Power 5 preview: 7 questions for the ACC
The ACC returns to its regularly scheduled programming in 2021 after the Coastal and Atlantic divisions were scrapped due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Clemson remains the favorite to recapture the conference crown but should face a formidable challenge from the likes of North Carolina, Miami, and NC State.
In the latest installment of the Power 5 preview series, theScore examines seven questions ahead of ACC play.
Can new faces play up to Clemson's championship standard?
Clemson fields a reloaded roster as it seeks its seventh consecutive conference title.
The Tigers lost star quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne to the NFL. D.J. Uiagalelei steps in under center after throwing for 914 yards and five scores in two starts as a freshman, and Dabo Swinney will try to replace Etienne, the ACC's all-time leading rusher (4,952 yards), with a platoon of tailbacks led by freshman Will Shipley.
Preseason All-American receiver Justyn Ross returns after missing all of last year due to a congenital fusion condition found in his neck and spine.
The Tigers' front-seven might be as good as the group that won the 2018 national title. Clemson led the nation last year with 46 sacks behind a ferocious pass-rushing group led by Xavier Thomas, Bryan Bresee, and Myles Murphy.
The reigning champions will be favored in every game this season aside from their season opener against Georgia.
Is North Carolina a legitimate ACC title contender?
North Carolina's offense has been prolific since Sam Howell's arrival to Chapel Hill. His 68 passing touchdowns through his first two seasons are the most by a quarterback in ACC history. But the Tar Heels signal-caller now has to rely on a new supporting cast.
North Carolina will turn to Khafre Brown, Beau Corrales, and Josh Downs to replace top receiving options Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome. It also lost running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, who combined for 2,385 yards and 28 touchdowns. Transfer tailback Ty Chandler is expected to get the lead role after rushing for 2,046 yards at Tennessee.
A win on Oct. 16 against Miami could go a long way in determining who represents the Coastal division in the ACC championship.
Is Jack Coan the man for Notre Dame?
Notre Dame is no longer a full-time member of the ACC following its brief stint last season. But the Fighting Irish's championship aspirations haven't dwindled following an undefeated 2020 regular season.
Former Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan takes over for Ian Book, the school's all-time winningest passer. Coan threw for 3,278 yards and 23 scores with the Badgers. The graduate transfer is surrounded by some big offensive weapons, including 1,000-yard rusher Kyren Williams and outstanding tight end Michael Mayer.
The team returns just three starters on offense from a year ago, though, leaving Coan behind an unproven offensive line. Notre Dame needs its graduate transfer quarterback to take pressure off a running game that will be expected to carry much of the load.
Will Miami's defense perform up to expectations?
Based on its final two games of the 2020 season, the answer is no. North Carolina pummelled Miami to the tune of a record-setting 554 rushing yards. Miami followed that up by allowing 305 yards in the air to Oklahoma State in the Cheez-it Bowl.
Coach Manny Diaz has taken over the play-calling duties on defense, and Miami must find a replacement for Jaelen Phillips and needs better play from its linebacking corps. Safeties Bubba Bolden and Gurvan Hall should be the strength on defense.
Can Mike Norvell reverse Florida State's misfortunes?
Norvell's first season in Tallahassee was one to forget. Florida State finished 3-6, dealt with COVID-19 issues, and suffered significant attrition due to opt-outs.
Entering Year 2, there's optimism that transfer McKenzie Milton can provide some sort of stability on offense for the Seminoles. A two-time AAC Offensive Player of the Year, Milton makes his return to college football after suffering a significant knee injury in 2018.
Milton will likely split snaps with Jordan Travis (559 rushing yards, eight rushing scores) for a Seminoles team that averaged slightly under 200 rushing yards per game last season.
Can Devin Leary lead NC State to 2nd in Atlantic?
Leary returns after tallying 890 yards and eight touchdowns while completing 60% of his pass attempts. He dealt with COVID-19 issues and then suffered a broken leg last season. Bailey Hockman filled in but transferred out of the program in January.
Will Justin Fuente get the Hokies rolling again?
Virginia Tech could be in store for a bounce-back year. Fuente is entering his sixth season following a 2020 campaign in which the Hokies turned in a 5-6 record. The 45-year-old coach finds himself on the hot seat after beginning his tenure in Blacksburg with a 10-4 record.
Perhaps no team in the ACC got hit harder by the pandemic than the Hokies, who often had 20-plus players ruled ineligible due to COVID-19 protocols. Once again healthy with plenty of experience, Virginia Tech can prove that last season was an aberration. Expect defensive end Amare Barno to lead a reenergized unit for the Hokies in 2021 after 16 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks last year.