Ranking the top 10 college football players in the ACC ahead of the 2020 season


We may not know the exact schedules or format of the upcoming college football season, but we at least know who will be involved whenever teams do take the field for competition. The ACC has routinely ranked near the top of all conferences in talent with high NFL Draft pick totals and the 2020 season is showing no signs of that trend slowing. 

Picking the top 10 players in the ACC is tough enough — and we’ve included some bonus recognition below as a result — but ranking them can be even tougher. But we did our best, with high hopes that these stars will be on the field proving why they are among the best in a conference loaded with college football talent.  The conversation starts at the top, with few questions regarding the best player in the league as he will spend much of the year as the subject of raging debates to determine the top quarterback in the country, Heisman Trophy contenders and even the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.  

No individual player in the entire conference has a higher ceiling than Lawrence, who is somewhat lacking for accolades and hardware in comparison to his talent and production as he prepares to enter year three as the Tigers’ starter under center. High interception counts in the early stages of 2019 overshadowed an absurd tear over the second half of the season that saw 22 touchdowns and zero interceptions across Clemson’s last eight games with better than 70 percent passing in the final six pre-playoff games. When Lawrence was initially limited by Ohio State’s defense in the Fiesta Bowl semifinal, he showcased his ability as a runner in what became a difference-maker in the offense. LSU stymied Lawrence and handed him the first loss of his college career, which resets his own expectations for 2020. Lawrence is going to be one of the most scrutinized players in all of college football, but that’s because no one individually can have more of an impact on a game than the potential No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.  

Howell took the reigns of North Carolina’s offense and emerged as one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the entire country, totaling 38 touchdowns (No. 4 among FBS quarterbacks) and just seven interceptions with more than 3,600 passing yards. The reason everyone has come to the cooler to drink North Carolina Kool-Aid this offseason is not only because of what Mack Brown has done on the recruiting trail but because Howell and several key playmakers from last year’s offense are all back and looking to take the next step. Like Lawrence, Howell’s ranking here is set by his ceiling and the potential impact he can have on any game. But like Lawrence saw first-hand in 2019, those high expectations must be managed. While Howell can lead the Tar Heels to ACC Championship contention, trying to force the issue could end up back-firing in ways that are detrimental to team success. How the ACC Rookie of the Year backs up that award-winning performance in his sophomore season will define whether 2020 is the year of the big leap for Brown’s program. 

Here we go again with the disrespect for two-time ACC Player of the Year Travis Etienne. For all the time that I’ve dedicated to rolling out the resume of the ACC’s career rushing touchdown and total touchdown leader on CBS Sports HQ and the Cover 3 Podcast, you’d think that talk would be backed up with an appropriate ranking of the league’s top players. While Etienne gets overlooked because light work loads that hinder his ability to compile eye-popping rushing totals, he will prove to be the most important piece in Clemson’s pursuit of a national championship. As mentioned above, the Tigers have more uncertainty at the wide receiver position than what we’re used to from a group that has consistently reloaded with stars from Sammy Watkins to DeAndre Hopkins to Mike Williams to Tee Higgins, and that only puts more on the plate of Etienne, the most decorated star and proven commodity in the Tigers’ offense. 

4. Jalen Twyman, DL, Pitt

As a sophomore, Twyman became the first interior defensive lineman to lead Pitt in sacks since Aaron Donald and ranked in the top 20 nationally with 0.81 sacks per game. It may sound too ambitious to set the expectations for Twyman at “following in the footsteps of a transformational defensive line talent” but his status as an All-America caliber player heading into the year is undeniable. Making matters even more difficult for opposing offensive lines is that Twyman, while the star with the highest ceiling, is not the lone wrecking ball on the Panthers defensive line, so teams cannot afford to load up their protection to stop one player because of the high level of play from the entire group. 

Wilson could have been a first round NFL Draft pick in 2020, and before the first snap of the season his return has already created long-lasting change at Florida State and within the Tallahassee community. His willingness to take a stand and strive for change within the program was acknowledged by Mike Norvell and his role as one of the leaders in the locker room make him one of the keys to the Seminoles’ buy-in with their new coach. But after an offseason filled with off-field headlines, Wilson will be back at it when the season reminding everyone why he was considered a potential first round defensive lineman in last year’s draft class.

Chase Young was a Heisman Trophy finalist after recording 16.5 sacks in 2019, a startling number that would good for No. 1 in the nation in four of the last five years. But right behind him was a budding star on the edge in Rousseau, who totaled 15.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss during his first full season of action. Rousseau flew relatively under the radar playing for a Class 2A high school in South Florida and only near the end of is high school career settled into his current role as an edge rusher. He then suffered a season-ending injury two games into his freshman year in 2018 but his season-long dominance last year has NFL scouts declaring “All-Pro potential” for the redshirt sophomore. 

Cisco led the ACC in interceptions each of his first two seasons and enters the 2020 season as the FBS active leader in interceptions (12) and ranks No. 2 in passes defended per game. He was the first true freshman in Syracuse history to earn All-America honors in 2018 and then in 2019 ranked No. 7 nationally in interceptions despite not playing three games due to injury. Interception totals can spike as a matter of circumstance, but Cisco’s consistency proves it’s all about the player in this case. 

Miami’s Brevin Jordan will likely be a frequent target for new Canes QB D’Eriq King.
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Size and athleticism made Jordan as an intriguing prospect to watch, and it all seemed to come together during his sophomore season as he earned All-ACC First Team honors after totaling 35 receptions for 495 yards and two touchdowns. A product of the high school powerhouse Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas. Jordan is without a doubt the most proven offensive playmaker on Miami’s roster and will be key to jump-starting a unit that has new leadership in offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and a potential star under center in quarterback D’Eriq King

Even after suffering a season-ending injury nine games into the season, Surratt was a first team All-ACC selection and a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the top wide receiver in the country. Prior to his injury he led all Power Five wide receivers with 1,001 yards on the season and currently his career average of 111.2 receiving yards per game is good for No. 8 in the ACC record book. Surratt is the prime example of Dave Clawson’s program building at work, redshirting during his true freshman season and emerging in 2018 as a fully-formed and dynamic weapon in the Demon Deacons’ offense. 

A former high school quarterback, Farley had to overcome a preseason knee injury during his freshman season a long recovery before rounding into one of the most complete defensive backs in the league in 2019. Farley earned First Team All-ACC honors after leading the league in passes defended (16) and with his athleticism and physical tools he’s started to pick up steam as a potential high-ceiling draft pick at the next level. At a program that has thrived with a tradition of strong play in the secondary, Farley looks like he’s the next in a long line of elite Hokies on the back end of the defense.

Honorary mentions

Tutu Atwell (WR, Louisville), Boogie Basham (DL, Wake Forest), Paris Ford (DB, Pitt), Tamorrion Terry (WR, Florida State), Jimmy Morrissey (OL, Pitt) 

As a fan of play in the trenches on both sides of the ball, it was tough to see no offensive linemen make the list for top 10 players, but that might be a precursor of what to expect in league play in 2020. Pitt, Miami and Clemson all have loaded defensive lines, but even Wake Forest and Duke are set with more proven All-ACC candidates than most teams have on the offensive line. Jimmy Morrissey and Clemson’s Jackson Carman are the most celebrated individuals, while Virginia Tech and Boston College appear to have the most certainty up front offensively though without any single star that threatened to crack the top 10. But elsewhere across the league there are great wide receivers and great defensive backs, making those battles among the many reasons NFL scouts will have their eyes on the ACC in 2020. 





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