August 9, 2021

2021 ACC Football Season Preview

Over the last half a dozen years, the ACC has become the easiest conference in college football to predict. The Clemson Tigers have simply dominated with Dabo Swinney’s team winning the conference championship being a foregone conclusion. But contrary to popular belief, there are teams in the ACC not named Clemson. In fact, there are even a few quality teams in the ACC that are capable of making some noise and becoming top-25 teams this year.

Perhaps this will even be the year that Clemson has a bonafide challenger for the ACC title. Let’s find out by taking a closer look at the ACC ahead of the 2021 season.

*Betting odds via FanDuel Sportsbook as of Aug. 7

College Football Season Previews: SEC | Big Ten Big 12 | Pac-12

Favorite: Clemson Tigers

Oddsmakers aren’t mincing words with the Tigers, who are -900 to win the ACC and -2400 to win the Atlantic Division. That would seem to make another conference title for Clemson inevitable despite the Tigers losing Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne, and others. Of course, the Tigers won’t have to deal with Notre Dame in the ACC this season, which should help. Also, we saw enough out of D.J. Uiagalelei last season to make us think that the Clemson offense won’t take much of a step backward in 2021.

At the same time, the Clemson defense should be able to carry the team if required. It’d be hard to find a better defensive line anywhere in the country. That means the Tigers should have no problem dominating ACC foes in the trenches. Plus, with the way Swinney recruits, Clemson can usually plug in a five-star player at just about any position.

In other words, there are few concerns about the Tigers heading into 2021 and few reasons to think they won’t win the ACC for the seventh straight year.

Top Competitor: North Carolina Tar Heels

How big is the gap between Clemson and everyone else? The Tigers are listed at -900 to win the ACC while North Carolina has the next best odds at +1000. The Tar Heels are also tied with Miami at +125 to win the Coastal Division. It’ll likely come down to UNC’s head-to-head game with Miami to decide who gets a chance to face Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, but the Tar Heels look a little better heading into the season.

Sam Howell could be the best quarterback in the ACC in 2021. He’s one of the few passers who has two full years as a starter under his belt, which should give him a leg up and could make him a dark horse to win the Heisman.

The biggest question mark for the UNC offense is that the team’s top playmakers all left after 2020. But Howell should have the experience to excel with inexperienced skill players. Mack Brown has also done an incredible job of recruiting, so the talent on North Carolina’s roster is impressive, particularly on defense, even if the Tar Heels are still a little on the young side.

Dark Horse: Boston College Eagles

If only the Atlantic Division were a little more open, the Eagles would have more of a chance. For what it’s worth, Boston College has the fifth-best odds to win the ACC at +3000 and is tied for the second-best odds to win the Atlantic at +1600. Keep in mind that the Eagles gave Clemson a little bit of a scare last year behind Notre Dame transfer Phil Jurkovec, who returns at quarterback. The Eagles also bring back five starters on the offensive line, which figures to be one of the best units in the ACC. That should allow BC to run the ball and give Jurkovec adequate protection in the pocket.

Defensively, there is room for improvement, but Boston College also brings back nine starters from last season. BC also added four transfers, reinforcing the depth on their defense at all three levels. That could allow the Eagles to take a big step forward defensively this year.

Also, outside of a road trip to Clemson in early October, the Boston College schedule looks rather manageable, so winning 10 games and keeping a little pressure on Clemson is not unrealistic for Jeff Hafley’s team.

Deep Sleeper: Wake Forest Demon Deacons

There isn’t a lot of talk about Wake Forest heading into 2021, although Dave Clawson has taken the Demon Deacons to a bowl game in five straight seasons, which is a huge accomplishment for that program. They also look like a team that nobody will want to play this year. It’s a program that needs an experienced roster to be successful, and they have it with all five offensive linemen returning. The Demon Deacons also have Sam Hartman, who started in 2018 as a true freshman, sat behind Jamie Newman in 2019, but returned to the starting role in 2020, so he has plenty of experience heading into his fourth year in college.

On the flip side, Wake Forest will also have eight defensive starters coming back. While it’s not the flashiest defense, the Demon Deacons were the best in the ACC last season at preventing big plays. Reinforcements are also on the way in the form of six transfers. Obviously, there will be a lot of moving pieces. But if all comes together for the Wake defense, Hartman and the offense should score enough points to make the Demon Deacons one of the most intriguing teams in the ACC this year. 

Overrated: Miami Hurricanes

Technically, the Hurricanes are on level ground with North Carolina as the co-favorites in the Coastal Division. If D’Eriq King can return from the knee injury he suffered in last season’s bowl game, he’ll be one of the best quarterbacks in the ACC, which is driving the hope that Miami can win the Coastal Division and provide a formidable challenge for Clemson.

But King’s health is just one of the concerns for the ‘Canes. Miami’s offensive line and running game weren’t all that great last season, so Miami needs to be much better in 2021. The Miami defense also lost pass rushers Quincy Roche and Jaelan Phillips, who both leave big shoes to fill. Even with a strong pass rush from those two players, the Hurricanes had some defensive shortcomings last year. For the record, they lost 42-17 to Clemson and 62-26 to North Carolina last year, so it’s a little bit of a stretch to think that the Hurricanes will be on par with the Tar Heels and anywhere close to Clemson in 2021. 

Basement Dweller: Syracuse Orange

Dino Babers and the Orange endured a rough 1-10 campaign in 2020. The team’s biggest accomplishment was not having a positive COVID test that forced them to cancel a game, which does speak to the team’s discipline amidst a 1-10 season. As a result, Syracuse is tied for the longest odds to win the ACC at +25000 and is +10000 just to make the ACC title game, although winning the Atlantic might be equally difficult as winning the entire league.

But all is not lost for the Orange. Mississippi State transfer Garrett Shrader gives Syracuse two quarterbacks on the roster with experience. The Orange will also get back some players who opted out in 2020, giving them a loaded backfield and an experienced offensive line.

With opt-outs and injuries last year, Syracuse also brings back 10 starters on defense, so there is hope for improvement. Keep in mind Syracuse was also picked last in the ACC when they won 10 games in 2018, so Babers and the Orange could find a way to surprise some people again.

Player to Watch: McKenzie Milton, Florida State

McKenzie Milton might be the most intriguing player in the country heading into the 2021 season. He led UCF to amazing things in 2017 before suffering a devastating knee injury in 2018 that could have easily ended his career. Against all odds, he’s made it back onto the football field, and nearly three years after the injury, he’ll have a chance to become Florida State’s starting quarterback.

The fact that he’s even on the roster is inspiring, but Milton has a chance to finally solve FSU’s unsettled quarterback situation. After the Seminoles went 3-6 last season, Mike Norvell needs Milton to step up and be anything close to the player he was before the injury. Keep in mind he was putting up Heisman-caliber numbers at UCF, so the arm talent is undoubtedly there, even if there is some rust after the injury.

The bottom line is if he's on the field, FSU becomes must-see TV.

Photo: Getty Images