Clemson looks untouchable in ACC

By Wes Reynolds  () 

The favorite
Clemson
The Tigers are on average a -400 favorite to win the ACC championship game — and for good reason. They are 29-1 in their last 30 games and return the likely No. 1 draft pick in QB Trevor Lawrence. Clemson lost one of the nation’s best defensive players in linebacker Isaiah Simmons, the Butkus Award winner who was drafted in the first round. The Tigers also lost three starters in the secondary to the draft, including first-round cornerback A.J. Terrell. Four offensive line starters and the top two receivers also are gone, as is co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, now the head coach at South Florida. At most programs, this would be devastating. But the Tigers just reload every year, and Dabo Swinney signed the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class. The constant restocking of talent is yet another reason Clemson has been a double-digit favorite in its last 28 regular-season games. The Tigers have won 22 straight ACC games by an average of 33 ppg. It is Clemson and then everybody else until proven otherwise. 
Live dog
Virginia Tech 
Notre Dame is the logical choice here as the second-shortest price (8-1 at the Westgate SuperBook is the best number). Miami and North Carolina are also priced in the mid-teens to win the ACC championship, but the most value is on Virginia Tech at 40-1 at Westgate SuperBook and FanDuel. The Hokies will be favored in every game except at North Carolina, a rematch of last year’s six-OT game, and the finale vs. Clemson. Losing CB Caleb Farley to the opt-out is a blow, but the Hokies bring back nine defensive starters to make Justin Hamilton’s job as the new DC a little easier. Virginia Tech started the fewest seniors in the FBS last year. Those underclassmen who played so much in 2019 are now upperclassmen, and Justin Fuente, who is on a bit of a hot seat, has continued to recruit well. The talent depth should bear fruit in 2020. 
Dead money
Syracuse and Wake Forest
When you are in your fifth year on the job and have to replace both coordinators — and not because they advanced to better jobs — you have some problems. That is exactly what Dino Babers has at Syracuse. This team went 10-3, albeit versus a soft schedule and a down ACC, in 2018 before falling off big-time to 5-7. The Orange lost four games by three TDs or more, and not just the usual thrashing at the hands of Clemson. Syracuse lost by 43 to a 3-9 Maryland club with a first-year coach and by 18 to a Florida State program that fired its coach a week later. The Orange also lost by 31 at home to Boston College, which barely made a bowl game. Syracuse looks like a program trending downward. 
Wake Forest comes off a good season, earning its first ranking in 11 seasons, and Dave Clawson is an excellent coach. But he is up against it this year. The loss of QB Jamie Newman is the least of his worries, considering sophomore Sam Hartman does have almost a full season of starting experience. The problem is that hardly anyone else on offense does. The Demon Deacons lost 206 of the 282 catches from their receiving corps, 2,934 of their 3,748 receiving yards and 27 of their 31 receiving TDs. All the losses on offense plus a daunting early schedule that includes Clemson and Notre Dame in the first three weeks looks to be too much for this team.
Big games on the board
Virginia at Virginia Tech, Sept. 19
This meeting is usually at the end of the regular season but opens ACC play for both teams. Last year Virginia snapped a 15-year losing streak to its Commonwealth Cup rival and essentially locked up an Orange Bowl bid. 
Florida State at Miami, Sept. 26
Miami has won three in a row in this series, and first-year Florida State coach Mike Norvell will get his first taste of this long-standing rivalry. Two programs that have slipped a little in national prominence are fighting to get back among the elite. 
Virginia Tech at North Carolina, Oct. 10
A rematch of the six-OT game last year in Blacksburg, where the Hokies won 43-41. This game was also the first to involve the new overtime rules under which teams get the ball at the opponent’s 3-yard line starting with the fifth overtime and attempt two-point conversions until there’s a winner. 
Clemson at Notre Dame, Nov. 7
This is likely to be Clemson’s toughest test on the way toward a third straight unbeaten regular season. It is also highly possible that these teams could meet after again in the ACC championship game and/or the College Football Playoff. 
 
Boston College
Jeff Hafley has almost 20 years of coaching experience in college and the NFL. He becomes a first-time head coach this season, replacing Steve Addazio, and he is hoping to bring a little of the winning culture he experienced in his one year at Ohio State, where he was co-DC in 2019. Hafley helped take an OSU defense that ranked 72nd nationally in ypp allowed in 2018 to the No. 1 ranking in that category. BC was 122nd in pass defense last season, and while Hafley doesn’t have the defensive talent he did at Ohio State, this unit of nine returning starters should at least show gradual improvement. New DC Tem Lukabu worked with Hafley on the staffs of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Francisco 49ers. New OC Frank Cignetti also has numerous years of NFL coaching experience. He and Hafley look like they will be giving the QB keys to Notre Dame sophomore transfer Phil Jurkovec, who was a highly sought-after recruit. Junior Dennis Grosel started seven games under center last season but struggled with accuracy, completing just 48% of his passes. Behind one of the best offensive lines in the ACC, Boston College will have to replace four-year starting RB A.J. Dillon, and junior David Bailey (844 yards, seven TDs in ’19) looks like the best candidate. New systems have to be put in place, so this year is likely a small step backward. But the team’s attitude should be better with a new coach as Addazio seemed to have worn out his welcome with the players. 
Clemson
Clemson starts 2020 as the No. 1-ranked team in the AP and coaches’ polls. The Tigers’ 29-game winning streak was snapped by LSU in the CFP championship game. But do not shed tears for Clemson, which never rebuilds, just reloads. In that process, QB Trevor Lawrence is a great place to start. The junior and likely top pick in the 2021 draft had a bit of a rough start last season, throwing eight INTs in his first seven games. But he had a 22-0 TD-INT ratio over the last eight games. He struggled in the national championship game, going just 18-for-37 for 234 yards, so he will be motivated for redemption. Another likely first-rounder, senior RB Travis Etienne, returns with over 2,000 all-purpose yards and 23 TDs. The Tigers must replace four starters on the OL, but it should still be a highly talented unit anchored by junior LT Jackson Carman. Defensively, Clemson lost four players to the NFL but returns six starters, including the entire line, and should still rank among the nation’s best. As with any elite program, speculation is already starting to circulate about Lawrence being distracted with the draft and that perhaps Dabo Swinney would jump to the NFL. The talent is there and no one in the conference is on their level, but the Tigers will have to tune out the noise and focus on the task at hand. 
Duke 
Even after a 42-3 drubbing in the season opener vs. Alabama, Duke’s 2019 season had some promise. The Blue Devils won four of their next five and looked primed to make their seventh bowl game in eight years. Then the offense died. After the Alabama game, Duke averaged 40.4 ppg and 424 ypg over the next five games. In the last six, Duke averaged a meager 16.3 ppg and 272 ypg. This year coach David Cutcliffe will take over the play-calling. The QB responsible for running Cutcliffe’s plays is junior Chase Brice, who transferred from Clemson. Brice came on in relief of an injured Trevor Lawrence in 2018 and led the Tigers to a late comeback win over Syracuse that spurred Clemson toward an undefeated national championship season. The offense under Cutcliffe should throw downfield more, but it has already suffered a key injury with senior C Jack Wohlabaugh out for the season with a torn ACL. The defense has taken a step back over the last couple of seasons but does return seven starters. Duke opens at Notre Dame but avoids Clemson and gets tougher opponents like North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Florida State at home. Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, their easier non-conference schedule was taken away with the cancellations, so they must jump into the deep end of the pool immediately. 
Florida State
The Willie Taggart era lasted two years with a 9-12 record before Odell Haggins finished last season as interim coach. Haggins remains on the staff as assistant head coach to Mike Norvell, who took Memphis to the best level in its history. Norvell brings in Kenny Dillingham, who coached with him at Arizona State and was his OC at Memphis in 2018. Dillingham served in the same role at Auburn last year. Adam Fuller comes in with Norvell to become the DC. Fuller improved Memphis’ defense last season by six ppg and 44 ypg, and he inherits 10 returning starters, including a likely top-10 draft pick in senior DT Marvin Wilson. The defensive talent is here to make a big jump under a proven coordinator. Junior QB James Blackman will work with his fourth OC, and that plays a major part in his up-and-down two years. He has been under constant pressure, sacked on 8.8% of his drop-backs, so a leaky line must improve for Florida State to even come close to returning to being a top team. The Seminoles were supposed to have a tough non-conference schedule with an opener in Atlanta vs. West Virginia, a trip to Boise State and their annual battle with Florida. But those games are off, and for the first time since 1957, Florida State will not play Florida. There is always a transition with a new coach, and Norvell has already butted heads with some players regarding COVID-19 testing protocols. This will be an improved team and the program looks to be heading in the right direction, but it is still too far away to challenge Clemson atop the ACC.
Georgia Tech
Last season was a transition year for Georgia Tech as Geoff Collins brought a spread offense to a program that had been running the triple option for 11 seasons under Paul Johnson. The offensive numbers last season were desultory. Georgia Tech rated dead last (130th) in red-zone offense, 128th in first downs and 127th in total offense. It will take awhile for Collins to assemble recruiting classes to run his system. He still has many holdovers from the previous regime, and 58.2% of the starts last year were made by freshmen and sophomores. Therefore, Tech returns 19 starters, including 10 on defense. The defense is likely to be ahead of the offense as it adds DE Antonneous Clayton from Florida and SS Derrik Allen from Notre Dame. The Yellow Jackets ranked top 40 nationally in pass defense and top 25 in red-zone defense, and this unit should continue to improve. Offensively, this team is a work in progress. It has yet to name a starting QB. James Graham started eight games as a true freshman last year but is battling two Collins recruits in Jeff Sims, who looks like the front-runner, and Tucker Gleason. Collins nabbed Georgia Tech’s first top-25 recruiting class since 2007 but will need a couple more classes to get Georgia Tech near the top of the ACC again. 
Louisville
The Cardinals were the surprise team in the ACC last year, going 8-5 despite being projected to win only four games. Louisville capped the season with a Music City Bowl win over Mississippi State. Scott Satterfield, who came in from Appalachian State, had a successful first year and won the ACC Coach of the Year award. It was crystal clear that the players were having more fun and seemed to enjoy playing for Satterfield more than they did Bobby Petrino. Satterfield and OC Dwayne Ledford’s offense was run-heavy in its first year, but they proved they could make big plays in the passing game as well. All three QBs who started return, including junior Micale Cunningham, who broke the school record for passing efficiency. All of Louisville’s leading rushers, including sophomore Javian Hawkins (1,525 yards, nine TDs), and three of the top four receivers, including junior Tutu Atwell (70 catches, 1,276 yards, 12 TDs), are back. The OL is still in solid shape despite the loss of first-round pick Mekhi Becton. Defensively, the Cardinals still need some work after giving up 33 ppg and 440 ypg in 2019. Eight starters are back, so the defense should improve. Louisville beat the teams at or below its level last season but by and large could not compete with the top teams in the conference. The Cardinals avoid Clemson this season but still need to see if they can knock off the more established ACC programs to take that next step.
Miami 
Miami went 6-7, including a shutout loss to Louisiana Tech in the Independence Bowl, in Manny Diaz’s first season as a head coach. The enigmatic Hurricanes were probably a little better than their record indicated as they lost four games — at North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and FIU — in which they outgained their opposition. They get the opportunity to avenge the three conference losses this season. One bit of good news is that barring injury, Miami will not have to play musical chairs at QB, which it has done the last three years. Houston senior transfer D’Eriq King is the guy. He is a dual threat and set an FBS record by having 15 straight games with both a rushing and a passing TD. The skill-position talent around him is on the younger side, but he will be behind an OL that returns all five starters. King combines with new OC Rhett Lashlee, who worked under Sonny Dykes last year at SMU, to likely give Miami the chance to put up offensive numbers it has not seen for many years. The defense has carried Miami for several years as Diaz created the “turnover chain” when he was the DC. This group will still be very good despite returning only four starters. Sophomore DE Gregory Rousseau, who was No. 2 in the nation with 15.5 sacks, opted out of the season to prepare for the draft, in which he is a likely first-rounder. Clemson is the only team on the schedule clearly better than the Hurricanes, and King is a massive upgrade at QB. Miami might be able to compete with Notre Dame, North Carolina and Virginia Tech for the right to play the Tigers in the ACC championship game.  
NC State
The Wolfpack were close to breaking into the second tier in the ACC (Clemson is on the top level all by itself) with back-to-back 9-4 seasons in 2017 and ’18. Then last year happened. NC State fell to 4-8, and its scoring production dipped by almost 12 ppg. The Wolfpack shuffled three QBs to replace the departed Ryan Finley and had a backfield made up predominantly of freshmen. Ten starters are back on that side of the ball, and new OC Tim Beck comes from Texas to take over the reins. Beck improved Texas last year from 31 to 35 ppg and helped increase its ypg by 55, but that was not enough in the sometimes defense-optional Big 12, and Beck was demoted to QB coach by Tom Herman. Beck and Dave Doeren will not have a Sam Ehlinger to work with, but sophomore Devin Leary has potential, though he desperately needs to improve his 48.1% accuracy. The defense also slipped last season and has only five starters back. NC State should be improved on offense with the new coordinator and all the returning personnel, but it went 0-6 vs. bowl teams last season and lost by an average of 42-15. The adjusted schedule also does the Wolfpack no favors, as three of their first four and four of their first six games are on the road. That is not ideal for a team that missed nine days of practice in August due to a COVID-19 outbreak and at times had only half the roster available. 
North Carolina
Mack Brown, who coached North Carolina from 1988-97, showed last year that you can go home again. He led the Tar Heels to their first winning season since 2016 and first bowl victory, a 55-13 romp over Temple in the Military Bowl, since 2015. He has already upgraded the talent and landed a top-20 recruiting class. Brown’s first coup was to flip QB Sam Howell away from his commitment to Florida State. Howell started all 13 games last year as a true freshman and threw for over 3,600 yards and 38 TDs versus only seven INTs. All of Howell’s receivers are back as well as two running backs who combined for nearly 2,000 yards. OC Phil Longo ran an up-tempo offense at Ole Miss and Sam Houston State, so expect the tempo to increase in Howell’s second year. The defense also returns seven starters and is led by former starting QB Chazz Surratt, a senior who moved to LB and led the team with 115 tackles and 6.5 sacks. Jay Bateman was a Broyles Award finalist in 2018 as the DC at Army. He combined with co-DC Tommy Thigpen, who played here for Brown from 1989-92, to improve the defense from giving up 34.5 ppg in 2018 to only 23.7 in 2019. Brown and UNC have won over some cynics as they start the season ranked in the top 20 in both polls. The early schedule is very manageable, with three home games and a trip to rebuilding Boston College. It toughens in the second half, but the Heels avoid Clemson and will be right there with Notre Dame and Miami for the opportunity to face the Tigers, whom the Heels nearly upset last year as four-TD underdogs, in the ACC championship game.
Notre Dame
Notre Dame joined the ACC in 2012 in all sports except football. This year, for the first time, the Fighting Irish will experience being a full-fledged member as they will play a full conference schedule and be eligible to play in the ACC championship game. Gone are games vs. Navy in Dublin, vs. Wisconsin at Lambeau Field, vs. Stanford and at USC, but they do add a couple of old-time rivals in Pittsburgh and Boston College. In addition, they will get likely No. 1 Clemson in South Bend on Nov. 7 and an opportunity to avenge a 30-3 loss to the Tigers in the CFP semifinal two years ago. Ian Book returns for his third year as the starting QB and will have to break in a new starting RB and TE along with two new receivers. That should move along quickly, considering Notre Dame returns all five OL starters to form one of the nation’s best units up front. Brian Kelly dismissed OC Chip Long, whose offense seemed to come up short against the better opponents, and promoted his former player Tommy Rees from QB coach. On defense, DC Clark Lee has improved the unit to where it has given up over 30 points just once in two seasons, in 2019 at Michigan. The group returns only five starters and loses four NFL draftees but still should be good, though it will be tough to duplicate allowing only 17.9 ppg and 320 ypg. Notre Dame opens the season ranked No. 10 in both polls and will be favored in 10 of its 11 games. The Irish will be a home underdog to Clemson, but Kelly is 4-0 SU and ATS in that situation since 2014. Notre Dame is clearly Clemson’s biggest roadblock in running roughshod over the ACC. But even with a loss, it would not be shocking to see both in the College Football Playoff. 
Pittsburgh
Pitt has very quietly been the third-winningest program in the ACC since 2015, trailing only Clemson and Miami, and the Panthers have always been undervalued by the betting market in Pat Narduzzi’s tenure. This is evident by Narduzzi’s 20-13 ATS record as an underdog (14-7 ATS on the road). He is a defense-first coach, and the Panthers had their best unit in his five years last season. They allowed only 22.5 ppg and 313 ypg (just 108 vs. the run) despite losing three starters early in the season. Senior DT Keyshon Camp and senior DE Rashad Weaver should strengthen an already tough DL that led the nation in sacks with 51. Camp will need to step up the most as junior NT Jaylen Twyman (10.5 sacks in 2019) is opting out to focus on the draft. The defense should be not only one of the best in the ACC but also in the entire FBS. However, the offense is another matter. Former UMass coach and Miami offensive coordinator Mark Whipple were brought in to help QB Kenny Pickett, but Pitt once again struggled, averaging a putrid 21.2 ppg. The skill-position players are solid, and Pitt recently added graduate transfer DJ Turner, and the wide receiver is immediately eligible. Pitt also returns four starters up front. The numbers should improve in Whipple’s second season, but Pickett must make the leap as a third-year starter. The Panthers open with four consecutive home games and do not take to the road until Oct. 10 when they face rebuilding Boston College. Pitt has a real opportunity to start 5-0. The defense will be able to kick in the door, but can the offense walk through it? 
Syracuse
Dino Babers’ stock slipped massively last year coming off a 10-win season in 2018. But Syracuse benefitted from a mediocre ACC that season and was not as good as its record indicated. And all-time leading passer Erik Dungey and both starting tackles graduated. Dungey’s highly touted replacement, Tommy DeVito, was constantly under siege last year behind an OL that allowed 50 sacks, fourth most in the nation. DeVito’s slow decision-making did not help. Production dropped by an average of 12 ppg and 69 ypg. Mike Lynch was demoted from OC to RB coach, and Sterlin Gilbert was hired as the new coordinator. He has had stints in that role at USF and Texas under Charlie Strong and was head coach at McNeese State. The defense also struggled last year, and a new coordinator was hired in Tony White, who comes in from Arizona State as a defensive analyst and worked for 10 years under a good defensive mind in Rocky Long at New Mexico and San Diego State. Syracuse’s defensive strength is in the secondary, where three of four starters return, and White is familiar with the 3-3-5 scheme from his time under Long. The Orange open with road games at North Carolina and Pittsburgh. An 0-2 start looks likely, and that could spell trouble for a team with one of the least proven rosters in the conference.
 
Virginia
Bronco Mendenhall has improved this program every year and reached a milestone by making a New Year’s Six bowl, falling to Florida 36-28 in a competitive Orange Bowl. It will be difficult to build on last year’s 9-5 record with the loss of two-year starting QB Bryce Perkins, who accounted for 78.5% of the offense last season. Sophomore Brennan Armstrong, who played in seven games in 2019, will be his replacement. All five OL starters return, and are all upperclassmen, so the drop-off on offense likely won’t be precipitous. But it’s bound to decline at least slightly with the graduation of Perkins. The defense returns eight starters from a unit that was banged up last season, especially in the secondary. Once the injuries in the back four occurred, this was a completely different defense. In the first seven games, Virginia allowed only 19.7 ppg and 270 ypg. In the last seven, Virginia gave up 34.4 ppg and 473 ypg. While the Cavaliers lose the season kickoff game against Georgia in Atlanta, they also lose three non-conference games that were likely wins against VMI, UConn and Old Dominion. Now they open with four of their first five on the road and play only once in Charlottesville before Halloween. The adjusted schedule has certainly become a spooky proposition for Virginia, which will open on the road against Commonwealth Cup archrival Virginia Tech. The program is going in the right direction, but it likely will take a step back with the unproven QB. 
Virginia Tech
Justin Fuente came from Memphis in 2016 and led the Hokies to a combined 19-8 record in his first two seasons but has gone a combined 14-12 the last two years. So his seat has gotten a bit warm. However, Fuente had a young team last season, as Virginia Tech started the second-most underclassmen in the nation at 59.5%. Eight starters are back on offense and nine on defense. One defensive starter Fuente will not have available is junior CB Caleb Farley, a likely first-round pick who opted out. The Hokies still should be stout on defense with their entire front seven back, but this is the first time since 1994 that a Virginia Tech defense will be coordinated by someone other than the retired Bud Foster. Former Hokies LB Justin Hamilton has been on the staff for two seasons and will step into some big shoes as the new DC, but he inherits a great deal of talent. On offense, the Hokies struggled early last season, averaging only 19 ppg vs. Boston College and Duke. Then Hendon Hooker took over at QB, and the offense averaged over 34 ppg. Hooker is battling Oregon transfer Braxton Burmeister for the job, but it should be Hooker’s to lose. All five OL starters return, and the backfield gets a boost with Kansas graduate transfer Khalil Herbert and Rutgers transfer Raheem Blackshear coming into the fold. This team is arguably the sleeper in the ACC. 
Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons started 5-0 and 7-1 and were ranked for the first time in 11 seasons. While they lost four of their last five, including a 27-21 Pinstripe Bowl loss to Michigan State, they accomplished a lot. They made a fourth consecutive bowl game for the first time in program history, had their fourth straight winning season for the first time since World War II and swept their conference in-state rivals. Nevertheless, challenges are plentiful. Only two starters return on offense. QB Jamie Newman transferred to Georgia, but Sam Hartman started nine games at QB as a true freshman in 2018. Nonetheless, Wake Forest has to find someone for him to throw to, as two 1,000-yard receivers are gone. Kendall Hinton graduated, and Sage Surratt, a first-team All-ACC wideout and the best receiver in Winston-Salem since Ricky Proehl, opted out to prepare for the draft. Wake Forest is in a little better shape defensively as eight starters return, including senior DE Carlos Basham Jr. and his 11 sacks. This unit improved last year and should do so again, but it will need to be even better as the offense is likely to struggle out of the gate. The schedule is tough. Wake faces Clemson and Notre Dame in two of the first three weeks. Dave Clawson is highly underrated, but this will require some of his best coaching yet.
 
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