Graphic by Mike Meredith

Spanning six seasons from 2015-20, the ACC came and went each year with little drama. It was simply understood that Clemson was likely going to cruise to the conference title and secure its spot in the College Football Playoff, which it did winning two national championships along the way.

The Tigers stumbled last season despite preseason hype surrounding star quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, opening the door for Pittsburgh to win the ACC crown behind the arm of Heisman finalist Kenny Pickett. The unfamiliar parity in the league, though, led to the ACC being left without a chance at the national championship for the first time in the CFP era. 

Entering this season, the expectation is that Clemson will bounce back and reclaim its stronghold on the league; the Tigers are the betting favorite to win the ACC at -140, according to Caesars Sportsbook. But the Tigers may be staring down a formidable challenger -- not just this season but for years to come -- if a Miami program optimistic about a return to prominence actually succeeds with one of its own, Mario Cristobal, leading the charge. There may even be a few dark horse teams waiting in the wings, salivating at their chance to surprisingly earn top-dog status in the conference, much as Pitt did last season. 

The Tigers may be favored to return to their perch, but the ACC is still rife with storylines to follow this season. Our CBS Sports college football experts have provided their picks and predictions for the ACC ahead of the 2021 season below.

Most overrated team

Clemson: The Tigers may indeed win the ACC. Maybe last year was a speed bump, but I really need to see it first. As well as the defense may perform -- and it's good -- Uiagalelei will have to live up to his expectations. If not, well, the ACC is too strong now for the Tigers to be able to slog through mediocrity. Watch out for Wake Forest, NC State, Florida State and Miami. It is unwise to grandfather Clemson into the title game just yet. -- Dennis Dodd

Pitt: The Panthers had as outstanding a season as can be expected last year while winning the ACC and sending Pickett to the Heisman ceremony. An encore will be difficult to replicate, but I don't see the Panthers finishing the season as high in the polls as they've started. It's too much to ask considering the loss of Pickett, Jordan Addison and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple. Plus, Pat Narduzzi complaining that the team threw the ball too much last season isn't an encouraging sign. -- Tom Fornelli (also Shehan Jeyarajah)

Miami: There is a scenario where the combination of young talent from last year's squad and the influx of transfer talent gel immediately with the arrival of Cristobal. But I'm much more concerned about the returning production at wide receiver and the potential of that aforementioned gelling. The Hurricanes could likely play down to the competition and still compete for an ACC Coastal title, but I still think Cristobal is two recruiting cycles away from closing the gap with Clemson. -- Chip Patterson

Wake Forest: I love coach Dave Clawson and can't wait to see what quarterback Sam Hartman does with another year in the system. We don't know when that will actually happen, though, with an illness keeping him out of action. In a quarterback-driven conference where points will be aplenty, it's hard to imagine Wake navigating through the schedule with ease in Hartman's absence. Even when he returns, the defense is still a massive liability that will prevent the Demon Deacons from consistently competing in the ACC Atlantic. -- Barrett Sallee 

NC State: The assumption that NC State will break through for 10 wins this season discounts the impact of what it lost in the backfield. Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person Jr. comprised an elite duo, combining for nearly 1,400 yards rushing and 49 receptions last season. Without them, the Wolfpack risk becoming entirely one-dimensional as they also have bid farewell to the NFL Draft's No. 6 overall pick, Ikem Ekwonu, on the offensive line. NC State is a clear bowl team, but it gives off 2021 Iowa State and North Carolina vibes. The dreams of a league title and dark horse CFP contention are overblown. -- David Cobb 

North Carolina: When Mack Brown took over, the expectation was that the Tar Heels would be competing for division titles, at least, if not surpassing Clemson by now. Three years in, UNC has only one regular season above .500 -- the 8-3 mark posted in the pandemic year. This season may be another that floats around the .500 mark.  Meanwhile, Miami has made big strides and looks like the program to beat in the Coastal. Things are certainly better than at the end of the Larry Fedora era, but they have not yet reached the level that many expected. -- Jerry Palm

Most underrated team

Wake Forest: You know it, and I know it. Clawson will simply out-scheme you. The Slow Mesh Spread confuses, and it's proven productive. Hartman is out, which does add some concern. The Demon Deacons get Clemson at home on Sept. 24, which should be, well, interesting. -- Dodd (also Palm)

Boston College: The commitment of Phil Jurkovec and Zay Flowers to the program speaks to what Boston College has built, and is continuing to build, on the Heights. Jeff Hafley should field his best defense since since he arrived after serving as Ohio State defensive coordinator, and the experienced QB-WR combo of Jurkovec and Flowers is good enough for the Eagles to exceed expectations in a tough Atlantic. -- Patterson

Clemson: I get it. Uiagalelei did not live up to expectations, and last year's 10-win season was a "down year." This is a much different setting, though. DJ-U has rededicated himself, gotten in shape and knows that freshman Cade Klubnik is there should he stumble. That's a healthy quarterback situation, not a shaky one. When you combine it with the best defensive front four in the country and one of the best running backs in the nation in Will Shipley, you have a recipe for national success, not just ACC dominance. -- Sallee

Louisville: Have the Cardinals turned a corner? After a handful of recruiting wins, it's hard not to feel the rare good vibes around Scott Satterfield and his program. The Cardinals lost four games by one score last year with two of the other losses coming against 10-win SEC squads. Now, Louisville returns top-15 national production, including highly underrated quarterback Malik Cunningham. With a manageable first half of the season, Louisville could quickly find themselves on a roll. -- Jeyarajah (also Fornelli, Cobb)

Bold predictions

  • Dennis Dodd: This is the Canes' time -- Miami will win the ACC. Cristobal has become the East Coast version of Lincoln Riley in flipping the roster. A bunch of transfers and an already talented roster maturing at the right time make it so. Tyler Van Dyke is a budding star at quarterback. Cristobal is building an SEC-like program in South Florida, just like he did at Oregon
  • Tom Fornelli: After averaging only 26.3 points per game last season, Clemson will bump up its offensive output to at least 34 points per game despite losing offensive coordinator Tony Elliott to Virginia.
  • Chip Patterson: Clemson's offense will bounce back to being one of the best in the league. 
  • Barrett Sallee: The Tigers will get over their "down year" with a run to the playoff. The defense is going to be stifling, the offense will be dynamic, and they'll show that they are a legitimate threat to win the national title, not just return to the CFP field.
  • Shehan Jeyarajah: The ACC will boast the best collection of quarterbacks out of any conference in the country. At least four of them will finish top-15 in passing offense. 
  • David Cobb: Pitt's drop-off will not be nearly as drastic as many expect. The continuity under Narduzzi will help lift the Panthers to another division title and an ACC Championship Game showdown with Clemson that determines whether the Tigers make the CFP.
  • Jerry Palm: Clemson misses out on the playoff for the second straight season.

ACC predicted order of finish

ACC champion

Clemson: The Tigers has a luxury in 2022 that they did not have in 2021: There is a solid plan behind Uiagalelei (should he stumble again) at quarterback with five-star freshman Klubnik waiting in the wings. The defensive front is filthy, and it exemplifies how this remains the most-talented team in the ACC by a significant margin. The loss of long-time coordinators Brent Venables and Tony Elliott to head coaching jobs means there will be some growing pains, but an easy start of Georgia TechFurman and Louisiana Tech gives Clemson a smooth runway amid the transition. -- Cobb (also Fornelli, Patterson, Sallee, Jeyarajah, Palm)

Miami: Cristobal and polarizing Miami attorney John Ruiz have torn up the timeline for a customary turnaround and sprinkled it on the 50-yard line of Hard Rock Stadium. The Canes are returning well ahead of schedule because Cristobal knows Miami, knows Dade and Broward County and knows his legacy. The Canes ride the arm of Van Dyke to the ACC crown. -- Dodd

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