It’s the most wonderful time of the year! As we did in 2019 and 2020, let’s take a look at all 42 bowl games, plus the CFP National Championship Game. 18 matchups feature a first-ever meeting of programs.
With how insane the coaching carousel has been, plus the full utilization of the Transfer Portal, we will try to keep up with all of the moving parts and put footnotes for notable players leaving. So, without further ado, time for the 2021 ACC bowls preview!
2021 ACC Bowls Preview
Military Bowl (December 27, 2:30 p.m., ESPN)
Boston College vs East Carolina
Boston College bowl record: 14-13
Due to an uptick of COVID-19 cases within the Boston College program, the Military Bowl has been canceled.
First Responder Bowl (December 28, 3:15 p.m., ESPN)
Louisville vs Air Force
Louisville bowl record: 10-11-1
Due to the BC cancelation, the 2021 ACC bowls schedule kicks off with Louisville! All of the conference’s now seven bowls will be played in four consecutive days. And, for the first time in CFP history, the conference is left out. Louisville finished the season 6-6 (5-6 against FBS teams…yes, we will do this for non-SEC teams) and beat only two bowl-bound teams.
Malik Cunningham is, by far, the most productive member of this Louisville offense and he announced that he will be returning for the 2022 season. Considering he’s been getting more and more production each year, it’s going to be interesting to see what the Cardinals get out of him next year. He added 968 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground to go with his 2,734 yards and 18 touchdowns through the air.
The Louisville defense allows over 400 yards and 27 points per game. Second-team All-ACC linebacker Yasir Abdullah’s stat line jumps out as he is, essentially, the only productive member of this defense. He led the way with 14.5 tackles for loss and 9.0 sacks. Kei’Trel Clark, a Liberty transfer, has been the guy in the Louisville secondary, but he hasn’t appeared in a game since the NC State loss, and Cardinals faithful are unsure about his future with the program.
As is the case with one other matchup of the 2021 ACC bowls, this is the first time in history these two face off. Louisville may be flux with a number of athletes in the Portal, even with Cunningham returning. Overall, Louisville isn’t a very good team. Air Force can run the ball and stop the run. The 2021 ACC bowls record starts off 0-1 as Air Force takes this one.
Holiday Bowl (December 28, 8:00 p.m., FOX)
North Carolina State vs UCLA
Head-to-head: NC State 0-2 UCLA
NC State bowl record: 17-15-1
At 9-3, the NC State Wolfpack were six points away from 11-1 and an ACC Championship berth. The past two seasons have kicked off with higher expectations for NC State and 2021 was closer to what they wanted but they still faltered. Regardless, this is a very solid team and this game looks to be a good one.
The calling card for this team is its defense. It boasts allowing fewer than 20 points per game along with three All-ACC first-team selections. Leading the way is third-year sophomore linebacker, Drake Thomas. Thomas leads the way for NC State in tackles (99), tackles for loss (13.5), sacks (6.0), and interceptions (three). One of those interceptions resulted in a touchdown in the Pack’s dominant win over Syracuse.
The offense is legit, scoring 33.1 points per game. Devin Leary, in his first full season at the helm, threw for 3,433 yards and 35 touchdowns. The team may have dropped the game against Wake Forest, Leary threw for a career-best 408 yards and four touchdowns. His top target is All-ACC second-teamer Emeka Emezie with 802 yards and six touchdowns.
This team features a one-two punch at running back with Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person, Jr. Knight leads the way in rushes with 140 and yards with 753 and added three touchdowns. Person scored five times and ran for 636 yards off of 135 rushes.
It’s a battle of the coasts. NC State is a good team, as is UCLA. There’s always an East vs West debate in just about everything. When these two teams meet in San Diego, California, the East Coast team will be able to secure the victory.
Fenway Bowl (December 29, 11:00 a.m., ESPN)
Virginia vs SMU
Virginia bowl record: 8-13
Due to an uptick of COVID-19 cases within the Virginia program, the Fenway Bowl has been canceled.
Pinstripe Bowl (December 29, 2:15 p.m., ESPN)
Virginia Tech vs Maryland
Head-to-head: Virginia Tech 15-16 Maryland
Virginia Tech bowl record: 13-20
Live from Yankee Stadium, it’s the Pinstripe Bowl! Virginia Tech takes on Maryland from the B1G in the latest of the 2021 ACC bowls. 2021 was not kind to the Hokies and “getting” to play a bowl game in New York on December 29th seems like the cherry on top of this year. VT managed just five FBS wins this year and none sweeter than its victory over Virginia in the final week.
As is the case for NC State, the defense is the strength. The Hokies held opponents to under 23 points per game and only allowed a significant amount twice. Just goes to show how poor the offense is that a team like this only managed six wins. Jermaine Waller is the star of this defense with his four interceptions. One of those four resulted in a 26-yard touchdown against Notre Dame in a 32-29 loss.
Offensively, this team is in shambles. All year, Virginia Tech scored less than 25 points per game. Adding insult to injury, the top two quarterbacks, Braxton Burmeister and Knox Kadum are in the Transfer Portal. So, Connor Blumrick and his 42 passing yards (50 in his career) seems to be the guy. With how bad the offense has been and the lack of quarterback play, fifth-year junior running back by way of Rutgers, Raheem Blackshear will be called to play some hero ball.
On paper, this matchup looks ugly. VT can’t move the ball, Maryland can’t stop anything. Maryland has some skill on offense, VT can shut it down. In this battle of ugly 6-6 teams, gut feeling feels like Maryland in this one. The 2021 ACC bowls record falls to 1-2.
Cheez-It Bowl (December 29, 5:45 p.m., ESPN)
Clemson vs Iowa State
Clemson bowl record: 25-22
The most talented and the most disappointing team on the 2021 ACC bowls slate is Clemson, but they finish 9-3. All year, Clemson has been less than what we’ve been accustomed to seeing out of the Tigers. After making the CFP and winning the ACC each of the last six years, this year was nothing short of disappointing.
When did the ACC get so good at defense? Clemson is not as surprising because they’ve been great for years. The reason may be leaving for Oklahoma as Brett Venables leaves Clemson next year. Allowing only 15 points per game, the Tigers defense is second-best in the nation. Home of four first-teamers, a second-teamer, and three third-teamers, this is an All-ACC defense from front to back.
It seems that D.J. Uiagalelei is not Trevor Lawrence or Deshaun Watson. If he were even half of them, this Clemson team wins another ACC title and makes the CFP. But only 2,059 yards and nine touchdowns with eight interceptions and a 54.7% completion percentage isn’t going to cut it. Justyn Ross is a solid receiver despite coming back from neck surgery, but he likely will not be available for this game.
The winner of this game gets Cheez-Its dumped on the coach’s head. What more could you ask for?? Clemson is figuring out just what happens when you try to maintain an elite level of play. Assistants are poached, recruits may not pan out. 2022 for Clemson kicks off with a loss and, hopefully for them, this leaves a disappointing year behind them and improves.
Duke’s Mayo Bowl (December 30, 12:00 p.m., ESPN)
North Carolina vs South Carolina
Head-to-head: North Carolina 35-19-4 South Carolina
North Carolina bowl record: 15-20
The team that was often projected to take down Clemson and take its place in the CFP lands here in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. North Carolina finished the year with just five wins over FBS foes and was in a number of shootouts. Despite having some of the best unis in the game, the Tar Heels struggled in 2021. Obviously, unis have nothing to do with on-field performance, it’s just a shame.
In his third year of starting, quarterback Sam Howell took a step back. It hasn’t been confirmed just yet, but many believe Howell will make the leap to the NFL, so it’s not certain whether or not he will play in this game. Regardless, running back Ty Chandler and receiver Josh Downs have been legit all year. Chandler showed out in his first chance to be the number one back with 1,063 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Downs also notched a 1,000-yard receiver going for 1,273 yards and eight touchdowns. There’s still plenty of great ball left in Downs’ career and he will be one to watch in 2022.
With this trio of playmakers, there is a reason this team went 6-6. That reason is its defense. Ranked 101st in the nation in scoring defense, UNC allowed 31.6 points per game and over 400 yards. Tony Grimes took the college football world by storm last year as he skipped his senior year of high school, enrolled early, and flashed. As a sophomore, he took a step forward in his progress and will be a name to watch for next year. Defensive lineman Myles Murphy earned second-team all-ACC with his 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks.
UNC’s offense can run with most teams in the nation. The defense could give up 400 yards to just about anyone. If Howell plays, the Tar Heels should be able to easily secure the win here. If he doesn’t, North Carolina is still skilled enough to win. They’ve been in shootouts all year, so why not in the bowl?
NY6 Peach Bowl (December 30, 6:00 p.m., ESPN)
Pittsburgh vs Michigan State
Head-to-head: Pitt 0-6-1 Michigan State
Pitt bowl record: 14-21
The only NY6 bowl on the 2021 ACC bowls schedule pits the Pitt Panthers, winners of the ACC, against the Michigan State Spartans, the third-best Big Ten team. Posting a 10-2 record against FBS teams, Pitt was thisclose to securing an unbeaten season and representing the conference in the CFP. Instead, they dropped games to MAC foe Western Michigan and Miami (FL) by three and four points, respectively.
This offense is electric. Pitt scores 43 points per game (third-best in the nation) and goes off for more than 500 yards. Kenny Pickett has been the quarterback and finished third in Heisman voting, but will not play in this game to prepare for the NFL Draft. This means that junior quarterback Nick Patti will start, but he has plenty of help.
The Biletnikoff Award winner, Jordan Addison and his ACC-best 1,479 yards and nation-best 17 touchdowns will surely be helpful. The sophomore is a monster and will be a matchup nightmare for this poor excuse of a secondary.
All in all, this Pitt defense isn’t elite, nor is it terrible. They have, however, been able to stifle the run over these last four games. Even without its stud running back, Michigan State likes to run the ball. Pitt is athletic and has been able to take care of business all year.
Pickett or no, this Pitt offense is primed to absolutely shred a Michigan State secondary that is legitimately the worst in the nation. They allow more than 338 yards per game through the air. Pitt wins easily and they get to look forward to the Kedon Slovis era.
Gator Bowl (December 31, 11:00 a.m., ESPN)
Wake Forest vs
Texas A&M Rutgers
Head-to-head: Wake Forest 2-0 Rutgers
Wake Forest bowl record: 9-6
Here’s a shake-up for you! Initially, Wake Forest was set to take on Texas A&M. But, due to transfers, injuries, and the idea that COVID isn’t real in Texas, the Aggies had to pull out, leaving 5-7 Rutgers to take their place. Regardless, Wake is a good football team and comes into this game with a 10-3 record after shooting out the gate on an eight-game win streak.
As is the case with the team that beat them in the ACC Championship game, Wake has a high-flying offense and a less-than-stellar defense. Quarterback and fourth-year sophomore Sam Hartman has been dealing all year. He may have had an ACC-worst 14 interceptions, he threw for 3,924 yards and 36 touchdowns.
The dynamic duo of A.T. Perry and Jaquarii Roberson made Hartman’s job significantly easier. Perry leads the way with 1,144 yards and 14 touchdowns, while Roberson reeled in 71 passes for 1,078 yards and eight touchdowns. Against a weaker secondary in Rutgers, expect at least one of these guys to go off. The fifth-best scoring offense in the nation is lethal.
The weakness of this team is the defense and it’s not close. On six occasions, the Demon Deacons allowed over 500 yards of offense, and only once did a team earn fewer than 200 yards. The strength of this defense is the fact that they’ve forced 27 turnovers. If ever there was a get-right game, it’d be this. Sure, it’s the final game of the year and there’s nothing after it, but Wake has a very good shot to end 2021 with a win.
Wake Forest was going to win this game whether it was against A&M or Rutgers. It will just be a bit uglier. The (likely) final game of the 2021 ACC bowls schedule ends with a win and the record finishes at 4-3.
Sun Bowl (December 31, 12:30 p.m., CBS)
Miami (FL) vs Washington State
Head-to-head: Miami (FL) 0-1 Washington State
Miami (FL) bowl record: 19-22
Miami (FL) is dealing with an uptick of COVID-19 cases and they pulled out of the Sun Bowl. It is unclear if they will be replaced.
Onward to 2022
This year was forgettable for the ACC as a whole. Its two best teams faltered against bad teams and its recent dynasty looked ugly on offense. It’s going to be interesting to watch how the coaching and transfer carousel ends up in this conference because most of these teams have some serious talent to build on.
The next iteration will cover another Power 5 conference without a CFP team: the Big 12! It’s the penultimate piece of these bowl previews.