ACC Preview- Coastal Division
With the ACC officially ditching divisions and switching to a 3-5-5 schedule model in 2023, this is the final year we get Coastal Chaos. Can Pitt become the first team to win the Coastal in back to back seasons since Virginia Tech in 2011? It's definitely possible, but let's preview all seven teams that have a chance to win the last ever Coastal Crown.
David Cutcliffe is gone after 14 seasons as the head man for the Blue Devils where he won a division title and made 6 bowl games. That's pretty impressive to pull off at Duke. Now enters Mike Elko with his first head coaching opportunity after years of experience as a defensive coordinator, including 3 years in the ACC at Wake Forest and most recently at Texas A&M.
2021 was not a good year for the Blue Devils. They only won 3 games, were 0-8 in conference, and finished dead last in both scoring and points allowed in conference. Last year, the entire offense was centered around Mataeo Durant, who ran for 1241 yards. He's now gone, and so is leading receiver Jake Bobo as well as starting QB Gunnar Holmberg. Riley Leonard is expected to take over at QB this year, who through for 381 yards in limited action over 6 games last year. Jordan Waters is expected to be the first guy with the opportunity to take over at running back, but it's unclear if the new staff will be as run-heavy as they were last year. The top 3 returning receivers are all seniors, but have yet to show much production.
The defense returns most of the starters from last year, but that might not be a good thing. Duke finished 130th out of 130 teams in FBS in total defense last year. They game up 518 yards and almost 40 points per game. Mike Elko definitely has his hands full in his first year and hopefully he can begin to rebuild this program. A good goal in year 1 should be to win more than the 3 games they did last year.
Geoff Collins enters his 4th season in Atlanta, which means the roster should almost entirely free of guys recruited to play in the triple-option under Paul Johnson. Everyone knew Collins was going to face a tough challenge, but I think at this point, everyone was hoping to see more than 3 wins a year so far. The schedule in 2022 will not make it easy to get past that 3 win mark, either. The Yellow Jackets might have the toughest non-conference schedule in the country with Ole Miss, UCF, and Georgia and they have to Clemson and at Florida State from the Atlantic side.
While Georgia Tech only won 3 games last year, they did almost knock off Clemson in Death Valley, as well as lost one possession games against Northern Illinois, Virginia, and Miami. If they could have pulled off a couple of those games, Geoff Collins probably wouldn't be sitting on the hottest seat in the ACC. Neither the offense or defense were great last year, giving up 455 yards per game while only gaining 367 per game.
Jeff Sims is back at Quarterback and will look to prove that he's one of the best dual-threat QBs in the conference. We know he can run, and he throws a pretty good deep ball. If he can limit the turnovers this year, this offense can be a lot better. Leading receiver, Malachi Carter, is back and they will look to use him more this year. He averaged over 13 yards per catch, but only had 37 receptions on the season. Jahmyr Gibbs transferred to Alabama, but Dontae Smith (5.6 YPC) is back and they bring in Hassan Hall (7.2 YPC) from Louisville and Dylan McDuffie (5.1 YPC) from Buffalo, so the big play ability will be there. The offensive line wasn't great last year, but they bring in transfers from Alabama, Clemson, and Kentucky that should be able to help immediately.
The defense struggled last year, and now they have to replace 2 guys that went to the NFL and another 2 that transferred to better programs. Collins has done a great job bringing in transfers from all over the country, so if these guys can come together, hopefully they will be a much better unit this year. As a team, I think GT will be better this year, but unfortunately with that schedule I don't think they'll win more than 2 or 3 games, and this is probably Collins' last year.
Mario Cristobal has returned home to Miami. He was born there, he played there, he was an assistant there, and even though he had success at Oregon, it was a known fact that eventually, he would return to coach the Hurricanes. Cristobal will inherit a roster that, even though they lost 5 games a season ago, is full of talent. Miami lost to Alabama and Michigan State early on that both turned out to be top ten teams in the country. Tyler Van Dyke took over for an injured D'Eriq King after the Michigan State game and he looked like a pro almost immediately. The team lost 3 games the rest of the season (Virginia, UNC, and FSU) by a combined 8 points. TVD is back for his redshirt sophomore year and should not only be one of the best quarterbacks in the conference, but in the country.
Leading rusher Jaylan Knighton is back and they bring in Henry Parrish from Ole Miss to hopefully improve their running game. What will make that easiest is if the offensive line can be better. Mario Cristobal has a background as an O-line coach so that should definitely help, as should the pair of transfers from Oregon he brought with him. Leading receiver, Charleston Rambo, is now in the NFL, but they return their next 3 leading receivers in Keyshawn Smith, Xavier Raestrepo, and fantastic receiving tight end, Will Mallory. They also add grad transfer Frank Ladson from Clemson. This offense scored 34 PPG last season (5th in the ACC), and I would be surprised if that number isn't higher this year with all of this talent and it doesn't hurt that they went out and got one of the best offensive coordinators in the country, Josh Gattis.
Cristobal brings in long-time defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele, who has experience at massive programs (Auburn, LSU, Clemson, Alabama), but now must take over a defense that needs a rebuild. The Hurricanes were 9th in scoring defense last year in the ACC, and they lost a ton of starters to the transfer market. They have brought in plenty of transfers on their own and have 7 or 8 guys that weren't with the team last year that will play a significant role. It also won't hurt that the Canes probably have the best kicking duo in the conference in kicker Andres Borregales (45-45 on PAT and 17-21 FG) and punter Lou Hedley (44.7 yards averaged).
I'm really high on this Miami team this year. They have a huge test in week 3 at Texas A&M that will let the world know just how good they are. Outside of that game, the schedule is pretty manageable up to the last 2 weeks of the season when they play Clemson and Pitt. The Pitt game has a good chance to deciding which teams goes to the ACC Championship. I think this team will get past Pitt, win 10 games, and set up a rematch with Clemson in Charlotte for the ACC Championship.
The Tar Heels actually open up play this Saturday night against Florida A&M, which I think is a great call since they have to go to Boone to play Appalachian State next week. Mack Brown enters his 4th (and 14th) season at Carolina with way fewer expectations than a year ago where they were 10th in country before an opening loss to Virginia Tech. Enter Sandman from that game still gives me chills, even as a UVA fan.
This year looks much different for the Tar Heels: no preseason ranking, Sam Howell is now in the NLF, and Vegas has the win total at only 6.5. As was the case with a lot of ACC teams last year, the offense was great and the defense was terrible. They were 3rd in the conference on offense and 11th on defense. It's hard to imagine the offense is going to be as good this year. Drake Maye is taking over for Howell this year with only 10 career passing attempts, but he does get to throw the ball to All-ACC receiver, Josh Downs. The only other returning receiver with more than 10 catches is tight end, Kamari Morales, but Downs will make up for a ton of unproven talent. Leading rusher Ty Chandler is now gone, and since they've already lost British Brooks to a season ending injury, so the lead back duties falls to junior DJ Jones who's averaged 4.5 YPC in limited action.
The defense has to be better this year, so to try to change things, Mack Brown went out and got former national champion, Gene Chizik, to call the defense. There's tons of 4+ star guys on defense, so the talent is there to be great, but they haven't shown it yet. They're led by corner, Storm Duck (all-name and all-ACC player), and if Chizik can get more out of the talent on this side of the ball, the defense may be able to carry the offense at times this year. I think there's just too many question marks for the Heels this year. I expect them to get to bowl eligibility, but I'm not expecting much more than that.
Editors Note: I wrote this before UNC played last night, and my biggest take away is that the defense is still struggling. They allowed chunk plays mostly through the air, but also on the ground for the entire first half. They did better in the 2nd half, but overall not pretty. Also, it looks like it's the freshman, Omarion Hampton, that's getting the majority of the carries at running back, and he looked good last night. Drake Maye looked a little shaky and inaccurate early on, but settled in and threw for 5 TDs. He's also way more athletic than I thought.
The reigning ACC Champions will have their hands full if they want to repeat this year. They had an elite offense (1st in scoring in the ACC) and a really strong defense (4th in scoring in conference), and while the defense should still be solid, they have to replace their top 2 playmakers on offense from a year ago. Heisman finalist, Kenny Pickett, is still in Pittsburgh, but now he plays for the Steelers, and All-Everything receiver, Jordan Addison, is now at USC. While the Panthers lost a huge piece to USC, they got a pretty good one back from the Spartans. Kedon Slovis will be the new quarterback for Pitt. He was great at USC is Freshman and Sophomore years before struggling a little last year. If he can get back to the 2019 and 2020 performer, this can still be a top half offense in the ACC. Leading rusher Israel Abanikanda is back after showing flashes of greatness last year, and Jared Wayne will look to take a big step forward as the new WR1.
If the Pickett/Addison combo was the #1 reason the Panthers won 11 games a year ago, their strong defense is reason #2. They only gave up 350 yards per game last year, which is pretty great when your offense gains almost 500, and managed to lead the league in both sacks and interceptions. They're led up front by two of the best defensive linemen in the conference in Habakkuk Baldonado and Calijah Kancey and have do-it-all linebacker, SirVocea Dennis, in the middle with a veteran defensive backfield behind them.
While I don't believe this team can be as good as they were last year, I still think this is a really talented roster that can win a bunch of games. They have 2 major tests to start the year with the return of the backyard brawl with West Virginia to open the season and then Tennessee in week 2. I would probably still pick them to win the Coastal, but they have to go on the road to UNC, Virginia, and most importantly, Miami. Because of that, I think they come up 1 game short of returning to Charlotte.
Tony Elliott arrives in Charlottesville for his first ever head coaching gig after Bronco Mendenhall decided to walk away from football at the end of the season. Elliott comes over from Clemson after being the OC there since 2015 and winning the Broyles Award in 2017. He's in a pretty good situation since he's inheriting a program where the coach wasn't fired, so he doesn't have to do a complete rebuild. That being said, Virginia obviously isn't perfect, they finished 6-6 (4-4) last year. If you weren't a Virginia fan, I'd imagine their games were incredibly entertaining to watch. The Hoos had one of the best offenses in the country (514 YPG) and one of the worst defenses (466 YPG). Most of their games ended up in crazy shoot-outs, I particularly remember the 49-66 loss to BYU.
Returning under center is the league's leading passer, Brennan Armstrong, who last year threw for 4449 yards (in 11 games) and had 40 total TDs. Surrounding Armstrong is what is probably the best four-deep wide receiver group in the country: Dontayvion Wicks (57 catches, 1203 yards, and 9TDs), Keytaon Thompson (78 catches and 990 yards), Billy Kemp (74 catches, 725 yards, and 6 TDs), and Lavel Davis (25.8 YPR and 5 TDs in 2020) returns after missing all of last year due to injury. Obviously, these numbers are insane, and the group is certainly talented, but the fact that UVA could not (and would not) run the ball last year, definitely played a part. Elliott has said that they want to be more balanced last year, and getting the opportunites to improve the ground game will be Perris Jones, Mike Hollins, and Ronnie Walker Jr. None of these guys have much production in their college careers, but have shown flashes in limited work. The guys clearing holes for the running backs and providing protection for Armstrong are a major question mark this year. The top 6 offensive linemen from a year ago are no longer with the program. They hit the transfer portal hard, and OL coach, Garrett Tujague, has been a fantastic position coach during his time at UVA and BYU, but we'll have to wait until they take the field next week to see if they have a group that can get the job done.
Mendenhall came to UVA as a defensive specialist, and had good defenses his first few years there, but that all fell apart in 2020. Teams threw all over UVA that year and the coaching staff tried to fix that by switching to a 3-3-5 base defense in 2021. All that did was allow teams to throw and run all over them. Enter John Rudzinski, who repeatedly had strong defenses at Air Force with way less talent than power 5 programs. I actually think most of UVA's problems were schematic and not talent related, and UVA has plenty of veteran guys on that side of the ball who have shown they can be good at times. If Rudzinski can get them in the right place, and if they can just be middle of the pack in the ACC, the team should be a lot better.
Now, I'm not saying it's going to happen, but if (and it's a big if) the offensive line and the defense are better than expected, 10 wins isn't out of the question for this UVA team. It's not that they're that good, it's that they have one of the weakest schedules in the country. Their 3 toughest games (Miami, Pitt, and UNC) are all at home and their toughest non-conference game is at Illinois. I think they're most likely a 7-win team, but either way, Elliott should get off to a great start in Charlottesville.
The Hokies finally decided to move on from Justin Fuente last year and hired Brent Pry (our 4th new coach in the Coastal Division) from Penn State after being the defensive coordinator there since 2014. From what I've seen so far, this guy seems like a way better fit for Virginia Tech than Fuente ever was. He's bringing back the blue-collar, lunch pail attitude, and is actually trying to recruit in the state of Virginia. I think he may be able to wake a sleeping giant and get the Hokies back to the powerhouse they were from the late 90s through around 2011.
The offense last year was simply not good. While being extremely balanced, they were 12th in total offense in the ACC. They tried to run a read-option offense with the talent that would have fit a scheme that aired it out more. Well, all of the major skilled positions have moved on. Marshall transfer, Grant Wells, has been named the starting QB, and he showed that he can sling the ball during his time with the Thundering Herd, but he needs to limit the interceptions. His number 1 target is probably going to be another transfer in Jaden Blue, who comes in from Temple. Malachi Thomas is the leading returning rusher from a year ago, with only 440 yards, but he looked good in his time and is ready for more of a work load.
The defense will be centered around (I think 8th year Senior) linebacker, Dax Hollifield. A defense that was 5th in the conference in scoring, which was pretty impressive since they were on the field a ton last year. The linebackers and secondary were strong last year, and most of them return. If they can get some more pressure up front, this can be one of the better defenses in the conference this year.
I expect Virginia Tech to be better than they've been the past few years and for Pry to begin building a team that will compete for ACC Championships again, but the record may not show it this year. Having to play at Carolina, Pitt, and NC State is tough enough, but they also scheduled in-state road games against Liberty and Old Dominion, and have to play West Virginia. I think making a bowl game would be a successful season for them this year.
ACC Survival Pool
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