Clemson remains the team to beat in the ACC. Not that everything’s in sync for Dabo Swinney and the Tigers, who still have to settle on a starting quarterback and overcome the loss of both coordinators to Power Five openings.
For the first time in several years, the question is being asked: Is Clemson good enough to reach the College Football Playoff?
And there are several teams in the conference capable of keeping the ACC championship out of Clemson’s hands for the second year in a row. Two of those threats, North Carolina State and Wake Forest, come from within the Tigers’ division.
Despite the question marks, the Tigers top the spring power rankings for the ACC:
1. Clemson (2021 record: 10-3)
It was only a year ago that DJ Uiagalelei was listed among the top contenders for the Heisman Trophy. Heading out of the spring and into the summer, it’s not even certain the junior will remain the Tigers’ starter. After throwing just nine touchdowns and averaging a paltry six yards per attempt in 2021, Uiagalelei will be tested by incoming freshman Cade Klubnik, a five-star recruit.
2. North Carolina State (9-3)
There’s a sense of unfinished business after last year’s team was unable to become the second in program history with double-digit wins after the Holiday Bowl was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns. There is some departed star power in left tackle Ikem Ekwonu, who should land near the top of the NFL draft, but enough returning talent to make this the best team of coach Dave Doeren’s tenure.
3. North Carolina (6-7)
The attention paid to the Tar Heels’ three-person competition to replace quarterback Sam Howell has overshadowed some pretty big concerns at running back and wide receiver. In the backfield, UNC has four options but no clear answer coming out of spring drills. At receiver, there may be a pair of clear starters in Josh Downs and Antoine Green but depth is at a premium.
4. Wake Forest (11-3)
The offense may be even better than it was in 2021, when quarterback Sam Hartman keyed a historic season for Dave Clawson and the Demon Deacons. The dominant theme this offseason is the state of a defense that welcomes back defensive coordinator Brad Lambert for his second stint with the program. If the offense stays on course, it might not take a huge leap to keep Wake Forest in the New Year’s Six conversation.
5. Pittsburgh (11-3)
A solid spring has Pittsburgh coaches feeling better about linebacker play. One of the standouts from drills was junior Bangally Kamara, who flashed strong pass-rush skills and the athleticism to drop back into coverage. Should this group be better than expected, the Panthers’ terrific defensive line could make this one of the top front sevens in the conference.
6. Miami (7-5)
Mario Cristobal won’t reverse Miami’s direction from the start, though his focus on recruiting, development and an embrace of the program’s long-dormant swagger seems like the perfect recipe for the Hurricanes. Sophomore quarterback Tyler Van Dyke is the face of the team after a superb rookie year, and rightfully so. But the Hurricanes will contend for the conference championship game only if the pass rush and overall team tackling is far better than in 2021.
7. Florida State (5-7)
The Seminoles will get back into the postseason behind a defense that looks on paper to be one of the three or four best in the conference. While losing edge rusher and 2021 ACC defensive player of the year Jermaine Johnson to the NFL draft stings, keep an eye on a rare Football Championship Subdivision transfer with the potential to flourish on the Power Five level: Jared Verse arrives in Tallahassee from Albany and has already grabbed a major role at end.
8. Virginia (6-6)
After waiting patiently for the right opportunity, longtime Clemson assistant Tony Elliott takes over the solid foundation left in place by former coach Bronco Mendenhall. He’ll also get back quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who considered his options in the wake of Mendenhall’s retirement before opting to remain in Charlottesville. What the Cavaliers don’t have, however, is anything close to an experienced offensive front. With just one returning lineman with any experience, Virginia stepped down to the FCS ranks to grab two potential contributors from Georgetown and Dartmouth.
9. Louisville (6-7)
Keep an eye on Central Arkansas transfer Tyler Hudson, who beyond his work at wide receiver could be used as an option in the running game. With this varied skill set, the former Southland Conference Player of the Year will help replace Tyler Harrell, who averaged 29.1 yards per catch in 2021 but transferred after the end of spring practices.
10. Syracuse (5-7)
Sophomore running back Sean Tucker (1,496 yards in 2021) is good enough to nearly carry the Orange back to bowl play on his own, as he proved in his breakout debut season. Even as Tucker continued to tack on yardage, the three-game losing streak to end the year at 5-7 showed how defenses could key on the Syracuse running game. Winning six or more games demands more balance on offense, so the focus this offseason is on developing quarterback Garrett Shrader into a more consistent passer.
11. Virginia Tech (6-7)
It’s been difficult to peg exactly what new coach Brent Pry wants to do on offense, and the vanilla game plan the Hokies are set to unveil in the spring game won’t help much, either. Maybe it would help to know who, exactly, is going to be the starting quarterback — but again, that probably won’t be answered during the spring. Two transfers, Grant Wells (Marshall) and Jason Brown (South Carolina) are still in competition for the job.
12. Boston College (6-6)
Senior quarterback Phil Jurkovec has the opportunity to play himself into the first round of next year’s NFL draft, but only if he can stay healthy. After missing half of last year with a significant hand injury, Jurkovec will now take snaps behind a reworked offensive line with just one returning starter. That returner, Christian Mahogany, is one of the top interior linemen in the ACC. Add promising young center Drew Kendall and the Eagles have the pieces to move bodies in the trenches.
13. Georgia Tech (3-9)
With three wins in each of his first three seasons, coach Geoff Collins has yet to deliver anything close to an ACC contender. A reworked coaching staff could give the Yellow Jackets’ offense a needed boost; this group was a train wreck in the second half of last year. But the schedule won’t help: Georgia Tech draws Clemson from the Atlantic, will face two SEC teams (Mississippi and rival Georgia) and Central Florida in non-conference play, and closes the regular season with four road games in five weeks.
14. Duke (3-9)
The rebuilding job facing new coach Mike Elko is nowhere near what his predecessor, David Cutcliffe, inherited in 2008. But there are still major holes almost across the board, with heavy focus this spring on the slim number of options at quarterback. What’s more concerning, though, is the state of a defense that ranked last in the ACC last season in yards given up per play and scoring and yards allowed per game. Most recently the defensive coordinator at Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Texas A&M, Elko will have his hands full.
Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg