Atlantic Coast Conference 2023 college football preview

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Atlantic Coast Conference 2023 preview

Even in what was a “down year” for the Clemson Tigers, Dabo Swinney’s team still won the ACC Championship. The Tigers absolutely blew out the North Carolina Tar Heels in the ACC Championship Game, earning a 39-10 victory at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. Quarterback Cade Klubnik was the MVP for Clemson, as he threw for 279 yards with a touchdown and added 30 yards and a score on the ground. 

 

Klubnik is once again set to be under center for the Tigers, who are the betting favorites to repeat as conference champions. Not only does Swinney’s team return some of its most talented players, but the program also brings back 15 starters. That’s a lot of production that will be back on the field for Clemson. However, Florida State is knocking on the door as a contender in this conference. Mike Norvell’s group has a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender in quarterback Jordan Travis, and he’s surrounded by elite talent all over the field. 

North Carolina isn’t a team that can be ignored in this conference either. The Tar Heels bring back quarterback Drake Maye, who is considered a real threat to be the first overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. The Louisville Cardinals are another team that will be hoping to make a splash this year. The Cardinals have the fourth-best odds to win the ACC this season, which says a lot about how much respect head coach Jeff Brohm has in the college football world. Brohm did a great job during his time with the Purdue Boilermakers, and he is hoping to bring even more success to Louisville, his alma mater. 

Of course, if you’re talking about the ACC, you are almost contractually obligated to mention the Miami Hurricanes. Many people pegged the Hurricanes as a sleeper pick to do some damage last year, but head coach Mario Cristobal’s first year in Coral Gables didn’t quite live up to the hype. Miami now has the sixth-best odds of winning the conference, and 2023 will be a prove-it year for the Hurricanes. 

Boston College Eagles 

The Boston College Eagles were a miserable 3-9 in 2022, and that puts them at 15-20 since Jeff Hafley became the head coach of the program. People were excited about the hiring when the former Ohio State Buckeyes defensive coordinator arrived in Chestnut Hill, but Hafley is likely entering a make-or-break year. Boston College will be without quarterback Phil Jurkovec, who transferred to play for Pittsburgh, and wide receiver Zay Flowers, who the Baltimore Ravens drafted with the 22nd pick in the NFL Draft. Despite that, there is some returning talent in place, so Hafley’s overhauled coaching staff at least has something to work with. But it’s hard to find any reasons to believe that this will be anything but a bottom dweller in the ACC this season. 

Offense 

It’ll be interesting to see how the Eagles do without two key members of last year’s offense, but the team does return nine offensive starters. One of them is running back Pat Garwo III, who rushed for 1,045 yards with seven touchdowns two years ago. Garwo couldn’t replicate those numbers in 2022, but a lot of that had to do with him splitting touches with other capable backs. However, it’s still pretty hard to get excited about this offense. 

Quarterback Emmett Morehead did show some flashes in the snaps he got in 2022, but this team is really going to miss Flowers’ game-breaking ability at the receiver position. And this was already an offense that averaged the fewest yards per game of any team in the ACC last season. It’s hard to imagine things getting prettier with a first-round NFL talent now out the door. The best-case scenario for Boston College is that Morehead continues to show promise as a passer. He has a lot of potential. 

Defense

Considering Hafley has a defensive background, it’s unacceptable that his Eagles gave up 30.3 points per game last season. The good news is that Boston College’s defensive front is expected to be a lot better this season. That would be a great start for the Eagles, as they couldn’t stop the run in 2022. 

Boston College also has a nice collection of talent in the secondary, as well as the linebacking corps. That said, it wouldn’t be surprising if this were more of a middle-of-the-pack unit in 2023. The presence of Donovan Ezeiruaku is big for this group. Last season, Ezeiruaku had 8.5 sacks for this defense. If the Eagles improve on this side of the ball, he’ll have a lot to do with it. 

Outlook

When looking at the schedule, it’s hard to pinpoint five games the Eagles should win. With that said, the Under 5.5 is likely the best way to go when betting on Boston College before the season. However, it wouldn’t be too surprising if the Eagles had a winning against-the-spread record this year. This group should be more competitive than it was in 2022, and it wouldn’t be shocking if the team returns to bowl eligibility in 2024. 

Pick: Under 5.5 

Clemson Tigers

It says a lot about what Dabo Swinney has built that people view the last two seasons as failures. This team went 10-3 in 2021 and followed it up by going 11-3 last season. But this Clemson Tigers program now plays for nothing but national championships, so that is the measuring stick. And this team made it to six straight College Football Playoffs before missing out the last two years. 

This season, the Tigers are listed at +1800 to win a national title. Only six teams have better odds than that, so it’s not outrageous to think that quarterback Cade Klubnik will have this team competing for the sport’s ultimate prize. But Clemson has a very tough regular season schedule this year, so that will really complicate things. It also doesn’t help that Florida State looks ready to start crashing the party in the conference. 

Offense

Klubnik is viewed as a future Heisman Trophy winner, as he’s a former top recruit that can dazzle with both his arm and his legs. Klubnik has already had some chances to show the world what he can do, and his performance against North Carolina in last year’s ACC Championship Game said a lot about his ability. Klubnik was the MVP of that game and will be expected to turn in an entire season’s worth of that type of production in 2023. 

One thing working in his favor is that Clemson brought in former TCU offensive coordinator Garrett Riley to change up this offense. Things have been stale with the Tigers on this side of the ball, but Riley should get the best out of everybody. Look for Will Shipley to do his part in helping Klubnik move the ball down the field this year. Shipley rushed for 1,182 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, and he should do more damage in a more creative offense. Overall, this should be a very explosive group this season, assuming the offensive line holds up its end of the bargain. 

Defense

Clemson had the third-best scoring defense in the conference last year, and eight starters return on that side of the ball. Of course, a program like this one always loses talent to the NFL, and it’s no different heading into this year. But the Tigers return a tremendous linebacking duo in Jeremiah Trotter Jr.. and Barrett Carter, and the team has talent along the defensive line. Clemson is also expecting a big season out of cornerback Nate Wiggins, which should help the team improve on last year’s mediocre passing defense. If Wiggins helps stabilize that part of the defense, the Tigers will be tough to score on. 

Outlook

There’s really no denying that this Clemson team is crazy talented, but the Tigers have some tough games on the schedule. This team can easily get tripped up in any of its road games against conference opponents, and home games against Florida State and Notre Dame are also very challenging. Clemson also happens to end the regular season with a road game against South Carolina. With so many games that can feasibly go either way, it’s hard not to love the Under on the Tigers’ win total.

Pick: Under 10 

Duke Blue Devils

It’s hard to do much better than head coach Mike Elko did in his first year with the Duke Blue Devils. The former Texas A&M defensive coordinator inherited a Duke team that went 3-9 in 2021, but the Blue Devils went 9-4 last season. They also won their Military Bowl matchup with the UCF Knights, earning a 30-13 victory. 

Now, Duke enters this season in the unfamiliar position of having legitimate expectations. People are excited to see where Elko and quarterback Riley Leonard can take this program, but the team’s win total is only 6.5, and you can get plus-money odds if you want to take the Over. So, if the Blue Devils are going to find a way to match last year’s nine-win season, the oddsmakers clearly believe that they’ll have their work cut out for them. 

Offense

Duke went from averaging 22.8 points per game in 2021 to 32.8 points per game in 2022. For the Blue Devils to have another winning season, this unit will need to be efficient in 2023. And with Leonard back under center, there’s no reason to believe Duke will slow down soon. Leonard was ridiculous in his first year as the Blue Devils starting quarterback, throwing for 2,967 yards with 20 touchdowns and only six picks while also adding 699 yards and 13 scores on the ground. He’s a star in the making and is part of a Duke offense that brings back a large majority of last year’s starters. This offense can be scary in 2023, even with teams having more film on the Blue Devils. 

Defense

Duke’s defense gave up only 22.8 points per game last season, going from miserable in 2021 to rock-solid in 2022. However, things weren’t perfect on that side of the ball. The Blue Devils had trouble defending the pass against better aerial attacks, as they gave up 262.2 passing yards per game. That was the second-most in the ACC, and it’s a number that will need to improve in Elko’s second year at the helm. But Duke does bring back eight starters from last year’s unit, and more time in the system should yield better results at every level of the defense. Elko got this head coaching job because of his defensive chops, so I’d expect him to figure out how to address most issues. The Blue Devils have a lot of promising talent in the secondary, so it wouldn’t be surprising if things flipped in a big way in the back of the defense. 

Outlook

Duke plays a much tougher schedule in 2023 than in 2022, but the Blue Devils shouldn’t be sitting at plus-money odds to win seven games. This team has five or six surefire wins on the schedule, and Duke should find a way to come away with another couple of victories in some of the toss-ups. Look for the Blue Devils to build on last season’s success, and this is a program to look out for over the next couple of years. 

Pick: Over 6.5

Florida State Seminoles

Patience can be hard to have at a big program, but the Florida State Seminoles had it with Mike Norvell. People called for the former Memphis coach’s head after his Florida State career began with an 8-13 record over the first two seasons. But Florida State bounced back and went 10-3 last year, and the Seminoles earned a 35-32 win over Oklahoma in the Cheez-It Bowl. 

Norvell’s team now enters this season as one of the favorites to win the ACC, and only six teams have better odds than the Seminoles to win the College Football Playoff. With Heisman candidate Jordan Travis running the show for a team that brings back 17 players with starting experience, it truly feels like the sky’s the limit in Tallahassee. How will this group deal with expectations? 

Offense

Good luck slowing down this Florida State offense in 2023. Travis is arguably the most explosive quarterback in the country, as he is dynamic with his legs and now has the ability to carve defenses up with his arm. On top of that, running back Trey Benson looks like a guy that will be the highest-draft player at his position when he eventually heads to the NFL. Benson rushed for 990 yards with nine touchdowns last season, but he should easily eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in 2023. And this is supposed to be their best group up front in years. 

The Seminoles probably have a future NFL standout at wideout, too. Johnny Wilson stands at a ridiculous 6-7 and hauled in 43 passes for 897 yards and five scores last year. Wilson also had eight catches for 202 yards in the Cheez-It Bowl. He’ll likely be Travis’ favorite target in the passing game this year. Overall, if Florida State’s offensive line does its job, the Seminoles should have one of the nation’s top-scoring offenses.

Defense

Florida State had the second-best scoring defense in the conference last year, giving up 19.7 points per game. This unit should be great again in 2023. The Seminoles are absolutely loaded along the defensive line, and the secondary is expected to be a big strength this season. Fentrell Cypress II was a stud for the Virginia Cavaliers last year and was a big transfer market addition for Norvell’s defense. If there’s anywhere Florida State might be lacking, it’s in the middle of the defense. This group of linebackers could be better, but it should be good enough for them to accomplish their goals. 

Outlook

Florida State could very well win the ACC, and I actually like the Seminoles to do so at +160 odds. As far as the win total goes, meetings with LSU, Clemson and Florida are all capable of tripping Norvell’s group up, and there’s always a possibility that the Seminoles will lose a random game on the road in conference play. But I tend to think that 11 wins is a bit more likely than nine this year, and Florida State is one of my picks to make the College Football Playoff this season. 

Pick: Over 10 

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

The Yellow Jackets haven’t had any success since ditching Paul Johnson and the triple-option offense. The Yellow Jackets were miserable under Geoff Collins, going 10-28 in his three-and-a-half years with the program. Now, it’s Brent Key’s turn to lead this team. Key was the interim coach for Georgia Tech last season, and the Yellow Jackets actually went 4-4 under his watch. That was also a very young football team, so there is definitely some hope that real strides will be made in 2023. The question is whether the talent is there on either side of the ball. This should be a better team in 2023, but will that be reflected in the record? The ACC should be better than it was a year ago, and the Yellow Jackets have nonconference games against Ole Miss and Georgia. 

Offense

The loss of quarterback Jeff Sims might seem big, but the team should be in good hands with either Zach Pyron or Texas A&M transfer Haynes King taking over under center. Both players are very talented, and the winner of this battle should be just fine. The Yellow Jackets also added some real talent at wide receiver, with Dominick Blaylock coming from Georgia and Christian Leary transferring from Alabama. Both players were four-star recruits that landed in the SEC for a reason, so they should be able to stand out in the ACC. 

The only issue is that the Georgia Tech offensive line was something of a disaster last season. The team will need that to change if it wants to improve on last year’s embarrassing 17.2 points per game. Luckily for them, Key’s specialty is the offensive line. He’ll work to get that group in shape, and a year of experience might do that naturally. 

Defense

The Yellow Jackets gave up a miserable 189.2 rushing yards per game last season, which was the most in the ACC by far. In fact, only 21 teams in all of college football gave up more yards per game on the ground. Unless Georgia Tech finds a way to clean things up along the defensive line, this will be a miserable defensive unit. The Yellow Jackets actually do have some talent in the secondary, but that’s not going to matter much if nobody is getting in the backfield. Even the best corners in the country can’t stick with wideouts forever. 

Outlook

When you look at Georgia Tech’s schedule, only two games stand out as ones the team should absolutely win. Outside of meetings with South Carolina State and Bowling Green, are you confident in saying the Yellow Jackets should be favored in any of them? This looks like a football team destined to win three games, and four seems like an outside possibility. But winning five really seems out of the question, which is why you have to lay some juice to take the Under. 

Under 4.5 

Louisville Cardinals

Jeff Brohm has been linked to the Louisville Cardinals head coaching job for years, but he finally took the plunge in the offseason. Brohm turned in back-to-back winning seasons on his way out with Purdue, which is impressive considering it’s a hard program to win with. Brohm brings an offensive pedigree, but he’s also a culture setter and should be able to do good work with the resources he’ll have at his disposal. 

Given he played for the program and held numerous assistant coaching jobs with the Cardinals from 2003 to 2008, Brohm knows exactly what it takes to get the job done in the area. He was a successful quarterback himself, so players will likely want to learn from him. This hire should pay big dividends in the future but don’t sleep on Louisville right now. The Cardinals have a good number of returning starters, and Brohm brought in Jack Plummer at quarterback. He spent some time at Purdue before transferring to start for Cal.

Offense

Plummer isn’t the most talented quarterback in the world, but he knows Brohm’s system inside and out. Plummer likely won’t have many games in which he racks up numbers, but he can be trusted to take care of the football and get the ball in the hands of Louisville’s playmakers. There should be quite a few of those for the Cardinals, as Brohm completely overhauled the wide receiver room. 

Louisville also has some real talent in the backfield, as Jawhar Jordan returns after rushing for 815 yards and four scores last year — along with Maurice Turner, who was also impressive last season. The Cardinals also brought Isaac Guerendo over from Wisconsin. Guerendo had difficulty carving out a consistent role with the Badgers, but he was effective when he got touches. If this offensive line is even average, Louisville’s offense should look much better in 2023. 

Defense

There’s quite a bit to like about Louisville’s defense heading into this season. The Cardinals only gave up 20.2 points per game last year, and there’s a good amount of talent returning from that unit. Louisville figures to be very good in the secondary this year, as cornerback Jarvis Brownlee is back after a big 2022 season. The Cardinals also brought in some noteworthy Power Five transfers to help him. If Louisville gets more than expected out of the pass rush, this Cardinals defense could be one of the best groups in the ACC. 

Outlook

This is a play that is very likely going to push, as the number seems pretty spot on when you look at the schedule. But Louisville is a lot more likely to win seven games than nine this year, which is why the Under is the right call. For what it’s worth, Cardinals fans would very likely sign up for eight wins in Year 1 of Brohm. Scott Satterfield won eight games in his first year with Louisville, but he didn’t reach that mark again after that. 

Pick: Under 8 

Miami Hurricanes

After four years in which Mario Cristobal guided Oregon to winning records, the Miami Hurricanes went 5-7 in his first year in Coral Gables. Expectations were rather high heading into the season, but Miami never quite looked like a good football team. Cristobal does, however, return a lot of talent, and he has done a very good job of recruiting elite players to the program. 

On top of that, Cristobal brought in Shannon Dawson as the team’s offensive coordinator. Dawson was the mind behind an unstoppable Houston Air Raid attack, so there is hope he can get Tyler Van Dyke back on track. If he does that, there isn’t much preventing Miami from having a winning record and playing in a solid bowl game. 

Offense

Miami hopes that Dawson can work some of his magic on Van Dyke. Dawson helped Clayton Tune get drafted in the fifth round of the 2023 NFL Draft, and Van Dyke is a more talented player than the former Houston quarterback. Perhaps Van Dyke will finally live up to his potential in what should be a much better passing attack in 2023. 

It should be a big help that the Hurricanes really beefed up the offensive line in the offseason, bringing in two high-level starters to make the group up front better. Van Dyke should have plenty of time to throw this year, and the running game will be able to take a lot of pressure off him. Somebody will just need to emerge as a consistent receiving option. 

Defense

The Hurricanes weren’t a great defensive team last year, but the talent is in place for that to change in a hurry. There are legitimate five-star players scattered throughout this defense, and it’ll just be up to Lance Guidry to figure it all out. Guidry was with Marshall last season, and he put together the nation’s seventh-ranked scoring defense in 2022. With that in mind, you would think he could do a lot of damage with all the athletes he’ll have at his disposal in Florida. It also doesn’t hurt that All-American Kamren Kinchens is back. The Hurricanes have some question marks in the secondary, but having a guy like Kinchens in the back of the defense definitely helps. 

Outlook

One can argue that it’s not a great thing Miami returns most of its starters after a 5-7 year, but experience goes a long way in college football. And that’s especially true when it’s a team full of players that were highly regarded as recruits. The Hurricanes should be better on both sides of the ball, and nothing about this schedule looks daunting. Miami even gets Clemson at home, which gives the Hurricanes an outside shot at pulling an upset. But even if that game goes as expected, there should be eight wins out there for Cristobal and Co. This Over looks like one of the better bets in the conference, and you can get it at plus-money odds.

Pick: Over 7.5

North Carolina Tar Heels

Mack Brown’s return to the North Carolina Tar Heels has felt like a failure at times, but he did win nine games in 2022. That was the most the Tar Heels have won since Brown came back, and they’ll now look to improve upon that in 2023. Fortunately for North Carolina, Drake Maye is back and hoping to show NFL scouts that he’s a better player than USC quarterback Caleb Williams. 

Maye might miss Phil Longo this season, as the offensive coordinator left to take a job with Wisconsin. But Maye is a good fit in any offense, and he happens to have a good group of pass catchers to throw to. This season will just come down to how the Tar Heels’ defense plays. North Carolina was atrocious on that side of the ball last year, and it’s hard to win games when you can’t get stops. 

Offense

Not only is Maye back after throwing for 4,321 yards with 38 touchdowns and only seven picks last year, but the Tar Heels were able to add transfer Devontez Walker from Kent State. Walker caught 58 passes for 921 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, so he should be a huge asset for North Carolina. 

The question is whether the offensive line will give Maye the time to work his magic. Maye is a legitimate candidate to be the top pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, but that’ll mean nothing if he isn’t kept upright. The Tar Heels will also need a little more out of their running game, which hasn’t been the same since Michael Carter and Javonte Williams went to the NFL. 

Defense

For as good as North Carolina’s offense has looked in recent years, the defense has been equally as horrible. Last year, the Tar Heels gave up a miserable 31.0 points per game, giving them the worst scoring defense in the ACC. This group simply has to be better in 2023, as it puts far too much pressure on Maye and the offense to score whenever they’re on the field. 

The Tar Heels did add some reinforcements in the secondary, as Brown was able to land some key transfer portal additions. If those moves work out for North Carolina, this team will have a chance of achieving its goals next season. The Tar Heels can also use more consistency up front. 

Outlook 

It wouldn’t be all that surprising if the Tar Heels’ defense doesn’t come around. And if that’s the case, North Carolina will have a very hard time reaching nine wins in 2023. Something else to consider is that a slow start for the Tar Heels could lead to Maye sitting some games at the end of the season. He needs to protect his body for the NFL Draft, much like former North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell had to do a few years ago.

Pick: Under 8.5 

North Carolina State Wolfpack

The North Carolina State Wolfpack had crazy hype heading into the 2022 season. NC State had quarterback Devin Leary coming back after having thrown for 3,433 yards with 35 touchdowns and only five picks in 2021. And the Wolfpack had plenty of returning starters elsewhere, and the team’s defense was a force to be reckoned with. 

The problem is that none of that really amounted to anything. NC State went just 8-5 on the season, finishing the year with a loss to Maryland in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. This year, the Wolfpack face much more uncertainty heading into the season. But maybe they’re better off in that position than having true expectations. But one thing NC State can probably count on is another winning season. The Wolfpack have finished above .500 in eight of the last nine years. 

Offense

Leary decided to transfer to Kentucky after the season, but Dave Doeren was able to act quickly and bring Brennan Armstrong over from Virginia. Armstrong was miserable last season, but he did throw for 4,449 yards with 31 touchdowns and 10 picks two years ago. He also has a good set of wheels, so it’s not outrageous to think that this is an upgrade at the position. Armstrong is also reuniting with offensive coordinator Robert Anae, who brought the best out of him at Virginia. 

Unfortunately, the Wolfpack are relatively weak everywhere else. NC State rolls with a committee in the backfield, with none of the options being special. And the Wolfpack don’t have a great offensive line or wide receiver group — although the latter could change with the team adding 6-5 wideout Bradley Rozner from the Rice Owls. That means there will be a lot of pressure on Armstrong to improvise and make plays. Fortunately, he’s a guy that is comfortable being uncomfortable. 

Defense

NC State had one of the best defenses in the country last year, and things shouldn’t be very different in 2023. The Wolfpack brought back quite a bit of talent from last year’s team. Payton Wilson is one of the best linebackers in the nation, and he’ll make plays all over the field — alongside a talented group of linebackers. 

NC State also has some playmakers along the defensive line, while Shyheim Battle and Aydan White make up a great duo in the secondary. Look for the Wolfpack to be very tough to score on this year. The only question is whether the offense will do its part in helping these guys stay off the field. 

Outlook

There aren’t many bets that look better than the NC State Over, at least on paper. The Wolfpack have a tough schedule this season, but their defense should win them a lot of games this year. The offense is definitely a little concerning, but the group won’t be counted on to score too many points. And this number is just too low for a team that has proven it can win games. 

Pick: Over 6.5  

Pittsburgh Panthers

It has gone a bit under the radar amongst college football fans and bettors, but the Pittsburgh Panthers have won 20 games over the last two seasons. Pat Narduzzi has done a very good job since taking over this program, turning in winning seasons in six of his eight years. This year, the Panthers’ win total sits at seven. 

It’ll be interesting to see which way it goes, as the team brings back fewer starters than most of its competition in the ACC. Pittsburgh did, however, bring in transfer quarterback Phil Jurkovec, who put a lot of good things on film in his time with Boston College. The hope for the Panthers is that Jurkovec can stabilize the position after a year in which the running game really carried the offense. 

Offense

After Kenny Pickett lit it up for the Panthers in 2021, Pittsburgh brought in USC transfer Kedon Slovis to lead the offense in 2022. Slovis never found his footing for the Panthers, leaving a lot on the shoulders of running back Israel Abanikanda. Luckily for Pittsburgh, the running back delivered with 1,431 yards and 20 touchdowns. The running game, combined with a solid defense, allowed Pittsburgh to win nine games. 

But the Panthers need to get back to being an efficient passing game. Jurkovec should really help with that, as he has all the tools to be a very good quarterback. This offense should bring out the best in him, too. Pittsburgh does a good job of blending the running and passing games, and the team has a good offensive line. The Panthers also have a decent stable of receivers, so everything is in place if Jurkovec holds up his end of the bargain. 

Defense

There’s not a lot preventing this Pittsburgh defense from being one of the better units in the ACC this year. The Panthers have a very good group of defensive backs, with Marquis Williams and MJ Devonshire making for one heck of a pass-defending duo. And Narduzzi is a coach that always gets the most out of his pass rushers. Last season, Pitt gave up just 23.4 points per game, which was the seventh-lowest number in the ACC. Not many players are back from that group, but the Panthers are going to be confident in the guys