1. Clemson Tigers: They may not have won the division, but they demolished the eventual Atlantic champions, Wake Forest, 48-27. They finished the season on a six-game winning streak, including shutting out South Carolina, 30-0, and defeating Iowa State, 20-13 in the Cheez-It Bowl. The program has some challenges ahead. They must reload a staff that saw the departure of offensive coordinator, Tony Elliott, to head Virginia and defensive coordinator, Brent Venables, off to the head coaching gig at Oklahoma. On top of that, there are questions surrounding Clemson’s offense and their 2022 recruiting class is ranked out of the top-ten for the first time since 2017 (247Sports has them as No. 25). The Tigers’ may have stumbled, but they ended up being the best in the Atlantic.
2. Wake Forest Demon Deacons: Wake lost three of their last five, including a definitive loss against Pitt during the ACC Championship game, 45-21. They did retort with a 38-10 win over a clearly overmatched then 5-7 Rutgers Scarlet Knights team. QB Sam Hartman announced that he will return to the Demon Deacons for the 2022-23 season and WF awarded their head coach, Dave Clawson, with a pay raise and contract extension. This year was one of the program’s best historical performances and they will look to maintain their Atlantic success, especially with the trials Clemson is facing.
3. NC State Wolfpack: NCST upended their in-state rival, UNC, 34-30, and won four of their last five games. Unfortunately, their bowl game, the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl, was canceled due to COVID-19 protocols, stealing away their opportunity for a ten-win season. QB Devin Leary announced that he will return for next season and the Wolfpack will firmly be placed in the hunt for the Atlantic crown.
4. Louisville Cardinals: Now things start to get very muddy in the Atlantic Division. Louisville did enough to earn bowl eligibility, which they turned into a 31-28 loss to the Air Force Academy during the Servpro First Responder Bowl. During 2021 Louisville failed to collect a win over a Power 5 team with a winning record. Even with the return of dual threat QB, Malik Cunningham, the Cardinals have a tough road to the head of the Atlantic.
5. Boston College Eagles: BC lost three of their last five and only collected two wins over ACC opponents. The Eagles suffered during the games that starting QB, Phil Jurkovec, was out with injury, but he is returning to the starting lineup next year. Boston College also had their bowl game, the Military Bowl Presented by Peraton, canceled due to COVID-19 protocols.
6. Florida State Seminoles: FSU agreed to a one-year extension for head coach Mike Norvell, which takes him through the 2026 season. FSU has the No. 14 recruiting class for 2022, which is good enough for No. 2 in the ACC, behind only UNC. The preliminary ranking of their 2023 class is bright at No. 9 nationally and first in the ACC. FSU suffered one of the program’s most embarrassing losses when they dropped their week two game against FCS foe, Jacksonville State. The close overtime loss against Notre Dame and wins over UNC and Miami, coupled with the recruiting success seem to be enough to inspire FSU to give Norvell more time to develop the squad.
7. Syracuse Orange: Dino Babers was hired in 2016, but only the 10-3 2018 effort has come close to demonstrating the success the Orange was hoping to see from the staff. The one-win 2020 season is certainly the low point, and minus that 2018 season Syracuse has failed to reach the postseason. Babers’ retention probably has more to do with the volatility of the FBS coaching carousel than belief he is their coach for the future. 2021 was a demonstration of more mediocrity with the season featuring two three-game losing streaks, including a three-game skid to close the season. Expect the Orange to be digging their way out of the basement of the Atlantic next season.
1. Pittsburgh Panthers: They are surprising ACC champions. While proud of their 11-3 season, they will no doubt be looking at their inexplicable 44-41 loss to Western Michigan and 38-34 loss to Miami. Considering the CFB landscape after the completion of championship week, it seems that only seven points over two games kept the Panthers out of the CFB Playoff. Pitt lost the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl against Michigan State, 31-21. Although they will not enjoy the return of QB Kenny Pickett the ACC has been blown open after all the tumult and the Panthers will look to defend their conference championship.
2. Miami Hurricanes: The Hurricanes seemed to be the perennial second-half team. Barring the Alabama and Michigan State games, Miami surged to near victories in their other three losses after halftime. They won five of their last six games and freshmen QB, Tyler Van Dyke, who stepped in for the injured King, looks to be the sort of player a program can build around. Their appearance in the Sun Bowl was canceled due to COVID-19 protocols. Miami is one of four programs, in the Coastal, that elected to seek different leadership. New head coach, Mario Cristobal, will immediately be in the hunt to win the Atlantic during his inaugural effort at Coral Gables.
3. North Carolina Tar Heels: UNC lost close games to Pitt, NCST, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame while winning against then No. 9 Wake Forest and Miami. Their lone inexplicable loss was a 45-22 head-scratcher against Georgia Tech. The Tar Heels fell to Shane Beamers’ South Carolina Gamecocks, 38-21, during the Duke’s Mayo Bowl to close out their season. North Carolina boasts 247Sport’s No. 8 nationally (No. 1 ACC) recruiting class and they just hired Gene Chizik as an “assistant head coach for defense.” I am not entirely sure what that means, but back in 2015-2016 Chizik was the DC in Chapel Hill when the Tar Heels were considered the most improved defensive squad in the FBS. Along with Pitt and Miami, UNC will be in the hunt for an ACC Championship appearance.
4. Virginia Tech Hokies: I imagine I will catch some grief for ranking VT behind UNC, but UNC’s body of work, in 2021, is barely better than the Hokies. Statistically, VT’s beleaguered offense spent much of the time at the bottom of the FBS barrel, barely escaping shut outs against Pitt and BC and only collecting one win over an FBS squad that finished with a winning record (Middle Tennessee State). VT surprised with a win over UVA to retain the Commonwealth Cup but suffered the program’s largest bowl game loss when they were devastated by Maryland, 54-10, during the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Another program that parted ways with their head coach, Virginia Tech replaced Justin Fuente with Penn State’s defensive coordinator, Brent Pry. The Hokies boast their best recruiting class since 2019 (No. 31 nationally and No. 4 ACC), but the program is firmly in a rebuilding phase and likely won’t be in the division championship hunt for the Coastal.
5. Virginia Cavaliers: UVA finished their season with a four-game skid and a bowl game canceled due to COVID-19 protocols. After an embarrassing home loss, to an extremely vulnerable Virginia Tech squad, Bronco Mendenhall shocked when he announced his retirement. There was some churn that the Cavaliers’ record breaking QB, Brennan Armstrong, may join several of his teammate in the transfer portal, but he looks to return next year under the tutelage of new HC, Tony Elliot. Armstrong is a significant offensive talent, but until UVA finds some answers on defense, they will have a tough time challenging for the Coastal.
6. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets: GT is still rebuilding and working through the growing pains of transitioning from a triple option offense, but they showed flashes of performance I didn’t expect. They had one score losses against NIU, Clemson, UVA, VT, and Miami. Their high point of the season was knocking then No. 21 UNC out of the rankings with a dominating 45-22 victory. They did lose their last six games, including dropping their last two against Notre Dame and Georgia with a combined score of 100-0 (ouch), but the Yellow Jackets are trending up and will be looking to earn bowl eligibility next year.
7. Duke Blue Devils: The only ACC program that failed to collect a conference win, it seems that Coach David Cutcliffe’s magic has waned. After jumping to a 3-1 start the Blue Devils dropped eight straight games to finish the season 3-9. Texas A&M defensive coordinator, Mike Elko, a name tossed around as a possible option for VT, will take the reigns of Duke for 2022. The Blue Devils haven’t had a post season appearance since 2018 when they defeated Temple, 56-27, during the Walk-On’s Independence Bowl. A bowl game might be a bit much to expect from this team next year.
1. Pittsburgh Panthers (11-3, 7-1 conf.)
2. Clemson Tigers (10-3, 6-2)
3. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (11-3, 7-1)
4. NC State Wolfpack (9-3, 6-2)
5. Miami Hurricanes (7-5, 5-3)
6. Louisville Cardinals (6-7, 4-4)
7. Boston College Eagles (6-6, 2-6)
8. North Carolina Tar Heels (6-7, 3-5)
9. Virginia Tech Hokies (6-7, 4-4)
10. Virginia Cavaliers (6-6, 4-4)
11. Florida State Seminoles (5-7, 4-4)
12. Syracuse Orange (5-7, 2-6)
13. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (3-9, 2-6)
14. Duke Blue Devils (3-9, 0-8)