Previewing the ACC football season

Conference opponents could pose problems for the Demon Deacons


Courtesy of NBC News

Wake Forest and Pitt hope to return to the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte.

Classes have begun again, which means college football season is nearly upon us. With the first few games slated for this Saturday, here is your guide to a year of ACC football that promises to be exciting and competitive.

Atlantic Division: Familiar Faces and High Expectations

Neither division of the conference seems to be predictable going into the season, yet they are quite different in their overall outlooks. All across the Atlantic Division, we see returning personnel in key places: quarterbacks, coaches, and defensive skill players. No team better exemplifies this than NC State, who returns a league-leading 82% of their production from a 9-3 team in 2021 — including quarterback Devin Leary and most of the offensive line. The Wolfpack offense was formidable last season but leaned heavily on Leary and a prolific pass game. However, with turnover among running backs, the run game may be the “X-factor” for NC State this season. Its defense, led by 2021 All-ACC linebacker Drake Thomas, was fourth in the conference in scoring defense and should be efficient this year as well.

The preseason media pick to win the conference this year is Clemson, which should come as no surprise. Anchored by a top-10 defense, the Tigers quietly went 10-3 last season after falling out of the ACC title race. Clemson brings back plenty of NFL-level talent on that side of the ball, including a defensive line that may be the best in the country when healthy. The team loses its top two cornerbacks from last season, but defensive depth was never an issue for the Tigers last season, so there is reason to believe the replacements will be more than adequate. Clemson’s offense returns a lot of its production from last year, though a skeptic might ask if that is a bad thing after it finished 100th nationally in yards per game under quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei. Notably, the Tigers lose long-time defensive coordinator Brent Venables to Oklahoma, but the sheer recruiting dominance and history of success point to Clemson being the team to beat this year.

Wake Forest, the defending Atlantic champions, should be a formidable force this year as well, though news of quarterback Sam Hartman’s non-football medical issue has raised questions about a Demon Deacons offense that relied heavily on him last year. If and when Hartman returns could determine the outcome of the season for Wake Forest. Leading receiver A.T. Perry returns, along with four 2021 starters on the offensive line, so most key pieces remain from an offense that was fourth nationally in scoring last season. Under new defensive coordinator Brad Lambert, Wake Forest’s defense looks to improve upon a less-than-ideal 2021 campaign. The Demon Deacons were not effective against the run, and their secondary loses most of its 2021 starters, but much of the defensive line returns and should improve upon last season’s numbers. The Demon Deacons can compete for the ACC title once again with their difficult-to-defend offense, but Hartman’s unknown timetable casts uncertainty over the season.

Florida State brings back quietly-efficient quarterback Jordan Travis this season as they seek to bounce back from a 5-7 campaign last year. The offensive line has tons of experience, though it has been shaky over the past few seasons, and it will be pivotal in establishing the run game with running backs Treshaun Ward and Trey Benson, as well as Travis. A pair of transfer receivers should bolster what was a slow but efficient pass game, and explosiveness, whether through the air or on the ground, will be paramount to the offense’s success. The Seminoles’ defense was average among ACC teams last year but returns most key players, and they will need to step up if Florida State wishes to compete for the Atlantic title.

Louisville returns star quarterback Malik Cunningham, but they will need other players to step up if they wish to improve upon their 6-7 2021 record. Cunningham is elite at throwing and running the ball behind what may be the ACC’s best offensive line, and the Cardinals bring in many transfers at skill positions, but questions still abound. The defense was below-average last season and struggled late in games, so an improvement in depth is needed, but there is not yet reason to believe that aspect will improve much this season.

Boston College was listless on offense last year after losing starting quarterback Phil Jurkovec to a season-ending injury early in the 2021 campaign. But Jurkovec is back this year after a promising 2020, and his receiving corps, led by Zay Flowers, looks to be good. Running back Pat Garwo was a bright spot last year and should continue to produce on the ground. The offensive line, however, loses four starters from a year ago and will thus determine the success of the offense. The Eagles’ defense was solid last year, especially against the pass, and it should be efficient enough to keep the team in games against stiff opposition.

Syracuse, after a 5-7 campaign last year, will try to catch opponents off-guard by running the football constantly and speeding up the game. Running back Sean Tucker looks to put up video game numbers this year after a terrific 2021, and quarterback Garrett Shrader provides another rushing threat. The offensive line is the weak point of the team, however, but they were better blocking for the run than the pass. The defense gave up few points last season, but they were largely inefficient and will need to limit explosive plays with new faces in the secondary.

Coastal Division: Uncertainty and Promising Talent

The exceedingly unpredictable Coastal Division is once again wide-open, as no one team stands above the rest. Preseason media chose Miami to win the division, after a strong late showing from Tyler Van Dyke and the splashy hire of Mario Cristobal as head coach. Van Dyke was efficient and patient last year, especially for a freshman, but the team went 7-5 last year, and the offensive line has a long way to go if they wish to compete for a conference title. The defense brings in an experienced coordinator in Kevin Steele and an influx of transfers, but there is simply too much overhaul to know what to expect, and the road to Charlotte is not easy.

In 2021, Pitt came out of nowhere to go 11-3, winning the ACC in the process. This year, they do not have All-ACC quarterback Kenny Pickett or Biletnikoff-winning wide receiver Jordan Addison, but they bring in transfer quarterback Kedon Slovis, who had some success at USC. The offensive line returns all five starters, and the rest of the skill positions seem set to bring back last year’s high pace and success. The defense expects to be effective once again at stopping the run and rushing the passer. If the defense can limit deep passes and Slovis works out at quarterback, the Panthers could find themselves competing for another conference championship.

North Carolina may have been the largest disappointment in college football last year, going 6-7 with a highly-anticipated offense. The offense was indeed effective, trailing only Wake Forest in ACC scoring, but it was inconsistent late, and NFL-caliber quarterback Sam Howell is gone. Pair that with a defense at the very bottom of the ACC in 2021, and the Tar Heels have a long trek uphill to compete this year. Coach Mack Brown has recruited very well in the past few years, but those efforts need to bear fruits immediately to find success in 2022.

Virginia faces a 2022 season without head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who stepped away from coaching duties rather unexpectedly. The team went 6-6 last season with the best offense in program history, and the good news for them is that most of its key pieces are back this year. Senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong is back after putting up absurd numbers last year, but their offensive line has questions. The defense has even more questions, with inconsistencies across the board.

Virginia Tech will try to follow a disappointing 6-7 campaign with a new coach and quarterback in transfer Grant Wells, but much of the Hokies’ production elsewhere is gone. The offense was abysmal last season, and the defense about league average. Both will need to have new guys step up in a major way to succeed this year.

Georgia Tech and Duke each went 3-9 last year and still managed to lose the most production from last year of any teams in the conference. Both were near the bottom of the conference on both offense and defense, so perhaps the drastic turnover may help them both turn things around this year. The transfer portal has not been kind to these programs.