The second of our 6-part installment highlighting the best players returning for the Power 5 conferences and the AAC is finally here. These players can be incoming recruits, but most of the players featured will be returning stars from previous seasons.
We cover the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), which is home to fourteen different programs and is home to multiple national champions. Clemson has dominated the conference in recent years and has been a national powerhouse, winning two national titles since 2016. Miami had dominant runs in the 1980’s and in the early 2000’s, but is rebuilding itself into a national contender. Florida State was a national champion in 2013 and was one of the teams who made the first ever playoff in college football. Georgia Tech appeared and dominated Mississippi State in their New Year’s Six bowl appearance in 2014. Virginia made a strong run to the Orange Bowl this past season, but fell short to a red-hot Florida team.
The ACC is home to some of the best programs in the country and always fields two or three national contenders every season. The conference lies in a recruiting hotspot, which includes states like Florida & Georgia. This conference is loaded with talented players, which made this list extremely hard to make. Make sure to check out these players in the 2020 season, because these guys will be playing on Sunday in the near future.
Travis Etienne (Clemson; Running Back #9)
2019 Stats: 1614 yards rushing, 432 yards receiving, 23 total touchdowns
The Clemson Tigers offense is going to be loaded and should be one of the best in the country. Etienne was viewed, by many analysts, as a guarantee to leave after the 2019 season. A shocking announcement was made shortly after the season and Etienne will return to Clemson for one final year. Etienne, in my opinion, is the most explosive player on this potent Clemson offense. Etienne averaged over 8 yards per play last season and consistently made important plays when the Tigers needed them most. After back to back ACC Player of the Year awards, Etienne does not have much to prove but will be motivated to lead the Tigers to another national championship game. I expect Etienne to make a strong run at over 2,500 yards from scrimmage next season and could wind up in New York if things go right in the 2020 season.
Marvin Wilson (Florida State; Defensive Tackle #21)
2019 Stats: 44 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks
Wilson is returning to Florida State in hopes of helping Mike Norvell turn the program around. Wilson has had some injuries that have held him back from his full potential and if Wilson can avoid these issues then he is primed to be one of the best defensive linemen in the country. Tackles & sacks have increased every year since Wilson took his talents to Florida State, but more consistency is needed for Wilson to reach his potential. Wilson will be the leader of a talented, but unproven Seminole defense. More game-changing, explosive plays will have to be made and the NFL will be waiting to see if Wilson can live up to his game changing label. I expect a lot of double teams and gameplans to focus on Wilson throughout the 2020 season, but Wilson needs to create more pressure and live in the backfield for this team to thrive. Wilson is a future NFL player and could find himself being drafted in the 1st round if he plays his best football this upcoming season, which I fully expect will happen.
Sam Howell (North Carolina; Quarterback #7)
2019 Stats: 61.4% comp%, 3641 yards passing, 38 passing TDs, 7 INTs
If I told you guys that I was excited to watch Howell in the 2020 season, then I’d be lying. This is only because it is my only purpose in life at the moment. I think Sam Howell was a top 10 quarterback in the country last year and he was a true freshman. He did not have much offensive help in Chapel Hill last season, but still managed to be in the top 5 for passing touchdowns, which led the ACC. He was also 2nd in passing yards (Behind Trevor Lawrence) and was 10th in Passing Efficiency in the country. Howell has a lot more help coming this next season due to outstanding recruiting by Mack Brown and his staff. I think Howell could make a run for New York in the next few years, which may surprise average college football fans. Sam Howell was a gem in the 2019 recruiting class and should be a star in college football. If you have not seen this kid play, then shame on you. Watch out for the Tar Heels and Howell throughout the 2020 season.
Gregory Rousseau (Miami; Defensive End #15)
2019 Stats: 54 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 15.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
Another defensive lineman makes the list, but this one I will not mention his “potential” because he was already the best defensive lineman in the ACC last season. Rousseau redshirted his first season in Miami, but the wait was well worth it because Rousseau went out and racked up over 15 sacks. His sack total was 2nd in the country (Behind Chase Young) and Rousseau led the ACC in tackles for loss. If you are a critic then you may suggest that Rousseau is due for a sophomore slump because of double teams. Let me ease your doubts, because the Hurricanes went and plucked Quincy Roche (AAC Defensive Player of the Year) out of Temple, which means teams have to pick to double one or the other. Rousseau will make a strong run at 20 sacks next season, which is the NCAA record set by Elvis Dumervil (Louisville) in 2005. If you think I am crazy, just know that Rousseau’s sack numbers from this season rank inside the Top 15 on this list already. Rousseau is primed to set the college football world on fire next season and just know I told you so.
Paris Ford (Pitt; Defensive Back #12)
2019 Stats: 90 total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 3 INTs, 1 TD, 3 forced fumbles
Another defensive player appears on this list, which may surprise some, but Paris Ford deserves some recognition for his play this past season. Ford was a tackling machine and made a run at 100 total tackles, which ranked in the Top 10 in the ACC. He also was Top 3 for INTs, in which he returned one for a touchdown. Ford will head into his junior year looking to build on a strong performance from 2019, in which he started the whole season for the first time in his college career. This Panthers team had many close calls last season, but I expect Pitt to make great strides in the correct direction in the 2020 season. This defense needs leadership and Ford will offer that in the secondary. Look for Ford to be matched on the best wide receiver against every team Pitt plays. Ford will make a run at surpassing 100 tackles and should be one of the leaders in INTs next season, which is why he deserves to be on this list.
Trevor Lawrence (Clemson; Quarterback #16)
2019 Stats: 65.8% comp%, 3665 passing yards, 36 passing TDs, 8 INTs, 563 yards rushing, 9 rushing TDs
I know half of you were having small heart attacks when five players appeared on this list before Lawrence, but this list has no order and Lawrence is the biggest returner regardless of any debate. Lawrence has only lost one game as a college player at Clemson and I do not expect many losses to be added to that record next season. There is not much to critique on Lawrence, but there are some weaknesses and goals that fans can focus on next season. Throwing for over 4,000 yards & reaching 50 TDs should be major goals for Lawrence, which marginally increased his yards and touchdowns from 2018 to 2019 (3280 yards & 30 TDs in 2018), but still was inconsistent early in the season. The NFL, most likely, awaits Lawrence after the 2020 season but some scouts are looking for Lawrence to make that next leap into superstar potential. The explosion on the ground that Lawrence showed was extremely important for the Tigers success, which should further improve his passing due to defenses having to respect his running ability. Lawrence is one of my picks to find himself in New York for the Heisman ceremony in December and he should have another amazing year before taking his talents to the NFL.
Sage Surratt (Wake Forest; Wide Receiver #14)
2019 Stats: 66 catches, 1001 yards receiving, 15.2 yards per catch, 11 TDs
Injuries knocked Surratt out of a few games in 2019, which limited his potential last season. A fully healthy Surratt should haunt every defensive coordinator in the ACC until Surratt heads the NFL. Even in limited action Surratt was Top 10 in receiving yards, catches, and touchdowns in the ACC, which shows his true explosive ability. Jamie Newman (QB; Wake Forest) has transferred to Georgia, but Sam Hartman (QB; Wake Forest) has played exceptionally in his limited time so Surratt should get plenty of opportunities. Surratt has been a playmaker, capable of taking one to the house, throughout his college career. He has averaged over 14 yards per play both of his years at Wake Forest. Staying healthy will be the biggest challenge for Surratt, because if he can contribute for all 12-14 games then expect Surratt to lead the ACC in receiving across multiple categories. I expect huge jumps in production from Surratt and I urge you all to check out the Demon Deacons, because Surratt is one of the best wide receivers in the country.
Rayshard Ashby (Virginia Tech; Linebacker #23)
2019 Stats: 119 total tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles
If you love hard hitting, physical football then this is your type of player. Ashby has topped 100 total tackles in two straight seasons and led the ACC in tackles last season. Ashby made significant leaps in significant plays, such as tackles for loss from his sophomore season (9.5 TFL) to last season (17 TFL) which shows that his potential has yet to be fulfilled. Ashby is an extremely physical force and can change the game immediately. His five forced fumbles in his career exhibits his ability to make big plays for his team. He should be the leader of the Virginia Tech defense next season and should be a big reason this team makes a run for the ACC championship. One area that Ashby could improve on is his pass defense. No interceptions through his first two years is the only blemish on Ashby, but NFL scouts will be waiting to see if Ashby can make a leap in this skill. I fully expect Ashby to put up big numbers in his junior season and make a strong run at ACC Defensive Player of the Year.