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Which ACC Foe Has The Best Shot To Stop Clemson Run

By Southern Pigskin Staff
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Can any ACC opponent realistically challenge a Clemson team that will feature 2 of the top 6 Heisman Trophy favorites in Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne?

Christian Goeckel

As Clemson sets out on, what feels like, an inevitable campaign to claim yet another ACC Championship, the rest of the conference is scrambling to put up some form of resistance, while maintaining a semblance of credibility in the Power 5 hierarchy. 

The traditional powers that one would think would represent the greatest challenge to a Clemson Tigers team that is looking to become the first Power 5 team since Ohio State (‘05 - ‘10) to win 6 straight conference championships, are more focused on rising out of the conference’s cellar than seriously pushing for a championship.

Florida State is entering year one under Mike Norvell, after just a year and a half with Willie Taggart. Manny Diaz is entering year two at the helm for Miami, and is already onto his second offensive coordinator. Syracuse, the last ACC team to defeat Clemson (2017), is coming off of a highly disappointing 5-7 record in 2019. 

So which ACC teams, if any, can realistically challenge a Clemson team that will feature 2 of the top 6 Heisman Trophy favorites in Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne?

In the regular season, none.

There’s just not a team that can keep up week in and week out with Clemson.

No, this will come down to a team with a one-off, winner take all opportunity to pull the upset and steal the ACC Championship. That, of course, will be on December 5th in Charlotte.

Virginia and Georgia Tech represent Clemson’s crossover games in 2020, sorry guys.

Duke will be fighting to avoid the bottom of the division, and we already talked about Miami.

This comes down to three teams: Pitt, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina.

Pitt has a very realistic shot at starting 7-1. Getting Paris Ford to stay was massive. The first team ALL-ACC safety led the Panthers with 97 tackles in 2019, and forced 3 fumbles to go along with his 3 interceptions. Kenny Pickett is back for his final season after putting up 3,098 yards through the air. He’ll have to improve on a 122.4 QB rating, but incoming Florida-transfer TE Lucas Krull should help with some of the redzone inefficiency.

Pitt’s defense will be elite in 2020, and their offense should improve, but a lackluster backfield on an offense that averaged just 21.5 points in 2019 isn’t a great recipe to take down a team that has scored 45.8 ppg in the past 5 ACC Championship Games.

Virginia Tech is interesting. The Hokies came in at 25 in ESPN’s initial FPI rankings for 2020. Quarterback Hendon Hooker showed signs of being special once he took over the starting job midway through the season in 2019. His dual-threat ability puts a strain on defenses that really opens up Fuente’s offense. First year defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton has the unenviable task of replacing Hokie legend Bud Foster. Tech finished last season 46th in total defense, and has pieces in place, with a ton of returning production, to improve on that number.

A team with a promising quarterback and a significant amount of returning starters, the Hokies are primed for a big 2020. One the biggest games of their season will come in week 6.

That will come when the Hokies head to Chapel Hill to take on North Carolina in a rematch of 2019’s 6-OT thriller that debuted college football’s new 2-point conversion overtime rule.

What Mack Brown did with North Carolina in 2019 was nothing short of special. Sure, a 7-6 record doesn’t seem spectacular at first glance, but when you factor in that all 6 losses came by 7 points or less, you can appreciate how good that team really was.

Now, Brown has another offseason to develop this program and work through the kinks to flip those one score losses. He’ll have a ton of fun toys to play with in 2020, too.

Sam Howell is an absolute Heisman contender. As a true freshman last season, Howell threw for 3,641 yards and 38 touchdowns with just 7 interceptions. His passer rating as a freshman (160.2) was just 6.5 points lower than Trevor Lawrence and 3.4 points higher than projected first round pick Justin Herbert.

A big reason for Howell’s success was an elite group of receivers. Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown both topped 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns receiving in 2019, and they’re both back.
North Carolina’s duo of receivers is arguably the best in college football. Absolutely on par with Alabama’s Smith & Waddle and LSU’s Chase & Marshall.

Howell will also be playing behind an offensive line that returns 4 starters.

Carolina does have holes to fill on defense, but having the ACC’s second leading tackler in Chazz Surratt forgo the NFL draft was a big start.

Let’s not forget, North Carolina played Clemson to their closest in ACC game in two seasons in 2019. The Tarheels were just a 2-pt conversion away from taking down then #1 Clemson, but fell short in the 21-20 loss.

With Boston College and NC State representing North Carolina’s crossover games in 2020, the Tar Heels have a very good shot at representing the Coastal in Charlotte, and maybe just enough firepower to rip the title away from Dabo Swinney’s juggernaut.