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ACC predictions 2020: Conference standings, Heisman hopefuls and can’t-miss games

The ACC is one of three Power 5 conference that opted to play college football in 2020, and the conference used a plus-one model for scheduling.  

That’s not the plus-one college football fans are talking about.  

Notre Dame is a full member of the ACC in football for this season and will be able to participate in the conference championship game. The Irish bring one of the game’s biggest brands to the field, and that spices up a season where Clemson is aiming for its sixth straight conference championship.  

MORE: Best games each week in 2020

The Tigers are loaded again under coach Dabo Swinney, and the backfield tandem of Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne will be hard to beat. That said, North Carolina and Louisville are on the rise, Virginia Tech and Miami are on the spot and two new coaches — Florida State’s Mike Norvell and Boston College’s Jeff Hafley — are in the fold.  

Sporting News looks at the ACC and makes its predictions for 2020:  

2020 ACC predicted order of finish  

1. Clemson   
2. Notre Dame   
3. North Carolina   
4. Louisville   
5. Virginia Tech
6. Miami   
7. Pitt   
8. Florida State  
9. Virginia   
10. Wake Forest   
11. N.C. State  
12. Georgia Tech   
13. Duke   
14. Syracuse   
15. Boston College  
 

ACC top storyline  

How will the Irish react to playing a full league schedule? Notre Dame is ranked No. 6 in SN’s Preseason Top 25, and they have an experienced quarterback in Ian Book. The novelty of playing in a conference for the first time is one the leading storylines of the season, and Brian Kelly has led the Irish to a 33-6 record the past three seasons. The schedule is friendly leading up to November showdowns against Clemson (Nov. 7) and North Carolina (Nov. 27). What if Notre Dame uses the ACC championship to vault back into the College Football Playoff? It’s one of the more interesting hypotheticals to think about from all angles.  

COVID impacts  

We mentioned the plus-one model, but the ACC did away with divisions as part of its scheduling plan and the top two teams in the standings will play in the ACC championship game. Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley — a second-team selection on SN’s Preseason All-American team — was one of the first star players to opt out of the 2020 season. Miami defensive end Greg Rousseau and Pitt’s Jaylen Twyman — both first-team selections — also opted out. COVID-19 outbreaks on campuses also are worth monitoring. N.C. State’s game against Virginia Tech was moved from Sept. 12 to Sept. 26.  

Impact freshman  

Bryan Breese, DE, Clemson  

Xavier Thomas still is recovering from COVID-19, and that could lead to more playing time for Breese — the top recruit in the 2020 class and part of the next wave of defensive linemen at Clemson. The 6-5, 290-pounder likely will be a situational player who can grow into a more enhanced role right away.  

Tony Grimes, CB, North Carolina  

The five-star cornerback committed — then reclassified — and he adds depth to the Tar Heels’ secondary right away. Grimes will learn the ropes from cornerbacks coach Dre Bly — a two-time All-American with the Tar Heels.  

Impact transfer  

D’Eriq King, QB, Miami 

Miami’s offense bottomed out in the 14-0 loss to Louisiana Tech in the Independence Bowl, and coach Manny Diaz was proactive in changing the offense this offseason. He hired Rhett Lashlee as offensive coordinator from SMU, and he brought in King — who red-shirted at Houston last year after totaling 50 TDs the previous season. King brings a dynamic skill set to the position, and that should jump-start and offense that ranked 90th in the FBS with 25.7 points per game last season.  

ACC Heisman hopefuls  

Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson 

Lawrence returns as the top player in college football, and the fact 2019 Heisman finalist Justin Fields isn’t playing opens the door a little wider. Lawrence will need to pour on the numbers in blowouts and throw fewer interceptions than last season, but he still checks every box.  

Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson  

Etienne averaged 7.8 yards per carry for his career and scores a TD once every 9.3 carries. He’s a prolific playmaker, but it would take an out-of-this-world-season to emerge from Lawrence’s shadow.  

Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina  

Howell set the true freshman record with 38 TD passes last season and had an offseason to develop under offensive coordinator Phil Longo. He fits the definition of a Heisman sleeper.  

Ian Book, QB, Notre Dame  

Book is 20-3 as a starter and has 57 career TD passes for the Irish. Notre Dame, however, has not had a Heisman Trophy winner since 1987.  

MORE: SN’s top 40 players for 2020

ACC biggest games  

Clemson at Notre Dame (Nov. 7)  

Sporting News has billed this as its Game of the Year, and we’ll hold by that because there is a decent both teams come in with undefeated records. Any time the No. 1 team comes to South Bend, there is a chance for one of those instant classics that both teams remember forever. With the Irish playing as a full ACC member, this is that moment.  

Notre Dame at North Carolina (Nov. 27)  

Notre Dame travels to Chapel Hill the day after Thanksgiving, and there is an excellent chance this game is for a berth in the ACC championship game. The quarterback duel between Book and Howell is good. The coaching chess match between Kelly and Brown will be even better.  

Clemson at Virginia Tech (Dec. 5) 

The regular season stretches into September, and Virginia Tech should be improved despite the loss of Farley. It’s been a long time since the Hokies made one of those season-defining upsets in Blacksburg. Is this the chaotic year to do it?  

ACC stat that matters  

Clemson is 43-2 including conference championship games against the ACC the last five years, and the gap has widened with each season. The Tigers outscored ACC opponents 432-91 last season — an average of 37.9 points per game. That is the largest gap in the five-year ACC title run.  

YEAR
MARGIN
2015
17.8
2016
18.1
2017
16.8
2018
35.2
2019
37.9

ACC champion: Clemson  

Notre Dame adds a new wrinkle, and North Carolina should take the next step under Mack Brown, but Lawrence is still 25-1 as a starter and the Tigers are built for another national championship run under Swinney. If Clemson loses, then it will be one of the biggest stories of the 2020 regular season. We’ll believe it when we see it.  

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