Earlier this summer, eyes rolled when organizations released college football award watch lists.
Some scoffed when reading season preview stories. Months ago, COVID-19 seemed destined to derail the fall college football season before it left the tracks.
Instead, Tuesday marks the first day of September and three Power 5 conferences still plan to take the field this fall. A pair of FCS squads competed in a game Saturday.
Yes, an actual college football game took place over the weekend.
While COVID-19 outbreaks on campuses still threaten the fall season on a daily basis, programs keep working in hopes that enhanced safety protocols will pay off.
With college football season inching closer, the ACC recently announced increased testing requirements for its football programs. Keeping the virus at bay remains a top priority. If the plans — which include testing football teams three times per week — work, a safe season could very well occur this fall with the Pac-12 and Big Ten watching from the sidelines.
A possible season means the ACC pushes forward with a few traditional measures, including an upcoming reveal of the preseason All-ACC squad and the projected order of finish.
I voted for this year’s preseason All-ACC team and projected finish, and much like UVa does with its COVID-19 testing results, I wanted to be transparent.
Quarterback: Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence — Even with Sam Howell as an option, Lawrence is the no-brainer choice. Lawrence also earned my preseason Player of the Year selection. I think he unseats his teammate Travis Etienne for the honor this season.
Running backs: Clemson’s Travis Etienne and Louisville’s Javian Hawkins — Two elite returners earn the nod at running back.
Wide receivers: Florida State’s Tamorrion Terry, Louisville’s Tutu Atwell and North Carolina’s Dazz Newsome — Dyami Brown nearly earned a selection to give a pair of UNC players spots on my list, but I opted for Atwell, Newsome and Terry. All three players have proven experience, good hands and blistering speed.
Tight end: Miami’s Brevin Jordan — Jordan is a consistent threat in the passing game, which isn’t common for college tight ends. He’s almost like another receiver on the field for the Hurricanes.
All-purpose back: Louisville’s Hassan Hall — Scott Satterfield and Louisville use Hall well in a variety of ways. He runs well, and he’s a dynamic kickoff returner. Look for Hall to make critical plays for the Cardinals in 2020.
Offensive tackles: Notre Dame’s Liam Eichenberg and Boston College’s Ben Petrula — I’m a sucker for experience, and both Eichenberg and Petrula have it.
Offensive guards: Boston College’s Zion Johnson and Notre Dame’s Aaron Banks — Banks consistently excels when being rated by Pro Football Focus. The senior should post impressive ratings again in 2020 for a loaded Notre Dame offensive line.
Center: Pittsburgh’s Jimmy Morrissey — Another Pro Football Focus star, Morrissey enters the fall as the conference’s top center. He excels both in run and pass blocking. The former walk-on is one of the best linemen in the conference.
Defensive ends: Wake Forest’s Carlos Basham Jr. and Miami’s Quincy Roche — Roche dominated at the AAC level with Temple, and fans may be surprised at how well his game translates to the ACC. He’s a special pass rusher. Basham Jr. was extremely productive in 2019.
Defensive tackles: Florida State’s Marvin Wilson and Clemson’s Tyler Davis — Wilson leads Florida State on and off the field. He’s a legitimate NFL prospect. Davis, a sophomore, will find his way onto an NFL roster in future seasons.
Linebackers: Virginia Tech’s Rayshard Ashby, North Carolina’s Chazz Surratt and Virginia’s Charles Snowden — Ashby and Surratt were easy selections. Snowden barely earned a spot on the list. I gave him a spot on the All-ACC teams in part because of his potential. Added muscle should help Snowden turn an impressive volume of quarterback hurries into even more sacks. Expect a big season from Snowden, assuming his fellow linebackers don’t reach the quarterback first.
Cornerbacks: Florida State’s Asante Samuel Jr. and Clemson’s Derion Kendrick — Both players are disruptive corners with NFL potential.
Safeties: Pittsburgh’s Paris Ford and Florida State’s Hamsah Nasirildeen — These two safeties can make plays in coverage, but they’re both adept tacklers. The tackling ability puts them over the top.
Kicker: Wake Forest’s Nick Sciba — Through two seasons, Sciba is 43-for-47 on his field goal attempts. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Punter: Clemson’s Will Spiers — With Miami’s Lou Hedley not on the ballot, I opted for Spiers. The Clemson punter boasts solid length strength, as well as the ability to pin teams within the 20 without booting the ball into the end zone. Keep an eye on Hedley this season, though. He’s one of the ACC’s most underrated punters.
Specialist: Duke’s Damond Philyaw-Johnson — He averaged an impressive 32.3 yards per kickoff return in 2019. When Philyaw-Johnson gets the ball in his hands, he’s dynamic. With Joe Reed out of the picture, Philyaw-Johnson becomes the ACC’s scariest kickoff returner.
In recent seasons, the ACC featured a clear-cut No. 1 team. Expect more of the same, at least entering the fall season. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence enters the season as a Heisman trophy contender, and Travis Etienne might be the best running back in the country.
Defensively, the Tigers remain talented at multiple positions. Tyler Davis is poised for a special sophomore season at defensive tackle. The special teams unit features talented performers, with punter Will Spiers adept at pinning opponents inside the 20.
Dabo Swinney’s club is the team to bet yet again in the ACC.
2. North Carolina
Sophomore quarterback Sam Howell returns an abundance of weapons, including wide receivers Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown. The Tar Heels feature one of the most potent offenses in the ACC.
Mack Brown’s team went 7-6 in 2019. All six of UNC’s losses came by one possession. In the final six games of the season, North Carolina went 4-2 with an overtime loss to Pitt and a close loss to UVa thanks to timely fourth-quarter stops from Virginia’s defense.
In the final three games of the season, North Carolina went 3-0 with all three victories coming by at least 30 points.
The Tar Heels are ready to become an ACC contender.
3. Notre Dame
Competing in the ACC this season, the Fighting Irish should be among the league’s best squads. Ian Book is an elite quarterback with tremendous experience. A solid offensive line should make Brian Kelly’s squad explosive on offense.
A six-game span in the middle of the season puts the Irish against Louisville, Pitt, Clemson and North Carolina. Those four games will be massive challenges, with the showdown against Clemson on Nov. 7 potentially holding massive importance.
Micale Cunningham is a dual-threat quarterback with impressive passing efficiency. Javian Hawkins enters the fall as the second-best running back in the ACC, and wide receiver Tutu Atwell might be the fastest player in the conference.
Expect Louisville to score in bunches. If the defense performs at an above-average level, it’s hard to see the Cardinals finishing worse than fifth in the ACC.
Pitt’s defense features All-ACC caliber talent across the board. The Panthers are loaded in the secondary and across the defensive front. Paris Ford might be the top safety in the ACC, and he leads a defense that should be among the conference’s best.
Only Georgia Tech scored fewer points per game than the Panthers a season ago, though. Kenny Pickett needs to stay healthy at quarterback, and the Panthers need to move the ball effectively. If they do, they could be a sneaky pick to make the ACC Championship Game.
6. Virginia Tech
The Hokies are good, but I’m not sure they’re great.
Regardless, they’re deserving of a spot in the top half of the ACC. Hendon Hooker deserves more praise at quarterback, and there’s depth behind him. Rayshard Ashby enters 2020 as arguably the ACC’s best linebacker.
Virginia Tech is good, and they should be better than a season ago, even if the record doesn’t show a massive improvement.
When reading national stories about UVa, you’d think Bryce Perkins was a reigning four-time Heisman trophy winner. Losing him hurts, but Brennan Armstrong deserves much more respect than he’s getting.
The UVa players and coaches rave about his accuracy and awareness, and he won the job over a dynamic athlete in Mississippi State transfer Keytaon Thompson.
The offensive line possesses experience to protect Armstrong. Questions at running back and wide receiver make the offense a work in progress. An early season trip to Blacksburg makes it nearly impossible to ease Armstrong into the season.
Virginia’s offense won’t be bad, but it might take a few weeks to find a rhythm.
Defensively, there’s solid experience along the defensive line and in the secondary. The Cavaliers’ linebackers might be the best in the league with Charles Snowden and Noah Taylor spearheading a dynamic group. Zane Zandier is as reliable as they come at the linebacker position, and JMU transfer D’Angelo Amos adds important depth in the secondary.
UVa returns a good roster, and Bronco Mendenhall and company added a few quality transfers in addition to Amos. Unfortunately for the Wahoos, games against Clemson, North Carolina and Louisville require either elite defensive play or an explosive offense capable of winning a shootout.
I’m not sure UVa’s secondary can stop high-powered passing attacks, and the questions at wide receiver and running back are alarming given the increased potential of players missing games due to COVID-19.
The Cavaliers might shock folks this season, but the question marks make it hard to project UVa finishing better than fifth. The ACC is much improved this season.
8. Florida State
Mike Norvell’s first season leading the Seminoles comes during a pandemic. Fortunately, a handful of quality defenders including defensive lineman Marvin Wilson lead a defense capable of keeping Florida State in most games.
Questions linger on offense for the Seminoles, who need to find consistency to win enough games to finish in the top half of the ACC. James Blackman owns a powerful arm at quarterback, but at times he’s been erratic and fell short of his potential.
Norvell needs an offense capable of scoring consistently.
QB D’Erig King, a Houston transfer, might be the perfect medicine for a team with a subpar offensive line. The speedy quarterback can turn broken plays into long gains.
But in a league filled with elite defensive linemen and linebackers, how long can King last behind a group that finished in the bottom four in the FBS in sacks allowed in 2019. The Hurricanes also struggled rushing the football, ranking last in the ACC in rushing yards per game last season.
King helps, but he doesn’t make Miami a top-tier ACC program.
10. Wake Forest
With Jamie Newman at Georgia, it’s Sam Hartman’s turn at Wake Forest. Unfortunately for the new quarterback, Sage Surratt opted out of the season, leaving Hartman without one of the best wide receivers in college football.
11. N.C. State
Dave Doeren’s Wolfpack finished 4-8 last season with a 1-7 record in conference play. After five consecutive seasons with winning records, N.C. State should bounce back a little bit in 2020, even if it still ends up in the bottom half of the league.
12. Georgia Tech
Transitioning away from a triple-option offense takes time. Year No. 2 should include some improvements for the Yellow Jackets.
13. Boston College
It’s a tough year to take over an ACC program, but that’s the task facing Jeff Hafley. The new head coach joins a program that typically features a talent deficit to the top-half of the ACC. Recruiting in future seasons will be critical to the program’s chances of contending for an ACC title.
Four of the team’s final five games this season come against Clemson, Notre Dame, Louisville and UVa. Hafley’s group could be in for a long season.
Dino Babers’ club missed Eric Dungey at quarterback in 2019. Tommy Devito played well, but a lack of offensive line help made his job tough, and he isn’t the same explosive rusher as Dungey.
Defensively, Syracuse also struggled. The Orange weren’t much of a threat a season ago, and the ACC should be much improved in 2020.
Clemson transfer Chase Brice gives the Blue Devils a solid option at quarterback, but Duke doesn’t have the firepower to compete with most of the ACC.
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