The ACC’s less prestigious division stepped up last year and provided great depth behind the Atlantic Division trio of Clemson, Florida, State, and Louisville.
With Justin Fuente in his first year at Virginia Tech, the Hokies got back to relevancy – winning the division, giving Clemson a battle in the ACC Championship game, and coming back to beat Arkansas in the Belk Bowl. Miami – also with a new coach – UNC, and Pittsburgh tied for second in the Coastal Division while Georgia Tech posted a respectable 4-4 season. Virginia and Duke struggled through 1-7 ACC seasons to tie for last in the division.
In 2017, the Coastal is likely to take a step back, and with it ACC is likely to regress from being the nation’s best conference. VT QB Jerod Evans inexplicably left early for the NFL draft (in which he was not selected). QB Brad Kaaya from Miami and QB Mitchell Trubisky from UNC also left early, while QB Justin Thomas of GT and Nathan Peterman of Pitt exhausted their eligibility. QB-play with therefore be bigger than usual unknown, making predictions even tougher than usual, but here we go:
1st Place: Miami Hurricanes
Miami returns eight starters on a defense already ranked 13th in the country by 2016 S&P+ advanced stats. Just a few years ago, depth on the defensive line was a huge issue for the Hurricanes. Now, they’re in better position. DE Joe Jackson, who led the team in sacks (7.5) is back, and SDE Chad Thomas, a former 5-star recruit who had double digit TFLs last season, returns for his senior year.
On offense they’ll have to replace QB Brad Kaaya who chose to leave early only to be taken in the 6th round by the Detroit Lions. Had he chosen to return, they’d be heavy favorites to win the Coastal, but even with his departure they’re still our (slight) favorite.
To replace Brad Kaaya, Richt will most likely give the first look to redshirt junior Malik Rosier who offers a dual-threat option. N’kosi Perry is an incoming freshman and could also vie for playing time. Whoever wins the job, they’ll benefit greatly from having RB Mark Walton in the backfield after a 1,000 yard season in 2016. Al Golden was recruiting at a decent level and Richt has given them a major boost. Mark Richt engineered more than a couple capable offenses during his time at Georgia, particularly during his early years when he was calling the plays – as he’ll be doing again in Miami.
While they have to play Florida State, who has beaten them seven consecutive times, they’ll benefit from playing GT in Coral Gables, and the Yellow Jackets have to travel to Clemson. If they can produce solid QB play, they have a great shot to win the Coastal Division and play in the ACC Championship game for the first time in school history.
2nd Place: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Georgia Tech fans have good reason to pull their collected noses up from their engineering books and tune into the Yellow Jackets 2017 football season. They return eight starters on each side of the ball including four offensive lineman, top receiver Ricky Jeune (25 receptions in 2016), and top rushing threat Dedrick Mills (153 carries, 771 yards, 12 TDs in 2016). Junior Matthew Jordan is primed to become the new QB in their triple-option system – lest a redshirt freshman wrestles the job away.
Georgia Tech won nine games last season and ended with four straight P5 wins including victories over Virginia Tech and Georgia. The S&P+ only ranked them 45th at the conclusion of the year, largely due to a porous defense that finished just 57th. With eight starters returning they are likely to improve and a hot finish lends to that optimism.
Like the other competitive teams in this division, much of their success will be determined by the play of a QB we have yet to see, but with the information at hand, we’re a bit more optimistic about the Yellow Jackets than usual. They get Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech at home, however they travel to Clemson and Miami. Recruited talent and advanced stats say pick Miami. Returning starters and a hot finish say pick Georgia Tech.
3rd Place: Virginia Tech Hokies
Although many will pick the Hokies to repeat as Division Champs, this STS writer is not as sold one Virginia Tech. QB Jerod Evans provided the Hokies with one of the better passers Blacksburg has had in quite some time. He was a dual-threat who hammered away in short-yardage situations. He’s not the only significant loss the offense must overcome. WR Isaiah Ford and TE Bucky Hodges also depart from an offense returning just five starters.
After a division championship season, it’s easy to forget the lean years that preceded it. In those years, the Hokie offense was consistently paltry. Although Justin Fuente is a very good offensive coach, they could regress from the S&P+ 51st offensive unit in the country that they fielded last season.
We picked the Hokies to win the Coastal last season in large part because they avoided Clemson, FSU, and Louisville from the Atlantic Division. This year, they’ll host Clemson.
4th Place: Pittsburgh Panthers
The Panthers return the fewest starters in the conference – 10 – following a solid 5-3 season in which they beat both Clemson and Penn State. Their offense was excellent throughout the year and was largely responsible for their upset victories. Clemson DL said their offensive line was one of the toughest he faced all season.
Now their offense faces some major departures as QB Nathan Peterman (a former Tennessee transfer) has exhausted his eligibility and RB and local hero James Connor was selected by the hometown Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL Draft.
More concerning is the defense, which returns just four starters after being a major weakness (62nd S&P+) last season. No unit (offense or defense) returns fewer starters than the Pittsburgh defense.
In their favor though is a good draw from the Atlantic Division as they have winnable games against Syracuse and NC State. They’re the only team in the Coastal Division that avoids Clemson, FSU, and Louisville. That alone keeps them in the hunt.
5th Place: North Carolina Tar Heels
We’ve been high on the Heels in our previews over the past two years, and they’ve largely delivered. They won their first division title in 2015 and tied for second place at 5-3 in 2016. Entering the 2017 season however, they face massive losses. Unlike the elite programs (e.g., Alabama, Clemson), they haven’t recruited at a high enough level to avoid a rebuilding year. This year may be just that.
The Tar Heels return just five starters on offense. Gone is #2 overall NFL draft pick QB Mitchell Trubisky as well as his best WR targets: Mack Hollins, Ryan Switzer, and Bug Howard. The excellent and sometimes under-utilized RB duo of Elijah Hood and TJ Logan also are both departed. It’s a similar situation to Clemson losing QB Deshaun Watson, RB Wayne Gallman, TE Jordan Leggett, and WRs Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, however the Tigers have multiple four and five-star recruits like QB Hunter Johnson, WRs Deon Cain and Tee Higgins, and RB Tavien Feaster waiting in the wings to cushion the blow. The Heels don’t have such luxuries and their offense is likely to take a major step back. To replace the #2 pick in the NFL draft, the Heels the much beleaguered LSU-transfer Brandon Harris, four-star redshirt freshman Chaz Surratt, and redshirt sophomore Nathan Elliott.
On defense, the heels return seven starters, but lose coordinator Gene Chizik who retired from football coaching. Chizik won a national championship as a head coach with Auburn in 2010 and had helped turn around a very poor defense in Chapel Hill. His departure could be cause for regression on that side of the ball.
Additionally, the Heels will face Louisville from the Atlantic Division and travel to Atlanta to face Georgia Tech. Expect the Heels to drop in the standings as they try to rebuild after a solid run of success throughout the Marquise Williams and Mitchell Trubisky years.
6th Place: Duke Blue Devils
The Blue Devils won just one conference game last season – beating UNC at home – and fell short of making a bowl game after four straight bowl appearances.
The Blue Devils now look to begin a new bowl streak behind QB Daniel Jones. As a redshirt freshman last season, Daniel Jones ended the season hot – passing for over 240 years in each of Duke’s final three games and throwing five touchdowns to zero interceptions.
The defense suffers some significant losses and they have a tough draw from the Atlantic facing Florida State and Wake Forest from the Atlantic Division, leading to the lowly 6th place projections, but they should be improved from 2016.
7th Place: Virginia Cavaliers
The Virginia Cavaliers finished a paltry 2-10 last season. Their offense sputtered to a 89th ranking in the S&P+ advanced stats ranking while the defense was only a little better at 78th. Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall (from BYU) enters his second year with the program, and still has a ways to go.
The offense returns only six starters. Among the departing players is RB Tiquan Mizzell, their star offensive player. QB Kurt Benkert is back, but will need improvement from the offensive line to take any meaningful strides. With QB Matt Johns now departed, there isn’t much of a fallback option so his progress is critical.
Bronco Mendenhall has a chance to turn the program around, but it may still be too soon. Colin Coherd may have been hilariously wrong when he said Clemson was a fraud who would lose to Ohio State in the 2016 CFB Playoff, but he was right when he said “there’s not a softer bunch of brie eating weenies than Virginia Football.” He still needs to toughen then up in the trenches.