While I do not like putting the Tar Heels on top of the Coastal, I believe that this year is their best shot. Larry Fedora is in his third year, which is a big year for a new Head Coach. Similar to how Duke had the ball bounce their way last year, North Carolina had some unfortunate close losses. Marquise Williams looks like he will be one of the best QBs in the conference, which is why I chose the Tar Heels in a wide-open Coastal.
As I mentioned, Williams looks to be the guy for the Tar Heels under center. Williams played well in his first season seeing a lot of time. He took care of the ball, only throwing six interceptions. However, he wasn’t as efficient or dynamic as I think he could be this year. He gets back most of his receivers, but loses a first round draft pick in TE Eric Ebron who changed the way defenses played this offense. TJ Thorpe is a dynamic receiver who should have a breakout season this year. And the running back stable should be great with TJ Logan returning and elite recruit Elijah Hood joining the team. Losing James Hurst along the offensive line will hurt; Hurst, a former five-star recruit was a four-year starter and a 1st team All-ACC performer. However, I believe that improved QB play will make up for the losses of Ebron and Hurst.
The defense returns seven starters from a very average defense a year ago. However, the linebacker unit returns and is one of the best groups in the conference. Tim Scott returns at free safety and he should be one of the best safeties in the league. Still there are some question marks along the line with the loss of the one-man pass rush Kareem Martin, who recorded 11.5 sacks last year. The defense gave up its highest yards per carry in years. I like what the offense brings to the table and this defense should be able to hold up if the offense continues to improve.
I like what Fedora is doing in Chapel Hill. While UNC is annually one of the best preseason ACC Coastal teams, their on-the-field performance rarely measures up. This year, the Coastal may be weaker than it ever has been and North Carolina should have one of its best teams in years. The deciding factor for me is Marquise Williams. He shows a lot more potential from the QB position than any other Coastal team except maybe Duke. I truly believe North Carolina has a very legitimate chance to win the division this year.
Al Golden enters his fourth year in Coral Gables, and fans are waiting for him to explode similar to Jimbo Fisher at Florida State. Golden was one of the hottest names in coaching when he turned Temple around. He showed his dedication to Miami by rescinding his name from his Alma Mater Penn State’s coaching search. Once again, Miami has one of the more talented rosters in the league and needs to show more consistency. They struggled down the stretch after the loss of Duke Johnson last year including an embarrassing bowl loss to new conference foe Louisville who they open the season with.
Stephen Morris had all the talent in the world but could never seem to fully pull it all together. Last year he threw 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions with only a 57% completion rate. Kevin Olsen was a highly recruited QB that they had the luxury of redshirting last year. He figures to get the starting job since his main competition, Ryan Williams, is recovering from a torn ACL. Olsen struggled in the spring, but has the talent to pull it together. Fortunately, the offensive line is one of the best units in the ACC and RB Duke Williams might just win the Doak Walker award after the season is over. Phillip Dorsett and Stacy Coley form one of the best duos in the ACC, but Malcolm Lewis showed he had the best chemistry with Olsen in the spring. The offense has a lot of potential, but it is all contingent upon the development of Kevin Olsen.
Defensively, the Canes look solid. DE Anthony Chickillo and LB Denzel Perryman are two of the best players in the league with Perryman garnering All-American honors last year. The linebackers struggled at times last year with the exception of Perryman so new faces may be a blessing. Raphael Kirby was a highly-touted recruit who moves into the starting lineup after seeing time last year. CB Tracy Howard was one of the most decorated DB recruits a couple years ago and may finally be living up to the hype. He had a promising spring along with his fellow secondary members and this group could turn into one of the best units in the ACC. I expect the defense to improve its numbers for the third consecutive year.
Unfortunately for Miami, they draw the toughest cross-division schedule of any ACC team (Virginia gets the same draw), getting handed Louisville and the annual FSU matchup. The Seminoles are heads and shoulders better than the rest of the league, which essentially puts Miami a game back of fellow Coastal teams. Still, I am confident that the talent level on this team will put them over the top in more-important divisional games.
For the first time in a long time, Logan Thomas will not be the face of the program. Well, the player face. Of course Frank Beamer will continue to be the face of the program, and until recently, he was one of the most dominant coaches in college football. If it weren’t for Virginia Tech’s recent two year slump, I would have no doubts that Thomas could easily be replaced. Fortunately, in what looks to be a team that more closely resembles the VT teams from the last two years, the Coastal is maybe the weakest it has ever been.
As mentioned, Thomas does not return. While Thomas was not the most accurate QB or the most consistent, he was a weapon. Teams had to respect his mobility, his arm strength, and his overall size. For as many bad games Thomas had, there were many important games that Thomas won for his team. He is the all-time career passing yards leader at Virginia Tech and I believe his departure will not go as smoothly as the critics think. Michael Brewer is a talented signal-caller who transferred over from Texas Tech. He missed spring practice but figures to take over under center. The offensive line struggled last year and they lose their best lineman in Andrew Miller. Everyone else returns so I see another similar year, but Miller’s loss will be felt and this should be another average unit. And finally, the skill players will be the featured part of this offense. Demitri Knowles is one of the best receivers in the league and should improve upon his three touchdowns from last year.
The defense is the reason I have the Hokies up in the top three of the division even though it loses a lot. JR Collins, Derrick Hopkins, and James Gayle were a force that gave the Hokies one of the best defensive fronts in the nation. Luther Maddy is the lone returning starter, but an important one at that. Maddy had 6.5 sacks from the Defensive Tackle position and is a difference maker along the front; he will garner more attention this year so his numbers could go down. Leading tackler Jack Tyler and first-round pick Kyle Fuller don’t return from the back seven. The secondary is still one of the best in the nation. Kendall Fuller may be even more talented than his brother Kyle, which is saying a lot. Still, in the Coastal against teams like Miami and Georgia Tech, the Hokies front seven will need to step up because the secondary isn’t going to stop the run.
Virginia Tech is going to have to replace a lot from a team that only finished 8-5. If Brewer can come in and play well, the offense has the potential to be one of the better units in recent memory. However, I am not sold on Virginia Tech’s ability to replace key pieces in its front seven. But with Frank Beamer at Head Coach and Bud Foster at Defensive Coordinator, you can NEVER count the Hokies out, especially in a weak Coastal Division.
Every team enters every season with question marks but for Georgia Tech, that list of uncertainties is particularly long heading into the 2014 season. 2013 saw the Yellow Jackets improve on defense with the introduction of new coordinator, Ted Roof, but at the same time regress on the offensive side of the ball. When the dust settled, Tech found themselves firmly entrenched in mediocrity for the fourth straight season under head coach, Paul Johnson, despite making its 17th consecutive bowl appearance. But the offseason was hardly a quiet one for the Jackets. Just two weeks following the team’s Music City Bowl loss to Ole Miss, first-year starter and redshirt sophomore quarterback, Vad Lee, announced his intentions to transfer away from Tech.
However, a possible improvement could actually be seen in the way the option offense operates. Justin Thomas is a run-first player who is known for his blazing speed. He should be 100% committed to running the option, something that Lee didn’t necessarily show in his time at Tech. However, there’s a lot of uncertainty as it pertains to Thomas’ ability as a passer and really the Yellow Jacket’s passing game as a whole. It wouldn’t seem that Thomas would have to do too much to improve on his predecessor’s numbers from the prior season despite a talent gap. This is also where the offensive line comes into play, a unit that received plenty of criticism in pass protection largely due to a revolving door at left tackle. That spot will likely need to become more consistent for Tech’s passing game to see any improvement. They do return their best lineman and all ACC-candidate, RG Shaq Mason. As far as skill positions go, Tech returns their two big receiving targets from 2013, seniors Darren Waller and Deandre Smelter who burst onto the scene to become the team’s best wideout. Transitioning to the backfield, there is a significant amount of turnover with Tech losing both their starting A-back and B-back to graduation (Robert Godhigh and David Sims). Godhigh won’t be easy to replace as the Jackets lose a shifty little back, who often surprised people with his play making ability. Nonetheless, the cupboard is still full at both spots. Zach Laskey should be able easily step in to the starting B-back role after getting ample playing time over the last couple seasons (217 carries, 8 TDs). At A-back there are plenty of options with sophomore Dennis Andrews perhaps offering the most potential future upside.
DE Jeremiah Attaochu and CB/S Jemea Thomas were two huge losses on the defensive side of the ball. As Tech’s all-time sack leader, Attaochu provided the one thing that recent Tech defenses have really lacked, an intimidating pass rusher. The player who will be looked upon to carry the load up front will be DT Adam Gotsis who had a breakout year of sorts in 2013 (14.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks). At linebacker, the one returning starter, Quayshawn Nealy, has proven to be quite competent with 2 INTs and 2 fumble recoveries last year. Instead of choosing to replace two starters though, Ted Roof has chosen to switch the defensive scheme from a 4-3 to a 4-2-5. In his first season, Roof significantly improved the tun defense as Tech ranked 20th in the nation with just 125 rush yards allowed per game last year. Where Roof hasn’t been so successful throughout his career is coaching to defend the pass. That also rung true last year with the Jackets ranked just 95th nationally allowing 255 yards a game through the air. This year they will return seniors Isaiah Johnson and Jamal Golden (also a great kick returner) who missed last season due to injuries. In addition, DJ White showed great promise last year stepping into the no. 1 corner spot as a freshman, providing him as well as a bevy of other young defensive backs with valuable experience.
The talent level on the Flats seems to have taken a hit. Many pundits have the Jackets below 4th in the division. However, I expect the offense to actually improve while the defense may take a few steps back. Still, Georgia Tech never seems to fall quite as far back as they are expected to in a rebuilding year and in this division, it wouldn't surprise me to see a repeat of 2012 where the Jackets somehow found themselves playing for an ACC Championship.
Wow, what a year for the Blue Devils. Not only did they win the Coastal, but they got to the high-water mark of double digit wins and swept all North Carolina opponents. David Cutcliffe won the Bobby Dodd, Maxwell, and Walter Camp Coach of the Year honors. Now Duke returns fourteen players including QB Anthony Boone and hopes that they won’t be remembered as one year overachievers. The talent level for Duke is beginning to improve and recently there is a noticeable difference in the type of recruit Duke is attracting.
Anthony Boone returns for his senior season after completing 64% of his passes last year and leading this offense wonderfully. He only threw for 13 touchdowns, but his role as the orchestrator of the offense was understated. His return is huge. Jamison Crowder also returns at Wide Receiver, another huge boost to this roster. Crowder was named 1st team All-ACC last year, hauling in nearly 1,400 yards! The offensive line was very solid last year, but thin in talent. This year they lose Perry Simmons who also gained All-ACC honors at RT, and his loss will be felt. I still believe that this line could take a step forward as they are led by one of the best linemen in all of football in Laken Tomlinson. And finally, Josh Snead, the team’s leading rusher, is back for his senior season in Durham, which is big considering his grasp of the offense and ability to do multiple things.
Defensively, Duke improved by 10 points per game from 2012 to 2013. While Duke still had to out-gun other teams often, there were a few games won by the defense, which is the difference between a good and a great year. The biggest holes that need to be filled are at Cornerback. Ross Cockrell was drafted by the Buffalo Bills and was able to matchup with just about anyone in the conference. However, the safety duo remains intact and was one of the best pairs in the league last year. Jeremy Cash had four interceptions and 9.5 tackles for loss on his way to being named to the 1st All-ACC team. Similar to many of the Coastal teams, I am worried about the defensive front. The linebackers, however, should be a bit improved considering all of their starters return including Deondre Singleton who started as a true freshman and had a great spring.
Duke certainly benefitted from winning a lot of close games. Maybe that is a testament to their coaching and strong-willed mentality. Maybe that was aided by playing the role of the underdog. Maybe that was aided by luck. Duke was a very good team last year, but eeking out victories is tough to do in one year, let alone two. Anthony Boone will need to step it up this year by taking care of the ball more and being more consistent. We saw how well he can play in the bowl game, but he needs to play like that more often. I don’t expect another division crown—although in this year’s coastal division anything is possible—but I do expect the Blue Devils to contend and reach another bowl.
The Panthers had a tough year in their inaugural year in the Coastal Division. Paul Chryst is in his third season and still turning this program into his own after the messy departure of Todd Graham after one year. He has a solid foundation of young talent to build on, but now competes with in-state rival Penn State and new energetic, young coach James Franklin as he tries to find more top prospects. The Panthers can do one thing to prevent Franklin from winning the state: win. Pittsburgh hasn’t been a legitimate contender in a well-respected conference for a while. Part of that problem was not actually being in a well-respected conference, but now the opportunity has presented itself for the Panthers.
Chad Voytik takes over for Tom Savage who had an up-and-down career at three different schools. Savage, now impressing in the Texans offseason practices and training camp, had a solid season for the Panthers. He possessed a lot of natural arm talent that meshed well with 1st team freshman All-American Tyler Boyd. Boyd will be a huge part of the Pittsburgh offense and is now probably the most dangerous receiver in the conference with Sammy Watkins departure from Clemson. The offensive line only loses one and returns everybody else. While young, this unit is very talented and could be one of the better offensive lines in the league. The key on offense will simply be the development of Chad Voytik. Voytik was a big-time recruit out of high school and looked good in his minimal time last season and in the spring. I expect Pittsburgh to actually have one of the better offenses in the league, but we will see if the defense can hold its own.
The loss of Aaron Donald is going to be huge. No, it’s going to be monumental. If Donald had been playing on a team that was in the national spotlight, he would have been the most decorated Defensive Tackle since Ndamukong Suh. One cannot simply glance over this loss especially without an heir apparent. The defensive line looks thin, which is a concern of mine. Only Nicholas Grigsby returns with multiple sacks in 2013. Not to mention, the defense allowed 4.6 yards per carry last year and I expect that number to stay the same at best. Ray Vinopal played well at safety and I could see an improvement in the secondary. However, the front seven worries me and in a division that features mostly power rushing attacks, I do not see this defense doing well enough to help out an above-average offense.
Pittsburgh is fortunate to be playing in the Coastal Division with cross-division games against Syracuse and Boston College (avoiding Florida State, Clemson, and Louisville was key). The last six games will determine the season with games against Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, and Miami. Pittsburgh would be a shocking division champion, but in this division anything is possible. I expect a couple upsets when Voytik gets hot, but I can’t see a consistent winning product. However, I still expect to see Pittsburgh in late December.
Virginia is coming off of a year in which they went winless in the ACC and finished last in the coastal division. The Wahoos had an unexpected spike in performance in 2011 by going 8-5, but they returned to their old ways the past two seasons by going 4-8 and 2-10, respectively. Now, Mike London is on the hot seat as he is in his 5th year as head coach and has had only one winning season during his tenure. Despite returning some key players, particularly on defense, Virginia is going to struggle to remove itself from the bottom of the coastal this year. Also, it certainly doesn't help that they draw Louisville and Florida State out of the Atlantic.
Leading the Cavs on offense this year will be sophomore quarterback Greyson Lambert. At the tail end of last season, Lambert started to play over then-sophomore David Watford, who led the ACC in pass attempts but was last in efficiency. While Lambert should improve from last year, he will not be the savior the UVA offense desperately needs. Unfortunately for the ‘hoos, they return only three starters on their offensive line, and they lose 2nd team all-ACC left tackle Morgan Moses. Similarly, their receiving corps loses its top two players in Jake McGee and Tim Smith. However, look for strong play from UVa’s running backs. Senior Kevin Parks, who was 2nd team all-ACC last year, should continue to be a productive back this year. In addition, Taquan Mizzell is a former 5-star recruit who should provide an excellent alternative to Parks.
Virginia’s defense is experienced and will improve from last year. The defensive line returns DE Eli Harold and adds gems in true freshmen DT Andrew Brown and S Quin Blanding. UVA returns all three linebackers from last year, but unfortunately the line of Max Valles, Henry Colley, and DaQuan Romero is coming off of a year in which they allowed 33 points per game. They may be a veteran group of linebackers, but I expect them to struggle again this year. Highlighting the entire Cavaliers team are the defensive backs. Between CB Demetrious Nicholson and FS Brandon Phelps, it will be difficult to break this secondary especially if Blanding can have the impact he is capable of making.
Mike London needs a big improvement from last year to keep his job safe. While the Wahoos have certain pieces in place, they have too many positions that lack talent. They return many players from last year, but last year was a disappointment. With the way London is recruiting, he certainly has given himself some leverage in keeping his job. However, 2-10 seasons will not cut it. With the talent being put together in Charlottesville, I do see an end in sight to this poor play. Unfortunately, I don't see a bowl game in Virginia's future this year. But would it surprise me to see Virginia make a surprise run this year and reel off 7 wins? Absolutely not.