Conference Preview 2023: ACC
By Jordan Merritt
A team-by-team analysis of the ACC, the season ahead and final standings predictions.
1. Clemson Tigers
2022: 11-3 (8-0)
Clemson made it consecutive seasons ranked outside the AP top 10 in 2022. Although that would be satisfactory for most of the teams around them, the Clemson Tigers are not most teams. Like a high class yacht, they sailed to the college football play-offs over a 6 year span, winning it all in 2016 and 2018. However, holes seem to have appeared in the sails.
Despite sweeping aside any ACC team that came their way, the last 2 of their 3 losses really stung. Firstly, losing to rivals South Carolina, who hadn’t beaten the Tigers since 2013. Then the one sided loss in the Orange Bowl to Tennessee. Head Coach Dabo Swinney needed to change things and it started with a replacement at offensive coordinator. Garrett Riley (yes, brother of Lincoln) was brought in as OC/QB coach from TCU to jump start a dwindling offense.
What does Riley have to work with? Well he has a 2nd year QB Cade Klubnik, who showed promise as well as freshman errors in his 2 games as starter. Receiver Antonio Williams led the team in receiving yards in his freshman season. The Clemson receiver room doesn’t inspire, although they do have a solid TE in Jake Briningstool. Talented RB Will Shipley returns along with 4 offensive lineman starters.
A team known for playing high quality defense returns 8 starters from 2022. They do lose big names to the NFL, two of them first round defensive lineman. Although many teams would struggle, Clemson should be fine. Returning DT Ruke Orhorhoro and experienced defensive end Xavier Thomas are key players along the line. Nate Wiggins is a talent at cornerback and watch out for top rated 2023 recruit Peter Woods, a DT who should see some time as a freshman.
Verdict: 10-2 (7-1): Even when Clemson aren’t at their best, they seem to beat conference rivals. Despite a couple of better ACC teams in 2023, Clemson should be that bit stronger still. If Garrett Riley can get the offense ticking, an 8th ACC Championship game in 9 seasons should be on the cards. Playoffs? Maybe still not there yet.
2. Pittsburgh Panthers
2022: 9-4 (5-3)
Pitt made it back-to-back top 25 AP rankings under coach Pat Narduzzi in 2022. Even with a stuttering QB, the Panthers reached 8 regular season wins and topped it off with a Sun Bowl win over UCLA. Despite losses at key positions, Narduzzi and his staff excel in making sure they don’t take strides backwards. It starts with defense, ranked 2nd in sacks in 2022 and top 25 overall. Can they keep the trend in 2023?
Narduzzi had to find a replacement at QB for the second year running. In comes hard nosed college veteran Phil Jurkovec from Boston College. This will be Jurkovec’s 6th season, averaging just over 1,000 passing yards for each one before. Injuries have been a big part of that. However, he is reunited with OC Frank Cignetti Jr previously at Boston College. With talented running back Israel Abanikanda now in the NFL, luckily they have another gem in the backfield in Rodney Hammond Jr. The offensive line has experience coming back. Leading WR Jared Wayne has departed, wth the limelight frustrated onto Konata Mumpfield, who will need to improve his production from 2022.
Pitt has made a habit of playing good defense, though they must replace a big chunk of that stellar 2022 group. Calijah Kancey and SirVocea Dennis are big shoes to replace. DE Nahkii Johnson is a potential breakout in 2023, while LB Bangally Kamara is a solid returnee. The cornerback position brings back experience with 3 proven starters. One of those returning is M.J Devonshire, who had 3 interceptions and 9 pass break-ups last season
Verdict: 9-3 (6-2): As mentioned, despite losing key players in the past, Pitt has a knack of reloading and not taking too many steps back. They avoid Clemson and get the Noles and Tar Heels at home. They will be hard to beat once again, with a top 25 ranking not out of reach for the 3rd consecutive season. Surprise ACC Championship game visit in 2023?
3. North Carolina Tar Heels
2022: 9-5 (6-2)
North Carolina up until week 12 were looking like ACC Champions material. Although they managed to reach the Championship game, they were convincingly dispatched by Clemson. The week 12 and 13 losses against Georgia Tech and NC State were tough. First year QB starter Drake Maye could not get them over the line, like he had done in so many games previously. Maye and the offense were the main reason for the success, with the defense allowing 30.8 PPG to the opposition. Can coach Brown improve that defense? Or will it be the Drake Maye show again in 2023?
It’s not an understatement to say Drake Maye was the primary force in why the Tar Heels won 9 games and made the ACC Championship game. In 2023, it doesn’t get easier for the talented signal caller. Firstly, there is an OC change, with Phil Longo departed, in comes Chip Lindsey from UCF. Maye loses 1,000 yard receiver Josh Downs and the second most productive receiver on the 2022 roster, Antoine Green. However, they did add two capable transfers in Tez Walker and Nate McCollum. All the other positions on offense returns experience, with the TE and RB rooms deep with production.
It’s back-to-back seasons now that North Carolina have struggled to get anything going on defense. Up front, they bring most of their starters back. However, the lack of production is a big concern. Players like Desmond Evans and Kevin Hester Jr will need to step up, giving opposition QBs problems. This in turn will help the secondary, which has taken a hit via the transfer portal. It could be another tough watch in 2023 for Tar Heel fans.
Verdict: 9-3 (6-2): North Carolina are heavily relying on Drake Maye again in 2023. He looks like a sure fire NFL starter, whatever happens in the coming season. It seems inevitable we will see Drake Maye heroics again this season. The defense is a massive hinderance that could hold the team back from returning to the championship game.
4. Florida State Seminoles
2022: 9-3 (6-2)
Over the past few seasons, Florida State has been baby stepping back to relevance. Heading into year four with Mike Norvell as head coach, it’s looking like sunshine at the end of a dark and gloomy tunnel. With his first 2 seasons both being losing records, the future was blurry. Faith was heaved onto him in 2022, with it being repaid right back with a 10-3 record in 2023. However, near perfection is needed to knock Clemson off the top of the ACC Atlantic.
The offense welcomed back a handful of star performers, including QB Jordan Travis, RB Trey Benson and WR Johnny Wilson. Norvell hit the transfer portal, grabbing another threat at receiver in Keon Coleman and tight end Jaheim Bell. They did lose a couple of starters on the offensive line. However, they hoped to have addressed that with a few more experienced pick ups via the portal. Including Casey Roddick from Colorado and Jeremiah Byers from UTEP.
If you thought the offense was in a good place, the defense arguably looks better. Arguably the best DE in the 2024 draft if he declares returns. Jared Verse registered 9 sacks last season, with ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year Patrick Payton also returning as the other starting DE. Safety Jammie Robinson leaves a hole at the safety position. However, every other position in the secondary has returning starters.
Verdict: 9-3 (6-2): Optimism is really catching fire down in Tallahassee. Fans believe it’s their time to take the ACC title, their first since 2014. There is a big hurdle they need to overcome. They haven’t beaten Clemson since, surprise, surprise 2014. They meet the Tigers on the road in week 4. Although early in the season, this seems like an early nail in the coffin to either side’s ACC Championship game hopes.
5. Miami Hurricanes
2022: 5-7 (3-5)
When Mario Cristobal was revealed as the new Miami head coach in December 2021, expectations were that as a previous alumni, he knew the direction the team needed to head. 2023 and that fresh start appears to be still loading. Cristobal blamed a clash of cultures as one of the reasons for a disastorous season, with only 3 conference wins. So, is he any closer to getting it right the second time around?
After the 2022 season ended, a handful of coaches left for other jobs, OC Josh Gattis got the chop, while numerous players entered the transfer portal. From the outside it looks bad, but Cristobal followed that up with a top 5 recruitment class and adding top transfers onto the roster. Is the culture that was promised starting to take shape in Miami?
Miami brought in Shannon Dawson from Houston as the new OC to help wake the sleeping offense from 2022. Dawson will have returning QB Tyler Van Dyke to work with. Van Dyke started to look the part in week 5 and 6 after a rough start to the season. However, injury ended his season in week 7 against Duke. The offensive line is star studded, with one of the best offensive tackles in Zion Nelson returning. Miami also managed to pick up Alabama OG Javion Cohen. The returning receivers lack production, but will get opportunities in the Dawson system.
Another coaching change brings in Marshall’s Lance Guidy as the new DC. Guidy guided the Thundering Herd defense to a top 10 national finish in 2022. He will have some talented guys to work with throughout the defense. None more so than All-American safety Kamren Kinchens, a ball hawk who leads by example at the back end. Miami have had their fair share of talented defensive ends, they have two more in Akheem Mesidor and Jahfari Harvey. One area that Guidy will need to address is the cornerback position, with both starters from 2022 gone.
Verdict: 9-3 (6-2): 2022 was not in the script when Mario Cristobal arrived. However, Miami are much better than last season’s performances. Blame it on what you like, but now Cristobal seems to have pressed reset in certain areas and this season I expect to see a different Hurricane team. An ACC title game is still a little out of reach, but a decent winning record is not.
6. Louisville Cardinals
2022: 8-5 (4-4)
After a relatively solid season, the main headline in 2022 was head coach Scott Satterfield accepting the Cincinnati Bearcats job before both teams were to meet in the Fenway Bowl. Despite not being on the sidelines for the game, it was the 3rd time in 4 seasons Satterfield had guided them to a bowl game. Can his predecessor take them forward?
The new head coach is a name familiar around these parts. Jeff Brohm played QB for 5 seasons at Louisville from 1989 to 1993, while also holding a few coaching roles in the early 2000s. With the Cardinals in previous seasons, it’s either middle of the road, or slightly turning the way they want to be heading in. With a new head coach, can they navigate the route they set out for the season, without detours?
Quarterback Malik Cunningham, who made magic happen with mainly his legs, departed for the NFL Draft. Brohm brings in California transfer Jake Plummer, a QB he spent a few seasons with at Purdue before Plummer’s lone season with the Golden Bears. The question mark is who will be catching his passes. Ahmari Higgins-Bruce is the only returnee with double digit receptions. With numerous freshmen and transfers, the offense will need somebody to take the jump. The RB position is the strongest on offense with, returners Jawhar Jordan and Maurice Turner looking like an exciting partnership.
The defense was a big reason for their record last season, holding opponents to 17 points or less in 6 games. They will have to jig a few things around, with a scheme change and a few departees. However, the secondary looks strong, with 4 guys totalling 8 interceptions returning. Add to that impressively named transfer Storm Duck, Louisville will be hard to pass against in 2023. The Cardinals lose a big chunk of production from the linebacker position, but will be hoping Pac-12 transfers Keith Brown and Stephen Herron can pick up some of what’s been lost.
Verdict: 8-4 (5-3): Louisville has the bonus of avoiding Clemson and North Carolina in 2023. To take another step forward they will have to find a way to win those tough road games. With NC State, Pittsburgh and Miami on the road, securing just one win from those games could flip the season to impressive. At home, they should be near having a 100% record.
7. Duke Blue Devils
2022: 9-4 (5-3)
A season to remember for first year head coach Mike Elko as he guided Duke to their first bowl game since 2018. One of the worst offenses in 2021, the narrative was changed in 2022 and by a high margin, thanks to new OC Kevin Johns. The Blue Devils averaged 32.8 points per game on their way to a 8-4 regular season record. However, now they must try to keep that momentum with a tougher schedule in 2023 – but they do have a high amount of starters returning.
QB Riley Leonard was a big part of that improvement. In his sophomore season, Leonard threw for 2,967 yards and 20 TDs, while only throwing 6 interceptions. He also made plenty of plays with his legs, with 13 TDs on the ground. Leonard is a talent and will be hoping for another solid season before making a decision on declaring for the NFL Draft. Duke has their top 4 receivers in production returning, including main threats Jalon Calhoun and Jordan Moore. The offensive line also brings back experience, including LT Graham Barton.
Just as the offense did, the defense took a big leap last season under the guidance of Elko and DC Tyler Santucci. A defense that allowed over opponents 39.8 PPG, reduced that to 22.1 PPG in 2022. The defensive line returns all their starters and keep your eye out for DB Brandon Johnson who recorded 5.5 sacks last season. Top safety Darius Joyner has left. Sophomore Terry Moore will look to fill the hole left by Joyner.
Verdict: 7-5 (4-4): The improvement shown under Elko last season happened faster than expected. The panic button should not be hit if Duke don’t hit those heights this year. The 2023 schedule is much tougher. If the Blue Devils can go bowling again, it’s another successful season for Elko and his team.
8. NC State Wolfpack
2022: 8-5 (4-4)
Another season of what if for the Wolfpack. On paper it was another solid year, with wins over Florida State and ACC runners up North Carolina. Flip the losses at home to Boston College and on the road to Louisville late in the season, NC State could have been in the championship game. The offense held them back, with injuries also providing obstacles late on. Changes have occurred, so can they take that jump the media has expected for the last few seasons?
Starting QB in 2022 Devin Leary has gone, and in comes Virginia transfer Brennan Armstrong. Armstrong hasn’t been the model of consistency so far, but does have the talent if he can put it all together. It will help that new OC Robert Anae was OC at Virginia with Armstrong before the 2022 season. Familiarity can’t be a bad thing. Wide receiver Keyon Lesane showed he has the capabilities to make plays. However, receivers like Porter Rooks and Terrell Timmons Jr. will need to make the step up. The offensive line should stand firm again, with both tackles returning as well as center Dylan McMahon.
The defense will be the strength of the team yet again. Experienced returnees are scattered in all positions, including Payton Wilson and Savion Jackson, the latter returning from injury. Cornerbacks Aydan White and Shyheim Battle are tried and tested in the ACC. NC State does lose 7.5 sack linebacker Drake Thomas, but they do have an impressive core linebacker group -with previous 4 star recruit Caden Fordham a name to track.
Verdict: 7-5 (4-4): Another season of many media outlets suggesting NC State are a sleeper in the ACC. They need to take that step on offense, as the defense will handle their buisness. If new puzzle pieces Brennan Armstrong and OC Robert Anae are to help partially complete the jigsaw, then the possibilities are high. Failing that, a 9th bowl game in 12 wouldn’t be so bad.
9. Syracuse Orange
2022: 7-6 (4-4)
Coach Dino Babers earned his second winning record and Bowl game in 2022. They started the season reeling off 6 wins in a row, reaching the heights of AP rank 14 before the match-up with Clemson. They showed grit in the 27-21 loss in Death Valley. After that loss, 5 more followed against strong opposition, but Syracuse held their own. Even when QB Garrett Shrader went down, they showed heart. The Orange will need even more of that in 2023.
How do you replace the production of star RB Sean Tucker? Tucker rushed for over 3,000 yards in 3 seasons, while scoring 31 TDs. Sophomore LeQuint Allen had 41 carries for 274 as a true freshman. He looks to be the guy to spearhead the running game. QB Garrett Shrader can also make plays with his legs, but when he chooses to throw, he’s usually looking for Oronde Gadsden II. The name will be familiar to NFL fans of the 90s as his father was a Super Bowl-winning wide receiver. The biggest concern is the offensive line, with key starters departed, including left tackle Matthew Bergeron.
73 year old Rocky Long still has the appetite; he started his coaching career way back in the 70s. He takes over from Tony White as defensive coordinator. Long has a lot of holes that have been left, none bigger than cornerback Garrett Williams to the NFL and Ja’Had Carter to Ohio State. The linebacker positions need a re-jig, with a few names in the mix to step up. The defensive line looks the strongest position group on defense. They also managed to add Alabama DE transfer Braylen Ingraham.
Verdict: 7-5 (4-4): There has been a lot of change since the 2022 season finished. The offense should hold its own again. However, there’s a lot of change on the defensive side of the ball. On top of that, the schedule looks tough to navigate, with Clemson, North Carolina and Florida State all coming from week 5 to 7. A second winning record in a row would be some achievement for Dino Babers.
10. Virginia Tech Hokies
2022: 3-8 (1-6)
Nobody expected things to happen quickly when HC Brent Pry arrived last season. The team was a mess and it showed on the field. Just 3 victories and only a sole conference win would have preceded to the majority of coaches facing the chop. The offense averaged under 20 PPG, with Lane Stadium not the fortress it had been previously. Pry has been granted time, and gosh he needed it. Can the Hokies improve enough for Brent Pry to keep his job?
Pry has hit the transfer portal hard on offense. QB Grant Wells returns, but he faces competition from Baylor transfer Kyron Drones. Two very different styles of quarterbacks, as it stands the competition to be starter is still up in the air heading into fall camp. The big name Virginia Tech managed to pick up was Old Dominion WR Ali Jennings III. Jennings just missed out on back-to-back 1,000 yard receiving seasons last year. He is joined by fellow transfers Jaylin Lane and De’Quan Felton. The offensive line is going to make or break this offense, with a huge lack of experience across it.
The defense got gradually better by the end of the season. They have a good bunch returning that should hopefully see further improvements. The secondary looks the business, with talented sophomore CB Mansoor Delane and safeties Nasir Peoples and Jalen Storman names to watch. As good as the secondary is, the Hokies will need more from players up front. Only one player had more than 2 sacks and he is not on the roster.
Verdict: 5-7 (2-6): The Virginia Tech roster is a mixed bag. The WR, CB and safety positions look solid, while in the trenches, it looks sketchy. That being said, it still should be better for Hokies fans in 2023. Not massively, but a steady improvement. Is that enough for Pry to still be in Blacksburg for year 3?
11. Wake Forest Demon Deacons
2022: 8-5 (3-5)
The Demon Deacons are a model of consitency in recent seasons. Winning records and bowl games, with 2022 being no different. Despite concerns that QB Sam Hartman may miss significant time with health concerns, he made it back week 2 and delivered another productive season. Wake Forest have had that mentality of out scoring whatever their defense allows. They needed to in 2022 to keep the winning season streak alive. The 2023 season comes with extra problems. Will it be one step too far for head coach Dave Clawson?
Sam Hartman was the beating heart of the team (excuse the pun). He has now departed for Notre Dame. Mitch Griffis, who threw for 288 yards and 3 TDs in Hartman’s week 1 absence, gets the nod as starter. Although leading receiver A.T. Perry also departed, Griffis has two reliable receivers in Donavon Green and Jahmal Banks. Running back Justice Ellison is back for his 4th season, while the offensive line he will work behind brings experience.
The Wake Forest defense allowed 28.8 PPG last season. Similar to 2021, the offense got them out of a hole. The cornerback position is lacking experience along with the defensive line. They do have a star emerging in defensive end Jasheen Davis. DT transfers Bryce Ganious and Nick Helbig come from smaller schools, but will feel they’re ready for the jump in class.
Verdict: 5-7 (2-6): Wake Forest could be anything in 2023. Both sides of the ball have their questions to answer. If the offense clicks and the defense gets better, then they will be up there with the best in the conference. If it all goes pear shaped, then kiss goodbye to that impressive streak of bowl games. I salute anybody who is confident in predicting the outcome.
12. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
2022: 5-7 (4-4)
After 4 games, Georgia Tech were down and out with a 1-3 record, but just like The Undertaker, they came back from the brink to go 4-4 in the last 8 games. The change in fortune coincided with Brent Key being promoted to HC after Geoff Collins was relieved of his duties. Key managed more wins in 8 games than Collins did in any of his 3 full previous seasons as HC .He has now put his stamp on the coaching staff and hit the transfer portal. Can the Yellow Jackets keep up that momentum?
The offense has been average and that’s being quite kind. A big incoming transfer is quarterback Haynes King, who will compete with Xach Pyron for the starters job. Brent Key also managed to persuade receivers Christian Leary and Dominick Blaylock to join from Alabama and Georgia respectively. The offensive line brings back 4 players with starting experience, which is useful for an offense with plenty of new faces.
Opposite to the offense, the defense brings back plenty of starters. However, they do have to replace game changer Keion White who had 7.5 sacks at DE. Kyle Kennard is tasked with replacing White. Just like on offense, they had joy in the transfer portal, acquiring Andre White and Braelen Oliver at linebacker. The defense will need to take a step forward again.
Verdict: 4-8 (2-6): Georgia Tech getting to 5 wins last season was some achievement. Coach Key changed the mood and it paid off with fighting performances, even in losses. Now the interim title has been removed, the performances can’t drop off. A bowl game isn’t out of the question, but it will be tough.
13. Boston College Eagles
2022: 3-9 (2-6)
Head coach Jeff Hafley has the 2022 season in the rear view mirror, thankfully. 3 wins and no bowl game for Hafley was his worst season in 3 at Boston College. With college football an unforgiving place, he will probably need to rectify that in 2023. Players that were part of the furniture have moved on to pastures new, and coaching changes makes it that much more trickier.
QB Phil Jurkovec was at Boston College for 5 seasons, while receiver Zay Flowers was there for 4. Flowers was as consistent as they come, with 2022 his best season. Flowers headed to the NFL, while Jurkovec transferred out. However, they do have a talent in sophomore QB Emmett Morehead. Morehead got some starting experience in 2022, which should put him in good stead going forward. Who will replace the one man show in Flowers? Well they dipped into the transfer portal and picked up Ryan O’Keefe from UCF who could easily step into that role. The offensive line was a mess last season; getting Christian Mahogany back at guard after missing all of last season will help, along with a couple of transfers. The line must improve to give Morehead the chance to make plays.
The defense returns one of the more productive edge rushers in the ACC in Donovan Ezeiruako. 8.5 sacks last season and don’t be surprised to see him being the leading force on defense again. Experienced linebackers Vinny DePalma and Kam Arnold return, which will add stability to a defense that sees a pair of new defensive coordinators promoted from within. The Eagles used the portal to bring in some help at the secondary, including Khari Johnson from Arkansas.
Verdict: 4-8 (1-7): Last season Boston College had a problem with rushing on both sides of the ball. Couldn’t stop it, couldn’t create it. If that is a continuous problem again, even with an easier schedule, it will be a difficult season. Jeff Hafley could have a hot seat by the time the season is out.
14. Virginia Cavaliers
2022: 3-7 (1-7)
A 3-7 record in year 1 for HC Tony Elliott wasn’t great, with a relatively easy schedule that should have seen more success in the 10 games they played. Elliott was supposed to be the kickstart the offense needed, but that did not happen. Luckily the defense improved which made a few of the games look better on paper. 2023 brings its own challenges that could make or break the Tony Elliott tenure.
The first of those challenges is preparing new QB transfer Tony Muskett for the challenges a FBS power 5 conference brings. Muskett transferred from the FCS and will need to get to grips with things quickly. The offensive line has significant changes, as does the receiver position. Malik Washington transferred in from Northwestern and should help from the slot. Virginia picked up a good transfer in running back Kobe Pace from Clemson. The offense needs to get better or it could be a tough watch in 2023.
Thankfully, the defense wasn’t bad. They improved from the season before and hope to do the same again. The defensive line returns everybody from 2022, including Chico Bennett Jr. and Aaron Faumui who combined for 11.5 sacks. The secondary lost key players at cornerback. The Cavaliers hit the portal to bring in Malcolm Greene and Tayvon Kyle, with both set for starting roles. The safety position is one of the strongest rooms on the roster, with experience to help guide the defense from the back.
Verdict: 2-10 (1-7): The 2023 schedule looks unforgivable if Virginia doesn’t improve, especially on offense. Tennessee, Maryland and a good James Maddison team could have the Cavaliers in a pickle early. If HC Tony Elliott can somehow get past 4 wins in 2023 then it would be a decent season under the circumstances of the roster. Is that target just too much to ask?
Ever since he entered Husky Stadium in 2017, Jordan has been a huge fan of College Football. Over the past 3 years he has covered the PAC-12 at 5 Yard College, While recently becoming a contributor at FanSided for The Husky Haul. Follow Jordan @jordm87!