Conference Preview: The ACC

By: JD Yonke

Projected Order of Finish

Atlantic

  1. Clemson
  2. Louisville
  3. Florida State
  4. Wake Forest
  5. Boston College
  6. NC State
  7. Syracuse

Coastal

  1. North Carolina
  2. Virginia Tech
  3. Miami
  4. Pitt
  5. Virginia
  6. Duke
  7. Georgia Tech

Champion: Clemson

The Atlantic features the powerhouse, Clemson, but is otherwise shallower than the Coastal. Keep your eyes on the Coastal as there isn’t much separating a lot of these teams.

Conference Title Picture

Anything is possible, just ask Kevin Garnett. That being said, Clemson opened as a -650 favorite at William Hill to win the ACC, so it’s all but assumed that they’ll be the class of the conference yet again this season. Don’t bet against it. Don’t overcomplicate this one.

Dark horse contenders include North Carolina, Miami, and Virginia Tech.

Yonke’s Conference Power Rankings

OverallTeamOffenseDefense
1Clemson11
2UNC25
3Virginia Tech54
4Miami92
5Louisville312
6Pitt113
7Florida State66
8Virginia87
9Wake Forest411
10Boston College1013
11Duke128
12NC State139
13Syracuse714
14Georgia Tech1410

5 Most Exciting Players to Watch (completely subjective and arbitrary)

  1. Sam Howell (QB-UNC)
  2. Travis Etienne (RB-Clemson)
  3. Tutu Atwell (WR-Louisville)
  4. D’Eriq King (QB-Miami)
  5. Dazz Newsome (WR-UNC)

I watch college football just like the rest of you suckers for the same reason: I like to be entertained. The ACC has a lot of that, and it’s a testament to their eye-pleasing glory that D’Eriq King finished fourth on this list.

Conference Superlatives

The pass defenses are good and the run defenses are below average

The offensive lines are below typical P5 standards

Clemson is a legit National Title contender while the rest of the teams are competing for second place

Season Outlooks

Clemson

Reasons for optimism: They are once again on a shortlist of National Title contenders

Causes for concern: Turnover on defense, an unproven secondary, WR1 Justyn Ross out for the season

It’ll be a bonafide shocker if the Tigers aren’t a playoff team this year. Barring an upset against Notre Dame, they should be undefeated going into the ACC title game. The schedule is as easy as it gets for a team this good. Trevor Lawrence may be the best QB in all of college football, and Travis Etienne has the same case to make at RB. The defense may be even better than last year– which seems ridiculous–but they’ll likely need a few weeks to get up to speed on that side of the ball due to the significance of the departing production. The fans won’t settle for anything less than a National Championship, and they definitely have a chance.

Angle: They’re typically a team to back at home, especially in the first half of games before they pull their starters. If there’s a team you can count on during this unprecedented offseason, it’s Clemson.

Best case: A fourth National Championship to add to the trophy case. Trevor Lawrence wins the heisman and is the first overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Worst case: An upset in either the regular season or conference championship leaves them on the outside looking in during a loaded playoffs.

North Carolina

Reasons for optimism: Sam Howell is divinity in shoulder pads, a stacked offense, Mack Brown hype train

Causes for concern: Offensive line, non-elite defense, skyrocketing expectations, assuming vast improvement after a 7-6 overall record is a tall order

The hype train has officially left the station in Chapel Hill. Sam Howell is one of the best QBs in all of college football and has proven that he can compete against any defense in the country. He’s only going to get better with time. The skill position talent is incredible and this offense may take the leap from good to great. If that’s the case, it’s UNC’s best chance at becoming a legitimate contender only a year removed from a 7-6 finish. Many are looking for Mack Brown to experience a second year leap, and there are certainly reasons for optimism.

However, a jump from 7-6 to defeating Clemson for the ACC title is a tall order for any team–so it may be best to temper the expectations just a little bit. I wouldn’t say never with a talent like Howell at QB–he’s that good. This team will definitely improve and they will definitely be good, but don’t let the hype derail rational thinking. The schedule isn’t doing them any favors–they start with games against UCF, Auburn, and FCS powerhouse James Madison, and they have to play 8 straight games before their bye week.

Angle: Be cautious to start the season but expect them to finish strong: the back-half of the schedule is extremely forgiving. This team will be very good by the end of the year, but they may even be great (top-10 upside) if they start the year 3-0 or even 2-1.

Best case: A 10-2 regular season and an upset of Clemson in the ACC Championship

Worst case: On 0-2 start against UCF and Auburn derails confidence, the defense is mediocre, the offensive line doesn’t improve, and they finish with a disappointing 8-4 record

Virginia Tech

Reasons for optimism: Justin Fuente now has full control of the program, the secondary is one of the best in the country, the youth movement should blossom

Causes for concern: Passing down futility on offense, run game, WR depth, longtime DC Bud Foster’s retirement, recruitment tailing off

I’m dangerously close to being all in on the Hokies this season. The expectations for this team are always unreasonable high, and that seems to have led people into thinking that Fuente has been a disappointment thus far at Virginia Tech. I couldn’t disagree more–I think the market will be undervaluing the Hokies this year. I expect them to progress in nearly every single category this year due to the successful youth movement that was the 2019 season. They averaged 36 points per game last year when QB Hendon Hooker started, and this year they return their entire OL. However, I never like leaving so much up to expectations–I’d prefer to have a few more sure things. Hooker needs to take a step forward in obvious passing situations. The run game needs to improve. The receivers need to step up. The DL needs to create more HAVOC. They’ll have one of the best secondaries in the league led by future 1st-round pick Caleb Farley and they should be a very solid all-around team, but it’s hard to know exactly what to expect due to some glaring causes for concern from a year ago.

Angle: Closely monitor the offensive performance. The defense should be good and may even be very good, so I’m not concerned with them staying in games. There are certainly worse teams to bet on in a COVID-19 derailed world. However, they need to be ahead of the chains for Hooker to remain his dynamic and efficient self, and the run game needs to improve for that to be the case. Monitor the good OL and transfer RBs–if they’re successful, this team should be as well.

Best case: A 10-2 regular season finish and close loss to Clemson in the ACC Championship

Worst case: A stalling offense leads to a 8-4 finish. Hooker gets pulled early on in the season after failing to post a single game with more than 250 passing yards.

Miami

Reasons for optimism: It can’t be worse than last year, one of the best DLs in the country, improved QB play, new offensive scheme

Causes for concern: Hard to go from terrible to great offensively, HC Manny Diaz hot seat, offensive line

I would not be shocked if this Miami team finishes the regular season with a 10-2 record. Then again, I also wouldn’t be shocked if they finished 7-5. There is such a wide range of outcomes with this Miami team that it’s impossible to predict exactly how this season will go. However, I do believe that there are enough reasons for optimism that we can expect this Hurricanes team to be better than they were last year. The offense is guaranteed to be better this year with new QB D’Eriq King and new OC Rhett Lashlee, but it’s fair to question how much better they really will be. The OL was terrible last year, and OLs don’t go from terrible to good in one year. King will be good, but the WRs may not be, and the running game may not be either. The defense will be one of the best in the ACC, and even a nominally improved offense will lead to an improved record. The schedule is extremely easy: a 6-0 start isn’t out of the question, and they have extremely winnable away games. They very well may ride this schedule to an ACC title game appearance.

Angle: Back them early due to the weak schedule, but don’t expect them to cover large spreads unless the offense vastly improves early-on in the year.

Best case: Miami walks all over an easy schedule and finishes 10-2 with a loss to Clemson in the ACC Championship

Worst case: Manny Diaz is fired after a 6-6 finish highlighted by a stalling offense.

Louisville

Reasons for optimism: Scott Satterfield second year leap, an explosive offense, the post-Lamar QB question finally answered

Causes for concern: Defense, offensive line, performance against good competition

It’s very easy to talk yourself into Louisville this year. Scott Satterfield is a prime candidate for a second year leap, Micale Cunningham is the QB that they’ve been looking for, Javian Hawkins is one of the best backs in the ACC, and Tutu Atwell is one of the most explosive WRs in all of college football. I can’t argue with all the optimism too much. However, this is far from a complete team, and I think it’s important to view this team holistically in order to not get carried away by the hype. Last year, the defense was downright awful. It likely will be more of the same in 2020. They feasted against weaker competition last year, but went 0-4 against top-40 teams. They’re a fun team and should be good again. The schedule should allow for them to finish at least in the top 5 of the conference.

Angle: Fade against tough competition and back against weaker competition–unless they show signs of improvement against good teams. One caveat is that QB Micale Cunningham may be the real deal, so if he looks the part early I wouldn’t fade them against good teams. Don’t hesitate to take a team total over against a weak squad.

Best case: A 9-3 record announcing Scott Satterfield as one of the best coaches in America

Worst case: The defense holds the team to a 7-5 record despite a potent offense

Pittsburgh

Reasons for optimism: Stingy defense, presumed passing game improvement

Causes for concern: Offense–especially the running game, lackluster performances against tough competition, OL

Pitt has a real chance to make some noise this year, but it’ll take a lot of improvement offensively. The run game was one of the worst in all of college football a year ago, and OC Mark Whipple will do everything in his power to improve upon that facet of their game. The defense should be good and may even be great, so they’ll be in a lot of close games. They’re very good at all three levels defensively. The DL stands out as one of the best in the entire country–I like the defense to carry this team during a COVID-19 crazy season. The HC, OC, and DC all return along with 15 starters–they’ll be better, but the offense needs to comply.

Angle: They have under written all over them, but monitor the offense early in case they take a step forward in the second year under Mark Whipple. They’ll likely be underrated by Vegas early on in the season.

Best case: 9-3

Worst case: 6-6 and a bowl loss featuring a dismal offensive performance

Florida State

Reasons for optimism: HC Mike Norvell, talent edge over most ACC squads

Causes for concern: Mike Norvell’s tumultuous offseason, heretofore lack of development of roster talent, offensive line, running game

Florida State is a tough team to read this year. I tend to lean toward the optimistic side, as I believe that Mike Norvell is a truly great college coach and he’s inheriting one of the most talented rosters in the ACC. They have the talent and the coaching to compete with anybody, but it’s hard to believe in a complete renaissance in year one of a new regime during an offseason derailed by COVID-19–not to mention the locker room issues going on in Tallahassee. The OL stinks, they don’t have a difference maker at QB, and they need vast improvement from a talented defense that really struggled a year ago. The sheer amount of question marks is enough to make me pause, but the schedule sets up well: they could conceivably win 10 games this year.

Angle: Take a wait and see approach. I wouldn’t bet against them too often due to the talent advantage and coaching change, so I’d monitor their early performance and back them if the defense seems to be coming together.

Best case: 10-2 if you’re into the hard stuff

Worst case: 6-6

Virginia

Reasons for optimism: Good coaching and continuity, OL returning production

Causes for concern: Losing team savior Bryce Perkins, overall offensive questions

Virginia is a tough team to read this year. They lose a ton of production, and Bryce Perkins was the root of most of their success last season. They can no longer rely on him to bail them out from mediocre performances, and that may be an issue. The offense should remain decent, but they can’t expect to be bailed out against opponents with similar talent levels. Whoever the QB is will have a tall task ahead due to the inconsistencies in the running game. The defense is also a question mark despite a talented (and extremely lengthy) linebacking corps. They should improve on that side of the ball and may even be pretty darn good at multiple levels, but there’s a lot of uncertainty.

Angle: I never like to bet against Bronco Mendenhall, but this season would be the year to do it. If the quarterback play turns out to be good then I’d avoid this team altogether. All stats point to this team experiencing a lot of regression this year. The schedule isn’t forgiving. Bet on them when they play purely running teams (ahemm: UCONN), as that’s always the Mendenhall angle.

Best case: 8-4

Worst case: A mediocre offense and defense causes this team to miss a bowl game

Wake Forest

Reasons for optimism: A potent offense, good QB play, star talent at the skill positions

Causes for concern: Secondary, OL

I won’t be missing many Wake Forest games this year. This will be a fun team playing an up-tempo brand of football and scoring a lot of points. Sam Hartman will have a big year at QB and I expect Kenneth Walker III to have a break-out year running the football. The WR room is loaded and is led by NFL talent Sage Surratt. They’ll be held back by a weak offensive line and an overall suspect defense, but expect a few upsets this year (home for Miami, at Florida State, home for Louisville are all winnable) due to the potent offensive attack. The defense does return a lot of production, so I expect a step forward which could prove crucial to this team’s success in 2020. Going bowling for a fifth straight year may prove difficult due to a relatively tough schedule, but I wouldn’t bet against this squad. Non-conference games against App State and Notre Dame will pose a tough challenge, and this team can’t afford many slip ups along the way.

Best case: 8-4 with a 4,000 yard season from Hartman, 1,400 yards receiving for Surratt, and 1,200 more from Walker on the ground

Worst case: 5-7 with close loses to some tough teams

Boston College

Reasons for optimism: An outstanding OL, good running game, potential upgrade at QB, scheme change

Causes for concern: Woeful defense, uncertainty at QB, WR

I really want to back Boston College this year. There’s a world in which Notre Dame transfer QB Phil Jurkovec gets cleared for the 2020 season and this team has a great offensive season under a new regime. Getting rid of Steve Addazio should make this offense transition from the stone age (shots fired) and immediately become legitimate–they have the talent to pose some serious problems for the ACC if everything falls right. I’m working under the assumption that Jurkovec is able to play in 2020, because I’ll be too pissed to say otherwise if he has to sit on the sidelines and watch RB David Bailey slam into 8 man boxes play after play. Jurkovec could be a stud and the new regime could open up the offense, but even if everything falls in line the defense will probably still be awful. I can’t fully back this team now, but I’m eagerly following the offseason news.

Angle: If Jurkovec is cleared and looks the real deal, back this team and take the over more often than not. If not, fade them in the second half of the season when the schedule gets tough.

Best case: A surprising 8-4 under a newfound widespread offense

Worst case: 4-8

Duke

Reasons for optimism: Great coaching, good secondary

Causes for concern: The offense and the defense both weren’t good last year, and they need to improve upon a lot of different areas.

I can envision a world in which Clemson QB Chase Brice takes over this offense and it starts to hum. However, this offense lacked any element of verticality last year and needs to improve in a lot of areas. Never count out David Cutcliffe, but he has a tall order in front of him. The receivers should take a step forward this year and TE Noah Gray is one of the most underappreciated talents in all of college football. The defense could be solid led by an under the radar secondary. If things go right, the schedule allows for a surprising year.

Angle: They could start the year 3-0, so betting on them early isn’t the worst idea. However, I’m going to take a wait and see approach for the first half of the season and observe how the offense is clicking and go from there. Brice and Cutcliffe may get along and this team could surprise, but it’s also somewhat of a longshot.

Best case: 7-5

Worst case: 4-8 with upset losses in the non-con against Middle Tennessee State and Charlotte.

NC State

Reasons for optimism: RB Zonavan Knight is legit, run game and defence-oriented approach may play well in a COVID-19 reduced season

Causes for concern: They may not be good at anything…

The Wolfpack don’t have a very high ceiling this year, but they could do just enough to squeak out a bowl eligible season. They need improvement from pretty much every single area of the team, which is not something I’m typically willing to bet on. HC Dave Doeren and OC Tim Beck will likely lean on a run-oriented offensive approach and rely on a defense that should take a significant step forward after a 2019 season marred by injuries. The new regime will rely on the defense to carry them to victory, but I’m not sure that they’re good enough on that side of the ball for that approach to lead to many a great amount of wins.

Angle: The season-long win total at 4.5 is pretty disrespectful, so the play probably has to be over. I don’t think this team will be great, but they’ll keep a lot of games close. They were 2-9 against the spread last year, and you would think that that would improve–but it’s definitely not guaranteed due to the fact that they’re pedestrian at best in most aspects of the game.

Best case: 7-5

Worst case: 3-9 complete with a lot of embarrassing losses

Syracuse

Reasons for optimism: The offense might be good

Causes for concern: The defense might be horrific

If HC Dino Babers has another disappointing year, he may be run out of town. Unfortunately for him, I don’t see a whole lot of reasons for optimism. The best route to a successful season will be if the offense clicks, led by an experienced OL and QB. I’ve seen enough from QB Tommy Devito to believe that he may be the real deal, but last year certainly wasn’t pretty. The offense finished the year strong, averaging 37.5 points per game in their last 4 games of the season in 2019. The defense will be bad enough that this team will be somewhat held back even if the offense takes off.

Angle: Take the over, especially if the offense is humming early. They won’t be able to slow down opponents with explosive offenses.

Best case: 7-5

Worst case: 3-9

Georgia Tech

Reasons for optimism: The scheme change should pay off eventually, RB talent, ability to cover a spread, recruiting momentum

Causes for concern: Inability to throw the football, still in year two of a major scheme change

Georgia Tech will be a fun team to back as an underdog this year. Unfortunately, they have one of the hardest schedules in the entire country. They start out with Clemson, and have to face UCF, Notre Dame, and Georgia in non-conference play. They also get UNC and Virginia Tech on the road. Even though the switch from a triple-option offense to “whatever the hell they are trying to run now” should improve in year two, this team still has a long way to go before they compete with the big boys. RB Jordan Mason should be one of the more underappreciated assets in the country, and they have enough offensive talent all round to pull off an upset or two. This should be another rebuilding year leading to a breakthrough in 2021.

Angle: I’ll still back this team at the right price in ACC play since they should be undervalued as the offense takes a step forward but flies under the radar after facing elite defenses. They’re game to cover a few spreads this year, but don’t take them outright.

Best case: 6-6

Worst case: 2-10

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