By Aaron Beard
AP Sports Writer
RALEIGH, N.C. — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney understands why preseason questions about the Tigers focus more on who’s gone from last year’s team instead of who is filling those roles.
The reigning national champions have big holes — the kind that could clear a path for Florida State or Louisville to climb atop the Atlantic Coast Conference’s heavyweight division and win the league title in 2017.
“Guys, there’s change every year,” Swinney said during last month’s ACC media days. “It’s a new team.”
The Tigers’ thrilling 35-31 comeback win against Alabama did more than give Clemson its second national title. It capped a four-year run that has the ACC — a league best known for basketball — on level footing these days with the football-power Southeastern Conference. The ACC has won two national championships and has two Heisman Trophy winners in that span, including reigning trophy winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville.
Now it’s up to the ACC to maintain its newly claimed stature.
The Tigers (14-1) have played in two straight national title games but must replace star players such as quarterback Deshaun Watson and linebacker Ben Boulware. They’ve ceded the league-favorite status to the Seminoles (10-3), who return 18 starters on offense and defense. And the Cardinals (9-4) lurk right behind with Jackson’s return with the chance to join Ohio State’s Archie Griffin as the only two-time Heisman winners.
And that’s all in the Atlantic Division, part of an imbalanced alignment that has made the league’s Coastal Division a perennial undercard.
Clemson extended a six-year run by the Atlantic champion as winner of the league title game, with FSU and Clemson each have won three. The Coastal, meanwhile, has had a revolving door of division champions that included Virginia Tech last year, North Carolina in 2015, Georgia Tech in 2014 and Duke in 2013 — and looks just as likely to have more uncertainty this fall.
The marquee game should be FSU’s visit to Clemson on Nov. 11, with the winner of that game winning the past six league crowns.
“That game has turned into one heck of a game every year,” said FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, who led the Seminoles to the 2013 national title. “Whoever wins it has a chance to win it all, not only win the ACC, but win a national championship.”
Atlantic: Florida State. The Seminoles lost league-leading rusher Dalvin Cook, but sophomore quarterback Deondre Francois is back while the defense returns 11 starters. That list includes safety Derwin James, who was regarded as one of the nation’s defensive backs before missing all but two games last year with a knee injury .
Coastal: Miami. The Hurricanes return running back Mark Walton and eight defensive starters, though they need to find a new quarterback after losing Brad Kaaya if they want to reach the ACC championship game for the first time. Virginia Tech is picked second and also has to find a new starting quarterback as the Hokies try to become the division’s first repeat winner since 2011.
Jackson, Louisville. The junior can beat defenses through the air (3,543 yards passing and 30 touchdowns) or on the ground (1,571 yards with 21 scores).
Walton, Miami. Walton ran for 1,117 yards and 14 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2016. He’ll have to lead the offense as the Hurricanes’ next QB settles into the role under second-year coach Mark Richt.
Jaylen Samuels, North Carolina State. The senior can play running back, receiver or tight end. And he has 29 rushing or receiving touchdowns over the past two seasons for an experienced team that could be a dark horse in the Atlantic.
Dexter Lawrence, Clemson. The 6-foot-5, 340 pound sophomore tackle — mentioned as a possible No. 1 overall NFL draft pick in 2019 — joins linemate Christian Wilkins to give the Tigers a formidable front.
Micah Kiser, Virginia. The senior linebacker has led the ACC in tackles for the past two seasons with a combined 251 stops.
(NO) NEW FACES
The ACC doesn’t have a new coach for the first time since 2006.
ON THE HOT SEAT?
Boston College’s Steve Addazio guided the Eagles to a bowl win, but they’re a combined 2-14 in the ACC the past two seasons.