1 – Clemson Tigers (2022 Record: 11-3) (2023 Projection: 10-2)
- Biggest Question: How improved will the offense be under Garrett Riley? Clemson has had stale offense issues the past two seasons since Trevor Lawrence left. The blame for that can be shared by several people, but the hope is that injecting a new identity with Riley will solve them. Cade Klubnik enters 2023 as the starter and he looked impressive at times last year. After seeing the strides Max Duggan made under Riley, I’m betting Klubnik finds consistency and begins to live up to the five-star hype he received as a prospect and Clemson looks fierce again on offense.
- Biggest Game: @ South Carolina, November 25th – You could argue for the home contest against Florida State here, but I’m projecting them to matchup again in the ACC Championship. The Gamecocks won in Death Valley last year and are an ascending program, and I think Clemson will be in the Playoff conversation when this game comes around to close out the regular season.
- Preseason MVP: LB Jeremiah Trotter Jr – One of the top linebackers in the nation and the son of the former Philadelphia Eagles star, Trotter is a do-it-all playmaker in the heart of this Tigers defense. He led or tied the team in tackles, tackles for loss, and sacks in 2022 and contributed 2 interceptions as well.
- Breakout Watch: WR Beaux Collins – The tall junior had a modestly successful 2022 campaign with 5 touchdowns on only 22 receptions and averaging 17 yards a catch. He’ll have a bigger role this season and after witnessing the effectiveness of big, rangy athletes like Quentin Johnston and Savion Johnson within this system, I like Collins to take the leap as the playmaker Clemson has needed from the position.
2 – Florida State Seminoles (2022 Record: 10-3) (2023 Projection: 10-2)
- Biggest Question: Can the Seminoles live up to the preseason hype? Florida State is a hot team to pick for multiple accolades this preseason. I’ve seen them as a darkhorse Playoff team and Jordan Travis is garnering plenty of buzz as a Heisman candidate. Travis has gotten better year over year and there isn’t really evidence to believe he’s reached his peak. They return a lot of production in every unit, including the surprising return of pass rusher Jared Verse. Mike Norvell also dipped back into the transfer portal to add high value talent (again) like DB Fentrell Cypress, TE Jaheim Bell, and WR Keon Coleman. This team doesn’t have many holes on paper and should hit double digit wins in the regular season, but whether they can take the mantle from Clemson is yet to be seen.
- Biggest Game: @ Clemson, September 23rd – The LSU game to open the season is a viable option here as well. Florida State lost this game close (34-28) last season at home and now travel to hostile territory in the fourth game of the season for this matchup. It’ll come a week after a road trip all the way up to Boston College. If the Seminoles want to take the next step nationally, they’ll have to beat Clemson first and this could be their best shot.
- Preseason MVP: QB Jordan Travis – As mentioned before, Travis has continuously progressed during his time at Florida State. He’s now one of the most proven quarterbacks in the country and a preseason Heisman favorite. If Florida State wants to cement themselves nationally again, its going to happen via the arm and legs of Travis and I think he’s capable of leading them to an ACC Championship.
- Breakout Watch: WR Keon Coleman – The big target that transferred in from Michigan State this offseason, Coleman has already caught the eye of draft scouts. Moving into a system that saw Johnny Wilson make a big leap last season, I think playing with a quarterback like Travis will elevate Coleman and make him a household name nationally.
3 – North Carolina Tar Heels (2022 Record: 9-5) (2023 Projection: 9-3)
- Biggest Question: Will the defense be improved in 2023? 2022 was a rollercoaster type year for the Tar Heels. They won 9 of their first 10 games, almost entirely in close fashion because Drake Maye was playing like a Heisman finalist but the defense was giving up EVERYTHING. They’ve averaged over 30 points allowed per game in back-to-back seasons and allowed a 65% completion percentage through the air, also only sacking the opposing quarterback 17 times. There are plenty of returning starters, but that may not be a good thing, and Mack Brown didn’t make any moves to truly inspire confidence that this defense will improve very much in 2023.
- Biggest Game: @ Clemson (November 18th) – A rematch of last years ACC Championship, if North Carolina wants another birth it’ll likely have to get past Clemson late in the season. This game comes in the middle of a tough stretch to close the season, sandwiched in between a home game against rival Duke and the season finale against NC State. If the defense is improved, this could be a compelling game, but if not it could be a repeat of last years beat down.
- Preseason MVP: QB Drake Maye – Obviously. Maye is a legitimate Heisman candidate and projected one of the first picks off the board in the next NFL Draft. I’m interested in seeing how he plays in 2023 after former offensive coordinator Phil Longo left to take the same position at Wisconsin, and whether being under a new coach hurts or even elevates his game.
- Breakout Watch: DE Desmond Evans – The former highly touted prospect has yet to really live up to the hype, but for the Tar Heels defense to improve in 2023 its going to need Evans to become the pass rusher that was expected when he stepped on campus. In 7 starts last year, he only made 1 tackle for loss and no sacks. At 6’6″ 275 lbs, he’s got the physical tools, it’s just a matter of if and/or when he can piece them all together.
4 – Pittsburgh Panthers (2022 Record: 9-4) (2023 Projection: 9-3)
- Biggest Question: Can Pitt sneak into the ACC Championship with this schedule? Pitt under Pat Narduzzi is about as consistent as you can expect, seemingly always in a solid bowl game and giving fits to better teams in conference. After a stellar 2021, the Panthers took a small step back in 2022 while fighting quarterback injuries. In 2023, the Panthers bring in former Boston College quarterback Phil Jurkovec to run the offense but the biggest plus is the schedule. Of the other 4 teams in my Top 5, Pitt misses Clemson and Miami and gets both Florida State and North Carolina at home. Duke, in the season finale, is the only true road test on the conference schedule for the Panthers and should give this team a runway to a Conference Championship birth.
- Biggest Game: Florida State (November 4th) – This is the Panthers most difficult test and the key to a title game birth. Florida State comes to town after both teams are on the road the week prior and it takes place in early November, likely making it a cold weather game. Mix everything together, and you’ve got a recipe for a potential upset here and the game that could springboard the Panthers into the ACC Championship appearance.
- Preseason MVP: DB MJ Devonshire – The Panthers have developed NFL caliber secondary players ever since Narduzzi took over the program, and that isn’t expected to end soon. Devonshire returns after starting nine games in 2022 and logging three interceptions and eight pass breakups, and he also doubles as a punt returner where he scored a touchdown last season.
- Breakout Watch: DE Dayon Hayes: Much like the secondary, Pitt has developed plenty of NFL defensive lineman over the years. After losing several to the league this offseason, junior pass rusher Dayon Hayes will step into a starting role after logging 3.5 sacks in limited action last season, and at 6’3″ 270 lbs he’s got the ideal size and athleticism that has regularly succeeded in this defense.
5 – Miami Hurricanes (2022 Record: 5-7) (2023 Projection: 8-4)
- Biggest Question: What defines a successful 2023 season? 2022 was a miserable season for Miami Hurricane fans like myself. The offseason Brough much buzz with the hiring of Mario Cristobal and a huge money coaching staff around him, but the Canes were abysmal. Offensively they resembled a bottom tier Big Ten school with the inability to move the ball, and defensively they were giving away big plays like halloween candy (ask Middle Tennessee). So, what defines success this year? I think it’s eight wins. The roster looks to be much improved from last season, especially on the offensive line, and with a new offensive system under Shannon Dawson, the offense should be able to put up points. Cristobal should be given time to recruit a higher talent level at Miami, but results need to be much improved in 2023.
- Biggest Game: @ Florida State (November 11th) – The Hurricanes were embarrassed last season by losing at home to rival Florida State 45-3. It was, without a doubt, one of the worst losses I’ve seen as a fan over the years. This years game will be a great test for the Hurricanes and where the rebuild stands, as it takes place late in the season and Florida State looks to be a top 10 team on paper. I don’t predict a Miami win, but keeping it competitive is a must.
- Preseason MVP: DB Kamren Kinchens – For as awful as last season was, the Canes showed to have several key building blocks headed into 2023, and Kinchens is the best of them. Scored the best safety in college football by PFF last season, Kinchens led the Hurricanes defense with the 59 tackles and logged 6 interceptions. Expect another big season from the junior standout.
- Breakout Watch: DL Nyjalik Kelly – Kelly was a big get for Cristobal after taking over the job last offseason, and in a reserve role racked up 4 sacks for the Canes defense in 2022. His playing time will expand this season and expectations are high for the young pass rusher to become a premier player in this new regime.
6 – Duke Blue Devils (2022 Record: 9-4) (2023 Projection: 7-5)
- Biggest Question: Was 2022 a Duke Fluke? – Mike Elko had the best freshman coaching season last season, taking the Duke Blue Devils from 3-9 to 9-4 and playing some of the most efficient football in the country. The biggest question will be whether Duke can sustain that success into 2023, and I think the answer is yes. The roster attrition is limited across the board and quarterback Riley Leonard is back to lead the offense. I do think they’ll take a game or two step back in the win column, but that’s more a byproduct of what I think is a tough schedule that includes Clemson, Notre Dame, Florida State, and North Carolina. Expect Duke to be a tough out yet again for all opponents and another bowl season should be in the Blue Devils future.
- Biggest Game: Clemson (September 4th, Season Opener) – I’m picking this game for a variety of reasons. Duke plays hosts to ACC powerhouse Clemson in the opening game for each school, and the game is being played on Labor Day night in front of a national audience. While I’m projecting a Clemson victory, this a huge opportunity for the Blue Devils program to make a mark in front of as many eyes as possible.
- Preseason MVP: QB Riley Leonard – The Blue Devils go as Leonard goes. The most under discussed quarterback in the country, Leonard led the Blue Devils both in passing and rushing in 2022 and combined for 33 touchdowns. With plenty of continuity on the offensive side of the ball, Leonard looks primed to take another step and I don;’t think it would crazy if he ended 2023 as the best quarterback in the conference.
- Breakout Watch: CB Brandon Johnson – Johnson started 13 games last year and was a do-it-all player out of the secondary with 2 interceptions and 5.5 sacks. The nickel corner should continue to see plenty of playing time and a breakout season as a premier piece in this tough defense.
7 – NC State Wolfpack (2022 Record: 8-5) (2023 Projection: 7-5)
- Biggest Question: Can the Wolfpack stay above water in a retool year? NC State had high expectations entering last season, but an injury to quarterback Devin Leary ultimately hurt them and they stumbled down the stretch to an 8-5 record. They bring in former Virginia/Syracuse OC Robert Anae and former Cavalier quarterback Brennan Armstrong, but will be retooling a lot in the receiving game and defensive units. I think both Anae and DC Tony Gibson are good enough to coach up both sides of the ball, but the season really hinges on the hope that reuniting Armstrong with Anae will bring him back to his 2021 version.
- Biggest Game: North Carolina (November 25th, Season Finale) – This rivalry game has been close the last two seasons with the Wolfpack coming out on top both times. This season, it could have implications on whether NC State makes a bowl game if things don’t go as planned. It also could be a potential foil opportunity for NC State as they go head-to-head with potential Heisman candidate Drake Maye.
- Preseason MVP: LB Payton Wilson – Not a ton of options here after some stud departures, but Wilson returns as a senior leader for the defense. He was third on the team in tackles last season and also had 4.5 sacks. With Drake Thomas leaving, expect Wilson to become the leading tackler.
- Breakout Watch: WR Keyon Lesane – Both Thayer Thomas and Devin Carter are gone, so Lesane will get the opportunity to step into a premium role on offense. Adding to this, receivers have put up huge numbers wherever Anae has gone and I don’t anticipate that changing. Look for a breakout campaign for the senior pass catcher.
8 – Louisville Cardinals (2022 Record: 8-5) (2023 Projection: 7-5)
- Biggest Question: Should we buy the Louisville hype? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think people are picking the Cardinals to make the ACC Championship this year, but they certainly are getting buzz for what should be a successful season. Jeff Brohm returns to his alma mater as head coach and this team has both a solid roster and winnable schedule. With all that said, I’m not bought in enough on new quarterback Jack Plummer to be the dude and I have reservations about the run game. The ceiling on this season is high if things trend correctly, and I think getting Brohm will work out long term, I’m just not bought in at the moment.
- Biggest Game: Kentucky (November 25th, Season Finale) The Cardinals have struggled against their in-state rival for the past half decade plus, and without Clemson or Florida State on the schedule, this will be Brohms most important game in year one. Ending the streak would be a huge boost for the program headed into the offseason.
- Preseason MVP: CB Jarvis Brownlee – The Florida State transfer from a year ago was one of the best players on the team last year, and with a stacked cast still around him in the secondary, I think he’ll have another great season for the Cardinals.
- Breakout Watch: WR Kevin Coleman – The Jackson State transfer receiver should be one of the biggest beneficiaries of Brohm taking over the program. Coleman was a highly touted prospect coming out of high school, and he’ll get to put his talents on display in an offense that’s produced several NFL receivers.
9 – Wake Forest Demon Deacons (2022 Record: 8-5) (2023 Projection: 6-6)
- Biggest Question: How much regression will the Deacons have in 2023? Wake Forest is about to enter a strange period without a known product at the quarterback position for the first time in a while. Mitch Griffis takes over after Sam Hartman transferred to Notre Dame, and he brings very limited playing time. The good news is that he’ll have plenty of weapons to work with at the skill position, the bad news is that this offensive line wasn’t good last year and the defense doesn’t appear to be very good on paper either. I think Dave Clawson is good enough to get the Deacons into bowl season, but it’ll be a step back from the previous few seasons as they deal with growing pains across the roster.
- Biggest Game: @ Notre Dame (November 18th) – For obvious reasons. The Deacons meet up against former signal caller Sam Hartman and the Fighting Irish in South Bend and depending on the front half of Wakes schedule, could be an important game when it comes to securing bowl eligibility.
- Preseason MVP: WR Donavon Greene – Greene averaged over 17 yards per catch last season as the second leading receiver on the team, and he’ll be looked at as the go to guy for new quarterback Griffis as he gets his feet wet. He’s already on NFL scouts radars as a smooth route runner with a good speed and size combination.
- Breakout Watch: DE Kendron Wayman – Wayman only started one game last season, the bowl game, and totaled three sacks that game. With plenty of turnover on the defensive line, he’ll receive plenty of playing time and the hope is that he and Jasheen Davis can make a solid pair of pass rushers off the edge.
10 – Syracuse Orange (2022 Record: 7-6) (2023 Projection: 6-6)
- Biggest Question: Hot hot is Dino Babers seat? After three unsuccessful seasons, Syracuse got back into bowl season last year with a 7-5 regular season record. It was enough to help Babers keep his seat, and while the Orange are more primarily concerned with basketball, going back under .500 might force the administration to move in a new direction.
- Biggest Game: Pittsburgh (November 11th, at Yankee Stadium) – I think neutral site games in the regular season are stupid. I think playing in baseball stadiums is also stupid. Marry the two and you have this game, happening in mid-November for what should be awful weather.
- Preseason MVP: WR/TE Oronde Gadsden II – The son of the former Miami Dolphins receiver burst onto the scene last year with nearly 1,000 yards receiving and 6 touchdowns. His size and athleticism allows him to play in a flex situation that forces defensive adjustments. With Garrett Shrader back at quarterback, I look forward to another impressive season for the receiver.
- Breakout Watch: RB LeQuint Allen – The former New Jersey Player of the Year takes over running back duties from Sean Tucker and in limited playing time managed to impress with a 6.7 per carry average. The offensive line will need to make swift improvements to help out the running back, though.
11 – Boston College Eagles (2022 Record: 3-9) (2023 Projection: 5-7)
- Biggest Question: Can Jeff Hafley finally have a breakthrough at Boston College? 2023 feels like a make or break season for Hafley. I was a supporter of this hire when it was made but several lukewarm/bad seasons have left this seat feeling warm and hope nearing abandonment. The Eagles will see a fresh face at quarterback with sophomore Emmett Morehead and there is some buzz about his ability. The offensive line play fell off a cliff last season (ask running back Pat Garwo), though, and they’ll need marked improvement if they want to move the ball at all. The good news is that the defense returns a lot of production and should make improvements. This feels like a fringe bowl team when you consider a fairly weak out-of-conference schedule (NIU, Holy Cross, @ Army, UConn) but their success comes down to whether the offense can move the ball consistently every week.
- Biggest Game: @ Army (October 7th) – Bit of a weird one, but I think the Eagles best shot at making a bowl is by going 4-0 out of conference. The triple option is notoriously not fun to defend against and Army will be coming off a bye week while also hosting the visiting Eagles. Consider this the most pivotal game of the year for Boston College.
- Preseason MVP: DE Donovan Ezeiruaku – The junior pass rusher logged 8.5 sacks last season as a standout on this defense and secured all-ACC honors in the process. The Eagles defense will be relying heavily on similar, if not better, production in 2023.
- Breakout Watch: QB Emmett Morehead – Morehead has a lot to like when it comes to the position. At 6’5″ 240, he’s big and possess a capable arm strength and mechanics. He split time during last season and got much needed seasoning, but he should see a full season of work with Phil Jurkovec off to Pitt and he has plenty of strong believers in the program to take a step forward.
12 – Virginia Tech Hokies (2022 Record: 3-8) (2023 Projection: 4-8)
- Biggest Question: How long until the Hokies are good again? Virginia Techs first season under Brent Pry was tough as they ended up 3-8 with a famous loss to smaller, in-state school Old Dominion. Fast forward to 2023 and things seem equally as bleak on paper. In fairness to Pry, this job was always going to take a few years to see any real progress because of the mismanagement of the former regime. Pry brought in a few solid starters from the transfer portal this offseason, but expect another tough year for the Hokies and start eyeing 2024 for the true bounce back.
- Biggest Game: Old Dominion (September 2nd, Season Opener) – Come on, man. 2-2 all-time against your in-state group of five counterpoint is bad, especially when those games all took place in the last ten years. This is game one of the year for the Hokies and consider it a must win, because you can’t expect to take the next step without beating Old Dominion.
- Preseason MVP: WR Ali Jennings – The Hokies best player is…a transfer they brought over from Old Dominion! Jennings put up over 2,000 yards receiving the last two seasons with the Monarchs and gives the Hokies a threatening weapon in the passing game, something they lacked last season.
- Breakout Watch: QB Kyron Drones – I’m unsure if Drones or Grant Wells will get the starting gig, but Wells struggles with turnovers and Drones athleticism leads me to believe Drones will be starting at some point and his ability to create with his legs could be a major lift behind an offensive line that doesn’t look pretty.
13 – Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (2022 Record: 5-7) (2023 Projection: 4-8)
- Biggest Question: Was Brent Key the right hire? Georgia Tech made the decision to hire interim Brent Key as the full time head coach after a relativly successful end of season. The Yellow Jackets were in on other head coaches like Willie Fritz of Tulane but it appears money became an obstacle. I admit, I have no idea if this hire will work out in the long run. Key is an alumni so he knows the area, and was smart to bring in a bunch of transfers to try and turn the roster over quickly. He also has a background in offensive line play, so I expect that unit to get better pretty quickly. Time will tell, but my gut says that this ultimately a bridge hire until the athletic department gets itself in order.
- Biggest Game: Louisville (September 1st, Season Opener, Atlanta) – It was hard to pinpoint a true biggest game on the schedule so I’m taking the season opener against Louisville. The Cardinals are entering a new era under Jeff Brohm and it gives the Yellow Jackets a potential upset to jump start Keys first season as full time head coach.
- Preseason MVP: S LaMiles Brooks – Brooks comes back for his junior year as a leader on this defense. In 2022, he produced three interceptions for the Yellow Jackets defense and is the leading tackler in terms of returning players.
- Breakout Watch: WR Dominick Blaylock – The Georgia transfer comes over and is expected to see plenty of playing time in a revamped receiving core. In limited action, he averaged over 15 yards per catch with the Bulldogs and will be relied on heavily with new quarterback Haynes King at the helm.
14 – Virginia Cavaliers (2022 Record: 3-7) (2023 Projection: 3-9)
- Biggest Question: What’s the timetable here? Tony Elliott took over the Virginia job last season and faced a steep uphill climb and a horrible tragedy in the murder of three of his players. Elliott will be given ample time to rectify the program and it’ll take a few years before they are likely back to being in the discussion atop the ACC. This team lacks talent at the top of the depth chart and lacks depth under the surface. Its a multi-year rebuild but I still like the Elliott hire.
- Biggest Game: Virginia Tech (November 25th, Season Finale) – This game was cancelled after the tragedy last season, so it’ll be an emotional moment when the rivals face off at seasons end. If the Cavaliers can bring home the win, it could be a pivotal moment moving forward for the program.
- Preseason MVP: LB Chico Bennett – Bennett registered 7 sacks last season for Virginia and returns for his junior season. He has great size for a rush linebacker and another great season should thrust him up draft boards.
- Breakout Watch: QB Tony Muskett – Muskett was a great quarterback at the FCS level with Monmouth (51 TD-16 INT) but I’m curious to see how he transitions to the FBS level. Getting an experienced signal caller should benefit an offense that is mostly starting from scratch.