The battle to win the ACC looks to be a wide-open race atop both the Atlantic and Coastal Divisions in the way-too-early predictions for 2022. Clemson, NC State and Wake Forest each have a strong case to take the top spot in the Atlantic, while Miami and Pittsburgh get the early nod as the favorite in the Coastal. The ACC also features plenty of intriguing teams outside of the top contenders. Florida State is improving under coach Mike Norvell, North Carolina should still be a factor in the Coastal if it can replace quarterback Sam Howell, and both Virginia and Virginia Tech will have new coaches in '22.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2022 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its very early power rankings for the ACC for 2022:
Early ACC Football Predictions for 2022
Even with coordinator Brent Venables off to be the head coach at Oklahoma, the strength of Clemson’s ’22 squad will be its defense. This unit led the ACC by limiting teams to just 14.8 points a game in ’21 and returns standouts up front in Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy, along with linebacker Trenton Simpson and safety Andrew Mukuba. However, big concerns still surround the offense. The Tigers need better play up front and at receiver. Also, is quarterback DJ Uiagalelei poised to improve in his second year as the starter? Or will freshman Cade Klubnik win the job this offseason?
2. Wake Forest
Dave Clawson’s team is primed for another run at the Atlantic Division title. Quarterback Sam Hartman returns to pilot an offense that averaged 41 points a game last season. Leading rusher Christian Beal-Smith transferred to South Carolina and receiver Jaquarii Roberson is off to the NFL, but the Demon Deacons should be fine at the skill spots, especially with A.T. Perry (71 catches) back in ’22. Coordinator Brad Lambert was hired away from Purdue to improve a defense that allowed 31.2 points a game in ACC matchups last year. Wake Forest hosts Clemson but has to play at NC State next fall.
3. NC State
The Wolfpack rank No. 3 here (for now), but coach Dave Doeren’s team should be among the top 15 teams in early ’22 rankings. Quarterback Devin Leary returns to lead the offense, with replacing left tackle Ikem Ekwonu and running backs Ricky Person and Bam Knight topping the list of concerns. NC State’s defense finished second in the ACC in fewest points allowed (19.7 a game) in ’21. Look for this unit to be near the top of the conference again, especially with linebackers Payton Wilson and Isaiah Moore opting to return.
4. Florida State
The Seminoles showed progress in coach Mike Norvell’s second year, just missing out on a bowl with a 5-7 final record. More improvement is likely in 2022, especially with the offense in capable hands with quarterback Jordan Travis and talented options arriving from the transfer portal to restock the receiving corps. Also, Florida State’s offensive line has made significant progress over the last two seasons. After giving up 36 points a game in ’20, the ‘Noles cut that total to 26.5. End Jermaine Johnson will be missed, but this unit isn’t losing many significant contributors.
5. Boston College
The Eagles received good news when quarterback Phil Jurkovec passed on the NFL for another year in Chestnut Hill. Although there are personnel holes to fill up front along the offensive line, Jurkovec returns two standout skill players in running back Pat Garwo II (1,045 yards) and big-play receiver Zay Flowers (16.9 yards per catch) next fall. The offense should be more dynamic with Jurkovec in place next year, but coach Jeff Hafley’s defense needs to get better overall (5.7 yards per play allowed) and especially versus the run after giving up 170.3 yards a game.
The 2022 season is a critical one for coach Scott Satterfield after a 6-7 mark in 2021, but quarterback Malik Cunningham’s (305.8 total yards a game) returns gives this team a chance to finish higher in the ACC. Tight end Marshon Ford and running backs Tiyon Evans (Tennessee transfer) and Jalen Mitchell are set to anchor the key weapons around Cunningham. Louisville’s defense surrendered 5.8 yards per play and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 65.2 percent of their throws last season. Restocking the secondary will be a priority after a couple of transfers, while leading tackler C.J. Avery also finished his eligibility.
After three consecutive losing seasons, Dino Babers will enter ’22 on the hot seat. Babers hopes the hire of veteran play-caller Robert Anae helps to spark an offense that managed only 22.1 points a game in ACC matchups last year. Running back Sean Tucker (1,496 rushing yards in 2021) is arguably one of the nation’s most underrated players. Quarterback Garrett Shrader (781 yards) is a threat on the ground but only connected on 52.6 percent of his throws in ’21. Linebacker Mikel Jones and cornerback Garrett Williams are back to lead a defense that held opponents to 26.3 points a game (down from 32.7) last year.
The Panthers will miss quarterback Kenny Pickett, but USC transfer Kedon Slovis was added to push Nick Patti and Davis Beville for the starting nod next fall. Helping to ease the new signal-caller is All-American receiver Jordan Addison, along with all five starters returning on the offensive line. Pitt’s defense ranked among the best in the ACC by holding teams to 5.1 yards per play last fall. Coach Pat Narduzzi has a few holes to fill, but this unit is still in good shape entering 2022.
Pitt takes the top spot in the early ACC Coastal Division power rankings for 2022, but the ‘Canes aren’t too far behind. New coach Mario Cristobal returns one of the conference’s top signal-callers in Tyler Van Dyke and a rising star at running back in Jaylan Knighton. Also, Zion Nelson’s return is huge for the offensive line. Top receivers Charleston Rambo and Mike Harley must be replaced. Miami’s defense needs to show marked improvement (28.4 points a game allowed in ’21).
3. North Carolina
Quarterback Sam Howell is off to the NFL, leaving Drake Maye and Jacolby Criswell to battle for the starting nod under center. The question marks on North Carolina’s offense don’t just extend to the quarterback spot, as big-time improvement is needed along the offensive line after allowing 49 sacks in ’21. Gene Chizik returns to Chapel Hill to take over the defensive coordinator role. The former Auburn coach inherits a group that allowed 32.1 points a game and 6.1 yards per play last season.
4. Virginia Tech
New coach Brent Pry has a lengthy list of priorities to address in his first offseason in Blacksburg. The Hokies brought in two transfers (Jason Brown and Grant Wells) to push Connor Blumrick and Tahj Bullock in an unsettled quarterback room. Running back Malachi Thomas (440 yards) is promising and should be a key cog for the offense in ’22. Playmakers need to emerge at receiver after Tre Turner and Tayvion Robinson departed. The concerns aren’t as steep on a defense that held teams to 25.3 points a game in ’21, especially with Pry’s background at Penn State on defense. The Hokies did lose linemen Amare Barno and Jordan Williams and cornerback Jermaine Waller early to the NFL.
New coach Tony Elliott received good news when quarterback Brennan Armstrong announced his return for 2022. The senior should be among the top signal-callers in college football. Armstrong’s offensive line will feature new faces, but the receiving corps is expected to be a strength thanks to the return of Billy Kemp IV, Dontayvion Wicks and Lavel Davis Jr. Assuming Elliott and Armstrong mesh, scoring points shouldn’t be a problem. However, a defense that allowed 6.6 yards per play in ‘21 is still a concern.
6. Georgia Tech
With a 9-25 record through his first three years at the helm, the 2022 season marks an important point in coach Geoff Collins’ tenure at Georgia Tech. Jahmyr Gibbs’ transfer to Alabama was a setback, but Dontae Smith is back, and Louisville transfer Hassan Hall was added to lead the backfield. The Yellow Jackets need quarterback Jeff Sims to take a big step forward in his development in a competition with Akron transfer Zach Gibson. The defense also has plenty of room to improve after giving up 33.5 points a game in ’21. However, the bulk of the major contributors from last season are back, providing optimism more experience and depth can translate into improvement.
Mike Elko is a strong hire for Duke, but the former Texas A&M assistant has a long list of things to fix in 2022. An offense that averaged 14.9 points a game in ACC contests lost running back Mataeo Durant to the NFL, and top receiver Jake Bobo to transfer. The defense allowed 7.1 yards per play last season and allowed 45 or more points to each of their last six opponents.
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