The ACC, like the Big 12, intends to start its modified college football schedule in just a few short weeks. The Miami Hurricanes will be the first ACC team out of the gates with a Thursday night home opener against UAB on Sept. 10, and then the rest of the conference will jump in on the fun two days later on the first “full” Saturday of college football in 2020.
The conference storylines reach well beyond just how absurdly good Clemson is (they’re like, really freaking good), although it’s difficult to start any ACC preview article by mentioning that simple fact (again, they are really friggin’ good, you guys). But as great of a program Dabo Swinney has built, one that has a couple of national championships in the College Football Playoff era and has become a team expected to write its name in the field in Sharpie before playing a single down, you must remember that Clemson is coming off one of the most lopsided losses of the Dabo Swinney era (not quite West Virginia bad, of course), and it came in the national championship game. Clemson’s loss to Joe Burrow and LSU was mind-blowing, and more a testament to the storied season LSU experienced rather than any suggestion Clemson was being knocked down a few rungs on the college football ladder. Rest assured, Clemson will be back with a vengeance in 2020.
ACC teams will play a full 10-game schedule, and Notre Dame will officially join the conference for football this season (don’t get too comfortable with that idea). With no division format this season, the top two teams at the end of the season will be invited to play in the ACC Championship Game. So, who’s ready to try taking a bite out of Clemson this season?
Who gives Clemson the biggest hurdle?
In the regular season, the answer is obvious. Notre Dame, now playing this fall as an officially temporary football member of the ACC, figures to be the team most likely to threaten Clemson’s regular-season winning streak (32 games and counting, including ACC Championship Game appearances) this season. Ian Book and the Fighting Irish start the season ranked No. 10 in the preseason AP Top 25, and the Irish just may be a stiff challenge in South Bend in the first weekend of November.
Heisman Trophy favorite Trevor Lawrence and Dabo Swinney’s program will take on potential rising challengers Miami and Florida State, although both Florida schools still appear to be a good year or two away from giving Clemson a legitimate threat. A road game at Virginia Tech in the final week of the regular season could be dangerous, as many road trips to Blacksburg historically can be, although the Hokies are also still a few pegs below where Clemson is.
Clemson remains heads-and-shoulders above the rest of the ACC entering 2020. Lawrence has a real shot to run the table as the Heisman favorite and become the first Heisman winner in Clemson history. And a return to the College Football Playoff for Clemson feels as much of a sure thing as we may get in 2020. And the bitter taste left stewing in the mouths of the Tigers for the past eight months is just what is needed to keep a highly successful program like Clemson from going stale.
The truth is, Clemson’s biggest threat in the ACC outside of Notre Dame is not on their schedule this year. They would only face them in a potential ACC Championship Game. That team?
Is the hype for Mack Brown’s UNC revival legitimate?
Yes. Oh, absolutely it is.
Nobody is ready to suggest UNC is on the same level as Clemson, obviously, but the Tar Heels are the team that gave Clemson its toughest game last season outside of the College Football Playoff. UNC lost a tight one against Clemson in Chapel Hill in one of the best game of the season. Now, with no Clemson on the ACC schedule this season, and quarterback Sam Howell heading into his sophomore season following up a fantastic freshman debut, the bar has been set pretty high for UNC in 2020.
UNC was one of the biggest winners of the ACC schedule shakeup by not having to play Clemson or Louisville, and they will get Notre Dame at home after Thanksgiving. Simply put, this is a schedule advantage for a team already expected to be one of the top teams in the conference. A path to the ACC Championship Game is essentially being paved for UNC. Now it’s up to Howell and company to drive there.
I’ll admit it. I was skeptical of the Mack Brown-UNC reunion when it first went down. I viewed it more as a transition hire for UNC to re-establish some credibility and help make UNC a solid enough program to attract the next head coach in a year or so. But one year has already forced me to change my opinion on the situation. Mack Brown surrounded himself with good quality staff and has re-energized the program. The recruiting class for 2021 is flirting with a top-10 ranking, according to 247 Sports, and Brown has to love where they are currently ranked…
— Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB) August 24, 2020
I’m not saying UNC is ready for a run to the College Football Playoff just yet, but file them away in your wild card category for this season. With no Big Ten or Pac-12, and the possibility of not even have to face Clemson this season (at all!), UNC should be on your playoff radar.
Is D’Eriq King the answer in Miami?
Get ready for America’s favorite question…
A recurring theme in the ACC is coaches in years one or two providing a new spark to their program. This is the case seen at Miami, where Manny Diaz is showing he knows how to connect with the Miami program, its fans, and most importantly, its recruits. But one of Diaz’s best new additions to the program this year happens to be one of the most exciting players seen in the Group of Five the last few years… when he’s healthy.
D’Eeriq King shut down his 2019 season to redshirt at Houston as the S.S. Dana Holgorsen went into a full tank-mode after a tough start to the season. King is now cleared to take the reins of the Miami offense, and this has some serious potential to be fun to watch. Making the transfer combo even more enticing is the addition of new offensive coordinator Rhett Ashlee, who will be implementing a more wide-open spread offensive style that should take advantage of King’s ability to do damage in a variety of ways. King passed for 36 touchdowns and rushed for 14 more at Houston.
King will be tested early this season with a road game at Louisville, a home game against rival Florida State, and another on the road against Clemson in the second week of October. If Miami can get out its first four games no worse than .500 (Miami opens the season against UAB), then King and the Hurricanes could get on a roll heading into the final week of the regular season at home against UNC. Could a spot in the ACC Championship Game be up for grabs? If King plays to his full potential, it absolutely could be.
An updated look at the Heisman Trophy odds also bodes well for King. With the Big Ten and Pac-12 opting out of the upcoming fall, King was one of the beneficiaries of players like Justin Fields coming off the board. Take a look where King was as of last week according to one sportsbook…
Trevor Lawrence, Clemson 2/1
Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma 9/1
D’Eriq King, Miami 14/1
Myles Brennan, LSU 14/1
Sam Ehlinger, Texas 14/1
Jamie Newman, Georgia 16/1
Mac Jones, Alabama 16/1
Chuba Hubbard, OK State 20/1 pic.twitter.com/bW2xRoHfMD
— Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB) August 22, 2020
What should we expect from Mike Norvell at Florida State?
If nothing else, expect Florida State to attempt picking up the pace of the offense. That’s what worked for Mike Norvell at Memphis to be one of the best Group of 5 programs the last few years (blast that pesky UCF for getting in the way two years), and to win an American Athletic Conference championship last season that sent Memphis to the Cotton Bowl (Norvell left for FSU prior to the Cotton Bowl, but Memphis was part of the highest-scoring Cotton Bowl in history). And while the Florida State roster may not be loaded with explosiveness as they have been in their prime, it’s not exactly like the Seminoles are lacking for speed and skill within the program.
Of all of the programs entering the 2020 season with a new head coach, Florida State may be the top pick to have a relatively quick turnaround to being a legitimate threat to Clemson in the ACC championship picture. It may not happen this season, because there’s a good amount of retooling that needs to happen on the offensive side of the football, like improving the quality of the offensive line and developing a quarterback ready to run the offense to Norvell’s liking. James Blackman is good enough for now, but he’s not exactly Heisman Trophy-winning Jameis Winston. Protecting him will be essential if FSU is going to start playing with a chip on its shoulder again. The defense also must get a lot better. Florida State’s top opponents last season scored 36 points (Boise State), 31 (Virginia), 45 (Clemson, 27 (Miami), and 40 (Florida) on them last season.
Which program takes the big step forward in 2020?
Ever since his arrival in Atlanta after a brief stint at Temple, Geoff Collins has done an incredible job of helping to inject some new life and enthusiasm into the Georgia Tech program. Despite a tough first season on the job with a record of 3-9, Collins has given a spark to Georgia Tech recruiting. The Class of 2020 ranked 27th in the composite team rankings compiled by 247 Sports, which was easily the best recruiting class by the Yellow Jackets since 2007. It was a long time coming, and now the question is just how long until Collins awakes what could potentially be a bit of a sleeping giant in the ACC.
Georgia Tech may not have all the amenities of other ACC schools (not to mention bitter in-state rival Georgia), but there’s something to like about Georgia Tech’s potential moving forward. And although expectations are pretty low for the program this year (as in, nobody is giving Georgia Tech a chance at anything), there could be a maturing program showing they should not be completely overlooked. While it may not reflect too much in the win total, Georgia Tech returns a pretty solid stable of returning starters on both sides of the football from a year ago, and Collins and his staff are hoping that pays off this fall.
Georgia Tech’s defense will be its anchor this season, while the offense continues to come together. And that offenses has a long way to go to turn a three-win team into a six-win team. Regardless of the win total, Georgia Tech and Collins will still be a smash viral hit on social media, and that will pay off in recruiting in 2021, 2022, and beyond.