Clemson University

ACC football race should be more wide open in 2015

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) runs past N.C. State defensive tackle T.Y. McGill (75) during the first half of the Wolfpack's game against Clemson at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C., Saturday, October 4, 2014.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) runs past N.C. State defensive tackle T.Y. McGill (75) during the first half of the Wolfpack's game against Clemson at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C., Saturday, October 4, 2014.

Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher sounded like they were reading from the same crib sheet on the teleconference with ACC football coaches this week.

Swinney, the Clemson coach: “I like our team. I like the opportunity that we have.”

And Fisher, the Florida State coach: “I like our football team. I think we have a chance to have another very successful football team.”

Clemson and FSU are expected (again) to be the ACC’s best football teams. But there is a talent drain to consider. FSU lost 12 players from last year’s ACC championship team that could be taken in the NFL draft, including four offensive starters led by 2013 Heisman winner Jameis Winston. Clemson’s draft tally could hit nine, including all four starting defensive linemen.

This doesn’t seem to faze Fisher, who has lost 18 players in the past two NFL drafts.

“I think we’re just as talented or maybe more talented,” Fisher said. “But the way those young guys develop into consistent football players is going to be the key.”

Swinney also sees a roster still swimming in talent.

“The biggest difference for us is we just don’t have the experienced depth,” Swinney said. “We have talented depth, but it’s very inexperienced, and that’s going to be the key to our defense.”

It’s appropriate the two coaches sound alike – the programs have been similarly dominant in the ACC the past three years, albeit with FSU holding a a 3-0 edge in head-to-head meetings and conference titles.

Since the start of the 2012 season, Clemson is 20-1 against all ACC teams other than Florida State, with FSU 23-1 against the same competition.

But with so much talent leaving each program, it does feel like the door of possibility is open, or at least slightly ajar, for another ACC team in 2015.

Maybe Georgia Tech, which beat Clemson last year and came within a field goal of knocking FSU out of the College Football Playoff and returns quarterback Justin Thomas?

Or Virginia Tech, the only team to beat national champion Ohio State last year?

N.C. State might have the best chance in the Atlantic Division. The Wolfpack is the last ACC team to beat FSU (17-16 in 2012) and returns a veteran quarterback (Jacoby Brissett) and the bulk of its defense.

The question is whether the other teams can make progress toward either Clemson or FSU, which have been dominant on the recruiting trail, too. The average rank of the past five recruiting classes for FSU is 5 and for Clemson it’s 10.6. No other ACC team ranks in the top 20.

But FSU already took a step back to the rest of the ACC last season. The Seminoles went 9-0 in ACC games and qualified for the CFP, but their average margin of ACC victory was 12.6. Four wins were decided by six points or less.

The Seminoles won the national title in 2013 and, in the process, won nine ACC games by a staggering average margin of 39 points, none by single digits.

Winston, 26-1 as a starter, likely will be the No. 1 overall draft pick Thursday night. Junior Sean Maguire, who started and threw for 305 yards in last year’s 23-17 overtime win against Clemson, is in line to be his replacement. But the Seminoles will have to replace five starters on defense and top receiver Rashad Greene – all of whom are expected to be drafted.

Throw in the offensive line exodus, and the power might be shifting to Clemson. But the Tigers have their own deep personnel losses, especially on defense (seven starters). Then there’s the question of quarterback Deshaun Watson’s health.

Watson tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in practice in November. He had surgery in December. Watson, who’ll be sophomore, has targeted the Sept. 5 opener vs. Wofford as his return date. Swinney said Wednesday that Watson was “way ahead of schedule.”

Clemson was definitely a different team with Watson (who missed five games with two different injuries), than without. And that was with the ACC’s top-scoring defense (16.7 points per game). Either way, you have to figure there’s some adjustment there for a young quarterback and one with a new coordinator, who replaced Chad Morris after he was named SMU’s coach.

Maybe the gap will be closer in 2015. Or maybe the two coaches will have another reason to sound exactly the same.

Giglio: 919-829-8938