the defense improves, Syracuse could be in position for a bowl bid.
7. Boston College: The Eagles will be fine on defense with the return of former Pine Forest standout Harold Landry leading the way, but the offense is starting over with a new quarterback. It will be hard for the Eagles to repeat the success they had in 2016.
1. Miami: After winning nine games in Mark Richt’s first season at his alma mater, Miami looks to continue its upward trend with its first Coastal Division title. But if the Hurricanes are going to improve in Richt’s second season, they’ll have to find a replacement for quarterback Brad Kaaya — an early entrant for the NFL Draft — and depend on a strong defense. I like their chances.
2. Virginia Tech: First-year coach Justin Fuente led the Hokies to a surprising 10-win season, which included a division title. The Hokies seemed poised to be the favorites again, but quarterback Jerod Evans and receivers Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges are turning pro a year early. Bud Foster’s defense will have the Hokies in the mix to repeat.
3. Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets finished strong in 2016 with a bowl win over Kentucky. With Paul Johnson’s triple-option, you can’t count out Georgia Tech in a wide-open division. Coming off a strong freshman campaign, Dedrick Mills will be at the center of the rushing attack.
4. Pittsburgh: With wins over Clemson and Penn State this past season, the Panthers took a major step forward as a program. A disappointing loss in the Pinstripe Bowl hurt momentum for next season and the loss of bruising running back James Conner will be painful, but a favorably schedule can only help Pat Narduzzi as he enters Year 3. Also, look for Pitt to improve defensively.
5. North Carolina: With overwhelming losses on offense — quarterback Mitch Trubisky, wide receivers Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard and Mack Hollins, and running back Elijah Hood — the Tar Heels will be in rebuilding mode next season. UNC will be relying on a defense that showed improvement down the stretch in 2016 as Larry Fedora tinkers with new personnel on offensive side of the ball.
6. Duke: The Blue Devils took a step back in 2016 and faced adversity with some early injuries, but with the return of two options at quarterback — Daniel Jones and Thomas Sirk — expect David Cutcliffe to have his team back on track in position for a bowl bid in 2017.
7. Virginia: The Cavaliers struggled under Bronco Medenhall in his first season at the helm. With a little time and patience, Medenhall and his staff — which includes Lumberton native Ruffin McNeill — should see progress in Year 2. Led by safety Quin Blanding, look for Virginia to be solid on defense.
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.