ATLANTIC DIVISION 

DJ Uigalelei (right)
DJ Uigalelei (right) (AP Images)

1. Clemson (11-1)

Not much we can say about Clemson’s greatness over the past decade that hasn’t already been said. DJ Uiagalelei will take over for Trevor Lawrence and he’s got all of the makings of being the next truly great quarterback for Dabo Swinney. What I’m more interested in seeing is who will get Travis Etienne’s touches out of the backfield – veteran Lyn-J Dixon should start out as RB1, but with the Tigers’ main backup, Chez Mellusi, transferring to Wisconsin, there are carries and receptions to be had, and I’m excited to see what Will Shipley can do.

On defense, the Tigers really have almost zero holes. Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy lead a defensive line unit that will be stout against the run yet will still be able to get after the passer. James Skalski is back at linebacker to be the heart of the D, while Nolan Turner is great at covering up for any mistakes on the back end.

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*****

2. NC State (9-3)  

I’m really high on the Wolfpack heading into this season. They’ve got a really good offensive line – potentially the best in the conference (along with B.C.), anchored by Grant Gibson, who might be the best center in all of college football not named Tyler Linderbaum. The line also features tackle Ikem Ekwonu.

This should be a well-balanced team offensively too, with a really good running back in Zonovan Knight and receiver Emeka Emezie, who broke out in the second half of last season. Nearly the entire defense, outside of Alim McNeill, is back, and Cody Durden is next up to be a disruptor on the interior. If they can get solid-to-above-average QB play from Devin Leary they’ll be right in the second tier of the conference.

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*****

  3. Boston College (8-4)  

It’s the Phil Jurkovec show in Chestnut Hill – the redshirt junior is back and has first-round potential, and he’s aided by the fact that all of his offensive line returns. And this is a line that was already one of the top units in the ACC, so with another year of experience under its belt, by the end of the year don’t be surprised if it’s considered among the best in the nation.

The only real question mark here is who steps in at tight end for Hunter Long, who is now off to the NFL. Zay Flowers is one of the best-kept secrets in the entire country at WR. I really like this offense, and it should be able to help the Eagles keep up with almost anyone in the conference. Defensively, there aren’t a ton of big-name guys, but Marcus Valdez intrigues me with his versatility. He’s not a huge guy – only 6-foot, 265 pounds or so, but he lines up literally everywhere on the defensive line and can be a major disruptor.

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*****

4. Wake Forest (6-6)   

Jaquarii Roberson is a guy that people are not talking nearly enough about. Outside of Justyn Ross, he’s the best receiver in the conference. Sam Hartman is a solid QB who, while he needs to cut down on the mistakes, can definitely make some plays. But the Deacons are going to need to block better this season than they did last year if they’re going to have any sort of sustained attack – they gave up 27 sacks last season in nine games.

Defensively, they bring back nine of their 11 starters, but unfortunately for them one of the guys that they lost to the draft is defensive end Boogie Basham, who was their biggest impact player. He leaves a massive hole in the pass rush that will have to be filled. But I trust in Dave Clawson more than most.

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*****

5. Florida State (5-7)

Year two of the Mike Norvell experience has almost as many question marks as year one did, but at least he’s got a proven QB in UCF transfer McKenzie Milton. We’ll see if he can recreate the magic that he had when he led the Golden Knights to their perfect season four years ago. He’s had major knee reconstruction since then, and he’s had a very long road to recovery.

But the question with the Noles’ offense, as it has been seemingly for the past decade, is whether their line can block anything? Defensively, they have to get a bunch of transfers up to speed, but they did get some quality guys, especially in Keir Thomas and Jermaine Johnson on the defensive line.

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*****

6. Louisville (3-9)  

Will the real Malik Cunningham please stand up? After a really nice 2019 season, he was dreadful last year, and the Cardinals lost their top two receivers to the draft in Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick. The only player I really like on this offense is tight end Marshon Ford.

The defense has a couple playmakers on the back end, but otherwise, not a whole lot to look forward to. Scott Satterfield has his work cut out for him, and there are rumblings that he’s already looking for an exit.

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*****

7. Syracuse (2-10)  

It’s the make-or-break season for our guy Dino Babers. Tommy DeVito is back for what seems like the 15th season, but he’s not even the presumptive starter, as he’s in a camp battle with Garrett Shrader. Either way, the Orange have got an experienced offensive line, but not a ton of playmakers outside of Taj Harris at wideout.

The defense doesn’t offer much either, outside of a couple of decent edge rushers in Stefon Johnson and Jonathan Kingsley. It’s a bit of a shock that Babers is still in this job, and I’d be willing to bet that he’s gone by the end of the season.

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*****

COASTAL DIVISION 

Sam Howell
Sam Howell (AP Images)

1. UNC (10-2)  

There’s an awful lot to like about this UNC team, and it all starts with Sam Howell, who you can make the case for being the best QB in the country. Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler steps in to fill the hole left by Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, but that’s easier said than done. The other big hurdle for the offense is going to be replacing Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome. Khafre Brown looks like he’ll be WR1, but behind him are some question marks.

Defensively, the Tar Heels have got a fantastic DB unit led by one of the top corner duos in the country in Storm Duck and Tony Grimes. The front seven leaves a little to be desired, however, and they’ll need some guys to step up.

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*****

2. Miami (8-4)  

D’Eriq King is back and a steadying force at QB for the ‘Canes, who will want to step up in year three of the Manny Diaz experience. The backfield is probably the biggest question mark on offense, but they’ve got a couple of good pass-catching options in TE Will Mallory and WR Mike Harley, plus a big-time transfer pickup in Charleston Rambo. There’s no real standouts on the OL, but also no big holes either, as they return most of their line.

Defensively, they’ve got some big shoes to fill at edge rusher with their leading sack leaders of the past two years both gone in Jaelan Phillips and Greg Rousseau (who opted out of 2020). Nesta Jade Silvera is a nice piece on the interior of the DL, but there’s a lot of unknowns at almost every level of the defense. Miami fans will be looking for Bubba Bolden to put it all together finally to prove that he can be a top-of-the-line safety.

Despite these question marks, they’ve still got more talent on paper than anyone else in the Coastal Division, outside of the Tar Heels.

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*****

3. Pittsburgh (8-4)

For the Panthers, it all begins on the D-Line, as it has for seemingly the last decade. Calijah Kancey is the next great defensive tackle to man the interior, and he’s one of the best in the conference. They’ve got two other guys in Keyshon Camp and Devin Danielson who aren’t too far behind him – they’ll have one of the best interior pass rushes in the country, which they’ll need because they have to replace their top to edge rusher, Patrick Jones III, and Rashad Weaver.

Cam Bright is a really nice piece at LB – he’s arguably the best in the conference, and their defensive backfield has a solid pair of corners in Marquis Williams and Damarri Mathis. But with all that said, they’ll need their defense to keep them in games because their offense is definitely going to struggle at times.

Kenny Pickett is back for another season, but he doesn’t have a ton of weapons around him. Running back Israel Abanikanda has the best chance of making noise, as he’s got some big-play potential, but they’ll need to develop some other playmakers.

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*****

4. Virginia Tech (6-6)  

The Hokies boast one of the better receiving corps in the conference, led by wideouts Tre Turner and Tayvion Robinson, and tight end James Mitchell. Braxton Burmeister has shown flashes, but he needs to get more consistent if this team is going to make noise. He’s got some really nice talent to keep him upright though, as Virginia Tech has three potential all-conference players at OL in tackle Luke Tenuta, guard Lecitus Smith and center Johnny Jordan.

On the other side of the ball, the Hokies will need to clean up their rush defense that gave up over 180 yards per game, but Clemson transfer Jordan Williams should help with that. Jermaine Waller returns at corner after missing most of last season to injury, and he’s joined by Dorian Strong. However, question marks at both safety and in the front seven persist, and if they don’t clean those up they’ll still be very vulnerable against the run.

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*****

5. Virginia (6-6)

Brennan Armstrong is still here and one of the most dangerous dual threat QBs in the conference, and he’ll get plenty of protection from an offensive line that returns four starters. Billy Kemp is an all-conference level WR, and Artie Henry was a sneaky good pickup in the transfer portal, as was TE Jelani Woods. But Armstrong is going to have to cut down on the turnovers if he’s going to keep the Cavaliers in games.

This defense definitely needed an influx of talent at DB, as the unit was near the bottom of the conference against the pass, and it got that with corners Anthony Johnson and Josh Hayes. Their front seven is steady with Aaron Faumui anchoring the DL and Noah Taylor coming off the edge, and Nick Jackson cleaning up the rest from MLB. But this team still doesn’t have the upper-echelon talent to really compete with the teams ahead of them.

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*****

6. Georgia Tech (4-8)  

If there’s one thing that the Yellow Jackets have going for them, it’s the ground attack. Jahmyr Gibbs and Jordan Mason are one of the top duos not just in the conference but in the entire country at that position. Jeff Sims showed some progress last season, but they’ll need him to step up more and limit turnovers if they’re going to really compete. They brought in three transfers on the offensive line to shore up a unit that was suspect at times last season, but they are still looking for answers at WR.

They’ve got a pair of solid edge rushers with Jordan Domineck back and Keion White added through the portal, but after that it’s not the prettiest outlook for the defense. They have a long way to go after surrendering nearly 37 points per game last season.

The schedule isn’t doing them any favors either with crossover matchups against Clemson and Boston College, as well as their annual game against UGA to close out the season.

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*****

7. Duke (3-9)  

To be blunt, there’s just not a whole lot of talent on this roster, and it’s going to take a miracle from David Cutcliffe to even be remotely competitive in the ACC this season. Running back Mateo Durant is the only playmaker at any position on the offense. And while the Blue Devils return four of their top five pass catchers from last season, none of them really move the needle all that much. Add to that that their starting QB Chase Brice elected to transfer to Appalachian State and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

Defensively, Shaka Heyward and Josh Blackwell are the only real players of note after losing nearly their entire unit from last season. Their only saving grace is a relatively easy non-conference schedule, with games against Charlotte, North Carolina A&T and Kansas (which is maybe the only Power Five program in worse shape than the Blue Devils right now).

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