The 2021 ACC Football Kickoff will begin on Wednesday. The Coastal Division teams will have time with the media on the first day before the Atlantic Division teams wrap up the event on Thursday in uptown Charlotte, North Carolina.
The event comes with plenty of anticipation, not only as the first media days event for ACC football in two years but also as a grand introduction to new commissioner Jim Phillips. The former Northwestern athletic director was officially named as the successor to John Swofford in December 2020, just prior to the ACC Championship Game, and took office in February. He's had several conversations with media members throughout the footprint of the league and held several availability opportunities with reporters, but those conference calls and smaller meetings do not carry the pomp and circumstance of the "Commissioner's Forum" at media days.
So for many fans, seeing Phillips at the podium on Wednesday will be a pivotal moment in the transition of leadership for the conference. For the ACC it's an opportune time to move into the new era as Phillips becomes the face of the league amid massive transition and upheaval in college athletics. The list of topics that Phillips will either address himself, or no doubt face in the question-and-answer portion of the program, include playoff expansion, name, image and likeness and COVID protocols for the league in the 2021 season.
That last topic seems to be the one generating the most interest at media days across the country because it is the one hot-button topic of the summer that each commissioner has control over. Will the ACC follow in the footsteps of the Big 12 and SEC in signaling that there will be no postponements or rescheduling due to COVID protocol? Is the commissioner happy with the vaccination rates across the league or is that something that has raised concern as we approach the beginning of fall camp with COVID numbers rising throughout the country?
Both playoff expansion and NIL are big, weighty issues that involve too many other power players from college athletics to expect Phillips to speak for the group (or break the company line), but how the ACC plans to handle its testing and contact tracing -- especially in the wake of the NC State baseball team getting bounced from the College World Series by "no contest" due to positive tests -- is a high-priority item of interest for many around the league.
We'll also get to hear from the players on some of those bigger national topics, including how things are going for those who have already entered into NIL deals and whether players like the proposed 12-team format for College Football Playoff expansion. Coaches have had ways to make their voices heard on the expansion issue, but now we should get an interesting cross-section of opinions with 42 players scheduled to be in attendance for the event.
Beyond the new commissioner, CFP expansion and NIL, here are some other conversations to keep an eye on as "talking season" commences in the ACC.
Debate for QB1 and Player of the Year
I predict that North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell will end up beating out D.J. Uiagalelei and D'Eriq King as the top quarterback in the ACC, but I think the debate is among the most interesting that the league as seen at the position in quite some time. We'll see this debate play out in two areas: the Preseason All-ACC lists and the Player of the Year race. While Howell has the most experience with his current team, totaling 68 touchdowns to just 14 interceptions and averaging 288.3 passing yards per game across 25 starts, Uiagalelei has proven himself ready to lead Clemson on a big stage while King's arrival as a transfer from Houston provided the spark that helped Miami's offense take massive steps forward in 2020. Also, all three quarterbacks are scheduled to be in attendance and will have a chance to make an impression with the voting media before ballots are due on Friday.
While such a fascinating debate for top quarterback in the ACC usually can translate over into the Player of the Year debate, the voting sets up such that two of the quarterbacks could split the honors of preseason first team all-conference and preseason Player of the Year. If that occurs, I'm guessing it would be Uiagalelei getting all-conference and Howell getting POY, only because of the presence of Clemson defensive tackle Bryan Bresee on the POY ballot. No matter how it breaks down here in July, the presence of these three quarterbacks gives some star power at the most important position on the field in the first year of the post-Trevor Lawrence era.
Teams looking to bounce back
Only four of the league's full-time members had winning conference records last year, and only five opted to participate in the postseason and accept a bowl game invitation. There were headlines like North Carolina going to its first major bowl game since 1950 and NC State overcoming COVID delays and injuries at quarterback to notch seven league wins, but at many programs throughout the conference the end of the year came with more relief than celebration. The understandable exhaustion from isolation and the week-to-week uncertainty had teams like Virginia Tech, Virginia, Pitt and Boston College opting not to participate in the postseason, while programs like Louisville and Florida State immediately turned their attention to building for 2021.
Everyone has gotten in spring practice, offseason workouts and is ready to attack a different season now with hopes of a different finish. The ACC is a league that might only have three or four top-25 teams at the moment, but as many as nine or 10 teams have a good argument as a top-50 squad that expects to be in a bowl game at the end of the year. I'm anticipating a lot of "wipe the slate clean" cliches as coaches and players address the disjointed results of a strange season in 2020 and turn the page to 2021.
New faces on the field, same faces on the sideline
While returning production is at historic highs across the country, the ACC is undergoing a significant amount of turnover in terms of top performers from 2020 to 2021. The great David Teel, Hall of Fame columnist currently with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, noted that the last time the ACC had this few first team all-conference selections returning for the following season was 2013. We know about Howell, Uiagalelei and King, but none of those players were first-team picks and the absence of players like Lawrence, Travis Etienne, Jaelan Phillips, the one-two punch of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, Alim McNeil and many, many more of last year's stars will be felt here at the start of the year. They've taken their talents to the next level and left fans anxious to see who steps up in their place. Now the media is usually terrible about picking the next stars in line -- Teel noted that Jameis Winston and Aaron Donald were not preseason All-ACC picks heading into that 2013 year -- so the coaches might be able to give us a hint as to what's in store on the field this fall.
Speaking of coaches, this is one of the few years where there is not a headline surrounding a new hire in the ACC. It's technically the first ACC Football Kickoff for Year 2 coaches Mike Norvell and Jeff Hafley, but there's not an active storyline about the arrival of a new tenure in the league. There will be some discussion about how much longer the current tenures will last at Syracuse with Dino Babers and Virginia Tech with Justin Fuente, with Fuente in particular landing at the top of , but for now we have stability in the coaching ranks of the ACC.