So who’s the favorite to win the Coastal Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2014? Well, if you ask seven different members of the media, you might very well get seven different answers.
That’s not entirely true…but it’s darn close. Taking a look at the preseason media poll released in Greensboro earlier this week, six of the seven schools in the division received at least one first-place vote. Compare that to the Atlantic Division polling, where Florida State received 109 of the 112 first-place votes. (Clemson received the other three.) To wonder why the voting was so tight is to not remember what happened in the division last year, when four teams finished within a game of each other at the top, with the fifth-place team (North Carolina) a field goal away in their regular-season finale against the eventual division champion (Duke) from forcing a five-way tie atop the standings to end the year. Oh, by the way, if you’re still in shock almost a whole year after it happened, let me reaffirm this to you: Duke University won the division title in football. You heard me right!
Miami, looking to regain its form from its halcyon days long ago (at least it feels like it’s long ago), was picked to win the division, yet they did not receive the most first-place votes. That honor went to Duke, who finished second in the poll. Virginia Tech, the team that would have made it to the ACC Championship Game in the five-way tiebreaker scenario had Duke lost to North Carolina, finished third in the poll, while the Tar Heels finished fourth, one single point behind the Hokies. All that is to say that the Coastal Division should be another fun roller coaster ride in 2014. Fun for the fans and the media, at least.
Along with 111 other media members in Greensboro, A Lot of Sports Talk had to somehow make sense of all of the parity that exists in this division and submit a ballot with a projection on how the Coastal would look at the end of the season. We did our best, but, in all honesty, we would be absolutely shocked if even two of the seven teams listed below, in our predicted order of finish, actually ended up at that same spot by season’s end. Enjoy the previews and the interviews we were able to conduct, as we talked to six of the seven head coaches in the division, and all of them were a joy to share time with.
Here goes nothing!!
**Teams are ranked in order of A Lot of Sports Talk’s ballot submitted to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Teams with the speaker logo next to its name have accompanying audio interviews from ACC Football Kickoff.
Outside of Florida State, there was no team playing better in the ACC during the second part of the season than the Tar Heels, and that run of form has a lot of experts talking about a possible special season in Chapel Hill. When you get a chance to talk with head coach Larry Fedora, you’ll quickly find out that he possesses the type of personality that, as they say, makes coffee nervous. (Listen to our interview below.) His passion has permeated throughout the program, and the stellar play of quarterback Marquise Williams in the second half of the season in place of the injured Bryn Renner is cause for even more optimism with the offense. Ask many coaches about the key to winning games and they’ll quickly point to winning the special teams battle, and Carolina may have the best overall special teams unit in the country. Freshman Ryan Switzer returned five punts for touchdowns last season as the Tar Heels finished first in the FBS in punt return average, fourth in punt return defense and 19th in kickoff returns in 2013. If Carolina is to fulfill a lot of people’s expectations – myself included – and become a national sleeper, it would have earned it, especially during a tough stretch in late September and early October; the Tar Heels play back-to-back road games against East Carolina (the Pirates hung 55 on UNC in an ECU victory last year) and Clemson, then come home to play Virginia Tech, then go to South Bend to play the Fighting Irish.
AUDIO: Interview with North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora[audio:https://s3.amazonaws.com/ALOST/Larry+Fedora+interview.mp3]
AUDIO: Interview with North Carolina defensive end/linebacker Norkeithus Otis[audio:https://s3.amazonaws.com/ALOST/ACC+Media+Days-Norkeithus+Otis+interview.mp3]
This, by far, is my “leap of faith” pick, as the Yellow Jackets come off a season where they allowed over 3,000 passing yards to its opponents and saw its offense sputter more times than Yugo on the highway. Also, their quarterback of the future, Vad Lee, decided to transfer after the season. But this is a program that has finished .500 or better in conference play for 19 consecutive seasons, and it’s hard for me to envision a Paul Johnson-coached team having two consecutive subpar seasons. Justin Thomas is in line to win the quarterback job, and he’s a former sprint champion in the state of Alabama. The defense, despite all the passing yards allowed, actually improved from 2012, and another improvement this season, along with a more consistent offense and option attack, should have the Ramblin Wreck back near the top of the ACC standings.
AUDIO: Interview with Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson[audio:https://s3.amazonaws.com/ALOST/Paul+Johnson+interview.mp3]
AUDIO: Interview with Georgia Tech linebacker Quayshawn Nealy[audio:https://s3.amazonaws.com/ALOST/Quayshawn+Nealy+interview.mp3]
Obviously, last season’s 8-5 record, capped off by a 30-point skinning at the hands of UCLA in the Sun Bowl, was a disappointment in Blacksburg, and losing Logan Thomas at quarterback has created more questions than answers with the offense. Michael Brewer, a transfer from Texas Tech, is expected to take over the reins of an offense that can only improve from last season. There’s a little irony in that Brewer, formerly with the Air Raid offense at Texas Tech, may finally get his chance to play quarterback at a school traditionally known for its punishing ground game. Head Coach Frank Beamer wants to establish the run even more this year. Trey Edmunds showed promise last season, including a 120-yard performance against Alabama and rushing for 226 yards in the last three regular-season games, but health became an issue at the end of the year. Beamer’s defense should be its strength, especially at the back end with sophomore cornerbacks Brandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller, both Freshman All-Americans last year. We’ll know how improved this team is when they take a visit to Columbus to face Ohio State on Sept. 6.
AUDIO: Interview with Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer[audio:https://s3.amazonaws.com/ALOST/ACC+Media+Days-Frank+Beamer+interview.mp3]
If last season could have ended in early November, then Miami would have officially announced themselves back on the national stage. But a 7-0 start quickly spiraled into a stretch where the Hurricanes lost four of their last six games, including blowout losses to Florida State and to Louisville in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Miami’s hot start was largely on the shoulders of running back Duke Johnson, who was on the fringes of Heisman Trophy talk before he broke his ankle in the Florida State game. Johnson, according to the Miami staff, is ready to go if the season started today, and that is necessary given the fact that the quarterback situation is a huge question mark. Ryan Williams, last season’s backup who showed promise when he got significant playing time, tore his ACL in April in a scrimmage, which might have opened the door for 2013 super prospect Kevin Olsen to win the job. Jake Heaps, who has played at quarterback at BYU and Kansas, transferred in to the program and is in the mix as well. In our opinion, Miami’s season, and whether it’s a successful one, boils down to five games: the home game against Florida State on Nov. 15 and four of their five road games on their schedule (Louisville, Nebraska, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech).
AUDIO: Interview with Miami head coach Al Golden[audio:https://s3.amazonaws.com/ALOST/Al+Golden+interview.mp3]
AUDIO: Interview with Mimai linebacker Denzel Perryman[audio:https://s3.amazonaws.com/ALOST/ACC+Media+Days-Denzel+Perryman+interivew.mp3]
This is the pick that I might regret the most, especially when getting a chance to talk with head coach David Cutcliffe in person. Not only is he an affable guy, but is one of the most knowledgeable men I’ve ever had a chance to talk with in sports. In our interview, he talked about how to build a winning culture, and he mentioned how his team was doing just that even when the actual win-loss record wasn’t reflective of that. Now that the Blue Devils are coming off their first 10-win season in school history, there’s no reason for Duke to rest on its laurels. Anthony Boone is back at quarterback, along with seven other returning starters on the offensive side of the ball, including all-conference performers in wide receiver Jamison Crowder and guard Laken Tomlinson – currently projected as a first or second-round draft pick in the NFL. Defensively, middle linebacker Kelby Brown was a tackling machine in 2013, and he’s back to anchor the defense. Compared to the teams ahead of Duke in my projections, the Blue Devils schedule is manageable, and a 4-0 start should be in order before a game in Miami on Sept. 27. Duke also ends its season with three consecutive home games, against Virginia Tech, North Carolina (Thursday) and Wake Forest. If they play their cards right, the so-called “geeks” will inherit the football earth once again.
AUDIO: Interview with Duke head coach David Cutcliffe[audio:https://s3.amazonaws.com/ALOST/David+Cutcliffe+interview.mp3]
In 2011, Virginia, under then second-year head coach Mike London, won eight games as the Cavaliers were one win away from an ACC Championship Game appearance and ended up in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The two seasons afterward have seen the Hoos win only six games combined, including a 2-10 season last year that caused many to speculate about London’s job status during Virginia’s nine-game losing streak to end the season. London is indeed back for a fifth season, and things should improve, with 17 returning starters and 53 returning lettermen. Despite the downtrodden past couple of seasons, the Cavs boast one of the league’s best players on both offense and defense, with running back Kevin Parks and safety Anthony Harris. Parks ran for 1,031 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, and he also showed his all-around skills by making 38 catches out of the backfield. Harris led the nation with eight interceptions, the most by a Cavalier player since former NFL standout Ronde Barber had eight picks back in 1994. If many of the young players who got experience in 2013 mature for this campaign, you may be looking at the most improved team in the conference. It may not look like that in the season opener, when Virginia plays host to UCLA, a team that will start out in the top 10 of many preseason polls.
AUDIO: Interview with Virginia head coach Mike London[audio:https://s3.amazonaws.com/ALOST/Mike+London+interview.mp3]
The rapport the quarterback Tom Savage and freshman wide receiver Tyler Boyd had last season could be only defined as special. Boyd had five 100-yard receiving games, caught 85 balls and ended the year with a 173-yard performance in Pitt’s Little Caesars Bowl win over Bowling Green. Pittsburgh also had going for them having the most dominant defensive player in the game in defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who won the Outland, Lombardi and Nagurski trophies last season. Boyd is back, but Savage and Donald are now in the NFL, and Pittsburgh’s chances of making it to a bowl game for a seventh straight season hinge on adequately replacing them. Chad Voytik is in line to start the season under center, and he gained valuable experience replacing an injured Tom Savage in the bowl game and led the Panthers on three scoring drives. Tailback James Connor rushed for 229 yards in that bowl win, and should also ease the load on Voytik in making the offense hum. Defense is where the most concern lies, especially with having to replace Donald. This team, looking at it, is better than the finish that I project them to have, but this is the nature of this division. It’s almost a certainty that the team that finishes in last place will be a surprise to a lot of people (same goes for who finishes first).
**To read our 2014 preview of the Atlantic Division, go to our ACC Kickoff Extravaganza: Overview/Atlantic Division page.
[Cover photo (David Cutcliffe) courtesy of Duke Photography]