This season Raleigh City Sports will bring you weekly coverage of the top ACC football games. Today we try to predict the unpredictable Coastal Division. Check out our Atlantic Division primer, too. Follow us on Twitter @rcitysports.
Even though I’m far more interested in the goings on of the Atlantic Division, it would be unfair of me to neglect the Coastal. So today, I’ll try to figure out what’s going to happen in this crazy division.
If there’s one word to describe the Coastal in my mind, it would be “parity.” While there’s been a clear hierarchy in the Atlantic — Clemson and FSU, then everyone else, the Coastal is much more evenly matched. There’s usually a mosh pit of a few contenders from which one emerges, only to lose in the ACC Championship game. Before all you Coastal lovers get all pissed off, take a deep breath and look at things objectively.
The Coastal has dropped six straight ACCCGs. Granted, that’s been during a pretty dominant Tiger-Seminole run, but it is what it is. The last Coastal team to make it out of Charlotte was #12 Virginia Tech in 2010, who went on to get pounded by Stanford in the Orange Bowl. In fact, the Coastal has only won four ACC Championships out of 12 total. Three of them belong to the Hokies. Georgia Tech has the other (2009).
It wasn’t always this way. The Coastal took four out of the first six championships. Since 2011, however, there’s been a dropoff. The Atlantic division champion has averaged 11 regular season wins over that stretch. The Coastal has averaged 9.5. That number is skewed by a garbage 6-6 Georgia Tech team winning the division by default in 2012 due to postseason bans for Miami and UNC. However, even if you throw in 8-4 UNC — the likely division champion that year — the Coastal still averages under 10 wins.
The best of the Coastal just isn’t at the same level as the best of the Atlantic. I don’t expect that to change this year. That doesn’t mean the race won’t be entertaining.
Like I said in my Atlantic preview, I’m going to give you my predictions for the division race as well as each individual team. I’ll highlight some key players, take a look at how the schedule could play out and then give a verdict on a final record.
So, here’s what I got for the Coastal in 2017.
The Coastal: A Three-Horse Race
I’m not all that confident about much of what I’ve predicted below, but I’m pretty certain that all of this Miami hype is bogus. How many times have we heard Miami is back over the course of their 13 year history in the ACC? Mark Richt is a far better coach than Randy Shannon or Al Golden, but I’m really surprised I’m seeing so many 11-1 predictions out there. They very may well make it to Charlotte, but I think they’ll drop a couple more along that way.
I think 9-3 wins the division again this year. Virginia Tech, Miami and Georgia Tech can all get there. It could come down to some tiebreaker scenario to determine who becomes FSU’s sacrificial lamb in the title game. Pitt can score and makes a bowl. UNC takes a step back. Duke and Virginia struggle.
|Team||2017 Projected Record|
Virginia Tech has been the smart money since they’ve joined the league, so I’ll take Justin Fuente and the Hokies to win the Coastal. That said, I have a sneaking suspicion that Georgia Tech ends up claiming the division crown. It just smells like a Paul Johnson year — no clear-cut favorite and a power vacuum that he could exploit.
1 – Virginia Tech Hokies
Last Year: 10-4 (Belk Bowl – WIN)
Head Coach: Justin Fuente (2nd Year)
What They Got
When Fitz was a student at Washington & Lee, he made the mistake of grabbing a meal in the dining hall. A cafeteria worker put the young, unsuspecting freshman on notice with an unsolicited warning — ”This is TECH COUNTRY,” she snarled. VPI’s Coastal neighbors have learned the same lesson. The Hokies have been the class of the division over the years.
The transition from Frank Beamer to Justin Fuente has been seamless. Last year’s 10-4 season included pushing eventual national champion Clemson in the ACC title game and was punctuated with a ridiculous comeback against Arkansas in the Belk Bowl. I expect a repeat division crown this year, because when in doubt, bet on Virginia Tech.
The Hokies are doing a lot of rebuilding on offense. Quarterback Jerod Evans decided to ditch his senior season for the NFL, which turned out to be a brilliant decision. Fuente hands the reins of the offense over to redshirt frosh Josh Jackson, a highly regarded dual-threat signal-caller out of Michigan. Junior tailback Travon McMillian returns, but he had a pretty disappointing sophomore slump after a 1,000-yard freshman campaign. as does wide receiver Cam Phillips. In order for this offense to be successful, younger players will have to step up.
When watching the VT defense, take a shot each time the announcers say “Bud Foster” over the course of a game. Actually, don’t. You’d be dead. But the Hokies’ long-time defensive coordinator returns another talented unit. Veterans Andrew Montuapuaka and Tremaine Edmunds lead the linebacking corps, and Terrell Edmunds stands out in a deep secondary. The defensive line remains a question, with three starters from last year gone.
Virginia Tech has a pretty manageable schedule. Having Jackson jump into his college career with a neutral-site game against a pretty good West Virginia team is a pretty tall order. But after that, things get a little easier.
The Hokies draw Clemson at home and have back-to-back games on the road against Georgia Tech and Miami. Outside of those games, everything is pretty favorable. I don’t think East Carolina burns them this year, and I think they can handle the rest of the slate. Beamer Ball managed to win some division titles with some pretty lousy offenses, and Fuente is a much more innovative offensive mind. I think he can get Jackson and company rolling as the season progresses.
Verdict: 9-3. It’s Still TECH COUNTRY
VT doesn’t play well at FedEx Field, so they’ll lose to WVU in the opener. They right the ship after that though. Clemson comes into Blacksburg and beats them, but they rip off four straight wins after that, including critical games at GT and Miami. A Pitt loss the following week doesn’t stop them from winning their seventh Coastal Division title.
|Sept. 3||West Virginia (Landover)||L|
|Sept. 16||@ East Carolina||W|
|Sept. 23||Old Dominion||W|
|Oct. 7||@ Boston College||W|
|Oct. 21||North Carolina||W|
|Nov. 4||@ Miami||W|
|Nov. 11||@ Georgia Tech||W|
|Nov. 24||@ Virginia||W|
2 – Miami Hurricanes
Last Year: 9-4 (Russell Athletic Bowl – WIN)
Head Coach: Mark Richt (2nd Year)
What They Got
You’ve probably heard it — a lot of people like Miami this year. Mark Richt has breathed new life into the dormant former powerhouse. After an ugly four game slide following a hot start last year, Miami won out. They turned a lot of heads by easily dropping No. 14 West Virginia in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Talent isn’t a question. There’s a ton of it, and more is on the way (Rivals has Richt’s 2018 class ranked No. 2 in the country). Junior halfback Mark Walton is the centerpiece of the offense, amassing over 1100 yards and 14 TDs on the ground last year. A nasty offensive line led by guard KC McDermott (who should be a first round pick) should open plenty of holes. Ahmonn Richards was an emerging star as at receiver last year.
Who replaces Brad Kaaya at quarterback was the biggest question mark. Junior Malik Rosier gets the nod.
Defensively, it’s starting to look like the Miami of old. The Canes get everyone back on their D line — Chad Thomas, RJ McIntosh, Kendrick Norton and Trent Harris. They were a nightmare to deal with. All three linebackers started as freshmen and should continue to develop.
Though this team is really talented, I think next year is the year Miami can really emerge and contend for their first ACC title. Hard to believe they haven’t won a conference championship since 2003. However, jumping up to an 11-1 season seems like a reach.
The Canes’ nonconference schedule is pretty much a joke, with the exception of Notre Dame. Despite the hype, though, I think their youth could cost them in a couple of games they should maybe win. Richt is going to bring Miami back, but it’s going to take a little bit more time.
Verdict: 9-3. Still Building, but Not Quite There.
Like last year, Miami makes it interesting against FSU but can’t pull off the upset. They’ll look really good in games, but some of that youth could cost them at some point. At UNC seems like the most likely “WTF” road loss. I think the division crown will all come down to the Nov. 11 home game against VT, which the Hokies steal.
|Sept. 9||@ Arkansas State||W|
|Sept. 16||@ Florida State||L|
|Sept. 29||@ Duke||W|
|Oct. 12||Georgia Tech||W|
|Oct. 28||@ North Carolina||L|
|Nov. 4||Virginia Tech||L|
|Nov. 11||Notre Dame||W|
|Nov. 24||@ Pittsburgh||W|
3 – Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Last Year: 9-4 (TaxSlayer Bowl – WIN)
Head Coach: Paul Johnson (10th Year)
What They Got
Georgia Tech always seems to be under the radar, but Paul Johnson usually has them in the division hunt. Aside from a pitiful 3-9 season in 2015, PJ’s Jackets have been a consistent bowl team and has won three division titles. The Ramblin’ Wreck should be right in the thick of things again this year.
Like several other Coastal teams, GT is breaking in a new quarterback. Johnson hasn’t named a starter to lead his triple option attack yet, but Matthew Jordan has the most experience and looks to be the frontrunner. He’s got experience, including stepping in last year and taking down Virginia Tech on the road. I don’t know a whole hell of a lot about A-backs and B-backs, but Clinton Lynch and Dedrick Mills spearhead the attack on the ground. Ricky Jeune is the most experienced receiver. If a promising offensive line comes together, this could be a tough offense to stop.
Georgia Tech was mediocre on defense last year — 59th in total D. Things started to look a little better later in the season. Though they have to replace three starters on the defensive line, they get everyone back in the secondary. Cornerback Lance Austin and defensive end Kushun Freeman should be difference makers.
This year’s schedule looks a little bit tougher than last year. The Jackets open the season in the new Falcons’ stadium against Tennessee. They’ve got a road game against division foe Miami and rival Clemson and then face an improved Georgia team at the end of the year. Much will depend on how Jordan takes command of the offense full time.
If things click, the triple option is miserable for opponents to scheme against. They could catch a couple of teams off guard. But if things don’t come together on offense and the defense remain mediocre, this could be a .500ish team.
Verdict: 8-4. The Triple Option Lives.
8-4 seems like a logical prediction. GT owned the SEC East last year, so I think they can dispatch a peer Tennessee program at a homey “neutral” game in the new Mercedes Benz stadium to open the season. I expect them to drop games to Virginia Tech and Miami, which will take them out of the division race. But if they can knock off one of them, they’re right in it.
|Sept. 4||Tennessee (New ATL Dome)||W|
|Sept. 9||Jacksonville State||W|
|Sept. 16||@ UCF||W|
|Sept. 30||North Carolina||W|
|Oct. 12||@ Miami||L|
|Oct. 21||Wake Forest||W|
|Oct. 28||@ Clemson||L|
|Nov. 4||@ Virginia||W|
|Nov. 11||Virginia Tech||L|
|Nov. 18||@ Duke||W|
4 – Pittsburgh Panthers
Last Year: 8-5 (Pinstripe Bowl – LOSS)
Head Coach: Pat Narduzzi (3rd Year)
What They Got
Pat Narduzzi seems to fit the profile of a coach who would succeed in Pittsburgh. A tough, defensive-minded guy who’s paid his dues and now has his first head-coaching opportunity. Pitt has shown flashes of what it can be — they beat Clemson and cost Penn State a CFP berth — but it’s not quite there yet, ironically, because of the defense.
Pitt had no problem whatsoever scoring last year. They averaged over 40 points a game. Their worst offensive output was in the Pinstripe Bowl loss to Northwestern (24 points). They hung 76 on poor Syracuse. Problem is, QB Nathan Peterman and RB inspiration James Connor are both gone. Max Browne takes over under center after graduating from USC. Browne was recruited to LA by Lane Kiffin as the No.1 QB prospect in the nation, but it didn’t work out there. He’ll have two talented targets in Quadree Henderson and Jester Weah to try to keep the Panther offense rolling.
Defense has been a problem for Narduzzi to say the least. He didn’t inherit a lot of talent when he took over and it’s taking time to rebuild. Last year’s D was awful — 127th against the pass and 101st in total D. They were effective against the run (16th), so there’s that. They’re replacing seven starters. That’s probably a good thing, though.
If Browne and new offensive coordinator Shawn Watson can engineer an offensive that can generate close to the amount of points they put up last season, Pitt will be in a lot of games. The defense maybe cost them a division championship last year, but it’s pretty hard not to get better than the dumpster fire from 2016. The nonconference slate of games is not nice. It includes a trip to in-state rival Penn State and hosting Oklahoma State. If they can slug it out in a few track meets, I think Pitt will make another bowl.
Verdict: 7-5. A Tale of Two Halves.
A 2-4 start that includes a loss at Syracuse has Pitt fans calling for Narduzzi’s head. But Browne and the offense hit their stride and the defense plays better down the stretch. An upset win over a rising NC State team at home turns things around and a road win at Virginia Tech calms the fan base a little bit. I think Narduzzi wins a division title at Pitt before his tenure is over.
|Sept. 2||Youngstown State||W|
|Sept. 9||Penn State||L|
|Sept. 16||Oklahoma State||L|
|Sept. 23||@ Georgia Tech||L|
|Oct. 7||@ Syracuse||L|
|Oct. 14||NC State||W|
|Oct. 21||@ Duke||W|
|Nov. 9||North Carolina||W|
|Nov. 18||@ Virginia Tech||W|
5 – North Carolina Tar Heels
Last Year: 8-5 (Sun Bowl – LOSS)
Head Coach: Larry Fedora (6th Year)
What They Got
Larry Fedora has done a hell of a job at UNC. After inheriting the Butch Davis fiasco, he parlayed a bowl ban into the best record at Chapel Hill since Mack Brown. This year looks pretty problematic for the offensive guru, though.
That’s because Fedora has to find replacements for pretty much every playmaker they had. Mitch Trubisky? Gone. Ryan Switzer? Gone. Elijah Hood? Gone. So are three offensive linemen. The Heels will have to find production elsewhere. It starts with LSU grad transfer Brandon Harris, who comes in with 15 career starts. So Carolina isn’t starting with nothing, but Harris is obviously no Trubisky. Sophomore Jordan Brown, Auburn grad transfer Stanton Truitt, and freshman Michael Carter will be fighting to carries to fill the void left by Hood. Austin Proehl (Ricky Proehl’s son) is the top returning receiver.
The defensive unit is moving on without DC Gene Chizik and two other coaches. Last year’s Tar Heel defense was meh, but good against the pass. They’ve got an experienced group of linebackers (the best of which is Andre Smith) and a solid secondary that features All-ACC corner MJ Stewart and safety Donnie Miles.
Given all of the losses on offense, you’d expect a pretty big dip this season. The Heels’ schedule is pretty manageable, though. The OOC slate includes Cal (sucks), Old Dominion (no problem), Western Carolina (no problem) and Notre Dame (not that good). In ACC play, they draw Louisville and permanent crossover rival NC State from the Atlantic, but avoid Clemson and FSU.
There’s still a path to bowl eligibility and maybe a little better if the defense plays well and the offense doesn’t completely stall.
Verdict: 6-6. Still Bowling.
Larry Fedora hasn’t missed a bowl since he’s been in Chapel Hill aside from the bowl ban his first season. Carolina gets back to a bowl by taking advantage of a weak nonconference schedule and scraping together three ACC wins, including a surprising upset at home over Miami. It isn’t pretty, but Fedora avoids one of those meltdown rebuild years.
|Sept. 16||@ Old Dominion||W|
|Sept. 30||@ Georgia Tech||L|
|Oct. 7||Notre Dame||L|
|Oct. 21||@ Virginia Tech||L|
|Nov. 9||@ Pittsburgh||L|
|Nov. 18||Western Carolina||W|
|Nov. 25||NC State||L|
6 – Duke Blue Devils
Last Year: 4-8
Head Coach: David Cutcliffe (10th Year)
What They Got
David Cutcliffe got us used to Duke being a legit bowl team. Last year, the Devils slid back to old, bad Duke. They had a chance to make a bowl again, but were lit up in their final two games at Pittsburgh and at Miami. Part of the problem is Duke wasn’t particularly good at anything — no team stat on offense or defense ranked above 60th. Scoring offense was particularly atrocious.
That being said, Duke is one of two teams that actually return a quarterback this season. A friend of mine, who happens to be a State grad, has been raving about Daniel Jones (there’s your shoutout, Cam). Jones did emerge last season after a rough start and could be ready to take the next step. RB Shaun Wilson and WR TJ Rahming return to help him resurrect a struggling O.
The defense is really young — it looks like Cutcliffe and DC Jim Knowles will have to start six sophomores. One of them — LB Joe Giles-Harris — is a returning starter and racked up 107 tackles last season. Duke really needs its defensive line to step up and generate some pressure.
I just don’t think this group can make a bowl. They’ll be well coached, but there’s way too much inexperience to overcome on defense. Combine that with an unfavorable schedule and you’ve got a recipe for missing out on the postseason again. I just don’t see a lot of winnable games for Duke.
Verdict: 4-8. Ugly.
3-9 seems really low for a David Cutcliffe team. Maybe I’m not giving the Devils their due (haha, see what I did there?), but I don’t like this schedule. Northwestern shouldn’t have any problem with them and cesspool Baylor will be a battle. Army isn’t a guaranteed W anymore. Duke could beat Wake, but I think Wake is better. Maybe they knock off a Pitt or UNC, but the math still adds up to no bowl.
|Sept. 2||NC Central||W|
|Sept. 23||@ North Carolina||L|
|Oct. 7||@ Virginia||W|
|Oct. 14||Florida State||L|
|Oct. 28||@ Virginia Tech||L|
|Nov. 11||@ Army||W|
|Nov 18||Georgia Tech||L|
|Nov. 25||@ Wake Forest||L|
7 – Virginia Cavaliers
Last Year: 2-10
Head Coach: Bronco Mendenhall (2nd Year)
What They Got
I’ve never really understood why Virginia has stunk so bad more often than not in recent memory. They’ve got money and a decent football history. But I guess when you hire Al Groh and then follow that up with Mike London, you deserve to be at the bottom of the ACC. Bronco Mendenhall is a marked improvement, but it’s going to take a few years for him to remedy the shit sandwich that London so generously left behind.
The Hoos are the other Coastal squad to hang onto their starting quarterback. Kurt Benkert returns and hopefully improves. He showed some ability last year but dealt with an injured shoulder. The main reason the offense was so terrible was the offensive line. They’ve brought in three graduate transfers to try to make things better. We’ll see how they gel. Tailbacks Daniel Hamm and Jordan Ellis will be called on to take some of the pressure off of Benkert, but if the line still sucks, it’s going to be a long season.
Bronco is his own DC, and last year was a bit of a rude awakening. They do have the top two tacklers in the league in Quin Blanding and Micah Kiser. That should help. But switching to a 3-4 is a process that will take Mendenhall a few seasons to complete by bringing in the right personnel.
I don’t see why this team will be much better than last year. The three most winnable games happen to be the first three games of the season. After that, the bottom could drop out and I predict that it will. UVA is a five-year rebuild job, so I think it’s unreasonable to expect some huge turnaround for Mendenhall this season.
Verdict: 3-9. Uglier.
UVA will start the season 3-0. Or at least they should. They host FCS opponent William & Mary, Indiana and UConn at Scott Stadium to begin 2017. Indiana has an uptempo offense that could be a problem, but I doubt they beat UVA on the road. UConn is hot garbage. The other OOC matchup is a road trip to Boise State. Loss. ACC play is over before it starts. They could beat a Duke or BC maybe, but I don’t think so.
|Sept. 2||William & Mary||W|
|Sept. 22||@ Boise State||L|
|Oct. 14||@ North Carolina||L|
|Oct. 21||Boston College||L|
|Oct. 28||@ Pittsburgh||L|
|Nov. 4||Georgia Tech||L|
|Nov. 11||@ Louisville||L|
|Nov. 18||@ Miami||L|
|Nov. 24||Virginia Tech||L|