Days to Kickoff: 39 Days
Whereas last year had a plethora of coaching changes, the ACC Coastal Division remains as unpredictable as ever due to the slew of departing veteran starting quarterbacks. So, with a grain of salt, here is my best attempt at delving into the muddied waters of the ACC Coastal.
These rankings reflect any and all tiebreakers.
T-1 - Miami (6 - 2)
Wins: Syracuse, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Duke, North Carolina
Losses: Florida State, Pitt
Players to Watch: QB Malik Rosier/N’Kosi Perry, WR Mark Walton, WR Ahmmon Richards
Season in Sentence: Miami needs to establish a quarterback and a secondary early and run with them to get ahead of the division.
Losing Brad Kaaya to the NFL a year early will hurt the Hurricanes. So will an offense scattered with holes from last year. However, in a wide open Coastal, they have the best shot of anyone to be the last man standing going into the championship game. They play the next best teams, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, at home, with the latter coming after a mutual bye week, in a primetime weeknight matchup. Their home draw is quite fortunate this year. Playing a strong Florida State team in Tallahassee in Week 3 matters a little less when the woeful Syracuse Orange team visits Miami later in the season.
The quarterback transition also matters less because the other contenders are going through the same changes. That said, Miami won’t run away with the division. The games against both Techs are losable games for the Hurricanes. The defensive secondary needs to take a step forward and make key stops to lock down opponents. Their rushing offense revolved mostly around the exemplary Mark Walton last year, and he returns. Having a strong tailback that gives the fresh quarterback a strong option to fall back on is never bad thing. When they take to the air, Ahmmon Richards is a talented option to throw to.
This team, though, is mortal. They graduated four seniors from their secondary, and, by the end of the season, an offense-happy team like Pittsburgh, playing the Friday after Thanksgiving in Pittsburgh, could be able to take advantage and give Miami a loss. This team does not have the markings of a team poised to vanquish the rest of the division. That said, they hold the upper hand among the seven teams, thanks to their scheduling luck and their returning rushing, receiving corps, and defensive front seven. This team, as much as I don’t want to say this, could very well being playing in Charlotte on December 2nd.
T-1 - Georgia Tech (6 - 2)
Wins: Wake Forest, Pittsburgh, Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech
Losses: Clemson, Miami
Players to Watch: QB Matthew Jordan, BB Dedrick Mills, AB Clinton Lynch, DL KeShun Freeman
Season in a Sentence: If they pick a consistent quarterback and create more havoc, they will play on December 2nd.
A toss-up against Virginia Tech on the Flats on Veterans Day will determine which of the two squares off with Miami for the division. Despite losing two of their top four rushers from the past season, the Yellow Jackets are likely to build on their bounce-back season last year. At running back and wide receiver, many solid veterans return, most notably at the A-Back position. Not only that, but a healthy portion of the offensive line and many key contributors from the defense are back as well. Matthew Jordan, presumptive starting quarterback in the season opener, already has a win on the road against the top-25 Hokies in Blacksburg under his belt. Coach Paul Johnson has plenty of options, literally, to run his offense through, and, once the quarterback spot is nailed down tight, this team definitely has the talent to play for the ACC Championship.
3 - Virginia Tech (5 - 3)
Wins: Pittsburgh, Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Boston College
Losses: Clemson, Georgia Tech, Miami
Players to Watch: QB Josh Jackson, WR Cam Phillips, LB Andrew Motuapuaka, S Terrell Edmunds
Season in a Sentence: Just how far this team goes relies on the acclaimed new defensive talent stepping up to fill gaps while the offense figures itself out.
Virginia Tech will contend within the division. Coach Justin Fuente’s reputation of offensive prowess combined with the always-reliable schemes of defensive coordinator Bud Foster should provide steady hands for an team with an offense in transition, like so many of the other contenders, after seeing their quarterback and several starting receivers and running backs depart. A road draw, with tough away games in Miami and Atlanta, balanced by Boston College and the rivalry game in Charlottesville, brings them to the doorsteps of the other major contenders in the division. Flip a game or two at Bobby Dodd or Hard Rock Stadium, and the Hokies take the Coastal for the second year in a row.
4 - Pittsburgh (4 - 4)
Wins: Syracuse, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Miami
Losses: Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Duke, Virginia
Players to Watch: QB Max Browne, RB Qadree Ollison, WR Quadree Henderson, S Jordan Whitehead
Season in a Sentence: Is good coaching enough to outweigh the graduate transfer quarterback and general inexperience?
Pittsburgh has a proven coach and his teams have shown us in the past they love to score. Their quarterback is a veteran, albeit not at this school. Can he click with the rest of the starters? This will determine how far this team goes. By the end of the season, they are well-enough built to make a stand against the top of the division. They have to, first, stay enough afloat in the division for that to matter when they play Virginia Tech and Miami back to back to close out the season. This is not a terrible team, but they have enough question marks to be skeptical of their chance to break into the upper echelon of the division.
T-5 - North Carolina (3 - 5)
Wins: Virginia, Duke, North Carolina State
Losses: Louisville, Miami, Virginia Tech, Pitt, Georgia Tech
Players to Watch: QB Brandon Harris, RB Stanton Truitt, DE Malik Carney, P Tom Sheldon
Season in a Sentence: The quarterback formerly known as Mitch Trubinsky and his solid receiving corps can’t be replaced in one fell swoop.
If your quarterback is drafted second overall, that’s usually a good sign your team is losing someone important. Coupled with the departure of nearly all the significant production from last year, returning to a bowl for the sixth consecutive is a legitimate question for the young team. Having the best veteran punter in the nation is a great piece, but the Tar Heels would be better served to score more often than to send the ball to the other team. So, this year, we wonder if the reserves can fill the voids at running back, some spots on the offensive line, and at wide receiver. Can the defense, complete with five new starters and a new coordinator, hold off opposing offenses long enough for the offense to get game experience and figure themselves out? That’s the biggest question in Chapel Hill, and a tall order. If they can execute that, they’ll beat enough teams in this tight division to be back in the postseason.
T-5 - Duke (3 - 5)
Wins: Virginia, Wake Forest, Pittsburgh
Losses: North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Florida State, Miami, Georgia Tech
Players to Watch: QB Daniel Jones, RB Shaun Wilson, LB Ben Humphreys, DT Mike Ramsay
Season in a Sentence: Is Daniel Jones’ starting experience good enough to win them the entire conference, like one ACC media poll voter thinks?
Considering Duke had previously been to four straight bowls, 2016 was a step back for them. After suffering a rash of injuries last year, including the promotion of a certain now-sophomore quarterback, the team looks able to bounce back to at least a bowl-eligible record. Quarterback Daniel Jones, almost by default, is the most experienced ACC starter in the division. The defense returns only a handful of proven playmakers from last year’s starting lineup. Despite one eager vote to be conference champions, just making a bowl seems most likely for the Blue Devils in 2017, and, after last year, not a disappointment for this team on the mend.
7 - Virginia (2 - 6)
Wins: Boston College, Pittsburgh
Losses: Louisville, Miami, Duke, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech
Players to Watch: QB Kurt Benkert, RB Daniel Hamm, S Quin Blanding, PR Joe Reed
Season in a Sentence: If Virginia executes well replacing the best player on their roster, they’ll surprise people.
Virginia’s primary rushing attack, Taquan Mizzell, the original “all-purpose” back, the first player in the ACC to both rush for and receive 1,500 yards in his career, is gone. He also lead the team in receptions. Those are some huge shoes to fill on a team that went 2-10 last year. The quarterback situation, though not as ambiguous as some other teams in the division, is not good. Kurt Benkert was benched for Matt Johns late in the season. If he can right the ship and if some players step up to replace Mizzell’s output, they could get back to bowl season. That task, however, looks daunting for Bronco Mendenhall’s sophomore season in Charlottesville.
Any inkling to how this mess will shake out? Let’s hear it.