Balance of Power

by - Senior Writer -
A healthy Deshaun Watson should make the Tigers the ACC favorites in 2015.
A healthy Deshaun Watson should make the Tigers the ACC favorites in 2015.

The battle for supremacy in the ACC has already begun, and the early favorites at this point in the process have to be Clemson, Florida St. and Georgia Tech.

The ACC Football Kickoff – held each July somewhere in North Carolina – is the time when the ACC media gathers to preview the season and talk to coaches and players. It’s also when the voting for the conference preseason teams and division winners and conference winner takes place, and if the voting were to take place today it might be too close to call.

Over the past week or so, I’ve polled many of my fellow ACC beat writers by text and spoken in person to many others, and the general feeling I get from that small sampling size is that – at least right now – Clemson is the team to beat in the ACC Atlantic.

Why? Deshaun WatsonDeshaun Watson
Fr. Quarterback
#4 6-3, 204
Gainesville, GA

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, of course. Watson – when healthy and that’s a big asterisk to his production at this point in his career – will be the ACC’s best quarterback next season and one of the top quarterbacks in the entire nation. With the news last week that Florida St. quarterback Jameis Winston was off to the NFL – something that was a foregone conclusion – the balance of power in the ACC Atlantic shifted.

The Seminoles won four of five in the series from 2010-14, claimed two division titles and a BCS national title game in that span. The 2013 game at Clemson – a blowout in favor of Florida St. – showed clear evidence that the ‘Noles were not only winning on the field, they were winning in recruiting and I wrote an article last summer that pointed out how Florida St.’s success on the recruiting trail led to them winning the national title.

Clemson has been hot on the recruiting trail, however, and adding Watson in the 2014 class not only gave the coaching staff a foundation on which to build, it drew other recruits Clemson’s way. The coaches had already added defensive pieces like Jayron KearseJayron Kearse
So. Safety
#20 6-4, 215
Fort Myers, FL

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and MacKensie AlexanderMacKensie Alexander
RS Fr. Cornerback
#2 5-11, 190
Immokalee, FL

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and Ben BoulwareBen Boulware
So. Outside Linebacker
#10 5-11, 235
Anderson, SC

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and D.J. ReaderD.J. Reader
Jr. Defensive Tackle
#48 6-2, 322
Greensboro, NC

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– guys who will be the main players on next season’s defense – and began adding more of the offensive pieces. The 2014 class and now the 2015 class are heavy on linemen and the Tigers are recruiting just as well as the Seminoles.

Now that success has to translate onto the field, and the power gap between the two programs was shown to be less than we thought when the Tigers lost a heartbreaker at Florida St. in September. The ‘Noles kept up their winning ways, but it was a roller coaster ride in which a lack of experience and depth on defense began to show. They survived long enough to make it into the College Football Playoff, but were blown out by Oregon in the Rose Bowl.

Early departures for the NFL have done damage to the Seminoles’ roster – just like LSU over the last couple of seasons – and Florida St. faces more of the same this offseason. Can they survive another mass defection? Winston, cornerback P.J. Williams, cornerback Ronald Darby, and defensive lineman Mario Edwards have already declared and there might be others.

The Tigers have their own mass exodus to worry about – a star-studded senior class that takes away the majority of the defensive starters. That’s a worry without a doubt. But I went back and did some research this morning, and Clemson fans can find solace in some of these numbers – the players who will be returning and should be at the top of the depth chart got a lot of playing time this season despite the plethora of seniors – they played 3928 snaps last season and recorded 212 tackles in 412 total games. That’s valuable experience for the front line guys, and defensive coordinator Brent VenablesBrent Venables
Def. Coordinator / Linebackers
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told us during the bowl game that he played a lot of players all season in anticipation of 2015.

If Clemson played at Florida St. in 2015, you might have to say that the ‘Noles were the favorite. But with two teams who will be close in talent, right now the smart money says you take the home team with the better quarterback. Clemson also plays host to both Florida St. and Georgia Tech next season, while the ‘Noles have to travel to Atlanta and Clemson.

The favorite? As it stands right now, yes.

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