The 2020 ACC predictions look a lot like previous seasons, as Clemson is the heavy favorite to win the league this fall. And as seen in previous years, there's a big gap between the Tigers and the second-place team in the conference. North Carolina and Virginia Tech headline the second tier in Athlon's projections, as the Tar Heels are a slight favorite to win the Coastal Division. The middle of the ACC features a handful of solid teams, including Louisville, Pitt, Miami, Virginia, Florida State and Wake Forest. NC State, Syracuse, Duke and Boston College should contend for a bowl trip this season, while Georgia Tech is trending in the right direction under coach Geoff Collins.
Athlon projects the order of finish for the ACC in 2020:
ACC 2020 Predictions
The Tigers have won five consecutive ACC championships, so it's no surprise coach Dabo Swinney's team is a heavy favorite to claim No. 6 in 2020. Clemson also is a popular pick to win it all in this coming season. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne headline an explosive offense, while a favorable schedule should give coordinator Tony Elliott plenty of time to find the right answers up front and break in a couple of new receivers after Justyn Ross was lost for the year due to a neck injury. Frank Ladson, Joseph Ngata, Amari Rodgers and tight end Braden Galloway headline the list of targets for Lawrence on the outside. As usual, Clemson will have one of the nation's top defenses. Coordinator Brent Venables brings back a loaded line, and cornerback Derion Kendrick anchors a rebuilt secondary. The Tigers are likely to be favored by double-digits in all 12 games this fall.
The Cardinals showed marked improvement in coach Scott Satterfield's debut. After a 2-10 record in 2018, Louisville went 8-5 and finished second in the Atlantic Division last fall. Exceeding eight victories and finishing in the top 25 is within reach if Satterfield's team shows improvement on defense after giving up 33.4 points a game and over 200 rushing yards a contest. Seven starters are back on defense, but stopping the run, generating pressure on the quarterback and secondary play remain a concern. There are fewer question marks on the other side of the ball. Quarterback Micale Cunningham, running back Javian Hawkins and receiver Tutu Atwell form one of the nation's top trios for an attack that averaged 33.1 points a game - up from 19.8 in 2018. Replacing standout left tackle Mekhi Becton is likely to be junior Adonis Boone. With Florida State and Wake Forest coming to Louisville, Satterfield's team should have a favorable path to second in the Atlantic.
3. Florida State*
The Seminoles are just 18-20 over the last three years, but there's new hope in Tallahassee with Mike Norvell at the controls. After a successful stint at Memphis, Norvell inherits a roster that has talent but has underachieved in recent seasons. While challenging Clemson for ACC supremacy is unrealistic, some improvement should be notable in Tallahassee. Florida State brings back 10 starters on defense, including All-America tackle Marvin Wilson and rising star cornerback Asante Samuel. After giving up 27.8 points a game in 2019, new coordinator Adam Fuller has to get this group to play up to its potential. Norvell's background on offense is a huge plus for a team that enters 2020 with question marks at quarterback and along the offensive line. Junior James Blackman is the front-runner under center, but freshmen Chubba Purdy and Tate Rodemaker and sophomore Jordan Travis will push for the job. FIU transfer Devontay Love-Taylor and the continued development of guard Dontae Lucas are two factors to suggest the offensive line could show some small improvement this fall. Receiver Tamorrion Terry is among the best in the nation, and Texas A&M transfer Jashaun Corbin will help fill the void left behind by Cam Akers.
4. Wake Forest*
For the first time in program history, the Demon Deacons have played in four consecutive bowl games. Coach Dave Clawson's squad should extend that streak in 2020. With Jamie Newman transferring to Georgia, 2018 starter Sam Hartman is set to take over once again at quarterback. Top target Sage Surratt (1,001 yards in nine games) leads the way for Hartman on the outside, with redshirt freshman Donavon Greene primed for a breakout year. Restocking the offensive line is Wake Forest's biggest question mark, but the addition of Maryland transfer Terrance Davis should help. Defense has been an issue the last couple of years in Winston-Salem, but there's optimism for improvement with nine starters back. End Carlos Basham Jr. (10 sacks) is one of the ACC's top defenders, with Ryan Smenda and Ja'Cquez Williams back at anchor the linebacker position. The secondary - especially at cornerback - remains a concern going into the fall. Matchups against Notre Dame and Appalachian State await in non-conference play.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2020
5. NC State*
Last year's 4-8 record marked the program's first losing season since 2013 under coach Dave Doeren. Injuries and roster turnover from a team that won nine games in back-to-back years played a huge role in last season's regression. While the Wolfpack are unlikely to rebound to nine wins in 2020, better luck in the health department, along with a correction in turnover margin (minus-13 last fall), should equal a trip to a bowl. New coordinator Tim Beck inherits some promising pieces on offense, including running back Zonovan "Bam" Knight, receivers Emeka Emezie and Devin Carter, along with four starters back on the line. Quarterback Devin Leary (8 TDs to 5 INTs) is expected to get the nod under center and should be better in his second year as the starter. New defensive coordinator Tony Gibson is switching the group to a 3-3-5 approach, which should work well with some of the pieces coming back, including tackle Alim McNeil and linebackers Payton Wilson, Vi Jones and Isaiah Moore. Injuries took a toll on the secondary last season and was a big reason why NC State allowed quarterbacks to complete 64.3 percent of their passes. A schedule featuring toss-up games against Duke, Boston College and Wake Forest should be enough for the Wolfpack to find a way to get to six wins in 2020.
The Orange took a step back last fall, regressing from a 10-3 record in 2018 to a 5-7 mark in '19. Coach Dino Babers is counting on two new coordinators - Sterlin Gilbert (offense) and Tony White (defense) to help get the program back on track, but only nine starters are back for 2020. Syracuse ranked as one of the ACC's top offenses in '18 but took a major step back last year. Improvement on that side of the ball starts with better play up front after surrendering 50 sacks, and quarterback Tommy DeVito must take a step forward in his second season as the starter. The receiving corps also needs new playmakers to emerge after No. 1 target Trishton Jackson left. The return of tackle McKinley Williams from injury adds to help to a front featuring just one returning starter (end Josh Black) and a new group of linebackers. Safety Andre Cisco is one of the best in the ACC. With NC State, Georgia Tech, Louisville, and Florida State visiting Syracuse, Babers' team has a favorable home slate to find a way to get to six victories.
7. Boston College
New coach Jeff Hafley arrives in Chestnut Hill after spending the 2019 season as the co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State. Hafley is a rising star, but a limited offseason and a tough crossover schedule (at Virginia Tech and North Carolina) add to the challenge of being a first-year coach. Notre Dame transfer Phil Jurkovec was granted a waiver for 2020, which means he and Dennis Grosel (48.4 percent, 9 TDs and 2 INTs) will battle for the nod under center. Regardless of which quarterback starts, the offense will lean on one of the ACC's top offensive lines, along with breakout candidate David Bailey at running back. Hafley's background on defense should boost a group that ranked near the bottom of the league and gave up 6.5 yards a snap in ACC games last fall. New faces need to emerge up front and in the secondary, but the linebacker unit is a strength thanks to the return of Max Richardson. Boston College has made a bowl in four consecutive years, so a six-win season wouldn't be a surprise. However, in order to avoid a losing mark, the Eagles have to show improvement on defense, and generate more production out of Grosel or Jurkovec under center.
1. North Carolina*
Mack Brown's return to Chapel Hill is off to a fast start. North Carolina finished 7-6 in Brown's first year back on the sidelines, with all six defeats coming by a touchdown or less. With quarterback Sam Howell poised to be even better as a sophomore, along with two standout receivers in Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome, the Tar Heels won't have trouble scoring points. Additionally, Howell has help from 1,000-yard rusher Michael Carter, and four starters are back on an offensive line that needs to get better in 2020. Quietly, North Carolina showed marked improvement on defense last fall. After giving up 34.5 points a game in 2018, the defense held offenses to 23.7 points a contest in '19. Coordinator Jay Bateman has a few holes to fill up front, but the linebacker and secondary units should be strong. The Tar Heels open with UCF and Auburn, but Virginia Tech and Pitt - two games that could decide the Coastal Division - take place in Chapel Hill.
Related: ACC 2020 All-Conference Team
2. Virginia Tech*
With Hendon Hooker at the controls, Virginia Tech was a different team after a 2-2 start to the 2019 season. The Hokies won six of their final nine games and all three defeats came by nine points or less. Expect coach Justin Fuente's team to push North Carolina for the top spot in the division, especially as Hooker should be more comfortable in his second year as the starter, and the Hokies return 10 starters from a defense that finished fifth in the ACC in fewest points allowed per game (24.7). The arrival of transfer running backs Khalil Herbert (Kansas) and Raheem Blackshear (Rutgers - if awarded a waiver) should add some punch to an offense that averaged only 3.7 yards per carry in ACC contests. The offensive line should rank among the best in the ACC. New defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton has big shoes to fill in replacing long-time play-caller Bud Foster. The good news: Hamilton inherits a group with nine starters back, including All-America candidate and linebacker Rayshard Ashby and standout cornerback Jermaine Waller. The defense did suffer a setback in late July when cornerback Caleb Farley opted out of the 2020 season.
After a disappointing 6-7 debut, Miami coach Manny Diaz is hoping another wave of transfers and coaching changes can get the program back on track. For the second year in a row, the Hurricanes dipped into the transfer portal to find key contributors. Quarterback D'Eriq King (Houston), offensive tackle Jarrid Williams (Houston), end Quincy Roche (Temple), and kicker Jose Borregales are all slated to play key roles for the team in 2020. King is a dynamic dual-threat quarterback but faces a quick transition to new play-caller Rhett Lashlee's offense without the benefit of a complete offseason. The line surrendered a whopping 51 sacks last fall, so it's up to new assistant Garin Justice to find the right mix to protect King. Defense wasn't a problem last year and certainly won't be again in 2020. Roche and Gregory Rousseau form one of the top defensive end tandems in the nation, linebacker Zach McCloud is back from a redshirt year, and there's enough experience and talent to quickly solidify the secondary. With Pitt and North Carolina coming to Miami, provided the offense jells behind King and the offensive line, the Hurricanes have a chance to surprise in the Coastal.
Small improvement from Pitt's offense might be enough for coach Pat Narduzzi's team to return to the ACC Championship Game in 2020. The Panthers averaged 21.2 points a game and just 5.2 yards a play last season. A variety of reasons contributed to the lackluster production, including a lack of big plays, red zone issues, turnovers inconsistency up front, and running the ball. After having two 1,000-yard rushers in 2018, A.J. Davis (530 yards) was the team's leading rusher last fall. Four starters are back to provide a good foundation up front, and senior quarterback Kenny Pickett returns after throwing for 3,098 yards last season. Eight starters return from a defense that held teams to 22.5 points a game and led the ACC with 51 sacks. Tackle Jalen Twyman anchors one of the nation's top defensive lines, and additional help is on the way with Rashad Weaver returning from an injury. The Panthers also boast one of the nation's top safety tandems in Paris Ford and Damar Hamlin. Swing games versus Florida State, North Carolina and Miami take place away from the Steel City.
The defending ACC Coastal champs check in fifth in Athlon's 2020 ACC Coastal Division predictions, but there's little separation between the teams after North Carolina and Virginia Tech. Coach Bronco Mendenhall has established a strong culture and track record, so don't expect a major drop-off despite losing quarterback Bryce Perkins. Sophomore Brennan Armstrong and Mississippi State transfer Keytaon Thompson are set to battle to replace Perkins, who accounted for 33 overall scores and over 4,000 yards of total offense in 2019. All five starters are back along the offensive line, but question marks remain at running back and receiver Terrell Jana moves into the go-to role with Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois out of eligibility. Defense should be the strength of Mendenhall's 2020 squad. Nine starters are back from a group that allowed 27.1 points a game last fall. Charles Snowden and Noah Taylor anchor a strong linebacker unit, while end Aaron Faumui leads the way up front. The safety tandem of Brenton Nelson and Joey Blount forms a key piece of a solid secondary. Virginia opens with a neutral site matchup against Georgia, followed by a trip to Clemson on Sept. 26 and a home game against North Carolina on Oct. 3.
After missing out on a bowl for just the second time in seven years, the Blue Devils hope the arrival of Clemson transfer quarterback Chase Brice provides a spark for an offense that managed only 25.3 points a game in 2019. Brice is surrounded by a solid supporting cast, including running back Deon Jackson (641 yards), tight end Noah Gray and four starters return along the offensive line. Duke's defense allowed 29.2 points a game last season, but six starters are back and improvement is expected. End Chris Rumph is one of the ACC's top edge rushers, with safety Michael Carter set to anchor the secondary. The Blue Devils are due for a little better luck after posting a minus-11 turnover margin last season. However, the margin for error will be thin to get to a bowl. Duke plays Notre Dame in non-conference play and potential swing games against NC State, Pitt, Georgia Tech and Miami take place away from Durham. If Brice provides a spark for the offense, getting to six wins should be within reach for coach David Cutcliffe's squad.
7. Georgia Tech
Second-year coach Geoff Collins has Georgia Tech on the right track, but another rebuilding season is likely in order. The Yellow Jackets showed progress late in the 2019 season and return 17 starters to help navigate a brutal schedule that features projected top 25 teams in Clemson, UCF, Notre Dame, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, and Georgia. As expected, the transition from an option attack to a spread offense wasn't easy. Georgia Tech managed only 16.7 points a game and scored 17 or fewer in six contests. Sophomore James Graham will face a push from freshman Jeff Sims to start at quarterback, but the strength of the offense should be at running back with Jordan Mason leading the way. Receiver Ahmarean Brown (18.9 ypc) is an emerging star, and better luck in the health department should help the offensive line. The Yellow Jackets allowed 32.4 points a game last season but should improve thanks to the return of linebacker David Curry, cornerback Tre Swilling and safety Juanyeh Thomas. Florida transfer Antonneous Clayton should provide instant help in the trenches.
Clemson over North Carolina
* Indicates team projected to reach bowl eligibility in 2020
ACC 2020 Projected Top Unit Rankings
ACC 2020 SUPERLATIVES AND SEASON PREDICTIONS
Pick by Steven Lassan: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
Pick by Braden Gall: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
Pick by Mark Ross: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
Pick by Steven Lassan: Marvin Wilson, DL, Florida State
Pick by Braden Gall: Marvin Wilson, DL, Florida State
Pick by Mark Ross: Gregory Rousseau, DL, Miami
Coach of the Year
Pick by Steven Lassan: Mack Brown, North Carolina
Pick by Braden Gall: Mack Brown, North Carolina
Pick by Mark Ross: Mack Brown, North Carolina
Coach on the Hot Seat
Pick by Steven Lassan: Dave Doeren, NC State
Pick by Braden Gall: Dave Doeren, NC State
Pick by Mark Ross: Dave Doeren, NC State
Pick by Steven Lassan: Donavon Greene, WR, Wake Forest
Pick by Braden Gall: Donavon Greene, WR, Wake Forest
Pick by Mark Ross: Desmond Evans, DL, North Carolina
Pick by Steven Lassan: D'Eriq King, QB, Miami
Pick by Braden Gall: D'Eriq King, QB, Miami
Pick by Mark Ross: D'Eriq King, QB, Miami
Pick by Steven Lassan: Pitt
Pick by Braden Gall: Pitt
Pick by Mark Ross: Florida State
Key Position to Watch
Pick by Steven Lassan: Florida State/Miami OL
Pick by Braden Gall: Florida State OL
Pick by Mark Ross: Clemson OL
Best Coordinator Hire
Pick by Steven Lassan: Adam Fuller, DC, Florida State
Pick by Braden Gall: Tim Beck, OC, NC State
Pick by Mark Ross: Justin Hamilton, DC, Virginia Tech
Hardest Team to Evaluate
Pick by Steven Lassan: Miami
Pick by Braden Gall: Miami
Pick by Mark Ross: Boston College
Coach on the Rise
Pick by Steven Lassan: Scott Satterfield, HC, Louisville
Pick by Braden Gall: Scott Satterfield, HC, Louisville
Pick by Mark Ross: Jay Bateman, DC, North Carolina
Pick by Steven Lassan: Virginia Tech at North Carolina
Pick by Braden Gall: Clemson at Notre Dame
Pick by Mark Ross: Clemson at Notre Dame
Pick by Steven Lassan: David Bailey, RB, Boston College
Pick by Braden Gall: Noah Taylor, LB, Virginia
Pick by Mark Ross: Hendon Hooker, QB, Virginia Tech
Pick by Steven Lassan: Rashad Weaver, DL, Pitt
Pick by Braden Gall: Sam Hartman, QB, Wake Forest
Pick by Mark Ross: Rashad Weaver, DL, Pitt