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Georgia Tech Football: 2021 ACC Atlantic Preview

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Another year, another Orange crush.

Georgia Tech v Boston College Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

There’s nothing more I can say about the state of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Atlantic division than I did two years ago:

Newton’s third law of motion describes the current dichotomy of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s divisions to a T. For every act of volatility, there must be equal stability. For every shimmering image of NFL-esque parity, there must be an equally earth-shattering show of dominance. Them’s the rules — I don’t make them up, I just follow them.

It’s not a bit, it’s not satire, it’s not existential defeatism — this is none of that. Auburn-without-a-lake has strengthened their stranglehold on this conference every year. That’s a fact, daunting and fatiguing as it may be.

But heavy is the head that wears the crown. The winds of change blow powerfully through the thoroughfares of small-town South Carolina. A new leader behind center, a roster in flux, a program reeling (well, if you can call it that) from two consecutive years of near-misses at the mountain-top — the storm clouds have begun to gather above the red-brick facades. Carolina blue lightning shocks the air. Will there be rain on Clemson’s parade?

No. Not a drop. The clouds will clear — now, whether that happens on Labor Day Weekend in Charlotte or on the first weekend of December also in Charlotte remains to be seen, but no one really poses a threat to storm the red-brick castle.

But this is the year, if there were one. Clemson’s gate isn’t down, per se — but it is cracked open. Will someone in their conference cohort take advantage?

Well...probably not.


Teams are listed in order of projected finish.

1. Clemson

SP+ Preseason Rank: #2

How they’ll win the Atlantic:

Uh, by existing. Seriously — they could play the second string for a good chunk of the conference slate and still skate into Charlotte.

How they won’t:

In 2019, I posited that the only way Clemson wouldn’t win a division title would be something like this:

The city of Clemson gets swallowed up by the earth’s crust in a cruel twist of entropy at work. The sports gods giveth, and the sports gods taketh away (and boy, have they given-th in Clemson).

But two years later, the door is a little more ajar than usual: Clemson is breaking in a new quarterback to replace the new golden boy of Jacksonville, and both the offensive and defensive lines are relatively young; overall, statistical-mentor-of-the-program Bill Connelly ranks Clemson 100th in the nation in terms of returning production. It’s possible that Clemson takes a step back in 2021 — possible, but not likely.

2. Florida State

SP+ Preseason Rank: #61

How they’ll win the Atlantic:

McKenzie Milton looks like his 2018 Central Florida self for the Noles and sets the world ablaze with his arm strength again, making 2020’s underachieving receiving corps look world-beating. He’s helped by Florida State finally having an offensive line that, you know, exists. The Noles are also able to use that offensive line to run the ball effectively in spurts to take the playmaking load off of Milton. The will and spirit of Bobby Bowden propels them to some truly impressive victories over top teams (Notre Dame and Clemson, specifically). RIP, Bobby.

How they won’t:

They continue to have serious problems in the trenches, and Milton isn’t fully match-fit for week 1, resulting in a continued quarterback carousel. Alternatively, Milton is healthy, but can’t find the same consistency on the field that he had at Central Florida while playing a completely-newly-reconstructed knee — he lacks mobility and the ability to ad-lib to extend plays, both of which could be especially critical behind an already-suspect FSU OL. Additionally, losses in the secondary to the NFL Draft and the transfer portal are too much to overcome, and they get dazzled over the top by opposing quarterbacks.

3. NC State

SP+ Preseason Rank: #45

How they’ll win the Atlantic:

Devin Leary is secretly Philip Rivers with a stronger WR room than Rivers ever had as a pro, and the defense lives up to its top-40 (per SP+) billing. Zonovan Knight comes out running over dudes left and right behind an offensive line that has successfully retooled in-between seasons.

The previews are getting repetitive already (and believe me, it doesn’t really get different from here), but most of the non-Clemson teams in this division are already quality half-teams — they just need to get better at the other half. NC State is pairing a (projected) middling offense with a top-40 defense, so significant offensive improvement is the name of the game for this season; if Leary and Doeren can work some magic here, the Wolfpack could have a really good year.

How they won’t:

Something will happen. Something always happens to NC State when they’re at the threshold between good and great. I’m not sure what it’ll be this time, but rest assured, if the Wolfpack is at nine wins heading into the final few weeks of the season, something will bring them down to earth.

NC State fans: I know you’re reading this, and I also know you are nodding along.

4. Boston College

SP+ Preseason Rank: #62

How they’ll win the Atlantic:

Phil Jurkovec becomes Matt Ryan 2: Electric Boogaloo with the help of a deep receiving corps, and underclassman replacements for NFL draftees help ensure the defense takes a step forward. An experienced offensive line takes the next step in adopting a more modern blocking scheme.

How they won’t:

Run defense suffers mightily due to holes in the middle of the defense, and Jurkovec struggles to take advantage of his new receiving threats due to poor protection.

I’m not sure there’s much nuance to Boston College this season: we know what the offense can do, — Jurkovec has put together some really nice performances as the starter, despite being a transfer in a COVID year. Success comes down to offensive line and any defensive improvement: if it’s there, BC could be anywhere from second in the Atlantic to this fourth spot. If not....well, it could be a long season.

5. Wake Forest

SP+ Preseason Rank: #64

How they’ll win the Atlantic:

Sam Hartman proves that he can power the Clawfense as efficiently as Jamie Newman did. An experienced offensive line holds up well to assault from imposing defensive lines for Clemson and Florida State. The Demon Deacon secondary bottles up opposing wide receivers, while someone in their own wide receiving corps becomes the new Greg Dortch.

How they won’t:

The defense is going to be the weak link here: can they be nationally average or better (per SP+, of course — and they’re projected to be #69)? Top 50 or 60 might be enough to have a good season, but there’s a bunch of question-marks at linebacker and safety. You can’t win every game in a shootout (as fun as that would be to watch), but they might have to and that’s just not sustainable.

6. Louisville

SP+ Preseason Rank: #47

How they’ll win the Atlantic:

A projected 16th-ranked offense (per SP+) lives up to that billing and then some, as Malik Cunningham finds his footing and becomes the second coming of Lamar Jackson and another player (or players!) steps up to fill the void of noted offensive Swiss Army knife Tutu Atwell. The defense takes a massive step forward from its previous iterations under Scott Satterfield and co.

How they won’t:

Satterfield gets the can for his flirtations with other programs in past offseasons. Heck, that might happen anyway — one could argue that he has to make a Tier 1 bowl or win the division to keep his job at this point, and that...is unlikely. Louisville also has to replace talent at a number of offensive skill positions, which may increase their reliance on Malik Cunningham’s mercurial ability to make plays. The Cardinal defense is also projected to be bottom-30 in the nation (per SP+), which is not good!

7. Syracuse

SP+ Preseason Rank: #95

How they’ll win the Atlantic:

They switch to running the triple option out of the flexbone. I’m almost not kidding — ‘Cuse would need to find some way to neutralize the existence of opposing offenses and grind away at opposing defenses while catching some very, very statistically unlikely and unsustainable breaks to win this division. But perchance to dream, I guess: the Orange have returning talent at quarterback in Tommy DeVito and Garrett Schrader and had extremely poor injury luck on the offensive line. Maybe DeVito starts stringing together consistently good starts and the defense is able to pressure opposing quarterbacks more effectively and cohesively? Maybe Babers adds a new wrinkle to what seems like a very basic spread attack? It’s really hard to imagine a universe where so many dominoes fall at just the right angle for Syracuse to come out on top of the rubble that would ostensibly be the Atlantic division (and maybe the American eastern seaboard at large).

How they won’t:

I mean...there’s a bunch of ways this could go, but all roads lead to ruin from where I’m seated. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


Poll

Who wins the ACC Atlantic in 2021?

This poll is closed

  • 5%
    Boston College
    (3 votes)
  • 77%
    Clemson
    (46 votes)
  • 3%
    Florida State
    (2 votes)
  • 0%
    Louisville
    (0 votes)
  • 13%
    NC State
    (8 votes)
  • 0%
    Syracuse
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    Wake Forest
    (0 votes)
59 votes total Vote Now