The state of college football — and indeed the world — looks a lot different now than it did a year ago heading into the start of a new season. As a result of the COIVD-19 pandemic, we don't really know what to expect on the gridiron this fall nor how, exactly, things might play out both between the lines and outside of them.
Given such uncertainty surrounding the upcoming campaign, it will be more important than ever for teams to have a quarterback they can rely on to deliver the big play and secure those crucial wins. There's no position more important on the field and a good signal-caller can certainly be the difference between a conference title and trip to the playoff or being on the wrong end of an upset.
While the ACC has not gotten a lot of due in recent years as a result of their QB play, that's not the case in 2020. Headlined by a Heisman Trophy favorite, a rising young star in the game, and a host of intriguing options, the league has a ton of intrigue around the position. With that in mind, here are the best matchups involving an ACC signal-caller:
Note: Given recent decisions by the Big Ten and Pac-12 to play conference-only opponents this fall, it's entirely possible that the ACC will either modify its schedule or be impacted by another conference taking similar action. Matchups listed below reflect games that are still currently scheduled.
1. Trevor Lawrence (Clemson) at Ian Book (Notre Dame) — Nov. 7
These two know each other well as Lawrence put on a masterclass against Book's Irish in the 2018 Cotton Bowl/College Football Playoff Semifinal, throwing for 327 yards and three touchdowns in a lopsided affair. Notre Dame will have a bit of revenge on mind when the Tigers head to South Bend for what could be the biggest game of the year for an ACC team and a significant turning point in the playoff race. Book, entering his third year as a starter, has already established his credentials but will look to solidify himself amongst the elite signal-callers in college football by engineering an upset over the Heisman favorite in orange and white.
2. Sam Howell (North Carolina) at D'Eriq King (Miami) — Oct. 24
Howell burst onto the scene last year for the Tar Heels to spark a remarkable turnaround as a true freshman under Mack Brown. Entering Year 2, the program is now a trendy pick in the ACC Coastal and the quarterback is the chief reason why. Perhaps the biggest challenger in the division is a revamped Hurricanes offense, which features a new, up-tempo system under offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and the addition of coveted Houston transfer King. The last time the latter played a full season, he was responsible for 50 total touchdowns for the Cougars before getting injured. With an upgrade in talent around him this year, the clash in Coral Gables should be a must-watch affair.
3. Sam Howell (North Carolina) at Dillon Gabriel (UCF) — Sept. 4
Talk about an enticing early-season matchup between two of the brightest young signal-callers in the game. Howell is already earning attention from NFL scouts after cobbling together a 3,641-yard, 38-touchdown effort as a fresh face in Tar Heel blue. Such numbers were nearly matched by fellow freshman Gabriel, who followed in the footsteps of fellow Hawaiian McKenzie Milton in leading the Knights to success. If the latter can cut down on the turnovers, this meeting between youngsters could play a huge role in the Group of 5 race and the perception of the ACC.
4. Trevor Lawrence (Clemson) vs. Micale Cunningham (Louisville) — Sept. 12
The ACC's present best quarterback will meet one of the contenders to be the future best in this early season tilt between ACC Atlantic rivals. Cunningham was the spark for the Cardinals posting one of the biggest turnarounds in the sport under new head coach Scott Satterfield. With an (albeit irregular) offseason under his belt and a full understanding of what's need for the team, the dual-threat dynamo could become even more dangerous with the ball in his hands. Whether it will be enough to knock off the champs at home remains to be seen but this could very well be Lawrence's biggest conference test.
5. Sam Howell (North Carolina) vs. Bo Nix (Auburn) — Sept. 12 (Atlanta)
Another game that should showcase just how strong the sophomore class of QBs is in college football, this ACC-SEC clash will put a premium on taking care of the ball and using some of that moxie in big moments both players showcased early in their careers. Howell certainly has garnered more national attention for the way he slings the ball around but Nix has the edge in taking down the big-name opponents, helping knock off Oregon and Alabama among others to add to his family's legacy on the Plains. There may be bigger non-conference outings involving top-25 programs but few will be able to match the kind of firepower these two bring to the table in what promises to be a game you can't turn away from.
6. Micale Cunningham (Louisville) at Ian Book (Notre Dame) — Nov. 21
Both Cunningham and Book were overlooked coming out of high school and early on in their college careers. Once they got their opportunities however, they've really established themselves as key figures in their respective offenses. Book is certainly the more established of the two but one can't overlook his opposite number given what he can do with the ball in his hands on every snap.
7. D'Eriq King (Miami) at Hendon Hooker (Virginia Tech) — Nov. 14
Hooker was a huge spark for the Hokies offense upon taking over the starting gig and many around the program are excited with what he can do after an offseason (however limited) of work learning all the little intricacies of playing the position. He played a starring role in the team's big win in South Florida last October but will have to defend his own turf a little differently given the challenge of facing off against such a prolific dual-threat QB like King. Don't be shocked if this matchup winds up deciding the division title either with each field general having a huge say in the ultimate victor.
8. Sam Howell (North Carolina) at Chase Brice (Duke) — Oct. 17
Tobacco Road has been home to a wide variety of basketball stars but each side has a leader on the gridiron to build around for the next two years. Howell is the bigger name but fans well outside Durham know of the exploits of Brice after his heroics as a backup for Clemson in recent years. With a little tutelage from David Cutcliffe, it sure will be fun to see Brice's progress as a starter for the Blue Devils by the time they meet their local rivals in a game that should be just as interesting as any between the two schools on the hardwood.
9. Trevor Lawrence (Clemson) at James Blackman (Florida State) — Oct. 10
Clemson-FSU was pretty consistently the game of the year in the ACC and it will be interesting to see if new head coach Mike Norvell can turn things around quickly in Tallahassee to make it happen again in 2020. Lawrence obviously nabs the headlines but Blackman has the physical tools to be a quality QB and already shown plenty of flashes. If he can put it all together in Norvell's system, this year's meeting could be a lot more interesting than some anticipated.
10. Sam Hartman (Wake Forest) vs. Zach Thomas (Appalachian State) — Sept. 11
There was a lot made in the college football world about Wake's ex-quarterback (Jamie Newman) transferring but the one the Demon Deacons have coming back this season is pretty good too. Hartman won't have to wait long before he'll have a chance to notch a big victory as local rival Appalachian State comes to town early on. If Wake wants to avoid an upset, they'll have to count on Hartman outplaying an established veteran QB like Thomas, who has already notched a few wins over Power 5 opponents.
Best of the rest:
- D'Eriq King (Miami) at Anthony Russo (Temple) — Sept. 5
- James Blackman (Florida State) at Hank Bachmeier (Boise State) — Sept. 19
- Kenny Pickett (Pitt) at D'Eriq King (Miami) — Oct. 3
- Kenny Pickett (Pitt) vs. Ian Book (Notre Dame) — Oct. 17
- Tommy DeVito (Syracuse) at Trevor Lawrence (Clemson) — Oct. 24
- Hendon Hooker (Virginia Tech) at Micale Cunningham (Louisville) — Oct. 31
- James Blackman (Florida State) at D'Eriq King (Miami) — Nov. 7
- Trevor Lawrence (Clemson) at Sam Hartman (Wake Forest) — Nov. 21
- Trevor Lawrence (Clemson) vs. Ryan Hillinski (South Carolina) — Nov. 28
- James Blackman (Florida State) vs. Kyle Trask (Florida) — Nov. 28
- Micale Cunningham (Louisville) vs. Terry Wilson (Kentucky) — Nov. 28
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Top photo by UNC Athletic Communications, courtesy of goheels.com)