The ACC heads into spring practice facing the same question it has had the previous three seasons: Can anyone catch Clemson?
While the Tigers were humbled a bit by their 42-25 loss to LSU in the CFP National Championship Presented by AT&T, they’ll still probably be ranked No. 1 heading into the 2020 season. And they’ll be overwhelming favorites to win a sixth straight ACC title.
Louisville and North Carolina still seem to be a year or two away from being serious contenders.
Florida State and Miami are rebuilding. Virginia and Virginia Tech have been too up and down.
Here’s what to look for in the ACC this spring:
1. If Clemson is a clear No. 1 in the ACC, which team is No. 2?
Maybe it’s North Carolina. Chasing down Clemson in coach Mack Brown’s second season is probably too much to ask of the Tar Heels. Then again, they nearly stunned the Tigers in a 21-20 loss in 2019, in which UNC failed to convert a two-point conversion with 1:17 left.
With quarterback Sam Howell (3,641 passing yards and 38 touchdowns as a freshman), a 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers returning, the Tar Heels are going to be explosive on offense again. The defense will start catching up, especially if Brown and his staff keep recruiting well.
The really good news for the Tar Heels: They don’t play Clemson, Louisville or Wake Forest during the regular season.
2. Is Justin Fuente in it for the long haul at Virginia Tech?
Hokies fans might not have liked Frank Beamer’s record in his past four seasons, but they could never question his loyalty to his alma mater.
After going 19-8 in his first two seasons at Virginia Tech, Fuente’s teams slipped to 13-12 in the past two combined. He didn’t help himself by meeting with Baylor officials during the offseason. There has also been a revolving door in regards to player transfers, with five leaving on one day in January.
3. Has Dino Babers’ window closed at Syracuse?
The Orange have been up and down under Babers, winning four games in each of his first two seasons, 10 in the third and then back down to five in 2019.
Since the end of last season, Babers has had to hire two new defensive coordinators (the first one left for Mississippi State only 11 days after he was hired) and a new offensive coordinator. Former Arizona State safeties coach Tony White takes over the defense, and former USF coordinator Sterlin Gilbert takes over the offense.
It’s massive change for a program trying to get its footing back.
Team on the rise: Louisville
If coaching doesn’t work out for Scott Satterfield, he might have a bright future in waste management because he made quick work of the massive trash heap Bobby Petrino left behind (again). The Cardinals went 8-5 and won a bowl game in Satterfield’s first season. With quarterback Micale Cunningham, tailback Javian Hawkins and receiver Tutu Atwell returning, they might be even better in Year 2. They’ll have to find a replacement for star offensive tackle Mekhi Becton this spring.
Team on the decline: NC State
Maybe Dave Doeren should have taken another job when he had the chance. After consecutive 9-4 seasons, the Wolfpack slipped to 4-8 in 2019. Riding a six-game losing streak, their prospects for 2020 don’t look much better. Former Nebraska, Ohio State and Texas coordinator Tim Beck takes over an offense that averaged 22.1 points per game. NC State plays three of the ACC’s top teams, Louisville, Clemson and North Carolina, on the road this coming season.
Head coach under spotlight: Manny Diaz, Miami
The native son’s honeymoon didn’t last very long. In Diaz’s first season, the Hurricanes lost their first two games and then their last three, including a stunning 30-24 loss at Florida International and 14-0 shutout to Louisiana Tech in the Walk-On’s Independence Bowl. Miami was 10th in the ACC in scoring (25.7 points) and 12th in total offense (367.2 yards). Former SMU offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee was hired to fix things.
First-year coach under spotlight: Mike Norvell, Florida State
The Seminoles are 18-20 since the start of the 2017 season, and they’re on their third head coach in four seasons. Norvell did miracle work at Memphis, and he’s as good as any coach in the FBS at maximizing his players’ talents. Other than rebuilding what has been a woeful offensive line, Norvell’s most pressing concern this spring is restoring quarterback James Blackman’s confidence.
Coordinator under spotlight: Justin Hamilton, Virginia Tech
Hamilton, a former Virginia Tech safety, was promoted to replace longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who retired after 33 seasons. The Hokies expect to bring back 10 starters from a unit that ranked in the top six in the ACC in scoring defense, run defense, pass defense and total defense. Hamilton is in a good position to succeed.
Transfer to watch: D’Eriq King, quarterback, Miami
King played the first four games at Houston last season and then announced he was sitting out and redshirting. He ended up transferring to Miami, which desperately needs someone to bring stability under center. The early results in spring practice have been good, and Lashlee will try to take advantage of King’s mobility. In 2018, he passed for 2,982 yards, rushed for 674 and had 50 total touchdowns with the Cougars.
Freshman to watch (defense): Bryan Bresee, defensive tackle, Clemson
Surprisingly, the Tigers were pushed around by LSU’s offensive line. Help is on the way from Clemson’s No. 1 recruiting class. Bresee, ranked the No. 3 overall prospect in the 2020 ESPN 300, is one of three highly regarded defensive linemen who have already enrolled at Clemson. If Bresee, Demonte Capehart (No. 26 in ESPN 300) and Myles Murphy (No. 13) are as good as advertised, Clemson won’t have to worry about being overmatched up front again.
Freshman to watch (offense): Jeff Sims, quarterback, Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets might have ditched the triple-option offense when Geoff Collins replaced Paul Johnson, but they still struggled to throw the ball in 2019. Tech completed only 124 passes, the seventh fewest in the FBS, and had only 14 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. Sims, from Jacksonville, Florida, was a longtime Florida State commitment, but he flipped to the Jackets and enrolled in January. He’ll have a chance to start this coming season.