2020 ACC Preview
The ACC has been Clemson and then everyone else for the better part of the last decade. While some perennial powers are still down, this year should be a little more competitive. First, Notre Dame joins the conference for 2020, adding another top 10 team to challenge the Tigers. Second, teams like North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Virginia Tech are on the upward swing. While Clemson will likely still win the conference, there are many teams worth watching.
Boston College Eagles
The Eagles just seem to never quite put it together. They have talent and reach bowl eligibility but just barely. It's like they do the minimum to get along. This year, they made a coaching change after going 6-6. Former Ohio State defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley takes over, and his influence should be able to push this team further, but that may not happen in year one.
Frank Cignetti is the new offensive coordinator. He has experience calling plays in college, and both he and Hafley have NFL influences in their careers. Having said that, I believe this will bring a change in philosophy to an offense that could sometimes lack imagination and explosiveness. I think they'll look to be more balanced and fast-paced. They lose dual-threat QB Anthony Brown to Oregon via the transfer portal. Brown was a far better runner than passer and missed most of last season with an injury. Dennis Grosel started in his place and will compete with Notre Dame transfer Phil Jurkovec for the job. RB AJ Dillon leaves after a prolific career. In his place will be David Bailey, who ran for 8444 yards himself last season. The passing game will rely on Kobay White, Zay Flowers, and Hunter Long, but the biggest thing going for the Eagles is an offensive line comprised of almost all All-ACC players.
The defense brings back most of its key players and adds Cal transfer Luc Bequette on the defensive line. Bequette started all three years he spent in Berkeley. The linebackers are their biggest strength. Max Richardson and John Lamot were the team's leading tacklers in 2019 and will welcome back Isaiah McDuffie, who is an All-ACC candidate coming back from injury. The unit need to improve in pass defense. Last season they only had 19 sacks and 10 interceptions across 13 games. DC Tem Lukabu has to get these guys to improve.
We get our first look at the Eagles when they take on Duke this Saturday. Duke has an offense that should be able to give the defense a good test.
Players opting out:none reported
Dabo Swinney has built the Tigers into a dynasty throughout his tenure, especially in conference play. In 12 seasons, he's racked up 130 wins, including nine consecutive 10 win seasons and multiple national championships. They were the national runner-up last year look like they might be just as good this year.
The offense loses co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott to the USF head coaching job and loses a good amount of players from last year's team. Almost all the offensive line is gone, with the only exception being OT Jackson Carman. The nation's best quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, is back for another year and is projected to be the first overall pick in April's draft. He's without many of his top targets but does have WR Amari Rogers and TEs Braden Galloway and JC Chalk. WR Joseph Ngata also looked very comfortable in an expanded role on Saturday. The Tigers also return their top 2 rushers, including superstar Travis Etienne.
The defense loses quite a bit on the back end but brings back 9 key players from a relentless unit. They also played several freshmen in the opener, who all looked ready for the college level. Menacing linebacker James Skalski leads the way. He's not an overly athletic guy, but he's a smart player who can really hit you. The defensive line is still loaded, but they'll be taking things slowly with star DE Xavier Thomas because of some COVID related things. It's still an incredible squad.
The Tigers absolutely trounced Wake Forest in their opener over the weekend. They have an easy, non-conference game against the Citadel this weekend.
Players opting out: none reported
Duke Blue Devils
Duke has never been known as a football school but has been making strides in the right direction under David Cutcliffe. In the 8 years before he arrived, the Duke football program had won just 10 total games. Since his arrival, the Blue Devils have won 57 games with 6 bowl appearances and a division championship. It's a far cry from where it was, and they're still building.
Cutcliffe has a reputation for great work with quarterbacks, and he gets a great one for this season in Clemson transfer Chase Brice. In Saturday's opener, Brice looked calm and collected against a good Notre Dame defense. He showed a good understanding for the offense, there just might not have been enough talent around him just yet. TE Noah Gray and WR Jalon Calhoun return to help him after leading the team in receiving a year ago. The passing game was not great in 2019, so they need those guys and others to pick it up. The offensive line returns 4 starters and adds Stanford transfer Devery Hamilton. They'll block for running back Deon Jackson.
The defense has a couple of the nation's best pass rushers in DEs Victor Dimukeje and Chris Rumph. Both figure to be in the NFL next season and headline 8 returning starters on this side of the ball. Four of those starters are in the secondary, led by CB Mark Gilbert and S Dylan Singleton. LBs Shaka Heyward and Rocky Shelton II are also good players to keep an eye on.
The seemingly improved Blue Devils hung tight with the Irish, but ultimately fell short. Their next matchup is against Boston College on Saturday.
Players opting out: LB Brandon Hill, OL Jacob Rimmer, LS Ben Wyatt
Florida State Seminoles
Mike Norvell already seems to have his work cut out for him. His tenure is not off to a great start with questionable COVID tests and a season-opening loss to a lowly Georgia Tech team. You could see his Memphis experience influencing much of what his team was trying to do, it's just not their yet.
The offense suffers a big loss in RB Cam Akers, one of the best RBs in program history. To add to that, none of their replacement options have much experience. Transfer Jashaun Corbin was expected to be a key contributor but was largely shut down by the Yellow Jacket defense. Backup QB Jordan Travis led the team in rushing yards, which isn't a great sign given the nature of Norvell's offense. Corbin did excel in the reciving game along with WR Tamorrion Terry. Terry and DJ Matthews are the teams best receivers. Warren Thompson also looked good in an expanded capacity. QB James Blackman has had an up-and-down career and is working with an inexperienced offensive line. He seemed fine on Saturday for the most part, but the line may be an issue down the road.
The defense returns 7 starters and 4 key reserve players from last year. They also add Mississippi State transfer DL Fabien Lovett. Tne most intriguing player on the Noles' D is DT Marvin WIlson, who is a top 10 NFL prospect. Leonard Warner is their top returning linebacker. The secondary loses 2 starters but returns CB Asante Samuel Jr and S Hamsah Nasirildeen.
It's the offense that will hold this team back. Mike Norvell's teams at Memphis could score with the best of them, but this team doesn't have that. They'll get a chance for redemption on September 26 against arch-rival Miami.
Players opting out: DL Dennis Briggs, DE Jamarcus Chatman
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Georgia tech hasn't been good in a long time, and I expect that trend to continue. In 2019, they finished 3-9 with only 2 conference wins. Other than those wins, they were completely noncompetitive in conference play. In year 2 under Geoff Collins, we'll see how much they improve. They already have a win over Florida State, so that's a step in the right direction.
The offense seems to be using more passing than we've grown accustomed to seeing out of the Yellow Jackets. In fact, last season, James Graham and WR Ahmarean Brown put up freshmen numbers the program hadn't seen since Reggie Ball and Calvin Johnson in 2003. Brown was the team's leading receiver and one of 3 top targets that returns (Malachi Carter and Adonicas Sanders). Graham was interestingly not the starting QB, as they elected to go with freshman Jeff Sims. Sims played okay, but threw a couple interceptions. The newly balanced attack also includes stud RB Jordan Mason running behind an offensive line that return 3 of 5 starters.
Defense was a struggle for Georgia Tech last season. They'll try to rebound behind honorable mention All-Conference players LB David Curry and CB Tre Swilling. Curry had a good game Saturday that included a fumble recovery. They have 5 starters back on the unit with 4 returning in the secondary. LB Quez Jackson also played well in an expanded role. It looks better, but they need to be tested by a better offense.
All in all, I see improvement here, but they still aren't ready to contend. They'll get a test for the defense this weekend against UCF. We should know if they can at least reach a bowl game after that one.
Players opting out: none reported
Former Appalachian State head coach Scott Satterfield sure seems to know what he's doing. In year one with the Cardinals, he orchestrated a 6 game turnaround from the previous season. They went 8-5, with 5 conference wins, and won a owl game. They let Western Kentucky hang around a bit on Saturday but look like a good team once again.
The offense has many explosive players to rely on. QB Micale Cunningham deserves more credit for his play. As the announcers put it, he fits the bill of today's starting quarterback; more athletic with a good running ability. In his Louisville career, Cunningham has thrown for 2,638 yards and 23 touchdowns while setting the school mark for passing efficiency. WRs Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick are also back. Both have NFL futures. Fitzpatrick is a slightly bigger and more balanced player, while Atwell is the small guy with superhuman speed. Atwell set the school record for single-season receiving yards and receiving touchdowns last year. Another record-breaker is RB Javian Hawkins, who set school freshmen records for rushing. Hs backup, Hasssan Hall, has been a great kick returner, so there is no shortage of speed there. With 3 starters back on the offensive line, they'll try to replicate, or even improve, a unit that ranked 24th in the country.
The biggest loss on the defense is DB Khane Pass. The strength is in the linebacker corps, which returns 3 starters. Rodjay Burns, CJ Avery, and Dorian Ethridge are poised for big seasons. In total, they return 8 players who played significant roles on last year's team. The biggest question I have is with the defensive line, which only has one returning starter (Tabarius Peterson).
The next game for the Cards in in primetime this Saturday against Miami.
Players opting out: none reported
Speaking of the Hurricanes, they're entering a big year for their program. Head coach Manny Diaz has added some impact transfers that should make a 6-7 team more competitive. They looked alright against a good UAB team last weekend. Let's see if they can build on it.
The offense, in particular, looked good on Thursday night. A unit that only scored 25 points per game in 2019 seems to have a little jolt with the additions of QB D'Eriq King and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. King was a star at Houston, and the Canes should reap the benefits. He's a dual-threat with game-changing speed. Lashlee coordinated an SMU offens that finished in the top 15 in nearly every category last season. He runs an uptempo scheme that should be evident later this year. TE Brevin Jordan might be their best receiving threat, but they do also have Jeremiah Payton, Mike Harley, and Mark Pope to contribute. RB Cam'ron Harris paces the running game after the departure of DeeJay Dallas.
The defense was supposed to be great this year, but certain circumstances have changed that slightly. DE Gregory Rousseau has opted out and declared for the NFL, but UCLA transfer Jaelan Phillips and Temple transfer Quincy Roche will form one of the best pass rushing duos in the country. The team also loses all of its starting linebackers from 2019. DB Al Blades Jr will be another key player in this unit's potential success.
The Canes get a good test with Louisville this weekend. The Cardinal offense should provide the defense to establish its talent level
Opted out: DE Gregory Rousseau, OLs Kai-Leon Herbert, Zalon'tae Hillary
North Carolina Tar Heels
The Tar Heels are a popular sleeper pick for many in the second year of Mack Brown's renaissance. After a season-opening drubbing of Syracuse, they've already moved up to the country's 12th ranking. That doesn't include teams from the Big Ten and PAC-12, but it's still a great start. After producing 11 All-Conference players in 2019, the Heels seem poised for big things.
One reason for optimism in Chapel Hill is all-world QB Sam Howell. Howell was one of the program's most anticipated recruits, and he didn't disappoint. With the help of WRs Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome, he won just about every freshmen award you could think of. He also has the luxury of turning to the school's 15th all-time rusher, Michael Carter, and Javonte Williams, who scored 3 touchdowns against the Orange. This offense is in for a big year.
The defense brings back 5 starters, including linebackers Chazz Surratt and Tomon Fox. In fact,3 of those starters are at linebacker. They have a new set of defensive linemen and a secondary full of players who have started in spot duty. We'll see if it's good enough.
The Tar Heels have a seemingly easy game against Charlotte this weekend before returning to ACC play against Boston College.
Players opting out: DB Bryce Watts, OLs Triston Miller, Billy Ross, S DJ Ford, DB Javon Terry
NC State Wolfpack
Dave Doeren's Wolfpack had an uncharacteristically bad year last year. If you look at 2018's team, it should have been completely expected. Last year's team had to make up for the loss of a team record number of NFL draft picks and follow in the footsteps of just the 6th NC State team to win more than 9 games kin a season. Expecting anything respectable would've just been too much. They'll try to build it back up this year.
The offense struggled last year, probably because they couldn't find a consistent quarterback. RB Zonovan Knight finished 12th in the ACC in rushing as a freshman. QB Devin Leary returns after starting 8 games in 2019. His main passing targets will be WR Emeka Emezie and TE Cary Angeline, both of whom are on the NFL's radar. Jordan Houston and Ricky Person should also factor into the ground game behind an offensive line that has 5 (finally) healthy starters.
The defense returns 4 starters, led by DT Alim McNeil and LB Payton WIlson. Wilson, the team's leading tackler, will be joined byb Isaiah Moore in the middle of the defense. DT Larell Murchison is the team's biggest loss, but they are the most vulnerable in the secondary.
The Wolfpack will kickoff the season Saturday against Wake Forest.
Players opting out: none reported
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
One of the nation's most historic program, Brian Kelly's Fighting Irish seem poised again for a good season. Expectations should be high, yet tempered, after an 11-2 finish last year. The team loses many key players, but the coaching staff appears to have that handled well. I wouldn't expect 11 wins, but 10 seems doable.
The offense is led by senior QB Ian Book, who returns for his 3rd year under center. He has his entire offensive line back, including Liam Eichenberg, Tommy Kraemer, and Rob Hainsey. This unit has played a lot together and should see even more progress. However, the running backs and receivers are going through a big change. The team's top tight end, top 2 receivers, and leading rusher are all gone. RB Jafar Armstrong, known more as a receiving back, will see his role increase,and sophomore Kyren Williams had a big day against Duke. The o-line surely is a benefit to both of them. Williams also led the team in receiving, which isn't a good sign for their receivers. Ben Skowronek, Avery Davis, and company will have to be better as the year goes on.
The defense loses 5 key players, including both starting safeties, but brings back 8 players with starting experience. DE Daelin Hayes looked like he hadn't missed a beat in his return from injury. Shaun Crawford looked at home as he shifted from corner to safety, and LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah had a good day. Ohio State transfer Isaiah Ptryor should also make an impact, but this unit seems ready to roll.
The Irish have a non-conference game against USF this weekend.
Opted out: none reported
While they haven't quite broken through yet, Pat Narduzzi has the Panthers on their way. They have pulled off several big upsets during his tenure and are currently ranked in the top 25. Since Narduzzi arrived, they've had three 8-win seasons and own the 3rd best record in the ACC. This year's team could be their best in a while.
The offense is led by QB Kenny Pickett, who threw for 3,098 yards last year. He only threw 13 TD passes, so they;d like to see that number increase. He loses his top target Maurice Ffrench but gets WRs Taysir Mack and Shocky Jacques-Louis back, while adding Florida transfer Lucas Krull at tight end. Neither Mack nor Krull played in the opener, but both are expected to play this weekend. Top rushers AJ Davis and Vincent Davis also return behind all 5 starters on the offensive line.
The defense will sorely miss defensive lineman Jaylen Twyman. The highly-touted NFL prospect has decided to opt out of the season due to COVID and prepare for his pro career. They also lose starters Dane Jackson and Saleem Brightwell form 2019. The defensive line should still be in good hands with DEs Patrick Jones II and Rashad Weaver, but Twyman's ability in the middle will be difficult to replicate. Keyshon Camp, who is returning from a season-ending injury, figures to take on Twyman's role. The other returning starters are safeties DaMar Hamlin and Paris Ford. Six key reserves form last year will enter the starting lineup, and you're likely to see a rotation of linebackers.
The Panthers rolled over Austin Peay in their opener. They'll open ACC play this weekend against Syracuse.
Players opting out: DL Jaylen Twyman
After a tremendous 2018 season that saw the Orange win 10 games, 2019 was a disaster. The 2019 Syracuse team went 5-7, winning only 2 conference games. On the bright side, they won 2 of their last 3. However, 2020 is off to an equally bad start after a 31-6 loss to North Carolina. Dino Babers is going to have to figure out how to get his innovative offense humming again.
That offense loses its top receiver, Trishton Jackson, who was the only Orange receiver to reach the 1000 yards receiving mark and led the team in touchdown grabs. That leave Taj Harris as the team's new number one receiver, but he only had about half the production Jackson had. QB Tommy DeVito had a solid season last year but was terrible in the opener, completing just 41% of his passes and posting a 23.8 QBR. The running game will struggle without its 3 top rushers. Moe Neal graduated, and both Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard have opted out due to COVID. That really showed against UNC. They do have 3 starting offensive linemen back, but the Orange have suffered losses on offense that just might decimate it too much.
The defense only returns 2 starters and is led by S Andre Cisco. The rest of the secondary is made up of mostly former reserve players. The linebackers have almost no starting experience at the collegiate level. The defensive line will need a big contribution from DE Kingsley Jonathan after losing both its DEs from a year ago. There's a lot of turnover and many young player. It's going to be tough for this group.
The Orange will try to be better against Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Players opting out: RB Abdul Adams, DL Cooper Dawson, RB Jarveon Howard
Bronco Mendenhall has done a terrific job turning around the Virginia football program. They went from being a laughing stock to conference runner up in the blink of an eye. There will probably be some regression with the departure of some star players, but they shouldn't be ruled out just yet.
The biggest loss on offense is star dual-threat QB Bryce Perkins. Perkins was one of the main players that made the Cavaliers' offense as good as it was. In 2019, he put up ridiculous stats, running for 796myards and 11 TDs and passing for another 3,538 yards and 22 TDs. It would be unreasonable to expect a similar performance out of his replacement, sophomore Brennan Armstrong. Other big losses include WRs Joe Read and Hasis Dubois. Dubois was their one player over 1000 yards receiving, and Reed was their game-changing speedster. While WR Terrell Jana returns as a great player, they don't have as much speed this year. They will get tremendous health from Central Michigan transfer TE Tony Poljan and will need WR Billy Kemp to step up. They have 5 upperclssmen on the line, blocking for RB Wayne Taulapapa.
Although the defense loses 2 starting defensive backs and a starting linebacker, they are still a great unit and will keep this team in games. Charles Snowden, Noah Taylor, and Zane Zandier are all back at linebacker. Snowden and Taylor provide great length and athleticism on pass rushes, and Zandier was their lead tackler. They also get back hard-hitting interceptions leader Joey Blount. Overall, the defense brings back 10 players who have made significant contributions.
Virginia starts its 2020 season on September 26 against Duke.
Players opting out: DB Tenyeh Dixon, DL Aaron Faumui, WR Dorien Goddard, RB Mike Hollins
Virginia Tech Hokies
While Justin Fuente has done a good job since arriving in Blacksburg, the Hokies have yet to really recover from the departure of Frank Beamer. Under Beamer, the team was a perennial ACC power. After he retired, the program was a mess. Fuente has turned that around with the 3rd most wins among current ACC coaches in their first 3 years at their schools. He appears to have a team that can do some damage this year.
Both Ryan Willis and Hendon Hooker saw time at quarterback last season. With Willis gone, the job appears to be Hooker's. The team also loses starting TE Dalton Keene, RB Deshawn McCleese. and WR Damon Hazleton. That makes Trey Turner the team's most notable receiver. They're much deeper at running back, returning both Terrius Wheatley and Jalen Holston, while adding transfers Raheem Blackshear and Khalil Herbert. All 4 of those guys are good players, and Blackshear can also play receiver. Christian Darrishaw leads 4 returning starters on the offensive line, with the 5th spot likely going to Coastal Carolina transfer Brock Hoffman.
The secondary takes the biggest hit on defense, losing safety Reggie Floyd (NFL<), and corners Khalil Ladler (transfer) and Caleb Farley (opt out). Farley is the biggest loss and considered the top NFL corner prospect by many. Even with those losses, the Hokies bring back an experienced group. The strength is in the linebacker unit with returning starters Dax Hollifield, Rayshard Ashby, and Divine Deablo. On the defensive line, look for Emmanuel Belmar and Justus Reed. Belmar has been a consistent starter for the team, and Reed had 13 sacks last year for Youngstown State.
Virginia Tech was supposed to open with rival Virginia this weekend. Instead, the #20 ranked Hokies will start the season against North Carolina State on September 26.
Players opting out: CB Caleb Farley
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Dave Clawson has quietly become one of the most underrated coaches in America. What he has been able to do at the ACC's smallest school is a tremendous accomplishment. Last year, the team went 8-5, 6-1 at home, behind a record-setting offense. This year may be more of a challenge, but they've got the right guy for that program.
The offense loses a lot from last season, and it showed in the opener against Clemson. Star quarterback Jamie Newman had transferred to Georgia (and since opted out). Cad Carney, the team's leading rusher for two seasons, is gone. Their top 4 receivers from the team, including star Sage Surratt, will not be available this season. New Qb Sam Hartman was the team's starter in 2018 and has 3,178 career passing yards. He clearly has the capability to lead this team, it's just his supporting cast that raises eyebrows. Donovan Greene become their top receiver after playing quite a bit as a freshman. Taylor Morin and Jaquari Roberson appear to be the next two guys after breaking out against Clemson. On the ground, the duo of Christian Beal-Smith and Kenneth Walker will carry the load. The offensive line returns mainstays Zach Tom and Sean Maginn lead the efforts up front.
The defense returns 4 starters and 10 contributors overall, led by star DE Carlos "Boogie" Basham. Basham had 11 sacks last year and figures to be an early selection in the April draft. They were most hurt by losses in the secondary and will need to get those issues fixed if they want to compete.
Wake will look to rebound from a brutal loss Saturday when they take on NC State.
Players opting out: WR Sage Surratt
Best Games Remaining
This is still Clemson's league, but with so many currently ranked teams and the addition of Notre Dame for this season, there are many big matchups. There are too many for me to go into detail on each one, so I'll just list them.