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NCAAF Power Five Preview, ACC Edition: where Clemson, Wake, ‘Cuse, and co. will finish this year

College football season is finally upon us after months of wild changes, a transfer portal full of surprises, and a potential conference re-alignment nightmare ahead.

For now, we can finally end months of speculation and watch some kids hit each other on some of the biggest stages in America.

This is part one of the Daily Mail’s five part series dedicated to previewing all of the Power Five conferences in Division I FBS football.

Throughout the week, we will be grouping each of the teams in the biggest conferences into four categories: 

  • 1.  College Football Playoff Contenders: the teams we expect to be in the national conversation all year long.
  • 2. Cinderella Hopefuls: the teams that will be close to the top of the college football landscape, but will probably just miss out on glory. But if they do, they’ll be the biggest stories of the year.
  • 3. Also-rans: the teams we expect to be in the bowl conversation, maybe even playing close to New Year’s Day, but will probably not shake the tree of the CFB elite. 
  • 4. Bottom feeders: be it a tough schedule, a new coach, or just a young team in complete transition, these are the squads that will probably not make any noise in college football this year 

Today we will be taking a look at the 14-teams of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).   

College Football Playoff Contenders

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney is trying to return the Tigers to the top of college football

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney is trying to return the Tigers to the top of college football

No. 4 Clemson Tigers

They may have missed their first ACC Championship since 2014, but make no mistake: the ACC can still be Clemson’s conference.

QB D.J. Uiagalelei was about as inconsistent as his receivers and offensive line were, and the lessons they learned while losing three games last season (gasp!) should help them grow as a group. And if Uiagalelei struggles again, as he did last while completing just 56 percent of his passes, top recruit Cade Klubnik remains waiting in the wings. 

Fortunately for Uiagalelei, massive 6-foot-6, 250-pound tight end Davis Allen is returning after proving to be a reliable target down the stretch in 2021 (six catches, 53 yards and a touchdown against Wake Forest). 

On top of that, Clemson’s defense is one of the best in the nation – even with the departure of coordinator Brent Venables to Oklahoma – and their schedule is relatively easier than the rest of the conference. 

The biggest tests this season come September 24, at Wake Forest, and November 5, in South Bend, where Notre Dame will be coming off easy weeks against UNLV and Syracuse. 

Things certainly looked shaky last season. However, if Clemson’s defense resembles the unit that held opponents to 14.8 points a game in 2021, and the offense makes modest strides, the Tigers stand as clear favorites to win a 21st ACC crown. 

Cinderella Hopefuls

NC State QB Devin Leary has Wolfpack fans believing this could finally be their year

NC State QB Devin Leary has Wolfpack fans believing this could finally be their year

No. 13 North Carolina State Wolfpack

The perennial bridesmaids of ACC football, NC State has a roster stacked with talent and a desire to deliver for their fans.

QB Devin Leary is back after putting up over 3,400 yards coupled with 35 TDs and only 5 interceptions for a QBR of 157.0, although Emeka Emezie – his top target from last season – is gone. 

Pair Leary’s penchant for points with a defense that was top-3 in the conference in points allowed, rushing yards, passing yards, and total yards allowed, and you have a recipe for a solid season.

NC State has never made the ACC Championship game and hasn’t won the conference since 1979. With Clemson still finding its footing and Wake Forest rebuilding, it could finally be time for the Wolfpack to bring a title back to the City of Oaks.

Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi wants to go back to the ACC title game, but lost QB Kenny Pickett

Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi wants to go back to the ACC title game, but lost QB Kenny Pickett

No. 17 Pittsburgh Panthers

The Panthers could be forgiven if they slip a little this season after losing signal caller Kenny Pickett to the NFL Draft. 

Pickett led the ACC in touchdowns and was second in passing yards, but they won’t experience much of a step back in the QB room thanks to the addition of USC transfer Kedon Slovis.

Slovis is coming off three solid seasons with the Trojans, competing 68.4 percent of his passes for 7,576 yards, 58 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions.

“I think the main thing was you saw the talent last year,” Slovis told reporters in February when asked about his transfer, as quoted by SI.com.

“Everyone had a great year, Kenny had a great year, and from afar, kind of assumed that it was an older team and everyone would be leaving. And that was me not knowing anything. When I got that call, I kinda realized everyone was staying except for Kenny. Looking at that opportunity, it was kind of a no-brainer, it jumped to the top of my list immediately.”

But not all of that talent is returning to Pitt. 

Funnily enough, while Pitt gained Slovis from Southern Cal, the Trojans took Pitt’s top WR Jordan Addison, which could hurt them more than Pickett’s departure. This leaves room for pass catcher Jared Wayne and running back Israel Abanikanda to contribute more.

Pitt also benefits from an easy schedule, with its toughest tests coming at home Week 2 against Tennessee and at the end of the season on the road against Miami, which could spell back-to-back coastal division titles. 

Also-Rans

Malik Cunningham (3) could become the next in a list of great dual threat Cardinals QB's

Malik Cunningham (3) could become the next in a list of great dual threat Cardinals QB’s

Louisville Cardinals

So what if Louisville has to play five preseason top-25 teams in their last six games? So what if two of those games are on the road to Clemson and Kentucky? So what if they don’t play at home until mid-September?

Louisville has Malik Cunningham, hands down, undoubtedly, the best dual-threat quarterback in the nation. 

Like Lamar Jackson before him, Cunningham put up over 1,000 yards rushing in his junior year. While Jackson may have put up more total yards, Cunningham rushed for more TDs and had a much better TD-INT ratio.

In fact, Cunningham drastically cut his interception rate from 2020, when he was picked off on 3.9 percent of his passes, to 2021, when he tossed only six interceptions in 337 attempts (1.7 percent). 

Cunningham spread the ball evenly between four targets last year, with two of them returning this year, so expect the ball to fly and the points to rack up – especially early in the season.

Tar Heels head coach Mack Brown will deal with a rotating squad and lessened expectations

Tar Heels head coach Mack Brown will deal with a rotating squad and lessened expectations

North Carolina Tar Heels

Pitt’s loss of Kenny Pickett has nothing on North Carolina losing Sam Howell, which will hurt them more in spite of the Tar Heels keeping three of their top four receiving yard leaders in Chapel Hill.

Most likely stepping in to take the reins at quarterback is Jacolby Criswell, who will need to make a big adjustment, but has more than enough weapons to be comfortable in the pocket.

UNC’s defense was bottom five in the conference last year, which could hurt them. But three easy games to start the season and having their tougher matchups like Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and NC State at home should help the Tar Heels even in their hardest battles.

New head coach Mario Cristobal could have the college football world fearing Miami again

New head coach Mario Cristobal could have the college football world fearing Miami again

No. 16 Miami Hurricanes 

Time will tell if new head coach Mario Cristobal overhyped this team at his introductory press conference. 

What’s unclear is whether the defense – which returns multiple starters from a middling unit – will improve alongside three Power 5 transfers projected to start.

What is clear is this: sophomore quarterback Tyler Van Dyke will have to find different targets after top two receivers Charleston Rambo and Mike Harley Jr went to the NFL. Running back Jaylan Knighton could find more use in the pass game and Clemson transfer Frank Ladson Jr. may provide an impact.

While no one can doubt that Miami recruited some amazing talent, expect some adjustments and possible growing pains under the new coach and with a schedule involving road trips to Texas A&M and Clemson. 

Wake Forest will miss QB Sam Hartman for a good portion of the season, so can they survive?

Wake Forest will miss QB Sam Hartman for a good portion of the season, so can they survive?

No. 22 Wake Forest Demon Deacons

There’s muted expectations in Winston-Salem these days after All-ACC quarterback Sam Hartman was ruled out indefinitely due to a non-football-related issue.

While head coach Dave Clawson says Hartman will be back at some point this season, his loss is something that will hurt the team almost immediately as they face Clemson in Week 4, followed by Florida State and Army. 

Depending on the length of Hartman’s absence, Wake could enter November’s matchup against NC State with a 4-4 record – or worse if things fall apart. 

In addition to Hartman, the loss of leading rusher Christian Beal-Smith to the transfer portal and Jaquarii Roberson to the NFL will be a tough pill to swallow, especially with a defense that returns only four starters from a group that gave up the fourth most yards in the ACC last season.

As he ends a long college career, can Phil Jurkovec (5) impress NFL scouts this fall?

As he ends a long college career, can Phil Jurkovec (5) impress NFL scouts this fall?

Boston College Eagles

BC is the ‘true neutral’ team of the ACC – one that has a decent schedule, but could easily struggle in trap games.

The Eagles have to travel to play Wake Forest, NC State, and Notre Dame – and they might even struggle away to Virginia Tech and Florida State – but they should have easy wins over old Big East foes Rutgers and UConn. 

QB Phil Jurkovec is ending a college career where he found a home in Chestnut Hill after transferring from Notre Dame, and he’s expected to use this season to make his case to the scouts in the NFL.

He has a lack of weapons to throw to, but will be helped on the other side of the ball by a defense that returns almost every starter from a squad that gave up the third least points in the conference last season. 

Can Jordan Travis and Florida State begin the program's turnaround this season?

Can Jordan Travis and Florida State begin the program’s turnaround this season?

Florida State Seminoles

This could be a pivotal season for head coach Mike Norvell, who leads a football program desperate for results after years of futility in Tallahassee in the post-Jimbo Fisher era.

Jordan Travis could be one of the best quarterbacks in the ACC, but the loss of 800+ yard rusher Jashaun Corbin and a stunted receiving corps could hold the Seminoles back from better results. 

The defense needs further growth and development – especially after losing defensive end Jermaine Johnson –  if it wants to avoid its fifth straight losing season, something that has never happened in program history. 

With a new coach on the sidelines, can Brennan Armstrong (5) & Virginia perform well again?

With a new coach on the sidelines, can Brennan Armstrong (5) & Virginia perform well again?

Virginia Cavaliers

Sure, they bring back QB Brennan Armstrong – the nation’s third-best passer last season – for one last ride, but what truly puts the Cavaliers here is one of the easiest schedules in Power 5 college football.

The Hoos did well in 2021 with a 6-6 record in a weak division, but lost their last four games of the season. 

New head coach Tony Elliott shouldn’t have an issue in his first season when his team plays what’s been dubbed by ESPN as the easiest overall P5 schedule. Their toughest matchups are games against Pittsburgh and Miami in Charlottesville, but featuring a weak non-conference schedule of Richmond, Coastal Carolina, Old Dominion, and Illinois. 

Bottom Feeders

After a breakout season, will 'Cuse's Sean Tucker be pleased with his performance this year?

After a breakout season, will ‘Cuse’s Sean Tucker be pleased with his performance this year?

Syracuse Orange

Despite having a defense that gave up the second fewest yards in the conference behind only Clemson, and a superstar running back in Heisman outsider Sean Tucker, Syracuse is expected to struggle with an inconsistent passing attack, a high volume of transfers out of the program, and one of the 40 toughest schedules in the country.

The Orange boast arguably the worst four game stretch in America, when they play four preseason top-20 programs in a row. That includes home games against No. 13 NC State and No. 5 Notre Dame in the newly named JMA Wireless Dome, plus away games at No. 4 Clemson and at rival No. 17 Pittsburgh.

This could spell the end of head coach Dino Babers’ time in central New York, who has never brought a top-50 recruiting class to the Salt City over the last six seasons – a prospect drought matched only by Wake Forest in the ACC. 

New head coach Brent Pry will be leading a Hokies team in transition, but with a desire for wins

New head coach Brent Pry will be leading a Hokies team in transition, but with a desire for wins

Virginia Tech Hokies

Time for a new regime in Blacksburg as former Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry gets his first head coaching gig at the helm of the Hokies.

Unfortunately for him, he inherits a team that lost three starters on offense and saw QB Braxton Burmeister transfer to San Diego State.

What Tech has going for it is a defense returning most of its starters from a squad that allowed the fourth-least points per game last season. But that stymied offense brings expectations back down to earth this season.

Yellow Jackets coach Geoff Collins is on the hot seat and faces a tough schedule this year

Yellow Jackets coach Geoff Collins is on the hot seat and faces a tough schedule this year

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

If head coach Geoff Collins had any hope of keeping his job, he’d have needed an easy schedule to play to make up for the lack of talent.

Well, Georgia Tech has a grueling calendar in conference and the toughest top-5 schedule in the country – featuring out-of-conference games against Ole Miss, at UCF, and at Georgia.

To top that off, road games against Pitt, Florida State, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina have all but sunk the Yellow Jackets this year – plus they open their season against No. 4 Clemson on the big stage at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

It’s going to be a long season for Yellow Jackets fans who have been to a bowl game  only once in the last five seasons. 

New Blue Devils head coach Mike Elko has almost no expectations given the roster quality

New Blue Devils head coach Mike Elko has almost no expectations given the roster quality

Duke Blue Devils

Even with the relatively easy schedule Duke has, don’t expect much success out of them under first-year head coach Mike Elko. 

Duke started last season 3-1 before dropping eight straight, including blowout losses to North Carolina, Virginia, and Wake Forest.

To throw things further into disarray, last season’s redshirt freshman starting QB Luca Diamont transitioned to wide receiver over the summer, likely leaving the starting job to senior Gavin Spurrier (grandson of Steve Spurrier) who has yet to throw a pass in college.


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