The ACC’s Coastal Division was something of a circus in 2012. North Carolina had the division’s best team, but was on probation for the rules violations of the Butch Davis era. Miami stood poised to take the place of the Tar Heels, but decided to self-impose a bowl ban in November, a ban that extended to the ACC Championship Game. Georgia Tech, at 6-6, ended up playing for the conference title and thankfully losing to Florida State.
This doesn’t include bowl regular and perennial conference contender Virginia Tech falling to 4-6, before rallying to make a bowl game, nor Duke stepping up and making it into postseason play. It was an interesting year to say the least, and 2013 should be more of the same. At least with everyone eligible, the interest can be more about the quality of the race, than with it being a train wreck.
I’d break this seven-team entity into three groups of teams. The first tier belongs to Miami. It’s not that the Hurricanes are the overwhelming favorite, but as we’ll see they are the “on-paper” favorite, and it’s hard to argue any other way. It doesn’t mean you have to pick the ‘Canes, but they’re at least with their conversation must begin.
Then there’s three solid contenders in Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Virginia Tech, any one of whom can make it to Charlotte for the championship game on December 7. After that we move to the bottom three of Pitt, Duke and Virginia. All of these teams can make a bowl game, and frankly could even make a run at the top, but they would be a significant dark horse shot to pull off the latter.
So on with our college football coverage of the ACC Coastal Division’s three tiers, followed by some predictions…
Senior quarterback Stephen Morris started showing some consistency last year for Miami, cutting back on his interceptions and throwing 21 touchdown passes. In his final campaign, he needs to up the 58% completion rate, which in this day and age of high-percentage throws, is a little low. Morris has an experienced group of receivers and a veteran offensive line, so this offense should be able to move the ball.
The opposite side of the ball sees Miami strong in the trenches, with three defensive lineman back, and they’ve got a nice group of linebackers. The only area of this team that needs work is the secondary, along with the fact that the defense was not very good a year ago, so obviously the returning starters need to make big strides.
A lot of ACC defenses struggled last year, so relative to the conference, I don’t think Miami has a lot to worry about here. My concern is that in recent years this program has not been effective at closing out big games, as evidenced by the fact that they’ve never played in the ACC Championship Game. Who would have ever thought that would happen when the ‘Canes arrived in the ACC for the 2004 season?
As you might gather then, I am not ready to anoint Miami as the Coastal Division champs. If you ask me which of the division’s team is most likely to win eight games, I’d pick the ‘Canes, but on an up-or-down proposition to win the Coastal, I’d go with the negative.
A TRIO OF CHALLENGERS
Georgia Tech: Paul Johnson’s triple-option offense will need new leadership, as the Yellow Jackets have to replace the quarterback and the entire backfield. The good news is that a good offensive line is ready to pave the way. The bad news is that the triple option requires a high degree of precision from all the skill players involved, so there is still going to be a learning curve, and Johnson has never had a good passing game to help offset that.
What Georgia Tech can hope for is that the defense is significantly better. The Yellow Jackets played well defensively against Florida State in last year’s championship game and against USC in a bowl game, so perhaps the eight returning starters built up some good momentum for this year. Georgia Tech is also shifting to a 4-3, to try and toughen up on the trenches. Jeremiah Attaochu had ten sacks last year and is the kind of defensive end a 4-3 needs, but now he has to prove he can rush from a down position, rather than the stand-up outside linebacker he was in the 3-4.
Virginia Tech: Logan Thomas is in his third year as the starting quarterback, but there is absolutely nothing around him. The Hokies are a contender because of what should be an excellent defense. They’re physical up front, led by end James Gayle, and experienced in the secondary, with tough corners in Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum.
We’ve also learned to count on head coach Frank Beamer pulling a few rabbits out of his hat on special teams, and while the Hokies are going to be overmatched against Alabama on August 31, that game will be also be a great learning situation. A solid head coach, veteran quarterback and rugged defense isn’t a bad place to start the season.
North Carolina: Larry Fedora in his second year as head coach, having first won at Southern Miss, and then making the Tar Heels the best team in the division a year ago. The running game will be in transition, with new starters on the offensive front and the departure of running back Giovanni Bernard. But the passing game will be explosive, with senior quarterback Bryn Renner having all his favorite targets back in the fold.
Defensively is where Fedora has to get this team up to speed quickly. They play a 4-2-5 set, and while the secondary should be okay, this has the look of a team that can be pushed around at front. They gave up 68 points last year to Georgia Tech, the conference team most likely to do such shoving.
Pitt: I lived in the Steel City for nine years and I can always be talked into taking a flyer on the Panthers for a longshot, even while knowing that they always find a way to mess things up. I really like this team’s defense. They have experience throughout the lineup, a great defensive tackle in Aaron Donald and a couple tough corners in K’Waun Williams and LaFayette Pitts. The problem is the offense has nothing, and it will take all of head coach Paul Chryst’s offensive wizardry to put points on the board.
Virginia: Mike London’s program fell hard last year after what seemed to be a breakout year in 2011. When looking at UVA, I’m reminded of a book by former Oakland Raider coach John Madden, who achieved even greater fame as an NFL analyst. Madden said that he and his old boss Al Davis were in agreement that the offensive line and the secondary were the places to begin building a team. If that’s true, then London has something to work with, because those are the two positive areas of his squad.
Duke: The Dookies did last year what Virginia had done in ’11 and that’s make a nice splash. Duke won six games, beat North Carolina and made it to a bowl. Head coach David Cutliffe has to find a new quarterback, but the signal-caller will be well-protected and able to target wide receiver Jamison Crowder. The Blue Devils also have three defensive lineman back and an all-conference corner in Ross Cockrell.
I like the depth in this division, and expect six of its teams to qualify for a bowl bid. I’d lean Virginia as the odd team out. At the top, I’m going to take a flyer on Virginia Tech. We summarized their strengths further up, and I’d also add that this is a proud program that’s going to feel like it has something to prove to their conference brethren.
Miami would come in a close second, North Carolina in third and Georgia Tech is the one contender that I just don’t see making it to Charlotte. Of the three longshots, I like Pitt as the one with the best chance of breaking into a higher tier and challenging for the division crown.