The wondrous email arrived Friday afternoon. Not from the widow of a deposed foreign leader offering to share his ill-gotten millions. And not from an online pharmacy promising to cure my baldness.
No, this was better than generational wealth or restored youth. This was the ACC’s preseason all-conference football ballot.
As recently as July, I’d have dismissed the email as a hoax. College football wasn’t going to happen. The coronavirus was winning, and pessimism engulfed the sport.
But as September dawns, dozens of programs are managing training camps with exacting protocols, athletes are amped to compete, and the ACC’s first game, UAB at Miami on Sept. 10, is less than two weeks away.
Four first-team all-conference players from last year — Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley, Miami defensive end Gregory Rousseau, Wake Forest receiver Sage Surratt and Pittsburgh defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman — have opted out of this season over virus concerns, making the ballot trickier. Notre Dame’s inclusion in the league, plus the transition from two divisions of seven teams to one cluster of 15, add complexity.
So here goes: a preseason all-conference team, predicted order of finish and player of the year.
Bookmarking the link is encouraged, the better to mock the selections at season’s end.
Quarterback: Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence is not only a generational talent but also a signature voice of 2020. From #BlackLivesMatter to #LetUsPlay, he’s become comfortable as an ambassador for his school and sport.
Running backs: Louisville’s Javian Hawkins and Clemson’s Travis Etienne each rushed for more than 1,500 yards last season, and Etienne is a two-time ACC player of the year.
Receivers: Louisville’s Tutu Atwell, Florida State’s Tamorrion Terry and North Carolina’s Dazz Newsome combined for 3,482 receiving yards and 31 touchdown catches last season.
Tight end: Miami’s Brevin Jordan was among three finalists for the 2019 Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end.
Center: A former walk-on, Pitt’s Jimmy Morrissey is the incumbent first-team all-ACC center.
Tackles: Clemson’s Jackson Carman and Notre Dame’s Liam Eichenberg, with Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw and Boston College’s Ben Petrula a tick behind.
Guards: Notre Dame’s Aaron Banks and Boston College’s Zion Johnson, the latter of whom played on his high school golf team. Think the 6-foot-3, 310-pound Johnson is long off the tee?
All-purpose: Louisville’s Hassan Hall rushed for 501 yards and five touchdowns last year and ranked fourth nationally in average kickoff return (30.5 yards).
Ends: No active player recorded more sacks last season than Miami’s Quincy Roche, who had 13 for Temple to earn American Athletic Conference defensive- player-of-the-year honors. Carlos “Boogie” Basham’s 18 tackles for losses in 2019 are the second-most in Wake Forest history.
Tackles: Florida State’s Marvin Wilson was the lone ACC tackle with multiple games of at least three tackles for loss last season. Clemson’s Tyler Davis last year became the first true freshman defensive tackle to start the Tigers’ opener since 1974.
Linebackers: North Carolina’s Chazz Surratt, Virginia Tech’s Rayshard Ashby (L.C. Bird) and Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, with apologies to Virginia’s Charles Snowden and Boston College’s Max Richardson.
Cornerbacks: Rated among the class of 2018’s top 10 receivers, Clemson’s Derion Kendrick moved to corner last year and promptly earned second-team all-ACC honors. The son of a two-time Super Bowl champion and four-time Pro Bowler, Florida State’s Asante Samuel Jr., broke up an ACC-high 14 passes in 2019.
Safeties: Pitt’s Paris Ford and FSU’s Hamsah Nasirildeen combined for 198 tackles last season, and the latter’s 101 ranked second among Power Five defensive backs.
Kicker: Wake Forest’s Nick Sciba hit 24 of 25 field goal attempts last year and all 47 of his PAT tries.
Punter: Twenty-two of Oscar Bradburn’s 53 punts last season pinned Virginia Tech opponents inside their 20. That frequency (41.5%) leads the conference’s returning punters.
Returner: Duke’s Damond Philyaw-Johnson ranked second nationally in average kickoff return (32.3 yards) and kickoff returns for touchdown (two).
Order of finish
Clemson (14-1 last season, 8-0 ACC): You were expecting otherwise?
Notre Dame (11-2): Ian Book threw 34 touchdown passes last season, with only six interceptions, and operates behind one of the sport’s best offensive lines.
North Carolina (7-6, 4-4): Good luck separating teams 3-9 in this forecast. I started with the Tar Heels because Sam Howell’s 38 touchdown passes in 2019 were eight more than any other Bowl Subdivision freshman.
Virginia Tech (8-5, 5-3): Rookie defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton is surrounded by experienced players such as Ashby and Divine Deablo and accomplished assistant coaches such as Tracy Claeys and Bill Teerlinck, ideal safety nets when following an icon (Bud Foster).
Louisville (8-5, 5-3): The Cardinals return quarterback Micale Cunningham and a handful of other playmakers from an offense that trailed only Clemson in points per game and yards per play among ACC teams.
Miami (6-7, 4-4): Houston transfer D’Eriq King could be the Hurricanes’ most complete quarterback since they joined the ACC in 2004. But Miami must improve a line that yielded a Power Five-worst 51 sacks.
Pittsburgh (8-5, 4-4): Headlined by Ford and defensive end Patrick Jones, the Panthers should be stingy again. But can veteran quarterback Kenny Pickett revive an offense that ranked 114th nationally in scoring at 21.2 points per game?
Virginia (9-5, 6-2): The defending Coastal Division champions are like Pitt, established on defense, suspect on offense. But this should be UVA’s best offensive line in Bronco Mendenhall’s five seasons as head coach, and if new starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong emerges, the Cavaliers will surprise folks.
Florida State (6-7, 4-4): Look at the eight teams ahead of FSU in this forecast. The Seminoles play all of them except Virginia Tech. That’s a grim schedule for first-year coach Mike Norvell, who inherited considerable talent.
Wake Forest (8-5, 4-4): Undervalued almost annually, the Deacons are hunting a fifth consecutive winning season and return a veteran quarterback in Sam Hartman. But their schedule also is brutal, bookended by an opener against Clemson and finale at Louisville.
Duke (5-7, 3-5): Clemson transfer Chase Brice takes over at quarterback, and coach David Cutcliffe takes over the play-calling after a season in which the Blue Devils ranked last in the league in yards per play at 4.5.
N.C. State (4-8, 1-7): In conference games last season, the Wolfpack averaged an ACC-low 16.1 points, but Dave Doeren’s squad caught a schedule break. It’s the only league team that doesn’t play Clemson or Notre Dame.
Boston College (6-7, 4-4): Can rookie coach Jeff Hafley, transfer quarterback Phil Jurkovec (from Notre Dame) and a seasoned offensive line lead the Eagles to their first winning ACC record since 2009?
Syracuse (5-7, 2-6): Among the nine ACC quarterbacks to attempt at least 250 passes last year, the Orange’s Tommy Devito threw the fewest interceptions (five). But Syracuse’s protection (50 sacks) was abysmal.
Georgia Tech (3-9, 2-6): The Yellow Jackets averaged 16.7 points last year, their fewest since 1981, leaving untold room for growth as second-year coach Geoff Collins continues the transition from Paul Johnson’s option offense.
ACC player of the year
Clemson’s Etienne won the award in 2018 and ‘19 and already owns conference records for career touchdowns (62) and rushing touchdowns (56). The only three-time league player of the year in Power Five history is Georgia’s Herschel Walker (1980, ’81 and ’82).