Preseason predictions, ACC Football 2020: Etienne rushes for history, Coach of the Year candidates and breakout stars

It may seem hard to believe, but the 2020 ACC football season will actually get started next week. Over the course of the following 13 weeks, the sport will make history (of some kind) as colleges work to play football amidst a global pandemic.

With a season on the horizon, though, Josh Graham from The Sports Hub Triad (WSJS) joined me to make a few preseason predictions: Player of the Year possibilities, Coach of the Year candidates and what we think the league’s standings will look like in a few months.


Player of the Year

Brian Geisinger: Travis Etienne, Clemson, RB

Let’s pull for history, shall we? During the 2019 season, Etienne became just the seventh player to win ACC Player of the Year twice. Lamar Jackson, Charlie Ward, Steve Fuller, Mike Voight, Don McCauley and Roman Gabriel are the other two-time winners; however, no one in league history has won this award three times. Etienne could be the first.

There’s also the chance that voter fatigue plays a role; if it’s a toss-up between two players — Etienne and someone else — voters could decide to push for a new player to get the award.

It’s just so easy to project Clemson’s team success, which (right or wrong) factors into the equation, and Etienne’s individual brilliance.

As a quick reminder: Etienne returns in 2020 as the Clemson and ACC career leader in rushing touchdowns (56), total touchdowns (60) and points by a non-kicker (372). Etienne will start the 2020 season as the nation’s active leader in each category — along with career rushing yards (4,038). In other words: he’s good at football.


Josh Graham: Travis Etienne, Clemson, RB

Naturally, quarterbacks command the most attention on a winning football team, especially when they are projected No. 1 picks such as Trevor Lawrence. However, with Tee Higgins wearing a different kind of an orange in the pros and Justyn Ross missing this fall’s season after undergoing spinal surgery in the spring, I think Etienne will become Clemson’s brightest star. In the last three seasons, Etienne has averaged at least seven yards-per-carry and has scored 51 touchdowns in that same span of time.


Offensive Player of the Year

Brian Geisinger: Travis Etienne, Clemson, RB

Even before he sets foot on a field for his senior season, there’s a case to be made that Etienne is greatest skill position player in ACC history.

As a junior, Etienne posted another ridiculously efficient rushing effort. For the second time in his career, Etienne eclipsed 1,600 rushing yards in a single season; he accounted for 23 total touchdowns, including four receiving scores. This is a load management success story: Etienne posted eight 100-yard rushing performances — all with 17 or fewer carries.

Over the last 20 seasons of college football, only seven players have run for 1,600+ yards on fewer than 215 carries in the same season. That list includes Reggie Bush, Kareem Hunt, Melvin Gordon and Matt Breida. Etienne is the only player to do that on more than one occasion.


Josh Graham: Travis Etienne, Clemson, RB


Defensive Player of the Year

Brian Geisinger: Marvin Wilson, Florida State, DT

It feels weird to be picking for this award without some of the league’s marquee names: Caleb Farley, Jaylen Twyman and Gregory Rousseau. However, there are still plenty of excellent options to consider.

In the end, though, Wilson is the pick over Chazz Surratt, Boogie Bashem and Chris Rumph II, an advanced metrics favorite.

During the 2019 season, Wilson recorded 20 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. In nine total games, Wilson put together a monster stat line: 44 tackles, including 8.5 for loss, a team-high 5.0 sacks (No. 20 ACC), one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, four pass breakups. Along with former Clemson star Isaiah Simmons, Wilson was one of only 21 FBS players with 5.0 sacks and 4.0 pass breakups in 2019.


Josh Graham: Chazz Surrat, North Carolina, LB

You’d be hard pressed to find a better story in college football last year than Surratt. Transitioning from quarterback to linebacker, he had over 30 more tackles than anybody else on the team in 2019 with 115 stops. According to Mack Brown, Surratt has been working at defensive end this summer in addition to linebacker. And if you think it sounds ridiculous to suggest he could make a difference there too, I’d recommend thinking twice before doubting No. 21 for the Heels.


Coach of the Year

Brian Geisinger: Mack Brown, North Carolina

Before the pandemic hit and the ACC was forced to reinvent its football season on the fly, the table was prepped for UNC to have a monster season. The narrative was set: led by star quarterback Sam Howell, North Carolina’s offense, which features a ridiculous amount of skill position talent, would push the program to another Coastal Division title. In turn, this would be enough to get Brown his second — and first since 1996 — ACC Coach of the Year award.

The Tar Heels won’t have a Coastal-centric schedule now; plus, several key defensive backs opted out of the season. However, there’s no reason to turn away from that same logic. This is a good team with a potentially great offense. They should win games, and Brown will grab plenty of recognition.


Josh Graham: Brian Kelly, Notre Dame

If Kelly gets to the ACC championship game in their first official year in the conference, I think Kelly deserves the award. If Kelly beats Clemson in South Bend heading into that game in Charlotte, it should be a unanimous win for the Irish coach. Notre Dame has a favorable schedule, arguably the best returning offensive line in the league, although Boston College is up there, too, and a terrific quarterback in Ian Book. So I like their chances to make it to their first ever conference title game.


Rookie of the Year

Brian Geisinger: Bryan Bresee, Clemson, DT

Ranked as the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2020 recruiting class, per 247 Sports, Bresee is a powerful combination of size and speed. 6-foot-5, 290 pounds, Bresee has a 32-inch vertical leap and has clocked in with 40-yard dash times in the 4.8 seconds range.

Clemson has ridiculous talent along its defensive line; however, overall depth was shaky at the tackles positions in 2019. This is an extreme first world football problem, but there are opportunities for Bresee to quickly carve out an expanded role.

The thought of having to block both Bresee and Tyler Davis — one of the top talents in the ACC — should be a major concern for the interior of every offensive line on Clemson’s schedule.


Josh Graham: Jordan Addison, Pittsburgh, WR

During fall camp, Pat Narduzzi compared Addison to one of the most talented receivers the sport has seen over the last decade, Antonio Brown, who Narduzzi faced at Western Michigan while serving as Michigan State’s defensive coordinator. Pairing Addison with multi-year starting quarterback Kenny Pickett in Mark Whipple’s electric offense could produce fun results for us to watch.


Offensive Rookie of the Year:

Brian Geisinger: Jahmyr Gibbs, Georgia Tech, RB

One of the most important early victories in the recruiting trail for Geoff Collins was the addition of Gibbs. The 5-foot-9 all-purpose back, a top 75 prospect in the 2020 class, brings another dimension of speed and shift to Georgia Tech’s backfield.

It will be interesting to see Georgia Tech allocates touches for its backfield. Jordan Mason returns as one of the most underrated and efficient backs in the country; sophomore Jamious Griffin, a former NC State  commit, commands carries, too. However, Gibbs is a potential game-breaker for Tech on offense.


Josh Graham: Jordan Addison, Pittsburgh, WR


Defensive Rookie of the Year:

Brian Geisinger: Bryan Bresee, Clemson, DE

Note: Keep an eye on Miami defensive end Jahfari Harvey, a talented redshirt freshman who will have more opportunities with Gregory Rousseau getting ready for the NFL Draft.


Josh Graham: Myles Murphy, Clemson, DE

There is a reason Murphy was the No. 7 overall recruit in the nation, according to 247 sports. Brent Venables has done a masterful job rotating players on defense — to make sure everybody is satisfied — over the years, so I expect to see Murphy early and often. Plus, with Dabo Swinney announcing his plans to redshirt Xavier Thomas this year, the door is wide open for Murphy to step in at defensive end and become an immediate contributor for the Tiger defense.


Order To Finish: ACC Football 2020

Brian Geisinger

  1. Clemson
  2. Notre Dame
  3. North Carolina
  4. Miami
  5. Virginia Tech
  6. Florida State
  7. Louisville
  8. Pittsburgh
  9. Virginia
  10. NC State
  11. Wake Forest
  12. Boston College
  13. Duke
  14. Syracuse
  15. Georgia Tech


Josh Graham

  1. Clemson
  2. Notre Dame
  3. North Carolina
  4. Louisville
  5. Pittsburgh
  6. Miami
  7. Virginia Tech
  8. FSU
  9. NC State
  10. Wake Forest
  11. Boston College
  12. Duke
  13. Syracuse
  14. Virginia
  15. Georgia Tech


Read More on ACC Football

Game times, TV networks for the first 2 weeks of the season