Can anyone stop Clemson’s reign at the top of the ACC in 2021?
Tigers aim for seventh straight conference championship; part of an incredible career in which they have defeated six different opponents in the ACC championship game over the past six seasons. Notre Dame, who played for the ACC last season, was the latest victim.
Dabo Swinney has built a machine, and DJ Uiagalelei takes over at quarterback on a loaded roster that will be difficult to eliminate. North Carolina and Miami, the alleged Coastal Division favorites, are the only other ACC teams ranked in the SN preseason Top 25.
The ACC is the only Power 5 conference that did not 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 does ACC, SEC go from here?
Will anyone race against the Tigers? Sporting News analyzes the ACC and makes its predictions for 2021:
2021 expected order of arrival
- NC State
- Boston College
- State of florida
- Wake Forest
- North Carolina
- Virginia Tech
- Georgia Tech
ACC main story
The ACC has five quarterbacks who made SN’s top 25 list, and that starts with North Carolina star Sam Howell, who averages 10.3 yards per attempt in his career. Uiagalelei, King, Phil Jurkovec of Boston College and Malik Cunningham of Louisville 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 mix for the Heisman Trophy, and we believe they will meet in the ACC championship in November. Clemson escaped in a 21-20 thriller the last time these teams met on September 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. Hey drew like etienne comparisons in spring training. The five-star freshman has the talent to jump into the running back rotation right away, and Swinney always does a good job managing workloads. Shipley will spell Lyn-J Dixon enough to be a factor with that home run ability.
Mackenzie Milton, QB, State of Florida
Milton hasn’t played since a gruesome leg injury at UCF in 2018, and he has to win the starting job from Jordan Travis. That said, Milton turns out to be one of the best feel-good stories of the year the moment he takes the field in Game 1 against Notre Dame. Can he regain that ability to make double-threat plays that made him a Heisman contender for a Florida State team desperate for more QB production?
Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina
Howell was the top pick in Mack Brown’s first class when Brown pulled him out of Florida State, and he has lived up to the hype as a future first-round pick in the NFL Draft. Howell averaged 34 TDs and seven interceptions over the past two seasons, and the only thing left to do is lead the Tar Heels back to the ACC championship game.
DJ Uiagalelei, QB, Clemson
Uiagalelei finished with 914 yards, five TDs and no interceptions as a freshman, and added four TDs on the ground. He looked more than comfortable in two starts in Lawrence’s place, 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 first leaders with no endorsement. 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 has a great stage in Game 1 against Alabama. Win that game and it will be Heisman’s favorite.
Miami in North Carolina (October 16)
This game should decide who wins the ACC Coastal, but that’s never a safe bet. The Tar Heels have won the last two games, and that included a 62-26 beating last season.
Clemson at NC State (Sept. 25)
The wolf pack didn’t stand a chance against the Tigers last year. Clemson won the last meeting 55-10 in 2019. NC State remains our pick to finish second at ACC Coastal, and the game is early enough on the schedule to be interesting.
North Carolina at Virginia Tech (September 3)
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 games the past two seasons. Virginia Tech beat North Carolina 43-41 in 2019, and the Tar Heels came back in favor in a 56-45 shootout last year.
ACC statistics that matter
Since the CFP era began in 2014, Clemson has the highest winning percentage among ACC schools at .899. Only two other schools have a winning percentage greater than 60 percent. Who are they?
Florida State (.621) and Miami (.607), of course. The Seminoles beat Clemson in 2014, but have lost the last five games by an average of 24 points per game. The Hurricanes have lost their last three meetings to the Tigers by an average of 39.3 points per game.
Until Miami and Florida State provide a real challenge for Clemson, you can expect more of the same at this conference.
ACC Champion: Clemson
Who else would we choose? The Tigers are 52-3 at ACC during this six-year streak, with one of those losses coming to Notre Dame. Swinney has built up depth and the defense should improve around a talented defensive line with Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy. Clemson has been embarrassed in his last two CFP losses to LSU and Ohio State, respectively. This team should be more than motivated to come back in 2021, and the first game against Georgia will set that tone.