The ACC Championship race in 2020 has a simple premise but no certain answers. Clemson, the five-time conference champs and current No. 1 team in the country, is expected to be the best team in the league and nearly a lock to make to Charlotte as one of the top two teams in the 15-team, division-free standings established for 2020. That is not a guarantee that Clemson will go undefeated in league play like it did in 2015, 2018 and 2019, but it acknowledges that if the Tigers do lose, it's highly unlikely that it would happen multiple times and two other teams finishing the season with a better winning percentage in conference play.
So the ACC Championship Game picture is at least partially easy to predict, but finding the right side to back as Clemson's likely opponent is much more difficult, particularly after a strong debut from Virginia Tech.
The Hokies were one win away from the ACC Championship Game in 2019 before falling short against rival Virginia, the Coastal Division champs, on the last weekend of the regular season. Returning double-digit starters and several key pieces from a group that improved in October and November, way-too-early projections had the Hokies in the mix to win the ACC Coastal before the league switched up its format this season. The Hokies then had their season-opener postponed because of COVID-19 issues at NC State, then their second scheduled game had to be postponed because of COVID-19 issues in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech didn't play a game, but as the season started and our attention drifted elsewhere, the role of Justin Fuente's team in the ACC Championship Game picture started to fade.
But after thumping NC State in Week 4, the entire conference should be put on notice. The Hokies were down 23 players, including starting quarterback Hendon Hooker, and multiple coaches, including defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton, because of COVID-19 protocols but looked dialed in from the jump as they got out to a 17-0 start and cruised to a 45-24 win. Even forced to turn to its third string quarterback when backup Braxton Burmeister got injured, the offense rolled up 495 yards at 8.53 yards per play. Defensively, they were able to showcase some depth and reasons to be excited in its first year since Bud Foster's retirement, with transfer defensive end Justus Reed looking like a breakout star and preseason All-ACC pick Rayshard Ashby getting right back to his 100-tackle ways with six stops and a sack against the Wolfpack.
So while our attention drifted elsewhere, Virginia Tech never fell from being right there in the mix with Miami, North Carolina and Notre Dame as a team in the mix to land one of those two spots in the ACC Championship Game. There's an enticing game coming up next weekend against the Tar Heels, but ultimately the Hokies' title contention will be decided during a four-week stretch, where both Miami (Nov. 14) and Clemson (Dec. 5) visit Lane Stadium with a trip to Pitt (Nov. 21) in between. Until then, we should make sure to refocus our expectations where they were back in the spring, with Virginia Tech very much in the mix for an ACC Championship.
Game of the week
No. 12 North Carolina at Boston College: The two-week layoff makes this really interesting for North Carolina, but even more so because of the expectations that have come with this high poll ranking. The Tar Heels haven't yet had a week where they've been on the field and judged by voters as a fringe top-10 team, and that makes this an interesting game for the purposes of perception and expectations.
Since 2000, North Carolina has been ranked in the AP Top 25 poll for just 33 weeks. For comparison, Clemson has been ranked in the AP Top 25 poll 37 times since the start of the 2018 season. The Tar Heels have been unranked for 12 entire seasons in the same span, and that does't include the disappointments of 2010 and 2014, where preseason hype went bust by Week 3. I know it might sound strange to one of these fan bases that is used to perpetually being stuck with a high-teens or low-twenties number next to your name, but top-25 status is not a birthright in college football. A ranking of No. 12 or higher has been hit only two other times since Mack Brown left, once by Larry Fedora during the 11-win campaign of 2015 and in the 1998 preseason poll, before the Tar Heels lost their first regular season game without Brown in the season-opener against Miami (Ohio).
Boston College brings in plenty of intrigue on its own, coming off two wildly different performances in its 2-0 start. After feasting on Duke turnovers in a 20-point win, the Eagles found themselves in a hole against Texas State in the home opener. It wasn't what anyone expected from the three-score favorites, but they did a great job to rally and get out with a win. Those incongruent performances make for a tough read on where this team is just a few weeks into the Jeff Hafley era. Saturday's game with the top-15 Tar Heels in town will give us even more -- or maybe even less -- understanding on the topic.
Each week, we'll be offering these top-half power rankings for the 15-team, one-division ACC. Results matter, but won't match the standings necessarily as we look to identify the teams that have the best chance to contend for one of the top two spots (determined by winning percentage) and play for the conference championship in December.
1. Clemson (Last week -- 1): Big on the watch list this week for the Tigers is how the wide receivers have come along in the off week. Sophomore Frank Ladson Jr. seems to be the flavor of the week after hitting a couple of big plays and logging two touchdowns in the win against The Citadel.
2. Miami (3): The climb continues after a wildly impressive win against Florida State, where the opponent should not limit the shine of the victory. Not only did D'Eriq King and the offense continue to pour on the points, but Miami's defensive line showed why it deserves recognition as one of the best in the league. Clemson and Pitt often get mentioned first, but Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche lead an equally nasty group that can put pressure on the quarterback in game-changing ways.
3. Notre Dame (2): The Irish were off after an outbreak of COVID-19 positives forced the postponement of Saturday's scheduled game against Wake Forest.
4. North Carolina (4): As we mentioned earlier, this feels like a big "prove it" week for Sam Howell and the Tar Heels. They jumped up into that top tier of the rankings and now will be expected to play like it as two-touchdowns favorites on the road against Boston College.
5. Virginia Tech (NR): Revenge week has arrived for the Hokies. Duke beat Virginia Tech 45-10 in Blacksburg last year, turning "Enter Sandman" into "Exit Sandman" with fans headed to the exits by the end of the third quarter. As we look at this team through the lens of an ACC title contender, also keep in mind they're going to want to get right after that 2019 result contributed to falling short of the ACC Championship Game.
6. Pitt (5): Defense, a good kicking game and enough explosive plays can keep Pitt in every single game it plays this year, but the Panthers need to find more consistency on offense. In two games against FBS opponents, Pitt is averaging 4.54 yards per play, a number that ranks No. 13 among the 15 ACC teams.
7. Virginia (NR): The floor is so much higher in Charlottesville than when Bronco Mendenhall arrived, and it's most apparent in the evaluation and player development department. Freshman wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. flashed in the win against Duke and players who were serviceable in 2019 have leveled up into impactful starters. Duke might not be the best judge of where the defending Coastal champs stand in the pecking order but neither will Clemson. One thing is for sure though: the cellar of the standings is not the destination, even in a rebuilding year.
8. Louisville (6): Not all 1-2 records are alike in this young part of the 2020 season, and I refuse to give up on the Cards as a better-than-average team in the ACC. If Louisville is lower than eighth in the standings at the end of the season, it's been a banner year for the league because so far all I see is a team that's happened to run into two of the best teams in the league in the first month of play.
Dropped from the rankings: NC State (7), Georgia Tech (8)