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Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence congratulates Clemson’s Travis Etienne on a touchdown during the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. Both are Heisman Trophy favorites going into the 2019 season. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

One of these seasons a challenger will rise up from the scrum of ACC mediocrity to give Clemson a decent fight that isn’t a fluke.


Looks like 2020 or later.

Which program?

Harder to tell.

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Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, left, and Florida State head coach Willie Taggart talk at midfield prior to the Tigers' 59-10 win last October in Tallahassee. AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser

Leading candidates?

1. Florida State. Because there is still a lot of Tallahassee talent.

2. Miami. New head coach Manny Diaz is off to a good off-season start. Then again, we said that about Mark Richt and Al Golden.

3. Virginia Tech. Or a hotter seat for Justin Fuente.

4. N.C. State. So close, yet so far away.

5. North Carolina. Always such potential, and presently more than the 2-9 record of 2018 indicates.

And other big questions heading into the annual ACC Football Kickoff event set for Wednesday and Thursday in Charlotte (in predicted order of finish):

ACC Atlantic


Can the Tigers effectively address their only 2018 weakness, punting and (to a lesser extent) kicking? Will it matter until late December? Will Travis Etienne and Trevor Lawrence both get to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony?

Florida State

Can head coach Willie Taggart get his guys to ignore a harsh Seminole wind that comes with a 5-7 season, whining fans and lots of empty seats?

Boston College

Can running back AJ Dillon team with a group that includes redshirt freshman running back Javian Dayne (son of former Heisman winner Ron Dayne of Wisconsin) to form one of college football’s best power running committees?

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Boston College running back AJ Dillon gets past Clemson's Clelin Ferrell. File/AP 


Was almost knocking Clemson out of the College Football Playoff in 2018 the high-water mark for Dino Babers’ Orange? Or will a defensive line led by Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman rattle quarterbacks while the offense comes along?

N.C. State

Has Dave Doeren’s depth developed such that the Wolfpack can keep winning eight or nine games a year even with a lot of job turnover?

Wake Forest

Jamie Newman or Sam Hartman (Oceanside Collegiate Academy) at quarterback? Or both?


When will the Cardinals — 0-8 in the ACC last year — win their next conference game?

ACC Coastal


Can Ohio State transfer quarterback Tate Martell mesh with his new teammates? Or will the Coastal Division’s most talented defense have to carry the load every week?

Virginia Tech

Is there adequate talent on defense? Can veteran coordinator Bud Foster turn a unit that allowed 31 points per game (lost 49-35 at Old Dominion) into a stingy division title winner?

North Carolina

How good is freshman quarterback Sam Howell? Good enough to start the opener against South Carolina after starting the spring game? And/or make positive contributions throughout the season?

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New North Carolina head coach Mack Brown (center) had current South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp as his defensive coordinator for three years at Texas. The Tar Heels and Gamecocks meet in the season opener on Aug. 31 in Charlotte. File/Austin American-Statesman


Is speedy senior Bryce Perkins, fresh off a 28-0 Belk Bowl win over South Carolina, ready to step into elite quarterback status?

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Virginia's Bryce Perkins runs against South Carolina during third-quarter action of the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, N.C., on Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018. Travis Bell/Sideline Carolina


Can a team with only 12 starters returning bounce back from a season opener against Alabama to handle dangerous games against N.C. A&T (beat East Carolina last year) and at Middle Tennessee State?


Can quarterback Kenny Pickett make enough strides as a junior to cover for a bunch of offensive linemen learning on the job?

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Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) is sacked by Clemson's Dexter Lawrence (90) and Kendall Joseph (34) in the ACC Championship Game in December. Mike McCarn/AP

Georgia Tech

Everyone knows about the move away from the triple-option on offense but how long will it take for the Yellow Jackets to grasp new head coach Geoff Collins’ renovation work on defense?

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff

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