Spanning six seasons from 2015 to 2020, the ACC came and went each year with little drama. It was simply understood that Clemson would likely be headed for the conference title and secure their spot in the college football playoffs, which they did by winning two national championships along the way.
The Tigers stumbled last season despite the preseason hype surrounding star quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, opening the door for Pittsburgh to win the ACC crown behind the arm of Heisman runner-up Kenny Pickett. Unknown parity in the league, however, left the ACC without a chance at the national championship for the first time in the CFP era.
Going into this season, Clemson is expected to bounce back and reclaim their league stronghold; the Tigers are the betting favorites to win the ACC at -140, according to Caesars Sportsbook. But the Tigers could face a formidable challenge – not just this season, but for years to come – if a Miami program optimistic about a return to prominence actually succeeds with one of its own, Mario Cristobal, in the lead. . There may even be a few black horse teams waiting in the wings, salivating at the thought of surprisingly earning top dog status in the conference, just like Pitt did last season.
The Tigers may be favored to return to their perch, but the ACC is still full of stories to follow this season. Our CBS Sports college football experts have provided their picks and predictions for the ACC ahead of the 2021 season below.
Most Overrated Team
Clemson: The Tigers can indeed win the ACC. Maybe last year was a speed bump, but I really need to see it first. Just as defense can play — and that’s good — Uiagalelei will have to live up to his expectations. Otherwise, well, the ACC is too strong now for the Tigers to get through mediocrity. Beware of Wake Forest, NC State, Florida State and Miami. He’s reckless of Grandpa Clemson in the title game so far. –Dennis Dodd
pit: The Panthers had such a stellar season as expected last year while winning the ACC and sending Pickett to the Heisman ceremony. A callback will be hard to replicate, but I don’t see the Panthers finishing the season as high in the polls as they started it. That’s too much to ask considering the loss of Pickett, Jordan Addison and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple. Also, Pat Narduzzi complaining that the team kicked the ball too much last season is not an encouraging sign. — Tom Fornelli (also Shehan Jeyarajah)
Miami: There is a scenario where the combination of young talent from last year’s squad and the influx of transfer talent immediately gels with the arrival of Cristobal. But I’m much more concerned about the production returning to wide receiver and the potential for that aforementioned gelling. The Hurricanes could probably play down the competition and still compete for an ACC Coastal title, but I still think Cristobal is two recruiting cycles away from closing the gap to Clemson. -Chip Patterson
Wake Forest: I love coach Dave Clawson and can’t wait to see what quarterback Sam Hartman does with another year in the system. We don’t know when that will actually happen, though, with an illness keeping him out of action. In a point-heavy quarterback-led conference, it’s hard to imagine Wake easily navigating the schedule without Hartman. Even upon his return, the defense remains a huge liability that will prevent the Demon Deacons from competing regularly in the ACC Atlantic. — Barrett Sallee
NC status: The assumption that NC State will break through for 10 wins this season reduces the impact of what it has lost in the backfield. Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person Jr. were an elite duo, combining for nearly 1,400 rushing yards and 49 receptions last season. Without them, the Wolfpack risk becoming entirely one-dimensional as they also bid farewell to No. 6 NFL Draft pick Ikem Ekwonu on the offensive line. NC State is a clear bowl team, but it’s giving off Iowa and North Carolina State vibes in 2021. Dreams of a championship title and CFP Dark Horse affirmation are overblown . –David Cobb
North Carolina: When Mack Brown took over, the Tar Heels were expected to be in contention for division titles, at least, if not surpassing Clemson now. Three years later, UNC has just one regular season above .500 — the 8-3 mark posted the year of the pandemic. This season could be another that floats around the .500 mark. Meanwhile, Miami has made great strides and looks like the program to beat in the Coastal. Things are certainly better than at the end of the Larry Fedora era, but they have not yet reached the level that many expected. –Jerry Palm
Most Underrated Team
Wake Forest: You know it, and I know it. Clawson will simply outperform you. The Slow Mesh Spread is confusing, and it has proven to be productive. Hartman is out, which adds some concern. The Demon Deacons bring Clemson home on September 24, which should be interesting. — Dodd (also Palm)
Boston College: Phil Jurkovec and Zay Flowers’ commitment to the program is a testament to what Boston College has built and continues to build on high. Jeff Hafley is expected to field his best defense since arriving after serving as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator, and the experienced QB-WR combo of Jurkovec and Flowers is good enough for the Eagles to exceed expectations in a tough Atlantic. –Patterson
Clemson: I understand. Uiagalelei failed to live up to expectations, and last year’s 10-win season was a ‘slow year’. It’s a very different setting, though. DJ-U has retrained, got back into shape, and knows rookie Cade Klubnik is there if he stumbles. It’s a healthy quarterback situation, not a flimsy one. When you combine that with the best defensive front four in the nation and one of the best running backs in the nation in Will Shipley, you have a recipe for national success, not just ACC dominance. — Room
Louisville: Have the cardinals reached a milestone? After a handful of recruiting wins, it’s hard not to feel the rare good vibes around Scott Satterfield and his program. The Cardinals lost four games by one score last year, with two of the other losses coming against 10-win SEC teams. Now Louisville is returning to the top 15 national productions, including highly underrated quarterback Malik Cunningham. With a manageable first half of the season, Louisville could quickly find itself on a roll. — Jeyarajah (also Fornelli, Cobb)
- Dennis Dodd: It’s rod time – Miami will win the ACC. Cristobal became the East Coast version of Lincoln Riley by toppling the roster. A bunch of transfers and an already talented roster maturing at the right time make it so. Tyler Van Dyke is a budding star at quarterback. Cristobal is building an SEC-like program in South Florida, just like he did in Oregon.
- Tom Fornell: After averaging just 26.3 points per game last season, Clemson will increase offensive production to at least 34 points per game despite losing offensive coordinator Tony Elliott to Virginia.
- Patterson chip: Clemson’s offense will once again become one of the best in the league.
- Barrett Sallee: The Tigers will recover from their “dark year” with a run to the playoffs. The defense is going to be stifling, the attack will be dynamic, and they will show that they are a legitimate threat to win the national title, not just return to the CFP court.
- Shehan Jeyarajah: The ACC will boast the best collection of quarterbacks of any conference in the country. At least four of them will finish in the top 15 for passing violations.
- David Cob: Pitt’s downfall won’t be as drastic as many think. Continuity under Narduzzi will help the Panthers earn another division title and an ACC Championship Game showdown with Clemson that will determine whether the Tigers make the CFP.
- Jerry Palm: Clemson misses the playoffs for the second straight season.
ACC has planned the order of arrival
Clemson: The Tigers have a luxury in 2022 they didn’t have in 2021: There’s a solid plan behind Uiagalelei (should he stumble again) at quarterback with five-star rookie Klubnik waiting in the wings. The defensive front is filthy, and it illustrates how this remains the most talented team in the ACC by a significant margin. The loss of longtime coordinators Brent Venables and Tony Elliott as head coaches means there will be growing pains, but an easy start from Georgia Tech, Furman and Louisiana Tech gives Clemson a smooth run in the middle of the transition. — Cobb (also Fornelli, Patterson, Sallee, Jeyarajah, Palm)
Miami: Cristobal and polarizing Miami attorney John Ruiz ripped up the schedule of a usual turnaround and sprinkled it on the 50-yard line at Hard Rock Stadium. The Canes return well ahead of schedule because Cristobal knows Miami, knows Dade County and Broward, and knows his heritage. The Canes straddle Van Dyke’s arm to the ACC crown. –Dodd
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