College football's 2022 season is still months away, but with spring practice in progress and the roster picture becoming clearer for all 131 teams, it's never too early to think about next fall and what teams return the most talent.
Pitt is the reigning ACC champion, but coach Pat Narduzzi will have to replace star quarterback Kenny Pickett. The Panthers return a strong supporting cast for their new signal-caller and will face competition in the Coastal from Miami under new coach Mario Cristobal. The Atlantic Division features a three-team battle with Clemson, NC State and Wake Forest at the top. Florida State also is expected to take a step forward in '22.
Roster management in the era of the transfer portal has changed how teams can reload, improve or build going into a new coaching tenure. Returning starter data isn't necessarily the best way to judge teams going into a year, but it does provide interesting insight into strengths and weaknesses. Each year, Athlon Sports compiles returning starter data for its college football preview magazine. Players starting the last six or seven overall games are considered a returning starter. Also, some discretion is used, including returning from injury, split starters at a specific position, or other applicable reasoning for considering a player a starter.
Which teams return the most talent in the ACC for 2022? And what does the returning starter data tell us for next fall? Here's a look at what's ahead for this conference:
ACC Football: Analyzing Returning Starter Data for 2022
* All seven of the ACC Atlantic teams have a returning starter at quarterback for 2022.
* Boston College lost four starters on its offensive line from last season.
* Clemson has a new coordinator (Wes Goodwin) and some holes to fill at linebacker and in the secondary for one of the nation's top defenses from 2021. However, the line is still arguably the best in college football. Xavier Thomas, Bryan Bresee, Myles Murphy, K.J. Henry and Tyler Davis top the list of returners up front.
* The return of four starters up front is a good sign for Florida State's hopes of a step forward on offense in '22. However, the other side of the ball is an area of focus for the 'Noles this spring. The defense doesn't lose much from last year's group, but ends Jermaine Johnson and Keir Thomas are tough to replace.
*Louisville's 14 returning starters are topped by quarterback Malik Cunningham, but coach Scott Satterfield must replace three out of his top five tacklers, starting center, and the team's second-leading receiver in Jordan Watkins.
* NC State returns the most (17) starters in the Atlantic for '22.
* As indicated by the 17 returning starters, the Wolfpack won't lose much from last year's squad, but left tackle Ikem Ekwonu, running backs Bam Knight and Ricky Person, along with receiver Emeka Emezie, are tough to replace.
* Syracuse running back Sean Tucker tops the list of 16 returning starters for coach Dino Babers. However, all three starters off last year's front need to be replaced, and the offense needs more out of its passing game to post a winning record in '22.
* Wake Forest is in great shape to repeat as division champions with 15 returning starters. That number includes quarterback Sam Hartman, as well as receiver Donavon Greene who missed '21 due to injury.
* Three of the Coastal Division teams return a starter (Miami, Virginia and Georgia Tech) at quarterback.
* The 2022 season marks a crucial year for coach Geoff Collins at Georgia Tech. Just five returning starters make a jump in wins a tough task.
* New Duke coach Mike Elko returns the second-fewest starters (nine) in the ACC for '22. Of those nine, none come in the secondary, and quarterback Gunnar Holmberg transferred to FIU.
* New Miami coach Mario Cristobal is set up for a run at the Coastal Division title in his first year at the helm. Of his 12 returning starters, one is rising star quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, along with All-ACC candidates in tight end Will Mallory and running back Jaylon Knighton.
* Just four starters are back on a North Carolina offense that finished third in the ACC in scoring last year. Replacing quarterback Sam Howell is the top priority, and coach Mack Brown has to reload and generate better play from the offensive line.
* Pitt returns the most starters (15) of any team in the Coastal Division.
* Whoever replaces quarterback Kenny Pickett inherits a Panthers' offense returning all five starters along the offensive line, as well college football's reigning Biletnikoff Award winner in Jordan Addison.
* With quarterback Brennan Armstrong and a couple of key playmakers back at receiver, Virginia's offense has a chance to be explosive once again. However, that will require new coach Tony Elliott to rebuild a line that lost all five starters from last year.
* Developing the passing game is a huge priority for Virginia Tech this offseason. New coach Brent Pry brought in two transfers at quarterback (Jason Brown and Grant Wells) and also dipped into the portal to bolster a receiving corps losing its top two options (Tayvion Robinson and Tre Turner).
* Can Pry and the defensive staff develop more pass rushers? The Hokies had only one player with more than 4.5 sacks last season and depth and overall production are concerns off the edge this spring.
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