The VSiN college football experts have been hard at work this summer, writing up team previews and predictions for all 131 FBS teams, including their favorite individual season win total and College Football Playoff bets.
Here are the team previews for the ACC:
The Eagles were coming off a 6-5 season and heading into 2021 with 18 returning starters and a relatively soft schedule. Then QB Phil Jurkovec was lost for six games in the second game of the season and BC went 2-4 in six games without him. The disappointing 6-6 season ended with the Eagles having to forego the Military Bowl due to COVID-19 issues.
Yes, Jurkovec missed six games with a hand fracture, but the BC offense ended up being the worst in the conference and averaged a paltry 10 points per game against its first four ACC opponents. This year, Jurkovec is back but most of the offensive staff is not. John McNulty, the tight ends coach at Notre Dame last season, takes over as OC. McNulty spent two different tenures as Rutgers OC and made numerous NFL assistant stops. Expect to see more RPOs, quick releases and progression-based reads as well as a variety of personnel packages, including some spread. Pat Garwo ran for over 1,000 yards and seven TDs last season but will have to do so behind an entirely new offensive line that lost four starters plus guard Christian Mahogany to a torn ACL. Star receiver Zay Flowers (44 receptions, 746 yards, 5 TD) is back, as are Jaelen Gill (24, 269, 1) and Jaden Williams (19, 213, 3). Notre Dame transfer TE George Takacs gives Jurkovec another talented target.
In 2019, the season before coach Jeff Hafley took over, BC ranked 122nd in pass defense. Last year, the Eagles climbed all the way to third nationally, allowing just 173.5 yards per game through the air. BC was 16th in the country in fewest passing touchdowns allowed (14) and 27th in the FBS in opponent completion percentage (57.9%). Marcus Valdez (five sacks, seven TFLs) returns for his graduate year to lead the defensive line. Tackle Chibueze Onwuka also returns from a torn Achilles that forced him to miss nearly all of last season. The Eagles were 96th last season in sacks per game (1.75). Veteran LBs Kam Arnold (team-high 61 tackles) and Vinny DePalma (54) also return. The secondary is the strength of the team and is led by CB Josh DeBerry (53 tackles, 7 TFLs, 2 INTs) and safety Jaiden Woodbey (56 tackles, 2 INTs). BC will have to improve on their 17 takeaways from last year.
BC will find out early if they have taken the next step. They open with Rutgers and have conference road games at Virginia Tech and Florida State in the first four weeks. The Eagles should have a base of six wins -- Rutgers, Maine, at UConn, Duke, Louisville, Syracuse. However, if they are going to be this year’s Pitt in the ACC, they will have to pull off an upset or two, perhaps against Clemson or at NC State. They will also have to at least split those early ACC road games in Blacksburg and Tallahassee. It’s difficult to see BC accomplishing that even though they have the QB to do it with Jurkovec. Installing a new offense is hard enough, but to do it with an entirely new offensive line makes it even more difficult. The defense will win them a competitive game on the schedule, but seven wins looks like the ceiling.
Pick: Over 6.5 ( 110)
The Tigers found a way to win 10 games last season, but it was a highly disappointing year considering their streaks of six consecutive ACC titles and six consecutive College Football Playoff berths ended abruptly. If Dabo Swinney’s Tigers are going to return to the top of college football, the offense, which was second to last in the conference, needs to get much closer to its usual form.
QB DJ Uiagalelei (2,346 yards, 55.6%, 9-10 TD-INT) struggled in his first full season as starter. He was inaccurate and made poor decisions far too often last season, which led to Clemson ranking just 103rd in the nation in passing offense. At least his conditioning should be improved considering he has reportedly lost 25 pounds. Former Tigers QB Brandon Streeter (1995-1999) was promoted to OC after Tony Elliott took the Virginia head coaching job. The Tigers return their top three running backs in Will Shipley (738 yards, 11 TD), Kobe Pace (641, 6) and Phil Mafah (292, 3). The offensive line was inconsistent last year but returns four starters -- the offense returns nine overall -- and should be improved. TE Davis Allen (28 receptions, 208 yards, 3 TD) could emerge as one of the top tight ends in the country. Highly touted Beaux Collins (31, 407, 3) and Joseph Ngata (23, 438, 1) are the top two returning receivers. Clemson has plenty of talent behind them, but it's unproven.
Despite the loss of longtime coordinator Brent Venables (hired as Oklahoma’s head coach), this should be one of the nation’s best defenses. It ranked eighth nationally in total defense (310.2 yards per game) last season. First-year defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin has elite talent all over the field, but everything starts with the defensive front, which could be one of Clemson’s best. DEs Myles Murphy (43 tackles, 7 TFL, 7 sacks, 12 QBH), Xavier Thomas (27 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 17 QBH), K.J. Henry (28 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 8 QBH) and Justin Mascoll (19 tackles, 5 QBH) are all starter-level players. DTs Tyler Davis (27 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 7 QBH) and redshirt freshman Bryan Bresee are two of the best in the country, while Ruke Orhorhoro (42 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 5.5 TFL) provides depth. Clemson lost a couple of experienced linebackers in James Skalski and Baylon Spector, but the Tigers should be more athletic at the position. Trenton Simpson (78 tackles, 6 sacks, 6 TFL) moves inside. On the back end, Clemson must replace three solid starters. The Tigers are talented but inexperienced at corner.
This defense is good enough to win a national title, but the offense must improve dramatically. The running game should be dependable, but Uiagalelei will have to make some plays for Clemson to at least return to the CFP. If he struggles early, freshman Cade Klubnik, the nation’s No. 1 QB recruit, will get an opportunity. Clemson is still the most talented team in the ACC, but the recruiting has fallen off from the level of Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State. The Tigers also have two new and young coordinators that must find their identities. Will Dabo give them as much control as he did with Elliott and Venables? Clemson gets NC State and Miami at home but has trips to Florida State and Notre Dame. The offense, especially the QB and WR positions, is still too much of a concern to dismiss the 2021 decline as an aberration.
Pick: Under 10.5 (-130)
The Seminoles have endured four straight losing seasons after 40 consecutive winning ones. Nevertheless, they showed progress in Mike Norvell’s second season, taking Notre Dame, Clemson and Florida to the limit. Some experience returns and the talent level is improving. Florida State has undergone musical chairs at QB the last few years, but its situation seems more certain in 2022.
Jordan Travis (1,539 yards, 62.9%, 15-6 TD-INT, 530 rushing yards, 7 rushing touchdowns) has gone 5-2 in his last seven starts and looks to be the clear starter, stability Florida State hasn’t had in recent years. FSU's offense was decent last year, but it had too many drives disrupted by negative plays. The Seminoles were victims of 351 yards on tackles for a loss -- only 11 teams allowed more in the regular season -- and that was a major reason why FSU ranked 105th nationally in third-down conversions (34.9%). When they stayed ahead of the chains, the ’Noles were deadly in the red zone, scoring TDs 73.8% of the time (6th in the nation).
The Seminoles bolstered the wide receiver position with four Power 5 transfers, and they also beefed up their offensive line and backfield. Former Oregon WR Mycah Pittman emerged as the team's best receiver in the spring, Wisconsin transfer Kayden Lyles should bolster the center spot and the running back position features a deep group led by redshirt sophomore Treshaun Ward (515 yards, 6.4 yards per carry, 4 TD) and Oregon transfer Trey Benson.
After giving up 6.5 yards per play and 36 points a game in 2020, Florida State’s defense limited teams to 5.2 yards per play and 26.5 points a game last fall. FSU’s pass rush led to a top-10 national ranking in red-zone defense, but DEs Jermaine Johnson II (12 sacks) and Keir Thomas (6.5 sacks) are gone, so replacements are needed. Jared Verse had 14.5 sacks in 15 games last year at FCS Albany. The Seminoles allowed 144.5 yards per game on the ground, but big DTs Robert Cooper and Fabien Lovett return, so that number should improve. FSU also picked up a huge addition at linebacker, as former UCF star Tatum Bethune (108 tackles) rejoins former position coach Randy Shannon, now the Seminoles' co-defensive coordinator. The secondary can still give up too many big plays, but Jammie Robinson (85 tackles) can play safety or nickel and might help CBs Omarion Cooper and Kevin Knowles improve.
Florida State showed progress in 2021 and beat Miami for the first time since 2016. However, FSU lost in demoralizing fashion to FCS Jacksonville State, which ended up keeping them out of a bowl game. The Seminoles should return to the postseason for the first time since 2019. However, the schedule is not easy as they play LSU (Week 2 in New Orleans), at NC State, Clemson, at Miami and Florida. The Seminoles are not going to win at the level their fans want, but they will be better. After some dysfunction in the athletic department in recent years, the administration opened the checkbook this offseason, bringing in several new support staff members -- analysts to help with game-planning and assistants to help with recruiting.
Pick: Over 6.5 (-135)
Scott Satterfield has gone 10-14 in his last two seasons at Louisville after earning ACC Coach of the Year honors in 2019. The Cardinals have lost three straight rivalry games to Kentucky by a combined 109 points. Recruiting has sagged with a class that ranked outside of the top 50. Staff turnover has been persistent. Louisville also failed to sell out any games last season. Plus, Louisville has a new AD and a new president of the university.
Senior QB Malik Cunningham (2,941 passing yards, 62%, 19-6 TD-INT, 1,031 rushing yards, 20 rushing touchdowns) helped the Cardinals finish 21st in total offense at 446.2 yards per game. Nevertheless, he must improve his pocket presence.
Speedster Tyler Harrell transferred to Alabama and Jordan Watkins is off to Ole Miss, but Louisville adds Dee Wiggins (Miami) and FCS All-American Tyler Hudson (Central Arkansas), who will both start. Ahmari Higgins-Bruce (29 receptions, 444 yards, 4 TD) will also see a bigger role. TE Marshon Ford (49, 550, 2) was the Cardinals’ leading receiver last year. Tennessee transfer RB Tyjon Evans could start over Jalen Mitchell (722 yards, 5 TD) and Trevion Cooley (431, 1). The offensive line, with 116 career starts, returns four starters and should be one of the ACC’s best.
Louisville gave up 403.3 yards and 27.3 points per game last season. Wesley McGriff comes in as co-defensive coordinator to join Bryan Brown, who came with Satterfield from Appalachian State. The Cardinals hit the transfer portal hard, especially in the secondary where six new players come in, including CB Quincy Riley (Middle Tennessee), CB Jarvis Brownlee (Florida State) and safety M.J. Griffin (Temple). Two starters return in CB Kei’Trel Clark (40 tackles, 9 PBU, 3 INT) and safety Kenderick Duncan (76 tackles, 4 PBU, 1 INT). Yasir Abdullah (61 tackles, 10 sacks, 6.5 TFL) leads the LB corps, which is the strength of the defense. Ole Miss transfer Momo Sanogo and Nicario Harper (FCS All-American at Jacksonville State) add to a deep group. The defensive line has the most question marks. Ashton Gillotte and YaYa Diaby return, but more production will be required from this group.
Louisville lost four one-score games last season and finished 6-7 even with Cunningham piling up nearly 4,000 yards of total offense. The offense may have to carry more of the load considering the defense gave up 126 points in the fourth quarter last season. The Cardinals open by playing on the road in their first two games (at Syracuse, at UCF) and four of their first six (at BC, at Virginia). They'll need a fast start because the schedule is backloaded with this closing stretch: at Clemson (where Louisville has never won), NC State and at Kentucky (which has dominated Satterfield). Louisville’s offense should be better, and Cunningham likely has a career season, but adding coordinators on both sides of the ball is usually not a good sign. USF and James Madison are the only sure victories on a brutal schedule. Satterfield must be feeling the heat now working for an administration that didn’t hire him.
Pick: Under 6.5 (-125)
Although Clemson is once again the odds-on favorite to win the ACC (-120), the Tigers might not walk through the Atlantic Division because the Wolfpack are loaded with 17 returning starters. A 9-3 campaign against a very tough schedule was Dave Doeren’s best season in nine years at NC State. A three-point loss at Wake Forest kept the Wolfpack from winning the Atlantic Division title.
QB Devin Leary finally emerged as the highly touted player the Wolfpack recruited in 2019. He broke Philip Rivers’ single-season record for touchdown passes (35) and threw for 3,433 yards. What is most impressive is Leary has only thrown seven interceptions on 550 passes over the last two seasons. Two of Leary’s top three receivers from 2021 -- Thayer Thomas (596 yards, 8 TD) and Devin Carter (556, 8) -- are back. The passing attack was the second-most efficient in the ACC behind Kenny Pickett and Pitt. The running game is the biggest concern as NC State’s top two RBs left for the NFL (and went undrafted). Jordan Houston is the only returning RB who scored a touchdown in 2021. The offensive line returns four starters and 95 career starts but loses its anchor in LT Ikem Ekwonu, who was drafted by the Panthers in the first round.
The Wolfpack allowed just 19.7 points per game to finish second in the ACC and 14th nationally. NC State was second in the ACC with 15 interceptions and ranked 31st or better in the FBS in every major defensive category. Ten starters return from that stellar unit. At different points in the season, defensive coordinator Tony Gibson and his 3-3-5 scheme lost LBs Payton Wilson and Isaiah Moore, NT C.J. Clark, DE Savion Jackson, nickel Tyler Baker-Williams and safeties Cyrus Fagan and Devan Boykin. Five players who started the opener against USF were out when the Wolfpack played North Carolina at season's end. The extra COVID year has allowed Fagan, NT Cory Durden, CB Derrek Pitts Jr. and safeties Tanner Ingle and Baker-Williams to return for another season. The absence of Moore and Wilson shifted junior Drake Thomas to middle linebacker (100 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 6 sacks, 3 INT, 9 QBH). As good as the defense was statistically, they had trouble getting stops late in games which led to crucial losses at Miami and at Wake Forest.
NC State has a lot of preseason buzz and rightfully so considering the program has had three nine-win seasons in the last five years. The Wolfpack are clearly a team with a chip on its shoulder as they fell just short of a spot in the ACC title game and were unable to play the Holiday Bowl due to a COVID outbreak within the UCLA program. The Wolfpack lost two conference games by a total of four points (31-30 at Miami, 45-42 at Wake Forest) and went unbeaten at home last season. An Oct. 1 game at Clemson will go a long way in determining if NC State can win its first ACC title since 1979. NC State must be careful to properly manage expectations.
Pick: Over 8.5 (-150)
Dino Babers’ tenure has been up and down at Syracuse. He took the Orange to 10 wins in his third season only to plummet to 1-10 just two seasons later. Syracuse improved to 5-7 last year, but after three consecutive losing seasons, a trip to a bowl game is overdue. However, that will not be easy with an arduous backloaded schedule.
Babers certainly has a sense of urgency and can feel the seat getting hotter as he made several changes to his offensive staff. He brought in OC Robert Anae and QBs coach Jason Beck, who were both at Virginia last year but left for Syracuse after Bronco Mendenhall retired. Anae and Beck will look to develop a passing game to complement the rushing success established around All-American RB Sean Tucker and dual-threat QB Garrett Shrader -- a duo that combined for 2,277 rushing yards and 26 rushing touchdowns last year. The passing attack was one of the nation’s worst, ranking 121st in FBS with an average of 158.2 passing yards per game. The offense’s imbalance contributed to Syracuse scoring just 24.9 points per game (91st). Shrader completed just 52.6% of his passes for only 6.2 yards/completion and will need to improve rapidly in Anae’s pro-style offense. The offensive line, which returns four starters, only gave up 21 sacks last season, but that is largely due to the team running the ball so often.
The entire defensive line graduated and not much returns in terms of production. The three projected starters weigh just 217, 264 and 269 pounds, so it begs the question: Will it hold up against potent ACC rushing attacks? The back eight -- linebackers and secondary -- could be one of the better groups in the conference. Syracuse returns one of the ACC's top LB trios in Mikel Jones (110 tackles, 4 sacks, 9 TFL), Marlowe Wax (60 tackles, 5 sacks, 4 TFL) and Stefon Thompson (79 tackles, 6 sacks), a proven CB duo in Garrett Williams (52 tackles, 5 TFL, 10 PBU) and Duce Chestnut (43 tackles, 8 PBU, 3 INT) and a bevy of proven safeties, boosted by the winter additions of Rutgers transfer Alijah Clark and Louisville transfer Bralyn Oliver.
Syracuse had a soft early schedule last year and got off to a 3-1 start. Although the Orange have likely wins at UConn and versus Wagner in their first five games, they open with Louisville (lost 41-3 in 2021) and play Purdue in Week 3. After an early October bye, the Orange finish the season with NC State, at Clemson, Notre Dame, at Pitt, Florida State, at Wake Forest and at Boston College. The defense may keep them more competitive, but this is a team that could continue to struggle to throw the football and stop the run. This schedule is too brutal for a winning season and could see Babers looking for work come December.
Pick: Under 5 (-130)
With Clemson being Clemson and NC State getting the preseason hype, it’s easy to forget that Wake Forest won the Atlantic Division last year. The Demon Deacons won 11 games and earned their highest season-ending ranking in program history. But they’re still fighting for respect.
Last year, the Deacons averaged 41 points per game, fourth in the nation. QB Sam Hartman was third in the nation in points responsible for and threw for 4,228 yards, sixth most in ACC history. He threw for 39 touchdowns but needs to cut down on his interceptions (14). He has an elite receiver in top target A.T. Perry (71 receptions, 1,293 yards, 18.2 yards per reception, 15 TD). More receivers need to emerge and perhaps one of them is Donavon Greene, who missed all of last season with an injury but averaged 20.1 yards on 29 receptions in 2020. Justice Ellison and Christian Turner return in the backfield and combined for 1,047 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Demon Deacons also return four starters on the offensive line and RT Je’Vionte’ Nash, a 2020 starter, returns from missing last season with an injury.
New DC Brad Lambert served on former Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe’s staff from 2001-2010. He comes in from Purdue (co-DC/LBs coach) to help right a defense that allowed 42 or more points five times last season. The Demon Deacons lived off creating turnovers as they had 29 takeaways, but only five teams in FBS gave up more first downs. Ryan Smenda Jr. (83 tackles) is back as four-year starter at inside linebacker and DE Rondell Bothroyd (63 tackles) led the team with eight sacks. Two-time FCS All-American Kobie Turner posted 158 tackles, 15 sacks and 33.5 tackles for loss in four seasons at Richmond. Only three other starters return and Lambert will have to use speed as depth is a major concern. Wake Forest allowed 413 yards and 29 points per game last season. This group needs to improve.
The Demon Deacons are coming off their best season in school history, going unbeaten at home for the first time in more than 40 years. Now can they build upon that momentum? Dave Clawson is one of the more underrated coaches in college football and he gets a lot out of lesser talent. The nonconference schedule is certainly manageable with games against VMI, at Vanderbilt, Liberty and Army. Wake also gets opportunities to avenge defeats against both Clemson and North Carolina at home. While they did win 11 games last season, the Deacons only beat four teams with a winning record, so they still have a little more to prove. Road dates against Florida State, Louisville and NC State will not be easy.
Pick: Under 8.5 (-130)
David Cutcliffe took Duke to six bowl games in 14 seasons, but he and the program elected to part ways at the end of last season. Mike Elko spent the last four seasons as the DC at Texas A&M and becomes a first-time head coach. He does not inherit much considering Duke only has 11 returning starters (fewest in the ACC).
Gunnar Holmberg transferred to FIU and the Blue Devils have now lost their starting QB for a fourth straight season. Sophomores Jordan Moore, the better runner, and Riley Leonard, the more traditional pocket passer, are currently battling for the starting gig. The Blue Devils also need to replace Mataeo Durant’s 1,241 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. Whoever wins the starting RB job will have four returning starters on the offensive line to run behind. Top receiver Jake Bobo (74 receptions, 794 yards, 1 touchdown) is also gone, but the cupboard is not bare at wideout with Jalon Calhoun (56, 718, 3), Eli Pancol (17, 233, 1) and Darrell Harding (12, 141) returning. Duke only passed for nine touchdowns last season and averaged just 14.9 points per game in ACC play. Kevin Johns comes in as the new OC after three years at Memphis where his offense averaged 40.4 points per game in 2019. Previously he was at Texas Tech (2018), Western Michigan (2017) and Indiana (2011-2016).
Duke has only one way to go on defense after this unit allowed 46.6 points per game and 7.1 yards per play in ACC games last season. Robb Smith (Rutgers DC in 2021) and Jess Simpson (Miami associate HC/DL coach in 2021) team up as co-DCs. MLB Shaka Hayward (98 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3 sacks) is the leader of the unit. Duke only mustered 21 sacks last year, but over half of them return with Hayward, DE R.J. Oben (5), and DT DeWayne Carter (4.5). The Blue Devils must replace all their starters in the secondary. The group should be faster but is short on experience. The bottom line is a defensive coach such as Elko was brought in for good reason. There were 130 teams in college football last year, and Duke was ranked 130th in total defense. The Blue Devils allowed 518 yards and 40 points per game. Nowhere to go but up for this group.
Elko and company have a massive rebuild in Durham. The program slipped the last three years as Cutcliffe got older and perhaps did not recruit as hard. Duke already is at a disadvantage in football recruiting anyway. The Blue Devils did go 3-1 in the nonconference portion of the schedule but went 0-8 in ACC play. Temple and North Carolina A&T are likely wins this season, but road games at Northwestern and even Kansas are not gimmes (Duke beat both at home last season). This is a talent-deficient roster with very little depth. Elko looks to be a smart hire, but it will take time to recruit and develop talent plus install new schemes on both sides of the ball.
Pick: Under 3 (-120)
Geoff Collins came from Temple and is now in his fourth season of a major rebuild shifting from a small, speedy triple-option team to a bigger and stronger spread offense. The Yellow Jackets are 9-25 in the last three seasons, though playing the nation’s toughest schedule last season (at Clemson, at Notre Dame, Georgia) certainly did not speed up the rebuilding process.
QB Jeff Sims (1,468 yards, 60.1%, 12-7 TD-INT, 372 rushing yards, 4 rushing touchdowns) only played about half the season in 2021 due to injuries. He is now in his third year of Collins’ system but is one of only four returning starters. In the backfield, Jahmyr Gibbs, was third in FBS for all-purpose yards but transferred to Alabama. Dontae Smith (68 rushes, 378 yards, 4 TD) is back along with transfers Hassan Hall (Louisville) and Dylan McDuffie (Buffalo), but this group will have to replace 1,200 combined rushing yards from Gibbs and Jordan Mason. The receiving corps does return Malachi Carter (37 receptions, 489 yards, 2 TD), but a young group will have to step up. Expect the offense to use its tight ends more with new OC Chip Long. Syracuse transfer Luke Benson, returning starter Dylan Leonard and converted receiver Peje’ Harris should see their numbers increase dramatically. However, the offensive line returns only one starter and that group is going to be a work in progress.
This group returns even less than the offense with only three starters back. Collins elected to retain DC Andrew Thacker despite his group allowing 455.2 yards per game and ranking at or near the bottom of the ACC in other key statistical categories such as sacks (20) and interceptions (3). The Yellow Jackets also ranked last nationally in passing efficiency defense. The best unit is at linebacker with Ayinde Eley (90 tackles) and Charlie Thomas (70 tackles, 7 TFL, 3 sacks) returning. Up front, Keion White missed all of last year after transferring from Old Dominion, and Memphis transfer Morris Joseph Jr. comes in to help a pass rush that was nonexistent last season. The secondary is going to have to rely on a lot of transfers. CBs Eric Reed from Auburn and Kenny Bennett from Maryland along with former Notre Dame transfer Derrick Allen and Michigan transfer Myles Sims are going to need to help lone returning starter Zamari Walton. The secondary generated a grand total of one interception last year.
Collins is clearly on the hot seat in Atlanta, as a 9-25 record over three years is not going to cut it. The schedule doesn’t do him any favors either. Georgia Tech opens with Clemson and Ole Miss plus travels to UCF in three of its first four games. The roster looks like a bare cupboard and the Georgia Tech administration is getting impatient. There are still players on this roster that were recruited to play in Paul Johnson’s scheme and much of the higher-end talent Collins and his staff have been able to land have transferred out of the program. Even after the arduous early nonconference schedule, the Jackets have road games at Pitt, Florida State, Virginia Tech and North Carolina plus the season-ender at Georgia. This is likely Collins’ final season.
Pick: Under 3.5 ( 105)
Mario Cristobal, born in Miami, won two national championships here during his playing career from 1988-1992. He is being paid $8 million a year (10-year, $80 million contract) to restore “The U” to glory. The Hurricanes have had one double-digit win season (2017) in the last 18 years. There are facility upgrades on the way and Miami is clearly not happy having to watch “30 for 30” documentaries to remember its greatness.
Tyler Van Dyke was not expecting to play a significant role for the Hurricanes last season. He was content to sit behind D'Eriq King for one more year, but King was hurt after three games and Van Dyke took over. In nine starts, Van Dyke showed he could be the first great QB in a long time for the Miami program. Van Dyke threw for 2,931 yards (62.3%) and a 25-6 TD-INT ratio. He was getting the hang of Rhett Lashlee’s offense, but Lashlee returns to SMU as head coach, so enter Josh Gattis, the reigning Broyles Award winner (nation’s top assistant) who comes in from Michigan to take over as OC. RB Jaylan Knighton (561 yards, 8 TD), who was suspended for the first four games last season, is back to lead a deep unit in the backfield behind three returning starters on the offensive line, anchored by LT Zion Nelson. Miami loses its top two receivers but the next six pass catchers are back, including TE Will Mallory (30, receptions, 347 yards, 4 TD). WRs Xavier Restrepo (24, 373, 2) and Key’Shawn Smith (33, 405, 3) and Clemson transfer Frank Ladson will bid to be Van Dyke’s No. 1 target.
Kevin Steele is well-traveled as a DC and Cristobal clearly wanted a veteran in that role. Charlie Strong also comes in as co-DC. Only four full-time starters return to a group that was just seventh in the ACC in total defense and ninth in scoring defense. Steele is tasked with cleaning up the details such as poor tackling. Safety James Williams was the ACC Defensive ROY with 31 tackles and two interceptions. Tyrique Stevenson (43 tackles, 4 PBU) returns at corner as does Al Blades, who missed last year due to injury. LBs Corey Flagg (60 tackles, 3 sacks) and Waynmon Steed (54 tackles) were the two leading tacklers last year. The defensive line needs the most work and Cristobal hit the transfer portal to bring in Jacob Lichtenstein (USC), Mitchell Agude (UCLA) and Antonio Moultrie (UAB) to go along with former five-star recruit Leonard Taylor (7.5 TFL, 2 sacks). Miami ended the season with five freshmen starting on defense. This year they become sophomores, so there is some experience.
Perhaps Miami could have given Manny Diaz another season, but they are not always patient down in Coral Gables. Miami has opened the checkbook for Cristobal and his staff. He’ll have a long honeymoon period as a two-time national champion, plus he is known as one of the best recruiters in college football. His in-game coaching and player development is still a question mark. Cristobal does not inherit a rebuild as Van Dyke is a good starting point and has the look of a potential first-round pick in next year’s draft. Although Miami finished a disappointing 7-5 in 2021, losses versus Virginia and at North Carolina could have gone the other way. Miami should get two easy wins early before having to travel to Texas A&M. They also have trips to Virginia Tech and Clemson. Nevertheless, a nine-win season is doable.
Pick: Over 8.5 (-120)
The Tar Heels opened 2021 ranked in the top 10 but immediately fell short of preseason expectations with a season-opening loss at Virginia Tech. North Carolina ended up with a disappointing 6-7 (0-6 on the road) record and a 38-21 loss to a rebuilding South Carolina team in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.
Last season felt like a waste considering the Tar Heels went 6-7 despite scoring 35 points per game (10th nationally) with one of the best QBs in the country in Sam Howell. Drake Maye and Jacolby Criswell are battling to see who replaces one of the best QBs in program history to run the “Air Raid” attack. It’s highly possible Mack Brown goes with a QB-by-committee approach. Whoever wins the QB job will have a big-time target in Josh Downs (101 receptions, 1,335 yards, 8 TD), who broke UNC records for receptions and receiving yards last season. Antoine Green (31, 612, 5) also emerged late in the season as an outside threat, but the rest of the group is unproven. UNC replaces three starters from an offensive line that gave up 49 sacks last year. Ty Chandler, who rushed for over 1,000 yards, has graduated, but UNC is very talented in the backfield. British Brooks (295 yards, 4 TD) returns for a fifth year and there are some highly touted recruits in the pipeline as well.
The offense was good enough to at least sniff 2021 preseason expectations, but the defense was not. UNC surrendered 32.1 points and 418 yards per game and 6.1 yards per play. The defensive struggles weren’t limited to just one area, as the Tar Heels ranked 11th in the ACC in pass efficiency defense and 10th against the run. Therefore, Brown brought back his old friend Gene Chizik to be the DC and work with his former player Tommy Thigpen and new addition Charlton Warren (Indiana DC in 2021) as co-DCs. They will implement a more attacking scheme. Leading tackler Cedric Gray (100 tackles, 2.5 sacks) is back at linebacker. He needs help from his fellow linebackers and defensive line because the secondary was forced to make way too many plays and way too many tackles. UNC has stockpiled talent up front but they have not produced. Myles Murphy (38 tackles, 4 sacks, 5 TFLs) is the best of the bunch.
North Carolina could not protect Howell and did not live up to the hype last season. The Tar Heels were a flaky bunch. They had good wins against Miami and Wake Forest but lost at Georgia Tech and no-showed in the bowl game versus South Carolina. Chizik and Warren should improve the defense with a simpler scheme that attacks more. Brown is a Hall of Fame coach, but this bunch looked poorly coached with turnovers, penalties and overall sloppy play. The early nonconference schedule is weak before hosting Notre Dame. The Tar Heels also avoid Clemson, but they have a lot of questions, especially with Brown taking the CEO approach and perhaps bringing in Chizik to take over when he steps away.
Pick: Under 7.5 (-130)
The Panthers won their first ACC title and first conference title since 2010 (when they were in the Big East). Their leap to ACC champions last season featured a Heisman Trophy chase, a Biletnikoff Award winner and the most victories for the program in 40 years. Pitt must replace a first-round draft pick at QB, a Biletnikoff at WR and its OC. However, the cupboard is not bare and Pitt has a chance to reach its third ACC title game in five years.
Kenny Pickett is still in Pittsburgh but as a member of the Steelers. USC transfer Kedon Slovis is a former Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and completed 68% of his passes for 7,576 yards and 58 TDs in three seasons. He slightly regressed last season, lost the job to Jaxson Dart and transferred to Pitt. OC Mark Whipple left for Nebraska after helping the Panthers rank third nationally in scoring (41.4 points per game) and eighth in total offense (486.6 yards per game). Longtime NCAA and NFL coaching veteran Frank Cignetti Jr., a run-first devotee, returns to the coordinator role he held at Pitt in 2009-10. Biletnikoff winner Jordan Addison (100 receptions, 1,593 yards, FBS-best 17 TD) entered the transfer portal and landed at USC. He is a big loss, but Pitt still has capable weapons outside such as Jared Wayne (47, 658, 6) and Akron transfer Konata Mumpfield (61, 751, 8). Pitt will likely run the ball more this season with all five starters back up front. The Panthers also return a trio of RBs in junior Israel Abanikanda (651 yards, 7 TD), senior Vincent Davis (593 yards, 4 TD) and sophomore Rodney Hammond Jr. (504 yards, 5 TD).
Six all-conference selections return to a unit that ranked second nationally in sacks (3.86 per game). Pitt also ranked fourth in defensive touchdowns (5), sixth in run defense (89.3 yards per game), eighth in interceptions (16) and 39th in total defense (353.6 yards per game). Coach Pat Narduzzi is a defensive guy and usually has a terrific line. This season will be no exception with DT Calijah Kancey (35 tackles, 7 sacks, 6 TFL) plus DEs Habakkuk Baldonado (42 tackles, 9 sacks, 2.5 TFL) and Deslin Alexandre (41 tackles, 2.5 sacks) returning. At linebacker, SirVocea Dennis returns after posting a team-best 87 tackles along with 9.5 TFLs and four sacks. However, the rest of the group lacks experience. The secondary returns three starters led by safety Brandon Hill (81 tackles, 6 PBU, 2 INT) but gave up 264 yards per game last season.
The 2021 Panthers were the first team since Dan Marino’s 1980 squad to post double-digit wins. Pitt was 4-0 on the road in ACC play against four bottom teams in the conference. This year, they will not have that luxury with trips to Louisville, North Carolina and Miami. The losses of Pickett and Addison will be tough to overcome, but there is still talent and experience on this roster with 15 starters returning (eight offense, seven defense). Pitt’s nonconference schedule in the first three weeks is not easy with the renewal of the “Backyard Brawl” against West Virginia for the first time since 2011, Tennessee (Pitt won 41-34 in Knoxville last season) and at Western Michigan (defeated Pitt 44-41 last season). The Panthers avoid Clemson and NC State but the road slate is challenging.
Pick: Under 8.5
Former coach Bronco Mendenhall abruptly stepped down after he reportedly would not make concessions for changes on his coaching staff after going 11-11 the last two years (after winning a division title in 2019). Enter Tony Elliott, a former Broyles Award winner (top assistant) who was the OC for two national championships at Clemson.
Elliott co-coordinated the offenses of Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence in Death Valley. It remains to be seen whether Brennan Armstrong will ever reach that kind of level, but he is one of the better QBs in the ACC. Armstrong averaged 436.1 yards of total offense against FBS opponents last season, the highest of any college player since 2009, while throwing for 31 touchdowns (also ran for nine) versus just 10 interceptions. Armstrong gives Elliott and new OC Desmond Kitchings, a former OC at NC State and Vanderbilt who coached running backs with the Atlanta Falcons last year, a great starting point. UVA’s top three receivers -- Dontayvion Wicks (57 receptions, 1,263 yards, 9 TD), Keytaon Thompson (78, 990, 1) and Billy Kemp (74, 725, 6) -- all return as does Lavel Davis Jr. (515 yards in 2020), who missed 2021 with injuries. Elliott wants a more balanced offense, but the Cavaliers’ entire starting offensive line left via the transfer portal and they will be relying on FCS transfers from Dartmouth and Georgetown at the tackle positions. RBs Mike Hollins (49 rushes, 213 yards, 2 TD) and Ronnie Walker Jr. provide depth, but Miami transfer Cody Brown will push for the starting job.
Virginia struggled to generate pressure in 2021, allowed too many big plays, and surrendered 34.3 points per game and 6.8 yards per play in ACC play. The defense ranked last in the conference versus the run. The Cavs hit rock bottom in a 66-49 loss at BYU when they gave up 734 yards. The defense allowed 466 yards and 32 points per game last season and ranked 121st nationally. John Rudzinski had several strong defenses during four years as the DC at Air Force. He will use multiple looks -- three- and four-man fronts -- and used five defensive backs in spring practice. Inside linebacker Nick Jackson led the team with 117 tackles last season. A big question will be where Virginia derives its pass rush. Of the Cavaliers' 19 sacks last season, 12 came from players who are no longer with the team. Georgia Tech transfer Chico Bennett Jr., who missed last season with a knee injury, sophomore OLB Mike Green and Miami (Ohio) transfer Kam Butler (16 sacks in four seasons) could have an impact in that area. In the secondary, former Louisville transfer Anthony Johnson returns at cornerback to lead a unit that allowed 21 pass plays of 30 yards or more, fifth most in the ACC.
Virginia should be able to throw the ball with Armstrong, but can they run it behind a brand-new offensive line? Last year’s experienced group that had players transfer to Michigan, USC, UCF and SMU, gave up 40 sacks last year. The defense is also a major work in progress. The good news for Virginia is the nonconference schedule (Richmond, at Illinois, Old Dominion, Coastal Carolina) is manageable and the Cavs avoid Clemson and NC State. Miami, North Carolina and Pittsburgh all come to Charlottesville in a three-game homestand. They will likely be favored in three of their four ACC road games (Syracuse, Duke, Georgia Tech). Elliott is a capable coach but Virginia is not the type of program where you can out-recruit your rivals. He is going to have to develop players and win in the transfer portal without losing too many players. There is enough holdover from the Mendenhall regime to get a six- or seven-win season, but not much more.
Pick: Under 7.5 (-150)
In looking to the future, Virginia Tech turned to its past, hiring Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry, a one-time graduate assistant during the Hokies' heyday in the mid-1990s under Frank Beamer and Bud Foster. Pry must right the ship after six up-and-down years under Justin Fuente. Virginia Tech has had losing seasons in three of the last four years after 25 straight winning seasons dating to 1993. The Hokies ended last season with an embarrassing 54-10 defeat to Maryland in the Pinstripe Bowl.
New OC Tyler Bowen was on James Franklin’s staff with Pry at Penn State and most recently was the TEs coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Joe Rudolph also comes in from Wisconsin as the OL coach, so expect the Hokies to establish a running game first and foremost. Marshall transfer Grant Wells (5,623 yards, 34 TD, 22 INT the last two years) comes in as the seventh starting QB in five years for the Hokies. Leading rusher Raheem Blackshear is gone, but the Hokies do have a deep group of RBs with Malachi Thomas (93 rushes, 440 yards, 3 TD), Jalen Holston (52, 199, 1) and Keshawn King (29, 117, 1). While Pry wants to be physical and run the ball, the Hokies only have two returning starters up front. Receivers Tre Turner and Tayvion Robinson accounted for 109 of the team’s 173 receptions and must be replaced.
The defense also has turnover as Chris Marve, who played for Pry when he was the Vanderbilt DC in the early 2010s, is now the third DC in four years at Virginia Tech. Pry and Marve will move to a more traditional 4-3 look this year. There's depth and experience at two of the linebacker spots, with Dax Hollifield (92 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 4.5 TFL) and Alan Tisdale (84 tackles, 5 TFL, 2.5 sacks) having combined to start 55 games in their careers. They were the two most disruptive players on last year's defense. The secondary has a good base, with Chamarri Conner (85 tackles) moving back from nickel to play one of the safety spots and an experienced trio of cover guys in Armani Chatman (7 PBU), Dorian Strong (6 PBU) and Brion Murray (4 PBU). The front needs work, especially with rushing passers. No defensive lineman had more than 3.5 sacks last year.
Pry wants to return Virginia Tech to the program that out-toughs its opponents. However, he does not have the talent nor the depth on either side of the trenches to make that happen in Year 1. The Hokies open at Old Dominion, which upset them in 2018 to start the whispers about whether Fuente was right for this job. They then have three straight games at home (Boston College, Wofford, West Virginia), but it will be October’s three road games (at North Carolina, at Pitt, at NC State) and a home game against Miami that will define 2022. The schedule eases up at the end with Georgia Tech, at Duke, at Liberty (defeated Virginia Tech in Blacksburg in 2020) and Virginia. The Hokies also avoid Clemson. Seven wins looks like Pry’s ceiling in his first season.
Pick: Over 6.5 ( 125)