Can anyone stop Clemson’s reign atop the ACC in 2021?
The Tigers are shooting for a seventh straight conference championship; part of an incredible run where they have defeated six different opponents in the ACC championship game the last six seasons. Notre Dame, which played in the ACC last season, was the latest victim.
Dabo Swinney has built a machine, and D.J. Uiagalelei takes over at quarterback on a loaded roster that will be hard to knock off. North Carolina and Miami, the presumed Coastal Division favorites, are the only other ACC teams ranked in SN’s Preseason Top 25.
The ACC is the only Power 5 conference that didn’t have a coaching change in 2021. Second-year coaches Jeff Hafley and Mike Norvell will look to take the next step at Boston College and Florida State, respectively.
BENDER: Where do ACC, SEC go from here?
Will anybody take a run at the Tigers? Sporting News looks at the ACC and makes its predictions for 2021:
2021 predicted order of finish
- NC State
- Boston College
- Florida State
- Wake Forest
- North Carolina
- Virginia Tech
- Georgia Tech
ACC top storyline
The ACC has five quarterbacks that made SN’s Top 25 list, and that starts with North Carolina star Sam Howell, who averages 10.3 yards per attempt for his career. Uiagalelei, King, Boston College’s Phil Jurkovec and Louisville’s Malik Cunningham also made the list. The conference has produced five first-round quarterbacks since 2017 in Deshaun Watson (2017), Mitchell Trubisky (2017), Lamar Jackson (2018), Daniel Jones (2019) and Trevor Lawrence (2021).
Howell and Uigalelei should be in the Heisman Trophy mix, and it is our belief they will face off in the ACC championship game in November. Clemson escaped in a 21-20 thriller the last time these teams met on Sept. 28, 2019. Howell was the starter in that game. Who wants to see a rematch?
Will Shipley, RB, Clemson
The Tigers lost Travis Etienne, but Shipley could be the perfect replacement. He drew Etienne-like comparisons in spring workouts. The five-star freshman has the talent to work into the running back rotation immediately, and Swinney always does a good job of managing workloads. Shipley will spell Lyn-J Dixon enough to be a factor with that home-run ability.
Mackenzie Milton, QB, Florida State
Milton has not played since a gruesome leg injury at UCF in 2018, and he has to win the starting job from Jordan Travis. That said, Milton becomes one of the year’s best feel-good stories the second he steps on the field in the opener against Notre Dame. Can he recapture that dual-threat play-making ability that made him a Heisman contender for a Florida State team that is desperate for more QB production?
Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina
Howell was the most-important recruit in Mack Brown’s first class when Brown flipped him from Florida State, and he has lived up to expectations as a future first-round pick in the NFL Draft. Howell averaged 34 TDs and seven interceptions the last two seasons, and the only thing left to do is lead the Tar Heels back to the ACC championship game.
D.J. Uiagalelei, QB, Clemson
Uiagalelei finished with 914 yards, five TDs and no interceptions as a freshman, and he added four rushing TDs. He looked more than comfortable in two starts in place of Lawrence, and the five-star talent should take off in his second season. Uiagalelei should follow Watson and Lawrence as Clemson’s next Heisman finalist, and we won’t be surprised if it’s this season.
D’Eriq King, QB, Miami
King has been one of the early leaders with NIL endorsements. He produced 2,686 passing yards, 538 rushing yards and 27 TDs last season before suffering a torn ACL in the Cheez-It Bowl against Oklahoma State. King gets a huge stage in the opener against Alabama. Win that game, and he will be the early Heisman favorite.
Miami at North Carolina (Oct. 16)
This game should decide who wins the ACC Coastal, but that’s never a sure bet. The Tar Heels have won the last two meetings, and that included a 62-26 blowout last season.
Clemson at N.C. State (Sept. 25)
The Wolfpack didn’t get a shot at the Tigers last year. Clemson won the last meeting 55-10 in 2019. N.C. State is still our pick to finish second in the ACC Coastal, and the game is early enough on the schedule to be interesting.
North Carolina at Virginia Tech (Sept. 3)
The non-conference games will get more attention in Week 1, but this Friday night opener is huge for the Hokies, who are still 10-8 in conference play the last two seasons. Virginia Tech beat North Carolina 43-41 in 2019, and the Tar Heels returned in the favor in a 56-45 shootout last year.
ACC stat that matters
Since the CFP era started in 2014, Clemson has the highest winning percentage among ACC schools at .899. Only two other schools have a winning percentage better than 60 percent. Who are they?
Florida State (.621) and Miami (.607), of course. The Seminoles beat Clemson in 2014, but they have lost the last five meetings by an average of 24 ppg. The Hurricanes have lost their last three meetings to the Tigers by an average of 39.3 ppg.
Until Miami and Florida State offer a true challenge for Clemson, you can expect more of the same in this conference.
ACC champion: Clemson
Who else would we pick? The Tigers are 52-3 in ACC play through this six-year run, and one of those losses is to Notre Dame. Swinney has accumulated depth, and the defense should improve around a talented defensive line with Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy. Clemson has been embarrassed in its last two CFP losses to LSU and Ohio State, respectively. This team should be more than motivated to get back in 2021, and the opener against Georgia will set that tone.