Certainly, Clemson was among the nation's best college football teams from day one in 2018. On the other end of the spectrum, Louisville was going to struggle last season due to key personnel losses and dysfunction in the program.
But the emergence of wide receiver Justyn Ross late in the year helped transform the Tigers from a contender into a dominant champion. And the disappointment of Jawon Pass at quarterback for the Cardinals sealed their spot at the bottom of the standings.
Every team in America has under-the-radar players they are counting on to step up and their play will go a long way in determining success or failure. Here are offensive and defensive players for each ACC program that fall into that wild card category.
Offense: Hunter Long, TE
AJ Dillon should take care of the running game. What head coach Steve Addazio needs is a downfield receiving threat to complement the dependable Kobay White. Long showed in limited time last year that he could be a big-play option and with Tommy Sweeney now gone, he will see plenty of action this fall.
Defense: Brandon Barlow, DE
The Eagles suffered heavy losses on the defensive side of the ball, perhaps the biggest being ends Zach Allen and Wyatt Ray. Barlow will be asked to contribute both as a pass rusher and as a stout run defender.
Offense: Jackson Carman, OT
There are not many holes on the Clemson offense, but they will have to find some answers along the offensive line. Mitch Hyatt was a starter for four years at left tackle and that type of experience is hard to replace. But the Tigers will plug in Carman, a former blue-chip recruit with a very high upside.
Defense: Derion Kendrick, CB
A five-star wide receiver in the class of 2018, Kendrick was moved to the secondary this spring because of a numbers crunch and he excelled. It helps that the Tigers have an incredibly deep group of pass catchers, but Kendrick may have been Clemson's best corner in the spring and he will not be moving back to offense.
Offense: Kendal Briles, Offensive Coordinator
The hiring of a Briles always brings controversy after what transpired at Baylor. In this case, it is the ultimate risk/reward situation. Briles put together dynamic offenses during his time in Waco and had success at both FAU and Houston. But the FSU pieces – especially quarterback James Blackman – may not be a perfect match for what Briles wants to run. And if this experiment doesn't work, it will probably end Willie Taggart's tenure at Florida State.
Defense: Joshua Kaindoh, DE
An uber-recruit coming out of high school, the world is still waiting for Kaindoh to really make an impact. As a sophomore, he did have three sacks, but with Brian Burns off to the NFL, more is needed from the 6-foot-7, 256-pounder.
Offense: Malik Cunningham, QB
No one knows at this time whether Cunningham or Jawon Pass will win the starting quarterback job. What is known is that Cunningham is dangerous with the ball in his hands and must be utilized by new head coach Scott Satterfield.
Defense: Russ Yeast, S
Yeast came to Louisville with high expectations and showed promise as a freshman. But things unraveled last year to the point where the former four-star prospect considered transferring. Yeast returned and will now get a fresh start with a new coaching staff.
Offense: Tabari Hines, WR
After three very productive years at Wake Forest, knee issues limited Hines to just one game at Oregon last season. As a result, the 5-foot-10, 185-pounder was able to transfer for the second year in a row and will look to help ease the pain of losing 1,000-yard receivers Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers.
Defense: Alim NcNeill, DT
After a nice freshman season, McNeil is ready to shoulder a heavier load this fall. He gave a glimpse of what the future may hold in the final two regular season games as he registered six solo stops in the contests against North Carolina and East Carolina.
Offense: Tommy DeVito, QB
The sophomore is different than previous Cuse quarterback, Eric Dungey. DeVito will stay in the pocket and won't look to run as much as Dungey. But if the Livingston, N.J., product can live up to his high school hype, the Syracuse offense will continue to pile up points.
Defense: Tyrell Richards, LB
With Alton Robinson at one end and Kendall Coleman at the other, Syracuse doesn't have a problem rushing the passer. But the sophomore Richards had three sacks in limited time last year and could provide a big threat on the outside.
Offense: Kendall Hinton, WR
As a quarterback, he was a terrific athlete that never seemed to fully grasp the system. As a slot receiver, Hinton is again learning the nuances of the position. But if he does, he has the tools to fill the void left by Greg Dortch's departure.
Defense: Shamar McCollum, DE
The freshman showed up on campus in January ready to play. For a good portion of spring camp, McCollum ran with the ones, and even if he doesn't start, he will make an impact on the end opposite Carlos Basham.
Offense: Scott Bracey, WR
Quentin Harris has proved that he can win games as a quarterback at Duke, but he needs some targets to throw to now that Jonathan Lloyd and T.J. Rahming have exhausted their eligibility. Bracey has battled injury problems during his time at Duke, but if he remains healthy, he has the skills to become a top target.
Defense: Mark Gilbert, CB
Going into last season, Gilbert was a first-team All-ACC selection by Athlon Sports. Unfortunately, a hip injury ended his season early. If Gilbert is back to 100 percent, he could make a good Duke secondary even stronger.
Offense: Lucas Johnson or James Graham, QBs
It doesn't matter which one wins the starting job; the position is going to look different than it has the past several years. Geoff Collins needs linemen that can block in coordinator David Patenaude's scheme, running backs that can do multiple things, and receivers that can actually run routes and catch. But most importantly, he needs a quarterback that can operate a spread system.
Defense: Antwan Owens, DE
Only three starters are back on the Jackets defense and most of the new starters up front saw very little playing time. Owens is the most experienced, though he has to create more havoc plays from his end position.
Offense: K.J. Osborn, WR
Much has been made of Miami's quarterback situation. But like at Duke, the Canes have to find someone to catch the ball. Jeff Thomas is solid, but a home-run hitter is needed. Osborn transferred in from Buffalo, where he caught 53 passes for 892 yards and seven touchdowns in 2018.
Defense: Trevon Hill, DE
Another transfer, Hill began the 2018 season with two sacks for Virginia Tech against Florida State and then two weeks later had a sack and a half in the shocking loss to ODU. But by that point, the relationship between Hill and the Hokies coaching staff had soured and he was off the team following the game. Now at Miami, Hill could slide into Joe Jackson's vacant rush end spot.
Offense: Dyami Brown, WR
Dazz Newsome led the team in receptions as a sophomore, but with Anthony Ratliff-Williams gone, he'll need some help. Brown caught 17 passes as a true freshman and in Phil Longo's new offensive system, those numbers could triple.
Defense: Jonathan Smith, LB
Smith is a huge wild card. Injuries and academic difficulties have sidetracked what could have been an outstanding career. But there is still a chance. Smith wasn't eligible this spring, but if he can play, and if he is healthy, he could be a major impact player on the Heels' defense.
Offense: Carter Warren, OT
The Panthers lose two 1,000-yard rushers in Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall. Perhaps more importantly, they also must replace four offensive linemen. Warren (6-5, 315) has not played yet during his time at Pittsburgh, but a solid spring put him in position to be the starting left tackle entering fall camp.
Defense: Paris Ford, S
He signed with Pitt as a high four-star recruit out of Steel Valley High School in 2017, but he has totaled just five tackles and no passes defended with the Panthers. Now a redshirt sophomore, it's time. With Damar Hamlin and Dane Jackson also in the secondary, an effective Ford would allow head coach Pat Narduzzi to do what he really likes to do: turn the front seven loose.
Offense: Alex Gellerstedt, OT
The UVA offensive line is going to be exceptionally young. Though Gellerstedt is new to the program – and only played in eight games during his career at Penn State – he is entering his senior year academically and can give some experience to this green unit.
Defense: Noah Taylor, LB
The Hoos return a solid defensive corps. But one thing they didn't do all that well in 2018 was rush the passer and the team's biggest disruptive force, Chris Peace, is no longer around. Taylor could fill that role. Primarily a special teamer last season, the athletic sophomore has added size and strength in an effort to become more explosive.
Offense: Jalen Holston, RB
The Hokies haven't had a dynamic running game since David Wilson's 1,700-yard season in 2011. At this point, any Hokie pushing 1,000 yards would be reason to celebrate. While DeShawn McClease decided to return, the best chance for a breakout at running back may be Holston. The junior had a good spring and will see an increased role this season.
Defense: Dax Hollifield, Linebacker
The true freshman was fourth on the team in tackles and showed an infectious energy. What can he do as a sophomore? Becoming a true leader on a team that needs it would be a start. Hollifield has all-conference potential and could team with Rayshard Ashby to give the Hokies an elite linebacker corps.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.