Last year was an interesting year for the ACC. A division that has been dominated by Clemson since 2015 acted quickly to bring Notre Dame after the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic led to massive changes in safety regulations.
The Fighting Irish provided a new dynamic and a challenger for Dabo Swinney’s men, and did manage to beat them in the regular season. However, Trevor Lawrence put up more than 300 yards in the ACC Championship game as the Tigers cruised to a 34-10 victory, further solidifying their status as one of the modern CFB powerhouses.
But is Clemson’s dominance masking an issue in the ACC? Outside of the Tigers there is very rarely a team regularly pushing for inclusion in the CFB Playoffs. Last year UNC and Miami both looked good through long stretches of the season, but neither came anywhere near toppling Clemson or Notre Dame. For a division that likes to consider itself a rival to the SEC, is that good enough?
Moving into the new season there are glimmers of promise across the division, teams like Pitt produced a lot of draftable defensive talent in April, Mike Norvell appears to be overhauling Florida State in the mould of his successful Memphis team and NC State’s offense looks like it can be a real threat to any opponent. So, with Spring Games in the bag and the countdown to week one well underway, what are the main storylines to follow in the lead up to September?
Can Boston College challenge the big guns?
Boston College’s 5-5 end of season record didn’t quite tell the whole story of their 2020 campaign. As well as wins over solid opposition in Pitt & Louisville, the Eagles went toe to toe with both Clemson and UNC, losing by a single score in both games.
Transfer Quarterback, Phil Jurkovec, performed well and helped first year Head Coach, Jeff Hafley, get his feet under the table quickly. Jurkovec’s 2258 yards, 61% completion rate and 17-5 TD-INT numbers help to showcase just how quickly he was able to adapt to the starting role, and the potential he has to play football on Sundays in the future.
Jurkovec will be the cornerstone of the 2021 Eagles, but he’s also got an extremely talented supporting cast. In Zay Flowers, BC has one of the premiere pass catchers in college football. The Junior receiver will be looking to build on a productive 2020, utilising his excellent route running and YAC threat to secure his early round stock ahead of next year’s draft. Jaelen Gill, the former Ohio State transfer, Kobay White and CJ Lewis provide more than ample support for Flowers in what is one of the better receiver rooms in the conference.
On the Offensive Line there is important stability, with four starters returning despite at least two of them being draftworthy. Alec Lindstrom plays with a nasty edge and has a lot of power from the Center position, whilst Zion Johnson has opted to make the most of the NCAA extra year of eligibility to become perhaps one of the top ranked Left Tackles in the 2022 draft.
Interestingly, BC’s first year with Hafley at the helm saw a huge leap in the passing game, but a regression when running the football. The Eagles’ run game has long been one of their strong points, but they dipped from around 250 yards on the ground per game in 2019 to just over 100 last year. That’s a big drop off and they’ll need to find a balance between the two averages if they’re to compete with the big guns in the ACC this year. Last year’s starting RB, David Bailey, has transferred so it looks like Travis Levy will have a shot at being the early down guy this year, with freshman Xavier Coleman competing with West Virginia transfer, Alec Sinkfield, and Pat Garwo for snaps.
It’s on defense that the Eagles need to improve most if they’re to take the next step. In 2020 they gave up an average 417 yards per game to opposition offenses and were blown out by Virginia Tech and Virginia in ugly losses against similar strength opposition. It’s perhaps then no surprise that Hafley and Defensive Coordinator, Tem Lukabu, have strengthened with four defensive transfers – including former four-star Safety, Jaiden Lars-Woodbey.
With an opening slate of Colgate, UMass and Temple, BC will want to be 3-0 heading into a matchup with Missou on September 25th. If they can beat the SEC team then a very interesting matchup against Clemson at Memorial Stadium will showcase everything they’ve got to offer the ACC in 2021.
Florida State Quarterback competition
It’s hard to believe that it’s still less than 10 years since FSU was the best team in America. That 2013 National Championship title season is a stark contrast to the football that Seminoles fans have endured for the past few years. 2020 was year zero for new Head Coach Mike Norvell, as he began the mammoth task of overhauling a team that is littered with high quality recruits, but seemingly plays with no collaboration on the field.
Key to that success will be the influx of transfers that the Noles have secured in recent months. Jermaine Johnson, Jammie Robinson and Andrew Parchment are among the nine transfers that Norvell has welcomed to Tallahassee in recent months, with Johnson in particular looking particularly bright in the FSU Spring Game.
But it’s at the Quarterback position that Norvell’s early success will be judged by. Jordan Travis was electric at times for the Noles in 2020 as he rushed for 569 yards on 97 attempts, whilst throwing for 1056 yards on 72 completions. However, the fact Travis rushed more times than he completed a pass demonstrates the ineffectiveness in the passing game which often hindered Kenny Dillingham’s offense. Travis also posted a 6-6 TD/INT ratio, which simply isn’t going to win games at the D1 level.
Step forward another high profile transfer, McKenzie Milton. The former UCF starter has recovered from a gruesome leg injury which left Doctors wondering if he’d walk again, let alone start a game of competitive football. But, after successful rehabilitation, Norvell jumped at the chance to recruit Milton the second he hit the transfer portal. The move is a testament to the culture that FSU is trying to create, with Milton recognised as a leader on and off the field after being the focal point of UCF’s unbeaten season in 2017.
So who does that leave as the Noles starter? It’s unclear at this point, but Travis clearly has the advantage as the incumbent starter with knowledge of the playbook. In their Spring Game, both QBs looked good, with Travis completing some of the intermediate throws that have sometimes looked like a weakness to his game. Milton looked his usual self, making accurate throws and linking up with incoming recruit Malik McClain for the play of the game.
Whichever way Norvell and Dillingham fall on the starting job will clearly go along way to deciding the fate of FSU’s 2021 season, and they’ll want to avoid the back and forth which characterised 2020 as James Blackman and Travis switched in and out regularly.
How will UNC fare without key skill position players?
2225 receiving yards and 2385 rushing yards, that’s what the University of North Carolina has got to replace in 2021 after Dyami Brown, Dazz Newsome, Michael Carter and Javonte Williams left for the NFL. It doesn’t matter which team you are, when you lose that level of experience and talent it’s going to be tough to keep up the high standards that are expected of you.
Luckily for the Tar Heels they’ve still got their star signal-caller, Sam Howell. A lot of early mock drafts have got Howell as a top 10 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, and it’s easy to see why. Howell is a gunslinger who can make throws all over the field, he improved his accuracy in 2020, striking a great downfield relationship with Brown as the receiver put up 1099 yards on just 55 catches.
But who is going to replace the aforementioned players in support of Howell? Well, it’s open for interpretation at this point. Carter and Williams split reps down the middle in 2020 (157 & 156 rushes respectively) and it would figure that Phil Longo would continue with this approach in 2021. If that’s the case then early rumblings suggest that senior and Special Teams standout, British Brooks, will combine with Tennessee transfer, Ty Chandler, as the main pairing. Brooks has never really made an impact on the box score across his three years in Chapel Hill, and sophomore DJ Jones is lurking in the wings should the North Carolina native slip up.
At receiver, UNC returns a lot of players other than Newsome and Brown, but no one really jumps off the board as ‘the go to’ target for Howell. Slot receiver, Josh Downs, seems to be the only lock to get a starting berth in September, with his speed and balance making him a serious weapon over the middle of the field. Khafre Brown (younger brother of Dyami) flashed some serious quickness on the outside at times last season, and he’ll be hoping to bounce back from an injury to secure the X receiver role. Emery Simmons, Antoine Green and Beau Corrales are the other experienced Tar Heel pass catchers who will look to fill the void of their two NFL-bound teammates.
In terms of incoming freshmen, JJ Jones, Gavin Blackwell and Kobe Paysour all bring solid resumes but it feels like the crowded receiver room needs to thin out slightly before they get their chance. Running back, Kammaro Edmonds, has the prototypical measurements to succeed at the College level, but 2021 might be too soon for him to play a meaningful role.
An early look at the Tar Heels’ schedule shows a lot of winnable matchups. Before playing the Hurricanes in week seven, UNC should be the favourite in every game they play. After welcoming Miami to Kenan Memorial Stadium, North Carolina faces their most difficult game away to Notre Dame. It’ll be in that matchup that we see both Howell’s draft pedigree and how capable his new supporting cast really is.
Can Georgia Tech realise their potential?
After three back to back seasons in which the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets have won just three games, Geoff Collins must be wondering if he really can change the prospects of the programme he took over in 2018. The former Temple Head Coach has made it widely known that he’s trying to transition the Yellow Jackets’ offense away from the triple option, but the pandemic made it even more difficult to do that in 2020. As a result they went 3-7, with wins against FSU, Louisville and Duke helping them to save face after a 73-7 pasting by Clemson.
However, there were some reasons for Collins to be positive. Freshman Quarterback, Jeff Sims, emerged as one of the most exciting young prospects in the division, with the ability to run the ball as well as he throws it. For such a young player, Sims’ pocket presence and awareness is extremely promising, as plays break down he moves out to his right and utilises his ability to throw accurately down the sideline on the run. His accuracy and composure improved throughout the season and his highlight tape in the 56-33 win over Duke is packed with nice plays. When running the ball Sims draws obvious comparisons to Lamar Jackson, he’s quick and he runs with a lot of twitch, allowing him to break the first tackle and punish teams that don’t close him down effectively.
The Yellow Jackets’ signal-caller isn’t the only good runner on the team however, with Jahmyr Gibbs and Jordan Mason a strong pairing at the Running Back position. In his freshman season, Gibbs carried the ball 89 times for 460 yards and 4 TDs, but it was his 303 yards and 3 TDs on just 24 receptions that has turned heads up and down the ACC. The former four-star recruit chose Georgia Tech over a host of big names including Texas, USC and Florida, presumably with the thought that he’d be at the front of the queue when it came to workload in the Jackets’ back field. If his freshman season was anything to go by then he certainly wasn’t wrong, and his decision is already looking likely to lead to a role on Sundays in the future.
But even with all the promising talent on the offensive side of the ball, there are still some serious concerns when it comes to the Tech defense. In 2020 they ranked 110th out of 128 when it came to points allowed, with opposition offenses averaging 37 points a game against them. To address this, Collins and Defensive Coordinator, Andrew Thacker, have delved into the transfer portal to mop up players from some of the bigger teams in CFB. Kenyatta Watson II (Texas) will add some star power at CB, whilst Kevin Harris (Alabama), Makius Scott (South Carolina), and Ayinde Eley (Maryland) have been added to provide a pass rush threat. Add in four, three-star defensive enrollees and the Yellow Jackets have a chance to dramatically increase their defensive game in 2021, allowing Sims and co the opportunity to work their magic in close games.
Clearly, there are many other narratives to watch in the ACC this season, including the potential dominance of Clemson’s defense, the development of Kenny Pickett at Pitt and whether NC State can build on their 23rd ranked season in 2020. For a division that probably isn’t living up to its potential outside of Clemson, there’s still plenty to be excited about in 2021 and all of us at the F10Y can’t wait for it to get started.
By Andy Moore @ajmoore21