As the dust settles from a very encouraging North Carolina Tar Heels football season, it seemed appropriate to take the pulse of the Heels’ immediate landscape: the conference in which they reside.
As the AP and the Coaches released their final polls on Tuesday, conspicuously absent were...any ACC teams, outside of the one that lost 42-25 to LSU in Monday night’s championship game. The Clemson Tigers finished #2 in both polls.
Without dropping links to every “way too early” 2020 ranking, the ACC is better represented there, with Virginia Tech, Louisville, and our Tar Heels meriting some top-25 consideration.
From a 10,000-foot view, where does each program stand as we look back on 2019 and ahead to 2020? These are my thoughts (aided by each team’s final FootballOutsiders F+ ranking, about as comprehensive an analysis I can find since ESPN buried Bill Connelly and has not posted final SP+ rankings):
North Carolina (final F+ ranking 32): in every “way too early” I’ve seen, the Heels are ranked somewhere between #18 and #23. High praise for a team that engineered a turnaround from two wins to seven in Mack Brown’s first year.
Carolina, of course, returns 10 starters from an offense that seemed to hit its stride late in the season, including QB Sam Howell, two thousand-yard receivers, and two awesome backs. More impressive was the work of defensive coordinator Jay Bateman, who reduced Carolina’s points allowed by more than 10 points in year one with questionable personnel.
A top-20 recruiting class, a bona fide shortlist Heisman contender, and some program stability make the Heels the most ascendant program in the conference.
Louisville (63): Honestly, the Cardinals’ turnaround was more unexpected than Carolina’s, though they had a lot more room for improvement. Everyone had them slated for the bottom of the ACC Atlantic, and our Slack channel marveled at how much more confident they looked after a quarter of their opener, an eventual loss to Notre Dame.
After Bobby Petrino basically stopped recruiting for the program, seeing the ‘Ville at 6th in the ACC for 2020 is a welcome change— and with 1,500-yard rusher Javian Hawkins and QB Micale Cunningham set to return, the run-heavy offense will be immensely frustrating for the next two years.
Georgia Tech (109): Two ACC wins in a complete schematic, philosophical, and personnel overhaul was better than expected. Geoff Collins is doing some nice things in Atlanta.
Embracing “Waffle House U”, Tech has six 4-star commits in 2020, which is about as many as Paul Johnson signed in a decade. The Yellow Jackets won’t compete with regional rivals Georgia, Auburn, Alabama, Clemson, et al for the top recruits...but Atlanta seems preferable to Knoxville or Columbia for a college experience.
Pittsburgh (54): Perhaps a surprising inclusion in this section, I thought 2019 was a great proof of concept year for Pat Narduzzi. They finally got the defense he advertised coming over from Michigan State, finishing 11th in SP+ without two defensive linemen (Rashad Weaver and Keyshon Camp) who were expected to play major roles.
They return, as does Kenny Pickett (for better or for worse.) Pitt will be a tricky out in 2020.
Florida State (52): I could’ve put them in neutral, but things can’t possibly be more of a s***show than they were under Willie Taggart. Mike Norvell built on Justin Fuente’s accomplishments at Memphis, showed an ability to creatively feed his playmakers the rock, and...yeah, it can’t get much worse (despite, in the grand scheme, it not being that bad.)
Getting quarterback Chubba Purdy from Arizona should help stabilize a position that has been the biggest weakness on the Noles’ roster— and I expect him to start early next year.
They may still be in the 6-8 win range next year, but by definition they’re on the way back up. I think.
Clemson (4): I couldn’t put them in the ‘up’ category because they had an objectively worse season in 2019 than 2018.
But we’re splitting hairs here. They bring back Trevor Lawrence and Justyn Ross, most of a scary defense, and boast the nation’s #1 recruiting class. They’ve been to five straight CFPs with classes ranging in the 10-15 range. They’re going to be really good for a really long time.
Virginia (45): In the history of the ACC’s two division format, I think this is the first time the media correctly picked the Coastal champion. #ACCCoastal jokes aside, they capitalized on their opportunity— nothing more, nothing less.
The offense will have to rebuild without Bryce Perkins, Hasise Dubois, and Joe Reed, one of the most efficient passing games in the country. The defense returns plenty of talent, and the Cavaliers will join Pitt as a team capable of beating (or losing to) anyone next year. But Bronco Mendenhall has established a steady 7-8 win program in Charlottesville.
Boston College (79): They are the textbook definition of “holding steady,” having gone 44-44 in the Steve Addazio era. Ohio State DC Jeff Hafley is now the head coach, Anthony Brown and A.J. Dillon still have eligibility, and I expect Boston College to be a 6-6 team into perpetuity.
Wake Forest (53): Yes, the Deacs started out hot, then faltered down the stretch due to injuries (and not being able to build depth, because Wake Forest.) Yes, Jamie Newman leaving for Georgia reflects Wake’s place in the college football world.
That said, Newman vs. Sam Hartman and Michael Kern was a real quarterback competition as recently as 5 months ago. Explosive receivers Sage Surratt and Donavon Greene, among others, will return. The offense and defense were both average, despite the defensive line breaking in a host of new players.
They’re Boston College, but with more upside because of stability and scheme.
Duke (74): Anthony Harris was not Daniel Jones, and the offense never got out of its own way. Duke still didn’t beat itself in 2019, but it wasn’t good enough to beat anyone of note either. They usually bounce back strong after disappointing seasons, so if there are wins to be found in the Coastal, Duke is a bet to overachieve...but I initially had them on the trending down list because the four aforementioned Coastal programs are in better shape, trajectory and program viability-wise.
This was the inspiration for this article, as my three least-favorite programs in the conference headline this list.
Miami (41): Some would say they had bad luck in close games, losing winnable ones against UNC, Virginia Tech, and (lol) FIU.
Others would say Manny Diaz wasted a ton of defensive and skill position talent, his transfer acquisitions went belly-up, and Miami will continue to be mediocre.
I am in the second camp, because I watched every second of their 14-0 Independence Bowl loss to Louisiana Tech. Miami, going into the 2020s, is all flash and no substance...until they aren’t.
Syracuse (88): Can we posthumously reward Eric Dungey ACC Player of the Year for 2018? We thought Tommy DeVito would step in and keep the offense humming (like he did in engineering the comeback win over Carolina in 2018.) He didn’t.
Dino Babers parlayed the 10-win 2018 season into a great (by Cuse standards) recruiting class and a preseason top-25 ranking. They’re now back to afterthought. I’m back to a wait-and-see approach, but I’m cheering for them because Dino Babers is delightful.
Virginia Tech (42): Is it fair to put a team that inexplicably turned around a dreadful start, came within 10 points of a division championship, and is ranked in multiple early top-25’s in the “trending down” category?
Bud Foster is gone. Justin Fuente feels the noose tightening around him, and at the time of this writing is the lead candidate to bolt for the Baylor job. Their recruiting class is up to 63rd in the country, which is actually a 50-spot improvement from when last we checked (also still behind Rutgers, and ahead of only Arizona and Illinois, as far as P5 teams not undergoing a coaching change.)
Regardless of whether Fuente stays or goes, their best bet for a replacement might be the nepotism hire of Shane Beamer?
You hate to see it.
N.C. State (102): Speaking of things you hate to see, turns out Dave Doeren might’ve gotten lucky with Bradley Chubb, Nyheim Hines, Ryan Finley, Garrett Bradbury, B.J. Hill, et al.
Looking back, he never won more than 9 games with all of that NFL talent, and though prognosticators said the Wolfpack was on the cusp, they never broke through.
Off of a 4-8 season (with wins over 4-8 ECU, 3-9 Western Carolina, 5-7 Ball State, and 5-7 Syracuse), Doeren is doing the “shuffle the staff” desperation move a coach on his last legs tends to do. Meanwhile, he’s bleeding starters to the transfer portal, doesn’t have an answer at quarterback, and loses more good talent in James Smith-Williams, Jarius Morehead, and Larrell Murchison.
They had their chance to finally “run this state” and they blew it.