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Georgia Tech Football: ACC Coastal Preview

I don’t know how many times I’ve written this one, but we’ve absolutely been here before.

Georgia Tech v Virginia
Virginia hosts Georgia Tech
Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

We’ve done this...many years now. Quite honestly, the details may change year-over-year, but the true conclusion always remains the same: the Coastal is Chaos.

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For many years - eight, to be exact - two great forces ruled over the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division, a truly cumbersome and uninspiring division name. These two foes, both Techs, amassed between them four conference titles in that span, though the NCAA would tell you that number is just three. They’re wrong.

After a near-decade long struggle, an upstart emerged, throwing the system out of whack. This team was the Duke Blue Devils. Since their breakthrough in 2013, no team has repeated as the Coastal Division champion. Each of the seven teams has taken their turn in the order. After Duke, Georgia Tech returned to form, its last truly great team to date. Then came the Tar Heels of North Carolina, followed by Virginia Tech’s latest good team. They were followed by Miami, then Pittsburgh, and finally Virginia. In 2020, even in the absence of division, an eighth team, Notre Dame, managed to win the right to get smacked by Clemson, keeping the wheel of chaos in motion. Now, after eight long years, it is Duke’s turn to return again to Charlotte for the conference championship.

I only know one thing for certain about this football season: there is almost certainly no chance that comes remotely close to true. But stranger things have happened.

But, also, it’s Duke.

Honestly, the more things change, the more they stay the same. I could go back and look up what I’ve said in the past, but I do know one thing - I have almost never been right about this division, at least in exact order of finish, in four years of trying to figure it out in this space. Thus, I will absolutely not pretend that this is anywhere close to gospel. However, I do think, in general, this is a useful though exercise. For exact order of finish, pay attention to this space in, say, December.

That’s why they play the games.

Teams are listed in order of projected finish. 2021 SP+ Rankings in parentheses.

1. North Carolina (10)

Why They’ll Win:

They have probably the hottest and most proven quarterback commodity in the conference, let alone the division, in the form of Sam Howell. Their coach, for all of the doubts that he was old, washed up, and wouldn’t fare well in a second run in Chapel Hill, has built an impressive and proven staff around him. Their recruiting has been consistently strong. They played just four Coastal opponents last year, but managed a 3-1 record against them, including a 62-26 throttling of the Miami Hurricanes, and were much more competitive against an excellent Texas A&M team in their Orange Bowl appearance than the 41-27 final score would suggest, as that game got out of hand late. I think they’re the odds-on favorite, too. All signs, it seems, point to the Tar Heels.

Why They Won’t:

They showed consistent signs of mortality last year, losing to a not-great Florida State team, along with a middling Virginia squad. They lose a huge chunk of their offensive weaponry, along with an anchor of their defense in the form of Chazz Surratt. And, more than anything, this is the ACC Coastal division we’re talking about - the only thing one can really reliably expect to happen is the unexpected.

2. Miami (8)

Why They’ll Win:

They certainly have the talent to win this division. They return an experienced starter in the form of D’Eriq King, he of Florida Panthers (NIL-related) fame. Despite losing him to an ACL injury, he is expected to bring much needed stability and know-how to an important role. On top of that, they’re a team that lost a decent amount of defense to the draft, but has enough to fill the gaps via existing and incoming talent, and a consistent amount of production on the offensive side of the ball. This division was literally design for them to be able to win it year-in and year-out and, outside of North Carolina, who they notably have to take on on the road, they can certainly match up well against any other regular season conference opponent.

Why They Won’t:

This division was literally design for them to be able to win it year-in and year-out and, outside of 2017, when they managed just 3 points in a miserable five score demolition at the hands of Clemson, despite being regarded as a top 5 team at the time, they haven’t done anything with their wealth of talent in fifteen years. Why start now?

3. Pittsburgh (43)

Why They’ll Win:

By nature of being a team with a pretty well-defined ceiling under coach Pat Narduzzi, they also have a pretty well-defined floor. Fortunately for them, that floor is pretty high. They have a defensive style that has been molded over the past few years into a regular top-40 performer, and that is a trait that allows them to keep themselves in games they have no business in winning. Heck, I’m pretty sure their 2016 game at Clemson was the last time the Tigers lost in Death Valley, I know they also took out Miami in 2017, and their 2019 win over UCF was the Knights’ first regular season loss in nearly three years. Clearly, this is a team that can hang around and surprise teams. Why not this year?

Why They Won’t:

Are we really going to make this much hay about a handshake? Does it really matter that much?

In all seriousness, though, the offense is a bit of a liability, and, well, they just haven’t been all that consistent. Their 2018 division title came in the midst of the elusive 7-7 season record, so emblematic of perfect mediocrity that I’m not sure that can be repeated.

4. Georgia Tech (48)

Why They’ll Win:

For as much as I admit to hating the narrative that the Most Monumental Transition in the History of College Football was, well, that, it can’t really be denied that Geoff Collins and his staff deserved a Year 0, or a year to reset. In the second, they were presented with a global pandemic and no time to allow their true freshman starting quarterback to adjust to the college level, and several lost key contributors for at least a few games due to injury, most notably transcendent star running back/offensive wunderkind Jahmyr Gibbs. With more time for the staff and their young or new talent, the new look Jackets have plenty of opportunity to take steps forward from their back-to-back three win seasons. As much as anyone can know anything for certain in the ACC Coastal, if there’s a team that could take steps that surprise some outsiders, it’s this one.

Why They Won’t:

From dust we come and to dust we all shall return, and with a schedule as hard as any in the country, this team could be ground down into a fine powder by the time the calendars turn to December. Much of the team is yet unproven or unacclimated, and a string of self-induced struggles, between turnovers and penalties, haunted the Jackets last year. There’s a decent amount that remains to be proven on the field, and there’s always the possibility that, well, they don’t.

5. Virginia Tech (36)

Why They’ll Win:

For all the air in the narrative that VPISU has done not much of anything under Justin Fuente, he does have a Coastal championship and three seasons with at least 8 wins to his name in Blacksburg. The numbers are very kind to the Hokies, particularly their offense, which figures to be a return to form in some ways. At the very least, they should be able to score some points.

Why They Won’t:

The Hokies may have seen at least some recent success, but their trend has been decidedly in the downward direction in the past half-decade. The defense is a bit of a liability and seemingly more so this year than in the past. The talent inflow just hasn’t been all that consistent, as the staff has looked further afield than their traditional strongpoints, particularly in the Norfolk and Tidewater areas. They didn’t fare particularly well in games against stronger opponents last season, and, well, it’s much easier to repeat that than to improve. I’m learning that the “why they won’t win” section is much more straightforward for every team than the “why they will” parts.

6. Virginia (56)

Why They’ll Win:

Virginia has, somewhat surprisingly, been ruthlessly efficient in one regard, as I learned on the Basketball Conference podcast recently during their preview of the Cavaliers. They defend their home turf very well. That alone is enough to keep a team in the conversation for a division title, given their home schedule includes Wake Forest, Duke, Virginia Tech, and Georgia Tech. Their offense and defense aren’t particularly exciting, especially when compared to their 2019 division title team, but they at least are relatively consistent, which is enough to stay afloat.

Why They Won’t:

Though they return Brennan Armstrong for a second straight year at the helm of the offense, he is not the dynamic player that his predecessor Bryce Perkins was. In fact, though this team is pretty consistent, there also isn’t a ton of spark that jumps out in a way that the Cavaliers would pose a serious threat to knock off enough teams above them in the pecking order and put themselves back in Charlotte.

7. Duke (102)

Why They’ll Win:

Coach David Cutcliffe doesn’t necessarily need to per se, given that he’s likely earned enough credibility to decide his own fate in the role simply by making Duke more than a doormat in the conference in his tenure in Durham, but if there’s any chance that he wins the sweepstakes to team up with the latest hot-ticket Manning family quarterback, he and his squad might need to do...something. Or, perhaps we’re looking at a “win one for the Gipper” sort of situation here, and, yes, since Knute Rockne made up that story basically out of thin air, I can surely twist the application of it to fit my narrative. The cupboard is somewhat bare, but stranger things have happened in the world of sports. How Rockne-esque, really.

Why They Won’t:

This is a lot more like the Duke team every Tech fan seems to think every Duke team has been the last decade, despite them having been vastly more competent than the traditional Blue Devil standard over that span. They didn’t show they could consistently win - or even win much at all - last year, and nothing much has shifted the needle enough to think that the expectation should be anything different.

25 Days ‘til Kickoff