The early ACC predictions for the 2021 college football season feature Clemson atop the league once again. The Tigers should be a heavy preseason favorite to claim the league title, with North Carolina and Miami pushing for a spot among the top 10-15 in most projections next fall. The conference has good depth outside of the top three, including NC State, Boston College, Louisville, Virginia Tech, Pitt and Virginia. Florida State should be improved in coach Mike Norvell's second season, and there's optimism for Georgia Tech to take a step forward in coach Geoff Collins' third year.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2021 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the ACC for 2021:
Early ACC Football Predictions for 2021
The Tigers will be a heavy favorite to claim their seventh ACC title in a row next fall. New quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei is a rising star and showcased the upside that made him one of the top recruits in the 2020 signing class in appearances over Boston College and Notre Dame. Incoming freshman Will Shipley and Lyn-J Dixon are expected to anchor the backfield with Travis Etienne off to the NFL, and the receiving corps received a boost with Justyn Ross opting to return in ’21. Improving the offensive line is a priority this offseason, and left tackle Jackson Carman must be replaced after departing early for the NFL. Clemson has work to do in the secondary after Ohio State torched this unit in the Sugar Bowl, but the front is set with rising stars Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy back, along with James Skalski returning for an extra year of eligibility. The opener against Georgia in Charlotte is one of the top games of 2021.
2. NC State
The Wolfpack rebounded in a big way from last year’s 4-8 mark to finish 8-4 in 2020. The bulk of the roster is back for ’21, and quarterback Devin Leary returns after missing most of ’20 due to injury. Zonovan "Bam" Knight and Ricky Person Jr. are back to power the ground game, and the team’s top three wide receivers – including Emeka Emezie after passing on the NFL – also return next fall. Guard Joe Sculthorpe departs up front, but the rest of the unit is intact. The Wolfpack defense finished third in the ACC in fewest yards per play (5.48) and seventh in points allowed (29.2). This group can improve on the stat sheet in ’21, especially if a replacement can be found for standout lineman Alim McNeill. End Daniel Joseph passed on the NFL for one more year in Raleigh, and the linebacker unit is one of the best in the ACC with Payton Wilson, Isaiah Moore and Drake Thomas back for ’20. Road trips to Florida State, Miami and Boston College won’t be easy, while Clemson, Louisville and North Carolina come to Carter-Finley Stadium.
3. Boston College
Jeff Hafley had an impressive debut in Chestnut Hill, guiding the Eagles to a 6-5 finish after most preseason predictions projected this program to finish at the bottom of the ACC. The pieces are in place for another winning mark in 2021. Quarterback Phil Jurkovec is one of the top returning signal-callers in the ACC, and the Pennsylvania native is supported by one of the league’s top offensive lines and a receiving corps featuring Kobay White (back from injury), Zay Flowers (56 catches), and Jaelen Gill (29). Standout tight end Hunter Long must be replaced. Boston College’s defense needs to take a step forward after allowing 6.1 yards per play in 2020, and Hafley has to replace the team’s top two linebackers (Isaiah McDuffie and Max Richardson), along with leading pass rusher Maximilian Roberts. Transfers Jaiden Lars-Woodbey (DB/LB), Khris Banks (DL) and Isaiah Graham-Mobley (LB) should provide instant help next fall.
The Cardinals had some bad luck on their side in 2020, as four of the team’s seven losses came by seven points or less and the team had a turnover margin of minus-12. Coach Scott Satterfield’s team should be due for a few bounces in their direction, especially if they do a better job of taking care of the ball. Quarterback Malik Cunningham and the bulk of the offensive line is back, but the skill talent will require some retooling with running back Javian Hawkins and receivers Dez Fitzpatrick and Tutu Atwell off to the NFL. Louisville’s defense made strides in the second half of the season and cut its points allowed from 33.4 in 2019 to 26.6 in ’20. Linebacker Dorian Etheridge opted to declare for the draft, but C.J. Avery chose to return for an extra year of eligibility. Improving the pass rush and getting tougher against the run will be two areas of focus this offseason. The non-conference schedule features games against Ole Miss, UCF and Kentucky, while Louisville doesn’t have to play Miami, Virginia Tech or North Carolina in crossover play.
5. Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons finished 2020 ranked third in the ACC in scoring (36.0 ppg) and will be the unquestioned strength for ’21. Quarterback Sam Hartman is back after throwing for 2,224 yards and 13 touchdowns, with his top three receivers – Jaquarii Roberson, Donavon Greene and Taylor Morin – returning on the outside. Christian Beal-Smith will assume the bulk of the carries with Kenneth Walker III deciding to transfer. There’s room to improve up front after allowing 27 sacks, but this unit should return intact. Although Wake Forest’s defense will miss standout end Carlos "Boogie" Basham, most of the two-deep is likely to return. The Demon Deacons have not finished higher than eighth in the ACC in fewest yards per play since 2013. Key swing matchups against Duke, Florida State, Louisville and NC State take place in Winston-Salem.
6. Florida State
While Florida State checks in at No. 6 here, there’s very little separation from the third spot to here. In other words, don’t be surprised if all of these teams are clustered together at the end of 2021. The Seminoles should be better in coach Mike Norvell’s second year at the helm. The transfer portal is helping Norvell close some gaps on the roster, as the team announced key pickups in McKenzie Milton (QB), Andrew Parchment (WR), and D.J. Williams (RB). Also, the makings for an improved offensive line appear to finally be in place after this unit struggled the last couple of years. The defense is also receiving a boost from transfers, as Keir Thomas (DL), Jermaine Johnson (LB), and defensive backs Brandon Moore, Jarques McClellion and Jammie Robinson provide instant help. Those additions will help, but Florida State’s defense still has a lot to fix after giving up 6.5 yards per play in 2020. The opener against Notre Dame is a good barometer test for Norvell’s team and road trips to Boston College, Clemson, North Carolina and Wake Forest are set for ’21.
The Orange are just 6-17 after a 10-3 mark in 2018. Can Dino Babers get this program back on track in ’21? In order to do so, the offense (Babers’ specialty) needs to take a big step forward after averaging only 4.5 yards a play and 17.8 points a game in 2020. Tommy DeVito is back from injury, but Mississippi State transfer Garrett Shrader will join the mix to start at quarterback. Under center isn’t the only concern for Babers, as the offensive line has to improve after giving up 38 sacks. Running back Sean Tucker and receiver Taj Harris headline the skill talent. A full offseason to implement the 3-3-5 defense should be a boost, and the Orange bring back some promising pieces at linebacker and in the secondary.
1. North Carolina
Quarterback Sam Howell is back at the controls for North Carolina’s high-powered offense, but his supporting cast will look different with running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, along with receivers Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown off to the NFL. The Tar Heels should have enough weapons to keep this unit firing on all cylinders, and an intact offensive line certainly doesn’t hurt. Linebacker Chazz Surratt will be missed, but North Carolina’s defense won’t lose many other major contributors for 2021. Cornerback Tony Grimes is a rising star, and Tomon Fox returning for an extra year of eligibility is good news for the pass rush. A non-conference trip to Notre Dame is set for late October, but Miami comes to Chapel Hill in a matchup that could decide the winner of the Coastal.
The Hurricanes were better in coach Manny Diaz’s second year and contending for the Coastal Division title is within reach if quarterback D’Eriq King is able to return at full strength from a torn ACL suffered in the bowl loss to Oklahoma State. Tight end Brevin Jordan departed early to the NFL, but the supporting cast for King remains strong with running backs Cam’Ron Harris, Donald Chaney and Jaylan Knighton, along with receivers Mike Harley, Mark Pope, Dee Wiggins and Oklahoma transfer Charleston Rambo. The offensive line could return completely intact if Jarrid Williams passes on the NFL. Miami’s defense took a step back in 2020, and as a result, Diaz will call plays next year. Replacing the production of Quincy Roche and Jaelan Phillips off the edge and improving the linebacker unit are top priorities this spring. Georgia transfer Tyrique Stevenson is a huge addition for the secondary.
3. Virginia Tech
It’s no secret the 2021 season is an important one for coach Justin Fuente. The Hokies went 5-6 last fall, which marked the program’s second losing record in three years after not having one from 1993-2017. With Hendon Hooker transferring, Braxton Burmeister is expected to get the nod under center. Quarterback isn’t the only question mark for this offense. Standout left tackle Christian Darrisaw and top running back Khalil Herbert are off to the NFL. Virginia Tech still returns a good foundation up front, and Burmeister has three capable targets – Tayvion Robinson, Tre Turner and tight end James Mitchell – to lean on in the passing game. Injuries and COVID-19 issues hit the defense hard in 2020. A full offseason for coordinator Justin Hamilton to rebuild this group is a positive, but linebacker Rayshard Ashby, safety Divine Deablo and linemen Jarrod Hewitt and Justus Reed leave big shoes to fill. In addition to non-conference games versus West Virginia and Notre Dame, the Hokies have road trips in ACC play against Virginia, Boston College, Miami and Georgia Tech.
The Panthers' hopes of a finish near the top of the Coastal Division received a boost when quarterback Kenny Pickett passed on the NFL for one more season in the Steel City. The senior will have his top target Jordan Addison (60 catches) back at receiver, leading rusher Vincent Davis to anchor the ground game, and a couple of starters, plus Maryland transfer Marcus Minor in the trenches. After averaging only 5.1 yards a snap in 2020, the offense has to improve to support a defense that held teams to 4.88 yards per play. Coach Pat Narduzzi will have his hands full trying to replace standout ends Patrick Jones II and Rashad Weaver, along with safety Damar Hamlin. While those are hefty losses, this unit should still be a strength for Narduzzi.
It was no surprise the Cavaliers took a step back in the win column last year after winning the Coastal Division in 2019. Replacing quarterback Bryce Perkins was a tough task, but coach Bronco Mendenhall’s team should be poised to rebound in ’20. Brennan Armstrong settled in at quarterback to average 296.6 total yards a game and returns to pilot an offense that posted 30.7 points a contest. The offensive line is a strength with everyone back, and Armstrong will have proven options at the skill positions with Wayne Taulapapa at running back and Lavel Davis Jr. and Billy Kemp IV at receiver. Mendenhall’s defense was hit hard by injuries last season and must replace standout linebackers Charles Snowden, Matt Gahm and Zane Zandier this spring. Additionally, the secondary ranked last in the ACC in pass efficiency defense in 2020. Mendenhall returns to old stomping grounds with a trip to BYU on Oct. 30.
6. Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets have flashed potential under coach Geoff Collins, but a big jump in the win column could be tough next fall with games against Notre Dame, Georgia, Clemson, North Carolina and Miami. The offense is in good hands after the youth movement of Jeff Sims at quarterback and Jahmyr Gibbs at running back this season. Gibbs is joined by Jordan Mason in the backfield to give the Yellow Jackets a good one-two punch. Sims should be better in year two as the starter, especially if he can take better care of the ball (13 interceptions). The defense also has a ways to go after giving up 36.8 points a game in 2020 – an increase after holding teams to 32.4 in ’19. The bulk of the depth chart returns, and there’s some help on the way from the transfer portal, including edge rusher Keion White from Old Dominion.
After earning six bowl trips from 2012-18, the Blue Devils are just 7-16 over the last two seasons. Coach David Cutcliffe hopes a staff shakeup on offense will help this team get back on track. Jeff Faris will take over play-calling duties from Cutcliffe after Duke managed only 5.03 yards per play in 2020. With Chase Brice transferring to Appalachian State, Gunnar Holmberg and Luca Diamont will compete for the starting quarterback job this offseason. Leading rusher Mataeo Durant (817 yards), most of the offensive line and top receivers Jake Bobo and Jalon Calhoun are set to return. The question marks extend to the defense after allowing 38.1 points a game in ’20. Ends Chris Rumph II and Victor Dimukeje and safety Michael Carter II opted to declare for the NFL, while Drew Jordan and Derrick Tangelo departed the trenches as transfers.