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ACC Spotlight on the Coaches: Preseason Rankings

ACC Coaches
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As Spring Games across the NCAA landscape finish, which coaches in the Atlantic Coast Conference are safe and which are feeling the heat turn up on their seats heading into the season? How will the newcomers Stanford, who have their first-year coach in Troy Taylor, Cal, and SMU join the ACC in 2024 and be joined by Fran Brown at Syracuse, and Bill O'Brien who returns to the head coaching ranks of the NCAA at Boston College.

Stanford - Troy Taylor - In 2023, they ended the season disappointingly at 3-9. The team brought in a new coach, and with the Pac-12 teams leaving for other conferences, it also sees itself entering a new conference with a new coach, about as close to a fresh start as one could have in modern-day college football. Although they begin the 2024 season in a new conference, they have work to do to find their identity and have the players they want to execute their systems to the fullest. After a season where the offense averaged 20.8 points per game and allowed just under 38 points per game, work must be done. Prediction - Safe, Taylor enters his first season as coach as the team enters a new conference, he's going to have work to do to make the team fit his system.

Virginia - Tony Elliot - Coach Elliot is entering his third season and he and his staff have had to lead the team through unimaginable trials and tribulations. They have struggled to find their success on the field. Last season, the team averaged 369 yards a game and scored just over 23 points per game. Defensively, the team struggled allowing 408 yards per game and allowing just under 34 points per game. Losing a talented playmaker in Malik Washington is a blow to the offense and how will quarterback Tony Muskett and the offense grow in year two with the Cavaliers? With the 2024 season, they have a favorable schedule with their toughest games not until a clash against Clemson in the middle of October. Prediction - Safe but getting warmer. Despite their 3-9 record in 2023, they did compete in their games which got him this year, a solid improvement is needed.

Syracuse - Fran Brown - Another first-year coach in the ACC, taking over the Orange after the team parted ways with Dino Babers. He hit the ground running bringing in quarterback Kyle McCord from Ohio State. He does have Oronde Gadsen II returning and a new addition in wide receiver Jackson Meeks, from Georgia. Running back LeQuint Allen also returns to lead the way in the running game. While there will be a new system on offense with the Syracuse Orange, there are pieces with a high ceiling that are poised to take the next steps in their careers. With a favorable schedule in 2024, the future is bright for the Orange to make a quick turnaround in the new-look ACC. Prediction - Safe. Another first-year coach, similar to Taylor at Stanford has to merge his system with his players. Having playmakers like Gadsen and Allen should help in the transition.

Miami - Mario Cristobal - In his two seasons as head coach, he has gotten talented players, he just hasn't seen a return on investment. While part of it has been coordinators that have changed, his seat has gotten warmer and results are needed sooner rather than later. The team brought in Cam Ward to run the offense in 2024 will he be the young man to change the fortune of the Hurricanes in the ACC as Cristobal enters his third season at the helm? The Hurricanes did improve in year two under Cristobal going 7-6 after finishing 5-7 in year one. After finishing 3-5 in the conference in his first two seasons, a third could be too much to overcome. Whispers are sure to grow louder with more struggles this season. Prediction - Shaky at best. While the Hurricanes decided to move on from Coach Diaz, the return from Cristobal in his two years has been less than ideal although there was an improvement from his first year, this year brings another change as Ward joins the team that needs to regain its form.

ACC Coaches
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Duke - Manny Diaz - An old face in a new location, after spending time in the Big 10 as part of the coaching staff for Penn State as the team's defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, he returns to the ACC to lead the Blue Devils. He took over the program after Mike Elko departed for Texas A&M and the SEC. Diaz spent 2016 through 2021 with the University of Miami first as a defensive coordinator before being promoted to head coach in 2022. Diaz has some work to do to continue what his predecessor began, Elko quickly turned around a program that went 3-9 the season before he started to a team that went 9-4 and 7-5 respectively under his leadership (he opted not to coach the team in the bowl game from the 2023 season). The time away from the head coaching spotlight could give him some perspective, their schedule gives them time to find their form before their tough stretch of hosting Florida State and newcomer SMU to end October. Prediction - Safe. Although he's entering his first season with Duke, he has coached in the ACC before. Although last season's starter Riley Leonard departed for Notre Dame, sophomore transfer Malik Murphy from Texas enters. At 6-foot-5 and 238 pounds, he's got the size and the athletic ability to make defenses sweat.

Virginia Tech - Brent Pry - A lot is going on with the Hokies, entering his third season as head coach, Pry has brought an electric energy to Blacksburg. I mean coming out to Enter Sandman by Metalica gets points in my book. Coach Pry and his staff are off to a great start. Initially 3-8 in year one, his staff had a four-game turnaround to finish at 7-6 and a win in the Military Bowl in year two. Quarterback Kyron Drones returns for the Hokies, the dual-threat quarterback will look to build on last season where he threw for 2,084 yards and 17 touchdowns. He also accounted for 818 yards and five touchdowns rushing. As a dual threat, he has helped create mismatches and nightmares for opposing defenders. Coach Pry has the Hokies trending in the right direction. Running back Bhayshul Tuten should help give Drones and the offense a great weapon out of the backfield. Prediction - Safe. He's turning the program around and in seemingly short order. Virginia Tech has found its coach and barring the wheels falling off, they should be together for a while.

ACC Coaches
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Clemson - Dabo Swinney - The longest-tenured coach in the ACC, Swinney and the Tigers took a step back in 2023 and while they still finished a respectable 9-4, it was not the results that had become customary for Clemson in recent years. While quarterback Cade Klubnik returns to lead with Phil Mafah on offense, the team will need to find other options to help on offense. In their recent Spring game, they had some answers as a trio of receivers emerged in Antonio Williams, Adam Randall, and freshman Bryant Wesco were all bright spots. With a defense led by Wade Woddaz, Khalil Barnes, and Tyler Venables they should return to form with Jaheim Lawson and AJ Hoffler stepping into more impactful roles. Prediction - Safe. While other programs have tried to court Swinney away from Clemson, he has made it clear he is where he wants to be. It helps that Swinney has had 13 straight winning seasons since 2010 (his only losing season at Clemson).

Georgia Tech - Brent Key - Since taking over the head coaching duties in 2022 (4-4), he has helped usher in more of a pro-style offense instead of the triple option that had been run for years by the Yellow Jackets. Now that the players are in place, after coming back to finish 5-7 in 2022 (after a 1-3 start), Key improved to 7-5 in year two. Quarterback Haynes King returning to lead the offense after finishing fourth in the ACC with 2,842 yards and 27 touchdowns. A dual-threat quarterback who finished with 737 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground last season. He will be joined on offense by running back Jamal Haynes who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark last season. Prediction - Safe, the team has begun digging themselves out of mediocrity and seems to have turned the corner. King is a quarterback that can give defenses fits for 60 minutes which is a plus. If the defense can improve, the team could be a force in the conference. They start with a trial by fire against Florida State in Ireland on August 24.

California - Justin Wilcox - Entering his eighth season at the helm for the Golden Bears of Cal, his seat is probably getting a bit warm. With only two winning seasons in his tenure, entering into a new conference in the ACC will lessen the heat, but an improvement in short order is needed. After going 4-7 in 2022 and 6-7 in 2023, there is movement in the right direction, will it continue and be enough is the concern. Returning to lead the offense are Fernando Mendoza and Jaydn Ott. Ott led the Pac-12 with 1305 yards rushing last season. The offense will need to build off the 30 points per game scored in 2023. The defense will need to have the biggest improvement. The ACC is poised to have some high-power offenses and a defense that allowed 33 points per game and 417 yards per game will be in trouble. Xavier Carlton at linebacker and defensive backs Lu-Magia Hearns III and Craig Woodson will need to lead this team and get help to improve. Prediction - Safe for now. While an improvement is needed, the start of the ACC era should provide a grace period of sorts for Wilcox and staff.

ACC Coaches
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SMU - Rhett Lashlee - Entering his third season with the Mustangs, Lashlee has gone from 7-6 in 2022 to 11-3 last season. He's been winning and improving as 2023 marked their best finish since 2019 when they finished 10-3. Armed with an offense that averaged 39 points per game and a stingy defense that surrendered 17.4 points per game that will serve them well in the ACC. Quarterback Preston Stone returns to build off a 3,200-yard passing performance to lead the team into a new conference. Joining him on offense will be running back Jaylan Knighton, who is coming off his best season averaging over five yards per carry in 2023. Receivers Key'Shawn Smith and Romello Brinson both return to the ACC with SMU after transferring from Miami. Defensively, the team brings back leaders at every level, defensive end Elijah Roberts finished with 9.5 sacks last season while safety Isaiah Nwokobia tied for the lead in the American Athletic Conference in interceptions last season with four The ball hawk safety also racked up 61 tackles and returned two interceptions for touchdowns. Linebacker Kobe Wilson returns to lead a veteran group after a career season with 80 tackles. Prediction - Safe. He's not going anywhere between his winning and the new conference he'll be on the sidelines for the Mustangs for a while.

Boston College - Bill O'Brien - A new coach for the Eagles and a return to the head coaching ranks for O'Brien. He spent two seasons as head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions before heading to the NFL. Most recently, he spent the 2023 season with the Patriots as their Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks coach. While he was at Penn State, his teams went 15-9 over his two seasons where he won Big Ten Coach of the Year honors in 2012. He takes over for the departed Jeff Hafley who leaves to take a role in the NFL. O'Brien brings a connection to the NFL and name recognition to the Eagles program. Thomas Castellanos will lead the offense, coming off a great season where he passed for 2,248 yards and ran for over 1,100 yards, accounting for 28 total touchdowns. Last season's receiving leader Lewis Bond will be joined by transfers Jayden McGowan from Vanderbilt and Jerand Bradley from Texas Tech. McGowan averaged 10.6 yards per catch last season for the Commodores and Bradley averaged just under 14 yards per reception in three seasons with the Red Raiders. O'Brien and his staff will have to work to improve a defense that surrendered 29.5 points per game while only averaging 24.8 points a game. Defensively, the team will look to replace Elijah Jones who led the ACC in interceptions with five. Incoming transfer Cameron Martinez from Ohio State will look to lead a veteran defense in 2024. Prediction - Safe. He's an experienced coach who has won at his previous stop and gained experience at big-time programs.

NC State - Dave Doeren - After finishing 9-4 overall and 6-2 in conference last season, the Wolfpack are among the teams eyeing the ACC's top spot this season. Last season, the defense finished fifth in the conference allowing 20 points and 324 yards per game. For their part, the offense averaged 26 points and 350 yards per game. Talented quarterback Grayson McCall takes over the reins on offense after transferring in from Coastal Carolina. McCall will look to rebound from an off year in 2023 as his yardage dropped from 2,700 to 1,919. Before last season, McCall had three straight seasons of at least 2,400 yards and at least 24 touchdowns. He will be joined by talented young receiver Kevin Concepcion who finished fifth in receiving yards in the ACC last season. Joining Concepcion and the Wolfpack will be Justin Joly, who transfers in from UConn where he had 578 yards and two touchdowns for the Huskies last season. Leading the rushing attack will be Jordan Waters who transfers in after beginning his career with the Duke Blue Devils. Last season, Waters had 958 total yards and accounted for 12 touchdowns. The defense is the big concern can Auburn transfer Cam Riley and JUCO transfer Wyatt Wright help make up for Payton Wilson's departure to the NFL? Prediction - Safe. Entering his 12th season as head coach for the Wolfpack, Doeren has only had two losing seasons. He is currently on a stretch of four seasons with at least eight wins. The Wolfpack have their coach and he has built a program that will be a contender for the ACC and new playoffs.

Wake Forest - Dave Clawson - Clawson enters his 11th season at the helm for the Demon Deacons with a mix of good and bad (mostly good). The 2023 season saw his lowest win total since 2015, he had four during the pandemic but those were extenuating circumstances for sports and the world. Last season, sticking with quarterback Mitch Griffis to lead the offense instead of seeking help in the transfer portal didn't work out as the offense and the team struggled. This season, Clawson and his staff sought to bring in help as the team welcomed Hank Bachmeier in from Louisiana Tech. In 2023, Bachmeier passed for 2,058 yards and 10 touchdowns which was his best since 2021 when he had 3,079 and 20 touchdowns. He'll have Taylor Morin to target and a returning Donavon Greene, who missed last season due to a knee injury. The Deacons' leading rusher from last season, Demond Claiborne, also returns after running for 586 yards and five touchdowns last season. Defensively, leading tackler Dylan Hazen returns and is poised to build off a career-best and team-best 86 tackles. Transfer Branson Combs will join him who joins the Deacons after 49 career games at Southern Illinois. The converted receiver is coming off his best season with 86 tackles as well as three straight seasons with two interceptions. He'll be a needed playmaker on defense for Clawson and staff to improve from last season. Prediction - Safe for now. This season will serve as a measuring stick to see if the 2023 season was a hiccup or a precursor. With returning playmakers on both sides of the ball, improvement should be in store in 2024. A difficult early season contest against Ole Miss will be a test for the Demon Deacons before they begin ACC play.

Pittsburgh - Pat Narduzzi - Entering his 10th season as head coach, Narduzzi struggled in 2023. Coming off seasons of 11-3 in 2021 and 9-4 in 2022 dropping to 3-9 is not going in the right direction and being outscored 328 to 242 leaves a lot to change. Junior Nate Yarnell takes the reins for the Panthers' offense and will look to build off his 66% completion percentage in the limited game time he had last season. Both Rodney Hampton and Konata Mumpfield return to help lead the offense that needs to be able to score. On defense, leading tackler Donovan McMillon returns to his safety spot, last season he tallied 105 tackles. Joining him on defense is linebacker Keye Thompson at linebacker who transferred in from Ohio where he recorded 94 tackles in 2023. Prediction - Safe for now. He's a fixture for the Panthers at this stage entering his 10th season as head coach. He and his staff need to correct what went wrong in 2023. The staff did bring in players from the transfer portal, so it will be interesting to see how they mesh and help improve the team on both sides of the ball. A favorable schedule could lead to an improved outcome. Road contests versus North Carolina and ACC newcomer SMU before a home contest against Clemson standout as measuring sticks for the Pitt Panthers in 2024.

North Carolina - Mack Brown - A legend in college football who made a return to the sidelines of Chapel Hill after 21 seasons. His return was to return the Tar Heels to a competitive team after the previous coaching staff ran into tough times with back-to-back seasons of nine losses. In the five seasons of his second tenure, Brown has led the Tar Heels to a bowl game although the team has not finished the season with the same energy as the start of the season. After having Sam Howell and Drake Maye lead the offense, this season Brown and his staff turned to the transfer portal and welcomed Max Johnson from Texas A&M. Johnson will look to start fresh after struggling to find the form from his 2,800 yards and 27 touchdown season in 2021. Helping Johnson will be Omarion Hampton who returns after leading the ACC with 1,500 yards on the ground last season. The team's leading receiver, JJ Jones returns for his senior season and will look to build off his production last season where he averaged 15.5 yards per reception. On defense, Power Echols returns to build off a 100+ tackle season and will have Kaimon Rucker who led the team in sacks, and Alijah Huzzie who led in interceptions last season as his running mates. Prediction - Safe. After four winning seasons in five years at the helm, Brown should be safe. Leading the Tar Heels to five straight bowl games helps. The 2024 season will measure if Brown can not only start strong with the Tar Heels but if he can finish strong. Can the defense be as stingy as the offense is high-powered? If so, the team could turn a lot of heads in 2024. A favorable schedule before a clash with Florida State in Tallahassee could see them in contention for the ACC title.

Louisville - Jeff Brohm - We talk about players making an instant impact on the field frequently. Brohm is an example of a coach who did so in his first year as the head coach of Louisville as they made it to the conference championship in his first season. While Brohm has found success at various stops in his coaching career, the team welcomes Tyler Shough to lead the revamped offense this season. Last season with Texas Tech, Shough completed 60% of his passes for 746 yards. He'll have a retooled receiver room as Chris Bell is the only receiver returning from the team's top five last season. He'll be joined by newcomers Ja'Corey Brooks and Caullin Lacy. Brooks who arrives from Alabama is looking for a fresh start after he saw a dip in his production in 2023. Lacy arrives after leading the Sun Belt Conference in receiving yards with 1,316 last season. All three should provide Shough and the offense with viable weapons in the passing game. Donald Chaney transfers in from the University of Miami for a fresh start in a not-so-crowded running back room. Last season Chaney ran for 478 yards and two touchdowns. Defensively, TJ Quinn led the defense with 91 tackles returns and will be joined by Ashton Gillotte who led the conference in sacks. Devin Neal and Quincy Riley both return to anchor the secondary. Prediction - Safe. Brohm returned to his alma mater and led the team to a second-place finish in the ACC. He did so with a high-scoring offense and a defense that surrendered the second-fewest points in the conference.

ACC Coaches
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Florida State - Mike Norvell - The work that coach Norvell and his staff have done to rebuild the Seminoles football program has been outstanding. Norvell and his staff have prioritized the player both in performance on the field and the character of the player. Players have taken note and after starting his tenure in Tallahassee at 3-6 in the shortened 2020 season, led the team to the ACC championship in 2023 finishing with a 13-1 record. The 2024 season will see a lot of new faces in garnet and gold as several stars are pursuing their careers in the NFL. The staff at Florida State brought in another quality class from the transfer portal and complimented it with quality from the incoming freshmen. This season, DJ Uiagalelei returns to the ACC after spending last season with Oregon State. Last season, Uiagalelei threw for 2,638 yards, which was his third straight season of 2,200 yards or more. He'll be joined on offense by dynamic Alabama transfers Malik Benson at receiver and Roydell Williams at running back. Combined with Ja'Khi Douglas, Destyn Hill, and Hykeem Williams the wide receiver room is poised to be speedier than last season. On defense, while the team has playmakers return at every level, incoming transfers Earl Little Jr, Sione Lolohea, and Seminoles legacy Marvin Jones Jr are poised to help the Seminoles' defense build off what they did last season. Prediction - Safe. After the departure of a college football icon Bobby Bowden, the Florida State Seminoles have found their coach. He and his staff have gotten the program back to national relevance. He isn't going anywhere.

Coaching changes are inevitable in all sports in a multitude of ways. The 2023 college football season in the ACC saw programs return to national prominence as well as programs find the right coach to guide their respective program. It also served as a sign that the 2024 season with the new additions to the conference will have interesting storylines to follow. Will we see Clemson bounce back, will the Seminoles successfully defend their ACC title? Which of the newcomers this season will make the biggest impact? Which familiar face in a new location will impact the season the most? The season is poised to deliver some exciting football for fans across the country. Hottest seat heading into the season - is Mario Christobal. A program of the notoriety of the University of Miami can consistently draw playmakers to join its storied program. The results through two seasons haven't lived up to the expectations. With his predecessor back in the ACC at Duke adds an extra dimension if Diaz has better results this season. A contest in Miami on November 2nd could be the final straw.


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