Clemson Football: ACC Teams that could Dethrone the Tigers

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - DECEMBER 03: A model of the ACC trophy is seen on the field during the ACC Championship game at Bank of America Stadium on December 03, 2022 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - DECEMBER 03: A model of the ACC trophy is seen on the field during the ACC Championship game at Bank of America Stadium on December 03, 2022 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images) /

Top Dog

Clemson Football finished undefeated in the ACC last season, a feat capped by an impressive 39-10 win over North Carolina in the conference championship game. It was the seventh ACC title claimed by the Tigers in the last eight years, an accomplishment rivaled only by FSU’s dominate run in the 90’s.

Clemson is poised to win yet another conference championship again in 2023, though their journey there will not be without adversity.

These are the teams with the most potential to dethrone Clemson as ACC champions.

Florida State

It seems as if FSU may finally be turning a corner. Last year’s campaign began with a strong 4-0 start before dropping three straight to Wake Forest, NC State, and Clemson. The Clemson game, however, would be the last the Noles would lose, as they finished the year with six straight victories, including an impressive bowl win over Oklahoma. Entering his 4th season as the head coach, Mike Norvell is optimistic about his team’s chances in 2023.

Why Florida State will Win the ACC

FSU comes into the new season hoping to build off of that tremendous turnaround in 2022. Like Clemson, they will field one of the best rosters in the nation, a roster capable of achieving berths into both the ACC championship game and, perhaps, the College Football Playoff as well.

Much of the national media seems to think they are capable of it. Senior Writer Mark Schlabach ranked the Seminoles 4th in ESPN’s “Way-Too-Early Top 25.” Similarly, the final AP Poll of 2022 ranked the Seminoles 11th overall, while Clemson slipped to 13th, despite beating the Seminoles head-to-head.

FSU’s team is led by dual threat quarterback Jordan Travis, who torched defenses for 3,214 passing yards, and 24 touchdowns last season. This includes a 254 yard, 2 touchdown showing against the Tigers. Additionally, Travis rushed for 417 yards and 7 touchdowns. The dual-threat quarterback will present problems for even the best defenses in the nation, including Clemson’s.

While Florida State’s out of conference schedule is tough–they will play both LSU and Florida–their ACC schedule is relatively manageable. Because they do not play North Carolina or NC State, it seems Clemson will be the primary opponent standing between FSU and a ticket to the ACC championship game.

Why The Tigers will Maintain Dominance

Florida State has not beaten Clemson since 2014. In fact, during the 7 games since (the teams did not play in 2020), Clemson has outscored FSU by 126 total points.

Most of these games were comfortable wins for the Tigers. In all but two matchups, Clemson won by multiple scores. The only exceptions were in 2016, when the Tigers won 37-34 and, of course, last year’s slim 34-28 victory.

Both of those games, however, were played in Doak Campbell Stadium. This year’s matchup is in Death Valley, where the Seminoles have only won twice since 2000. If history is to repeat itself, Clemson should defend their home turf and extend their win streak over the Seminoles.

Win-streaks and statistics only matter until kickoff though, and on September 23rd, these two teams will settle the dispute on the gridiron.

North Carolina

It was a tale of two halves for the Tar Heels in 2022. After winning nine of ten to start their campaign, UNC would drop each of their final four games, including poor showings against Georgia Tech and NC State.

Nonetheless, North Carolina finished the year 9-5 and won the ACC Coastal division. Mack Brown enters the new season hoping to build off last year’s strong campaign.

Why North Carolina will Win the ACC

It seems that, over the last few seasons, North Carolina has continually inched closer and closer to claiming their first ACC title since 1980. Last season, the Tar Heels reached the title game for the first time since 2015, due in no small part to elite quarterback play by Drake Maye.

In 2022, the freshman surprised everyone when he threw for a conference best 4,321 yards and 38 touchdowns. If Maye’s off-season maturation further enhances his play in 2022, there is a strong likelihood he will be considered for the Heisman trophy. Likewise, Mack Brown will work to facilitate this offense through his young star’s play.

The Tar Heel defense will need to improve this season, but if they are able to minimize their deficiencies, expect Maye’s play to solidify North Carolina’s team as one of the premier squads in the ACC.

Why it’s still Clemson’s Trophy

Following the 39-10 ACC Championship blowout, Tar Heel fans realized just how far behind Clemson’s program they are.

Drake Maye had an uncharacteristically bad game against the Tigers, coughing up 2 interceptions to a Clemson secondary that struggled for the greater half of the season. UNC will need to prioritize ball security in their next matchup against the Tigers if they expect to win.

Conversely, North Carolina’s defense struggled to contain Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik, who picked them apart for 279 yards and two passing touchdowns.

If the Tar Heels have hopes of winning the ACC, it must begin on the defensive side of the ball. In 2022, the North Carolina defense gave up a conference worst 438.2 yards per game. To make matters worse, this secondary endured a great deal of turnover during the offseason, as defensive backs Cam’Ron Kelly, Storm Duck, and Tony Grimes will all be departing from the team. If UNC hopes to have an improved secondary in 2023, they will need several young players to step up in a big way this offseason.

While North Carolina will certainly give the Tigers a good fight, it feels as if there are simply too many defensive concerns to overcome to pick the Tar Heels over Clemson. If they somehow find a way to lock down Clemson’s wide outs–which admittedly seems improbable–they’ll still struggle to contain the Tiger’s star running back, Will Shipley. If they cheat the linebackers up to account for the run, Klubnik will kill them over the middle of the field.

Seeing how mightily UNC struggled to contain Streeter’s offensive scheme, one worries about their capacity to keep up with a Garrett Riley-led system. Riley will find a way to exploit any defensive shortcoming the Tar Heels have, thus, making it awfully difficult to see a scenario in which the Tar Heels win.

This year’s game will be held in Chapel Hill, however. The last time Clemson visited Kenan Memorial Stadium, they narrowly escaped with a 21-20 victory following a failed two-point conversion attempt by the Tar Heels. If UNC can keep this year’s matchup as close as the one in 2019, who’s to say they can’t pull off the upset?

NC State

NC State is the popular dark horse pick in the ACC coming into 2023. While their roster is perhaps not quite as imposing as the other team’s listed in this article, the Wolfpack beat both Florida State and North Carolina last season, and deserve to be acknowledged as an ACC contender.

Why NC State Could Win the ACC

It seems that in recent years, NC State has been viewed as more of a “thorn in the side” of real contenders rather than as a legitimate contender themselves. This is due in part to their exceptional showings in big games, but disappointing performances against lower-caliber opponents.

While the Wolfpack beat strong teams like Florida State and North Carolina in 2022, they also lost games they arguably should have won, including matchups against Syracuse and Boston College. If the Wolfpack want to be considered as a legitimate force in the ACC, it is vital they beat the teams they are better than.

The good news is they have the potential to do that. Compared to other contenders, NC State’s schedule is relatively team-friendly, as they’ll face their three toughest in-conference opponents–Clemson, North Carolina, and Louisville–all at home. And with the exception of Duke, all of their conference road games will be against teams that finished below .500 in 2022. Additionally, they are not slated to face Florida State in the regular season, which avoids them a potential conference loss.

Under Dave Dorean, the Wolfpack have quietly built one of the best programs in the ACC. In 2022, they competed well against Clemson on the road, though ultimately falling 30-20. A year prior, however, they beat the Tigers at home, and, coming off a perfectly placed bye week, they may have the chance to do so again in 2023.

Why the Tigers aren’t Worried

Simply stated, Clemson has a better team than NC State.

The Wolfpack’s roster is talented. Even so, they do not stack up against this Clemson squad. NC State’s offense lacks several key pieces that would give them a competitive advantage over the Tigers, primarily, a quarterback.

With the departure of Devin Leary to Kentucky, NC State is uncertain who will be starting behind center. The likely candidate is Ben Finley, who led the Wolfpack in their double-overtime victory against UNC last season. Though, a less than ideal showing against Maryland in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl (296 yards, 0 TD, 2 interceptions) left fans wondering if true freshman MJ Morris should be starting in 2023. Regardless of who wins the job, fans will need to see their potential displayed before buying into the idea they could overtake Clemson’s defense.

The biggest concern for the Tigers is winning against this team on the road. In 2021, Clemson lost a double OT thriller in Raleigh, a game that ultimately ended the Tiger’s playoff aspirations. Over the last two seasons, however, Clemson has improved tremendously on the offensive side of the ball, and while winning in Raleigh is a tall task for this team, it is a feat most will expect them to accomplish.

Everyone Else

What makes ACC football so special is in almost any year, any team can sneak their way into the championship conversation. They may even occasionally win it, as Pitt did in 2020. While it is unlikely, do not be surprised to see a competent team like Duke or Louisville compete deep into the regular season with a shot to play their way into the title game.

But make no mistake: Clemson is the team to beat in the ACC. The road to Charlotte goes through Tiger Town, and any team that wants to claim the conference title will likely have to beat Clemson once, perhaps twice, to do so.