CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The 2022 ACC Football Kickoff began on Wednesday, featuring teams from the Atlantic Division.
UNC competes in the Coastal Division but routinely plays teams from the Atlantic, which features in-state foes Wake Forest and N.C. State, as well as football powerhouse Clemson. Having won 10 of the last 11 conference championships, the Atlantic Division has asserted itself as the premier football division of the ACC.
This season the competition within the division ramps up, as all seven squads return their respective starting quarterbacks from last season. Three teams from the Atlantic — Clemson, N.C. State and Wake Forest — were featured in ESPN’s Way-Too-Early Top 25 poll released in late May.
Here’s a look at the two teams from the Atlantic that North Carolina will play against this season.
After winning nine games during the 2021 season, the N.C. State Wolfpack are looking to take another leap towards the national spotlight.
With wins over Clemson and North Carolina last year, the Wolfpack has a proven track record. Headlined by redshirt junior quarterback Devin Leary and junior linebacker Drake Thomas, a breakout season for this experienced squad could be on the horizon.
Even so, head coach Dave Doeren understands that it's the little plays, not just the return of key players, that’ll produce victories in the fall.
“It's one more play that you have to make — that’s it,” he said. “At the end it's going to come down to one player making a routine play that changes the outcome of the game.”
Though Leary has received most of the offseason attention, the Wolfpack’s defense could lead the charge this fall.
N.C. State returns 10 defensive starters from a group that surrendered a tick over 330 yards per contest, good for third in the ACC. Moreover, the Wolfpack will reinsert redshirt junior linebacker Payton Wilson — a first team All-ACC performer returning from injury — into the fold to bolster an already deep defensive unit.
“It's always about raising the bar,” Doeren said. “So last year's defense statistically did a lot of things that we haven't done, and so now it's about improving upon those statistics”
Fresh off its first ACC championship appearance since 2006, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons head into the 2022 season looking to repeat as Atlantic Division champions.
Led by quarterback Sam Hartman, the Demon Deacons’ high-paced offense will look to produce another successful season in Winston-Salem. The redshirt junior is fresh off a standout campaign that saw the Charlotte, N.C. native pass for 4,228 yards and 39 touchdowns.
However, through all of Hartman’s achievements on the field, it's his value in the locker room that impresses head coach Dave Clawson the most.
“Every physical measurement of a quarterback (Hartman) has improved every year,” he said. “The big difference for him on our football team is just his leadership qualities.”
While the Demon Deacons rostered the second-highest scoring offense in the conference last year, Wake Forest’s defense struggled. Ranking toward the bottom of the ACC in both points and yards allowed per game, the Demon Deacons surrendered a combined 151 points in their three losses last year.
With these struggles Clawson decided to take initiative, hiring Brad Lambert as Wake Forest’s new defensive coordinator in January.
“I think we're capable of a lot of improvement on that side of the ball,” Clawson said. “I'm very comfortable and confident that we're going to get there with Coach Lambert and the staff that he brought in.”
With its new leadership on the defensive end, and the return of Hartman — who finished third in ACC Player of the Year voting last season — the Demon Deacons are well equipped for a second-straight trip to the ACC title.
For what was once considered a lower-tier football school in the ACC, Wake Forest feels they've flipped the script for the new era of Demon Deacon football.
“The culture used to be, 'It's a great school, you must be smart because you go there,'” Hartman said. “But now it's because you are a good football player who is also pretty smart.”