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Opinion Week: Georgia Tech Will Have A Chance to Vault Into the ACC Elite

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Never too early for a look around the ACC.

Georgia Tech v Virginia Tech Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

Two years ago, Georgia Tech seemed poised to take its place among the ACC Elite. Coming off an 11-win season and a finish inside the AP Top 10, many expected the Yellow Jackets to earn a spot near the top of the Coastal Division, if not the whole conference, with a strong follow up season. That obviously didn’t happen.

Fast forward to the present. The Jackets aren’t coming off quite as strong of a season as they were in the summer of 2015 but last year’s 9-win season left plenty to build on. With a deep set of skill position players, a young but tested offensive line, and the entire starting secondary returning, the pieces are in place to repeat or improve on the 2016 season. The timing could not be better for the Yellow Jackets.

The Coastal Division is shaping up to be even more of a toss up than it is normally. The only two teams that return their 2016 starting QBs are Duke and Virginia, who brought up the rear in the Coastal standings last season. Of the quarterbacks on the other 5 teams, the player with the most experience with his current team might be Georgia Tech’s own Matthew Jordan. While Jordan hasn’t won the starting job yet, his experience gained as a short yardage specialist and injury replacement the last two seasons offer a bit of security for the Yellow Jackets that other teams lack at QB.

The Coastal turnover extends far beyond just the quarterback position. Looking at games started last season, no team in the division brings back more than the Yellow Jackets (returns 68.5% of 2016 starts). Only one other team (Miami) returns more than 60%. One (Pitt) returns less than 50%. Georgia Tech lost several key contributors from the 2016 team (Gamble, Davis, Butker, Burden, Thomas, etc) but they are in as good of a position to replace those players as anyone in the division.

Percent of 2016 Starts Returning

Team Offense Defense Total
Team Offense Defense Total
Syracuse 72.7% 87.9% 80.3%
NC State 73.4% 72.7% 73.1%
Georgia Tech 67.8% 69.2% 68.5%
Boston College 71.3% 62.9% 67.1%
Miami 61.5% 72.0% 66.8%
Wake Forest 82.5% 49.0% 65.8%
Florida State 51.0% 79.7% 65.4%
Virginia 46.2% 72.0% 59.1%
Virginia Tech 46.8% 66.9% 56.9%
Duke 64.4% 48.5% 56.5%
Louisville 42.7% 66.4% 54.6%
North Carolina 39.9% 63.6% 51.8%
Clemson 40.6% 61.8% 51.2%
Pittsburgh 51.7% 36.4% 44.1%

Another 9-plus win season isn’t enough to put Georgia Tech into the ACC elite. But what if they do it again in 2018? Looking past this upcoming season, the Yellow Jackets are slated to retain the bulk of their projected 2017 starters, especially on offense. The majority of the offensive skill position players will be juniors or younger this season. The defense gets hit a little harder but key contributors like Brant Mitchell and A.J. Gray are also just juniors and a very talented group of freshmen and sophomore defenders will be waiting to step into starring roles in 2018.

Georgia Tech has a chance to rule the Coastal Division this season and in the near future. Aside from Georgia Tech, who else has a chance at the Coastal Crown in 2017? How does the Atlantic stack up? With the Countdown to Kickoff starting, let’s take a quick look around the ACC and take stock of where things stand.

1. Florida State Seminoles

The Seminoles are locked and loaded entering 2017. QB Deondre Francois is back after a solid freshman campaign but will have to replace his top targets at receiver and a superstar running back. Luckily, WRs Nyqwan Murray and Auden Tate plus 5-star RB Cam Akers are ready to fill in. Should the offense start slow, FSU will be able to lean on a defense that should be among the best in FBS. The Noles return nearly 80% of their 2016 defensive starts and that doesn’t even count stud DB Derwin James, who missed most of the season with injury.

Final 2016 ranking: 2
Next Game: vs Alabama (9/2, 8:00 pm, Atlanta, GA)

2. Clemson Tigers

The defending National Champions are going to be good in 2017. The question is, how good? Dabo loses a lot on both sides of the ball but his first worry has to be replacing QB Deshaun Watson. Finding a successful QB could be the difference between staying in playoff contention and dropping down to a Tier 1 bowl. Regardless of who is taking snaps behind center they’ll have plenty of weapons, a good offensive line, and a strong defense supporting them.

Final 2016 ranking: 1
Next Game: vs Kent State (9/2, 12:00 pm, Clemson, SC)

3. Miami Hurricanes

While I think Georgia Tech has a real shot at winning the Coastal this year, I think Miami has to enter as the favorite. They do have to replace Brad Kaaya under center but coach Mark Richt has a long history of strong QB coaching and the new signal-caller will have plenty to work with. RB Mark Walton and WR Ahmmon Richards are both back as is most of the 2016 offensive line. Most importantly though is that a defense that ranked 13th in S&P+ returns 72% of its starts, including the entire front seven. The Canes’ are going to be nasty up front. Can the offense and pass defense match?

Final 2016 ranking: 4
Next Game: vs Bethune-Cookman (9/2, TBA, Miami, FL)

4. Louisville Cardinals

Louisville could realistically win the ACC in 2017. They could also completely drop off the table. Heisman winner Lamar Jackson is back for his junior season but the way Jackson and the Cardinals finished 2016 is worrying. The offensive line imploded and Lamar Jackson slowed way down from his early season pace. The Cardinals should have a good defense again, but Jackson will be playing with a lot of new pieces on offense. I’m not totally sure he’ll live up to the standard he set during his amazing 2016 season.

Final 2016 ranking: 5
Next Game: vs Purdue (9/2, TBA, Indianapolis, IN)

5. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Most of my Georgia Tech thoughts were covered early in the article. The offense should be able to roll no matter who ends up making the reads. Can the defense build on how it ended 2016?

Final 2016 ranking: 6
Next Game: vs Tennessee (9/4, 8:00 pm, Atlanta, GA)

6. NC State Wolfpack

The Atlantic is going to be brutal this season. FSU, Clemson, and Louisville have dominated the division but if NC State is going to jump one of those teams, this is the year. The Pack’s defense was quietly really, really good last season (11th in S&P+) and they return their entire front seven, including stud DE Bradley Chubb. On offense, finding a replacement for former RB Matthew Dayes could be difficult but pretty much everyone else is back. If they can score more points NC State could be really good but stuck in the Atlantic, will anybody notice?

Final 2016 ranking: 8
Next Game: vs South Carolina (9/2, 3:00 pm, Charlotte, NC)

7. Duke Blue Devils

The next five spots are pretty interchangeable so I’m ranking them mostly by my gut feel. Duke loses a lot on defense, including their top 3 defensive backs and top 3 defensive linemen. There are plenty of reasons to think that Duke will remain near the bottom of the Coastal. And yet...I can’t help but feel like the Blue Devils are going bounce back into a bowl game (and possibly more). I might be putting too much stock too soon into QB Daniel Jones, but I think he could be one of the best QBs in the ACC as soon as this season.

Final 2016 ranking: 12
Next Game: vs NC Central (9/2, TBA, Durham, NC)

8. Virginia Tech Hokies

Year 2 of the Justin Fuente era is going to be much more challenging than Year 1. The Hokies’ starting QB and top offensive weapons left for the NFL, leaving Fuente back at ground zero. Despite the inexperience on offense, I think Virginia Tech has a pretty high floor in 2017 because most of Bud Foster’s defense is back.

Final 2016 ranking: 3
Next Game: vs West Virginia (9/3, 7:30 pm, Landover, MD)

9. Syracuse Orange

The Orange might be the most interesting team in the ACC this season. Year 2 in a coach’s tenure often sees a team make a bit of a leap and Syracuse has a lot of pieces in place for Dino Babers’s second season. No team in the ACC returns more than the Orange. That’s good on offense, where QB Eric Dungey and company should light up the scoreboard. However, is returning nearly 90% of a defense that ranked 92nd in S&P+ necessarily a good thing? To jump up in a loaded Atlantic Syracuse is going to have to make some stops.

Final 2016 ranking: 13
Next Game: vs Central Connecticut (9/1, TBA, Syracuse, NY)

10. Pittsburgh Panthers

The Panthers lose more starts from 2016 than anyone in the ACC. The offense, in particular, was decimated by graduation and other departures. Yet the replacements may be more prepared than most would expect. RB Qadree Ollison was the 2015 ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year while subbing for the injured James Conner. Former 5-star QB Max Browne, who transferred in from USC, hasn’t put it together on the field yet but has all the talent in the world. Losing OC Matt Canada will hurt a lot, but Pitt’s offense might not drop far. If Pat Narduzzi can rebuild a defense that disappointed in 2016, Pitt will finish 2017 higher on this list.

Final 2016 ranking: 7
Next Game: vs Youngstown State (9/2, TBA, Pittsburgh, PA)

11. Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Wake Forest was one of the country’s biggest surprises in 2016 but a lot of what made the Deacons good isn’t back in Winston-Salem for 2017. Last year’s defense ranked 22nd in S&P+ but over half of the starts are gone. Filling the gaps at all levels of the defense will be tough. Last year’s offense was bad but it was also very young. If the offense can grow to compensate for the defense’s youth, last year may not have been a fluke.

Final 2016 ranking: 10
Next Game: vs Presbyterian (8/31, TBA, Winston-Salem, NC)

12. North Carolina Tar Heels

The Tar Heels have enjoyed a few years near the top of the Coastal but that will likely come to an end in 2017. QB Mitch Trubisky, the top 2 RBs, and top 3 WRs from 2016 all left for the NFL and no sure-fire replacements are on the roster. The defense had been improving under DC Gene Cizhik, but he stepped away from football in the offseason, leaving a lot of questions on that side of the ball.

Final 2016 ranking: 9
Next Game: vs California (9/2, TBA, Chapel Hill, NC)

13. Boston College Eagles

The Eagles somehow made a bowl game in 2016 but repeating that feat doesn’t seem likely this year. The defense has to replace a few key cogs but should still be solid, led by stud DE Harold Landry. On offense, BC will need to find a new signal caller to replace QB Patrick Towles. Most of the skill players return, but none really impressed in 2016. BC might not be a whole lot worse than they were last year but the rest of the Atlantic seems to have outpaced the Eagles.

Final 2016 ranking: 11
Next Game: at Northern Illinois (9/1, TBA, DeKalb, IL)

14. Virginia Cavaliers

Things aren’t looking good in Charlottesville for 2nd year HC Bronco Mendenhall. The Cavaliers return starting QB Kurt Benkert but lose two of his best weapons in RB Taquan Mizzell and WR Keeon Johnson. Star safety Quin Blanding is back on the other side of the ball, but run-stuffing DT Donte Wilkins has graduated. It’s hard to see a second year bump for Virginia.

Final 2016 ranking: 14
Next Game: vs William & Mary (9/2, TBA, Charlottesville, VA)