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2016 ACC Coastal Division Preview

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We’re gonna have a crazy year in the ACC Coastal.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Boston College Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Countdown to Kickoff: 47 Days

Predictions are normally pretty meaningless. As I do the ACC Preview for the third time in my tenure with From the Rumble Seat, I think this year’s ACC could very well be the hardest to predict with the vast number of coaching changes, but I will give it my best shot. Today, we start with the ACC Coastal Division.

Note: These rankings reflect any and all tie-breakers.

1 - Pittsburgh (6-2)

Wins: Duke, Georgia Tech, Miami, Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech

Losses: Clemson, North Carolina

Key Players: QB Nate Peterman, RB James Conner, DE Ejuan Price, CB Avonte Maddox

What does Pittsburgh need to do this year: Establish James Conner again and grow on defense.

I guess I should have prefaced these rankings by saying that I am expecting a pretty crazy year in the ACC this year. All the craziness starts right here with Pat Narduzzi’s Pitt Panthers. In Narduzzi’s first season with the Panthers were pretty solid all year, dropping only a few games. Losing to Miami and Navy weren’t the best showings, but this is also a young team, so there will be lapses like that.

On offense, the Panthers return quarterback Nate Peterman who stole the starting job away from Chad Voytik last season. He had a solid season, finishing a 61.5 percent pass completion, 2287 yards, 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Now it’s great that he’s coming back, but the real story here is James Conner. After being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in December, it was announced in May that he was officially cancer-free.

Now that he’s back, the Panthers’ offense will take a huge step forward. When he’s healthy, he is one of the best running backs in the country, and I believe he’s the reason Pitt finishes first in the Coastal this year.

On defense, I also expect the Panthers to take a step or two forward. Pat Narduzzi is one of the best defensive minds in the game, and he’s got some pretty good players. Ejuan Price led the team with 11.5 sacks, and Avonte Maddox had three interceptions and 12 pass break-ups. The key here is they need to find some more pass rush from the defensive line, as nobody else returns that had more than two sacks on the defensive line.

T-2 - Georgia Tech (5-3)

Wins: Boston College, Duke, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia

Losses: Clemson, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech

Key Players: QB Justin Thomas, C Freddie Burden, DT Pat Gamble, LB PJ Davis

What does Georgia Tech need to do this year: Fix the blocking and find a pass rush.

Though I believe last year was a complete anomaly, there were still some very real problems that need to be fixed for the Yellow Jackets. The main problem last year was blocking on both the offensive line and from skill players. On the offensive line, the Jackets are hoping that new faces and growing up will give them the boost that they need. Tech brought in Ron West to help Mike Sewak along the offensive line, but they will be dependent on Freddie Burden to lead the offensive line.

Defense has never really been Tech’s strong suit since Paul Johnson has been the head coach, but this year, the Jackets have something that they haven’t had in a long time: depth along the defensive line. At end, we should see some combination of five or six players, highlighted by KeShun Freeman, Rod Rook-Chungong, Pat Gamble and Anree Saint-Amour, among others.

T-2 - Miami (5-3)

Wins: Duke, North Carolina, NC State, Virginia, Virginia Tech

Losses: Florida State, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh

Key Players: QB Brad Kaaya, WR Stacy Coley, LB Jermaine Grace, CB Corn Elder

What does Miami need to do this year: Let Brad Kaaya fly.

Brad Kaaya is an immensely talented quarterback and under first-year head coach Mark Richt, Kaaya has the chance to show that he is one of the best quarterbacks in the country. He has had two good seasons, but has yet to really break out. This year, we should see his pass completion percentage to increase again this year. He’s thrown for at least 3000 yards each of the past two seasons, but it felt like there were always times that the offense just kind of stalled and they weren’t able to finish drives, especially this past season. If Kaaya only manages to throw for 16 touchdowns again this season, I think it’s safe to say the Hurricanes won’t be doing too much this season.

4 - North Carolina (4-4)

Wins: Duke, NC State, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech

Losses: Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami, Virginia

Key Players: QB Mitch Trubisky, RB Elijah Hood, WR Ryan Switzer, CBs Des Lawrence and MJ Stewart

What does North Carolina need to do this year: Find a defense.

I’m fairly certain I could put that for just about every season of North Carolina football in recent memory. Recently, they have been an offense first, defense occasionally sometimes team. I’m not worried about this offense at all Elijah Hood and Ryan Switzer are already established, and Trubisky should do a fine job taking over for Marquise Williams, but there isn’t a whole lot of reasons to think that the defense is going to do anything this year, and if they can’t, well, they aren’t going that far this year.

T-5 - Duke (3-5)

Wins: Virginia, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest

Losses: Georgia Tech, Louisville, Miami, North Carolina, Pittsburgh

Key Players: QB Thomas Sirk, WRs TJ Rahming and Anthony Nash, CBs DeVon Edwards and Byron Fields

What does Duke have to do this year: Beat the stigma.

It’s no secret that the last few years Duke has had a pretty obnoxiously easy cross-divisional conference schedule. With Wake Forest as its permanent rival, that’s going to continue to be the case. Louisville presents an interesting case, however, as they always have the potential to be a team right in the thick of things, especially with Bobby Petrino at the helm. David Cutcliffe and co. are going to have to prove that they aren’t just the product of an easier schedule. And I think my prediction speaks to how I think they’ll do at that.

T-5 - Virginia Tech (3-5)

Wins: Georgia Tech, Syracuse, Virginia

Losses: Boston College, Duke, Miami, North Carolina, Pittsburgh

Key Players: RB Travon McMillian, WR Isaiah Ford, DE Ken Ekanem, MLB Andrew Motuapuaka, CB Adonis Alexander

What does Virginia Tech need to do this year: Establish Justin Fuente’s offense quickly.

I think Justin Fuente was the best hire in the ACC this last go-round in the Coaching Carousel. Honestly, when I saw that Virginia Tech of all people were the ones to hire him, I was just like [Foreigner]. Now, while I think he was the best coaching hire in the ACC, I also think it will take some time for him to get established. It’s going to be a pretty long season for the Hokies as they are looking for the players from an offense that has been virtually nonexistent the last few years. I think they will catch on at the end of the year winning tough match-ups against Georgia Tech and Virginia.

7 - Virginia (2-6)

Wins: North Carolina, Wake Forest

Losses: Duke, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Miami, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech

Key Players: QB Matt Johns, RB Taquan Mizzell, ILB Micah Kiser, S Quinton Blanding

What does Virginia need to do this year: Move on from the Mike London era as quickly as possible.

It’s no secret that the Mike London era was a complete disaster for the most part. I say for the most part because while London was in Virginia, the recruiting was actually pretty solid. I think that because of this, Bronco Mendenhall actually has a bit of a head start. So why do I still think they finish at 2-6? Well, just because recruiting is good, doesn’t mean that the team is just going to magically turn around. There is still plenty of work to be done here, but Mendenhall and co. have a good base and should play a lot of close games this year. I think they also find a way to stuff North Carolina’s offense enough to pull off the upset.