5 questions about the ACC: How will Clemson respond as defending champs?

Photo of 5 questions about the ACC: How will Clemson respond as defending champs?

The ACC will have a different look to it when the season kicks off in September, after a number of high-profile programs replaced former household names with new and unfamiliar faces.

Will the existing hierarchy of successful teams remain this coming season, or can an underachieving team step up and make a name for itself? Here are five questions regarding the ACC in 2017.

1. Has Clemson lost too much talent to return to the College Football Playoff?

The 2017 version of Clemson is set to be quite different than the one that ripped national glory from Alabama's hands in the final minutes of last year's national championship game, and a number of glaring holes will need to be filled if the Tigers hope to return to the promised land this time around.

There may not be a team in college football that has lost more production than Clemson, which is part of the danger of having such an established and effective lineup. Below are some of the most notable weapons that head coach Dabo Swinney will need to find successors for in 2017.

Name Position 2016 Production
Deshaun Watson QB 388-579 passing for 4593 Yards & 41 TDs
Wayne Gallman RB 232 Carries for 1133 Yards & 17 TDs
Mike Williams WR 98 Catches for 1361 Yards & 11 TDs
Jordan Leggett TE 46 Catches for 736 Yards & 7 TDs
Carlos Watkins DT 82 Tackles & 10.5 Sacks
Ben Boulware LB 131 Tackles & 4 Sacks
Cordrea Tankersley CB 65 Tackles & 4 INT
Jadar Johnson S 65 Tackles & 5 INT

All is not doom and gloom for the Tigers, however, as a number of reinforcements will be arriving with Swinney's 2017 recruiting class. Top recruit Tee Higgins along with Amari Rodgers give Clemson two incoming four-star options at wide receiver, while Hunter Johnson could threaten to make an impact as a true freshman as the top pocket-passing quarterback recruit in the nation. Returning players Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence on defense and Hunter Renfrow on offense should provide enough of a carry over for new players to learn from impact contributors who have succeeded under the brightest lights.

Clemson shouldn't have any problem remaining competitive and atop the hunt for the ACC Championship next season, but whether or not it can return to the College Football Playoff could depend how quick its young talent can step up.

2. How will Lamar Jackson follow up his Heisman winning campaign?

Hindsight tells us a lot of things, and when it comes to Lamar Jackson, it says that the Heisman Trophy was basically his to lose after he recorded eight touchdowns (six passing, two rushing) against Charlotte in the opening week of the 2016 season.

So, can he do it again?

Jackson will have every defensive unit gunning for him in 2017 with an offseason's worth of preparation, but Louisville's non-conference schedule may actually give Jackson more of an opportunity to run roughshod than it did last season. Houston was a respectable adversary in 2016, but a combination of Purdue, Kent State, and Murray State on the docket for this season could make for a lot of big box score numbers should Jackson be firing on all cylinders.

History is strongly against a repeat for Jackson, as only Archie Griffin has ever claimed back-to-back trophies, but it's highly unlikely that something close to last year's success wouldn't at least land him an invite to the ceremony at the end of the year.

3. Which of the conference's elite will suffer the most from loss of quarterback?

Clemson, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Miami, and Pittsburgh are all in an arms race in regards to who can find the best replacement for their departed quarterbacks from a season ago, with some more prepared at this point than others.

Deshaun Watson's departure from Clemson was inevitable, but junior Kelly Bryant, along with incoming four-star recruit Johnson, give Swinney a couple of decent options to open the campaign. North Carolina was able to reel in LSU transfer Brandon Harris to at least give the Tar Heels some experience at the position, while Pittsburgh welcomes in USC transfer Max Browne. Miami's Malik Rosier is a likely candidate to replace Brad Kaaya, although he attempted just four passes last season.

The program that sticks out like a sore thumb in regards to quarterback depth is Virginia Tech. Despite Ryan Willis joining from Kansas, the Hokies will be without him in 2017 to satisfy transfer regulations. The trio of Josh Jackson, A.J. Bush, and Hendon Hooker have a whopping total of zero games under their collective belt, so Jerod Evans' replacement on opening weekend could really be anyone's guess.

4. Is Duke the most likely underachieving team from last season to jump up and bite conference opponents?

Virginia and Syracuse turned in largely unsurprising performances last season, but Duke was the only ACC program that took a significant step back in 2016. The Blue Devils saw their win total cut in half following the 2015 season and failed to appear in a bowl game for the first time since 2011, but all of that could change with the dawn of a new campaign.

Daniel Jones got his feet wet as a freshman last year and showed glimpses of growth that could bode well for Duke in 2017. The Blue Devils also have leading rusher Shaun Wilson and leading receiver T.J. Rahming returning, which should provide continuity and experience to a program looking to get back on track.

The majority of Duke's losses last year weren't terrible either. A 24-14 loss to Louisville and a 24-21 loss to Virginia Tech, both ranked opponents at the time, prove the Blue Devils are no pushovers. Another lackluster season would not be a good look for David Cutcliffe though, as he already has four seasons of four wins or less under his belt at Duke.

5. Will Cam Akers make Florida State fans forget about Dalvin Cook?

The likely answer to this is no, not entirely, but Cam Akers has a chance to make an impact and perhaps place his name above Cook's in the Florida State record books in 2017.

The incoming five-star recruit and No. 1 running back in the class of 2017 needs a total of 1,009 rushing yards to break Cook's freshman rushing record at Florida State. Akers has an almost 20-pound advantage on Cook in freshman size comparison, and that additional strength could go a long way in helping Akers make an impact right out of the gate.

Deondre Francois should be able to take some of the pressure off Akers as he can sometimes be a threat to run as well. The Seminoles will need some significant contributions on the ground if they hope to compete with, and surpass, the likes of Louisville and Clemson.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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