What’s up Rush Nation, it’s Stocks here bringing you an 2021 ACC season preview. The Atlantic Division belongs to Clemson, with the rest fighting for second place. We will start with the Coastal Division, as this one is a lot closer when it comes to who could face Clemson in the 2021 ACC Championship Game.
Returning production is fairly important, but not the be-all and end-all when it comes to how teams will fare in the upcoming season. Teams with many returning players will have greater continuity and possibly start the season faster. Coaching changes happen though, and they can have huge implications on team performances regardless of returning talent.
The other factor in returning talent to consider is the recruiting trail. The schools that recruit the four and five-star talent, generally have that talent leaving when they graduate or declare for the NFL Draft. Take Clemson for instance. Trevor Lawrence has just been drafted by The Jacksonville Jaguars, yet DJ Uiagalelei steps into his shoes. Even though the sample size was small last season, DJ showed he can produce at the highest level. Let’s get to the Coastal Division in our 2021 ACC season preview and dig into the weeds, going from worst to first based on 2020 season records.
Duke went 2-9 in 2020 and were the whipping boys of the Coastal. They were second-worst in the whole ACC, bettering only Syracuse. They are 104/127 in ESPN’s returning production rating. Just 56% of players that played in 2020 return this year. That number is just 51% on offence.
With Chase Brice under Centre, The Blue Devils moved the ball to an ok standard at best. Brice made huge mistakes and Duke turned the ball over at an alarming rate. He has since transferred to Appalachian State leaving Junior Gunnar Holmberg to step up. The Blue Devils are now without their star Tight End Noah Grey and do it all Running Back Deon Jackson. They do have several returning players that will help Gunnar to settle in.
Duke was amongst the worst in the entire country when it came to sacks allowed. Three starters are returning and all they have to do is try and keep Holmberg upright more than they did Brice for Duke to take a step forward. If they can open the occasional lane for Mataeo Durant, Sr. to run through and they should be in a better situation to win more games. That being said, Duke needs to stop turning the ball over. They led the nation in turnovers last season with 39.
The Blue Devils have lost 75% of their Defensive Front, and remaining Tackle Ben Frye will likely move to the edge. He showed explosive power on the interior last year and getting sacks is where Duke needs to improve. They excel in the Secondary with five big dudes who all tackle with hard physicality. The linebacker room was super young last year and with another year of experience they can take a step forward and back up the team leader in tackles, Shaka Heyward.
Duke starts the season with Northwestern, Charlotte, North Carolina A&T and Kansas. They have a real chance to start the season 3-1 and push for Bowl eligibility if they can win a shock result against a big team later in the year. Can they get to six wins? Only Duke has the answers, but they need a fast start in September to bounce back after the late-season capitulation in 2020.
Georgia Tech has 83% of their team returning for this upcoming season. The Yellow Jackets went 3-7 in 2020. If spring camp reports are anything to go by, they are revving up to improve this year.
For the first time since 2018 the whole football team knows who will be starting as the signal caller: Jeff Sims. Sims was part of The Yellow Jackets issues last year. He threw as many INTs as he did touchdowns (13) and only completed 55% of his throws. Starting a true freshman at Quarterback will always have some wrinkles, but Sims’ talent was evident at points. One of Tech’s biggest issues was under-utilisation of Wide Receivers Jalen Camp, Malachi Carter and Adonicas Sanders. Tech averaged 2.3 sacks given up a game. Perhaps it was mostly down to Sims holding the ball for a little too long. Their place kickers couldn’t find the gap between the uprights consistently, either. They missed five of eight field goal attempts and three extra points. Finding a reliable kicker will go a long way to help The Yellow Jackets be more competitive in 2021.
Rushing the passer and finding some pressure off the edge will go a long way to helping Tech alleviate some of the pressure on the offence.
There were games in 2020 where the defensive line might as well just have laid down and let Running Backs hop over their sleeping bodies. They gave up 317 yards to a Pitt team that averaged just 120 rushing yards per game and finished 13th in the ACC in rushing production. They also allowed Boston College a huge 264 yards on the ground, who finished 2020 113th in average rushing yards per game across all college football teams.
Word from Fall camp is the two new transfers who have slotted in at Left Guard and Left Tackle. If they can take less sacks then Sims can perhaps make more passes to his offensive weapons. They face four top ten teams according to the AP preseason poll. Sims was a rushing threat for The Yellow Jackets last year. If he and Running Back Jahmyr Gibbs can improve again, then they can be a huge threat on the ground. The defence needs to stop the run so that Tech can stay close in games.
The Cavaliers finished 2020 with a record of 5-5, perhaps better than first hoped. Virginia ranked 77th in returning production, with 66% of 2020’s production returning.
Brennan Armstrong played well in his first season as the starter for Virginia. He finished with 18 touchdowns and 11 INTs. When he missed a game due to injury, the offence struggled. The Cavs will be pleased to see him under centre once more. The team’s top Tight End Tony Poljan and Wide Receiver Terrell Jana both declared for the 2021 NFL Draft, so fresh blood will have to show up for Armstrong to really succeed. Armstrong also led Virginia in rushing yards and attempts, so Running Back Wayne Taulapapa will need to chip in more in 2021.
The Cavaliers were like a sieve when it came to passing yards allowed last year. They finished 123rd out of 127 teams in passing yards conceded. The good news is that most of the starters in the secondary are returning this year, which gives DC Nick Howell something to work with. Howell will have to get the big guys up front to the opposing Quarterbacks with greater regularity. Young Quarterback Brennan Armstrong can’t make up for the defensive frailties just yet.
The Cavs aren’t in a terrible situation. If Wide Receivers Ra’Shaun Henry and Larel Davis Jr can step up and be the targets that Armstrong needs, then the team can expect better things on offence. The Linebacker room has undergone a huge makeover after four guys either transferred or declared for the 2021 NFL Draft. They still have leading tackler Nick Jackson. If he can elevate his teammates then the defence should also improve.
The Hokies will be looking to have a season of consistency in 2021. There were too many things not set right for Justin Fuente to get Virginia Tech to a winning record in 2020. The Hokies have 68% of their 2020 production returning which is 72nd in the nation.
Hendon Hooker has transferred to Tennessee and Christian Darrisaw is now a Minnesota Viking. There is also the glaring hole left behind by one of the ACC’s best RBs in 2020, Khalil Herbert. Former Oregon commit Braxton Burmeister is now the starting Quarterback. He doesn’t offer the run game that Hooker does, but is a strong passer who makes good decisions and has good ball security. Leading touchdown receiver Tight End James Mitchell and Wide Receivers Tayvion Robinson and Tre Turner also return. Burmeister has all the weapons to succeed. The Hokies need to somehow try and replicate the run game of last year and will need the Offensive Line to be as good as it was in 2020.
Caleb Farley will be hugely missed for The Hokies, despite not taking to the field in 2020. He was the leader of the defence and made big time plays when needed. There is a good mix of players added in the transfer portal. Clemson’s DT Jordan Williams should make an impact right away. Amare Barno will be hoping to improve on his team-leading 6.5 sacks last season. Things will need to be tighter if they hope to push for the ACC Championship game.
If Virginia Tech can get off to a hot start to their 2021 ACC campaign with a shock win against North Carolina, then they have a good chance to get to the ACC title game. They don’t have a cakewalk of a schedule and there isn’t a game against Clemson on the slate, but they do have to play Notre Dame and Miami.
If Burmeister can be reliable and push the ball downfield, whilst allowing Running Back Raheem Blackshear to be a complementary weapon to the pass game, then Virginia Tech can be back where they belong atop of the Coastal Division. The secondary has holes in it and will need to see if the talent on the roster can rise up and stop some of the best passers in the ACC. Expect at least seven to eight wins for The Hokies.
The Panthers went 6-5 in 2020 and 5-5 in the ACC. Pitt has a monstrous front seven on defence and causes chaos for opposing offences. They have 73% of their talent returning. They need to be better on the offensive side of the ball if they want to compete for the top spot in the Coastal Division.
The Panthers were 13th in average yards per game of the 15 teams in the ACC last year. They couldn’t get the ball moving at all on the ground. Their leading rusher Vincent Davis only managed 632 yards and six scores.
It’s better news for fourth year starting Quarterback Kenny Pickett. Pickett had an average year last year, notching up 2,400 yards with 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions. They have six of their seven Wide Receivers returning this year. Alpha pass catcher Jordan Addison is projected to have a breakout year as The Panthers look to let Pickett loose. If they can get Pickett’s huge 220-pound frame included in the run game in goal-line and short yardage areas, then things look good for a Pitt offence looking to improve from 2020.
Pitt seems to roll out huge sack numbers year after year. The Panthers try to stifle the life out of the opposition. They recorded 46 sacks last season and 51 in 2019. These numbers are going to be a struggle to replicate after five defensive players were drafted in the 2021 NFL Draft. Rashad Weaver is the most notable loss to the defensive line, and Patrick Jones II has vacated the secondary room. They do have one of the best cornerbacks in the ACC in Damarri Mathis. The Panthers will hope monster linebacker turned edge rusher John Morgan can take a step forward after four sacks in 2020.
Run the damn ball. Pitt will have to get back to the 2018 run game of 3,200 yards if they want a spot against Clemson in the 2021 ACC Championship game. If Pickett is helped by the offensive line and is allowed time to get into rhythm, then The Panthers could cause issues in the Coastal Division. The win total is set at 8 for Pitt. They can get over that number with a strong start. Getting a win against Virginia Tech in Week Six could be the tipping point for the season.
After going 8-4 last year, The Tar Heels have got many holes they need to replace on both sides of the ball. They are ranked 32nd in ESPN’s returning production (79%). Javonte Williams, Dyami Brown, Michael Carter and Dazz Newsome all left for the NFL. One would think that they were void of offensive talent. Instead, they have possibly the best Quarterback prospect of the 2022 Draft class: Sam Howell.
Through his first two years, Sam Howell has thrown two more touchdowns than Trevor Larence (68). Whilst Howell may not be the most flashy or sexy QB to enter the 2022 NFL Draft, he has all the intangibles and moxie you could possibly want at the next level. With the two main pass catching weapons from 2020 gone, Howell will need to use last year’s third-leading receiver Khafre Brown to full effect. He averaged over 22 yards per catch in 2020. Tight End Garrett Walston is a good downfield threat and caught 19 passes and two touchdowns last year. The run game is missing some key pieces and the 28 touchdowns scored by Michael Carter and Javonte Williams will be impossible to replace. Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler looks set to take over. British Brooks and DJ Jones will be a part of the rotation.
The Tar Heels will miss star Linebacker Chazz Surratt, but have enough returning production to cover his numbers from 2020. The linebacker room has buckets of talent and is led by hybrid Tomari Fox. Fox is a massive 290 lbs but moves like a sideline-to-sideline backer and can play in three positions. He has the size to play from the Tackle spot but can also line up as an Edge or as an inside linebacker. Fox will be the main guy in the middle of the field. Add in the top cornerback recruit Tony Grimes and The Tar Heels can cause some serious havoc in the ACC. They need Grimes to lead the secondary in 2021, as no one player in the backfield had more than one takeaway last season.
The Tar Heels’ success really does rest on the shoulders of one man: Sam Howell. Howell has the skills to bring this team all the way to the ACC Championship Game. As long as he stays healthy and upright, expect big things from North Carolina.
The offensive line, whilst brilliant in the run game in 2020, were awful in pass protection. They gave Howell very few seconds of safety or rest when he needed to make big throws. Even though he threw for 30 touchdowns they needed to do better in keeping their QB upright. If the offensive line can protect Howell, then they can also help the new runners to find their feet. When The Tar Heels are running the ball and running well, they can be devastating.
An 8-3 Hurricanes finally found their Quarterback in 2020 in D’Eriq King. King was exactly what Miami needed. The Canes went 7-2 in the ACC and have massive 91% returning production in 2021. That is sure to help them as they strive to beat out UNC in the hunt for the ACC Championship Game.
D’Eriq King brilliantly led The Canes offence to an average of 440 yards and 34 points per game. It did however come against mostly average teams. This is where the problem lies for Miami. The 2021 ACC conference isn’t made up of strong opponents generally. The Canes were blasted by Clemson but otherwise played superbly.
Super star Tight End Brevin Jordan, now a Houston Texan, is a big loss but junior Will Mallory is a hulking Tight End who can replace most of Brevin’s production. Adding Charleston Rambo from Oklahoma will give King a big time playmaker and the rest of the veteran receivers will help The Canes to continue on the upward trend in 2021.
Despite Gregory Rousseau’s decision to opt out last year, they still lost two of the best edge rushers in the ACC. Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche caused no end of trouble for the opposing offensive lines, and now all three guys have departed. It means new blood will need to step up, and quickly. Senior Zach McCloud, Redshirt Freshman Jahfari Harvey and Tennessee transfer Deandre Johnson can ease that pain somewhat if they can produce early. It doesn’t start easily, as they face National Champions Alabama in Week One. The real test will be from the linebacker room, where there few defined roles for any of the team. The secondary, however, is deep and if they can organise themselves quickly in training then they may just give the Offence a chance against The Crimson Tide.
Miami’s season almost entirely rests on the shoulders of one man, D’Eriq King. That’s the problem for Miami in 2021. Prior to the Cheez-It Bowl loss to Oklahoma State, King threw for 2,686 yards and 23 touchdowns and ran for 538 yards. Then, he suffered a torn ACL. Freshman Tyler Van Dyk is an exciting prospect but he really needs to be razor sharp and ready if King isn’t ready to roll in Week One. If King is back to full health then The Canes can run the table and try to avenge their loss to Clemson last year.
They have an easier schedule than some of their main ACC rivals as they don’t draw Clemson or Notre Dame in the regular season schedule. If King is back after a few weeks, then Van Dyk will have to steer the ship straight until the King returns. The only issue is ‘Bama can make problems appear much bigger than they are. It could be a rough Week One.
I’ll be back with the breakdown of the 2021 ACC Season Preview, Atlantic Division in the near future. Week zero is fast approaching and college football is nearly back.