The upcoming ACC football season is ideal for fans enamored of change. Sure, every team except Duke returns a starting quarterback, and, yes, many seniors opted in on the NCAA’s additional year of eligibility. Moreover, the league experienced no head-coaching turnover.
But only four first-team all-conference players are back from last season, the fewest since 2013. They are Boston College receiver Zay Flowers, BC center Alec Lindstrom, Clemson defensive tackle Bryan Bresee and North Carolina State linebacker Payton Wilson.
No 1,000-yard rushers or receivers return, a function of not only 2020’s abbreviated schedules but also talent drain. The scarcity of established commodities extends to the programs themselves.
Only four of the ACC’s current 14 teams — Clemson, Miami, North Carolina and N.C. State — had winning league records last year. Notre Dame did, too, but returns to independence this season.
Six-time reigning conference champions, the Tigers are the lone ACC program to finish above .500 in the league each of the last two years — their streak is 10 consecutive winning conference seasons.
Contrast that to the Big 12, where Oklahoma, Iowa State and Texas have, at minimum, current four-year runs of winning league records, and the SEC, where Alabama, Florida and Georgia have at least three-year streaks.
Similarly, the Big Ten’s Ohio State and Iowa are on streaks of at least three seasons.
With no reliable program beyond Clemson, the preseason poll and all-conference ballot media will submit July 21-22 at the ACC Kickoff is perilous, indeed. But that’s half the fun, so here goes:
Quarterback: Sam Howell has started all 25 of North Carolina’s games the past two seasons, throwing a touchdown pass in each, multiple scoring passes in 21, and multiple interceptions in only three. His 68 touchdown passes are the most by an ACC player in his first two seasons, and the league’s career record of 107, set by Clemson’s Tajh Boyd, is within sight.
Running back: Duke’s 2-9 record last year masked Mataeo Durant’s exceptional season. His 6.8 yards per carry ranked fifth among Power Five backs with at least 100 carries. A third-team selection in 2020, N.C. State’s Zonovan Knight (5.5 yards per carry, 10 rushing touchdowns) is the lone returning All-ACC running back.
All-purpose: Georgia Tech’s Jahmyr Gibbs embodied this role as a freshman last season, averaging 5.2 yards per carry, 12.6 per reception, 25.6 per kickoff return and 138.3 all-purpose yards per game.
But I’m veering off the grid a bit and going with a healthy Keytaon Thompson, whom Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall says will play quarterback, running back, tight end, both outside receiver positions, slot receiver and on special teams.
Wide receiver: Flowers led the conference with nine touchdown catches in 2020, while Wake Forest’s Jacquarii Roberson paced the league in receiving yards per game (102.9). Returning from spinal surgery that sidelined him last year, Clemson’s Justyn Ross (112 career catches for 1,865 yards and 17 touchdowns) is the ACC’s most-accomplished receiver.
Tight end: Virginia Tech coaches wisely deploy the versatile James Mitchell in myriad positions. He averaged 16.7 yards and scored four touchdowns on 26 catches last year, and the Hokies figure to target him far more in 2021.
Center: No need to overthink this. Boston College’s Lindstrom it is.
Guard: Joshua Ezeudu headlines North Carolina’s gifted and experienced offensive line. Boston College’s Ben Petrula has started 48 consecutive games and earned second-team All-ACC each of the last two seasons.
Tackle: N.C. State’s Ikem Ekwonu and Boston College’s Zion Johnson were third-team all-conference in 2020.
End: Sixteen tackles for loss in a season are large for anyone. For first-time defensive end Amare Barno, they were XXL, and, Virginia Tech faithful hope, a mere precursor for the converted linebacker. Speaking of debuts, Clemson’s Myles Murphy finished second last season in ACC defensive rookie of the year voting.
Tackle: The landslide winner of that award was teammate Bresee, and justifiably so. Injuries limited his running mate at tackle, Tyler Davis, last season, but Davis was second-team all-league in 2019 and the first true freshman defensive tackle to start a season-opener for Clemson in 35 years.
Linebacker: If the ACC’s preseason ballot included a defensive player of the year, I’d vote for N.C. State’s Wilson, the league’s top tackler in 2020 at 10.8 per game. Among the league’s more underrated talents, Virginia’s Nick Jackson was second at 10.5. Pitt’s SirVocea Dennis ranked second only to Barno in solo tackles for loss (12).
Cornerback: Witness his team-leading 81 tackles last year, Virginia Tech’s Chamarri Conner isn’t a traditional corner, but he also broke up four passes and intercepted two. Louisville’s Kei’Trel Clark ranked sixth nationally in pass break-ups per game at 1.0.
Safety: Bubba Bolden led Miami with 74 tackles in 2020 and ranked second nationally with four forced fumbles. Nolan Turner (team-high 564 snaps) was the most indispensable player on Clemson’s defense.
Punter: Miami paced the ACC in net punting last year, and Lou Hedley averaged 47.2 yards per punt with only two touchbacks.
Kicker: In three seasons at Wake Forest, Nick Sciba has made 89.1% of his field goal attempts (57 of 64) and all 128 PATs.
Return specialist: N.C. State’s Knight averaged 26.6 yards per kickoff return last season and scored on a 100-yarder against Miami.
Player of the year: Howell. If he’s the choice in December, Howell would be the first Tar Heel to win the award since Lawrence Taylor in 1980.
Order of finish
Atlantic Division: Clemson, N.C. State, Boston College, Wake Forest, Louisville, Florida State, Syracuse. The Tigers and Orange are obvious choices for first and last, respectively. Good luck unscrambling the other five.
Coastal Division: North Carolina, Miami, Virginia Tech, Virginia, Pitt, Georgia Tech, Duke. Faith in any among this bunch is misplaced, and the only teams I can’t envision winning the division are the Yellow Jackets and Blue Devils.
Here’s the good news for ACC faithful: The last time the league returned so few first-team all-conference selections was 2013, which unexpectedly became a landmark season.
Jameis Winston quarterbacked Florida State to the national championship and collected the Heisman Trophy; Clemson defeated Ohio State in the Orange Bowl; Boston College’s Andre Williams led the Bowl Subdivision in rushing, and Pitt’s Aaron Donald was the nation’s top defender.