ACC Preview: Can Dabo Swinney lead Clemson back to the top?

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By RJ Young
FOX Sports College Football Writer

For the first time since 2015, we’re beginning a college football season without Clemson as the defending Atlantic Coast Conference champion. And 2021 was the first season in the past seven that the ACC hasn’t featured a team in the College Football Playoff or national final — BCS or CFP.

By that accounting, it was a down year for the ACC. This year, the Tigers are going to be most folks’ bet to not just get the ACC back into the CFP but to win the conference title for the eighth time since 2011. But division rival North Carolina State and conference rival Miami are poised to give the Tigers a run for the title they’ve mostly had a stranglehold on in Clemson, South Carolina. 

Clemson’s future among top ACC storylines

Can Dabo Swinney overcome his staffing changes? That’s one of the questions RJ Young addresses in his top ACC storylines.

You can watch the “The No. 1 Ranked Show with RJ Young” on YouTube or subscribe on podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts.

Here are the other top storylines we’re watching in the ACC.

How is Dabo Swinney going to respond to change?

No one disputes the dominance Clemson has exhibited since Swinney became head coach of the Tigers full-time in 2009, and that is why many have picked the Tigers to win the ACC crown this year. It’s also why Associated Press poll voters have seen fit to over-rank them at No. 4 — just behind Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia.

The Tigers finished 10-3 last season with defensive coordinator Brent Venables, defensive line coach Todd Bates and offensive coordinator Tony Elliott on the staff. Two of those men are now at Oklahoma, and one is at Virginia.

Projecting the Tigers to win the ACC without those three is a tough ask. 

I put Clemson at No. 10 in my FOX Sports preseason rankings behind — among others — Utah, Notre Dame, Michigan State, Baylor and Arkansas, which each return last year’s coordinators, head coaches and starting quarterbacks.

However, as I acknowledged in my top 25, if there is a head coach not named Nick Saban who can overcome that amount of turnover, it’s Swinney. But he’ll have a to-do list that goes beyond overcoming coaching departures.

Quarterback DJ Uiagalelei followed up a remarkable short stint in relief of Trevor Lawrence in 2020 with a nine-TD, 10-INT campaign in 2021, completing just 56% of his passes.  

With Frank Ladson transferring to Miami, the best returning big-play threat is Joe Ngata, who caught just 23 passes last season.

The Tigers need to find a bell-cow running back in either Kobe Pace or Will Shipley. Combined, they had 1,400 rushing yards and 17 TDs last season. 

Defensive linemen Bryan Bresee, Tyler Davis and Myles Murphy, as well as defensive back Sheridan Jones, are going to have to prove they can win games without James Skalski for the first time in six years. 

To win the ACC, let alone compete for the national title, the Tigers will have to knock off NC State on Oct. 1, Notre Dame on Nov. 5 and/or Miami on Nov. 19. That will take the kind of stifling defense Venables had made a staple at Death Valley, as well as the development of an outstanding quarterback. 

Why Notre Dame will overachieve, Clemson will underachieve

RJ Young breaks down which ACC teams will exceed their preseason projections, and which teams will fall short.

I’m betting on Marcus Freeman. Notre Dame is a national title contender.

Freeman is 36 heading into his first full season as head coach at one of the most storied programs in history. Along with offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, he has 14 starters on last year’s 11-win team returning — plus the addition of former Northwestern All-American safety Brandon Joseph

Notre Dame has just five scholarship receivers left on the roster. Only Braden Lenzy and Lorenzo Styles caught more than 20 passes in 2021.  

Newly named starting quarterback Tyler Buchner played in 10 games last year, threw for 298 yards, three touchdowns and three picks. But the fact that Buchner ran for more yards (336) than he threw for last year is eye-opening.

Even more, Buchner averaged 11.8 snaps per game in seven of his games last season.

Buchner, slide, buddy. You can’t play quarterback if you’re laid out cold. 

Take it from me, a man who prayed aloud every time Kyler Murray took off like a rogue race car through the middle of grown men chasing him.

Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and Buchner are going to need to make use of the last year of Michael Mayer, who caught 71 passes for 840 yards in 2021. 

Why Marcus Freeman will have a great first season

RJ Young projects the upcoming seasons for new Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Marcus Freeman and new LSU Tigers head coach Brian Kelly.

I expect Chris Tyree to succeed Kyren Williams as the RB1 as a junior. Offensive linemen Blake Fisher and Joe Alt ought to make that easier, though the offensive line gave up 35 sacks and 82 tackles for loss in 2021 — yikes. 

Brandon Joseph is more than capable of filling the void left by star safety Kyle Hamilton. Like Hamilton, Joseph was an All-American — at Northwestern. Cam Hart and Clarence Lewis are just as good.

All I’m asking is for defensive coordinator Al Golden not to mess up a good thing in the secondary and let JD Bertrand and Jack Kiser go seek and destroy at linebacker. 

Make light work of Clemson on Nov. 5 and come correct. 

In Week 1, we’ll get to see just what the Fighting Irish are made of when they take on Freeman’s alma mater, the — trademarked, don’tcha know — Ohio State Buckeyes

Is everything that glitters gold, ND? 

What Pittsburgh was in 2021, NC State can be in 2022.

The Wolfpack won eight of their last 10 and return 16 starters from last year’s team. 

If quarterback Devin Leary returns in full form — 35 touchdowns to five interceptions in 2021 — we might be talking about NC State as a playoff contender in November. Time to get on his Bruce Leroy. 

NC State was 4-8 in 2019, 8-4 in 2020 and 9-3 in 2021. A banner season awaits in 2022. 

The Wolfpack were 14th in the nation in scoring defense and could be a top-10 scoring defense this season. But they’ll have to do a better job in the turnover game — last season, NC State forced 11 fumbles and didn’t recover a single one.

Tanner Ingle leads that defense as an All-ACC First Teamer with 82 tackles at safety. Beat Clemson on Oct. 1 and people will begin to notice what I have. 

Why Miami and NC State can win the ACC

RJ Young shares which ACC players he believes will have a breakout season and explains why he thinks there are four teams in the ACC who can realistically compete for the championship title.

Will Virginia contend in Tony Elliott’s Year 1? 

Elliott’s work at Clemson as an offensive coordinator since 2015 speaks for itself. He first made waves at the school as a running backs coach, and he knows what a good offensive line is supposed to look like. 

His 2022 offensive line at UVA is going to be his toughest obstacle. The Cavaliers lost four starters from the position to the transfer portal, and two of their next best graduated. That’s six seasoned, experienced and talented men leaving their trenches.

If you’re a Virginia fan, you’re going to have to hope Elliott picks right up where Bronco Mendenhall left off, or kiss another 4,500-passing-yard, 30-touchdown season goodbye. But if the Cavs can protect, they’ve got threats: Keytaon Thompson and Dontayvion Wicks

Defensively, the Cavs gave up more booty than an 18th-century British warship — 466 yards and 32 points per game for the nation’s 121st-ranked defense. 

If the Cavs can figure out their offensive line, keep a lid on the defense and protect Brennan Armstrong, there’s no reason to believe that they can’t compete for the ACC crown.

Is Mario Cristobal the man to bring back The U? 

There is a lot riding on Mario Cristobal having tapped the right man, reigning Broyles Award winner Josh Gattis, to get the best out of QB Tyler Van Dyke in 2022. 

If Van Dyke can create chemistry with Clemson transfer Frank Ladson, the offense could be cooking with grease.

And Kevin Steele can keep a lid on the defense, the Hurricanes might well become The U once again. 

He’s going to need defensive tackle Leonard Taylor to be even more disruptive than his 9.5 tackles for loss last season, and if he can develop 6-foot-5 safety James Williams into the pterodactyl his talent underscores, then the Hurricanes might be running up and down the coast wrecking their competition. 

Cristobal will have the offensive line humming. Running backs Jaylan Knighton and Ole Miss transfer Henry Parrish can take advantage of that. 

Miami hasn’t resembled The U for 20 years. In fact, it feels, at times, like the Hurricanes have forgotten that legacy. This is why Cristobal is crucial. 

He lived through it, played through it and understands how far away the program is from its heyday. 

The Hurricanes have away games at Texas A&M and Clemson. Get through those with Ws, and we’ll start talking about the return of The U. 

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The No. 1 Ranked Show with RJ Young.” Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young, and subscribe to “The RJ Young Show” on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill.


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