Clemson's reign atop the ACC ended last season, and there's no guarantee coach Dabo Swinney's team returns to No. 1 in 2022. Although there are concerns in Death valley, the Tigers are Athlon's predicted champion of the ACC. Clemson returns a dominant defense, but major question marks remain on offense, and the ACC doesn't lack for other contenders with Wake Forest and NC State both capable of winning the division this fall. Florida State, Boston College and Louisville headline the next tier, while Syracuse should be fighting to get bowl eligible.
As usual, the Coastal Division could see its share of chaos. Defending champ Pitt lost quarterback Kenny Pickett to the NFL and receiver Jordan Addison, but coach Pat Narduzzi still returns one of the league's top defenses and a solid foundation on offense. New coach Mario Cristobal has Miami positioned to be the favorite in this division, especially if quarterback Tyler Van Dyke picks up where he left off in '21. North Carolina hopes to rebound after a disappointing season, while Virginia, Virginia Tech and Duke are breaking in new coaches. Georgia Tech returns only four starters in a crucial season for coach Geoff Collins.
How does Athlon Sports project the ACC for 2022? Steven Lassan predicts and ranks the Atlantic and Coastal Divisions in the ACC for this fall:
ACC 2022 Predictions
The Tigers had their streak of consecutive ACC titles snapped at six and failed to make the CFB Playoff for the first time since ’14 last season. A lackluster showing (5.2 yards per play and 26.3 points a game) on offense was the primary culprit for last year’s 10-3 mark and remains a concern going into ’22. A deep backfield led by rising star Will Shipley is the strength of this offense, but question marks remain at every other position. Can DJ Uiagalelei (55.6 [percent, 9 TDs vs. 10 INTs) take a step forward? Or will true freshman Cade Klubnik eventually take over as the starter? The Tigers need more out of an offensive line that brings back four starters and an inconsistent receiving corps losing Justyn Ross to the NFL. And as if those questions weren’t enough, there’s a new play-caller (Brandon Streeter) after Tony Elliott left to be the head coach at Virginia. While question marks litter the offense, the same can’t be said on defense. Coordinator Brent Venables left to be the head coach at Oklahoma, but new play-caller Wes Goodwin inherits a deep defensive line anchored by Tyler Davis, Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy, along with rising stars at linebacker (Trenton Simpson) and safety (Andrew Mukuba). This unit could be the best defense in college football this fall.
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2. NC State
All of the pieces are in place for NC State to challenge for the ACC championship – and potentially a run at the CFB Playoff. The Wolfpack return the most starters (17) of any team in the ACC from a squad that went 9-3 last fall, including quarterback Devin Leary (35 TDs, 5 INTs) and one of the nation’s top linebacker units anchored by Payton Wilson and Drake Thomas. Leary’s development ensures there are few questions surrounding the offense, but coach Dave Doeren’s group must replace its top two rushers (Bam Knight and Ricky Person) and elite left tackle Ikem Ekwonu. More overall production on the ground is needed after NC State averaged an ACC-low 3.3 yards per rush last fall. In addition to the standouts at linebacker, a Wolfpack defense that held teams to 19.7 points a game last year returns tackle Cory Durden and a couple of likely All-ACC contenders in the secondary in Tanner Ingle (safety), Tyler Baker-Williams (nickel) and Shyheim Battle (cornerback). A trip to Clemson on Oct. 1 is likely to decide the winner of the Atlantic Division.
3. Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons are the defending champs of the Atlantic Division and should be in the mix again to push Clemson and NC State for the No. 1 spot. The strength of coach Dave Clawson’s team remains the offense. Quarterback Sam Hartman returns after leading the offense to an average of 41 points a game last year. The Demon Deacons had a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in ’21, and while Jaquarii Roberson departed, Hartman won’t lack for weapons with A.T. Perry, Taylor Morin and Donavon Greene on the outside. Also, four starters return up front, with Justice Ellison, Christian Turner and Quinton Cooley likely to share carries in the backfield. Defense was Wake Forest’s biggest concern last season and remains the biggest question mark going into ’22. New coordinator Brad Lambert is one of the ACC’s top assistant hires and is tasked with bringing improvement to a group that surrendered 31.2 points a game in conference play last fall. Stopping the run (195.6 yards a game allowed) is a concern, and this unit needs better play from the linebackers. End Rondell Bothroyd (16.5 TFL) is an underrated force off the edge.
4. Florida State
The Seminoles showed progress in coach Mike Norvell’s second year in ’21, just missing out on a bowl with a 5-7 mark. Although Florida State isn’t ready to challenge for the ACC title, another jump in wins and overall performance is expected. Jordan Travis has made big gains under Norvell (2,074 total yards and 22 TDs last year) and ranks among the league’s top signal-callers going into ’22. Travis’ emergence, along with additions through the portal at receiver in Mycah Pittman, Johnny Wilson and Winston Wright (if healthy), should help the offense take another step forward. An intriguing group of running backs anchored by Treshaun Ward and Oregon transfer Trey Benson will run behind an improving offensive line. After giving up 6.5 yards per play and 36 points a game in ‘21, Florida State’s defense limited teams to 26.5 points a game and 5.2 yards per play last fall. Ends Jermaine Johnson II (17.5 TFL) and Keir Thomas (12 TFL) were a big part of the improvement, but both have departed Tallahassee. However, coordinator Adam Fuller still has seven returning starters to build around, including tackles Robert Cooper and Fabian Lovett and rising star cornerback Omarion Cooper.
5. Boston College
After a 6-5 mark in 2020, coach Jeff Hafley’s team seemed poised for another jump in wins last year. However, Hafley’s second season at Boston College was derailed by an injury to quarterback Phil Jurkovec in September. Although Jurkovec eventually returned in November, his absence was a huge blow to an offense that scored only 40 points in the four ACC games he missed. A healthy Jurkovec is good news for the Eagles, and the senior has capable skill talent around him thanks to the return of running back Pat Garwo III and receiver Zay Flowers. A rebuilt offensive line with just one returning starter is the biggest concern for Boston College going into ’22. The Eagles bring back seven starters on defense, and there’s optimism for improvement from a unit that held teams to 22.2 points a game last fall. Defensive backs Josh DeBerry and Jaiden Woodbey are two standouts on the back end, but BC needs to do a better job at getting to the quarterback (21 sacks) and stopping the run.
Back-to-back losing seasons and a 10-14 mark in that span have likely turned the ’22 campaign into a make-or-break one for coach Scott Satterfield. A handful of transfers on both sides of the ball have helped to address needs and hopes of a winning record are boosted with quarterback Malik Cunningham back under center. In ACC-only games, Cunningham led all quarterbacks in the conference in yards per attempt (9.4) and averaged 322.6 total yards a game. The senior will be throwing to a revamped group of receivers with Jordan Watkins, Tyler Harrell and Justin Marshall departing, but the additions of Tyler Hudson (Central Arkansas) and Dee Wiggins (Miami) bolstered the weapons on the outside. Tight end Marshon Ford (49 catches) is a first-team All-ACC pick by Athlon Sports for ’22. The line should be a strength with four starters back, including standout guard Caleb Chandler. There were signs of progress on defense last season, limiting teams to 23.9 points a game (down from 27.2 in ‘20) and 5.4 yards per play (down from 5.9) in ACC play. The linebacker unit will be a strength with Yasir Abdullah (10 sacks) returning, and a healthy Kei’Trel Clark at cornerback is a huge boost to a pass defense that finished seventh in the ACC. A schedule featuring toss-up games at Syracuse, UCF, Boston College and Virginia isn’t easy.
Dino Babers has won just two or fewer ACC games in five of his six seasons at the helm. After three consecutive losing records, a trip to a bowl game is likely needed to avoid the hot seat. However, getting to six wins won’t be easy with a tough schedule. The Orange return one of the nation’s top running backs in Sean Tucker (1,496 yards) but big progress in the passing game is needed under new play-caller Robert Anae. Quarterback Garrett Shrader (781 rushing yards and 14 TDs) struggled down the stretch and threw for less than 100 yards in three out of his last four starts. Mikel Jones and Stefon Thompson are back to lead a strong linebacker unit, and even though the secondary finished 12th in the ACC in pass efficiency defense last fall, five returning starters – including cornerbacks Garrett Williams and Duce Chestnut – provide confidence this unit will be better in ’22. While coordinator Tony White should feel optimistic about the back half of the defense, the line of scrimmage is a major concern. Syracuse must replace five key linemen, including Cody Roscoe (12.5 TFL), Josh Black (six) and Kingsley Jonathan (5.5). A bowl game should be within reach if the Orange can improve their passing attack. However, the second half of the schedule is tough, meaning Syracuse may need to start 4-1 or 5-0 to have a chance at six wins.
It’s a new era at Miami with Mario Cristobal returning home and incoming investments in the program for needed facility and staff enhancements. After winning the offseason, the ‘Canes can add to that momentum with a Coastal Division title in ’22. Although this division is always tough to project, Cristobal has the pieces in place to make a splash in year one. Quarterback Tyler Van Dyke was brilliant in his last six starts (2,194 yards, 20 TDs, 3 INTs) last season and should thrive under coordinator Josh Gattis. The ‘Canes have a trio of talented options at running back, and the line brings back three starters, including All-America candidate Zion Nelson. The only concern on offense likely rests at receiver after Mike Harley and Charleston Rambo departed after combining for 136 receptions and 1,715 yards last season. The defense is in need of repair after surrendering 28.4 points a game and struggling with missed tackles. Rising star tackle Leonard Taylor and a couple of transfers should boost the defensive front, but linebacker remains a concern. Cornerback Tyrique Stevenson and safeties James Williams and Kamren Kinchens are three building blocks on the back end. With Pitt coming to Coral Gables on Nov. 26, the path to the Coastal Division title likely runs through Miami.
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Quarterback Kenny Pickett and receiver Jordan Addison leave big shoes to fill in the Steel City, but don’t count out Pitt from winning the Coastal Division once again. All five starters return up front, and a solid stable of running backs anchored by Israel Abanikanda, Vincent Davis and Rodney Hammond should be the strength of the offense under new play-caller Frank Cignetti Jr. USC transfer Kedon Slovis is the front-runner to replace Pickett, but Nick Patti will continue to push for the job into the fall. The Panthers are also strong on defense with seven starters back, including Calijah Kancey and Habakkuk Baldonado up front, along with SirVocea Dennis at linebacker. This unit held opponents to 5.1 yards per play, led the ACC in rush defense, and limited teams to 23.6 points a game last year. Replacing cornerback Damarri Mathis and cutting down on some of the big plays allowed in the passing game (11 of 40-plus last season) is a priority). The schedule features intriguing matchups versus West Virginia and Tennessee, along with a Nov. 26 showdown at Miami that could decide the Coastal Division.
3. North Carolina
Expectations of contending for the Coastal Division title and a finish in the top 10-15 of postseason rankings never came to fruition in Chapel Hill last fall. And after last year’s 6-7 mark, the Tar Heels won’t enter the season with top 25 aspirations. However, the cupboard isn’t bare for coach Mack Brown, and a couple of standout recruiting classes could start to pay dividends. Although quarterback Sam Howell’s departure is significant, it’s not the biggest concern on offense. Talented redshirt freshman Drake Maye will battle Jacolby Criswell for the starting quarterback job in fall practice, and the winner has one of the nation’s top receivers in Josh Downs (101 catches last year) back on the outside. In addition to developing more weapons to help Downs, the Tar Heels must improve an offensive line that allowed 49 sacks last year and returns just two starters. North Carolina’s defense was a massive disappointment in ’21, surrendering 32.1 points a game and 6.1 yards per play. The defensive struggles weren’t limited to just one area, as the Tar Heels ranked 11th in the ACC in pass efficiency defense and 10th against the run. New coordinator Gene Chizik has pieces to work with, however. Tackle Myles Murphy (nine TFL) leads the way up front, Virginia transfer Noah Taylor and Cedric Gray anchor the linebacker unit, and the secondary features cornerbacks Tony Grimes and Storm Duck.
4. Virginia Tech
The cupboard isn’t completely bare for new coach Brent Pry, but the Hokies will need a lot to go right in order to challenge for a finish in the top three of the Coastal Division. Pry guided one of the Big Ten’s top defenses at Penn State and should make an impact on that side of the ball in his debut in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech held teams to 25.3 points a game but allowed 5.9 yards per play and generated only 16 sacks in ACC contests. Depth and difference-makers in the trenches remain a concern, while linebacker (Dax Hollifield) and the secondary (Chamarri Conner) should be a strength. The question marks are just as large on an offense that averaged only 24 points per game in ACC play last fall. Two transfers – Grant Wells (Marshall) and Jason Brown (South Carolina) are battling to start under center, and there’s a lack of proven playmakers at receiver after the departure of Tayvion Robinson and Tre Turner at receiver. A backfield led by Malachi Thomas and Jalen Holston is the strength of this unit. Three starters are back up front, but any injuries could be a huge issue for the trenches with very little depth in place this fall.
New coach Tony Elliott inherits one of the ACC’s top quarterbacks (Brennan Armstrong) and receiving corps (Billy Kemp IV, Dontayvion Wicks, Keytaon Thompson and Lavel Davis). Armstrong led all Power 5 quarterbacks by averaging 427.3 total yards a game last fall, but Elliott and the new staff would like to take some of the pressure off their signal-caller by installing more balance with the run game and backs Ronnie Walker and Mike Hollins. However, Virginia lost all five starters up front and will be counting on a pair of FCS transfers (John Paul Flores and Mac Hollensteiner) to fill the voids at the tackle spots. Even though there are concerns up front, scoring points shouldn’t be a concern for Elliott. The other side of the ball remains an issue, however. Virginia struggled to generate pressure, allowed too many big plays and surrendered 34.3 points a contest and 6.8 yards per play in ACC matchups. This unit also ranked last in the conference versus the run.
6. Georgia Tech
With a 9-25 mark over the last three years, it’s no secret coach Geoff Collins enters the ’22 season squarely on the hot seat. In addition to a roster that returns only four starters, an unforgiving schedule is on tap featuring non-conference matchups against Georgia, Ole Miss and UCF, along with ACC crossover games versus Clemson and Florida State. For the Yellow Jackets to take a step forward, more consistency is needed at quarterback from Jeff Sims (12 TDs, 7 INTs last season). And if Sims struggles, two transfers in Zach Gibson (Akron) and Taisun Phommachanh (Clemson) are waiting to push for snaps. Although Jahmyr Gibbs transferred to Alabama, the running back room is still in good shape with Dontae Smith, Hassan Hall and Buffalo transfer Dylan McDuffie. However, just one starter returns up front, and the receiving corps brings back a single player that caught more than 15 passes (Malachi Carter) last fall. Major improvement is needed on a defense that has ranked 13th or worse in the ACC in points allowed in each of Collins’ three years at the helm. Linebacker Charlie Thomas is the unit’s top player, but he will be playing with a lot of new faces as just one other starter returns and major turnover was experienced up front and in the secondary.
Former Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko is a good fit as head coach for Duke as it looks to get back on track following a 10-25 finish to the David Cutcliffe era (2019-21). However, the Blue Devils have a steep climb ahead in ’22. An offense that averaged 14.9 points in ACC play last season lost quarterback Gunnar Holmberg and leading receiver Jake Bobo to transfer, and running back Mataeo Durant (1,241 yards) departed for the NFL. Four returning starters provide a solid foundation in the trenches. Duke has only one way to go on defense after this unit allowed 46.6 points a contest and 7.1 yards per play in ACC games last fall. Elko’s arrival should help this group, but there are major holes in the secondary, and this unit needs to get better versus the run (218.4 rushing yards allowed in ACC play last year).
ACC Championship: Clemson over Miami
ACC 2022 SUPERLATIVES AND SEASON PREDICTIONS
Offensive POY: Sam Hartman, QB, Wake Forest
Defensive POY: Myles Murphy, DL, Clemson
Coach of the Year: Dave Doeren, NC State
Top Freshman: Cade Klubnik, QB, Clemson
Top Offensive Newcomer (Transfer): Kedon Slovis, QB, Pitt
Top Defensive Newcomer (Transfer): Jermayne Lole, DL, Louisville
Sleeper Team: Florida State or Louisville
Key Position to Watch: Clemson QBs
Best Coordinator Hire: Josh Gattis, OC, Miami
Hardest Teams to Evaluate: Pitt and Virginia
Coach on the Rise: Alex Atkins, OC, Florida State
Must-See Game: NC State at Clemson (Oct. 1)
Breakout Player: Andrew Mukuba, S, Clemson
Comeback Player: Bryan Bresee, DL, Clemson/Payton Wilson, LB, NC State