The ACC has a clear favorite this year, just as it has over the previous several years. The Clemson Tigers are the class of the conference. The real question is how the competition will respond to Dabo Swinney’s team. There are a lot of details to sort out in this year’s ACC. We’ll go through the changes in the conference, why they matter in 2021, and what the new power structure looks like for the conference.
What Happened Last Year
After the pandemic changed the plans of a lot of schools within the 2020 season, one of the big casualties was nonconference scheduling. The 2020 season featured far fewer nonconference games than normal, because the conferences were best able to coordinate the COVID-19 responses and protocols for games each week.
Conferences gave teams the ability to get on the same page with each other and agree upon rules and procedures for the full season. Teams from different conferences weren’t able to arrange the logistics of game preparation and game testing in ways which made their lives easier. Conference games were seen as the best way to arrange and play college football in 2020.
Given this reality, Notre Dame – which was an independent school but has an agreement to play several ACC schools each season – agreed to join the ACC for the 2020 season alone. This was not a long-term agreement, just a one-year plan in which Notre Dame would play ACC opponents as part of conference games which would count in the standings.
Notre Dame’s arrival in the ACC as a 15th team in the conference meant that the ACC did away with divisions. The reality that 15 teams could not facilitate two equally-sized divisions – and that Notre Dame was not easily placed in one division or the other – meant that the ACC scrubbed the normal Atlantic-versus-Coastal Division format for the ACC Championship Game. The ACC instead had a format the Big 12 uses, in which the top two teams in the standings play for the conference championship.
With the division setup not applying to the 2020 season, two teams were clearly affected in a negative way: North Carolina and Miami. The Tar Heels and Hurricanes were both favorites to win the Coastal Division and play Clemson for the ACC title. With the divisions being abolished for 2020, however, UNC and Miami lost that natural advantage.
Notre Dame became the team most likely to play Clemson for the league championship… and that’s exactly what happened. Notre Dame beat Clemson in the regular season, finished in the top two of the ACC, and thereby earned the right to meet Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. North Carolina and Miami were both locked out of the title game. North Carolina earned an Orange Bowl bid by crushing Miami in the last game of the regular season, but neither the Tar Heels nor the Canes were able to play for the conference title.
Now that the pandemic is over and the 2020 arrangement – a temporary plan – is no longer in effect, the division setup returns. North Carolina and Miami are once again in line to win the Coastal Division and face Clemson for the ACC championship. Notre Dame is no longer an official ACC conference member playing conference games which count in the league standings. Notre Dame will play several ACC teams this year as it normally does, but those will no longer be league games. They will be nonconference games. The ACC will essentially resume how it structured its football season in 2019. The 2020 plan was a one-year plan which will not carry forward.
Team Most Likely To Exceed Expectations
The North Carolina State Wolfpack have an expected win total at or near six wins. That seems like a very low total, something the Wolfpack can easily exceed this coming season. The reason North Carolina State should definitely exceed a six- or seven-win season is that it is coming off an eight-win season despite a key injury at an important position.
North Carolina State had a very uncertain outlook at quarterback last year. Inserting Devin Leary, however, turned the offense into a genuinely potent force. Leary was inexperienced but showed that he was a very quick study. NCSU’s offense looked potent and diverse with Leary running the offense.
The Pack were much more dangerous and powerful than when fellow quarterback Bailey Hockman led the offense. Leary established himself as the clear starting quarterback early in the season, but he got injured midway through the season, after which the offense regressed. North Carolina State clearly wasn’t the same team once Leary left, but the Wolfpack’s defense was able to play a brilliant game late in the season and shut down the Liberty Flames’ offense, led by quarterback Malik Willis, one of the most electric players in the country.
North Carolina State won 15-14, blocking a late Liberty field goal attempt to hang on for the win.
Hockman could see that he was not likely to win the starting quarterback job for 2021. He transferred out of the program to Middle Tennessee. Leary now takes over the controls as the unquestioned starter for this season. North Carolina State, by getting a full season of Leary, should be better than all of the non-Clemson teams in the ACC Atlantic Division. Assuming N.C. State does defeat all the non-Clemson teams in the Atlantic, that’s five wins right there.
Five ACC wins plus three nonconference victories would give North Carolina State eight total wins this season, which would easily eclipse the predicted 6.5-win total the Wolfpack currently has. North Carolina State head coach Dave Doeren made the most of a difficult situation last year, overachieving in spite of an injury to his best quarterback. The Wolfpack aren’t going to beat Clemson, but they are going to beat a lot of other teams this year. It is surprising that more people aren’t projecting the Wolfpack to do well in the ACC Atlantic.
Team Most Likely To Fall Short Of Expectations
Florida State and Boston College are both really good candidates here. Florida State will receive a measure of preseason hype because McKenzie Milton is its starting quarterback. Milton led the UCF Knights to a pair of conference championships but suffered a gruesome late-season injury in a game versus the South Florida Bulls. He had to miss multiple years of football in order to recuperate from that injury. While recuperating, he transferred from UCF to Florida State to join Seminole head coach Mike Norvell, who used to coach against UCF in the AAC with Memphis.
Milton will give Florida State’s offense a chance to become special, but the reason the Seminoles will fall short of expectations is that their offensive line is still very poor. Offensive line recruiting has really lagged behind at Florida State for the past five years. Jimbo Fisher watched offensive line recruiting deteriorate in his final seasons at the school. His successor, Willie Taggart, did not meaningfully improve offensive line recruiting and player development. It’s true that Milton will give the quarterback position an upgrade – Florida State really did struggle at quarterback in recent years – but the lack of a strong offensive line will keep the Seminoles from breaking through on offense. FSU still seems like a program which is a year away from becoming a central ACC contender once again.
Boston College is the inverse of Florida State. The offensive line is there. Boston College has three different offensive linemen who are projected to be First-Team All-ACC. The Eagles are deep and experienced up front. They will not suffer in this part of their roster. However, there are real questions about how good the Eagles are at the offensive skill positions. Do they have the passing game which can hit downfield strikes and score quickly?
Mashing with the offensive line will give Boston College’s offense the ability to control the ball and grind the clock, but the offense needs to be able to show it can take advantage of play action, using the threat of the running game to make huge plays with the passing game. This team is not deep at receiver, and quarterback Phil Jurkovec – a transfer from Notre Dame – has a lot to prove this coming season. In many ways, people’s assessments of Boston College come down to whether they think Jurkovec is up to the challenge at quarterback. A strong offensive line will help him, but Jurkovec needs to take a significant forward leap in his development in order for Boston College to realize its potential this coming season. There is reason to think that he won’t have a breakout year, which would greatly lower the Eagles’ ceiling as a team.
Player With The Best Shot To Win The Heisman In The ACC
The best player on the best team is usually the foremost Heisman team in a conference, but this year is likely to be an exception to the rule. Clemson is the best team in the ACC, but the Tigers’ best player might be on defense, not offense. Clemson is going to be exceptionally strong on the defensive side of the ball. James Skalski or Nolan Turner might be the best player on the 2021 Clemson roster. Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei should have a solid season, but it will be hard for him to immediately max out and perform at the same level Trevor Lawrence established. Uiagalelei might be the Heisman favorite in 2022, but not in 2021. He’s just not fully ready yet.
If a Clemson player is not going to win the Heisman from the ACC, then who will? Sam Howell, the quarterback of the North Carolina Tar Heels, makes the most sense as a Heisman contender. He has experience, having been tested last season. He has some of his receivers and offensive linemen coming back for this season. He had to deal with a lot of hype in 2020, so the 2021 season is not going to be overwhelming for him in terms of pressure and scrutiny. He has already gone through that particular gauntlet. If North Carolina is able to play Clemson in the ACC Championship Game and either beat the Tigers or come very close in a high-scoring game, Howell will receive a lot of Heisman publicity through the first weekend of December. That is certainly a formula for a Heisman Trophy victory.
Coach That’s Likely To Get Fired First
There are several legitimate candidates for the ACC hot seat this year. The hottest seat likely belongs to Justin Fuente of Virginia Tech. He made the ACC Championship Game early in his career with the Hokies, and it seemed he was well on his way to having a solid career. Yet, a combination of player injuries, a lack of player discipline, some significant misses on the recruiting trail, and a lack of player development have all hurt Fuente at Virginia Tech. The Hokies need their quarterback to play well, and since Fuente was an established and experienced offensive coordinator before he took the Virginia Tech job, he is rightly expected to get his quarterbacks to flourish. That simply hasn’t happened in recent seasons. If Virginia Tech slumps to a .500 season or something close to that, the grumbling in Blacksburg will become so intense that Fuente probably won’t survive. He needs to have a solid this season and show the fan base that he can still coach offense at a high level.
If Fuente isn’t fired, other legitimate hot-seat candidates are Dino Babers at Syracuse, Scott Satterfield at Louisville, Geoff Collins at Georgia Tech, and veteran David Cutcliffe at Duke. All four men have struggled in recent years and could easily get pushed out.
Team With The Best Shot To Win The NCAA Championship
It’s Clemson. Trevor Lawrence is gone, but Clemson has a loaded and experienced defense coming back this season. The Tigers will be hard to score on and they will have a chip on their shoulder after losing to Ohio State in the playoff semifinals. Clemson, if it beats Georgia in Week 1, will essentially stroll to the playoff. The ACC is not ready to ambush the Tigers.
ACC Championship Winner 2021
North Carolina +1000
Miami Florida +1000
Boston College +3000
NC State +5000
Virginia Tech +5000
Wake Forest +5000
Florida State +6000
Georgia Tech +10000