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College football 2020 season preview: ACC players, teams and trends to watch

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown a wrench into the sports calendar, and the college football season hangs in the balance. Until schools and conferences decide it’s safe, there won’t be practices, scrimmages or games, making a delayed start likely and a canceled season altogether possible.

But if a season is played, there’s plenty to look forward to.

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The Baltimore Sun begins its previews for the 2020 season, starting with the Atlantic Coast Conference. Here are the players, teams and trends to watch this year:

Players to watch

Boston College: Running back David Bailey

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A.J. Dillon became a second-round pick as the battering ram in the Eagles offense, and Bailey is next in line. As Dillon’s backup in 2019, Bailey rushed for 844 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Now that he’ll get the lion’s share of the carries — especially with BC having to replace quarterback Anthony Brown — Bailey could become one of the most productive running backs in the ACC.

Clemson: Quarterback Trevor Lawrence

The presumptive No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, Lawrence has a chance to cap one of the best college careers ever with another national title game appearance, which would be his third in three seasons as a starter. After a slow start in 2019, he still averaged 9.0 yards per attempt and threw 36 touchdown passes, adding 563 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. Staying healthy should be his only major concern in 2020.

Duke: Quarterback Chase Brice

The Clemson transfer has had little playing time, but he’s made the most of it, throwing nine touchdown passes and averaging 7.5 yards per attempt on 136 passes. He’s played in some big moments, too, helping lead a game-winning drive against Syracuse in 2018 when Trevor Lawrence was knocked out.

Florida State defensive tackle Marvin Wilson celebrates a sack in the first half of a game against Louisville in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019.
Florida State defensive tackle Marvin Wilson celebrates a sack in the first half of a game against Louisville in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019. (Mark Wallheiser/AP)

Florida State: Defensive lineman Marvin Wilson

Wilson might have been a first- or second-round pick in the 2020 draft if he declared, but he chose to return to Florida State to play for new coach Mike Norvell. He has the chance to become a top-five prospect the way Auburn defensive lineman Derrick Brown did last season, and Wilson has an ever higher ceiling as a pass rusher. He earned 20 pressures in his first four games in 2019, per scouting website Pro Football Focus.

Georgia Tech: Running back Jordan Mason

The Yellow Jackets are still transitioning away from Paul Johnson’s triple-option offense under new coach Geoff Collins, but Mason is expected to receive the bulk of the carries again after rushing for 899 yards (5.2 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns in 2019.

Louisville: Quarterback Micale Cunningham

The Cardinals have struggled to find a successor to 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, but Cunningham has a chance to be a star. He averaged 11.5 yards per attempt and completed 62.5% of his passes for 22 touchdowns and rushed for 482 yards and six scores in 2019. He might not ascend to Jackson’s heights, but his highlights are reminiscent of the current Ravens star.

University of Miami quarterback D'Eriq King throws a pass during the first day of spring practice.
University of Miami quarterback D'Eriq King throws a pass during the first day of spring practice. (Susan Stocker / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Miami: Quarterback D’Eriq King

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One of the biggest names on the transfer market, King scored 50 touchdowns (36 passing, 14 rushing) in 2018 with Houston, but played just four games last season before deciding to redshirt to preserve his eligibility. If he can return to the player he was two seasons ago, the Hurricanes might have finally found a quarterback.

North Carolina: Quarterback Sam Howell

There’s a lot to be excited about in Chapel Hill after Mack Brown took the Tar Heels to a bowl game in his first season back at the helm, and Howell is the reason. According to PFF, only Ohio State’s Justin Fields and LSU’s Joe Burrow had more big-time throws in 2019 than Howell, who had 38 touchdown passes and averaged 8.6 yards per attempt as a true freshman.

North Carolina State: Running back Zonovan Knight

The Wolfpack don’t have a lot to look forward to after a 4-8 season and just one conference victory in 2019. Coach Dave Doeren is firmly on the heat seat, and with the outlook grim in 2020, this might be his final season. Knight rushed for a team-leading 745 yards on 5.5 yards per carry in 2019, scoring five touchdowns.

Pittsburgh defensive lineman Jaylen Twyman (97) sacks North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell (7) during a game, in Pittsburgh on Nov. 14, 2019.
Pittsburgh defensive lineman Jaylen Twyman (97) sacks North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell (7) during a game, in Pittsburgh on Nov. 14, 2019. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

Pittsburgh: Defensive lineman Jaylen Twyman

Safety Paris Ford and edge rusher Patrick Jones II deserve mention, but Twyman has a rare combination of size and athleticism for an interior lineman, recording 10½ sacks in 2019. Twyman wears No. 97, just like former Pitt star Aaron Donald, and he might soon join the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year as a first-round pick.

Syracuse: Quarterback Tommy DeVito

DeVito failed to live up to his four-star hype in 2019, but he still managed to throw 19 touchdown passes playing behind a porous offensive line that gave up 4.17 sacks per game, third-worst in the FBS. With improved play up front, DeVito has a chance to take a step forward, but he has to find a new go-to receiver after Trishton Jackson (team-leading 1,023 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns in 2019) left early for the NFL.

Virginia: Outside linebacker Charles Snowden

Who ends up replacing Bryce Perkins at quarterback will be fascinating to watch, but the Cavaliers defense might be among the league’s best. Snowden, a Silver Spring native, had five sacks and 11 tackles for loss in 2019 and is expected to improve on those numbers with his combination of length and athleticism, which could attract the attention of NFL scouts.

Virginia Tech defensive back Caleb Farley celebrates after intercepting a pass during a game against Miami, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Virginia Tech defensive back Caleb Farley celebrates after intercepting a pass during a game against Miami, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Virginia Tech: Cornerback Caleb Farley

Farley is one of the hottest names in way-too-early 2021 mock drafts. PFF ranked him the third best 2020 draft-eligible prospect to return to college after allowing just 19 receptions and 88 yards after the catch on 50 targets last season. According to PFF, quarterbacks had a worse passer rating when targeting Farley in 2019 (29.2) than they would have if they spiked the ball every play (39.6).

Wake Forest: Wide receiver Sage Surratt

Though Surratt will be working with a new quarterback after Jamie Newman transferred to Georgia, he has the chance to be one of the nation’s top wideouts. He caught 11 touchdown passes and averaged 15.2 yards per catch in 2019, using his size (6-3, 215 pounds) and athleticism to routinely beat cornerbacks. He also broke 17 tackles after the catch last season, according to PFF.

Duke's Chris Rumph II (96) celebrates in front of Miami's Jarren Williams (15) during a game in Durham, N.C., on Nov. 30, 2019.
Duke's Chris Rumph II (96) celebrates in front of Miami's Jarren Williams (15) during a game in Durham, N.C., on Nov. 30, 2019. (Chris Seward/AP)

Breakout star

Duke edge rusher Chris Rumph II

One could argue that Rumph already broke out after he recorded the highest pass-rush win rate (31.6%) in the country in 2019, better than No. 2 overall pick Chase Young’s (27.2%). But he might be even better this season, especially if he fills out his 6-3, 225-pound frame. As a devastating pass rusher and strong run defender, Rumph might be in the conversation as one of the nation’s best defenders and could be a top-10 pick next April.

True freshman to watch

Clemson defensive tackle Bryan Bresee

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The No. 1 overall recruit in the 2020 class, according to the 247 Sports Composite rankings, Bresee is next in line in what’s quickly becoming a defensive line factory at Clemson. After Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence all got drafted in the first round in 2019, Xavier Thomas could be a top pick in 2021, and Bresee might follow in 2023. The Washington Post’s Player of the Year, the 6-foot-5, 290-pound Bresee won two Maryland 3A titles at Damascus and forced a fumble and scored a rushing touchdown while playing with a broken left hand in the state championship game this past season.

Team on the rise

North Carolina

With Howell leading the way, the Tar Heels should have one of the league’s best offenses and might be able to get to nine or more wins if things break their way. In 2019, UNC outscored opponents 246-210, yet it finished 7-6 and 4-4 in the ACC, mostly because of its 3-6 record in one-score games. With a little bit of luck and another step forward from Howell, the Tar Heels can compete for a title in the wide-open Coastal division.

Team on the decline

Virginia

Losing star quarterback Bryce Perkins hurts, and there isn’t an obvious replacement waiting in the wings. Perkins accounted for nearly 80% of the team’s total yards last season, and top receivers Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed are now in the NFL. After ending the 15-game losing streak to Virginia Tech and winning nine games for the first time since 2007, the Cavaliers have their work cut out for themselves if they want to get back to the ACC title game. A season opener against Georgia won’t help matters, either.

Predicted order of finish

Atlantic

1. Clemson (12-0, 8-0)

2. Louisville (8-4, 4-4)

3. Florida State (7-5, 4-4)

4. Syracuse (5-7, 3-5)

5. Wake Forest (5-7, 3-5)

6. Boston College (5-7, 3-5)

7. N.C. State (4-8, 2-6)

Coastal

1. North Carolina (9-3, 6-2)

2. Virginia Tech (8-4, 5-3)

3. Miami (8-4, 5-3)

4. Pittsburgh (8-4, 4-4)

5. Virginia (6-6, 4-4)

6. Duke (6-6, 3-5)

7. Georgia Tech (3-9, 2-6)

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