ACC preview, predictions: Can Notre Dame realistically challenge Clemson?

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It will be a unique year in the ACC. The conference is moving forward with an 11-game football schedule that begins this week where teams play 10 league opponents and one non-conference opponent. As part of that updated schedule, Notre Dame has been added in as a temporary member that is eligible for the ACC title.

With the Irish added as the 15th team, the two divisions have been scrapped and the two teams with the best winning percentage at the end of the regular season will meet in the conference championship game.

It’s a safe bet to say Clemson will be one of those teams. The Tigers have won five straight ACC titles with two national championships along the way. And while Clemson has dominated the Atlantic Division, a different team has represented the Coastal in the title game in seven consecutive seasons. Who will make it to Charlotte this year?

1. Clemson (-500)

2. Notre Dame 

Notre Dame in a conference? Strange times, indeed. With so much uncertainty about the season, Notre Dame will play a full ACC schedule and is eligible for the league championship in 2020. The Irish should present a legitimate challenge to Clemson unlike the Tigers have seen in the conference in recent years. Notre Dame returns Ian Book for his third year as starting quarterback. Book will benefit from one of the nation’s top offensive lines, but the skill talent around him is mostly unproven — as is new coordinator Tommy Rees. The defense should be one of the ACC’s best with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah emerging as a potential star nationally. 

3. North Carolina (+800)

Just how good can the UNC offense be in 2020? Sam Howell, Mack Brown’s first prized recruit for his second stint in Chapel Hill, threw for over 3,600 yards and 38 TDs as a freshman in 2019 and the offense returns nine other starters in 2020. That includes the entire receiving corps and RBs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams. Those two combined for over 1,900 rushing yards in 2019. And while the offense was really good a year ago, the biggest key to the Tar Heels’ five-game improvement was the defense. It allowed fewer than 24 points per game after two-straight seasons of giving up over 30 points per game. The opt out of defensive back Bryce Watts and two other members of the secondary will have an impact, but UNC shouldn’t regress defensively.

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North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell looks to pass against Temple during the first half of the Military Bowl NCAA college football game, Friday, Dec. 27, 2019, in Annapolis, Md. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

4. Miami (+900)

5. Virginia Tech (+1600)

Is this a prove it season of sorts for Justin Fuente? Fuente enters his fifth season at VT and his last three teams haven’t matched the 10 wins his debut 2016 team recorded. The 2018 season was the first with a losing record for the Hokies since 1992 and 2019 got off to a really rough start. Entering 2020, the Hokies return 17 starters and add a few noteworthy transfers. Despite the opt out of CB Caleb Farley, nine starters are back on defense, including four of the five top tacklers. Hendon Hooker returns as the top QB after he emerged as the team’s starter midway through 2019 and helped turn the season around. He’ll play behind a strong line with two running back transfers, Khalil Herbert and Raheem Blackshear, eligible to play. 

6. Louisville (+4000)

Scott Satterfield inherited Bobby Petrino’s mess and somehow led Louisville to eight wins in 2019. The UL offense is stacked with young talent, highlighted by QB Micale Cunningham (2,065 passing yards, 482 rushing yards), RB Javian Hawkins (1,525 yards, 9 TDs) and speedy wideout Tutu Atwell (70 catches, 1,276 yards, 12 TDs). The line, though, could be in for some struggles with Mekhi Becton now in the NFL. The defense also has some question marks, but Satterfield has a track record of development that will put UL in the top half of the ACC in 2020. 

7. Pittsburgh (+3500)

Pitt finished 8-5 in 2019 despite giving up more points per game (22.5) than it scored (21.2). That’s attributable to an offense that was shut out in a 28-0 November loss to Virginia Tech and to six of the Panthers’ eight wins coming by one score. The defense will be without star DT Jalen Twyman after he opted out of the 2020 season in August. Twyman had 10.5 sacks in 2019. While losing Twyman is significant, there’s still a lot of pass rush talent returning on a defense that recorded 51 sacks last season. The offense, though, will need some of its young skill players to emerge to help senior QB Kenny Pickett. 

8. Florida State (+3000)

This is a team with a lot of individual talent, but the last three seasons have been messy from the end of the Jimbo Fisher era through Willie Taggart’s short-lived tenure. Now it’s Mike Norvell’s turn to take over a program on the heels of two losing seasons. He has plenty to work with. The defense returns 10 starters, led by massive defensive tackle Marvin Wilson and Asante Samuel Jr. and Hamsah Nasirildeen in the secondary. The offense, though, will be Norvell’s challenge to revitalize. Norvell’s Memphis teams were high-scoring units. The Seminoles, though, have been inconsistent. The line has especially been an issue at FSU, but Norvell has the benefit of inheriting experienced players like QB James Blackman and WR Tamorrion Terry. 

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Mike Norvell is entering his first season as Florida State’s head coach. (AP Photo/Phil Sears, File)

9. Virginia (+5000)

Asking Brennan Armstrong to do what Bryce Perkins did for Virginia, the 2019 ACC Coastal champions, is a big request. Armstrong was named the team’s starting QB a week ago and is now tasked with replacing a guy who rushed for 769 yards, threw for over 3,500 yards and accounted for 33 TDs in 2019. He’ll have to do it without Perkins’ top two receivers in 2019 too; both Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed are gone. Defensively, Virginia returns its top three tacklers. The defense wasn’t as good in 2019 as it was in 2018 but in 2020 the Cavaliers will have one of the ACC’s top linebacker groups.

10. Wake Forest (+6500)

Wake Forest enters 2020 without its top two offensive players from 2019: QB Jamie Newman and WR Sage Surratt. Newman transferred to Georgia, but he — like Surratt — ended up opting out of the season. Luckily for Dave Clawson, he has Sam Hartman, who started in 2018 ahead of Newman, back in the fold to take the reins at QB. Aside from Hartman there aren’t many proven options, though RB Kenneth Walker averaged nearly six yards per carry last year. On defense, there are eight starters returning, including Carlos Basham. Basham, who had 11 sacks in 2019, is one of the best players in the country you may not have heard of. 

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Wake Forest defensive lineman Carlos Basham Jr. had 11 sacks in 2019. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

11. NC State (+8000)

After five consecutive winning seasons under Dave Doeren, NC State endured a miserable 4-8 season in 2019 with just a 1-7 mark in ACC play. The Wolfpack had the conference’s worst offense, averaging just 22.1 points per game. Virtually that entire unit is back in 2020 with redshirt sophomore Devin Leary locked in as the starting quarterback. Leary’s improvement — he completed only 48.1 percent of his throws in 2019 — will be paramount because the skill position depth around him is pretty solid. The offensive line will also need to improve if the Wolfpack wants to have a winning season. Defensively, the top four tacklers from 2019 return with the linebackers looking like the strongest group on that side of the ball. 

12. Boston College (+10000)

Boston College managed to make it to a bowl game despite losing its QB to a knee injury and having one of the worst defenses in the country. It was BC’s fourth straight bowl berth, but the lack of an upward trajectory for the program cost Steve Addazio his job. Now it’s former Ohio State defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley leading BC. Hafley brought in Notre Dame transfer Phil Jurkovec, a former top 100 recruit, to lead the Eagles on offense, and Jurkovec will get to do so in 2020 after receiving an immediate eligibility waiver from the NCAA. Jurkovec will not have the security blanket of AJ Dillon (4,382 rushing yards in three years) lining up behind him, but David Bailey (857 yards in 2019) should fill the void nicely running behind one of the ACC’s better offensive lines. Provided the defense takes some sort of step forward, Boston College could be a team that is better than most expect. 

13. Duke (+10000)

Clemson transfer Chase Brice was named Duke’s starting quarterback by coach David Cutcliffe on Sunday. Brice left the Tigers at the end of the 2019 season and is immediately eligible at Duke after backing up Trevor Lawrence for two seasons. The offense, with Cutcliffe returning to play-calling duties, returns RB Deon Jackson and its top two wide receivers, though neither Jalon Calhoun or Noah Gray averaged over 10 yards a catch in 2019. The loss of standout center Jack Wohlabaugh to a torn ACL hurts the offensive line. The defense brings back seven starters and should be strong in the secondary.

14. Syracuse (+10000)

Syracuse might be at an

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