This Week in the ACC – 2020 Season Preview

Throughout the 2020 football season, we will look at the week ahead for each team in the ACC. In this first edition of the 2020 ACC Weekly Roundup we take a look at each team as they head into the first week of conference action.

Entering 2020 the ACC is Clemson and everyone else. There are a few teams like Notre Dame and North Carolina getting preseason hype as possible contenders to the five-time reigning conference champions. It’s an uphill battle for anyone challenging the Tigers, a program that is a preseason lock to make a title run again in 2020.

As we head into Week 1, let’s take a quick look at each team heading into their season opener.

Georgia Tech – 2019 was an abject failure for the Yellow Jackets as they started the Geoff Collins era. Installing new schemes was like fitting square pegs in round holes for Collins and his staff, leading to a 3-9 record last season. While 2020 will show progress, Tech is still a few years away from being competitive in the ACC.

The immediate fix needs to be on the offensive side of the ball. Last season they averaged 4.79 yards per play which was 120th nationally. James Graham is the incumbent coming in, but freshman Jeff Sims is pushing for playing time. There’s talent at wide receiver for an offensive staff that likes to stretch the field. 

The Yellow Jackets transitioned to a 4-2-5 defense last season, and they return a lot of experience in 2020. Juanyeh Thomas and David Curry will pace the defense. 

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Georgia Tech has a tough road in 2020 and has one of the toughest schedules in the ACC. They play FSU, UCF, Louisville and Clemson early in the season and they get Notre Dame at home.

Next game – September 12th at FSU 

Miami – Miami enters 2020 as one of the most hyped teams in the nation. New offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee comes in with transfer quarterback D’Eriq King. Do we see the same story as we entered 2019 with the same factors? Miami finished 6-7 in 2019 and finished the year off with an embarrassing shut-out loss to Louisiana Tech in its bowl game. 

Miami is depending on Lashlee and King to reinvigorate its offense in 2020. They have arguably the top tight end in college in Brevin Jordan, but they have a lot of unproven players at wide receiver. The offensive line allowed an FBS most 51 sacks last year and was one of the worst lines in the nation. Houston transfer Jarrid Williams is being counted heavily to come in right away and help at tackle.

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Greg Rousseau opting out hurts their front 4 significantly. It’s not easy to replace 15 ½ sacks. Quincy Roche, another transfer from Temple, will take the lead as their pass rusher with Rousseau prepping for the NFL. The Canes also lose a combined 99 starts at linebacker and they lose their best defensive back. 

Miami needs to transition the back-to-back optimism to the field. Diaz made an aggressive coaching change on offense and hit the portal hard again this offseason. Miami’s schedule is more than manageable – having a losing record in 2020 spells a lot of trouble for Diaz and the Canes.

Next game – September 10th at home vs UAB

Notre Dame – The Fighting Irish were able to line up ACC ties, even though it is just for one season. The Irish are 33-6 over the past three years which is their best three year stretch since 1991-1993. 

The reason there is a lot of optimism for Notre Dame’s offense, despite a new offensive coordinator, is the return of Ian Book. Book led Notre Dame to the playoffs in 2018, so there is the needed experience under center to make some noise. He does lose his top three pass catchers from last year, but at the same time, they return their entire offensive line in 2020. There are a lot of skill players that are unproven so that will determine the success of the offense this season. 

Defensively the Irish have been top 15 nationally in scoring defense the past two seasons, but like the offense, they are replacing a lot of parts, especially in the trenches. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Drew White led the linebacking corps. Kyle Hamilton will lead the secondary and N.C. State transfer Nick McCloud will need to be ready to contribute right away. The key to success for the Irish defense is stopping the run – They’ve won 23 straight games when they don’t allow a 100 yard rusher, but they are 1-8 when they allow a team to surpass that total. 

There are a lot of expectations for Notre Dame in 2020. The game versus Clemson will dictate how the season goes, and there is a solid chance the two teams will play a second time later in the year for the ACC title. 

Next game – September 12 at Duke

North Carolina – North Carolina is one of the most interesting teams in the nation entering 2020. Led by all-everything freshman Sam Howell, the Tar Heels finished 7-6 in Mack Brown’s first year back as the head coach. They played a lot of close games in 2019, finishing 3-6 in games decided by 7 or less (the total points in those game was 26). The bowl game was the only win for the Tar Heels over a team with a winning record in 2019. The offense was 12th nationally in total yards and the defense showed flashes of potential. 

It’s believed the lack of luck will flip for North Carolina and it’s a reason they’re being looked at as a sleeper in the ACC. Howell was dynamite as a freshman passing for over 3,000 yards, 38 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions. The offense returns Dynami Brown and Dazz Newsome, both 1,000-yard receivers. They also return a 1,000-yard rusher in Michael Carter and a 900-yard rusher in Javonte Williams. The offense should be better in 2020.

The defense will dictate how the season goes for UNC. Star linebacker Chaz Surratt is back and he will lead the defense. The secondary was hit hard with the injury bug but still finished with 14 interceptions. In fact, they were 5-0 when forcing two or more interceptions, but they were 2-6 if they forced fewer. The defense definitely relied on big plays. Storm Duck, T.J. Ford and Trey Morrison are returning starters. 

The Tar Heels recruited well in 2020 and will need some of those freshmen to play and contribute to the defense this season. If they can get constant pressure on the passer and take the next step on defense the Tar Heels may be that team people think they can be this season.

Next game – September 12th home vs Syracuse

Louisville – Scott Satterfield did an awesome job coaching the Cardinals in 2019, getting to 8-5 and scoring 291 more points than the offense did in 2018. There is a lot of optimism for 2020 as the Cardinals return 17 starters. 

Javian Hawkins is back at running back after finishing second in the ACC with 1,525 yards. Micale Cunningham was solid as the starter as he threw for 22 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Tutu Atwell looks to build on 2019 as well. Atwell led the ACC in receiving yards per game, and he finished off the year playing some of the best ball in the nation while averaging 122 yards per game and pulling in 5 scores. The offensive line will need to replace first-round tackle Mekhi Becton, and there are some concerns upfront.

The season rides on the defense. The offense will score points – the question is can the defense stop anybody? The Cardinals were dead last in the ACC defensively and came in at 102 in the nation in total defense. The defense gave up at least 500 yards in six games, and the defense gave up 31 touchdowns through the air. This team was very bad against the pass and they couldn’t get off the field on third downs. They return 9 of their 11 top tacklers so there should be a bump in performance. It’s going to be a challenge for the Cardinals which should hold them back from being a breakout team in 2020.

Next game – September 12th at home vs Western Kentucky

Pittsburgh – Pitt has been a hard-nosed, tough out under Pat Narduzzi. Under Narduzzi Pitt is 36-29, but is 25-26 against Power 5 competition. 

Kenny Pickett returns as the starting quarterback. Under offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, Pickett was a 3,000-yard passer, but he only had 13 touchdown passes while throwing 9 interceptions. Typically Pitt uses a physical running game to get teams off balance, but their lack of a rushing game resulted in the worst defense the Panthers have had in 20 years. 

The offense scored 20 or more points only three times in 2019. That’s not going to get it done in a P5 conference. A.J. Davis and freshman Isreal Abanikana will lead the rushing attack while Taysir Mack will be their go-to playmaker out wide. All-ACC Jimmy Morrisey returns and the offensive line should be better than were in 2019.

Despite defensive tackle Jaylen Twyan opting out this year, the defense should be stout once again. They were #1 nationally in sacks and they were 8-1 when forcing a turnover (0-4 when not). Patrick Jones had 8 ½ sacks and was fourth nationally in forced fumbles. The secondary is one of the best in the ACC led by Paris Ford and Damar Hamlin, both top-flight safeties that can support the run and change the game creating turnovers in the passing game. 

Overall this may be the most talented team Narduzzi has had, but the team won’t show that on the field if the offense can’t score. 

Next game – September 12th at home vs Austin Peay

North Carolina State – The Wolfpack took a massive step back in 2019 finishing 4-8 on the season. Dave Doeren made wholesale changes bringing in five new coaches, led by new offensive coordinator Tim Beck and new defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. 

Tim Beck will be challenged to fix an offense that didn’t score much at all in 2019. Quarterback Devin Leary played like a redshirt freshman behind a banged-up offensive line. The talent is there for Leary as long as he gets protection upfront. He’s the expected starter, and he must make a leap from last year for the offense to click.

Bam Knight was a solid back last year and their only reliable playmaker on offense. With four offensive linemen returning, look for Knight to push for 1,000 yards this season. One thing hurting the Wolfpack is that they don’t have the playmakers at wide receiver to keep defenses honest. 

The defense will be keeping the 3-3-5 alignment under Coach Gibson. There are a lot of pieces to replace as the defense returns only four starters.

N.C. State is always tough in the trenches but this may be the worst year under Doeren. They’ve recruited pretty well, but players like Savion Jackson and Joshua Harris have yet to reach their full potential. Gibson will need to replace a secondary that got roasted all of last season.

The Wolfpack come into the season on a six-game losing streak. This year should be a struggle in terms of achieving a winning record, but the team should bounce back in 2021. 

Next game – September 12th at Virginia Tech

Clemson – Clemson is rolling right now. The Tigers may be the top program nationally right now and they don’t look like they will be stopping anytime soon. Clemson has won 10 games in a row for 9 straight years and they won 117 games last decade. The ACC is theirs right now. 

Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne return to one of the best offenses nationally. After a slow start to the season, Trevor finished his final 8 games on a tear, throwing for 22 scores and no interceptions.  Losing Justyn Ross to a season-ending injury hurts as he was ready to emerge as the primary guy in the Tigers passing attack. 

The Tigers have recruited ridiculously so there is talent there to replace Ross. Frank Ladson and Joseph Nagata are unproven but they have all of the ability to be next in line for Clemson. The real question mark is replacing four offensive linemen. Jackson Carman is the lone returning starter. The coaches will need to find the right mixture to keep the offensive firepower going.

Defensively, Clemson loses three starters but they have the best defensive coordinator in college football with Brent Venables. Last season Venables used 3-man fronts and Isaiah Simmons all over the field, resulting in a top 10 scoring defense for the 6th season in a row. 

Losing Xavier Thomas hurts upfront but Tyler Davis should contend for All-American honors inside. When you look at the front four for Clemson they have recruited better than just about anyone nationally, but those players haven’t realized their full potential yet. 

The back seven will look different from last season as the Tigers are replacing two starting linebackers and three defensive backs. James Skalski is the returning linebacker and All-ACC corner Derion Kendrick returns in the secondary. Clemson feels they are in plug and play mode so it will be interesting to see how the defense plays early on in the season.

Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne are why this team is so heavily favored in the ACC. It’s their conference until a team steps up to challenge them like they did FSU four years ago.

Next game – September 12 at Wake Forest

Virginia – Bronco Mendenhall had an excellent 2019 season as he led Virginia to the ACC Coastal Division title and an appearance in the Orange Bowl. Every year has been better than the last, but this season that will prove difficult with the loss of Bryce Perkins at quarterback.

Perkins was the do-it-all piece for the Cavalier’s offense. He was the teams leading rusher and helped pace an offense that was first in the ACC in time of possession. It is going to be near impossible to replace his efficiency as a passer and his ability to extend plays with his feet.

Virginia loses their top two receivers and their leading rusher in Perkins. Brennan Armstrong was named the starting QB, and Terrell Jana hopes to build on a strong finish to last year as the team’s leading receiver. The strong point for this offense will be returning seven linemen.

This team will be a defensive one in 2020. They get eight starters back and they get their 12 top tacklers back in the fold. In total 15 players return with game experience so this defense should be strong. The key to success will be building depth on the front four for a defense that had over 45 sacks.

Virginia beat Virginia Tech for the first time in 15 years last season so they will be looking to build on that this season. If the team wants to have success this year they will need to figure out the offense and do better than the 0-5 record they had on the road last year.

Next game – September 19th at Virginia Tech

Duke – Duke took a bit of a step back last season with an uncharacteristically inefficient offense. Duke was able to land Clemson transfer Chase Brice, and he will be depended on to improve the 25.3 ppg the Blue Devils averaged in 2019. 

Brice will have some pieces to work with. Senior running back Deon Jackson returns, as well as tight end Noah Gray. Jalon Calhoun is their top receiving threat, and the offensive line returns four starters. The line looks to be a strength as they should have eight players that can contribute this season.

Defensive end Chris Rumph is one of the best in the ACC and he returns, but he will need to get help to improve a defense that gave up nearly 30 ppg. In a weird stat, Duke struggled in time of possession on defense but had a decade high 35 sacks in 2019.

Koby Quansah moving on and Xander Gagnon entering the portal leaves huge question marks for the linebacker unit. With three secondary players returning they should help shore up a back seven that is very inexperienced.

The offense will need to get better if Duke wants to be bowl eligible. Also, the coaches need to figure out how to do a better job stopping the rush and getting off the field on defense. Duke has a manageable schedule getting three tough games at home (Virginia Tech, UNC, FSU). 

Next game – September 12th at Notre Dame

Virginia Tech – It’s a new era in Blacksburg as long time defensive coordinator Bud Foster entered retirement. Justin Hamilton takes over an experienced defense which should help head coach Justin Fuente keep up its winning ways. Fuente’s 33 wins in four years are second best in the ACC and this year he returns 18 starters.

The offense found itself when Hendon Hooker took over the QB spot. Under Hooker, Tech was able to finish the season 6-2 while averaging over 36 ppg. Braxton Burmeister, a transfer from Oregon, should push Hooker for playing time but it is his job to lose. 

VT’s running game is retooled in Kansas transfer Khalil Herbert and JUCO Marco Lee. What’s crazy is that the Hokies haven’t averaged more than 4.4 ypc since 2010. There should be a three-headed monster out wide with receivers Tre Turner, Tayvion Robinson and Rakeem Blackshear. There is enough, along with a fully returning offensive line, to make this one of the most dangerous offenses in the ACC.

Getting 10 starters back on defense should help with the loss of Bud Foster. Caleb Fairley opting out was a huge hit to the secondary but there are pieces there to pick up the slack. Tech needs to find some depth up front and needs to find a pass rush. Transfer Justus Reed comes over from Youngstown St. as the most likely player to help in that area. 

VT lost fourth-quarter leads in losses to rival Virginia, Kentucky, and Notre Dame. If they can improve on that they have a good shot at 9 wins this season. Kicking off the season against rival Virginia will set the tone for 2020. 

Next game – September 19th home vs Virginia

Wake Forest – All of the goodwill head coach Dave Clawson has put together at Wake Forest will be challenged in 2020.

The Demon Deacons lose a lot from last year’s team: Their starting quarterback, running back, their best receiver opted out, their best tight end, three offensive linemen, their best linebacker and two starters in the secondary. Whoa! 

While Sam Hartman wasn’t the starter last season he does bring in starting experience at quarterback. Former quarterback Jamie Newman was a dual-threat guy, Hartman is more of a true passer. He’ll need to be better as a passer to ease the transition in 2020.

The skill level took a massive hit when Sage Surratt opted out to prepare for the NFL draft. Donovan Greene returns and will be the lone threat out wide. There are questions abound on who will carry the ball for the offense. On top of all that, the offensive line lacks depth and is very inexperienced. 

Defensively the Deacons defense starts with Carols Basham Jr. He was second in the ACC in sacks and tackles for loss in 2019. The back seven lacks depth but has 2-3 pieces that could help Wake get back to being a respectable defense.

Wake has a tough schedule as they face Clemson and Notre Dame in 2 of their first 3 games. They have a favorable home schedule and have one tough away game at Louisville, but the lack of offensive firepower will lead to struggles in 2020.

Next game – September 12th home vs Clemson

Boston College – Jeff Hafley comes over as the new head coach after being the co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State. Hafley is a fast riser in the coaching ranks so the Eagles are hoping they can build on this season and into the future.

It’s hard to replace a guy like A.J. Dillon, but running back David Bailey has a chance to be one of the breakout players in the ACC in 2020. As Dillon’s back-up, Bailey accounted for 844 yards and 8 scores while averaging 5.7 ypc. With more carries that production should skyrocket.

Former walk-on Dennis Grosel is the incumbent starter but will have to hold off Notre Dame transfer Phil Jurkovec. Kobay White and Zay Flowers are the only returning wide receivers so there will be a need to find depth there. As always, the Eagles will have the benefit of a good offensive line as four starters return.

Linebacker Max Richardson surprised some as he returns for his final year of eligibility. He led BC in tackles, sacks and TFL’s in 2019. There’s a lot of experience on this defense so look for the Eagles to be like several teams in transition in the ACC as they will rely on the defense to keep them in games until the offense comes along. 

Next game – September 19th at Duke

Syracuse – Dino Babers went from a hot commodity after a 10-win 2018 to someone being questioned about the long term success of the program after a 5 win season in 2019. Babers decided to switch things up this season by bringing in two new coordinators.

Talented quarterback Tommy DeVito returns after being the most sacked QB in college last season. His toughness showed each week as he was still able to complete 62% of his passes and throw for more than 20 scores. Three starters return up front and the success of the offensive line will determine how the offense does this year.

The defense will be transitioning to a 3-3-5 and they lose 7 starters from last year’s team. This unit is lead by safety Andre Cisco, who’s career 12 interceptions lead all active NCAA players. There are a lot of pieces in the front 4 to replace and the linebacker depth is questionable. Simply put, look for the Orange to struggle on defense this year. 

Next game – September 12th at North Carolina

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