2023 college football outlook: ACC at a glance

While uncertainty rules the ACC's long-term future, the outlook on the field this season seems relatively clear: Florida State and Clemson look like the class of the conference.

Of course, things rarely play out as expected, and there's plenty of intrigue with the Seminoles, Tigers and beyond. Can FSU live up to the greatest expectations it has faced in recent memory? Will Dabo Swinney build on the momentum gained toward the end of last season? And which teams will emerge among the second-tier contenders -- Pitt, North Carolina, NC State, Louisville or Miami?

ESPN reporters Andrea Adelson and David Hale look at the league's top newcomers, biggest early season games, coaches on the hot seat and MVP and championship game picks.

Three transfers to know

North Carolina receivers Tez Walker (maybe) and Nate McCollum (definitely): Replacing the production lost by departing stars Josh Downs and Antoine Green is no easy task for the Heels, but they landed two proven players in the portal this offseason. McCollum blossomed late for Georgia Tech last year and should fill Downs' slot position nicely, while Walker was among the best outside receivers in the Group of 5 last year, catching 58 balls for 921 yards and 11 scores at Kent State. The only problem is the NCAA denied Walker's request to play immediately after transferring a second time in his career (his first came after NC Central canceled its 2020 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic), and the Tar Heels are still awaiting an answer on an appeal of the decision. -- David M. Hale

Louisville QB Jack Plummer: A sizable portion of the Cardinals' roster could have a case for being on this list, as first-year head coach Jeff Brohm overhauled it through the portal this offseason, but let's start with the quarterback. Plummer spent three years with Brohm at Purdue before transferring to Cal in 2022, so he's familiar with the system and has been influential in bringing the rest of the offensive players along. He had solid numbers on a lackluster Cal squad last year. He could be a star in 2023. -- Hale

Florida State DT Braden Fiske: No one has maneuvered the transfer portal better than FSU coach Mike Norvell over the past three years, and he has a host of terrific additions again -- from receiver Keon Coleman to corner Fentrell Cypress to tight end Jaheim Bell. But Fiske, who arrives from Western Michigan, might have the biggest impact for a Seminoles defense that often struggled against the run last year. Partnered with a healthy Fabian Lovett, Fiske should have the inside of the D-line looking like one of the Noles' biggest areas of improvement in 2023. -- Hale

Three key positions to fill

Pitt's defensive front: The Panthers are excited about who returns for 2023, led by edge rusher Dayon Hayes and linebacker Bangally Kamara, but the shoes they'll need to fill are big ones. Calijah Kancey was a first-round NFL draft pick and among the most impactful interior linemen in the country last year, and SirVocea Dennis was the heart and soul of an exceptional Pitt defense. A number of unproven players will need to emerge to match that production. -- Hale

Wake Forest QB: No one at Wake seems worried about the most important position on the field, with coach Dave Clawson showing extreme confidence in Mitch Griffis to take the job. But it's hard to overstate the impact former quarterback Sam Hartman -- now with Notre Dame -- had on the program over the past five years, and Griffis has his work cut out matching that production. -- Hale

NC State LB: Payton Wilson returns for another season helping the Wolfpack's linebacking corps, but his partners for the past two years -- Drake Thomas and Isaiah Moore -- are both gone. For a defense that is built around dynamic linebackers, the job of filling that void, particularly against the run, is a big one. -- Hale

Three impact freshmen

Clemson DT Peter Woods: If the name sounds familiar, it should. We have spent the entire offseason touting Woods, who enrolled early and earned raves from coach Dabo Swinney in the spring. During the spring game broadcast, Swinney described Woods, "like a Halley's comet. Every now and then, you get a guy that physically and mentally and maturity and all the intangibles, he's just ready." Clemson has always produced exceptional linemen. Woods appears to be next in line. -- Andrea Adelson

Miami OL Francis Mauigoa: Miami coach Mario Cristobal knew he had to improve the offensive line and went and signed two of the best linemen in the class of 2023 -- five-star prospects Mauigoa and Samson Okunlola. Though we are highlighting Mauigoa, make note of Okunlola, too, because both will be significant contributors to the Miami line and are pushing to be starters this season. -- Adelson

NC State TE/WR Javonte Vereen: The Wolfpack have a pair of freshmen who can be difference-makers in their new offense under Robert Anae: Vereen and Kevin Concepcion, who were both enrolled in the spring and showed potential. Consider what Anae did last season with TE/WR hybrid Oronde Gadsden at Syracuse. Gadsden was not a true freshman, but he did have a breakout season with 969 yards and six touchdowns. Vereen has similar size, so don't be surprised if Anae uses him in a similar way. -- Adelson

Three must-see September games

Florida State vs. LSU, Sept. 3: We all know the stakes in this one. Florida State beat LSU last year in New Orleans, changing the entire narrative for its season. But now, both teams are ranked in the preseason top 10 with championship aspirations. Safe to say there are early CFP implications in this one as well. -- Adelson

Texas A&M at Miami, Sept. 9: Both programs had tougher years than expected last season, but they have much higher hopes for 2023. For Miami, this is a crucial nonconference game to truly show it is headed in the right direction. For the ACC, this is a crucial nonconference game to help improve the perception of the conference. -- Adelson

Florida State at Clemson, Sept. 23: The ACC strategically placed the matchup of its two highest ranked teams in September to not only maximize interest, but also keep alive the possibility that there could be a rematch in December in the ACC championship game since the league no longer has divisions. Clemson has won seven straight in the series, and the last time it lost to the Seminoles at home was 2013 -- when Florida State won the national championship. -- Adelson

MVP pick

Adelson: UNC QB Drake Maye

While I love what Jordan Travis has done throughout his career at Florida State, it is hard to go against Maye, who threw for 4,321 yards, 38 touchdowns and 7 interceptions and ran for 698 yards and seven scores. You could probably say no player means more to his team than Maye considering where the Tar Heels defense was a year ago. There is no way UNC makes it to the ACC championship game last year without him. In a straw poll of a handful of ACC coaches, Maye got the nod too.

Hale: Florida State QB Jordan Travis

Is Travis the best QB in the ACC? Maye offers a good counterpoint. But it's hard to see Florida State's rapid growth over the past two seasons without appreciating how big a part of that rise Travis has been. No player means more to his team than Travis, and given the sky-high expectations at FSU, he warrants being in this discussion.

On the hot seat

Adelson: Dino Babers, Syracuse; Jeff Hafley, Boston College

I am not trying to avoid answering the question, but there are only two coaches who fit the criteria and I am not sure they are necessarily on the hot seat. If Babers does not make a bowl, then yes. But as of now, no. The same goes for Hafley. He is not on the hot seat now, but a second straight losing season and the calculus might change.

Hale: Babers

A year ago, the talk seemed to be bowl-or-bust for Babers and the Orange, but a 7-6 season and a Pinstripe Bowl berth didn't quiet the critics. Blame it on the raised expectations of a 6-0 start. A more balanced performance -- and another bowl game -- should do the trick in 2023, but if the Orange regress, the pressure will mount.

Sleeper team

Adelson: Louisville

Hale makes the case for Pitt as a sleeper below: ACC champion in 2021 and 20 wins over the past two seasons do not make a team a sleeper. My choice is Louisville, although I guess you could argue that an eight-win team should not really qualify as a sleeper, either. The schedule sets up nicely for the Cards (avoid Florida State/Clemson) and I anticipate the offense will be improved with Jack Plummer at quarterback. Another team to watch is Boston College. I don't know if the Eagles will play for a conference championship, but after winning three games last year, I fully expect this team to make a turnaround in 2023.

Hale: Pitt

Is it fair to call Pitt a sleeper? The Panthers have won 20 games in the past two seasons, including one ACC title. But they also lose a ton of star power from last year's team and were picked sixth (tied with Duke) in the league's preseason media poll. We got a taste of this year's Pitt team in an impressive bowl win over UCLA due to a bunch of opt-outs, and new quarterback Phil Jurkovec feels like the perfect fit for this offense. Pitt's floor is probably six or seven wins, but the ceiling could be a good bit higher.

Conference title game

Adelson: Clemson 35, Florida State 31

I was this close to picking Florida State but I went with Clemson. Until Florida State proves it can do it, picking against Clemson is difficult.

Hale: Clemson 31, Florida State 30

There's clearly two top teams in the ACC entering the season, and while it's a coin toss as to which is better, I'm leaning just barely toward the Tigers because they've done it before.