After six years of dominance from Clemson, will we finally see a changing of the guard in the Atlantic Coast Conference, or will the Tigers’ transition at Quarterback prolong the reign of their dynasty and set them up for another trip to the College Football Playoff?
As the landscape of College Football begins to return to some sense of normalcy in lieu of the upcoming 2021 campaign, the Atlantic Coast Conference stands on the precipice of change as it’s dominant power, Clemson, looks to be embarking on a potential transitional season following a significant talent drain that saw them part ways with some of the greatest players in the history of the league. With that said, (Head Coach) Dabo Swinney has built the Tigers into one of the premier recruiting powerhouses in the country, and in the process has seen the gulf between his program and the rest of the competition within the ACC only grow more sizable. Six consecutive conference titles and a pair of CFP National Championships means that they’re the clear favorites coming into this campaign, but let’s take a look at the league as a whole, from the contenders to the casualties, and who (if any) can dethrone Clemson from their proverbial iron throne.
The Favorite: Clemson
It says an awful lot about a program when they lose arguably the greatest Quarterback in school history, who just so happened to be the No. One Overall Pick in the NFL Draft (ahem, Trevor Lawrence), along with a two-time ACC Player of the Year and the all-time leading rusher in the history of the conference (cough, Travis Etienne), and they’re still somehow a national title favorite, let alone within the league they call home. But then again, nobody in the ACC has proven to be able to recruit on par with the aforementioned Swinney, who has had little trouble in replacing the most talented of his charges. Sure, losing Lawrence is a major story, but then again so was replacing Deshaun Watson before him, and that worked out fine. Next up for the Tigers is (Sophomore) D.J. Uiagalelei, whom we already caught more than a glimpse of last season as Lawrence was sidelined due to COVID-19; the youngster wowed the country with impressive back-to-back performances against Boston College and Notre Dame, hanging a whopping 439 yards on the latter, the most ever relinquished by the Fighting Irish against a single Quarterback. If the Offensive Line (which returns three starters) can continue to improve and (Junior Receiver) Justyn Ross can bounce back after missing all of last season with a spinal injury, then the Offense should be in good hands, while the Defense should be hellacious under longtime Defensive Coordinator, Brent Venables, particularly with all but one returning starter at his disposal. The September 4th Season Opener against Georgia will be a stiff test, but Clemson should be heavily favored the rest of the way, and if the transition of power on the offensive side of the football goes smoothly, then the rest of the league will continue to be eating these Tigers’ leftovers.
The Contender: North Carolina
If there is one program that has advanced itself within the shadow of Clemson over the past few years, it’s undoubtedly North Carolina, who in last year’s pandemic-altered campaign rose to heights not seen in Chapel Hill since the mid-90’s. Ironically, the same man responsible for that peak is also the architect of their current ascension: Mac Brown. Last season, Brown led the Tar Heels to an 8-4 finish and a trip to the Orange Bowl, the school’s first major bowl game since 1950, earning them their first Top-10 finish in the rankings since 1997. On the strength of an explosive attack that set school records in total yards (537.2) and points (41.7) in 2020, this team has proven to be extremely formidable, even if they aren’t quite at the level of the teams that they’ve been chasing… yet. Despite losing a pair of very productive Receivers and Tailbacks to the NFL, North Carolina still returns eight starters on each side of the football, with the most notable being (Junior Quarterback) Sam Howell, who should find himself among the Heisman favorites. Last season, Howell threw for 3,586 yards and thirty touchdowns, of which led the ACC. The question here though is if the Tar Heels can continue to grow, or if last season was indeed their plateau. The Defense is particular must take a step forward, particularly in regards to generating big plays; Brown’s charges forced the fewest turnovers in the ACC last season (11), but should benefit from what looks like one of the most experienced Secondaries in the league. With the schedule far from daunting (they won’t see Clemson unless it’s in the ACC Title Game) and a rematch at Notre Dame being their lone arduous road test, North Carolina looks set for another leap, though it remains to be seen just how far that leap will be and if it’s enough to catch the Tigers in a year in which they could take a step back to reload.
The Dark Horse: Boston College
While Clemson and North Carolina are expected to dominate the headlines coming into this campaign, the school that has been building steadily under the radar is Boston College, with (Head Coach) Jeff Hafley turning a program that really stalled under his predecessor into one that looks like it’s ready to take the next steps towards progress. Hafley, who turned around Ohio State’s Defense in 2019 as Co-Defensive Coordinator, once again worked his magic with the Eagles, as his charges relinquished 61.9 fewer yards per game on that side of the football, which was good for the most sizable improvement within the ACC and the eleventh-biggest margin in the country. Overall, they bettered themselves from 125th to 73rd in Total Defense (416.8), from 122nd to 82nd in Scoring Defense (28.4), and yielded 40 fewer passing yards per game to boot. This unit returns nine starters from last year’s group, with the Secondary in particular expected to be formidable for they are loaded with experience. And then there is the Offense, which is returning nine starters as well. (Junior Quarterback) Phil Jurkovec was nothing short of a pleasant surprise in his first season as the starter in Chestnut Hill, passing for 2,558 yards and seventeen touchdowns, while frequently making plays off schedule. The Notre Dame transfer passed for over 300 yards in four of his ten starts in 2020, and should shatter those numbers given the talent at his disposal within the Receiving Corps. Fellow Junior, Jay Flowers, earned All-ACC First Team honors on the strength of a league-best nine touchdowns, with his vertical speed proving deadly; Flowers ranked fifth nationally with seven catches of forty yards or more. Thrown in C.J. Lewis along with Kobay White, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL, and you have the most experienced (and arguably the deepest) cadre of pass-catchers in the conference. With that said, a little more balance would really help this Offense take the next step, particularly after leaning so heavily on the pass with a ridiculous 68/32 run/pass ratio. With all five of their Starting Offensive Linemen returning, expect Hafley to enjoy more balance in the trenches, which could open more things up downfield for the passing attack.
In Trouble: Virginia Tech
Man, oh man, the Frank Beamer Era sure does feel like a lifetime ago. Simply put, patience is wearing thin in Blacksburg as (Head Coach) Justin Fuente is absolutely on the hot seat heading into 2021. Put this into perspective for a moment, folks; from 1993 to Beamer’s farewell in 2015, Virginia Tech suffered ZERO losing seasons, and in the five years that Fuente has been at the helm they’ve already endured TWO. Furthermore, it’s never a good thing when your Athletic Director holds a press conference in an effort to explain why he’s NOT firing you. So with that in mind, the Hokies need to turn things around, and they need to do it NOW. However, it’s difficult to see any avenues towards improvement this season. After (longtime Defensive Coordinator) Bud Foster left the program last year, his successor, Justin Hamilton, struggled mightily to implement his ideas during a season that was ravaged by the pandemic, injuries, and defections. The new DC missed two games of his own due to COVID-19, while three-fifths of his starting Secondary were lost to a variety of issues, leading to a unit that yielded an unacceptable 32.1 points per game, the most by the school since 1973. The hope here is that with a proper Offseason to install his ideas and the healthy return of a number of figures, such as (Cornerback) Jermaine Waller, Hamilton will be able to lead this unit into a new era. Unfortunately, there are plenty of question marks on the offensive side of the football as well, where Fuente must find a way to replace some of his most productive performers; Khalil Herbert was a bowling ball in the running game with 1,182 yards and eight touchdowns, while (Left Tackle) Christian Darrisaw was responsible for leading the way and they’re both gone to the NFL, with (Quarterback) Hendon Hooker and his 809 rushing yards and nine scores transferring to Tennessee. (Junior) Braxton Burmeister isn’t the runner that Hooker was, and after an injury-plagued 2020 he will be looking to make his mark on the program, while the ground game could be more of a platoon with the likes of Jalen Holston and Raheem Blackshear first in line for reps. After five years on the job, Fuente’s biggest issue is that he hasn’t cultivated an identity for the program, whether it’s been on the field or on the recruiting trail. COVID-19 proved to be a MAJOR setback for many schools in 2020, with the Hokies certainly being one of them, but if they don’t show some significant progress this season, then Virginia Tech could be looking to rebuild again a lot sooner than they thought they would be.