ACC college football preview: Can Clemson reign in the Atlantic again?

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Mar 6, 2018

ACC college football preview: Can Clemson reign in the Atlantic again?​


Many elite college football programs have been taken down by either key assistant coaching changes, a failure to keep up with the times, or both. In 2022, Dabo Swinney's Clemson Tigers, the ruling power of the ACC Atlantic for more than a half-decade, has to fend off both. Swinney must replace longtime coordinators Brent Venables and Tony Elliott, both of whom are now Power 5 head coaches. His Tigers also have to figure out what the heck happened to their offense last year.

Parity suddenly arrived in the Atlantic, with Wake Forest landing its first title in 15 years last fall. If Clemson doesn't rebound as most projections assume it will, things could get even wilder in 2022. Let's preview the ACC Atlantic!

2021 recap​

Things were topsy-turvy from the start. Clemson began the season just 4-3, losing multiple conference games for the first time since 2014. Meanwhile, Florida State, the division's pre-Clemson power, began Mike Norvell's second season 0-4, and a run of four losses in five games eliminated Louisville from division contention as well. With its star quarterback injured, Boston College lost six of eight after a 4-0 start; Syracuse crumbled after a solid start as well.

Two contenders stepped up. Wake Forest's 45-42 win over NC State on Nov. 13 gave the Demon Deacons an insurmountable edge, and they won the division by a game over the Wolfpack and a resurgent Clemson. They couldn't keep up with Pitt in an ACC championship game track meet -- Wake games tended to require track shoes -- but they stomped impromptu opponent Rutgers in the Gator Bowl to cap the second 11-win season in program history.

2022 projections​

NC State1842108.55.098%
Florida State2845157.54.692%
Wake Forest499977.03.886%
Boston College6584655.12.638%
Three things you need to know about SP+:

  1. It gives longtime powers the benefit of the doubt. Clemson stumbled to 71st in offensive SP+ last season but is projected to rebound nicely because of both the elite run that preceded the stumble and excellent recruiting.
  2. It doesn't take coaching changes into account. It doesn't know about the dual coordinator changes Clemson is working with.
  3. It hates Wake Forest's defense. Loathes it. The Deacs peaked at only 28th during their 8-0 start, and the defense finished 92nd.
If Clemson doesn't rebound as forcefully as projected and Wake overcomes its D to make another run, this could be a fascinating four- or five-team race. Or maybe Clemson indeed rebounds and rolls.

Burning questions​

Did promoting from within fix the Clemson offense? Dabo Swinney is intensely (and justifiably) proud of the culture he has built at Clemson. His Tigers have won at least 10 games for 11 straight years and, from 2015 to 2020, ripped off a string of six straight ACC titles and College Football Playoff appearances with two national titles. Not bad for a program that had one national title (also its only top-five finish) in its history when Swinney arrived.

Despite college football's rapid change, Swinney has thrived in part by resisting it. He brings in minimal help from the transfer portal and doesn't lose as many transfers as others. He hires good assistants, pays them well and gets out of their way. His offense cratered in 2021, but he sought almost nothing from the portal, and when coordinator Tony Elliott left to take the Virginia head-coaching job, Swinney promoted from within: New coordinator Brandon Streeter has spent the past seven years as Clemson's quarterbacks coach.

The QB position stunk in 2021, though. In his first year succeeding No. 1 NFL draft pick Trevor Lawrence, sophomore D.J. Uiagalelei completed just 56% of his passes with more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (nine) and failed to offer the expected efficiency punch in the run game. Clemson ranked 105th in passing success rate. A run game driven by Will Shipley and Kobe Pace had its moments, and the Tigers averaged 34 points per game during a season-ending six-game win streak. But Uiagalelei still ranked only 91st in Total QBR during that streak, and leading receiver Justyn Ross left for the NFL.

The defense is probably going to be amazing again -- promoting from within made total sense in this case; Wes Goodwin, Venables' right-hand man, takes over as coordinator and inherits the best defensive line in college football. The back seven must replace five starters, but Clemson hands heavy snap counts to backups (which creates quality succession plans), and the line features the all-world duo of end Myles Murphy and tackle Bryan Bresee and every other player who took 100-plus snaps last year. The Tigers are projected second in defensive SP+ for a reason.

Even with an elite defense, though, they won't have a CFP ceiling if their quarterback is playing at barely a top-100 level. Can an offseason of work fix what ailed Uiagalelei? His confidence vanished and never came back, and the offense gave him none of the easy throws so many other blue-chippers see. Can Streeter bring about a necessary refresh? Is blue-chip freshman Cade Klubnik ready if Uiagalelei again can't get going? Nine starters return, but there's no Lawrence or Travis Etienne Jr. here to create chunk plays out of nothing. New blood might not be the worst idea in the world.

Swinney is attempting to fix this problem the way he knows how. It might work, but it's hard to trust this offense until we see quality QB play again. And that makes Clemson one of 2022's most fascinating teams.

How does NC State live up to hype? Dave Doeren's Wolfpack have become a preseason darling. Mark Schlabach ranked them eighth in his updated Way-Too-Early top 25 (Clemson is 12th), and it's not hard to see why. They fielded a top-15 defense in 2021 -- even while it got hit hard by injury -- and incumbent quarterback Devin Leary threw for 3,433 yards and an eye-popping 35 touchdowns to five interceptions. There's turnover in the skill corps, but the defense both returns 13 of the 15 players with 250-plus snaps last year and brings back three potential starters from injury. NC State has somehow never finished in the AP top 10; it's quite conceivable that 2022 is the year.

If it's not the year, however, it probably will be the offense's fault. For all of Leary's hype, he still ranked only 30th in Total QBR -- good but not elite -- and the Wolfpack's nibbling offense ranked only 80th in passing success rate. The Pack found themselves in too many third-and-longs, and while they bailed themselves out with big plays and strong red zone execution, they still ranked only 39th in offensive SP+. The run game was inefficient with All-American tackle Ikem Ekwonu and backs Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person Jr., and all three of them are gone, as is the biggest receiving threat, Emeka Emezie. Leary still has receivers Thayer Thomas and Devin Carter at his disposal, but the Pack could again be one-dimensional, and only Carter has proven explosiveness.

The Pack's defense constantly pushed teams backward in 2021 and boasted some of the surest tackling in the country despite a season-long injury for star linebacker Payton Wilson. NC State forced opponents behind schedule, then dominated with consistent pressure (eighth in pressure rate) and an elite secondary that returns intact and returns Cecil Powell, a starting cornerback in 2020. This is a huge opportunity for State in 2022. Let's see if the offense can hold up its end of the bargain.

Is Wake Forest's defense an issue or a catastrophe? Of last year's three Atlantic contenders, Dave Clawson's Demon Deacons were the photo negative of the other two: incredible on offense and a slight debacle on defense. Wake allowed at least 34 points in seven of 14 games but actually managed to go 4-3 in those games thanks to its own ridiculous passing game led by quarterback Sam Hartman (4,228 yards, 39 touchdowns, 12th in Total QBR). It's tough to keep doing that.

Even without 1,000-yard receiver Jaquarii Roberson and all-conference left tackle Zach Tom, the Deacs will score a lot of points again behind Hartman, 1,200-yard receiver A.T. Perry and 2020 breakout receiver Donavon Greene (injured in 2021). But can new defensive coordinator Brad Lambert -- who flipped Purdue from 60th to 25th in defensive SP+ last season -- engineer a few added stops? Wake must replace three of six regulars on the defensive line, three of four in the secondary and leading tackler Luke Masterson at linebacker. Granted, replacing starters from a bad defense can sometimes be a "good news, bad news" situation, but someone still needs to step up. In end Rondell Bothroyd and linebacker Ryan Smenda Jr., Lambert inherits at least a couple of playmakers. But he needs some play-preventers, too, and that could be tricky with his line and secondary potentially leaning heavily on sophomores.

If you're a Wake fan and appalled at the barely-top-50 SP+ projection, I understand. But the Deacs managed to win the Atlantic while playing only three top-50 teams last year (and getting outscored by an average of 14 points in those games). SP+ adores Hartman and the offense. It just needs a reason to believe in the D. Maybe Lambert will provide it.

Let's say either Florida State or Louisville makes a jump: Which is more trustworthy? It definitely looks odd when two teams that combined to go 11-14 last year -- Scott Satterfield's Louisville and Mike Norvell's Florida State -- are projected ahead of the 11-3 Deacs. Let's walk through it.

Louisville returns an offense that could be nearly as potent as Wake's and a defense that, while not particularly impressive, doesn't seem to have as low a floor as the Deacs'. FSU, meanwhile, has the experience to take a big step forward on defense and should boast quite a bit of explosiveness from an athletic if inconsistent offense.

Belief in either of these programs, however, takes some obvious faith. Satterfield has gone just 18-19 with an average SP+ ranking of 50th over three seasons; Norvell, meanwhile, has gone 8-13 with an average ranking of 69th over two.

The Seminoles' defense took a step forward last season despite youth and returns all but three regulars, but two of those departures -- ends Jermaine Johnson II and Keir Thomas -- combined for 18.5 sacks among 29.5 tackles for loss. Can FCS transfer Jared Verse (9.5 sacks at Albany in 2021) provide immediate help while everyone else continues to improve? And can quarterback Jordan Travis, a delight with his legs, provide more consistency with his arm under new coordinator Alex Atkins? FSU ranked 99th in passing success rate last year, after all.

To me, Louisville feels more likely to meet expectations. Quarterback Malik Cunningham (2,941 passing yards, 1,142 pre-sack rushing yards) is a joy to watch, and he has at least one genuine big-play threat in sophomore slot Ahmari Huggins-Bruce. Tennessee running back transfer Tiyon Evans could provide a boost in the backfield, too, and most of last year's line returns. But after ranking 64th in defensive SP+, Satterfield is leaning heavily on transfers -- six in the secondary alone, plus Arizona State tackle Jermayne Lole and Ole Miss linebacker MoMo Sanogo -- to provide a boost. End Ashton Gillotte and linebacker Yasir Abdullah also are keepers, so maybe there's enough firepower here. But it has been a while since the Cardinals fielded a particularly solid defense.

Where does Boston College actually stand out? If my Twitter mentions are any indication, Boston College fans are feeling pretty good about the state of their program as Jeff Hafley enters his third season in charge. When healthy, quarterback Phil Jurkovec has shown obvious potential: He has produced a raw QBR of 70 or higher in eight of 16 starts, including each of his first four in 2021, and BC is 8-0 when he does so.

The defense, absolutely dreadful at the end of the Steve Addazio era, improved to average (63rd in defensive SP+) last season and found a solid "bend, don't break, and step up in the red zone" routine at times. The Eagles were 34th in SP+ at the start of October before the weight of a two-month injury for Jurkovec began to take effect. (They were 2-4 without him and finished 75th.)

Undoubtedly, BC is projected artificially low here because of Jurkovec's injury. But where do the Eagles actually stand out ahead of their Atlantic peers? Jurkovec is good, and so is go-to receiver Zay Flowers, but there are a lot of good quarterbacks in this division, and others won't line up behind a line replacing four starters. Big guard Christian Mahogany is a lovely starting point up front, but the retooling is comprehensive, and the run game was below average even with a veteran line.

Defensively, the Eagles could continue to improve, but ace corner Brandon Sebastian is gone, and even with improvement, they won't catch Clemson's or NC State's defenses. Even if we assume overachievement compared to the projections above, the schedule features five projected top-30 teams and minimal margin for error. Can Hafley keep the optimism levels high?

Is the Syracuse offense salvageable? After winning 10 games in 2018, Dino Babers' Orange fell to 5-7 in 2019, then disintegrated to 1-10 and 111th in SP+ in 2020. The defense went from mediocre to bad, the offense from bad to horrendous.

In 2021, things rebounded to 2019 levels. The offense stayed on schedule slightly better thanks to freshman running back Sean Tucker (1,751 rushing and receiving yards, 14 touchdowns). The passing game still offered next to nothing, but Tucker's emergence helped to poke the Orange past 30 points on four occasions.

The defense, meanwhile, leaped from 97th to 54th in defensive SP+ despite youth. Each of the three linebackers and five defensive backs with 400-plus snaps was either a freshman or a sophomore, and each linebacker (Mikel Jones, Marlowe Wax and Stefon Thompson) had at least three sacks and eight TFLs. If the line weren't undergoing a severe makeover (five of the top six are gone), this defense might have top-30 potential. But it will still likely be the stronger of two units unless a Virginia transplant pays off.

Offensive coordinator Robert Anae and quarterbacks coach Jason Beck come over from UVa after engineering a leap to eighth in offensive SP+ last season. They built a creative and explosive attack around the skills of quarterback Brennan Armstrong, and if they can do something similar with incumbent QB Garrett Shrader (or Florida transfer Carlos Del Rio-Wilson, perhaps?), maybe Babers can save his job. But the Orange produced an average ranking of 97th in offensive SP+ over the past three seasons; getting them back to an average level will require a heavy lift even with Tucker.

My 10 favorite players​

QB Sam Hartman, Wake Forest. The marriage of Hartman with coordinator Warren Ruggiero's unique (read: weird) and exciting offense has been absolutely perfect, and he has one of the most exciting receiving corps in the East at his disposal.

QB Malik Cunningham, Louisville. One of the best running quarterbacks in the nation took a massive leap forward as a passer in 2021, and he finished seventh in Total QBR. He just needs a little more help from his defense, as the Cardinals' ceiling is awfully high.

RB Sean Tucker, Syracuse. Opposing defenses quickly learned they had to worry about only Tucker last year when playing the Orange ... and he still rushed for 100-plus yards nine times and averaged 6.1 yards per carry.

WR A.T. Perry, Wake Forest. Donavon Greene's injury forced the 6-foot-5, 206-pound Perry into a go-to role, and he responded by posting at least 110 yards seven times and thriving both near to and far from the line of scrimmage. And now Greene is healthy too.

WR Zay Flowers, Boston College. The senior had to do some heavy lifting in the big-play department, running a heavy load of deep routes and responding with 44 catches, 746 yards and five touchdowns. And that was with only half a season of Phil Jurkovec.

DE Myles Murphy and DT Bryan Bresee, Clemson. It has been hard to separate these two since they both signed with Clemson as top-15 recruits in 2020. They combined for 18 TFLs as freshmen and might have topped 25 last season had Bresee not torn his ACL last September. He should be healthy this fall, and this duo should anchor another ridiculous Clemson line.

OLB Yasir Abdullah, Louisville. Power-conference linebackers with at least 10 sacks and 15 run stuffs in 2021: Abdullah ... and Alabama's Will Anderson Jr. That's it. Great company right there.

LB Drake Thomas, NC State. While we're at it, Power 5 linebackers with at least five sacks and 20 run stuffs: Thomas, Anderson Jr. again and Wisconsin's Leo Chenal. What damage might Thomas do with battery mate Payton Wilson back as well?

LB Amari Gainer, Florida State. The junior from Tallahassee goes by Amari Ferrari on Twitter, and it fits: He's everywhere. He made tackles on 16% of his snaps, generated pressure on 29% of his pass rushes and threw in 11 run stuffs too. Fantastic rates all around.

Honorable mention: QB Devin Leary (NC State), RB Will Shipley (Clemson), SLOT Ahmari Huggins-Bruce (Louisville), RG Christian Mahogany (Boston College), LG Dillan Gibbons (Florida State), DE Davin Vann (NC State), LB Trenton Simpson (Clemson), FS Tanner Ingle (NC State), NICKEL Josh DeBerry (Boston College), CB Garrett Williams (Syracuse)


In 1987, 35 years ago, Syracuse nearly went 12-0. After a couple of decades in the wilderness, Syracuse emerged again in the late 1980s as a power under Dick MacPherson. In 1987, quarterback Don McPherson nearly won the Heisman Trophy, and the Orange pummeled No. 10 Penn State, among others, on the way to an 11-0 start. Against No. 6 Auburn in the Sugar Bowl, they took a 16-13 lead with a trio of second-half field goals from Tim Vesling, but with the ball at the Cuse 13 with just seconds left, Auburn elected to tie the game with a field goal instead of going for the win. Win Lyle's kick was good, and Syracuse finished 11-0-1.

Also in 1987: Florida State's streak began. The only streak of consistently elite play that can possibly compete with what Alabama has done under Nick Saban since 2008 took place in Tallahassee. After hitting a rough patch in the mid-1980s, Bobby Bowden's Seminoles beat No. 6 Auburn and No. 5 Nebraska on their way to an 11-1 season and No. 2 finish in the AP poll. They wouldn't finish outside of the top five again until 2001. They won national titles in 1993 and 1999 and came within a single loss of potentially doing so in 1988, 1992, 1996 and 1997.

Hell, even Alabama has fallen out of the top five a couple of times during Saban's current run.

In 1992, 30 years ago, Wake Forest won its first bowl in 47 years. Wake Forest is a small private university; as former head coach Jim Grobe once pointed out to me, the University of Michigan has more living alumni than Wake has alums, period. It can obviously be difficult to keep up from a spending standpoint, and for long periods of their football history, the Deacs have struggled. They have bowled 16 times and won two or fewer games 30 times. But after a particularly arid stretch -- the Deacs bowled just once between 1949 and 1991 and hadn't won a bowl since 1945 -- Wake gave head coach Bill Dooley a lovely retirement gift: a trip to Shreveport and an Independence Bowl win over Oregon.

In 2002, 20 years ago, NC State enjoyed its best season. Nearly every fan base in college football can regale you with stories proving its team is cursed. Only one has a legitimate claim: NC State. The program has produced four top-five draft picks and two of the best NFL quarterbacks of the 21st century (Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson) but has won double-digit games only once with no top-10 finishes.

It all nearly came together in 2002. Rivers threw for 3,353 yards, and the Pack began the season 9-0 ... then lost three straight games by a total of 15 points. But they rallied, taking down Florida State, then blowing out No. 11 Notre Dame to finish the year 11-3 and finish just short of the top 10.

In 2007, 15 years ago, Boston College went to No. 2. It feels like half of FBS had a major role to play in the glorious mess that was the 2007 season; Boston College was a big one. Quarterback Matt Ryan and the Eagles walloped Notre Dame and scored twice in the last 2:11 to beat No. 8 Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, rising to 8-0 and No. 2 in the country in November. But they fell at home to unranked Florida State, then suffered a hangover loss to Maryland before rallying to win the Atlantic Division.

After an ACC championship game loss, they took down Michigan State in the Champs Sports Bowl to move to 11-3 and score the program's only top-10 finish of the past 37 years.

In 2012, 10 years ago, Clemson's upward trajectory fully took hold. Improvement is rarely linear, but it felt that way for Swinney's Tigers. He went just 19-15 to start his tenure but won 10 games with a surging offense in 2011, then won 11 in 2012 when Venables took over the defense. From there, it was one accomplishment after another. The Tigers enjoyed three straight top-15 finishes from 2012 to 2014, then leaped again in 2015 as Deshaun Watson took over at quarterback.

Clemson went an almost inconceivable 79-7 from 2015 to 2020, reaching the CFP every year, before last season's hiccup. If it's all downhill from here, that's still an all-time run. But it might not be all downhill from here.

In 2017, five years ago, Lamar Jackson wrapped up his Louisville career. He was decent.
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