Clemson enters the 2019 college football season looking to win its fifth consecutive ACC championship. The Tigers are on an unprecedented run that includes four straight College Football Playoff appearances and two national titles in four years, and Dabo Swinney has more than enough talent onhand to do it again.
Clemson is the team to beat in the Atlantic Division. Virginia is an early favorite to be the seventh different team in seven seasons to win the ACC Coastal. Who else could get in the mix?
Sporting News' predictions for the ACC in 2019:
ACC Atlantic Division predictions
3. Florida State
4. N.C. State
5. Boston College
6. Wake Forest
Clemson's skill-position talent is off the charts, with SN preseason All-Americans Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne leading the way. Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins also return as one of the best receiver tandems in the country. This team could average 50 points per game if everyone stays healthy. The bottom half of the division is tough to sort out knowing Louisville welcomes new coach Scott Satterfield and N.C. State, Boston College and Wake Forest combined for a 1-8 record against ranked teams in 2018.
X-factor: Syracuse in September
Can the Orange knock off the Tigers at the Carrier Dome with the ABC primetime spotlight on Sept. 14? An upset there would throw off the entire rhythm of the ACC season and give Syracuse a legit shot at the Atlantic Division crown. The Orange were 6-0 and averaged 48 points per game at home in 2018.
Top sleeper: Florida State
Florida State coach Willie Taggart repeatedly tried to put 2018 in the rearview mirror at the ACC Kickoff. Clemson exposed how wide the gap is in a 59-10 blowout last season. Taggart still has to find a quarterback – James Blackman and Wisconsin transfer Alex Hornibrook will fight for that in fall camp – and new offensive coordinator Kendal Briles must get the most out of Cam Akers while a defense that revolves around Marvin Wilson shows that last year was an anomaly. It's a lot to ask for, but FSU will be better this year.
ACC Coastal Division predictions
4. Virginia Tech
5. North Carolina
7. Georgia Tech
The Cavaliers are the pick to make that seven-teams-in-seven-years-trend stick, and the biggest reason why is quarterback play. Bryce Perkins is the best all-around quarterback in the division. Virginia still must break a 15-game losing streak to Virginia Tech to unlock that potential. Pitt is the defending champion in the division, and if Kenny Pickett improves under offensive coordinator Mark Whipple the Panthers could defend their title.
X-factor: Miami quarterbacks
Manny Diaz takes over at Miami, and the Hurricanes have enough talent – especially on the defensive side around linebacker Shaquille Quarterman – to win the division. The quarterback, whether that's N'Kosi Perry or Tate Martell – must be better. Hurricanes quarterbacks combined for 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions last season. If Miami gets enough out of that position, then they will win the division.
Top sleeper: North Carolina
Mack Brown is back in the ACC, and the Tar Heels will take their lumps against a tough schedule early. Freshman quarterback Sam Howell will grow into the position, and North Carolina gets Pitt and Virginia in November. If the division race gets wild, the Heels could go from spoiler to contender.
ACC games to watch in 2019
Virginia at Pitt (Aug. 31). It's a battle of the defending Coastal Division champion and the preseason favorite. Putting that in Week 1 increases the urgency for both teams. Pitt won 23-13 at Virginia last season. Perkins had minus-7 yards rushing in that loss.
Clemson at Syracuse (Sept. 14). If the Tigers win here – a week after a home showdown against Texas A&M – then a lot of pundits will pencil them in as ACC champions. This is the first big test for new Syracuse quarterback Tommy DeVito.
Clemson at N.C. State (Nov. 9). The Tigers also have a road trip against South Carolina in November, but the last two in Raleigh have been shootouts. Clemson has won the last two at N.C. State with an average score of 47-36.
ACC Heisman hopefuls
Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson. Lawrence is an early Heisman favorite after a brilliant performance in the 44-16 victory against Alabama in the national championship game. Lawrence (3,280 yards, 30 touchdowns, four interceptions) averaged 287.2 passing yards with 11 scores and no interceptions in Clemson's last five games. Will he live up to an almost impossible standard?
Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson. Etienne finished seventh in the Heisman voting last season after a season in which he totaled 1,659 yards and 24 rushing touchdowns. Etienne and Lawrence might cancel each other's votes out by the end of the season.
Justyn Ross, WR, Clemson. Now it's just getting ridiculous. A receiver hasn't won the Heisman Trophy since Michigan's Desmond Howard in 1991, but Ross could get some attention knowing he averaged 21.7 yards per catch last season.
ACC coach with something to prove: Willie Taggart, Florida State
We mentioned Florida State as a possible sleeper, but Taggart still is the best answer here knowing there are four new coaches in the ACC and Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente led the Hokies to the ACC championship game in his first season. Taggart at least must get Florida State back to a bowl game to ward off hot-seat talk – warranted or not.
ACC stat that matters: Clemson's margin of victory
The Tigers are 34-2 in ACC play the last four seasons (including conference championship games) and beat conference opponents by a margin of 35.2 points per game in 2018, a sizable jump from marks in 2017 (16.8), 2016 (18.1) and 2015 (17.8). So yes, the gap between Clemson and everyone else is getting out of control.
ACC's biggest question: Does this run hurt the ACC?
No. Florida State won a least a share of the ACC championships in nine straight seasons from 1992-2000. The Seminoles also finished in the top five in the AP Poll and won two national championships in that stretch, including a BCS championship game. Clemson has just taken that success to the next level, and the upcoming launch of the ACC Network will only help the program's exposure. It's on everybody else to step up and improve their game.
ACC champion: Clemson
Swinney talked about starting over at the ACC Kickoff, and there are new pressures on the program after two national championship runs. Clemson, however, simply has too much talent at the skill positions. The defense will blossom under Brent Venables, and even if they slip up once, it's tough to envision Clemson losing twice in this conference.