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Preseason Predictions: Picking how the Atlantic will finish

You will hear this several times over the next several articles on preseason predictions for the ACC both from a team and individual standpoint: Preseason rankings and forecasting are part educated-opinion, part fortune-teller and part hogwash. That being said the ACC released the media’s prediction for how the Atlantic and Coastal divisions will finish this season. I decided to see how my preseason rankings of the ACC for the Atlantic division aligned with those of the combined 147 members of media that voted.

Patrick Burnham – Atlantic Division predicted order of finish:

  1. Clemson – The Atlantic Division has been a one-trick pony of late with Clemson having established itself as the king of the ACC mountain and seemingly having left every other team in the conference scrambling to find relevance on the national football landscape (let alone the conference). Hopefully there will be a team that will show signs of eventually being able to give the Tigers a run for their money in the not so distant future, but for this season it looks like it will be Clemson on top again with the real battle in the Atlantic being for second place. The Tigers must replace QB Trevor Lawrence and RB Travis Etienne, which is no easy task. However, new starting QB DJ Uiagalelei showed signs of being able to step in without much fall off from Lawrence in his two starts in 2020. The offensive line returns three starters and wide receiver Justyn Ross is back after missing all of last season. The defense, which ranked first in the ACC in 2020, returns 10 starters. Clemson is so good on defense that Athlon’s lists three starters from a season ago as backups on the Tigers two-deep heading into fall camp. A seventh straight ACC Atlantic division crown and ACC title seem to be inevitable heading into the 2021 season. Media pick: Clemson
  2. Boston College – You could basically flip a coin between BC and NC State to pick between these two for second in the Atlantic. However, the Eagles were one of only two Power 5 programs with a first-year head coach (Jeff Hafley) who finished with a winning record in 2020. They also return one of the best quarterbacks in the ACC in junior Phil Jurkovec, who completed over 61 percent of his passes last season while only throwing five interceptions. He is quietly drawing comparisons to Ben Roethlisberger by pro scouts. BC also returns all five starters on its offensive line, almost all of whom were on the voting list for the ACC’s preseason team. The Eagles’ leading receiver, Zay Flowers, is back as well. If they get any production in the run game, they finished last in the ACC in rushing offense last season, this offense might surprise some people. The defense finished in the middle of the pack in the ACC in almost every key statistical category last year but should improve with 10 players returning with starting experience. BC should be 3-1 or 4-0 heading into ACC play this season. Games against Missouri and Clemson in weeks four and five could be tough but the Eagles will have a chance against everyone else they face in league play. Media pick: NC State
  3. NC State – Coming off an 8-win 2020 campaign the Wolfpack and coach Dave Doeren have reason to be excited heading into this season. And why not? They return nine players on offense from last season, including part-time starting quarterback Devin Leary. They also return nine starters on a defense that is expected to be much better than it was in 2020 when it finished seventh in the ACC in total defense. The key to the Wolfpack’s season will be surviving a schedule that features Mississippi State, Clemson, Louisiana Tech, Boston College and Miami among their first seven opponents. The difference to me between the Wolfpack and the Eagles are the fact that BC has a more proven commodity at quarterback and a schedule conducive to early success. Media pick: Boston College
  4. Florida State – The Seminoles are in their second year under head coach Mike Norvell. Generally I head into any season with the mindset that FSU will win at least eight games in a worst-case scenario. The last four seasons have certainly proved me wrong and changed my perspective of and expectations for the Seminoles’ program. The expectation is that FSU will be better in 2021 than it was in a two-win ACC season last year even if only modestly so. The teams over the last three years have looked listless and despondent at times. However, that seemed to change at about the midway point of the 2020 season where we so Norvell’s team begin to fight and play hard even when it was outmanned. Offensively, FSU should be better with McKenzie Milton and Jordan Travis splitting time at quarterback (and maybe, hopefully, at times lining up on the field together). The offensive line should be better but needs to show significant improvement in pass protection to have the kind of results it needs to get to a bowl game. Kansas transfer Andrew Parchment may provide Norvell and his signal-callers someone who can produce big plays from one of the outside wide receiver slots, which could help a run game that was much improved last season. The defense simply has to be better because it really can’t be any worse than it was a year ago. The additions of DE Jermaine Johnson and DT Keir Thomas should make the front four more productive. There are big questions at both linebacker slots in the 4-2-5 base look defensive coordinator Adam Fuller employed in the spring. Neither Amari Gainer nor Stephen Dix looked comfortable in the spring. Getting a healthy Emmett Rice back in time for the season could help this position group tremendously. He continued to get better and better with each game last season and FSU will need that progress to continue for this position group to take the strides it needs to help this defense improve. The secondary added Jammie Robinson and Brandon Moore to the roster through the transfer portal and both players’ experience should help a very young but inexperienced defensive backfield finally start living up to its considerable potential. Getting to a bowl should be the goal for this team and getting to six or more wins would prove that the program is indeed moving in the right direction. Media pick: FSU
  5. Louisville – Head coach Scott Satterfield’s team took a step backwards in his second season. After going 8-5 in 2019 the Cardinals went 4-7 a season ago. The Cardinals made plenty of big plays, finishing 29th in the nation in total offense but only 55th in scoring offense. They do get quarterback Malik Cunningham back but lost running back Javian Hawkins and wide receivers Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatick, who combined for more 2,300 yards of total offense last season. Defensively, Satterfield returns five starters from a unit that finished 39th in the country in total defense. Media pick: Wake Forest
  6. Wake Forest – If there is one ACC program I am probably not giving enough credit heading into the 2021 season it is the Demon Deacons. Head coach Dave Clawson is 40-45 in seven seasons, including two eight-win and two seven-win campaigns. Clawson’s teams are more often than not outmanned but rarely beat themselves. And with 19 starters returning (11 on offense, 8 on defense) from a season ago this team will likely be as consistent as any Wake team Clawson has but on the field. Sam Hartman is back for his second season as the unquestioned starter at quarterback with three receivers who caught at least 29 passes apiece returning as well. They also return Christian Beal-Smith, who lead the team in rushing in 2020. The Demon Deacons will need to improve on defense after finishing 90th in the country in total defense last year. Wake’s schedule is lighter on the front end than it is on the back end and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see them near the seven-win mark again this season. Media pick: Louisville
  7. Syracuse – The Orange return 19 starters from last season’s 1-10 team. Head coach Dino Babers enters year six in Syracuse with a 24-36 record and will likely need to show drastic improvement to get a seventh. A fast start for the Orange likely holds the key to entering the ACC portion of their schedule with confidence. Syracuse hosts Rutgers and Liberty before facing FSU, Wake, Clemson, Virginia Tech and BC in their first five conference games. After finishing 125th in total offense in 2020 and 112th in total defense it would be hard for the Orange not to be better statistically than a season ago. But with most every other program it faces in the ACC trending in the right direction the one area of improvement that might not go up in is the team’s won-loss record. Syracuse lost nine of 10 games last year by 11 points or more. Media pick: Syracuse

ACC MediaAtlantic Division predicted order of finish:
(First-place votes in parenthesis)
Clemson – 1,028 (146)
NC State – 804 (1)
Boston College – 638
Florida State – 510
Wake Forest – 472
Louisville – 462
Syracuse – 202