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ACC Football 2021 Predictions

Dabo Swinney, Clemson Tigers Football

Dabo Swinney, Clemson Tigers Football

Clemson is once again the unquestioned favorite atop the ACC predictions for the 2021 college football season. Coach Dabo Swinney’s team is loaded for another run at the national title and won’t face many obstacles in conference play this year. North Carolina and Miami are both trending up entering the fall and rank as the only other top 25 teams from the conference in Athlon’s predictions.

The Atlantic Division after Clemson is a bit jumbled. NC State gets the nod at No. 2 in Athlon’s projections, but a strong case could be made for Florida State, Wake Forest, Boston College, NC State or Louisville. Syracuse checks in at No. 7 in the Atlantic. The middle is a toss-up in the Coastal as well. Not much separates Virginia Tech, Virginia and Pitt this year. Georgia Tech is improving, while Duke was a clear No. 7 in the predictions for 2021.

ACC 2021 Predictions

Atlantic Division

1. Clemson

Clemson is once again the overwhelming favorite in the ACC this season. The Tigers have won six league titles in a row and all of the pieces are in place to contend for the national title.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei is primed for a breakout season. Travis Etienne is gone, but the running back depth is in good shape and receiver Justyn Ross is on track to return after missing 2020 due to injury. Clemson has led the ACC in scoring for three consecutive years and all of the pieces are in place to own one of the nation’s top offenses once again.

Concern: Depth behind Uiagalelei is a concern after Taisun Phommachanh suffered an Achilles injury in the spring. The offensive line has room to improve after rushers averaged 4.5 yards per carry last fall.

True Freshman to Watch: RB Will Shipley

Incoming Transfers: None

Breakout Player: QB D.J. Uiagalelei

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Clemson’s defensive line is arguably the best in college football. There’s depth and talent off the edge and on the interior. James Skalski passed on the NFL to anchor the linebacker unit, while rising star Trenton Simpson is poised to add to the depth and talent of this group. Despite losing cornerback Derion Kendrick, the Tigers will be tough against the pass.

Concern: Not much. Clemson has ranked in the top four of the ACC in fewest yards per play allowed for eight straight years and will continue that run into 2021. After giving up 385 passing yards to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, the secondary has to play better in big games.

True Freshman to Watch: CB Nate Wiggins/S Andrew Mukuba

Incoming Transfers: None

Breakout Player: LB Trenton Simpson

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

2. NC State

The Wolfpack rebounded in a big way last season. After a 4-8 finish in 2020, NC State went 8-4 and lost two of those games by three points or less. The schedule features a tough crossover (Miami and North Carolina), along with a road trip to Mississippi State in non-conference play this year.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: NC State returns one of the ACC’s top backfields and receiving corps. Quarterback Devin Leary is back after missing the last seven games due to injury. The pieces are also in place to have one of the conference’s top offensive lines, especially with left tackle Ikem Ekwonu and center Grant Gibson anchoring the group.

Concern: The offense improved under new play-caller Tim Beck last year but more is needed. NC State averaged 5.5 yards a play in 2020 – up from 5.18 in ’19. Also, the scoring average jumped to 30.2 – up from 22.1. The Wolfpack need to produce more big plays and could use more consistency from the ground game (3.4 ypc). The offense also lost 19 turnovers last year.

True Freshman to Watch: QB Aaron McLaughlin

Incoming Transfers: OL Chandler Zavala

Breakout Player: WR Devin Carter/Porter Rooks

Previewing the Defense

Strength: The Wolfpack improved on defense last season, and nine returning starters provide a foundation to take another step forward in ’21. The linebacker unit is strong thanks to the return of Payton Wilson, Isaiah Moore and Drake Thomas.

Concern: The departure of lineman Alim McNeil leaves a void up front, especially after NC State ranked seventh in the ACC versus the run last year. This unit has room to improve after allowing 31.3 points in ACC matchups in 2020.

True Freshman to Watch: LB Jordan Poole

Incoming Transfers: DB Derrek Pitts; DL Cory Durden; DB Cyrus Fagan

Breakout Player: LB Drake Thomas

Order a Copy of Athlon Sports' 2021 College Football National and SEC Preview Editions

3. Boston College

The Eagles exceeded expectations in coach Jeff Hafley’s first year with a 6-5 mark. Now with an experienced roster and one of the ACC’s top quarterbacks in place, a favorable schedule should allow Boston College to push for eight wins. Winnable matchups in crossover play (Virginia Tech and at Georgia Tech) and home dates against NC State, Wake Forest and Florida State dot the slate for 2021.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Quarterback Phil Jurkovec returns after a strong debut in Chestnut Hill. The Eagles return all five starters up front to form one of the top offensive lines in the ACC. Tight end Hunter Long will be missed, but Jurkovec won’t lack for targets with Kobay White, Zay Flowers and Jaelen Gill on the outside.

Concern: Who steps up at tight end? Boston College needs to run the ball a lot better after posting just 3.1 yards per carry in 2020.