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Final 2015 ACC Power Rankings: Clemson towers over competition

Clemson came up a tad short to Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship but was by far the ACC's best team, and the bowl season only served to illustrate that.

The rest of the league was less than impressive in bowl games (3-5), and that’s likely to mean a limited amount of enthusiasm headed into 2016. But with a slew of new big-name coaches joining the fray, along with some talented recruits on the way, the final 2015 power rankings may not be much of a reflection of what’s to come.

1. Clemson Tigers (14-1, 9-0 ACC)

Clemson dominated Oklahoma in the Capital One Orange Bowl before falling just short in the national title game. But coach Dabo Swinney has done a tremendous job with this team, and with Deshaun Watson back for 2016, the future looks bright.

2. North Carolina Tar Heels (11-3, 8-1)

What started as a stellar season ended with two straight losses, including a dismal defensive performance in the Russell Athletic Bowl against shorthanded Baylor. The truth, however, is that Gene Chizik’s defense overperformed all season, and he’s still working on getting the personnel to fit his system. This season marked significant progress in Chapel Hill, and the Tar Heels should open 2016 as the Coastal favorites.

3. Florida State Seminoles (10-3, 6-2)

This was a talented team, but coach Jimbo Fisher never found his quarterback. That will be the big question heading into 2016 after an injured Sean Maguire struggled mightily in the Peach Bowl. With Dalvin Cook and a host of talented defensive players returning, expectations will be high again. But Fisher’s crew knows it will have to contend with Watson and the Tigers to get back in the championship hunt.

4. Louisville Cardinals (8-5, 5-3)

After a revolving door at quarterback hampered Louisville all year, Lamar Jackson staked his claim to the throne in the final two games. He came on in relief of Kyle Bolin against Kentucky and ran for 186 yards and two touchdowns, then he torched Texas A&M’s defense to the tune of 226 yards and two scores in the Music City Bowl. That will have Cardinals fans thinking big in 2016.

5. Miami Hurricanes (8-5, 5-3)

The season ended with a whimper yet again, as Miami lost its bowl game for the sixth time in a row. But with Mark Richt coming in for 2016 as head coach, there still is plenty of optimism in Coral Gables. The combination of Richt, QB Brad Kaaya and a new-look D helmed by defensive coordinator Manny Diaz should finally add some consistency to the ACC’s ultimate wild card.

6. Pittsburgh Panthers (8-5, 6-2)

Remember when Pitt was 6-1 and dreaming of the College Football Playoff? Seems like a long time ago --after the Panthers dropped four of their final six games, including a drubbing at the hands of Navy in their bowl game. Coach Pat Narduzzi made some progress -- particularly on defense -- in his first season, but with Tyler Boyd leaving for the NFL and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney bolting for Georgia, big questions remain.

7. Duke Blue Devils (8-5, 4-4)

Nothing like getting your first bowl victory in more than a half-century to end the year on a high note. Duke’s win over Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl was a solid finish to an up-and-down year. The questions now revolve around whether Thomas Sirk can blossom into a more consistent downfield passer and how the Blue Devils will replace Jeremy Cash on a defense that struggled at times in 2015.

8. Virginia Tech Hokies (7-6, 4-4)

The Frank Beamer era came to an end in fitting fashion, with wins over Virginia and Tulsa to close things out. A new chapter begins with Justin Fuente running the show, and all indications are that it’s a terrific fit. Fuente has the track record to find the Hokies’ next quarterback, which has been a big missing ingredient in recent seasons. Meanwhile, retaining Bud Foster to coach the defense offers plenty of promise that Virginia Tech could be 2016’s big turnaround story.

9. NC State Wolfpack (7-6, 3-5)

What’s going on in Raleigh? Dave Doeren has done a nice job of bringing in some top recruits and adding talent to the relatively bare shelves he inherited. But with Jacoby Brissett’s departure and the ousting of Matt Canada as offensive coordinator, big questions remain. Then there’s the fact that Doeren’s teams still haven't beaten a Power 5 opponent that finished the year with a winning record.

10. Virginia Cavaliers (4-8, 3-5)

The results were bad again, but Virginia played some close games against a brutal schedule, so there’s hope for a quick turnaround with new coach Bronco Mendenhall. There are some established pieces in place, from quarterback Matt Johns to safety Quin Blanding, but in a deep Coastal Division, there’s also plenty of work to be done.

11. Syracuse Orange (4-8, 2-6)

Another season of quarterback injuries and inconsistency doomed coach Scott Shafer, and while Dino Babers brings an up-tempo style to Syracuse, there are huge vacancies on the defensive side and a lack of elite playmakers on offense to compete with Clemson and Florida State. Still, there’s far more excitement surrounding the Orange heading into 2016 than there was a year ago.

12. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (3-9, 1-7)

Coach Dave Clawson insists progress is being made, but the record still hasn’t shown it. The offense was at least competent at times this season, and Wake was rarely blown out. Still, in Year 3, the fan base is going to be expecting better results, and another one-win ACC season could crank up the anxiety.

13. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (3-9, 1-7)

What happened to last year’s Orange Bowl champs? Coach Paul Johnson’s offense imploded under the weight of injuries, and a brutal schedule sank Georgia Tech’s hopes early. Still, for all the excuses, this team underperformed markedly, and with Justin Thomas back for 2016, people will be expecting an instant fix.

14. Boston College Eagles (3-9, 0-8)

Coach Steve Addazio did some impressive things during his first two years at Boston College, but the wheels came off in 2015 with an offense that was historically bad. The saving grace was an elite defense, but even that now has questions as coordinator Don Brown left for the same role at Michigan. Former Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles offers some hope for BC as he transfers in to play in 2016, but there are far more questions than answers in Chestnut Hill.