COLUMBIA, S.C. — After signs of change a couple of years ago, it looks as if the Atlantic Coast Conference is back to normal with defending champion Clemson and former powerhouse Florida State expected to battle for a title again.
The teams have combined to win 24 ACC football titles since 1991. What’s new is in a now division-less conference the Seminoles and Tigers could face each other in a league championship game in December.
Just two years after Pitt beat Wake Forest for an ACC title, previous Atlantic Division rivals Clemson and Florida State are the favorites to get to Charlotte, North Carolina.
“I like where we are,” Florida State coach Mike Norvell said after his team’s spring game. “I like this group we have.”
And why not?
Behind quarterback Jordan Travis, a candidate for ACC player of the year and maybe the Heisman Trophy, and a deep and talented offensive line, the Seminoles enter the season with their highest expectations since Jimbo Fisher left Tallahassee, Florida, at the end of the 2017 season.
While Florida State welcomed a spring of stability, Clemson shook things up.
Coach Dabo Swinney fired offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter and hired Garrett Riley, the 33-year-old assistant who helped TCU reach the national title game. Riley is tasked with revamping a stale offense and developing former five-star quarterback recruit Cade Klubnik.
Klubnik supplanted DJ Uiagalelei for good in the ACC title game and the freshman led the Tigers to a 39-10 victory over North Carolina. Klubnik did not fare as well in a 31-14 loss to Tennessee at the Orange Bowl.
Riley’s goal this spring? Simplifying things for Klubnik and the Tigers. Riley has cut down on concepts and drilled his team to master what’s being taught. Several starters, such as all-ACC running back Will Shipley, sat out spring practice.
“We’re a work in progress, but we improved,” Swinney said. “That’s the main thing, especially on offense to get a foundation in, to improve and get better and we were able to do that.”
North Carolina figures to be right behind the Seminoles and Tigers with quarterback Drake Maye, the reigning ACC player of the year, in charge for another season. The Tar Heels will need to perk up defensively in the second stint for former Auburn national championship coach Gene Chizik. UNC gave up the most points (30.8) and yards (436.5) per game in the league last season.
Nine-win teams Pitt and Duke, plus eight-win North Carolina State could make noise next season. Miami won just five games in Mario Cristobal’s debut season, but topped the ACC’s recruiting rankings this offseason.
Second-year Cavaliers coach Tony Elliott said he had a new appreciation for how to live life after his team’s season ended a year ago in the tragic loss of players Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry. The three were killed in November in a shooting by another student, a former football player. Virginia called off the rest of its season after their deaths.
Elliott said everyone on the field this spring had a different perspective on going forward in the face of unspeakable tragedy.
“Coming off of how the season ended just gave everybody a different perspective on what we get to do every single day, different perspective on life,” Elliott said, “I know it challenged me to think about how I approach every single day.”
The two new faces among ACC head coaches from this time a year ago are Georgia Tech’s Brent Key and Louisville’s Jeff Brohm.
Key was a fourth-year assistant for the Yellow Jackets when he was named interim leader after Geoff Collins’ early season departure. Key earned the job by going 4-4.
Brohm is the former Cardinals quarterback and assistant who spent the past six seasons as Purdue’s head coach before accepting the job at his alma mater last December.
A look at football players in the Atlantic Coast Conference this spring who are poised to have standout seasons this fall in the now division-less league:
BOSTON COLLEGE: OL Christian Mahogany was a second-team all-ACC selection in 2021 who missed all last year with a knee injury. But the 6-foot-3, 333-pound guard is back to anchor the Eagles offensive line.
CLEMSON: DL Peter Woods is a 6-3, 270-pound freshman who enrolled in January and showed he’s capable of helping to make up for the loss of three-year starter Bryan Bresee.
DUKE: CB Al Blades Jr. is a graduate transfer who played five seasons at his late father’s alma mater of Miami. The younger Blades played in 49 games for the Hurricanes with four interceptions and 14 pass breakups.
FLORIDA STATE: TE Jaheim Bell is a South Carolina transfer who was one of the most versatile Gamecocks players last season. Bell also lined up at running back and receiver and was the team’s second-leading rusher and fourth-leading pass catcher.
GEORGIA TECH: QB Haynes King transferred from Texas A&M and looks like he’ll make an impact in the first full season of coach Brent Key. King opened as the Aggies’ starter, but was limited to six games due to injuries. He threw for 253 yards and two touchdowns against Alabama.
LOUISVILLE: QB Jack Plummer, the son of Jake “The Snake” Plummer, rejoined new Cardinals coach Jeff Brohm after a season at Cal and four at Purdue. The younger Plummer is well versed in Brohm’s schemes and could ease the transition for a new offense.
MIAMI: RB Chris Johnson is a freshman who picked the Hurricanes over Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Michigan and Mississippi. Johnson should have opportunities to contribute in Mario Cristobal’s second season —- if he’s up for it.
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NORTH CAROLINA: WR Kobe Paysour should be a valuable option with the Tar Heels looking to replace all-ACC receiver Josh Downs. Paysour, a third-year player, was fourth on the team with 29 catches and had four touchdowns.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE: QB Brennan Armstrong is the Virginia transfer looking to earn a starting job after Devin Leary transferred to Kentucky. Armstrong will be reunited with offensive coordinator Robert Anae, who directed a prolific passing game with the left-hander at Virginia in 2021.
PITT: TE Karter Johnson is in his second season with the Panthers after playing at Butler (Kan.) Community College. Johnson, 6-2, 265 pounds, started two games last season and is expected to be a bigger factor for the team this fall.
SYRACUSE: DB Isaiah Johnson joined the Orange from Dartmouth last season and started six games after a midseason knee injury to Garrett Williams. Syracuse is counting on Johnson to continue his improvement and be a key defensive contributor.
VIRGINIA: CB Tayvonn Kyle is an Iowa State graduate transfer who started two games for the Cyclones. The Cavaliers hope he can help patch a secondary that lost starting cornerbacks Anthony Johnson and Fentrell Cypress.
VIRGINIA TECH: DT Wilfried Pene is a 6-3, 285-pound fourth-year player who the Hokies hope takes a step forward after playing in 11 games with 12 tackles last season. He picked up a sack in the Hokies’ spring game earlier this month.
WAKE FOREST: QB Mitch Griffis is next up after Sam Hartman’s transfer to Notre Dame. Hartman directed the Deacons two highest-scoring teams the past two years and it will be up to third-year sophomore Griffis to keep that going as the team’s starting passer.