By Ryan Mayer
College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, sleepers, and the rest. Can your team truly challenge for conference supremacy? Are they being underrated? Stay tuned.To give you an idea of what each tier means, teams that are marked contenders are considered legitimate division and conference title contenders. Sleepers are teams that if everything breaks their way could pull a few upsets and steal a spot in the conference title game. The rest is teams that likely won’t contend for the division or conference title but are more likely to be fighting for a bowl spot.
Today, we look to the ACC Coastal division, where the Miami Hurricanes are hoping a new coach can get them to the conference title game.
Preseason Media Poll
1) North Carolina Tar Heels
2) Miami Hurricanes
3) Pittsburgh Panthers
4) Virginia Tech Hokies
5) Duke Blue Devils
6) Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
7) Virginia Cavaliers
The Hurricanes finished a disappointing 8-5 last year including a 58-0 blowout against Clemson and the school felt it was time to make a change. In comes Mark Richt, who is returning to his alma mater, takes over the helm following a 15 year run at Georgia that included two SEC titles and a 145-51 record. He’s got the benefit of a roster that has a lot of talent coming back including a quarterback who is expected to be one of the best in the nation.
Brad Kaaya is that QB and he enters his junior season coming off of a year in which he thew for 3,238 yards 16 TDs and 5 INTs while completing 61.2 percent of his passes. He’s got two of his top four receivers back including the #2 guy from last year in senior Stacy Coley who hauled in 47 catches for 689 yards and 4 TDs. Kaaya will be working behind an offensive line that returns all five starters from last year after allowing just 19 sacks last season. Running back Joseph Yearby is back as well after barely surpassing 1,000 yards last year. Expect the running game numbers to go up as the team averaged just 120 yards per game on the ground last season. The Hurricanes averaged 28 points per game last season, and that number should improve as well.
On defense, the interior of the defensive line is going to be a question mark heading into the year following the loss of Calvin Heurtelou and Ufomba Kamalu, but their defensive ends are both back. That said, those ends combined for just six sacks last season and defensive coordinator Manny Diaz will need to get more from them. Jermaine Grace and Trent Harris are back to anchor the linebacker group. Granted, Grace and defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad are both part of an internal investigation into their dealings with a local car rental place so they could miss some time. The secondary is the biggest question on this side of the ball as four starters from last year are gone in Artie Burns, Tracy Howard, Deon Bush and Dallas Crawford. That group allowed just 204 yards per game through the air. Those numbers may drop just a bit with the loss of their top guys.
The schedule is fairly easy early and late, but in October things get tough. The Hurricanes will face Florida State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh in five consecutive weeks from October 8th through early November. That stretch will help us learn a lot about just how good this Hurricanes team is.
Toughest Games: vs. Florida State (10/8), vs. UNC (10/15), @ Virginia Tech (10/20), @ Notre Dame (10/29), vs. Pitt (11/5)
North Carolina Tar Heels
Larry Fedora and company surprised some people last season in going 11-3 with their only losses coming to rival South Carolina, Clemson and Baylor in the bowl game. This season, the Tar Heels have the talent to make another run to the ACC title game, but they will need to find a new quarterback in order to do so.
Marquise Williams had a very good season last year for the Tar Heels in his senior season. Now that he’s gone, the signal caller duties could fall to one of three guys. Last year’s back-up junior Mitch Trubisky seems to have the inside track, but he will battle sophomore Caleb Henderson and red-shirt freshman Nathan Elliott. Good news for the Tar Heels is that running back Elijah Hood is back (219 carries 1,463 yards 17 TD) as are the top two receivers from last year in Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer. Co-offensive coordinators Gunter Brewer and Chris Kapilovic have three starters back on the offensive line as well. All of these factors point to a very welcoming environment for the new QB to step into, it’s just a matter of how quickly they can develop in terms of how good the offense can be.
The defense loses some serious star power in DT Justin Thomason, MLB Jeff Schoettmer, LB Shakeel Richard, S Sam Smiley and CB Malik Simmons. However, they do have some big time talent coming back in 2nd team All ACC corners MJ Stewart and Desmond Lawrence as well as leading tackler safety Donnie Miles (128 tackles last season). The two defensive ends in Dajuan Drennon and Mikey Bart combined for just eight sacks last season and the Tar Heels will need more production out of those two. More importantly, the defense needs to get better at stopping the run. The Tar Heels allowed 247 yards per game on the ground last season including 649(!) in the bowl game against Baylor.
Their schedule is similar to Miami’s with a rough four week stretch, but theirs comes a little earlier in the year. They have to travel to Miami but get Pittsburgh at home and avoid Notre Dame. Circle those Pittsburgh and Miami games as they will likely determine who comes out on top in this side of the conference this season.
Toughest Games: vs. Georgia (9/3 Atlanta), vs. Pittsburgh (9/24), @ Florida State (10/1), vs. Virginia Tech (10/8), @ Miami (10/15)
Pat Narduzzi’s first year with the team was a solid one with the Panthers going 8-4 and earning a bowl berth before falling to Keenan Reynolds and Navy in the Military Bowl. However, that was all largely overshadowed, understandably, by the news that running back James Conner had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Narduzzi enters his second year with a more experienced team and they look like they’ll get an emotional boost from the return of Conner after he was declared cancer-free in May.
In Conner’s (torn MCL and Lymphoma) absence last season, Qadree Ollison stepped up to take the rushing load and performed very well with 1,121 yards and 11 TDs on 212 carries. Adding Conner back to the mix with Ollison makes for a very good running game that should at the very least equal last year’s average of 187 yards per game, especially considering that the offensive line returns all but one starter from last year’s group. At quarterback, Nathan Peterman now has a full season of starts under his belt which should make for improved numbers in the passing game (191 per game) despite the loss of top receiver Tyler Boyd. The unit does have to adjust to a new coordinator once again as Jim Chaney left to take the job at Georgia, so in comes Matt Canada from NC State.
Defense is where Narduzzi made his bones as a coach. As the defensive coordinator at Michigan State, the Spartans had four straight Top 10 finishes in his last four seasons before taking this job. Last year, the Panthers allowed 26 points and 363 yards per game in his first season and with a lot of guys coming back, those numbers should continue to improve. The defensive line is the hardest hit group in terms of departures with starting tackles Darryl Render and Khaynin Mosley-Smith moving on but they do return senior end Ejuan Price who had 11.5 sacks last season and add in Tennessee transfer Dewayne Hendrix. The linebacker group returns Matt Galambos, Mike Caprara and Bam Bradley who combined for 170 tackles 11 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss last season. With an experienced secondary, Narduzzi should be able to confidently run his man coverage scheme on the outside with no concerns.
The schedule is tougher than both Miami’s and UNC’s with Penn State and Oklahoma State in the out of conference slate plus they get Clemson in the crossover game. Back-to-back games on the road against Miami and Clemson in November will be very important to Pitt’s division title hopes.
Toughest Games: vs. Penn State (9/10), @ Oklahoma State (9/17), @ UNC (9/24), vs. Virginia Tech (10/27), @ Miami (11/5), @ Clemson (11/12)
Virginia Tech Hokies
The Hokies said goodbye to long-time head coach Frank Beamer (229 wins in 29 seasons) following a 7-6 campaign last year that had become a trend in recent years. They made a splashy hire by going out and getting Memphis head coach Justin Fuente who was 19-6 in his two seasons with the Tigers. Fuente steps into a good spot with the Hokies as he retained legendary defensive coordinator Bud Foster and the team has a bunch of talent back. However, there are some questions to be answered before the Hokies can be considered serious contenders for the division.
One of the main questions that Justin Fuente and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen have to answer is at the QB spot as Michael Brewer moves on after an inconsistent couple of years. Senior Brenden Motley is back and the team adds junior college transfer Jerrod Evans to battle for the job. Fuente runs a more spread style of offense so the passing numbers should improve with more quick hitting routes and a more wide open field. The QB should have plenty of time to throw considering that the offensive line returns four out of five starters from last year.
The Hokies do return top rusher Travon McMillian who carried 200 times for 1,043 yards and 7 TDs last season and they have their top receiver back in Isaiah Ford who had 75 receptions for 1,164 yards and 11 TDs. Two other top wide outs are back as well, so there are plenty of weapons available for the quarterback to work with.
On defense, the Hokies had a bit of a down year last season giving up 26.3 points per game despite only allowing opponents 370 total yards per contest. Their biggest problems came against the run where they allowed 181 yards per game and they’re losing a couple of key pieces from their front seven this year so it will be interesting to see how Bud Foster is able to get those numbers back in line. DE Dadi Nicholas, NT Corey Marshall, DT Luther Maddy and LB Deon Clarke are all gone from the front seven which is a lot of production to replace. They do return their top tackler in safety Chuck Clark along with returning the rest of the secondary including corner Adonis Alexander who got plenty of starting experience last season after Kendall Fuller was lost for the year after just three starts. Finding replacements for those big names in the front seven and getting that group to gel quickly will determine whether the Hokies are dark horse contenders or if they’re fighting for a bowl spot once again.
The schedule is tough as they draw SEC contender Tennessee in the out of conference with Boston College and Notre Dame out of division as well.
Toughest Games: @ Tennessee (9/10, Bristol, TN), vs. Boston College (9/17), @ UNC (10/8), vs. Miami (10/20), @ Pittsburgh (10/27), @ Notre Dame (11/19)
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Paul Jonson had an uncharacteristic down season last year despite some good returning talent from a team that had gown 11-3 in 2014. The offensive line was banged up for much of the year and due to that, the triple option attack wasn’t nearly as successful as it had been in years past. This season they have a senior quarterback, their top three rushers back, but the defense has some big questions to answer. The schedule is also brutally difficult, which means the Jackets could be fighting for bowl eligibility at the end of the year.
Justin Thomas’ numbers were down last season as he completed just 41 percent of his passes for 1,345 yards 13 TDs and 8 INTs with just 488 rushing yards. That rushing total is particularly concerning for a triple option QB in this system, but as stated above, the offensive line being banged up didn’t help. This year, the offensive line brings back four guys who were starters by the end of the season and have their top rusher in running back Marcus Marshall (86 carries 654 yards 4 TDs), so the running game should improve on the 265 yards per game it averaged last season. 265 yards seems like a lot, but for a triple option team it’s a pretty low average. The top two receivers are back as well and all of these factors point to an improvement on last year’s numbers.
The defense needs to replace DE Adam Gotsis, LB Tyler Marcordes, and the entire secondary. After allowing 26 points per game last season, those kind of heavy losses don’t bode well for the team. They do bring back KeShun Freeman and Patrick Gamble on the defensive line and their top tackler PJ Davis is back as well. Still, there are some big holes to fill for defensive coordinator Ted Roof.
The schedule, as I mentioned is rough. Away games against Pittsburgh, UNC, Virginia Tech, and Georgia litter the back half while dates with Boston College, Clemson and Miami are on the front end. They open the season in Dublin against BC which is fun, but there are just too many difficult road games here for me to put them into the sleeper category. They should however get a bowl game.
Toughest Games: vs. Boston College (9/3 Dublin), vs. Clemson (9/22), vs. Miami (10/1), @ Pittsburgh (10/8), @ UNC (11/5), @ Virginia Tech (11/12), @ Georgia (11/26)
Duke Blue Devils
Let me say up front that David Cutcliffe’s group routinely outperforms preseason expectations, so I fully expect them to be better than it looks right now. That said, there are some big question marks in particular at QB where Thomas Sirk is coming back from a ruptured Achilles way ahead of schedule.
Sirk had a solid first season in the QB role throwing for 2,625 yards and adding 803 more on the ground with a total of 24 touchdowns on the season. He is back in practice for the Blue Devils after an aggressive rehab from the Achilles injury, but that’s always a scary injury to come back from, so I wonder how healthy he can be this season. If Sirk isn’t able to make it through the full season, Parker Boehme would likely step in to the starting role. The Blue Devils do return three starters on the offensive line, but they’ll need more from the running back spot this year as top back Shaquille Powell had just 542 yards last season and he’s now departed. Top receiver Max McCaffery is also gone as is Johnell Barnes who was dismissed from the team late last season. Sirk’s health and finding a capable running back are the keys for new coordinator Zac Roper.
Defensively, the defensive line is the trouble spot after losing Kyler Brown, Carlos Wray and Deion Williams, three starters on last year’s team. DeVon Edwards moves from LB to CB so there’s a hole to fill there as well, but the secondary should be solid with Edwards’ addition. The Blue Devils allowed 24.1 points per game last season and in order to lower that number, they’ll have to find answers along the defensive line.
The schedule might be the hardest in the division as they get Louisville in the crossover game, add Notre Dame, and close out the season with Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, UNC, Pittsburgh and Miami in consecutive weeks. That late run will determine whether we’re talking bowl game or not.
Toughest Games: @ Northwestern (9/17), @ Notre Dame (9/24), @ Louisville (10/14), @ Georgia Tech (10/29), vs. Virginia Tech (11/5), vs. UNC (11/10), @ Pittsburgh (11/19), @ Miami (11/26)
Virginia decided it was time to move on from head coach Mike London following a fourth straight season under .500. They made one of the splashier hires of the offseason bringing in Bronco Mendenhall from BYU. Mendenhall won 99 games in 11 seasons with the Cougars and turned them into a program now being considered for inclusion into the Big 12.
Mendenhall does have quarterback Matt Johns back for his senior season, but he will need to cut down on his interceptions if the team is to improve on its 4-8 record as he threw 17 picks last year. He has most of his offensive line back and running back Taquan Mizzell returns for his senior season after putting up 671 yards on 163 attempts last year. Johns will have to operate without his top two receivers in Canaan Severin and TJ Thorpe, though Mizzell was a consistent target in the passing game as well with 75 catches for 721 yards and four touchdowns. Having a veteran QB, RB, and offensive line should mean improved numbers for this unit.
On defense, the biggest concern is the defensive line which loses all four starters from last year’s group. The good news is that the all three linebackers and three of four players in the secondary return. In all, the Cavaliers bring back their top four tacklers in LB Micah Kiser (117 tackles 7.5 sacks 5.5 TFL), S Quin Blanding (115 tackles), S Kelvin Rainey (68 tackles) and LB Zach Bradshaw (53 tackles). The back seven is going to be solid, though they do move to the 3-4 this season under new defensive coordinator Nick Howell.
The schedule gets easier in the out of conference with Notre Dame, UCLA and Bose State dropping off the schedule and Oregon, UConn and Central Michigan hopping on. However, the back end of the schedule is loaded with Pittsburgh, UNC, and Louisville in consecutive weeks and Miami, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech to finish the season.
Toughest Games: @ Oregon (9/10), vs. Pittsburgh (10/15), vs. UNC (10/22), vs. Louisville (10/29), vs. Miami (11/12), @ Virginia Tech (11/26)
Division Winner- Miami
The Hurricanes have nine starters back on offense and the “easiest” schedule of the three true contenders on this side of the conference. In addition, they get North Carolina and Pittsburgh both at home. Mark Richt is a very good coach and despite it being his first year, I believe that he will be able to get the most out of the talent on this roster, which hasn’t necessarily been the case in previous seasons.
Conference Winner- Clemson
The same reason that cause me to pick the Tigers to win the Atlantic is the same reason that I pick them to win the conference overall. DeShaun Watson has all of his weapons back and an offensive line that returns some good experience. The Tigers offense is going to be prolific if everyone stays healthy and I believe they will. Miami will not get blown out 58-0 like they did last year against the Tigers and I would expect this game to be competitive. Clemson solidifies a spot in the CFP once again with the win.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.