ACC Football: Preview and Predictions for 2020 Season
While the Clemson Tigers are clearly the program to beat in the ACC, the five-time reigning champions face a more challenging road to the conference title in 2020.
First, of course, there's the unknown amid the coronavirus pandemic. Will the season start? What about delays? Will the season finish?
Those are all important questions. And, quite possibly, the answers could prevent the ACC from completing its 2020 campaign.
If ACC football is played, though, B/R will be covering it. We're breaking down the best teams, biggest names, top stories—well, hello there, Notre Dame—and key information you should know about the conference and its potential 2020 season.
Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
Heading into the season, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller considers Lawrence the best 2021 draft-eligible prospect. That reputation is fully deserved. Lawrence has 6,945 yards and 66 touchdowns to 12 interceptions in two seasons at Clemson. Last season, he also emerged as a mobile threat with 563 yards and nine scores on the ground.
Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson
Etienne turned a few heads when he decided to return for his senior season. In both 2018 and 2019, he eclipsed 1,600 yards on the ground. Similar to Lawrence, Etienne added another element to his game last season. The speedster caught 37 passes for 432 yards and four touchdowns.
Ian Book, QB, Notre Dame
Since entering the lineup in early 2018, Book has guided the Irish to a 19-3 record. He collected 3,034 yards and 34 touchdowns last season while throwing only six interceptions. And with 1,032 career rushing yards, Book is also a threat to run.
Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina
The ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2019, Howell helped UNC rise from an afterthought to a competitive team. Though the Tar Heels finished 7-6, they also never lost by more than seven points. It was a huge improvement from two straight nine-loss seasons. Howell tallied 3,641 yards and set a Football Bowl Subdivision record for true freshmen with 38 passing scores while throwing only seven interceptions.
Welcome, Notre Dame
When the Big Ten and Pac-12 eliminated conference games, Notre Dame lost matchups with Wisconsin, USC and Stanford. Soon after, the Irish turned to the ACC for help.
Already a member of the league in other sports, Notre Dame received a unique invite to play ACC football in 2020. It's not a massive change considering the Irish play a handful of ACC teams each season. But for the first time in program history, Notre Dame is actually a member of a conference in football.
The Irish are scheduled to open their season against Duke on Sept. 12.
Players Opting Out, Recovering from Virus
Miami defensive end Gregory Rousseau, Pitt defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman and Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley all earned first-team All-ACC honors last season. Clemson defensive end Xavier Thomas landed third-team recognition.
They won't be on the field in 2020, though.
Rousseau, Twyman and Farley opted out, and Thomas isn't healthy enough to play after testing positive for COVID-19. Add in North Carolina safety D.J. Ford opting out and the ACC will be missing at least a handful of top defenders.
New Championship Game Format
Instead of pitting the Atlantic and Coastal Division champions against each other for the league title, the ACC has modified its championship format in 2020.
This season, the two teams with the highest ACC winning percentage are slated to square off in Charlotte. The game is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 12 or 19, and Notre Dame—despite its one-year of affiliation—will be eligible to appear.
You're shocked. I know.
Winners of five straight ACC titles, Clemson also has five consecutive trips to the College Football Playoff. The offense returns two of the nation's best players in Lawrence and Etienne. Even after losing many key players on defense, the unit has proved its ability to constantly reload.
In the last four games of the regular season, Dabo Swinney's team will travel to Notre Dame, Florida State and Virginia Tech. If there's any stretch that can possibly trip up the Tigers—and we're not anticipating it—that's probably the one. Otherwise, expect Clemson to play for the ACC crown in Charlotte yet again.
Since a disastrous 4-8 campaign in 2016, Notre Dame has responded with three straight 10-win seasons. During that span, the Irish are 14-2 against ACC competition. The only losses came at 2017 Miami and in the 2018 CFP against Clemson.
That's a pretty encouraging trend, right?
Notre Dame must replace a handful of key players on both sides of the ball, but Book returns behind what should be a terrific offensive line. And if Clemson or Miami doesn't boast the top defense in the conference, it'll likely belong to the unit from South Bend.
Though the defense had some awful performances in 2019, Scott Satterfield's debut season was a success. The Cardinals surged from 2-10 to 8-5, settled the quarterback situation with Micale Cunningham and showcased an electric receiver in Tutu Atwell. While probably a third-tier contender, Louisville deserves a mention.
Surprise, surprise. Here's Miami. Despite the program's recent habit of failing to meet expectations, the talent is always there. If quarterback D'Eriq King—a transfer from Houston who accounted for 50 total touchdowns in 2018—and new coordinator Rhett Lashlee mesh well on the field, the 'Canes will have a terrific chance to reach the ACC Championship Game.
North Carolina Tar Heels
In all likelihood, North Carolina will boast one of the ACC's most productive offenses. Along with Howell, the Tar Heels return two 900-yard rushers in Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, two 1,000-yard receivers in Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome and a 500-yard target in Beau Corrales. Whether the Heels can avoid close losses is a key question, but their scoring potential is immense.
Virginia Tech Hokies
Longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster is gone, but Virginia Tech returns eight starters to the unit. And on offense, the Hokies seemed to find their quarterback. Hendon Hooker totaled 1,907 yards and 18 touchdowns in his last eight games of 2019 and is the biggest reason for optimism this fall.
Key Scheduled Games
Sep. 26: Florida State at Miami
After snapping a seven-game skid against FSU, Miami has earned three straight wins in the rivalry. Since this contest marks the second scheduled ACC game for both teams in 2020, the result may be viewed as the springboard to a successful season—or the first indication of a disappointing year.
Oct. 10: Virginia Tech at North Carolina; Miami at Clemson
No team clinches a championship game appearance in October, but this particular Saturday has major ACC implications. Virginia Tech and UNC have a slim margin for error as second-tier contenders, so picking up this victory is imperative. And if Miami has already dropped an ACC game, a second loss would be crushing.
Nov. 7: Clemson at Notre Dame
This showdown was on the original 2020 schedule, and now it only matters more. Given that Clemson and Notre Dame will be the ACC's highest-ranked teams in preseason polls, it logically follows this could be a preview of the conference title game.
Nov. 27: Notre Dame at North Carolina
Hypotheticals rule this Friday night clash in Chapel Hill. Might the Irish or Tar Heels be looking to clinch a place in the ACC Championship Game? Would a loss by a certain team provide Miami or Virginia Tech a chance to steal a place in Charlotte? At worst, it will be a contest between two of the best quarterbacks in the ACC.
New Head Coaches
Mike Norvell, Florida State
After leading Memphis to the 2019 AAC title and posting a 38-16 record in four years there, Mike Norvell headed to Tallahassee.
His first offseason has already included a since-settled dispute with star defender Marvin Wilson and allegations of player safety concerns. It's fair to suggest the program is hoping on-field matters settle the narrative around the team.
Known for his offensive acumen, Norvell is tasked with turning around a scoring attack that ranked 61st nationally in yards per play, 73rd in points per game and 126th in sacks allowed.
Jeff Hafley, Boston College
Hafley spent one season as the defensive coordinator at Ohio State and parlayed that success into the Boston College job.
And the Eagles have plenty of room to improve. Last year, they finished 6-7 with an average offense and poor defense. Specifically, the defense ranked 101st in points allowed per game and 110th in yards allowed per play.
This isn't a one-year turnaround, but Hafley could make some valuable strides if the season is played.
Best Offense: Clemson
Howell and his surrounding skill-position weapons create a compelling argument for North Carolina. Still, we're leaning toward the consensus choice with Clemson.
This spot will be hard-earned, though.
Leading receiver Tee Higgins went to the NFL, and Justyn Ross will miss the season because of spinal surgery. The receiving corps will lean on Amari Rodgers, Joseph Ngata, Frank Ladson Jr. and Cornell Powell—a talented yet mostly unproven group.
Additionally, the Tigers must replace four blockers up front. Left tackle Jackson Carman is the only returning starter.
But it certainly helps to have an All-American pairing in the backfield. Lawrence is an exceptionally efficient passer who became a respected runner last season. Etienne is one of the nation's fastest, most dynamic players. (His backup, Lyn-J Dixon, scampered for 635 yards at 6.1 per carry as a sophomore.)
As long as Lawrence is healthy, Clemson has the most talented offense in the conference.
Best Defense: Clemson
Clemson needs to replace four NFL draft picks, Xavier Thomas, Denzel Johnson and Chad Smith. That's not an easy task, yet the Tigers have earned a hefty benefit of the doubt.
Brent Venables has overseen four straight top-five defenses, and Clemson hasn't ranked lower than 23rd nationally in yards allowed per play since 2012.
Besides, the Tigers still have plenty of experience.
Defensive tackle Tyler Davis and cornerback Derion Kendrick both landed second-team All-ACC honors last year. Middle linebacker James Skalski collected 90 tackles, while safety Nolan Turner and linebacker Baylon Spector both tallied at least 40 stops. Defensive end Justin Foster ranked second on the team with 11.5 tackles for loss, and linebacker Jake Venables posted 8.0.
That doesn't even include 5-star talents K.J. Henry, Andrew Booth, Bryan Bresee, Myles Murphy and Trenton Simpson. Henry and Booth are likely starters at defensive end and corner, respectively, while the rest should be second-stringers as freshmen.
In short: Clemson is loaded.
1. Clemson 11-0 (10-0 ACC)
2. Notre Dame 9-2 (8-2)
T-3. North Carolina 8-3 (7-3)
T-3. Miami 8-3 (7-3)
T-3. Virginia Tech 8-3 (7-3)
T-6. Louisville 7-4 (6-4)
T-6. Florida State 7-4 (6-4)
T-8. Virginia 5-6 (4-6)
T-8. Pitt 5-6 (4-6)
T-10. Wake Forest 4-7 (3-7)
T-10. Duke 4-7 (3-7)
T-10. Syracuse 4-7 (3-7)
T-10. North Carolina State 4-7 (3-7)
T-14. Boston College 3-8 (2-8)
T-14. Georgia Tech 2-9 (2-8)
Projected Champion: Clemson
No surprise here since Clemson has the best coach, the best offense and the best defense.
The most interesting question, really, is whether Notre Dame can make history in its one-year ACC stay. The Fighting Irish are scheduled to host Florida State, Louisville and Clemson, travel to North Carolina and miss both Miami and Virginia Tech. Really, it's a pretty manageable slate.
But if the Irish don't appear in Charlotte—again, this is working under the assumption the season continues that far—it would likely be because FSU, Louisville or UNC won the regular-season matchup and finished at least 8-2 in conference play.
The other option is Notre Dame losing to a member of that trio and either Miami or Virginia Tech claiming a tiebreaker edge.
Clemson, though, will likely be favored in any matchup. High expectations are dangerous, but the Tigers have consistently met and surpassed them in the past half-decade.
The 2020 campaign should be no different.