ACC Preview 2021 - can North Carolina step up?
Updated: Sep 2, 2021
Like the Big Ten in recent years, the ACC has been dominated by one team, bar Notre Dame's cameo last season. While the gap might close this year, Clemson remain some distance ahead of a promising pack. Miami and North Carolina are ranked in the AP Preseason Top 25, with Boston College and North Carolina State also receiving votes.
The story, for once, probably lies away from Clemson and in the intriguing battle for their challenger. Miami and North Carolina will square off on October 16th in Chapel Hill in a huge game that will decide the Coastal division and feature two of the league's top quarterbacks in D'Eriq King and Sam Howell. Florida State's recruitment of McKenzie Milton from UCF will make them interesting while Boston College and Virginia Tech's offensive lines will keep them competitive. Wake Forest are quietly improving and could upset a few challengers.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Florida State Seminoles
Boston College Eagles
North Carolina State Wolfpack
North Carolina Tar Heels
Virginia Tech Hokies
Duke Blue Devils
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
The king is gone, long live the king. Gone is Deshaun Watson, and gone is Trevor Lawrence, who led AP preseason ranked No.3 Clemson to three ACC titles and a national title. Up steps DJ Uiagalelei to fill some pretty big shoes. Unlike the relatively untested Bryce Young at Alabama, or C.J. Stroud at Ohio State, Clemson's heir apparent developed some big-game against Notre Dame last season, and impressed, throwing for 439 yards, the most by any quarterback against the Fighting Irish. James Skalski returns at linebacker to lead a defense whose secondary was torched by Justin Field and Ohio State in the Playoff, but is improved and should be able to handle anything their rivals (literally) throw at them. If they can win a tough opener against No.5 Georgia, it could be plain sailing to the Playoff.
No.10 North Carolina are peaking at the right time. Mack Brown knows how to build a national champion, having won the 2005 title with Texas in the famous win over USC. He has a team that can score - over 50 points in five games, culminating in a 62-26 thrashing of Miami where their two backs literally ran over the Hurricanes, combining for over 500 rushing yards. UNC lost two games by just three points and were regularly involved in high-scoring shootouts, so the potential is there to step up. In Sam Howell, they have a talented quarterback with a strong offensive line in front of him and talented receivers outside him. Howell could be the top overall pick in next year's NFL Draft, so you get the feeling the time is now for the Tar Heels to step up.
No.14 Miami raised their game significantly in 2020 with help of the very astute transfer capture of D'Eriq King from Houston. On his game, King is an electric dual-threat quarterback who can open up defenses. If the Hurricanes get a similar boost from receiver transfer Charleston Rambo, Miami could challenge in the ACC. The former Oklahoma pass catcher can stretch plays and give King a valuable outlet. The key to their success this year will hinge on how much the defense improves. Strong wins against mid and lower level opposition masked the gap between the Hurricanes and the elite level. Miami capitulated against Clemson and North Carolina, losing 42-17 and 62-26 respectively before losing the Cheez-It Bowl to Oklahoma State. They will need to win these types of games to contend.
Virginia Tech haven't been contenders for five years and their perennial status as a Top 25 team seems some time ago. The departures of Christian Darrisaw and Khalil Herbert to the NFL and QB Hendon Hooker to Tennessee will hit the Hokies this year. They do have promising talent in QB Braxton Burmeister and James Mitchell is an elite tight end. With a strong defensive line, Virginia Tech will be competitive, but fans in Blacksburg are used to bigger things, and coach Justin Fuente will be under scrutiny.
North Carolina State, in the shadow of their in-state rivals in recent seasons, made a significant four-game improvement last year. The return of QB Devin Leary and a number of key starters means the Wolfpack have their strongest team in years. Linebacker Payton Wilson led the ACC in tackles last year and will be joined by Isaiah Moore and Drake Thomas to form a fearsome lineup. Matchups against Clemson, Miami and in-state rivals North Carolina will determine how far they've come.
Wake Forest will need a strong start to the season to make a dent in the ACC. They have a horrible last four games which sees them take on North Carolina, North Carolina State, Clemson and Boston College in their last four weeks. Quarterback Sam Hartman and receiver Jaquarii Roberson are a formidable passing combination. If they can tighten up a defense that conceded over 4o points in games against North Carolina, North Carolina State, Louisville and Wisconsin, they will be much more competitive this year.
Dual threat quarterback Brennan Armstrong led Virginia in passing and rushing. He has a formidable passing attack, with wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr and tight end Jelani Woods, a tight end transfer from Oklahoma State, both 6'7" nightmares to defend against. An improved defense could see the Cavaliers challenge for the Coastal division they won in 2019.
Florida State have been a shadow of the famous teams coached by the late Bobby Bowden. It seems like a new chapter is opening in Tallahassee. QB McKenzie Milton comes in from UCF and coach Mike Norvell will have a full preseason to prepare for the ACC. A defense that lost five players leave for the NFL gained two solid transfers in defensive linemen Keir Thomas and Jermaine Johnson from South Carolina and Georgia respectively.
The fixture list is not in their favour, In addition to Miami and North Carolina, the Seminoles will face two of last season's Playoff semi-finalists Clemson and Notre Dame.
Pittsburgh will again be led by Kenny Pickett after the quarterback decided to return for his fifth season. It feels he's been under center at Pitt for a lot longer. It's a good job he's still there. Pickett is a real competitor whose command of the passing attack will be essential as their running game was insipid last year, ranking 111th in the country. They have a solid defense and under coach Pat Narduzzi, a physical team that could be a surprise contender.
For all the talk of talented quarterbacks in the ACC - Howell, King and DJ Uiagalelei, the most underrated could be Phil Jurkovec at Boston College, a 6'5" transfer from Notre Dame who lit a torch under the Eagles passing attack last year. The offensive line have five returning starters including the impressive center Alec Lindstrom. Receivers Zay Flowers and Zion Johnson combined for 14 touchdowns last year and give Jurkovec great options. An impressive offense and improving defense gives the Eagles a more rounded team who can cause teams in the ACC real problems.
Louisville have a strong offensive line and in Malik Cunningham, a quarterback who needs to recapture his 2019 form for the Cardinals to have a chance of closing the gap on ACC rivals. Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick are big losses to the receiving corps but Jalen Mitchell and Hassan Hall give Louisville a solid backfield that will lift the offense. The defense is solid, but not yet on a par with the better teams in the conference.
Georgia Tech have languished near the bottom of the ACC in recent years, but promising sophomore QB Jeff Sims and some strong transfers give the Yellow Jackets some optimism.
Duke will need to improve their league-worst 39 turnovers and find some consistency at quarterback. Syracuse have tumbled down the conference in the last two years and after a one-win season, have a lot to do.
Sept 25th - Clemson @ North Carolina State - Clemson take on a resurgent Wolfpack, their biggest threat for the Atlantic divison.
Oct 16th - Miami @ North Carolina - the two favourites in the likely Coastal division decider, and D'Eriq King vs Sam Howell at quarterback.
Oct 30th - Florida State @ Clemson - The Seminoles measure their progress in Death Valley against the ACC favourites.
Nov 26th - North Carolina @ North Carolina State - late in the season, this derby could be critical for both teams' title hopes.
If North Carolina hit top form on the run in to the ACC title game, and beat Miami in Chapel Hill, they will be tough to beat. However, DJ Uiagalelei is an impressive replacement for Trevor Lawrence and Dabo Swinney has built a dynasty at Clemson and I back them to win the ACC and progress to the College Football Playoff. I think Oklahoma or Alabama will have too much for them there, though.