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ACC Preview - can anyone stop Clemson?

Photo: Flickr

It’s here! At last. While we’ve been treated to a few opening salvos, the big guns in college football open up this weekend. Miami is the starter ahead of the weekend’s main courses in the ACC as they kick off tonight against University of Alabama-Birmingham. The ACC should be interesting this year. Three of the preseason top 25 teams (AP poll) ranked teams sit in this conference, with Clemson at number one. Can anyone stop them? Here’s my ACC season preview…

The Teams

Atlantic Division

Clemson Tigers

Louisville Cardinals

Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Florida State Seminoles

Boston College Eagles

North Carolina State Wolfpack

Syracuse Orange

Coastal Division

North Carolina Tar Heels

Virginia Tech Hokies

Pittsburgh Panthers

Virginia Cavaliers

Miami Hurricanes

Duke Blue Devils

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

And for one year only, introducing…

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

How It Works

Traditionally, the winners of the Atlantic and Coastal Divisions play each other for the ACC Championship. This year, the conferences will merge and the two teams with the highest winning percentage will meet in Charlotte in December. This year the University of Notre Dame make a guest appearance in the ACC which should liven things up a bit.

Looking ahead…

Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence (Photo: Flickr/Tigernet)

In 2019, and for the last five years, No.1 (in AP preseason rankings) Clemson (14-1 last year) have been at the pinnacle of the ACC. If you want an insight into the scale and professionalism of a top-ranked college football team, watch the documentary All In: The Clemson Football Family on ESPN Player. Despite losing some premium talent to the NFL (seven players were drafted this year), and top receiver Justyn Ross to injury in preseason, Clemson boast the nation’s best quarterback in Trevor Lawrence, a generational talent who is odds-on to win the Heisman Trophy and be the number one pick in the next year’s NFL draft. Last years “Tanking for Tua” could be this year’s “Tanking for Trevor”. They also have one of the best running backs in Travis Etienne and outside of Alabama’s Nick Saban and Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, the best coach in Dabo Swinney, whose contract extension earned him a cool $93million over ten years. Nice work if you can get it.

The introduction of No.10 Notre Dame (11-2) to the ACC this year only should set the cat amongst the pigeons. The long term independent, robbed by COVID of its traditional fixtures against powerhouses USC and Stanford, makes the Fighting Irish an immediate contender in the ACC. With a weaker schedule than normal, also a dark horse for the College Football Playoff. QB Ian Book seems to be overlooked by NFL draft experts and he will be motivated to prove them wrong.

Mack Brown is leading the resurgent Tar Heels

No. 18 North Carolina (7-6) are a rising contender in this conference. The Tar Heels are undergoing something of a renaissance under coach Mack Brown in his second term at UNC, having sandwiched a spell at Texas in between, where he won the national championship in 2006. ACC Rookie of the Year, QB Sam Howell is already in the conversation as a potential top 5 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. He threw for 38 touchdowns and 3,641 yards as a freshman. While Mack Brown is building something special in Chapel Hill, an emerging offense and solid defense will get them only so far this year. An impressive recruiting class for 2021 and another year’s experience for Howell should see them really challenge Clemson next year.

Virginia Tech (8-5), once the best of the ACC and home of “Skipper”, look to have a strong defense, with ten returning starters and in Caleb Farley, one of the top defensive backs in the ACC. He had four interceptions in 2019 and is a genuine NFL prospect. Coach Justin Fuente will be keen to lift his team into contention.

Wake Forest (8-5) have former Netflix QB1: Beyond The Lights star Sam Hartman at the helm following a solid end to 2019. He takes over from Jamie Newman who transferred to Georgia and has subsequently opted out of this season. The Demon Deacons might struggle after star wide receiver and NFL prospect Sage Surratt (older brother Chaz plays linebacker at UNC) joined Newman in opting out. Pass rusher Carlos Basham, with 11 sacks in 2019 is one to watch.

Louisville (8-5) seem to suffered a bit of a hangover since Lamar Jackson jumped to the NFL, but after an eight win season last year, have the makings of an exciting offense. WR Tutu Atwell could be this year’s Henry Ruggs III, boasting an impressive 4.27 second 40 yard time whilst leading the ACC in receiving yards (1,276) last year. Wake Forest, Louisville and Pittsburgh (8-5) look like they will occupy the mid-level spots. The Panthers will be reliant on QB Kenny Pickett and highly rated safety Paris Ford to keep them in the mix.

Florida State Seminoles (6-7), featured in my Nicknames post and Miami Hurricanes (6-7), the traditional giants of college football in the 1980s and 1990s, are teams in transition. The Seminoles have put their faith in former Memphis coach Mike Norvell, whose entertaining offenses seem more in line with the style of play Florida State fans are used to. Miami still seem a long way from the Jimmy Johnston era, and indeed the 1991 national championship team that featured none other than the Rock, before his move to the WWF and Hollywood (and the very entertaining show “Ballers”). D’Eriq King may provide a more settled solution at quarterback, where another former QB1: Beyond The Lights star, Tate Martell, has yet to settle.

Virginia (9-5) have gradually climbed the conference in the last five years, culminating in an ACC final appearance against Clemson, who delivered a 62-17 thrashing. The loss of talented QB Bryce Perkins will make it hard for the Cavaliers to reach last year’s heights.

Duke (5-7), better known for their relentlessly successful basketball program, Syracuse (5-7) and North Carolina State (4-8) will struggle this year. Boston College (6-7), who lost running back AJ Dillon to the NFL, and Georgia Tech (3-9), who signed one of the top high school RB prospects in Jahmyr Gibbs, will likely prop up the ACC in 2020.

Don’t Miss…

Sept 26th – Florida State at Miami – an early test for both teams in this in-state Florida classic.

Oct 10th – Virginia Tech at North Carolina – two pretenders clash, and in this season’s % win format deciding the ACC standings, a loss could be devastating.

Nov 7th – Clemson at Notre Dame – likely to be a dress rehearsal for the ACC Championship game.

Nov 27th – Notre Dame at North Carolina – could determine the runner up spot behind Clemson.

Dec 5th – Clemson at Virginia Tech – the first major college game I watched was between these two teams in Blacksburg 20 years ago. The Hokies were the best team in the ACC and had the best QB in college football in Michael Vick. This year, the roles are reversed as Trevor Lawrence and the Tigers are the favourites.

My prediction?

North Carolina will make life interesting, but you can’t look past Clemson who I’ll take to beat Notre Dame in the ACC Championship game and go all the way to the national title. Trevor Lawrence signs off his college career with another championship and heads off to the NFL (probably Jacksonville) and Dabo Swinney cements Clemson’s presence as a genuine dynasty.

Next up, the Big 12…

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