2021 ACC football season preview: Predicted order of finish, best players, breakout stars

D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson Tigers. (Mandatory Credit: Josh Morgan-USA TODAY Sports)
D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson Tigers. (Mandatory Credit: Josh Morgan-USA TODAY Sports) /
1 of 2

ACC football has long been dominated by Clemson, a perennial powerhouse of the college gridiron. Others have tried, including a few Louisville teams in the 2010s, but under head coach Dabo Swinney, the Tigers have been the team to beat.

2021 technically represents a transitional period for the 2019 college football champions, losing top players to the NFL. Theoretically, this creates an opening for the other ACC teams, but the Tigers are still loaded and the other schools are playing catchup. Does anyone pose a real threat?

The ACC has 13 other teams playing through this season. How will they fare in the quest to make this division intriguing? Let’s take a look:

ACC Atlantic predicted order of finish

7. Syracuse

A 1-10 disaster in 2020 has the Orange sunken at the bottom of the ACC ship. There may be nowhere to go but up, but improvement is as little as one win. Granted, this isn’t a deep conference, but even the teams in the middle of the conference are a tier or two above.

6. Louisville

Louisville hasn’t found the magic since Lamar Jackson’s tenure, and 2021 will be no different. Quarterback Malik Cunningham regressed significantly last season. More of that will bring the Cardinals down to the bottom of the ACC Atlantic, especially with a few nonconference challenges that will test their overall record.

5. Florida State

Florida State is far from its National Championship years, and it very well could have a third head coach since Jimbo Fisher’s departure after the 2017 season. Expectations are forever enormous in Tallahassee, so Mike Norvell will feel the pressure after a middling first go-around. He probably needs at least 3-4 seasons to push the program retooling, but landing fifth in the conference may not buy his time.

4. Boston College

Boston College has a chance to surprise again in 2021. Quarterback Phil Jurkovec was effective, and the team will return all five starters on the offensive line, so the foundation is there for a steady group. The defense must improve, though, to push the Eagles higher up the table.

3. Wake Forest

The Demon Deacons have a plethora of defensive questions from last season’s woes, but their offense is good enough to push for the upper half of the ACC Atlantic. Sam Hartman is really good and there’s a healthy stable of skill position players around him to form a potent attack. Finishing third is probably their ultimate upside, so this is assuming everything comes together.

2. NC State

Steady play on both sides of the ball in 2020 should transition to the new season. A healthy Devin Leary offers stability under center, with a good offensive line ahead of him, that contains a handful of future pros. Finishing second is a potentially shaky spot, however, with North Carolina and Miami on the schedule. Losing to both would send the Wolfpack down with other expected defeats along the way.

1. Clemson

Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne are gone, but Clemson is still the ACC’s best of the best and a threat for the College Football Playoff. Quarterback DJ Uiagalelei steps in as the signal-caller, with experience on his resume, and the chance to work with a skilled supporting cast. The defense is still loaded, too, and should stifle everyone in their way. Expect a perfect conference season.

ACC Coastal predicted order of finish

7. Duke

Duke has questions around an entire defense that gave up nearly 40 points per game last season. The offense is pedestrian, too. There are some intriguing pieces for scoring points, including Mataeo Durant, but this group will have a difficult time matching up with anyone.

6. Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech is still a few years away from threatening the upper half of the ACC Coastal. This young, inexperienced team needs all the in-game reps it can get and recruiting to swing their way. Numerous starters are back on both sides of the football, so the potential for improvement exists.

5. Virginia

The Cavaliers had a dramatic dropoff in 2020, but quarterback Brennan Armstrong has a year of experience under his belt to bring to the forefront. A young defense is one year forward, as well. As a result, this team may surprise everyone, but Notre Dame is on the schedule and an awkward travel game to BYU could impinge progress. Finishing in the middle of the conference is a safe bet.

4. Pittsburgh

Pitt has an experienced offensive group to hold down the fort. They aren’t among the nation’s elite, but a solid unit that keeps the Panthers afloat under head coach Pat Narduzzi. The defense is good, too, and will keep the team in games when the offense struggles. The problem is facing Clemson, UNC and Miami in a three-of-four week stretch in the second half of the season. Virginia the matchup after is no slouch, either. It could be a rough ride.

3. Virginia Tech

Justin Fuente has one of the hottest seats in college football. The Hokies have underwhelmed on his watch, but the 2021 team is not without talent, including Braxton Burmeister at quarterback and solid pieces around him at the skill positions and offensive line. The defense is arguably the biggest issue after being torched in 2020, but adding Clemson’s Jordan Williams to a defensive line that contains Amare Barno could make this a nice run-stopping group. Not winning the ACC Coastal may cost Fuente his job, but this is still a solid bunch.

2. Miami

A healthy D’Eriq King makes winning the Coastal a possibility for Miami, with the chance to ascend even higher. The offense is pretty good around him and could have one of the conference’s best rushing attacks. How King moves will make or break the offense, however, while defensive improvement will judge how far the Hurricanes can go if the offense ever sputters. Opening with Alabama is also a brutal way to start the season, so building momentum afterward is key towards maintaining success.

1. North Carolina

UNC lost a ton of talent to the 2021 NFL Draft, but Heisman hopeful Sam Howell remains at quarterback. If he takes the leap most think he will, the Tar Heels will hold position atop the Coastal for the season’s duration. The defense creates pressure and contains the opponent’s passing game well, too. What kind of improvement, if any, arises from this group remains unknown, though, along with who emerges for Howell to throw to. It can’t be a one-man show, but that one player is quite skilled.