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Teams poised to win the ACC football championship with Clemson vulnerable and the conference up for grabs

Written by on September 29, 2021

Only eight of the 56 regular-season ACC league games scheduled have been played, and already the preseason favorites in the Atlantic (Clemson) and Coastal (North Carolina) Divisions have combined for three losses. Suddenly the league that appeared to have a predetermined championship game with two top-10 teams is wide open, and there’s more than a handful of schools that are thrilled for the opportunity to snap Clemson’s streak of six-straight ACC championships. 

It’s important we note that Clemson remains the overwhelming betting favorite to win the ACC championship, even as they tumble in the rankings at 2-2 and have key injuries stacking up on both sides of the ball. Caesars Sportsbook still has Clemson listed with better than even odds (-160) to win the league heading into Week 5 with the next best picks on the board being NC State (+800), followed by Wake Forest and Virginia Tech (+1000). 

With those implied odds, the sportsbook is telling us there’s a 61.5% chance Clemson still wins the ACC. Given the head-to-head loss to a good division foe and the quality of offensive football on the field, 61.5% seems too high; also these prices are set with the market in mind and whatever exposure exists from preseason wagers. The point remains, however, that despite how poorly things have gone for Clemson, it remains the team to beat. 

So what’s the path like for Clemson? And if this six-year run of ACC championships comes to an end in 2021, who will be the team to emerge and claim what would be the first ACC title not won by Clemson or Florida State since 2010? Let’s break it down, starting with the reigning champs’ path back to Charlotte

Odds via Caesars Sportsbook. 

Clemson

Record: 2-2 (1-1 ACC) | Odds to win ACC: -150 
Outlook: Unless we see significant injuries continue to pile up, Clemson will be a favorite in every remaining game and likely a sizable favorite in most ACC contests. The toughest spots left on the conference schedule are at Pitt on Oct. 23 and against Wake Forest at home on Nov. 20. Clemson’s head-to-head loss to NC State requires both winning out and two Wolfpack losses in ACC play to win the division and make the championship game. If Clemson’s offense continues to struggle, it’s difficult to see it finishing 7-1 in ACC play. Improvement on that side on that side should not be a shock if it happens, though; we are talking about a five-star quarterback with proven success at the college level, albeit in a small sample size. But even if DJ Uiagalelei comes roaring back and Clemson lights up the scoreboard in every game from here until the end of the season, it might not be enough. The Tigers aren’t in the driver’s seat for the first time in a long time. 

NC State 

Record: 3-1 (1-0 ACC) | Odds to win ACC: +800
Outlook: Do you trust NC State to hold the rope and lose, at a minimum, just one ACC game between now and the end of the year? The fact that this is an experienced group that carried over from last year’s top 25 finish at the end of the regular season helps because they have largely spent the last couple seasons working to this point. NC State is not unprepared for the challenge of going 6-1 or 7-0 the rest of the way in ACC play, but the two toughest spots on the path to Charlotte are games against the program’s biggest rivals. First is at Wake Forest on Nov. 13 in a stadium where the Demon Deacons have won 10 out of the last 12 in the series, and then the regular-season finale against North Carolina on the day after Thanksgiving. Throw in a trips to Boston College and Miami in back-to-back weeks and you can see why the path to a historic championship run — the Wolfpack have not won an ACC football championship since 1979 — is far from smooth even after one of the biggest wins possible in the race.  

Wake Forest 

Record: 4-0 (2-0 ACC) | Odds to win ACC: +1000 
Outlook: There are no complaints for the way that Sam Hartman and the Wake Forest offense have been executing through four games. The Demon Deacons have put up 35-plus points in every game and defeated both Florida State and Virginia by a combined score of 72-31. No one in the ACC has done a better job of controlling the contest from start to finish in all of its games, and that’s left an impression on AP voters who put the Demon Deacons in the top 25 this week. Wake Forest’s schedule is back-loaded with North Carolina, NC State, Clemson and Boston College in consecutive weeks to close the regular season, but in an interesting twist, the game against the Tar Heels doesn’t count for the ACC race because it is a nonconference game. Unless Wake Forest slips up along the way, the Demon Deacons should enter November with a chance to get hot and win the division on the field. 

Virginia Tech

Record: 3-1 (1-0 ACC) | Odds to win ACC: +1000 
Outlook: The Hokies started the season with a huge win in front of one of the most memorable home-field environments of the season’s first month as it took down then-top-10 ranked North Carolina, but the nonconference action since has brought some concerns to light in terms of where this team stacks up against the rest of the league. Virginia Tech is off in Week 5 and back in action against Notre Dame on Oct. 9, which while a huge game for Justin Fuente but doesn’t mean anything for the conference race. The Hokies return to ACC play on Oct. 16 against Pitt in a huge game within the Coastal race and have a difficult late November with back-to-back road games against Miami and Virginia to close the regular season. A record of 2-1 or better in those three division should position the Hokies well for a return to the ACC Championship Game for the first time since Fuente’s first season in Blacksburg in 2016. 

Miami

Record: 2-2 (0-0 ACC) | Odds to win ACC: +1200 
Outlook: There are two reads on Miami. One points to the many struggles or shortcomings based on preseason expectations — D’Eriq King has been banged up, the ground game can’t get going and the defense has struggled by giving up 5.77 yards per play against FBS opponents (No. 81 nationally) — and the other looks at the clean slate ahead with a 0-0 record heading into ACC play. The Hurricanes’ two losses have come to 4-0 teams and the two losses for North Carolina have the division blown wide open. Miami is arguably the most interesting team in the ACC race over the next month because it faces North Carolina (road), NC State (home) and Pitt (road) in consecutive weeks, giving it a say in who wins both the Atlantic and Coastal Division. If Miami can finish October in first place in the Coastal, it will have a chance to hold serve and make the title game, likely needing a win against Virginia Tech on Nov. 20 to clinch the division.   

Pitt 

Record: 3-1 (0-0 ACC) | Odds to win ACC: +2500
Outlook: Don’t pay attention to that Western Michigan loss; that’s just a red herring. This is a very good Pitt football team absolutely capable of winding up as the Coastal Division representative in the ACC Championship Game. The reason the oddsmakers have made it seem so unlikely is because of the path, not the quality of the Panthers team. Pitt plays at Georgia Tech, at Virginia Tech and hosts Clemson and Miami in consecutive weeks, starting this Saturday against the Yellow Jackets. Even though 5-3 has won the Coastal Division previously, the target goal for the Panthers should be to go 2-2 in that stretch, leaving a Thursday night game against North Carolina on Nov. 11 as the must-win for division title contention.   

Boston College 

Record: 4-0 (0-0 ACC) | Odds to win ACC: +4000
Outlook: Like the other teams who have yet to start conference play, Boston College still has more control over its future than teams who have conference losses like Clemson or North Carolina. But while the 4-0 record looks gaudy, it’s come against FCS Colgate and the No. 129, No. 110 and No. 65 ranked teams in the CBS Sports 130 (UMass, Temple and Missouri). Jeff Hafley has done a fantastic job retooling the offense around backup quarterback Dennis Grosel following Phil Jurkovec’s injury, but the long odds suggest there are a couple losses ahead in conference play. 

North Carolina 

Record: 2-2 (1-2 ACC) | Odds to win ACC: +1200 
Outlook: It speaks to the strength of North Carolina’s power rating that oddsmakers still give the Tar Heels such (comparatively) good odds to bounce back from its 1-2 start in league play. The first step is consistent performances from game to game that meet that high rating as opposed to the lapses seen in road losses to Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. Two division losses, especially with one coming to a fellow Coastal contender, hurts for tiebreaker purposes. Since 6-2 is the best possible ACC record, it’s likely the Tar Heels will need some tiebreakers to win the division. 

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