Editor’s note: This is a special edition of Matt Hinton’s “Monday Down South” column and part of his continuing 2021 college football preview.

The state of the ACC on the eve of the 2021 season is the state of college football as a whole, and of the world: The rich get richer, while everyone else vies for the scraps.

From a competitive standpoint, Clemson has effectively moved into a different zip code. With 6 straight conference championships, no apparent rivals, and no end in sight, the Tigers’ have so thoroughly dominated their local peers for so long it’s less accurate at this point to describe them as members of a conference than as an entrenched regional monopoly taking its business national. Navigating the ACC schedule to them is like driving to the airport on the way to their actual destination.

Now, what happens after they arrive is another story. Clemson’s last two Playoff trips ended in decisive defeats at the hands of LSU in 2019 and Ohio State last year, which taken together could be interpreted as a wake-up call. In both games, the defense cracked, the offensive line was overmatched, and Trevor Lawrence was hounded into looking like a mere mortal. It’s the kind of thing that, if it happens 3 years in a row, risks becoming A Thing.

And for a national contender, the Tigers have some questions. Lawrence’s successor, the massive DJ Uiagalelei, was only marginally less hyped coming out of California – he represented Dabo Swinney’s first big recruiting win west of the Mississippi – but steps into the spotlight still largely untested. The playmakers at the skill positions, too, will hit the field with more potential than proof. As units, the o-line, linebackers and safeties continue to rely more on overachievers than blue-chip athletes clearly bound for the next level. The season opener against Georgia in Atlanta will be a legitimate test (for both sides) of their national cred relative to the rest of the elite.

Relative to the rest of the ACC, though, these are strictly rich people problems. Clemson has more than twice as many 5-star recruits on the active roster (10) than the rest of the league combined (4). Uiagalelei is as can’t-miss a prospect as they come. The conference race is so lopsided, handicapping it is less interesting than trying to imagine what kind of handicap would have to be imposed on the Tigers for them to somehow not win it. Could they beat an all-star squad composed of the other 13 teams’ best players? Could they still win the league playing only their second- and third-stringers? (Or at least the Atlantic Division?) What about if Brent Venables swapped places with the opposing defensive coordinator? Or if they let fans call the plays?

Because as it stands, these Twilight Zone scenarios are as close as we’re likely to get to a legitimate challenge to Clemson supremacy this season or in the next few. Eventually, the variables will click into place at Miami or Florida State or, I don’t know, North Carolina, the guards will change, and orange banners will come down. And that moment may not be as far off as it seems. (They never are.) But then, at the rate it’s going, by that point who knows if Clemson will still be in the fold, or if the ACC as we know it will even still exist.

The front-runner: Clemson

The Tigers are so far ahead of the rest of the league in every other respect that, at least as far as extending the conference championship and Playoff stress is concerned, the single most pressing issue heading into the season is … uh, backup quarterback?

The situation is fluid. The presumed QB2, redshirt sophomore Taisun Phommachanh, suffered a torn Achilles in the spring, putting his availability in doubt. Early reports out of preseason camp are surprisingly optimistic about the timetable for Phommachanh’s return, potentially as soon as the home opener vs. South Carolina State on Sept. 11, but his status remains very much TBD. If he were to find himself thrust into the spotlight for any meaningful stretch, his performance is TBD, as well. In the meantime, the role is up for grabs between a couple of 3-star freshmen, redshirt Hunter Helms and rookie Will Taylor with no relevant experience between them. Ugalelelei’s eventual heir apparent as the full-time starter likely won’t be in the fold until next year.

If obsessing over the backup QB seems like a trivial issue in the grand scheme of things, well, yeah, that’s kinda the point here. Consider, though, that both of Clemson’s past 2 regular-season losses – at Syracuse in 2017 and at Notre Dame last year — came with the starter on the sideline for most or all of the game, as did the narrowest win in that span, a 2018 nail-biter vs. Syracuse after Trevor Lawrence was knocked out of the game in his first career start. Heaven forbid anything like that happen at any point this season to Uiagalelei. But if you’re probing this team for vulnerabilities against any opponent that isn’t Alabama, Ohio State or Georgia, it may be the best you’re going to do.

The challenger: North Carolina

With respect to the overall rebuilding job Mack Brown has done in his second go-round at UNC, for now the good vibes around Chapel Hill are all about Sam Howell. As a recruit, Howell marked Brown’s first major victory when flipped his commitment from Florida State to Carolina in Mack’s first month on the job. At the time, the Tar Heels were coming off back-to-back 2-10 campaigns marked by erratic QB play (to put it kindly) in 2017 and ’18. Two-and-a-half years later, Howell is entering his junior season as the nation’s most NFL-ready pocket passer and UNC is officially opening as a top 10 team.

The big caveat is that, beyond Howell, the Heels are still barely distinguishable from a middle-class outfit whose postseason ambitions top out in the Cheez-It Bowl. The other stars of last year’s offense all left for the draft, taking the vast majority of the team’s rushing/receiving output with them. The o-line is nothing special. The defense, while much improved, is just on the uphill side of mediocre. More than any other team this season, the case for Carolina’s relevance begins and ends with the quarterback.

Of course, Howell may be more likely than any other quarterback to deliver on that promise. The Heels don’t play Clemson in the cross-division draw and could easily wind up being favored in every game outside of an Oct. 30 trip to Notre Dame. It’s not difficult to imagine them rolling into an ACC Championship collision with Clemson at 10-2 or 11-1, at which point, hey, anything can happen on a given Saturday. As long as that’s the best-case scenario rather than the baseline expectation, enjoy the optimism while it lasts.

The dark horse: Miami

The Coastal Division over the past decade has been as wide open as it could possibly be: Prior to last year’s decision to scrap divisions altogether in response to the pandemic, all 7 Coastal teams had taken a turn in the ACC Championship Game in 7 consecutive seasons. (Notre Dame, while technically not a member of any division in 2020, effectively extended the streak by becoming the 8th different school to lose in the ACCCG in as many years.) With the cycle of fresh blood complete, the steadier programs are past due for their bite at the apple, and in the context of this basket case division, no program has been steadier than Miami.

Like North Carolina, the case for the Hurricanes begins and ends with their prolific quarterback, D’Eriq King, a former Houston transfer who lit up opposing defenses in his first year on campus by accounting for more than 3,200 total yards and 27 touchdowns before suffering a torn ACL in the bowl game. At full speed, King is as dynamic with the ball in his hands as any returning college QB and an underrated passer, coming in 3rd among ACC quarterbacks last year in pass efficiency rating behind only Howell and Lawrence.


Unlike North Carolina, Miami will have the benefit of surrounding King with an essentially intact lineup that will welcome back top OL Navaughn Donaldson from a medical redshirt and also added Oklahoma transfer WR Charleston Rambo, for good measure. The offensive line, a sore point in Manny Diaz’s first season as head coach, has matured entering Year 3 into a unit that collectively boasts 167 starts and more than 12,000 career snaps.

But King is the sun around which everything else orbits. He has been a
full participant in preseason camp, and with the possible exception of the season opener against Alabama his presence will ensure the ‘Canes are a threat as long as he’s on the field.

The upstart: Boston College

BC in the Steve Addazio years (2013-19) was the most predictable team in America in every capacity. Unapologetically retro on offense and hewing a determined path to the middle of the pack, the Eagles turned in exactly 6 losses with an identical 4-4 record in ACC play in all but 2 of Addazio’s 7 seasons. (The exceptions resulted in 3-9 and 7-5 finishes, respectively, avoiding the inevitable 6th loss in the latter case when the bowl game was canceled by weather.) Their record over his full tenure, appropriately, came in at exactly .500 overall.

On paper, a 6-5 finish (5-5 ACC) in their first season under Addazio’s successor, Jeff Hafley, was more of the same. But it didn’t look the same, especially on offense, where the philosophy shifted decisively in favor of a modern spread passing attack and the personnel followed suit. The quarterback, Notre Dame transfer Phil Jurkovec, is Boston College’s first plausibly draftable QB since Matt Ryan. His receivers include a first-team All-ACC pick (Zay Flowers), another highly productive vet coming off a medical redshirt (Kobay White), and a blue-chip transfer from Ohio State (Jaelen Gill). Up front, the offensive line returns all five starters, four of them legitimate NFL prospects, with a combined 126 career starts between them.

That’s the basis for a tangible step forward in Year 2, a sentence BC fans haven’t read in way too long. They remember it wasn’t that long ago that the Eagles were reliably clocking eight wins a year, even if no one else does. Just by bringing the offense and the quarterback position firmly into the 21st century, Hafley has them back on the right track.

The doormat: Duke

The flip side of North Carolina’s ascent is their rivals’ demise. In his 14th year on the job, 66-year-old David Cutcliffe remains one of the most respected coaches in the game, justifiably so after engineering a solid decade of respectability at a program known mainly for being a perennial embarrassment to the basketball team. Even by the old standard, though, the 2020 Blue Devils were flat-out bad, finishing 1-9 in conference play with 6 losses by 18+ points. The offense came in next-to-last in the ACC in yards and points per game and dead last nationally with 39 turnovers; the defense finally collapsed in a heap, giving up 216 points in the last 4 games alone.

A season like that calls for a hard reboot — about half of last year’s starting lineup is gone, along with several assistant coaches. But new hardly guarantees improved. The strength of the team, the defensive line, is a total rebuild following a mass exodus for the NFL and the transfer portal. The new quarterback, junior Gunnar Holmberg, barely managed to get on the field despite the struggles of departed starter Chase Brice. There are no proven playmakers, touted recruits, or intriguing transfers to speak of.

To his credit, Cutcliffe has done more with less in the past. This time around, it’s looking more like the future is more of the same, only for whoever comes next to

Projected order of finish

1. Clemson – Tigers have been Vegas favorites in 76 consecutive non-Playoff games dating to 2015.
2. NC State – Wolfpack are a quarterback away from being the kind of sneaky good team that can ride a, uh, manageable schedule to 9 or 10 wins.
3. Boston College – It’s been a long time since BC fans went into a season feeling like the arrow was clearly pointing in the right direction.
4. Florida State – Long road to respectability ahead, but Noles still have one of the league’s most enviable talent bases behind Clemson and nowhere to go but up.
5. Wake Forest – Deacs should play all their games on Friday nights strictly to give WR Jaquarii Roberson the national stage he deserves.
6. Louisville – Nobody’s mistaking QB Malik Cunningham for Lamar Effin’ Jackson, but if he can’t make good things happen as a senior, it’s hard to point to anyone else on this team who can.
7. Syracuse – The only notable thing about this outfit is the existence of reserve tight end and first-round All-Name Team draft pick Maximilian Mang.

1. Miami – Canes remain a tier or two below where they feel like they belong, but it certainly doesn’t take vintage Miami swagger to win the ACC Coastal.
2. North Carolina – It’s not quite now or never here, but the best quarterback in school history’s last year on campus is one you really don’t want to waste.
3. Virginia Tech — Hokies have been much too quiet under Justin Fuente, who badly needs to make up some ground on Miami and UNC in Year 6 to justify a Year 7.
4. Pittsburgh – Aaron Donald’s nephew, Elliot Donald, enrolled in the spring as the highest-rated player in the Panthers’ incoming recruiting class, a fact regular Pitt viewers will be reminded of approximately 800 times per broadcast.
5. Virginia – Cavaliers are the textbook definition of “nondescript” and you know that’s just how Bronco Mendenhall likes it.
6. Georgia Tech – Yellow Jackets feel like they’re on the upswing under second-year coach Geoff Collins, but you’ll actually have to watch them to find out because it won’t be reflected in the standings.
7. Duke – From whence the Devils came, so they shall return.

Offensive Player of the Year: Sam Howell (UNC)

Howell has the arm, the stats, the arm, the consistency, and – I cannot emphasize this enough – the arm to go out as the nation’s best quarterback and the No. 1 overall pick in 2022. The Heisman, as always, is trickier: Since the turn of the century, the Heisman has been reserved almost exclusively for players whose teams are on deck to play for the national championship, most of the exceptions (Tim Tebow, Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel, Lamar Jackson) being dual-threat athletes with much different games and highlight reels than Howell’s. You’d have to go all the way back to USC’s Carson Palmer in 2002 for the last pocket type to win it on a team not bound for the biggest stage, and North Carolina ain’t USC.

Barring a truly outrageous stat line, the minimum threshold for a sustained, NYC-worthy campaign is probably 10 wins, a Coastal Division title, and worthy outings against Notre Dame and Clemson; actually bringing the trophy home will require either winning one of those games or lighting up the scoreboard in a shootout loss. Either way, he can’t get there by himself.

Defensive Player of the Year: Myles Murphy (Clemson)

Even if you’ve never heard of Murphy, you do know it takes a full-grown man just to get on the field on Clemson’s loaded defensive front. So it should tell you all you need to know that not only did he crack the starting rotation as an 18-year-old true freshman, he was arguably the best player on it.

A highly decorated recruit, Murphy rocketed to the top of the Tigers’ stacked depth chart at defensive end and stayed there, leading the team in TFLs (11.5) and overall PFF grade (85.2) on 423 snaps. As a sophomore, he has a head start on transcending the platoon and beginning his ascent on the long, luminous list of the best d-linemen in the Swinney/Venables era.

Breakout Player(s) of the Year: Khafre Brown and Josh Downs (UNC)

Departed WRs Dyami Brown (a 3rd-round draft pick) and Dazz Newsome (6th round) were the most productive tandem in college football, combining for 3,835 yards and 36 touchdowns over the past 2 years – more than half of Carolina’s total receiving output. Into the breach: Dyami’s younger brother, Khafre, and Downs, a pair of former 4-star recruits with speed to burn and the instincts to make it count.

Khafre Brown made the most of his limited opportunies as a redshirt freshman, averaging an eye-opening 22.5 yards with 2 touchdowns on just 15 receptions; he projects as the resident deep threat, replacing his brother in the same role. Downs, one of the gems in UNC’s 2020 recruiting class, played sparingly until the starters’ decision to opt out of the Orange Bowl, opening the door for the rookie to introduce himself with 4 catches for 91 yards and his first 2 career TDs in their absence. Based on the hype coming out of the spring, only the first of many.

Most Exciting Player: Jahmyr Gibbs (Ga. Tech)

Gibbs stuck with his commitment to Georgia Tech throughout the recruiting process despite a late surge of interest from all the heavy hitters in the course of a dominant senior season, and quickly established himself as the Yellow Jackets’ most dynamic weapon — if not their best player, full-stop.

Beyond his raw production (968 all-purpose yards with 7 touchdowns in 7 games), Gibbs was a nightmare to get to the ground, combining his natural shiftiness with surprising power when necessary. Altogether, Pro Football Focus credited Gibbs with forcing 35 missed tackles on just 89 carries while averaging 4.1 yards after contact, best of any returning ACC back. If those rates hold in Year 2 across an expanded workload, all signs point to a special season.

Sleeper of the Year: Kei’trel Clark (Louisville)

Clark, a transfer from Liberty, was quietly one of the league’s best corners in his first season at Louisville, finishing tied for the conference lead in passes defended (10) while allowing just 1 touchdown in coverage and a long reception of just 21 yards. Coaches singled him out as a second-team All-ACC pick, and while his diminutive size might tank his chances at the next level (Louisville lists him, generously, at 5-10/180), a repeat performance will at least force the scouts to think long and hard about it before they write him off.

Fat Guy of the Year: Ikem Ekwonu (NC State)

“Big Ick” was a Freshman All-American in 2019 and a fixture at left tackle as a sophomore, posting 80+ PFF grades in both seasons with a combined 87 pancakes, per NC State, including the official Fat Guy Highlight of the Year.

At 6-4/320, Year 3 in Raleigh will very likely be his last.

Most Valuable Transfer: Jaiden Lars-Woodbey (Boston College)

Lars-Woodbey was an instant hit at Florida State, starting every game in 2018 as a true freshman in a hybrid linebacker/safety role he was born to play. It was downhill from there: Medical redshirt in 2019, diminishing returns under a new coaching staff in 2020. Like almost every blue-chip talent who has come through Tallahassee over the past few years, the product on the field never quite matched up with the promise.

Unlike many of his peers, Lars-Woodbey has the opportunity to reset in a new setting, Boston College, where he’ll have 2 years of eligibility to make good. At 6-0/221, he’s the ideal candidate for the type of “positionless” role that has proliferated in response to spread offenses, with the size to hold his own in the box and athleticism to handle himself in coverage. BC doesn’t get many guys like that, but based on Jeff Hafley’s track record as a secondary coach in the NFL and at Ohio State, he’s not going to be at a loss for how to use him.

Biggest X-factor: McKenzie Milton (FSU)

If McKenzie Milton takes a live rep this fall, it will be a miracle. The last time he was on the field, in November 2018, Milton — then a 21-year-old junior at UCF — suffered a catastrophic knee injury that put his career on indefinite hiatus. Most of the subsequent updates on his recovery over the next 2 years implied he was unlikely to play again. But here he is: Now a 23-year-old, 6th-year senior at Florida State, Milton was fully cleared to participate in spring practice, went through non-contact drills without a hitch, and has been splitting reps throughout preseason camp with the incumbent starter, Jordan Travis. He has a very real shot to start the Seminoles’ season opener vs. Notre Dame on Sept. 5.

If he looks anything like his old self in his new colors, it will be more than a miracle — it stands to reverse the recent trajectory of FSU football. The Noles’ struggles behind center are well documented, with the revolving door at the position serving as a focal point for the program’s broader descent into mediocrity. Nothing about last year’s dismal 3-6 finish under first-year coach Mike Norvell suggested that the arrow was pointing up. In Milton, however, they landed a bona fide star who was 24-0 as UCF’s starter in 2017-18 and finished in the top 10 in Heisman voting both years.

A return to anywhere near that level will go a long way toward reversing 4 years of steadily diminishing returns in Tallahassee and quite possibly make Milton’s long-shot NFL ambitions a reality. No matter how it turns out, just absorbing the first hit will be a triumph in itself.

Best position group: Clemson’s defensive line

The front four under Brent Venables is consistently among the nation’s most dominant units, and the 2021 edition may be his deepest yet.

Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee arrived last year as the two highest-rated d-linemen in the incoming class and immediately lived up to the hype. Proven vets Xavier Thomas, Justin Foster and Tyler Davis are back at full speed after missing all or most of the season to injury and COVID-19. Five others are back with at least 100 career snaps under their belts, including 2020 starters KJ Henry and Justin Mascoll on the edge, and not including a pair of touted redshirt freshmen on the interior, Tre Williams and DeMonte Capehart, whose pending rise forced pair of established seniors, Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams, to transfer out for their final season of eligibility just to ensure they’d get enough reps to make their case for the next level.

The starters are all bound for All-ACC recognition, at a minimum, and the third line on the depth chart could hold its own against the starters anywhere else in the league. Year in, year out, no position better reflects the recruiting and development between Tigers and the rest of the conference, and it’s wider this year than ever.

Preseason All-ACC team

Here’s my personal all-conference lineup for the coming season, based strictly on my own projections for the season. (That is, it doesn’t reflect the projections or opinions of anyone else at Saturday Down South.) If an obviously deserving player from your favorite team didn’t make the cut, it can only be because I harbor a deep, irrational bias against him personally — especially if he happens to play running back, wide receiver or linebacker — and certainly not because some of these decisions were tough calls between more credible candidates than I could accommodate.

Quarterback: Sam Howell • North Carolina
Running back: Lyn-J Dixon • Clemson
Running back: Jahmyr Gibbs • Georgia Tech
Wide receiver: Justyn Ross • Clemson
Wide receiver: Jaquarii Roberson • Wake Forest
Wide receiver: Tre Turner • Virginia Tech
Tight end: James Mitchell • Virginia Tech
Tackle: Ikem Ekwonu • NC State
Tackle: Jordan McFadden • Clemson
Guard: Ben Petrula • Boston College
Guard: Matt Bockhorst • Clemson
Center: Alec Lindstrom • Boston College
– – –
Honorable Mention: QB: D’Eriq King, Miami … DJ Uiagalelei, Clemson … RB: Zonovan Knight, NC State … Ricky Person Jr., NC State … Ty Chandler, North Carolina … WR: EJ Williams, Clemson … Zay Flowers, Boston College … Mike Harley, Miami … Jordan Addison, Pittsburgh … Emeka Emezie, NC State … TE: Will Mallory, Miami … Braden Galloway, Clemson … Trae Barry, Boston College … OL: Tyler Vrabel, Boston College … Zion Johnson, Boston College … Zion Nelson, Miami … Walker Parks, Clemson … Will Putnam, Clemson … Navaughn Donaldson, Miami

Edge (DE): Xavier Thomas • Clemson
Line (DT): Tyler Davis • Clemson
Line (DT): Bryan Bresee • Clemson
Edge (DE): Myles Murphy • Clemson
Linebacker: Payton Wilson • NC State
Linebacker: James Skalski • Clemson
Linebacker: Trenton Simpson • Clemson
Cornerback: Andrew Booth Jr. • Clemson
Cornerback: Tony Grimes • North Carolina
Safety/Nickel: Chamarri Conner • Virginia Tech
Safety: Nolan Turner • Clemson
Safety: Bubba Bolden • Miami
– – –
Honorable Mention: DL: K.J. Henry, Clemson … Nesta Jade Silvera, Miami … Calijah Kancey, Pittsburgh … Amaré Barno, Virginia Tech … Robert Cooper, Florida State … LB: Amari Gainer, Florida State … Isaiah Moore, NC State … CJ Avery, Louisville … Dax Hollifield, Virginia Tech … DB: Kei’Trel Clark, Louisville … Jermaine Waller, Virginia Tech … Jaiden Lars-Woodbey, Boston College … Juanyeh Thomas, Georgia Tech … Joey Blount, Virginia … Storm Duck, North Carolina

Kicker: Nick Sciba • Wake Forest
Punter: Lou Hedley • Miami
Returner/All-Purpose: Thayer Thomas • NC State
– – –
Honorable Mention: K: Andre Szmyt, Syracuse … BT Potter, Clemson … P: Kirk Christodoulou, Pittsburgh … Porter Wilson, Duke … KR/AP: Zonovan Knight, NC State … Hassan Hall, Louisville