ACC - Coastal Division
By Mike Nowoswiat
August 1st, 2013
August 1st, 2013
"They" say you will know if your program has a real winner at Head Coach after his third season. Well, Miami fans, I guess this season you will find out about your man, Al Golden. Of course, he did win the division last year, which many say proves his worth. However, most fans can't wait until Miami returns to being 'The U.' I believe we will begin to see a semblance of the old Miami in 2013.
The offense could be dominant this year as the Hurricanes return ten starters from a very good unit. Stephen Morris and Duke Johnson are a scary backfield especially considering Johnson was only a true freshman last year. Johnson could change his position on the All-American team from kick returner to running back this year while playing behind one of the conference's best offensive lines. Seantrel Henderson has been a bit of a disappointment after coming in as the top high school recruit in the nation, but is still a very good right tackle that should be drafted next May. C Shane McDermott, LG Malcolm Bunche and RG Brandon Linder joined him as Honorable Mention All-ACC players last season. And Ereck Flowers returns as well after a very solid true freshman season. If Stephen Morris performs to his potential, Miami should challenge Clemson and Florida State as the best team in the conference.
Defensively, the 'Canes return a lot as well. However, the talent they return is unproven as they allowed 30.5 points per game and over 6 yards per play in 2012. However, the group was one of the youngest defenses in the conference and should take a big leap in 2013. CB Brandon McGee is now in the NFL, but former five-star recruit Tracy Howard replaces him. Along the line, DE Anthony Chickillo is the only player who has produced at a high level; and there will be a lot of pressure on the interior line to produce this season. Opponents averaged nearly 5 yards per rush, which is too much for a team expecting to compete for a championship. Fortunately, Raphael Kirby and Denzel Perryman return at linebacker to form one of the better duos in the conference.
Florida and Florida State could be the only obstacles in the way of an undefeated season (not including a potential ACC Championship game). Miami gets both Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech at home this year, and have dominated the Yellow Jackets in recent seasons. They will have to deal with a frigid trip to new ACC member Pittsburgh to end the season, but should escape with a W. I am expecting big things from Al Golden and 'The U' for the first time in a while.
2. Georgia Tech
I wanted to pick the Yellow Jackets first in the division but trips to Clemson and Miami prevented me from doing so. After a down year in 2012, the Yellow Jackets look to bounce back with a more explosive offense and a new defensive coordinator. The defense was not good under Al Groh, but played well in the final two games against Florida State and Clemson under interim DC Charles Kelly. Former GT LB and Penn State DC Ted Roof returns to GT to take over the defense and will transition to a 4-3 after the Jackets struggled in Al Groh's 3-4.
Vad Lee is expected to be the full-time starter in 2013 after splitting time with senior Tevin Washington last year. Lee will be the best passer Paul Johnson has had and is more athletic than Washington was. There is an outside chance he will be dethroned by former Alabama DB commit Justin Thomas. If that happens, look out. Paul Johnson favors the more experienced QB, so if Thomas can win the job he will be special. The offensive line loses 1st team All-ACC performer Omoregie Uzzi, but returns everybody else. I expect this unit to be one of the best lines in the ACC. The A-backs lack star power, but are deep and should put up typical production. Redshirt freshman Dennis Andrews looked great in spring practice and could be an impact newcomer this season. The B-Back position will be manned by David Sims and Zach Laskey once again. If the line and passing game improves as I expect, we should see improved production from this position as the gut of the line will not be as crowded. And finally, many people are down on the wide receivers, but I do not think this group should be any worse than it has been the last two seasons. Micheal Summers and Darren Waller are capable of beating single coverage, which is all that they should see.
I am optimistic that the Roof hire will pay major dividends this season. Georgia Tech was never able to find a true NT in the 3-4 and the linebackers were never the strength of the roster. Unfortunately for Groh, the LB unit appears to be very solid this year. Jabari Hunt-Days had a breakout freshman season and could be primed for a huge campaign. Brandon Watts is a terrific athlete and should benefit from the switch to the 4-3, allowing him to play in space more often. Jeremiah Attaochu moves to DE this season after ending the year on a tear as a hand-in-the-dirt rusher--he recorded eight sacks in the final six games. Attaochu will be relied upon to pressure the QB because I do not see any other players who can be a true threat. Finally, the secondary should be very good with the return of Jemea Thomas, Louis Young, and Isaiah Johnson.
Last year was a major disappointment for GT fans. Although USC QB Max Wittek was downright awful in the bowl game, GT's defense played great to limit the Trojans to only 7 points. For the first time under Paul Johnson, GT has positive momentum heading into a season with the bowl win. The Jackets will practically know if they are heading for the ACC Championship after an October 5th matchup with Miami. The prior two weeks GT will have faced Virginia Tech and North Carolina. I expect a big year from the spread option, but GT will have to prove they can handle the Hurricanes if they want to win the Coastal.
3. Virginia Tech
Now that we are past VT's season from Hell, fans hope that 2012 was a random aberration and not a sign of what to expect. I have no explanation for last season; I, like most analysts, picked the Hokies to win the Coastal and have one of the top defenses in the country. Is Frank Beamer going to have a Bowden-esque finish to his career? Probably not, but last season was certainly befuddling.
Logan Thomas and all of his potential returns for his senior season. Thomas had a very disappointing junior season after a breakout sophomore season. I knew he was unpolished and it would be possible he would underwhelm last season, but the blame cannot be put on him and only him. The offensive line was very disappointing last season and will hopefully be improved this season. They lose Vinston Painter to the NFL and I am skeptical in their ability once again. The receiving corp is not as good on paper this year, but I will admit that there is potential for improvement with the addition of Joel Caleb who redshirted last season after being highly recruited out of high school. Overall, if Logan Thomas does not take a big step this season, I do not expect a lot of production from this offense.
Fortunately, the defense looks very stout. Unfortunately, I thought the same team this season. Still, the Hokies were very solid defensively to end the season and I think they will be very strong in 2013. JR Collins, Derrick Hopkins, Luther Maddy, and James Gayle make up an excellent defensive line that should be both stout against the run and very good at getting pressure on the passer. Gayle has been named second team All-ACC in 2011 and 2012 and is the group's best pass rusher. However, he has only recorded 12 sacks in the past two years and will hopefully have a breakout season this year. The secondary is arguably just as good with all four starters back including Antone Exum and Kyle Fuller returning at CB. Jack Tyler will lead the linebackers after being named first team All-ACC last year. Overall, I expect a lot out of this unit after a disappointing 2012.
Virginia Tech's schedule is both good and bad. First, they have to start out against the modern day dynasty Alabama in Atlanta. And they begin their ACC schedule against the Georgia Tech spread option on a Thursday Night in Atlanta, giving them only four days to prepare. The Yellow Jackets should be improved and have been the Hokies competition for the Coastal nearly every year. On November 9th, they have to travel to Miami who I have ranked first in the division. On the positive side, VT draws Maryland and Boston College from the Atlantic while GT and Miami have their annual matchups with Clemson and Florida State, respectively. I could easily see the Hokies winning the Coastal, but I can't bring myself to pick them in either game against GT and Miami.
4. North Carolina
North Carolina will be one of the schools that puts the conference's reputation on its back against the SEC in week 1. The Tar Heels will open up the 2013 season with a trip to South Carolina to take on Jadeveon Clowney and the Gamecocks. While I do not expect North Carolina to win the opener, a win would be huge, to say the least.
Bryn Renner is back for his senior season after throwing for over 3,350 yards with high efficiency and being named third team All-ACC for the second straight season. Renner has thrown for 54 touchdowns in those two seasons and has been one of the most consistent QBs in the nation. The greatest challenge that the offense will face is rebuilding the offensive line after it loses three starters--and not just any starters either. Jonathan Cooper was a top-10 selection at OG while Travis Bond and Brennan Williams were both drafted. Fortunately, first team All-ACC selection James Hurst returns at LT. Eric Ebron is perhaps the best TE in the conference and could put up double-digit touchdowns in 2013.
Kevin Reddick and Sylvester Williams were the two best players on defense last season and neither returns this season. Williams was probably the best pass rusher in the country last season from the DT position and Reddick was explosive from the LB position, recording a team-high 6.5 sacks. The strength of the defense may be the secondary led by senior Tre Boston at safety. Boston recorded a team high 86 tackles this season and was Honorable Mention All-ACC. Kareem Martin is a very good defensive end, but will need to improve his sack numbers (4 in 2012) if the Tar Heels want to win games against the teams I have ranked ahead of them.
While I feel very comfortable with my positioning of the Tar Heels, I do think that they could win the division if Renner has a huge year. With a weaker offensive line and the loss of Gio Bernard, we will really get to see what he is capable of this year. The other wild card is Larry Fedora. If he is the coach that Heel fans hope he is, we may be surprised with just how good his team will be.
As I mentioned in a tweet, Virginia currently has more five-star commitments in the 2014 class than the entire SEC. If you questioned Mike London after a down season last year, take it back. London is truly one of the up-and-coming coaches in the country that could soon have Virginia playing at a level we haven't seen in a long time. Before we begin talking about that level, London will have to find a way to top Virginia Tech for state supremacy. Last season, both teams struggled and I thought the Cavaliers could steal a win in Blacksburg, but came up short 17-14. This season, while I don't anticipate tremendous on-field success, one game could make the entire season.
The offense hit its peak in 2010 when it averaged 25.3 points per game. That is a pretty awful peak. However, I attribute a lot of recent struggles to poor QB play. While it is London's responsibility to find that signal-caller, I will give him a break because, aside from a question mark at QB, this offense has talent. Dominique Terrell, Tim Smith, and Darius Jennings form a very solid receiving corp. And Morgan Moses is an All-American candidate at LT. David Watford returns at QB. While it may not be this season, true freshman Greyson Lambert was a top recruit who should give fans a reason to be optimistic about the aforementioned UVA QB problem.
The defense figures to improve after a very good season in 2012. Eli Harold and David Dean could be impact sophomores as they are injected into the starting lineup at DE and DT, respectively. The linebacking unit has question marks after losing 1st team All-ACC performer Steve Greer and Honorable Mention All-ACC LaRoy Reynolds. However, they will be backed by a very talented secondary led by junior CB Demetrious Nicholson. The other three starters return as well so you would expect this unit to be much improved, especially considering they were all only sophomores in 2012.
While I expect Virginia to be a notch below Miami, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina, I do not expect the 'Hoos to go 0-4 against these schools. Not to mention, I expect Virginia could have a huge season in 2014, which means competing for a trip to the ACC Championship Game. So enjoy UVA while they are down, ACC, London has his men gunning for the top.
The Panthers gain stability in their program as they move to the ACC under second year Head Coach Paul Chryst. They will get a taste for the league as they open with top dog Florida State on September 2nd. The Coastal Division should be much improved this year with Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, and Virginia taking steps forward in 2013. How quickly people forget that this division carried the conference for years before Clemson and Florida State stepped into the forefront. Needless to say, it could be a difficult transition for the Panthers, especially with Notre Dame also on the schedule
There will be a competition at QB between spring game sensation Chad Coytik and Rutgers transfer Tom Savage. Savage was a star freshman for the Scarlet Knights before progressively getting worse as his career went on. Voytik is less experienced, but came in highly recruited. Tino Sunseri has held down the starting spot the last three seasons, but only threw for over 3,000 yards once (2012). Sunseri was not the playmaker that fans hope Voytik will be one day. The biggest loss the offense will try to replace will most likely be RB Ray Graham. Graham's successor, former five-star recruit Rushel Shell, transferred during the offseason--to rival West Virginia no less. The offensive line loses two All-Conference performers, which could lead to problems as they try to break in a new backfield.
The line will be the best unit on defense led by 1st team All-Big East DT Aaron Donald. Donald led all players with 5.5 sacks and 18.5 TFL. He returns alongside 3rd team All-Big East NT Tyrone Ezell and Bryan Murphy. The back seven returns five including leading tackler Jason Hendricks. Aside from Donald, there are no true stars on defense, but this group quietly put together a great season last year by only allowing 21.1 points per game and 3.85 yards per rush. I don't expect those types of numbers this year against tougher opponents, but they should be a better defense in 2013.
I am expecting Pittsburgh to finish the year with 2-4 ACC wins, making a bowl appearance a reach. I do not think that any of the top four teams in the division are unbeatable, but I cannot pick the Panthers in any one of those matchups. If Pittsburgh were still in the Big East, I would wholeheartedly expect a seven or eight win season, but fans should be excited for a losing season in the name of ACC membership. The program should reap the benefits on the recruiting trail and in the future.
David Cutcliffe has done what most couldn't at Duke: go bowling. His roster is more than a semblance of an FBS team and could very well exceed my expectations and finish fifth in the Coastal Division. However, the defense allowed 520 yards per game against conference foes last season, forcing the offense to outscore most opponents in wins. The potential is there for the defense to improve, but I will believe it when I see it.
I am skeptical about their ability to replace QB Sean Renfree and WR Conner Vernon, Duke's all-time leader in receiving yards. However, Jamison Crowder finished with just as many yards and touchdowns as Vernon, and Anthony Boone is a strong runner from the QB position. Cutcliffe has stated that he intends to run more options with Boone under center, but it is difficult for me to believe the offense will do anything but regress from last season. Renfree led the Blue Devils to 31.5 points per game while the team only ran for 3.71 yards per carry. With defenses surely creeping up on the line of scrimmage this year, and a similar offensive line, I can't predict a successful read option package.
Duke's entire defensive line returns, as well most of their linebackers. Naturally, I foresee the front seven to improve. However, only Ross Cockrell returns in the secondary--a unit that allowed 320 passing yards per game against ranked opponents. Cockrell, however, was the star of the secondary, garnering 1st team All-ACC honors in 2012. I expect the defense to be improved from last year's unit. However, if the offensive production dips, the defensive statistics may not improve how one would think.
Duke is clearly trending upwards as a program. I do not anticipate another bowl appearance this season as the Blue Devils transition from Renfree to Boone. While a bowl game may not be in sight, this team is not the cellar dweller lock it has been in recent seasons. As I mentioned, I think that Pittsburgh, Virginia, and Duke will be competing for 5, 6, and 7; and while I obviously think Duke finishes 7, another three conference wins could land Duke in fifth place and in a bowl.