Clemson is a heavy favorite to win the ACC in 2020
Clemson's dominant run in the ACC isn't likely to end in 2020, as coach Dabo Swinney's team is a heavy favorite to repeat as the conference champion. But the rest of the conference has plenty of intrigue in both divisions and how the early pecking order looks for next season. Louisville, Florida State and Wake Forest are locked into a close battle for the next three spots, followed by another close cluster between NC State, Syracuse and Boston College. As usual, the Coastal is one of the most difficult divisions to sort out in the very early predictions. For now, Virginia Tech holds a slight edge over North Carolina. However, the next tier of teams - Pitt, Miami and Virginia - isn't far behind. Look for Georgia Tech to improve in coach Geoff Collins' second year at the helm.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2020 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the ACC for 2020:
Early ACC Predictions for 2020
The Tigers will open 2020 as an overwhelming favorite to win the ACC. Coach Dabo Swinney’s team has won five consecutive conference titles and claimed two out of the last four national championships. With quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne back to lead the offense, Clemson should expect its sixth straight trip to the CFB Playoff. Lawrence will have a retooled line in front of him and won’t have receiver Tee Higgins, but there’s enough returning experience up front and plenty of talented playmakers to fill the void on the outside. Coordinator Brent Venables consistently churns out elite defenses and the 2020 version should be another standout group. An elite recruiting class adds to the depth and talent in the trenches, which is set to return Tyler Davis, Justin Foster and Xavier Thomas. Isaiah Simmons is a huge loss at linebacker, and the secondary has to replace cornerback A.J. Terrell and safeties Tanner Muse and K’Von Wallace. Clemson’s schedule is once again favorable, but a road trip to Notre Dame awaits on Nov. 7.
The Cardinals showed marked improvement in coach Scott Satterfield’s first year. After a 2-10 record in 2018, Louisville won eight games and finished second in the Atlantic Division with a 5-3 conference mark. With another offseason for Satterfield and his staff to build the program, contending for a finish in the top 25 should be within reach. The Cardinals finished second in the ACC by averaging 6.68 yards a snap and will be explosive once again. Quarterback Micale Cunningham, running back Javian Hawkins and receiver Tutu Atwell form one of the top trios in the ACC. The biggest loss on offense is standout left tackle Mekhi Becton, but three other starts up front are back for 2020. Improving a defense that allowed 33.4 points a game and did not have a player selected for all-conference honors is the No. 1 priority this offseason. This group must get better versus the run and the pass, while also generating more pressure (27 sacks). With most of the two-deep returning, the pieces are in place for this unit to take a step forward in 2020. Road trips to Notre Dame, Syracuse, Clemson and Virginia dot the schedule, but Louisville gets key swing games versus Kentucky, Florida State, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest at home next fall.
3. Florida State
Florida State made the best hire of the offseason by landing Mike Norvell to replace Willie Taggart as the program’s next coach. Norvell won’t return the program to the top of the ACC in one offseason, but he’s starting to put the pieces in place for the Seminoles to improve significantly over the next couple of years. Florida State finished 4-4 in conference play in 2019 and lost four of its games by seven points or less, so small improvement could lead to an eight-win debut. Norvell has to find a quarterback to direct his high-powered offense, and James Blackman will be pushed by Jordan Travis and two incoming freshmen for the starting job. Cam Akers leaves big shoes to fill at running back, but Khalan Laborn and Texas A&M transfer Jashaun Corbin (if awarded a waiver) is potentially a solid one-two punch. Tamorrion Terry (60 catches) passed on the NFL for another season in Tallahassee and should be the go-to target for whichever quarterback wins the job. Improving the offensive line is Norvell’s top priority this offseason. The addition of FIU transfer Devontay Taylor will help, but this unit has struggled mightily the last two years. New defensive coordinator Adam Fuller inherits a group that allowed 27.8 points a game in 2019. The path to improvement is already off to a good start, as lineman Marvin Wilson decided to return for 2020 and defensive back/linebacker Jaiden Lars-Woodbey returns to the lineup after missing most of the season due to injury. The Seminoles won’t lose much in the way of key pieces off the defense, so Fuller’s arrival could help this group take a step forward next fall. An intriguing non-conference matchup is slated at Boise State on Sept. 19, and the road schedule features trips to Syracuse, NC State, Miami and Louisville. A crucial swing game for positioning in the Atlantic against Wake Forest takes place in Tallahassee.
4. Wake Forest
For the first time in program history, the Demon Deacons have made four consecutive bowl trips. Even though Jamie Newman left as a transfer to Georgia, coach Dave Clawson’s team should extend that streak to five in 2020. After throwing for 1,984 yards and 16 touchdowns as the team’s starter in 2018, Sam Hartman is back under center as the team’s No. 1 quarterback. The sophomore should be one of the ACC’s top signal-callers next season, and the return of Sage Surratt provides a big-time playmaker at receiver. Clawson has to restock the receiving corps outside of Surratt, as Kendall Hinton (73 catches), Scotty Washington (35) and tight end Jack Freudenthal (32) depart. Kenneth Walker III (579 yards) should keep the ground game performing at a high level with Cade Carney out of eligibility, and Maryland graduate transfer Terrance Davis is a key pickup with both tackles – Justin Herron and Jake Benzinger – out of eligibility. Wake Forest’s defense will have to replace linebacker Justin Strnad and cornerbacks Essang Bassey and Amari Henderson off a unit that gave up 29.1 points a game and 5.8 yards a play. However, first-team All-ACC Carlos Basham (11 sacks) passed on the NFL to return for 2020. Key swing games against Florida State, Louisville and NC State take place on the road. However, Clemson, Miami and Syracuse come to Winston-Salem next year.
5. NC State
Coach Dave Doeren’s seat is starting to warm in Raleigh after a 4-8 record in 2019. After back-to-back nine-win seasons (2017-18), the Wolfpack won just one contest in ACC play and lost six of its seven conference matchups by more than 14 points. A revamped coaching staff was a step in the right direction this offseason, as Tim Beck was hired to call plays on offense, with Tony Gibson handling the defensive side. Devin Leary (1,219 yards and eight touchdowns) gained valuable experience at quarterback as a freshman last fall, but Bailey Hockman, Ty Evans and incoming freshman Ben Finley are also in the mix under center. Whichever quarterback wins the job has a solid supporting cast in place, as Zonovan Knight and Jordan Houston power the ground game and four of the team’s top five receivers back for 2020. The offensive line surrendered only 18 sacks in 2019 and is slated to return intact. The Wolfpack lose a couple of pieces up front and in the secondary, but the linebacker unit features promising players in Payton Wilson and Isaiah Moore. An early-season matchup against Mississippi State is a good barometer test, and Doeren’s squad gets key swing games against Boston College, Duke, Wake Forest and Florida State in Carter-Finley Stadium.
After a disappointing 5-7 record in 2019, coach Dino Babers isn’t sitting idle. Two new coordinators (Sterlin Gilbert for offense and Zach Arnett for defense) will help get this program back on track after a five-game regression in the win column. After averaging 40.2 points a game in 2018, Syracuse recorded only 28.3 a contest last fall. The development of quarterback Tommy DeVito is crucial to propel the offense in 2020, but the line has to take a massive step forward after allowing 50 sacks last season. Jarveon Howard and Abdul Adams are a capable duo on the ground, but the passing game is going to miss receiver Trishton Jackson (66 catches). Changes on defense were a must after Syracuse surrendered 30.7 points a game in 2019, but Arnett is inheriting a group that loses key linemen Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman, linebackers Andrew Armstrong and Lakiem Williams and defensive backs Christopher Fredrick and Evan Foster. Safety Andre Cisco should be among the top players in the ACC at his position. Rutgers, Colgate, Western Michigan and Liberty is a favorable non-conference slate, and Syracuse hosts Georgia Tech, Louisville and NC State in key swing games. However, the Orange play at Pitt, Clemson, Boston College and Wake Forest next season.
7. Boston College
Jeff Hafley is a good hire for Boston College, and the former Ohio State assistant isn’t inheriting a complete rebuild since the program has been to bowl games in six out of the last seven years. Transitioning to the new staff won’t be totally seamless, but Hafley has enough returning talent to push for a bowl. There’s no question AJ Dillon is going to be missed at running back, but David Bailey (844 yards) is a capable replacement. He will have one of the ACC’s top offensive lines clearing the way in 2020. While the ground game should be strong, the Eagles enter spring practice with major question marks at quarterback and at receiver. Hafley’s defensive acumen should provide immediate help for a unit that surrendered 32.2 points a game in 2019. Similar to the offense, the cupboard isn’t bare. Max Richardson is one of the ACC’s top returning linebackers, and there’s young talent with experience coming back up front and in the secondary. Purdue visits Chestnut Hill in non-conference play, but the crossover slate with the Coastal Division isn’t kind. Boston College gets both North Carolina and Virginia Tech next fall, with road trips against Florida State, NC State and Wake Forest also on tap.
1. Virginia Tech
It’s a close call for the top spot in the ACC Coastal for 2020. A slight edge goes to the Hokies over North Carolina in the very early predictions. After a 2-2 start, coach Justin Fuente’s team rebounded by winning six of its next seven games. Losses to Virginia and Kentucky dropped the team to 8-5 overall, but the second-half run should set up this team for good things in 2020. Quarterback Hendon Hooker’s emergence was a factor in the second-half surge, and the junior should benefit from a full offseason to work as the No. 1 quarterback. Deshawn McClease is off to the NFL, but Keshawn King and Kansas transfer Khalil Herbert are capable running backs. Damon Hazelton’s decision to enter the transfer portal was a setback to a receiving group that returns Tre Turner, Tayvion Robinson and tight end James Mitchell. The offensive line should take a big step forward with the two-deep returning intact, along with the arrival of transfer Brock Hoffman at center. Bud Foster retired after a distinguished career in Blacksburg. Former Hokie Justin Hamilton will take over the play-calling duties and inherits a group that returns nearly everyone from the 2019 version that showed improvement from a down year in '18. Linebacker Rayshard Ashby is one of the best defensive players in the ACC, and cornerback Caleb Farley should challenge for All-America honors. Virginia Tech will be tested right away with Penn State visiting on Sept. 12. Key ACC games against Miami and Virginia take place at home, but Fuente’s squad hits the road to play Pitt, North Carolina and Louisville.
2. North Carolina
Mack Brown’s return to the sideline in Chapel Hill is off to a good start. North Carolina finished 7-6, with all six defeats coming by seven points or less in 2019. After a standout freshman campaign, quarterback Sam Howell (3,641 yards and 38 TDs) has North Carolina poised to push for a Coastal Division title in 2020. The Tar Heels have plenty of firepower to deploy around Howell. Running back Michael Carter (1,003 yards) and receivers Dyami Brown (51 catches) and Dazz Newsome (72) are back to support an offense that averaged 33.1 points a game in 2019. Left tackle Charlie Heck will be missed up front, but most of the line is set to return. North Carolina’s defense showed big-time improvement under coordinator Jay Bateman last fall. After giving up 34.5 points a game, this unit surrendered only 23.7 in ’19. Safety Myles Dorn and linemen Aaron Crawford and Jason Strowbridge will be tough to replace. However, converted quarterback Chazz Surratt is back after thriving at linebacker in 2019, and the secondary will benefit from the return of Myles Wolfolk and Patrice Rene from injury. North Carolina faces a tough start to the season with a trip to UCF and a neutral site game against Auburn on tap. However, Virginia Tech visits Chapel Hill in a crucial matchup that could decide the Coastal Division.
The Hurricanes certainly have talent, but this is a tough team to figure out after a 6-7 mark. In Manny Diaz’s debut, Miami knocked off Virginia (the Coastal champion) and picked up victories at Pitt and Florida State. The Hurricanes lost all seven of its games by 14 points or less, including matchups versus Florida (four) and Virginia Tech (seven). However, those defeats including puzzling performances against FIU, Duke and a shutout loss (14-0) to Louisiana Tech in the Independence Bowl. Diaz isn’t sitting idle this offseason, as the second-year coach hired Rhett Lashlee from SMU as his new offensive play-caller and landed Houston graduate transfer D'Eriq King at quarterback. Lashlee will run a spread attack, which figures to be a good fit for King and the skill talent in Coral Gables. Tight end Brevin Jordan is back to headline the receiving corps, and Cam’Ron Harris leads the way at running back. An upgrade at quarterback and scheme should jumpstart the offense, but this unit also has to get better play up front after the line allowed 51 sacks in 2019. King's mobility and athleticism should help alleviate some of the pressure in the trenches. Diaz’s defense finished second in the ACC (20.2 ppg) last season and should rank near the top of the league once again. The linebacker unit has to be restocked, but Zach McCloud returns after a redshirt year, and the line is anchored by rising star Gregory Rousseau (15.5 sacks). Temple graduate transfer Quincy Roche (13 sacks) also committed to Miami and should start opposite of Rousseau and form one of the ACC's top defensive end duos next season. The secondary returns largely intact but replacing cornerback Trajan Bandy won’t be easy. The addition of FIU transfer Jose Borregales (21 of 29 FGs in 2019) solves a major question mark at kicker. Miami hosts North Carolina and Florida State next fall, with key games versus Virginia and Virginia Tech away from home. The 'Canes get the nod at No. 3 in the early Coastal picks, but there's very little separation between Diaz's team, Pitt and Virginia.
The 2019 Pitt defense was the best of coach Pat Narduzzi’s tenure in the Steel City, as it held teams to 4.5 yards a play and 22.5 points a game. The Panthers have a couple of holes to fill at linebacker and must replace cornerback Dane Jackson, but there’s a good chance this defense is even better in 2020. Safety Damar Hamlin received an additional year of eligibility, and end Rashad Weaver and tackle Keyshon Camp return from injury. Additionally, All-ACC players in safety Paris Ford, tackle Jalen Twyman and end Patrick Jones are back next season. Contending for the Coastal Division crown will hinge on how far the offense develops this offseason. Pitt averaged only 21.2 points a game and ranked 13th in the ACC in rushing offense. Those numbers leave a lot to be desired, but four starters up front, quarterback Kenny Pickett, receiver Taysir Mack and running backs A.J. Davis and Vincent Davis are set to return. Virginia Tech comes to Heinz Field next fall, but the Panthers face Virginia, North Carolina, Miami and Florida State on the road.
Teams 3-5 in the early Coastal Division predictions are tough to sort out. Replacing Bryce Perkins won’t be easy, but don’t expect coach Bronco Mendenhall’s team to slip too far in the win column after earning the division title in 2019. Brennan Armstrong is the early frontrunner to replace Perkins under center, but the offense could benefit from more production out of its ground game after averaging only 3.8 yards per rush. Terrell Jana should be the go-to target with Hasise Dubois (75 catches) and Joe Reed (77) out of eligibility. The offensive line should improve with this unit set to return intact for 2020. Virginia may have to lean more on its defense until the offense falls into place. This group surrendered 27.1 points a game in 2019 but is set to return key cogs in safety Joey Blount and linebackers Charles Snowden, Zane Zandier and Noah Taylor. The return of safety Brenton Nelson and cornerback Darrius Bratton from injury should help in the secondary, and Jowon Briggs, Mandy Alonso, Jordan Redmond and Aaron Faumui provide a solid foundation up front. Virginia opens with Georgia in Atlanta and has to play at Virginia Tech and Clemson next season. Key swing games against Miami, North Carolina, Louisville and Pitt take place in Charlottesville.
6. Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets are headed in the right direction under coach Geoff Collins. The 2020 recruiting class ranks inside of the top 30 and a couple of transfers – Ryan Johnson (OL), Derrik Allen (safety), Marquez Ezzard (WR) and Antonneous Clayton (DE) – will provide instant help on both sides of the ball. Additionally, the program should be more comfortable after a full year to transition in schemes to the new staff. Offensively, Georgia Tech needs more consistency in the passing game and a little better luck in the injury department up front. Quarterback James Graham flashed potential in limited time, and running back Jordan Mason (899 yards) should push for All-ACC honors once again after picking up third-team accolades last season. Ahmarean Brown (18.7 ypc) headlines a receiving corps that features its top three options. Georgia Tech gave up 32.4 points a game in 2019 but only one senior ranked among the team’s top 20 tacklers. Linebacker David Curry and cornerback Tre Swilling are back as the headliners for Collins. The non-conference slate features games against UCF, Notre Dame and Georgia, with crossover matchups versus Clemson and Syracuse on tap for 2020.
The Blue Devils started 2019 with a 4-2 mark through six games but finished with losses in five out of their next six contests. Getting back to a winning record and bowl game will require coach David Cutcliffe to find a quarterback to replace Quentin Harris and improve a defense that allowed nearly 30 points (29.2) a contest. Chris Katrenick, Gunnar Holmberg and incoming freshman Luca Diamont will battle for the starting job this offseason. There are holes to fill in the receiving corps, but tight end Noah Gray (51 catches) and Jalon Calhoun (46 catches) are back. Deon Jackson (641 yards) headlines the ground attack, but Duke needs more consistency out of the trenches after rushers managed only 3.6 yards per rush in 2019. Each level of the defense has holes to fill. Up front, Edgar Cerenord and Tre Hornbuckle are gone, while the linebacker unit has to replace Koby Quansah. Safety Dylan Singleton is the lone departure in the secondary. Linemen Victor Dimukeje (8.5 sacks) and Chris Rumph II (13.5 TFL) rank among the ACC’s top returning players in the trenches. Duke begins 2020 with three must-win non-conference matchups against MTSU, Elon and Charlotte. The Blue Devils face a tough path in ACC play with road trips at Georgia Tech, NC State, Pitt and Miami. Additionally, a date at Notre Dame narrows the margin of error for a bowl game.
Podcast: Early 2020 Predictions and Rankings