Power 5 preview: Each ACC team's biggest question this season

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The 2021 season was one of change in the ACC, with Pittsburgh winning its first-ever conference championship game and Clemson finally relinquishing its stranglehold on the Atlantic.

Whether the Tigers can return to the top of the conference is certainly the most relevant national story, but the battle between Pitt and a resurgent Miami for the Coastal will also be must-see television.

Here's one question for each team in the ACC for 2022, with last year's overall record in parentheses.

Atlantic Division

Wake Forest (11-3): Can the "Clawfense" keep rolling without Hartman?

Only two Power 5 teams had more plays of over 30 yards than Wake Forest last year, with the offense ranking fourth in the nation in scoring at 41 points per game. Dave Clawson's Demon Deacons rode that high-powered attack to the ACC Atlantic title and a trip to the conference title game.

That offense looked set to dominate yet again until it was announced that quarterback Sam Hartman would be out indefinitely due to an undisclosed medical procedure. While it looks like he'll be back at some point during the season, Hartman was fifth nationally with 39 touchdown passes last year - something that'll be difficult to replace in short order.

It's up to Mitch Griffis to lead the offense with Hartman sidelined as Clawson named the third-year player as the starter. Griffis has thrown just 15 total passes in his Wake Forest career.

Clemson (10-3): How will Dabo Swinney do with new coordinators?

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One thing has been consistent throughout Clemson's rise to national prominence under Swinney: assistant coaches Brent Venables and Tony Elliott. With Venables leading the dominant defense and Elliott on the offensive side of the football, Swinney had the comfort of knowing he had two of the nation's best on his staff. That won't be the case in 2022, as Venables left for Oklahoma and Elliott stayed in-conference to take over Virginia.

Swinney stayed in-house to promote Wes Goodwin on defense and Brandon Streeter on offense. Goodwin will look to keep the nation's second-ranked defense rolling, but the task on offense is significantly harder. After some impressive action in his freshman season, quarterback DJ Uiagalelei struggled mightily in Year 2. As a result, the offense was 82nd in the country in scoring, something that has to change drastically if Clemson wants to return to the College Football Playoff.

NC State (9-3): Can the Wolfpack crack the 10-win mark?

NC State football has been around since 1902, but the program has hit the 10-win plateau just once in its history. Dave Doeren's outfit has its best chance in a long time to do just that this season.

There are 17 starters back from the team that went 9-3 last year, the most important being star quarterback Devin Leary. The junior standout threw 35 touchdowns against just five interceptions last season and has generated plenty of Heisman buzz entering this campaign. With plenty of options on the outside returning, Leary could easily top last season's impressive numbers.

If the Wolfpack can beat Texas Tech in Week 3, there's a strong chance they head to Clemson on Oct. 1 with a perfect 4-0 record. That should make double-digit wins a reality, with an ACC title game shot a real possibility.

Boston College (6-6): Is it time for Phil Jurkovec's star to shine?

With Jurkovec appearing in 12 games in 2020, Boston College had the third-best passing attack in the ACC. With the standout quarterback only playing six games last year, that rank dropped to 12th, and the Eagles finished with just two wins in conference play.

Jurkovec is back for a final collegiate season and must remain in the lineup for Boston College to have a chance at making noise in the Atlantic. He's joined by star wideout Zay Flowers, but all five starters from last year's offensive line are gone - not exactly an ideal situation for keeping your quarterback healthy.

Louisville (6-7): Is there enough help for Malik Cunningham?

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There are few players in college football more important to their team than Cunningham. Louisville's star quarterback accounted for more than 300 yards of total offense per game last season and might need to surpass that total to keep the Cardinals competitive in 2022.

While running back Jalen Mitchell returns, the receiver trio of Jordan Watkins, Tyler Harrell, and Justin Marshall is gone. Scott Satterfield dipped into the transfer portal to replace them, bringing in Dee Wiggins from Miami and Tyler Hudson from Central Arkansas. Both of those players will have to shine for Louisville to make noise in the Atlantic.

Florida State (5-7): Can Mike Norvell take the next step?

An 8-13 record through two seasons at Florida State certainly won't win Norvell many fans in Tallahassee. While the team looked to be gaining momentum throughout the season, an inexcusable loss to Florida to end the schedule and miss a bowl game couldn't have sat well.

However, there's still plenty of reason for optimism with the Seminoles, as seven starters return to a much-improved defense, and electric quarterback Jordan Travis is also back in the fold.

That veteran experience will be needed as the schedule isn't easy for Florida State. Non-conference games against LSU and Florida bookend a difficult conference slate featuring trips to Miami and NC State and a home date with Clemson.

Syracuse (5-7): Can Syracuse get something from the passing attack?

The 10-3 season of 2018 seems so long ago, with Syracuse posting a dismal 11-24 record over the three years since. It can't be a coincidence that over that period of time, the Orange passing attack has dropped from fourth to eighth to last in the ACC. While Syracuse led the conference in rushing, the offense ranked 10th in scoring. That's a sign that the running game simply can't carry the Orange the entire season, and something is needed from the passing game to save Dino Babers' job.

Quarterback Garrett Shrader is certainly known more for his running, but new coordinator Robert Anae and quarterbacks coach Jason Beck were brought in to help foster a more balanced offensive approach. Whether it works will likely be the deciding factor in Babers' job security.

Coastal Division

Pitt (11-3): What will life after Pickett, Addison look like?

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Things couldn't have gone much better for Pitt in 2021. The Panthers won their first ACC title, quarterback Kenny Pickett was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, and Jordan Addison won the Biletnikoff as the nation's top receiver. However, Pat Narduzzi faces a tough task in keeping the train rolling with that dynamic duo now gone from the ACC program.

Pickett moved down the hall to join the Pittsburgh Steelers as a first-round pick, while Addison shocked a number of people with his decision to transfer. That makes USC transfer Kedon Slovis' job as the new quarterback significantly more difficult. Look for the Panthers to focus more on the rushing attack this season, with Israel Abanikanda, Rodney Hammond Jr., and Vincent Davis forming a solid trio.

Miami (7-5): Will Mario Cristobal make immediate on-field impact?

With the hire of Cristobal, a very solid recruiting haul, and endless NIL chatter, Miami has thrust itself back to the forefront of college football. For the first time in recent memory, the question of "is The U back?" doesn't seem so ridiculous.

The key for the Hurricanes is to bring that offseason buzz onto the field under Cristobal. The former Oregon coach came home to his alma mater in the offseason and, perhaps most importantly, brought two high-profile coordinators with him. Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis arrives from Michigan after winning the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant, while Kevin Steele is set to take over the defense. Those hires should ensure that Cristobal immediately experiences some success on the field in South Florida.

Virginia (6-6): Can Armstrong thrive without Bronco Mendenhall?

Mendenhall's sudden resignation was a shocker at Virginia, but the program was able to rebound with a solid hire in the form of Clemson's Tony Elliott. His top priority will be to continue the upward trajectory of Brennan Armstrong after the standout quarterback emerged as one of the nation's best in 2021.

Armstrong led Power 5 quarterbacks in yardage per game last year and returns virtually all of his top receiving options this season. The issue for the Cavaliers rests on the offensive line, with all five starters gone from 2021. If Elliott can cobble together the offensive line and give Armstrong the protection he needs, expect a Heisman run from the 22-year-old in his final collegiate season.

Virginia Tech (6-7): Can Brent Pry bring the energy back to Blacksburg?

There are few things more electric in college football than Virginia Tech's night entrance to Lane Stadium while Metallica blares. Unfortunately for the Hokies, there hasn't been much else to be excited about, with an 11-13 record over the past two seasons. It's on new coach Pry to return the energy to Blacksburg and get Virginia Tech back among the ACC's best.

Pry's defense at Penn State was consistently among the best in the Big Ten, and that should carry over to a Virginia Tech outfit that was fifth in the conference in points allowed last season. It's the offensive side of the football where the questions exist, with an uncertain quarterback situation and a lack of depth at receiver among the chief concerns.

North Carolina (6-7): How will the offense work without Sam Howell?

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Life without Howell begins for North Carolina in 2022, with the school's all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns now in the NFL. That leaves a battle between Drake Maye and Jacolby Criswell to see who takes the reins of the Tar Heels' offense. While both lack experience, they were highly-touted four-star prospects upon their arrival at North Carolina.

Whoever wins the job will be greatly assisted by the services of star receiver Josh Downs. The junior standout returns after snagging 101 catches and landing on the All-ACC team last season. Great depth at the running back spot should also help the offense see success after Howell, even with British Brooks' season-ending injury.

Georgia Tech (3-9): Can Geoff Collins avoid the axe?

Collins brought a lot of excitement to Georgia Tech when hired, but that hasn't resulted in many wins for the Yellow Jackets. With a 9-25 overall record at the program, Collins needs to make some solid progress in 2022 to keep his job.

That won't be easy, especially with star running back Jahmyr Gibbs' transfer to Alabama among 18 departures by 2021 starters. While the offense has struggled in Atlanta the past few seasons, it's the challenges on defense that have been the most alarming under Collins. The veteran coach made his name as a star defensive coordinator but has failed to produce on that side of the ball in the ACC. Georgia Tech has ranked second-to-last in the conference in scoring defense in each of Collins' three seasons at the helm.

Duke (3-9): It can't get worse, right?

It's tough to imagine a worse season for Duke than the one we saw last year. The Blue Devils puttered to just three wins and the last-place ranking in the ACC in both scoring offense and scoring defense. The need for change was evident, and David Cutcliffe stepped aside after 14 seasons to be replaced by Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

Elko's task is large, but the defense should immediately improve thanks to his proven pedigree on that side of the football. It's the offensive end of things that will prove the most challenging in Durham, as the team's leading rusher, starting quarterback, and leading receiver all departed following the season. The good news is an experienced offensive line should provide solid protection for either of the prospective quarterbacks: Jordan Moore or Riley Leonard.

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Power 5 preview: Each ACC team's biggest question this season
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