1. NC State Wolfpack: With 17 returning starters there is no program more experienced in the ACC. Their 27-21 OT victory over Clemson is a program defining win and were it not for a three-point loss to a Wake Forest unit they statistically beat the Wolfpack would have been in the ACC Championship game. QB Devin Leary is entering his fourth year as a starter, boasting a 2021 performance that saw him complete 65.7% of passes for 3,433 yards, 35 TDs, and only five INTs. On the defensive side of the ball NCST has the best linebacker corps in the conference and an argument for the best in the country. Although plagued by injury last season the Wolfpack still managed to be the No. 2 defense in the ACC. Clemson possesses the nation’s longest active home winning streak with 34 home victories. When the Tigers host the Wolfpack, on October 1, it could determine the winner of the Atlantic.
2. Clemson Tigers: Last year, after six straight conference championships, the Tigers ceded the Atlantic crown to Wake Forest and the ACC crown to Pittsburgh. During their 2021 effort the Tigers, as per usual, possessed a near professional level defense, which kept them in every game. Entering the 2022 season, not much has changed on that front. Clemson features the best defensive line in the country and a linebacking and defensive back corps that also number amongst the best in the NCAA. Last year demonstrated how difficult it can be to replace offensive talents like Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne. Together, RBs Will Shipley and Kobe Pace did a solid job replacing Etienne’s production, but QB DJ Uiagalelei struggled mightily, and a young offensive line battled inconsistent play. For the Tigers to return to the level they saw during the Watson and Lawrence years Uiagalelei and the OL must improve. Five-star QB true freshmen recruit, Cade Klubnik, could possibly enter the fray if DJ cannot demonstrate the necessary prowess. Among all this the Tigers must also contend with the departures of their top assistant coaches. Defensive Coordinator extraordinaire, Brent Venables, left to coach the Oklahoma Sooners while Offensive Coordinator, Tony Elliot, took off to see what he can do with UVA.
3. Wake Forest Demon Deacons: For the first time since 2006 the Demon Deacons won their division. QB Sam Hartman’s 4,228-yard, 39 TD, and 14 INT performance carried a struggling Wake Forest defense to an ACC Championship appearance, bowl victory, and 11-3 overall record. Hartman enters his fourth year, as a starting QB, with one of the best offensive lines and WR corps in the conference. Defensively Wake Forest looks to improve on last season’s disappointing performance, but there are questions surrounding a LB corps that was regularly torched during 2021. There are flashes of potential at defensive line, particularly DE Rondell Bothroyd, and increased experience at DB. All of which fuels the hopes for a defensive improvement. Regardless, offensive ability is what will determine the Demon Deacons’ performance on the season.
4. Louisville Cardinals: There sure is a lot of quarterback talent in the Atlantic Division. QB Malik Cunningham is a true dual threat which he demonstrated definitively last season. In the air Cunningham completed 62.0% of his passes for 2,941 yards (8.7 average), 19 TDs, and only six interceptions. On the deck he averaged 6.0 YPC over 173 rushing attempts for 1,031 yards and 20 touchdowns. Behind, arguably the best offensive line in the ACC, new OC Lance Taylor, will look to have Cunningham allow plays to develop longer before bolting off into the sunset and to have the RB stock increase their productivity on the ground. Defensively the Cardinals mined the portal to increase experience and most importantly, depth. Like the Demon Deacons above, much of the Cardinals’ fate rests in the health and performance of their starting QB.
5. Boston College Eagles: Offensive talent appears ready to boil over. The question is whether BC can unlock that full potential. There have been comparisons that a healthy Phil Jurkovec could be as good as Kenny Pickett and a potential first round draft pick, if he can stay healthy. Last year Phil got banged up behind one of the best offensive lines in the ACC. This year they have lost four starters off that line and a step back in performance can be expected. New OC, John McNulty, is expected to move away from the exclusively pro-style offense and add a flavor of spread and personnel package plays. This could highlight players like RB Pat Garwo III and WR Zay Flowers, both of whom have demonstrated how dangerous they can be. Last year Flowers’ ceiling was significantly lowered when Jurkovec was hurt, and backup QB Dennis Grosel struggled to manage the offense. If they can’t protect Jurkovec or fully unleash Flowers and Garwo the defense may be BC’s saving grace. Sporting one of the worst passing defenses in 2019 the Eagles’ passing defense finished as the No. 4 in the nation last year, allowing a paltry 173.5 YPG. The secondary returns three starters and this unit will lead the defense. Boston College will look to see improvement on their DL, particularly pressuring the QB, which they struggled with last year. There is tremendous talent in the Atlantic, but if the Eagles stay healthy and the ball bounces their way a few times they could be a sleeper team late into the season.
6. Florida State Seminoles: You must go all the way back to 2017 to find the last time FSU had a winning season (7-6). HC, Mike Norvell was hired in December of 2019, and he inherited a sinking ship, which was further compounded by the complications of the 2020 COVID-19 season, which saw the Seminoles post their worst record (3-6) since 1995. Florida State feels like the Atlantic Division version of Virginia Tech. A once perennial top-25 team that has found itself forced to use the transfer portal to put a band aid on tourniquet level wounds. Norvell’s recruiting classes have all been rated in the top 25 (247 Sports), but the repair job is still imposing. This year the Seminoles will look to turn a corner. They have 16 returning starters and have the potential to improve across every unit on the team. Contending for the division seems at least a season away, if not more, but a winning record and a bowl game may finally return to Tallahassee.
7. Syracuse Orange: There may be better overall RB units in the ACC, when depth is considered, but there is no singular more talented RB in the ACC than Sean Tucker. So much so that I expected him to be in the transfer portal this offseason. Dino Babers is entering his seventh season in charge of a program that has only mustered one winning season during his watch. The offensive coaching staff has undergone another overhaul with the hiring of new OC, Robert Anae. Anae is Babers’ fourth OC, and it seems like this change is a potential last grasp for the beleaguered Orange HC. The passing game was abysmal last season. Starting QB, Garrett Shrader, failed to throw for 100-yards five times. Defensive coordinator, Tony White, has generated a solid defensive effort with one of the conference’s best LB corps. Syracuse has an intense schedule that sees them facing NCST, Clemson, Notre Dame, and Pitt consecutively with WF and BC to end the year. I genuinely believe Babers retained his job, after yet another disappointing result, because the viable coaching candidates were all gobbled up during one of the busiest firing and hiring environments ever seen in the Power Five. Unless the Orange come out with some upsets, they could be eliminated from bowl contention before Halloween. If that occurs, I expect the Syracuse athletic department to start their coaching search sooner rather than later, and Tucker almost certainly in the portal.
1. Miami Hurricanes: Entering 2022, there is a surprising amount of quarterback talent in the ACC. Phil Steele has rated six of the ACC’s QB units in the top 12 of the entire NCAA. His top-rated ACC QB is Miami’s Tyler Van Dyke, and I fully agree with his assessment. Van Dyke is not simply a conference stand out, but a national talent. He’s already on several Heisman watch lists, and while this year may not be the sophomore’s, I expect to see his name on those lists until the day he is drafted. After this season the conversation about the best college QB will always include Van Dyke. The Hurricanes and their dynamic QB handed Pitt their only conference loss of the season, in 2021. In that game Van Dyke threw for a season high 426 yards and three TDs. He finished last year with six consecutive 300+ yard games. In nine games he completed 62.3% of his passes for 2.931 yards, 25 TDs, and only six INTs. The Hurricanes return three starters on the offensive line and have talent and experience at RB. The ‘Canes will be looking for a new No. 1 WR, but the talent is there, and it is more of an issue of which one vice will one stand out. Defensively the Hurricanes have depth and experience at DL, thanks to the transfer portal. The DB and LB unit figure to be in the top half of the ACC. Every single ACC loss the Hurricanes suffered last season was by three points or less. I was surprised when Manny Diaz was fired, because it seemed like the staff had figured it out. New HC Mario Cristobal has a lot to work with. Miami did roll Clemson and have a September meeting with Texas A&M, but I think the Hurricanes are the clear favorite to win the Coastal and will be in contention for the ACC crown.
2. Pittsburgh Panthers: Everyone knew that QB phenom, Kenny Pickett, was leaving after this season, but the transfer of WR Jordan Addison to USC was painful. The two biggest offensive playmakers are gone and have left big boots to fill. USC QB transfer, Kedon Slovis Jr., is expected to start for Pitt and brings Power 5 experience to the vacancy filled by Pickett’s departure for the NFL. When Addison was part of the WR corps the Panthers had one of the nation’s best WR corps. With his departure their production will certainly regress, but they still have the talent and potential to be in the top half of the ACC. Arguably the best OL, in the ACC, and a deep RB committee will provide reliable production on the ground for the Pitt passing game and protection for Slovis, as the passing game figures themselves out under new OC Frank Cignetti. Narduzzi has his physical and tough defense and will be led by a stout DL. If Miami stumbles, Pitt will be there to take advantage, but I’m not convinced that they can replace Pickett and Addison while expecting to contend with a talent like Van Dyke in the division. Their game against Miami is the last of the regular season and that may end up being a winner takes the Coastal match.
3. North Carolina Tar Heels: I’ll believe the hype about UNC when I see it. Mack Brown and North Carolina continue to earn recruiting wins, but three consecutive top-14 recruiting classes have not translated into the results. Last season the Tar Heels were seen to be the clear class of the tumultuous Coastal division, a valid threat to Clemson domination, and a dark horse College Football Playoff participant. QB Sam Howell was a Heisman hopeful and North Carolina was all that and more. That died immediately when the Tar Heels were upset week one by a very pedestrian Virginia Tech team that had nowhere near the same talent on the field. UNC finished the season with a bowl loss and overall record of 6-7 – the worst since Brown returned. UNC is in the pre-season No. 3 position simply because all the Coastal situations below them are more fraught. There are a lot of questions for the Tar Heels, starting with the coaching. The offense does boast the best WR in the ACC, Josh Downs, but how long will he remain with uncertainty at QB? Don’t think he wasn’t watching what Addison did at Pitt. The Tar Heels have regularly sent offensive talent to the NFL, over the last three seasons, but can’t seem to translate that into winning a division that is widely considered one of the weakest in the Power 5. I know Mack Brown has legendary status loosely attached to his name, but I see UNC falling down this list not challenging for the Coastal.
4. Virginia Tech Hokies: Oh, Hokies. I could go on and on, and you can be sure we here at Gobbler Country will, but for now I will keep this relatively concise. New head coach, Brent Pry, and his young OC and DC have a tremendous rebuild in front of them. The recruiting and development woes of the Fuente era are best encapsulated by looking at how well Tennessee Volunteers QB, Hendon Hooker, is doing. Once the VT starting QB, he transferred and is now leading a team that has a likely place in the preseason Top-25 rankings and he has been named to pretty much every Heisman watch list. Offensively the only star remaining on the Hokie bench is sophomore RB, Malachi Thomas. Pry inherited a QB room with little to no starting experience and near zero development. With Burmeister off to San Diego State the only QB that remained with any amount of starting experience was Connor Blumrick, whom has now been moved to be a WR / RB. Tahj Bullock, a QB that was actually recruited to VT, is expected to be third string next season behind transfer portal gains, Grant Wells (Marshall) and Jason Brown (South Carolina). Bullock will look to develop behind Wells and Brown with hopes of competing for the starting job in the coming years. VT lost their top two WRs to eligibility and the transfer portal. They will be looking to Kaleb Smith and Da’Wain Lofton to step up. Inexplicably, VT has somehow managed to regularly attract talented TEs despite not using them effectively for the entirety of the Fuente era. Nick Gallo and the TE corps will almost certainly benefit from the presence of OC, Tyler Bowen, formerly an NFL TE coach (Jacksonville Jaguars) and Penn State TE coach and co-offensive coordinator, and I expect there to be a lot more TE involvement in the passing game. Much of the VT offensive success will be dictated by how well OL coach, Joe Rudolph, can prepare the Hokie front. Even though DE Barno left for the NFL the Hokies return six defensive linemen with some starting experience, a LB corps that is their most talented unit, and an experienced DB bench led by Chamarri Conner. The DB and LB unit should rank in the top half of the ACC with the DL having the potential to do the same. The defense will keep them in close games and if the offense can take advantage of half of the opportunities provided, I think the Hokies have a ceiling of 7-5. Losses against Pitt, Miami, and NCST, which are consecutive throughout October, are all but promised. Additionally, BC, WVU, Liberty, and UVA will all be challenging games. I think the energy and flexibility of the new staff are great enough for a minimum 6-6 effort and a bowl appearance, but it is going to take time for Pry and company to right this ship. Hokie nation must be patient. The previous administration left the program worse than they found it during the twilight Beamer years.
5. Virginia Cavaliers: Talent and depth considered, the Hoos have the best WR corps in the ACC and one of the best in the NCAA. Couple that with the return of record shattering QB, Brennan Armstrong, the UVA offense is set to continue lighting the Power Five passing world on fire. Snatching OC, Tony Elliott, away from Clemson as their new head coach can only be considered a massive win for the Cavaliers. After the surprise departure of former HC, Bronco Mendenhall, the transfer portal hit hard, particularly on the OL. Between the portal and graduation, UVA lost all five starters on the OL and must find a way to ensure that Armstrong is protected long enough that he can throw the ball to his cadre of blue chip WRs. Virginia absolutely must find something, anything, at the RB position. Last year Armstrong was the No. 2 rusher on the field with 251 yards on the ground. This year they lose leading rusher, Wayne Tualapapa, but he only offered 324 entire yards. The Hoos did add RB transfer, Cody Brown, from Miami, who will be a significant upgrade. Rushing attack woes aside, the real problem facing Virginia is finding some semblance of defense. Every defensive unit was near the bottom of ACC play last year and this year they will likely struggle to get out of the bottom half. If the OL can protect Armstrong, the passing game fireworks provided from last year will continue, but without a rushing attack to manage game tempo and a defense to at least slow opposition the potential for this to be a tough HC debut season, for Elliott, is very realistic.
6. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets: I personally think head coach, Geoff Collins, inherited an impossible situation. The previous HC, Paul Johnson, ran one of, if not the only, triple option offenses in the Power Five. Trying to manage current talent into a more viable P5 offensive scheme while recruiting and developing talent was going to be a heavy lift. While the team struggled to redefine itself any viable talent could easily find their way to greener pastures via the transfer portal, which is exactly what has happened to Coach Collins. Last year, GT also had the pleasure of having one of the hardest schedules in the Coastal, rolling Clemson out of the Atlantic while also having to contend with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the eventual nation champion Georgia Bulldogs. They beat then No. 21 UNC, barely lost to Clemson, and lost to Miami by three. 2022’s schedule is no better. They open the season with Clemson and close it with UGA. Mixed in there is Ole Miss and UCF. For a team trying to find its feet the non-conference and non-division slate is savage. With the losses to graduation and the portal the Yellow Jackets look to have every unit near the bottom of the ACC. If the athletic administration decides to part ways with Coach Collins, I don’t know who they think they could get to do better. The program is in an incredibly difficult situation, but the patience of P5 programs is very short. It’s hard to envision a world where GT makes it out of the bottom of the ACC, in 2023.
7. Duke Blue Devils: Last year, former HC, David Cutcliffe’s mojo ran out enough for the Duke administration to seek new leadership. The Blue Devils’ new boss, Mike Elko (once considered a name for the VT job), finds himself in a tough position. All the offensive and defensive units are expected to finish either dead last or near last out of the ACC. There is no way this year is remotely competitive for Elko and company. This rebuild is so significant that Coach Elko will need to take multiple years to potentially turn Duke into a program that regularly challenges for bowl games, much less the Coastal. Duke has been at the bottom of the ACC for two years and any talent that did exist left. The Blue Devils will likely be the ACC caboose for the foreseeable future.
1. NC State Wolfpack – NCST’s pedigree and experience warrants being the No. 1 preseason program in the ACC. They have the talent and experience to win the conference and earn a CFB Playoff bid.
2. Clemson Tigers – They may start here, but I don’t think they finish here. There is too much coaching and player talent for the program not to figure out how to get back to the top of the ACC.
3. Miami Hurricanes – Miami is going to be a force to be reckoned with for as long as a Van Dyke is healthy and under center.
4. Wake Forest Demon Deacons – The WF offense is so powerful that they cannot be counted out of ACC title contention this season.
5. Pittsburgh Panthers – Replacing Pickett and Addison is too much. They will fight for the Coastal, but there is too much experience and talent, in the conference, to expect a repeat of the ACC Championship.
6. Louisville Cardinals – Assuming Cunningham is healthy the Cards will be a factor in the ACC.
7. North Carolina Tar Heels – Over the last three years they’ve recruited enough talent that they should be in the ACC title fight, but they probably won’t be.
8. Boston College Eagles – If Jurkovec can stay healthy and the Eagles’ fully unlock their offensive potential they could be a dark horse in the ACC.
9. Virginia Tech Hokies – They simply don’t have the athleticism and talent, on the roster currently, to be considered for the ACC or Coastal.
10. Virginia Cavaliers – They have top tier talent at QB and WR, but every other unit is a question or liability.
11. Florida State Seminoles – Like the Hokies, it’s going to be a multi-year rebuild before FSU is competitive at the top of the ACC. Worse for them is that they play in the Atlantic, where most of the ACC ability resides.
12. Syracuse Orange – They have the best RB in the conference, but for how long? It’s now or never for Coach Babers, and even a bowl berth might not be enough to save his job.
13. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets – GT remains the hardest job in the ACC. Collins is on the hot seat and any coach after him will almost certainly face the same challenges.
14. Duke Blue Devils – The biggest rebuild in the ACC. Coach Elko will need at least three years to make this squad competitive for a bowl berth.
ACC Championship Game: Clemson Tigers over Miami Hurricanes. I think Clemson’s plan to replace the loss of their OC and DC from within creates a continuity and they figure out the QB situation, one way or another. Van Dyke is the QB talent in the ACC, but he isn’t enough to overcome what Clemson has all over the field, yet.
Even though this is the final year of existence for the ACC divisions, I think the Hurricanes will establish themselves as the clear leader of the normally tumultuous Coastal. Furthermore, if Van Dyke is healthy and under-center Miami will demonstrate themselves as the primary challenger, against Clemson, for the ACC and a CFB Playoff spot.
What do you think the 2022-2023 season holds for the ACC? Share your thoughts in the comments below!