2021 ended in a disappointing, and somewhat embarrassing, fashion for Clemson. Sure, the Tigers made it to the Final Four. But once there, they lost for the first time ever to Ohio State (all five meetings in bowl games), and the 21-point margin of the 49-28 defeat in the Sugar Bowl was Clemson's biggest loss since a 45-21 setback to Georgia to open the 2014 season. Clemson has never won in the Sugar Bowl (0-3).
Reality set-in the next morning. Trevor Lawrence really had played his last game in the Tiger Orange & Regalia. So did RB Travis Etienne and receivers Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell. Those four players accounted for 1,291 rushing yards (22 TD's), 3,153 passing yards (24 TD's), and 2,490 receiving yards (16 TD's).
So why all the enthusiasm for Clemson in 2021?
We got more than a glimpse of Lawrence's replacement when D.J. Uiagalelei was the starter against Boston College and Notre Dame. He threw 85 passes in those contests, completed 59, and had 4 TD tosses with 0 INT's. That's what most prognosticators are hitching their wagon to. Most are also touting on a defense that returns the top ten tacklers from a year ago, but that side of the ball presented Clemson with some issues in 2020 as the defense slipped from 6th in 2019 to 15th overall, the passing defense stumbled from 4th to 41st, and the scoring defense ranked 18th to drop out of the top three for the first time since 2016.
According to the Congrove Computer Rankings, the completely foolish, shocking, horrendous reality is that Clemson is NOT favored to win the ACC after collecting six straight titles.
But how can that be?
The ACC isn't any different than the entire FBS when it comes to college football in 2021. Practically everyone has a roster that's enhanced by players who didn't lose a year of eligibility under the "Covid rules". Thus, the 130 FBS schools return an average of 74.8% of last year's starters, and 76.4% of letter winners. Fifty-three teams have welcomed back at least 80% of their starters and seventeen of those are returning upwards of 90%.
Last season's Final Four teams in the FBS playoff don't have that luxury. Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State and Notre Dame all rank in the bottom 16 of returning productivity .
Maybe that doesn't swing the door wide open, but it's definitely cracked. And you shouldn't be surprised if the entire Final Four is different than a year ago.
In the ACC, Miami and North Carolina are definitely threats to Clemson's dominance. The computer actually gives the edge to the 'Canes to win the Coastal and finally avenge the 38-3 wipeout loss to the Tigers in their only previous ACC Championship game appearance in 2017.
Miami welcomes back 19 starters, including D'Eriq King at QB. King was also one of the top four rushers on a team that also returns the other three. The top 5 receivers are also back, along with 9 players on defense who collected at least 30 tackles a year ago.
We will get an early look at whether or not that all means anything as Miami and Alabama will collide in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff on Labor Day weekend. (Spoiler alert: the computer also doesn't have Alabama winning the SEC).
What about Notre Dame?
After advancing to the ACC Championship game a year ago, and getting pounded 34-10 by Clemson, Notre Dame returns to independent status. However, the Irish will still continue their practice of playing five non-conference games vs. ACC members. This year, three of those are road games at Florida State on Sept. 5, Virginia Tech on Oct. 9 and Virginia on Nov. 13. The other two will be in South Bend where they will host North Carolina on Oct. 30 and Georgia Tech on Nov. 20. Are we sensing 1-4 vs. the ACC for Notre Dame???
Outside of Clemson, Miami and North Carolina, the other primary contenders to look out for this season are Boston College and N.C. State in the Atlantic, while Pitt is on the radar of most prognosticators as a potential force in the Coastal. But we honestly wouldn't be surprised if Florida State drops Notre Dame on opening weekend and gathers momentum as the season progresses. Nor would we be stunned if Virginia Tech upsets UNC on opening weekend and gets to 4-0 when Notre Dame comes to town on Oct., 9.
As crazy as 2021 could be, we won't be completely shocked if Jeff Sims and the other 16 returning starters in Atlanta make an unexpected run in Geoff Collins' third season at Georgia Tech.
The ACC’s non-conference schedule continues to be the most difficult in the country. In addition to 23 games against Power 5 opponents (including Notre Dame), the ACC will play 13 non-conference games against teams ranked in the final 2020 AP Top 25 poll. All 14 teams play at least one Power 5 non-conference opponent, while nine teams – Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia and Virginia Tech – play two.
For the second time in the last three years, North Carolina and Wake Forest will meet in a non-conference game on Nov. 6.
The 2021 ACC Football Championship Game will return to the first Saturday of December (Dec. 4) at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, and feature the winner of the Atlantic Division vs. the winner of the Coastal Division.
Here's how the computer stacks up the ACC for 2021:
|22||North Carolina State||9||3||5||3||83.41||47|
|** - Miami by 1.39 over Clemson|