After a 2020 season that was filled with changes for the ACC, lots of things still remain the same. The top dog, Clemson, has yet to be unseated, and teams are still vying for position on how to defeat them. Now, a lot will look different to fans who may have only started watching ACC football in 2020. Notre Dame has returned back to its independent status after making an undefeated conference regular-season run, only to lose to Clemson in the championship. With their departure, we see the classic two-division system back in play for the ACC, and it sets up for some really exciting matchups down the road.
Make sure to check out all of our other College Football Conference Previews.
Top Conference Players
This conference could be the most star-packed of them all. Let’s start off with the quarterbacks alone. Sam Howell of North Carolina leads the pack. Howell is the best quarterback in college football to start the year and has all the makeup for the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft. Then we turn to Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei. The former five-star recruit is Trevor Lawrence‘s replacement, and he’s already shown he can do big things in some of his starts last year. D’Eriq King out of Miami is a thrilling dual-threat guy who, if healthy, could lead this Hurricane squad to a huge season. Other quarterbacks like Boston College’s Phil Jurkovec look to break out in a big way and show us he can hang with this upper tier.
Aside from the quarterbacks, we’ve still got a ton of names to get to. Looking back at Clemson, rising true sophomore Bryan Bresee is one of the best defensive linemen in the entire country. Wide receiver Justyn Ross is coming back from a tough injury but will make a star’s impact early. One of the most underrated players in the entire country is NC State’s Payton Wilson, who led the conference with 108 total tackles last year. Another super underrated name, like his quarterback, is Boston College’s Zay Flowers at the receiver spot. He’s a player looking to prove to the college football world that just because he plays for a smaller program, doesn’t mean he can’t be the best receiver in a massive conference.
Coaches on the Hot Seat
One name is just screaming at us here and it’s Justin Fuente. Fuente is the head coach of Virginia Tech, a program that has seen its fair share of success and expects winning seasons, especially after Fuente’s start. The Hokies have been so mediocre for so long now, going 19-18 in their last three seasons, and missing out on a bowl game last year, which ended the nation’s longest bowl streak. The fans are fed up, the alumnus deserves better, and the team cannot produce another poor season, or Fuente is indefinitely out.
Other names to keep an eye out for are Duke’s David Cutcliffe, who has massively underperformed in his first two years, and a bit of a surprise in Miami’s Manny Diaz. Diaz and Miami should have a good year this year that allows him to secure his job nice and tight, but if they don’t the end could be unexpectedly near.
Three Conference Games to Watch
While the ACC is not a more prestigious, or historic, conference than the Big 10 or SEC, it still provides a lot of thrilling games and a good amount of classic-feel to the field. Unfortunately, lots of the rivalries in this conference have become non-conference matchups over the years. Games like South Carolina-Clemson, Miami-Florida, and a classic of Boston College-Notre Dame have all faded into non-conference slates, meaning there is a little less to play for. Nonetheless, we have a great schedule in the ACC this year, so let’s get right into the excitement.
Miami vs North Carolina
The two best teams in the Coastal Division square off in North Carolina with all of the conference championship implications on the line. You just figure it has to be one of these two that travel to Greensboro come postseason time, and winning this game will be a huge step in the right direction for either program. Now, this is a North Carolina squad that is losing a lot of weapons, but after last year’s offensive assault of the Hurricanes, North Carolina seems to have this team’s number and should be able to get them again at home.
Clemson vs Louisville
At first glance, you really might not think this would be a good game, and for all matters, it may not be. However, this also has the highest potential for a trap game on Clemson’s entire schedule, and the Tigers could stumble. The biggest factor here, besides the home crowd, is the offense has the potential to explode on any given night. Eight starters return to this unit, including quarterback Malik Cunningham, who reminds us of a very poor man’s Lamar Jackson, but still good nonetheless. Overall, this should be a game that Clemson handles easily, but don’t be surprised if it gets high-scoring and the Cardinals surprise a few people.
Clemson vs Georgia
Alright, normally the rule here is to close our horizons and stay within the conference, but you simply can’t do that when there is one game that will change the entire college football season right from the jump. This is a Week 1 matchup between two clear-cut top five programs in the nation. The winner will give us an early statement as to why they deserve to be in the college football playoff, while the loser will have some serious work to do. It’ll be weird seeing either Clemson or Georgia start the year off 0-1, but it is something we will have to get used to. At the end of the day, this has a game of the year potential and is a must-watch for anyone who knows anything about football.
One Bold Prediction
Clemson does not repeat. This is about the boldest we can go in the ACC, and would quite frankly be a miracle if Clemson does not win the conference again. However, they have struggled with some of the top teams in the Coastal Division. North Carolina was a team that should have beat them last season. It’s very possible someone can pull off the upset against the Tiger but would take a ton of work.
Dark Horse Teams
The more you look at it, the more you realize how many dark horse, high upside teams are in this conference. The biggest dark horse is Florida State, which is still trying to recover from its Jameis Winston glory days. The Seminoles’ quarterback McKenzie Milton is one of the best in the conference and has a ton to prove to show to the country that he has still got it after transferring from UCF and recovering from a horrific injury. Programs that have struggled for a while now like Wake Forest and Georgia Tech bring in young, really talented teams that could make some waves in the conference. Boston College and North Carolina State are another two teams that had solid seasons last year but can still be considered dark horses in this conference.
- Boston College
- North Carolina State
- Florida State
- Wake Forest
- North Carolina
- Virginia Tech
- Georgia Tech
The first thing to mention with these standings is that, while we have a lot of repetition, these standings will be jammed packed in the middle. Clemson should win the division by at least two games but then the gap between Boston College and Wake Forest is very small. North Carolina will barely edge out Miami, but the same occurs, the gap between Miami and Georgia Tech is minimal. We will see a lot of teams improving this year, but at the end of the day, we see the top two teams in the conference take care of business and earn the right to play for the title.
Conference Championship Matchup
Assuming both of these teams take care of business, this will be a top 10 matchup, and the winner could potentially head to the playoffs. From an early look, Clemson will be the favorite in this game, but as we mentioned, the core of this North Carolina team played Clemson extremely close last year. This matchup will also feature potential Heisman candidates in Howell and Uiagalelei. North Carolina has some big games before them that could set up serious momentum. However, Clemson just has too much talent to overcome, and they will retain their crown over the ACC for the seventh year in a row.
Follow Charlie Parent on Twitter @Charlie_Parent
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