Friedlander: Revisiting my preseason ACC football Crystal Ball predictions
In baseball, you only get 3 strikes before getting called out and sent back to the dugout. When it comes to making preseason predictions, there’s no limit to how many times you can swing and miss.
And man, did I have my share of whiffs.
I did have a few hits along the way, including a home run or 2. But those aren’t the ones I’m usually reminded of by my “fans” on social media.
In case you’re not the type to have all my predictions bookmarked for future use, let me save you the trouble of going through them all to calculate my batting average with this rewind back to the start of the season (click on the team’s name to link to the original Crystal Ball story):
Crystal Ball prediction: 6-6 (2-6)
Actual record: 6-6 (3-5)
Nailed it: I hit the Eagles’ overall record. The combination of a favorable schedule, an improved running attack aided by the return of injured All-ACC guard Christian Mahogany and several important transfer additions led to a 3-win improvement over last year’s 3-9 record. The 6 wins earned them a trip to the Fenway Bowl — and helped me hit on another preseason prediction by saving coach Jeff Hafley’s job for at least another season.
Whiffed: While the result was spot on, the way it came about was anything but. The biggest difference was the leader who provided the spark for one of the most improved offenses in the ACC. All it took was a couple of possessions into the season opener against Northern Illinois for Hafley to replace incumbent starter Emmett Morehead – the quarterback he spent the entire offseason hyping – with Thomas Castellanos. The dual-threat UCF transfer rushed for over 900 yards and accounted for 26 touchdowns in adding a spark to the most improved offense in the ACC.
Notable: The Eagles were streaky. They bounced back from a 1-3 start by winning 5 straight only to finish the regular season with 3 straight losses. They still have a chance for their first 7-win season since 2018 with a win against SMU on Dec. 28. The key to BC’s turnaround was its offensive improvement. They raised their scoring average from from 17.6 points last year to 25.0 this year and after finishing last in the ACC at 63.3 yards per game on the ground in 2022, they’re now 3rd at 194.3
Quotable: “While the results weren’t there (in 2022), the development of young replacement players is now ahead of schedule because of the game reps they received.”
Crystal Ball prediction: 11-1 (7-1)
Actual record: 8-4 (4-4)
Nailed it: Welp, at least I got a couple of things right about the Tigers this season. They did avenge their disappointing 2022 losses to Notre Dame and arch-rival South Carolina while getting ambushed by NC State for their 2nd straight trip to Raleigh. But all my other predictions were as off-target as Clemson’s potential game-winning field goal against FSU.
Whiffed: Where to start? How about the positive influence new offensive coordinator Garrett Riley would have on young quarterback Cade Klubnik? Didn’t happen. Or the win against LSU that kept the Tigers’ ACC home winning streak at Death Valley going? Close, but no cigar. That’s more than can be said about my prediction of another ACC championship and a return to the College Football Playoff. Dabo Swinney’s team was virtually eliminated from both by Week 4, raising the panic level of Tyler from Spartanburg and the rest of those in orange to DEFCON 1 until a late surge that soothed at least some of the uncharacteristic disappointment.
Notable: Clemson’s 4 losses were their most in a season since 2011. The 8 wins were its fewest since going 6-7 in 2010, Swinney’s 2nd full season on the job. On the plus side, Swinney passed the legendary Frank Howard as the winningest coach in school history when the Tigers beat Notre Dame on Nov. 4. It took him only 16 seasons to earn his 166 victories. It took Howard 30 to amass his 165.
Quotable: “With all the love Florida State has been getting this offseason, the Tigers aren’t attracting as much attention as usual. And they seem more than happy to use it to their advantage.”
Crystal Ball prediction: 8-4 (5-3)
Actual record: 7-5 (4-4)
Nailed it: Obviously, no one could have predicted the injury issues that sidelined star quarterback Riley Leonard and other key players and ultimately derailed what started as a promising season. But when it comes to the end result, I was nearly spot on, right down to my prediction that the Blue Devils “will be right there for 3 quarters” against Notre Dame before letting a statement win slip away late.
Whiffed: The most glaring miss was that opening game against Clemson. While I was right about Duke having the edge in experience and at quarterback, I didn’t give it enough credit for being able to turn the advantages into a win. I also missed badly on my prediction that the Blue Devils’ defense would be just as opportunistic in forcing turnovers because of the large number of returning starters on defense. Wrong. After ranking among the nation’s leaders with 26 takeaways and a plus-16 turnover margin this year’s team forced only 14 (5 fumble recoveries, 9 interceptions) while its turnover margin dropped to plus-1.
Notable: The Blue Devils went 4-0 record at Wallace Wade Stadium against ACC opponents, the first time since 1989 that they went undefeated at home against conference foes. Despite the rash of injuries that kept the Blue Devils from reaching their potential, they’ll still finish the season at the Birmingham Bowl. It’s the 16th bowl game in program history and the 2nd in as many years of Mike Elko’s short tenure in Durham.
Quotable: “There’s a very real possibility that the Blue Devils will be better than last season and still not have as many wins.”
Crystal Ball prediction: 10-2 (7-1)
Actual record: 13-0 (8-0)
Nailed it: It really was a big deal that Jordan Travis, Johnny Wilson, Jared Verse and a handful of others who could have gone on to the NFL decided to run it back and try to lead the Seminoles back to national prominence. And that transfer class Mike Norvell added to supplement all that returning talent turned out to be as good as predicted. And in some cases, most notably wide receiver Keon Coleman, even better. And yes, FSU played its way into the ACC Championship Game for the first time since 2014.
Whiffed: I’m not one to get carried away by preseason hype, especially when it surrounds a team that hasn’t enjoyed a lot of success in the recent past. In this case, though, I should have jumped on the Seminoles’ bandwagon. But I didn’t. I predicted losses to LSU and Clemson before they got their act together and ran the table the rest of the way. To this point, though, their only setback has come at the hands of the College Football Playoff committee.
Notable: FSU led the ACC in scoring offense at 37 points per game and scoring defense at 15.9 points per game. The Seminoles’ ACC championship was their 16th, the most among conference programs since they joined the league in 1992. This is the 4th time in school history that they’ve finished a regular season undefeated with at least 12 wins. Sadly, FSU is the first undefeated Power 5 conference champion to be left out of the CFB Playoff field in the 10-year history of the current 4-team format.
Quotable: “The Seminoles might look a lot like the team that created so much offseason buzz by winning their final 6 games in 2022. And they should thanks to a nation’s best 87% of their offensive and defensive production. But there’s a different vibe about them as they prepare for their most anticipated season since Jimbo Fisher left for Texas A&M 6 years ago.”
Crystal Ball prediction: 5-7 (3-5)
Actual record: 6-6 (8-0)
Nailed it: As predicted, the Yellow Jackets made visible progress during Brent Key’s first full season as coach. The hiring of Buster Faulkner as offensive coordinator also turned out well, both for his contribution to a unit that was vastly improved over last season and for the culture his experience with 2-time defending national champion Georgia helps bring to the program. Another hit is that Tech’s bowl hopes were determined by a matchup against Syracuse in the next-to-last week of the regular season.
Whiffed: While I got it right about the importance of that Syracuse game, my assumption that the Yellow Jackets would come up again short of bowl eligibility also came up short. Tech’s win against the Orange earned it bowl eligibility for the first time since 2018. I also whiffed on the Yellow Jackets’ quarterback situation. I figured that at least one of the Zachs – Pyron or Gibson – would eventually get a start. But once Haynes King won the starting job, he never let go on his way to leading the ACC with 26 touchdown passes.
Notable: Key’s influence as a former offensive line coach was evident in his Yellow Jackets’ performance in protecting their quarterback. They ranked among the nation’s top 20, allowing an average of only 1.25 sacks per game. Defensively, Tech ranked 10th among FBS schools and 3rd in the ACC by forcing 23 turnovers.
Quotable: “While there is room for improvement in the won-loss column – even with a difficult schedule, uncertainty at quarterback and with large holes to fill on defense – Key’s measure of success in his first full season is different from those looking at his program from the outside.”
Crystal Ball prediction: 7-5 (5-3)
Actual record: 10-3 (7-1)
Nailed it: I hardly went out on a limb by picking the Cardinals to have a successful Year 1 under Jeff Brohm. The combination of a strong returning core, some talented transfers and the excitement generated by the arrival of a popular alumnus with a record for success as a coach made it almost a no-brainer. Of course, few could have predicted the degree of success Louisville ultimately achieved. Individually, I hit a home run on the explosiveness transfer receiver Jamari Thrash would bring to Brohm’s offense. He ended up 3rd in the ACC in receiving yards with 858 while scoring 6 touchdowns.
Whiffed: To that last point, most of my whiffs came with individual game predictions, especially Notre Dame. I also had the Cardinals losing to NC State, Duke and (yikes) Pittsburgh.
Notable: Brohm is the first coach in school history to lead the Cardinals to 10 or more wins in his debut season and the first to take his team to a conference championship game. This is the 7th time in school history that Louisville has reached the 10-win mark.
Quotable: “Because of the talent on the roster and the anticipation surrounding his return to his alma mater, Brohm won’t have the luxury of an extended grace period. Expectations are high.”
Crystal Ball prediction: 7-5 (4-4)
Actual record: 7-5 (3-5)
Nailed it: Predicting Miami football is like converting a short-yardage situation after the other team has already jumped offside. The Hurricanes always get more preseason love than they deserve. And they always end up falling short of expectations. To their credit, Mario Cristobal successfully laid the blame for last year’s 5-7 disappointment on his predecessor Manny Diaz by cleaning house and restocking his roster with a new group of his own players through the transfer portal and a top-5 recruiting class. He also hired 2 new coordinators. But as I correctly projected, while all those changes would produce improvement, it was still barely enough to get Miami back into a bowl.
Whiffed: I didn’t think All-American safety Kam Kinchens would come anywhere close to the 6 interceptions he had in leading the ACC last season. Not because he’s lost a step. But rather, because I figured quarterbacks would stop throwing in his direction. Wrong. Kinchens picked off 5 passes this year to tie Boston College’s Elijah Jones for the league lead. And he did it in only 10 games because of injuries. At the other end of the spectrum was my prediction that quarterback Tyler Van Dyke would have a bounce-back year. He got off to a good start. But after getting intercepted 11 times in a 5-game stretch, he was benched in favor of true freshman Emory Williams.
Notable: Miami’s defense was the best in the ACC against the run, allowing an average of only 97.1 yards per game. The Hurricanes were also good at protecting their quarterback, allowing only 1.17 sacks per game.
Quotable: “The offseason moves will undoubtedly feed into the annual narrative that The U is finally on the verge of returning to its past glory. And the Hurricanes will be better this year. But let’s not get carried away. At least not yet.”
Crystal Ball prediction: 9-3 (5-3)
Actual record: 8-4 (4-4)
Nailed it: I predicted that the arrival of new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey would bring about a renewed emphasis on the running game and man, did it ever. Omarion Hampton led the ACC in rushing and earned first-team All-American honors with 1,442 yards and 15 touchdowns. I was also right about the Tar Heels only going as far as their rebuilt defense would take them.
Whiffed: Unfortunately for UNC, that was only about 6 games before the bottom dropped out. Beyond putting too much faith in Gene Chizik’s ability to improve the defense, I swung and missed just as badly on Drake Maye. It’s not as if he had a terrible year. He still led the ACC in passing yards and yards per completion while throwing for 24 touchdowns. That, however, wasn’t even close to being enough to hit on my prediction of a trip to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Notable: The Tar Heels scored 30 points in all but 3 games this year. They lost all 3 in which they were held to fewer than 30. Their season-opening win against South Carolina was a historic one. It was Mack Brown’s 100th win at UNC. Combined with his 158 wins in 16 seasons at Texas, it made him the first coach in college football history to record more than 100 victories at 2 different schools.
Quotable: “If the Tar Heels can get off to a strong start and not slip up during the soft middle part of their schedule, they’ll at least be in a position to finish off another successful season.”
Crystal Ball prediction: 8-4 (5-3)
Actual record: 9-3 (6-2)
Nailed it: The Law of the Wolf tells us that NC State always achieves the most when it’s expected to do the least. So maybe it wasn’t such a stretch to pick State to take down Clemson, something it had only done once in the previous 10 meetings between the former Atlantic Division rivals. But I’ll still take credit for it. Same goes for predicting that Dave Doeren would surpass Earle Edwards as the winningest coach in program history. Payton Wilson helped me make good on another prediction by staying healthy for the entire year. leading an elite defense and winning national awards as the best defender in college football.
Whiffed: The reunion between graduate transfer quarterback Brennan Armstrong and Robert Anae, his former offensive coordinator at Virginia, seemed like a guaranteed recipe for success. But it didn’t exactly turn out that way. Armstrong struggled through the first 5 games and was ultimately benched in favor of MJ Morris. It wasn’t until Morris helped kickstart the season by going 3-1 as a starter, then decided to shut things down to preserve his redshirt, that Armstrong finally began to rediscover his groove.
Notable: The Wolfpack finished the regular season on a 5-game winning streak. It was punctuated by a 3rd straight win against rival UNC in a game that saw them set a season-high with 504 yards of total offense. This is the 4th straight season State has won at least 8 games, the first time in school history that’s happened. It can reach the 10-win mark for only the 2nd time ever with a win against Kansas State in the Pop Tarts Bowl later this month.
Quotable: “Compared to last year when the Pack were ranked No. 13 in the preseason and considered a legitimate contender for their first conference championship 1979, their expectations are much more modest this time around. Given their history, that could turn out to be a blessing.”
Crystal Ball prediction: 9-3 (6-2)
Actual record: 3-9 (2-6)
Nailed it: About the only thing I got right about the Panthers is that they would continue to be one of the ACC’s best at putting pressure on the quarterback. They finished with 31 sacks, which ranked 5th in the conference.
Whiffed: What didn’t I get wrong? Their record looks as if it’s a reflection of my prediction in the mirror. Transfer quarterback Phil Jurkovec was such a spectacular bust that he began taking snaps at tight end. And those traditional Panther staples of defense and the running game also failed to live up to expectations. While some of the deficiencies can be traced to injuries on the offensive line, Pitt finished dead last in the ACC in rushing at only 101 yards per game after finishing near the top while 183 a year ago.
Notable: Pitt’s 3 wins were its fewest in a season since going 2-9 in 1998. One of those wins was an upset of Louisville, the Cardinals’ only ACC loss. Among the few bright spots this season was the play of cornerback M.J. Devonshire, whose 4 interceptions were the most by a Panthers defender since 2012.
Quotable: “Toughness, combined with a lot of skill, has produced a sustained success that has lifted Pitt into the top tier of ACC programs. It’s a pattern that despite the loss of key contributors on both sides of the ball shows no sign of changing anytime soon.”
Crystal Ball prediction: 6-6 (2-6)
Actual record: 6-6 (2-6)
Nailed it: Not only did I hit the Orange’s record on the number, right down to the 4-0 nonconference start and the 2-6 ACC finish, I also correctly forecast that despite hiring 2 new coordinators and qualifying for a bowl, coach Dino Babers was still in danger of ending up back on the hot seat. Sure enough, Babers was fired after 8 seasons after a loss to Georgia Tech in Week 12.
Whiffed: Maybe star tight end Oronde Gadsden II would have broken his own school records for catches and receiving yards, set last season when he caught 61 balls for 969 yards, had he stayed healthy. But he didn’t. He went down with a season-ending injury early in Week 2, and Syracuse’s offense never completely recovered.
Notable: Thanks to the first 4-0 nonconference record in school history, Syracuse was still able to earn bowl eligibility for the 2nd straight year, the first time since 2012-13 it has been to the postseason in back-to-back years.
Quotable: “The good news for Syracuse is that the schedule once again lends itself to a fast start. Finishing, however, will once again be the challenge.”
Crystal Ball prediction: 2-10 (0-8)
Actual record: 3-9 (2-6)
Nailed it: It didn’t take a clairvoyant to correctly predict that the Cavaliers would struggle again this season thanks to the combination of talent and the lingering psychological effects of the tragic shooting that killed 3 team members last November. It was an easier pick to predict running back Mike Hollins, a survivor of the shooting, to win the Brian Piccolo Award as the ACC’s most courageous player.
Whiffed: Even though I correctly pointed out that the Cavaliers’ series against North Carolina always produces close games, I missed on the result. Tony Elliott and his team also proved me wrong by beating Duke to earn 2 more ACC victories than I gave them credit for.
Notable: Malik Washington wasn’t among the ACC’s highest-profile transfers. But no one made more of an impact than the former Northwestern wide receiver. Washington set a single-season conference record by making 110 catches for 1,426 yards and 9 touchdowns. He is the 6th player in ACC history with 100 receptions in a season.
Quotable: “Cavaliers might be on moving forward, things aren’t even close to returning to normal for anyone involved with the program.”
Crystal Ball prediction: 4-8 (1-7)
Actual record: 6-6 (5-3)
Nailed it: I noted that despite winning only 3 games last season, the Hokies weren’t necessarily as bad as their record because of the competitive nature of their losses – including 2 by a single point in which they led in the 4th quarter. And that while coach Brent Pry didn’t completely overhaul his roster with transfers, his selective use of the portal significantly upgraded the talent level in the program. Transfers scored 31 of Tech’s 33 touchdowns this season.
Whiffed: I called a Week 3 matchup against Rutgers a “can’t lose” game for Tech to have any shot at earning bowl eligibility. Turns out it wasn’t. The Hokies lost the game but found a spark in quarterback Kyron Drones and fellow transfers running Bhayshul Tuten and receiver Jaylin Lane. And instead of suffering their 2nd 7-game losing streak in as many years, they won 3 of their first 4 conference games and were in contention for a spot in the championship game all the way up until the next-to-last game.
Notable: The Hokies finished 2nd in the ACC in sacks with 38. Florida transfer Antwaun Powell-Ryland, who has announced he plans on returning in 2024, was also No. 2 in the league individually with 9.5. Thanks to the leadership of Drones, Tech averaged 28.6 points per game — 9 points more than in 2022.
Quotable: “It’s reasonable to assume that all the additions, combined with a more experienced coaching staff and returning core, will help the Hokies take a step forward in their building process.”
Crystal Ball prediction: 7-5 (4-4)
Actual record: 4-8 (1-7)
Nailed it: I had a lot of faith in Dave Clawson and his Deacons. They’ve earned it, after all. And for a while it appeared as if it might be warranted. They started 3-0, just as I predicted. But that’s about all I got right in a season that went downhill in a hurry.
Whiffed: The biggest miss was assuming that Wake’s slow mesh RPO offense wouldn’t suffer a major decline even after losing record-setting quarterback Sam Hartman to Notre Dame. Mitch Griffis struggled and was eventually benched and, after averaging 30 or more points per game every year since 2017, the Deacons plummeted to just 20.3 per game. I also whiffed on assuming that the Deacons would continue their home dominance against rival NC State and that despite being picked to finish 8th in the preseason poll, they’d exceed expectations again and earn bowl eligibility.
Notable: The Deacons had their bowl streak snapped at 7 consecutive seasons this year, which was the 2nd-longest in the ACC. This is also the first time since 2018 that they didn’t finish among the top 3 in the conference in scoring.
Quotable: “The 2023 Deacons won’t be as talented as they’ve been in some areas. Or experienced in others. But there’s enough continuity within the program to avoid a significant drop-off.”