The next college football season will have a lot of tough questions and uncertain division races, but the ACC Atlantic is not a division race anyone needs to think about. It’s Clemson and then there’s everyone else. The truly interesting question in this division every year is which team will finish second, not first.
The Tigers lose quarterback Trevor Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne and receiver Amari Rodgers from last year’s team, which once again won the ACC championship and reached the College Football Playoff for the sixth consecutive season. The Tigers will put D.J. Uiagalelei in the hot seat at quarterback and he’s among the favorites in the Heisman Trophy odds. The hope is that the strong-armed sophomore – who had to fill in for Lawrence last year when the signal-caller tested positive for COVID-19 – can continue Clemson’s run of dominance in the ACC. Clemson will try to get production from several fresh faces on the roster: Linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr., running back Will Shipley, defensive tackle Payton Page and receiver Beaux Collins.
Clemson’s schedule sets up really well. The early-season game against Georgia is a huge test, but if the Tigers win that one game, it is going to be nearly impossible for them to miss the playoff. Even if they lose to Georgia, they can go perfect in the ACC and still make the playoff. Clemson is a good bet to reach the semifinals once again. Receivers Justyn Ross and Ajou Ajou should be excellent this season and they will develop a strong rapport with Uiagalelei.
North Carolina State Wolfpack
Odds To Win National Championship: +6600
The Wolfpack were a lot better than anyone expected last year, and the central reason was quarterback Devin Leary, who took hold of the starting job and made the offense far better than the sum of its parts. Leary did get injured late in the season and the offense promptly suffered. He is back this season, however, which bodes well for the Pack as they try to challenge Clemson for the division title. Defensive lineman Daniel Joseph is going to be a huge part of the puzzle for the Wolfpack as well. He gives N.C. State the elite defensive presence any good team needs to be special. Payton Wilson at linebacker will also help a lot. Isaiah Moore is also expected to be a very strong linebacker for head coach Dave Doeren.
Florida State Seminoles
Odds To Win National Championship: +15000
The arrival of former UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton – remember, this is a player who led UCF to two New Year’s Six bowls before suffering a gruesome injury – gives Florida State a genuine chance to move up in the standings in the ACC this season. This program was stagnant and sloppy the past few seasons, and new head coach Mike Norvell struggled through his first season on the job. However, the Seminoles have made some improvements to their roster, raising hopes that they might finally be on the right track in their pursuit of renewed excellence. Florida State has been a below-average program the past five years. Multiple head coaches have failed to solve the weaknesses which flowed into this program. Norvell is the latest coach to give this a try.
Florida State’s offensive line has regularly been one of the worst in the ACC in recent years. How this position group develops will be by far the most important question for the Seminoles.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Odds To Win National Championship: +20000
The Demon Deacons lose Carlos Basham, who was a very impactful pass rusher for head coach Dave Clawson.
The Demon Deacons should have a very good secondary this season. Nick Andersen is one of the best and brightest young defensive players in the ACC. He has a very promising future with the Deacons. Ja’Sir Taylor covers a lot of ground in the secondary. He has very good closing speed and will provide the downfield coverage Wake Forest needs in order to avoid being torched by several of the conference’s more promising quarterbacks this season.
Christian Beal-Smith at running back and placekicker Nick Sciba will give Wake Forest a lift on offense and on special teams, respectively.
Boston College Eagles
Odds To Win National Championship: +25000
The Eagles are led by second-year head coach Jeff Hafley, who is recruiting well but has a very young team outside of a veteran offensive line. Getting the position groups other than the offensive line to perform well will be a key challenge.
Let’s talk about that O-line, however: The Eagles boast one of the ACC’s best offensive lines this year. Zion Johnson, Alec Lindstrom, Ben Petrula and Tyler Vrabel are all highly regarded linemen. Boston College won’t suffer up front. The quality of the skill-position players and the defense is very much in doubt and that is where Boston College will sink or swim in 2021. Zay Flowers is a very good receiver, but will he have anyone else on the other side of the field who will earn respect from opposing defenses? The Eagles will need to get good answers to these questions early in the season, so that they can quickly make adjustments.
Odds To Win National Championship: +25000
The Cardinals appeared ready to rise to the second-place position in the ACC last year, but their season spun out of control and they fell to the lower tier of the division. Head coach Scott Satterfield needs to regain trust and earn respect this year.
Hassan Hall is an all-purpose threat who could bust some kick returns for touchdowns this year. Kei’Trel Clark is an elite defensive back who will make it harder to attack the Cardinals down the field. Those are really good players, but Louisville doesn’t appear to have nearly enough depth this year.
Odds To Win National Championship: +50000
The Orange have cratered after their 10-win season in 2018. They are looking for something – anything – to light a spark. Defensive back Garrett Williams will be counted on to anchor the secondary. Linebacker Mikel Jones is the team’s best defensive player. Receiver Taj Harris is the team’s best offensive player. Beyond those few resources, plus placekicker Andre Szmyt, the Orange don’t have a lot of depth or quality. Szmyt might be a superb kicker, but Syracuse needs to score touchdowns a lot more than it needs to kick field goals. The offense doesn’t seem likely to put the ball in the end zone very often.