2017 ACC Football Preview: Coastal Division

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, bowl teams, non-bowl teams and rebuilding. The tiers are fairly self-explanatory. Contenders means these teams will push for the division/conference title. Bowl bidders are expected to be in the conversation for a bowl bid, non-bowl teams aren’t. Rebuilding teams are in the process of attempting to get into contention. At the end, we’ll give you our thoughts on the team’s wins based on Bovada’s Win Totals for the season.

The Coastal is the easier of the two divisions in this conference, but it’s still plenty interesting. Almost every team in the division will be breaking in a new QB. The Hurricanes and Hokies look like the favorites, but it all depends on how quickly the QB situations become settled.

Contenders

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Ahmmon Richards #82 of the Miami Hurricanes. Credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Miami Hurricanes

The Hurricanes entered last season with high hopes as they had an experience laden team with a three year starting QB, Brad Kaaya, under center. They came out of the gates 4-0, but then dropped four straight games, three of those by a combined eleven points, including a one point loss to Florida State. This season, Kaaya is gone, but there’s a strong cast of returning starters and Miami could make a trip to the ACC title game if they develop a QB quickly.

The ‘Canes have three former three-star recruits at QB on the roster in junior Malik Rosier, sophomore Evan Shirreffs and freshman Cade Weldon. Freshman N’Kosi Perry was a four-star recruit in the 2017 class and he’ll battle for the job alongside the other three. Whoever wins will have last year’s top rusher, junior back Mark Walton, in the backfield with him and they’ll be protected by an offensive line that includes four starters and an LSU transfer in George Brown. The receiver spot is a little bit thinner as Stacy Coley and TE David Njoku departed for the NFL, but top receiver Ahmmon Richards is back for his sophomore year after an amazing debut freshman season (49 receptions 934 yards 3 TD). A lot depends on the QB play in terms of improving on last year’s numbers.

The defense under Manny Diaz in 2016 was one of the better units in the country allowing just 18.5 PPG and 346.8 YPG. The good news is, the front seven that allowed just 132 YPG on the ground returns intact. The bad news is the secondary loses three high quality starters (CB Corn Elder and safeties Rayshawn Jenkins and Jamal Carter) and will be on the younger side this year. Pressure from the front four will help out the back end and this unit has 31.5 out of the 37 sacks they recorded last year.

The ‘Canes get Virginia Tech and Notre Dame at home and their toughest road game will be against Florida State on September 16th. Both the Va. Tech and Notre Dame games are in the second half of the season when whoever wins the QB job will have half a season of starts under their belt. Even without an experienced QB, there’s enough here to think that the ‘Canes will hit the over. Over 9 wins.

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Travon McMillian #34 of the Virginia Tech Hokies. Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Virginia Tech Hokies

The Justin Fuente era got off to a good start last season with a 10-4 record, an ACC title game appearance, and a Belk Bowl victory. Year 2 will give us a chance to see how Fuente does with a less experienced team. Once again, they’re expected to contend in the division.

QB Jerod Evans left early for the NFL Draft which leaves a hole at the QB spot. Redshirt freshman Joshua Jackson is a former three-star recruit and will battle Nebraska transfer AJ Bush and true freshman (four-star) Hendon Hooker. Evans’ departure also hurts in the run game as Evans was the top rusher last season, but running back Travon McMillian (#2 671 yards 7 TD) is back and the Hokies will hope he can return to 2015 form (1,043 yards 5.2 YPC). A veteran offensive line that returns three starters should help with that. The other big question for this unit comes at receiver as Isaiah Ford, Bucky Hodges (TE) and Sam Rogers all depart. No. 2 receiver Cam Phillips (76 catches 983 yards 5 TD) is back, but with a new QB as well, the passing game may take a step back. Due to the less experienced passing game, I’d expect a drop from last year’s 35 PPG average.

Defensive coordinator Bud Foster enters his 23rd season with an experienced unit returning after ranking 28th in the country at 22.8 PPG allowed. He does have to replace three starting defensive linemen and safety Chuck Clark, but they have an experienced group of linebackers that combined for 284 tackles and 25 TFL last season. That veteran group should help as well as bringing back a pair of young defensive tackles that combined for 13.5 TFL last year. Foster’s defenses are consistently stingy and you can expect more of the same this season.

The schedule is favorable as they get Clemson at home, West Virginia at a neutral site and Miami on the road, but every game outside of that they should be favorites in. That said, they need to pull an upset to beat this number and not lose any of the other games, so I’m not necessarily comfortable with saying they’ll beat that total especially because of the inexperienced passing game. Push 9 wins.

Bowl Teams

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Qadree Ollison #37 of the Pittsburgh Panthers. Credit: Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Pittsburgh Panthers- O/U 7 wins

The Panthers were the lone team to beat the national champion Tigers last season and they had one of the best feel-good stories in the country in RB James Conner. They were explosive on offense and porous on defense en route to an 8-5 finish. This season, Coach Narduzzi has a ton of holes to fill on both sides of the ball including replacing Conner, who took the next step to the NFL.

QB Nathan Peterman was one of the less talked about QBs in the country but he was consistently steady for this Panthers group that averaged 40.9 PPG last season completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 2,855 yards and a 27-7 TD-to-INT ratio. He departs and in comes USC transfer Max Browne who will battle with former three-star recruits Ben DiNucci (redshirt sophomore), Thomas MacVittie (redshirt freshman) and Kenny Pickett (true freshman). They’ll have a veteran offensive line with three starters back in front of them and a RB in Qadree Ollison who had a 1,000 yard season in Conner’s absence in 2015. At wide receiver, top target Jester Weah is back along with 5’8″ multi-purpose weapon Quadree Henderson who averaged 10.5 yards per carry (631 yards) on the ground and 11 yards per reception (286 yards) last year. There’s good talent here, but 40 PPG is a high bar to reach. They’ll come in below that this year.

The defense was surprisingly porous last year for a group coached by Narduzzi, who’s considered one of the best defensive minds in the game. The main problem was the pass defense, as they allowed opponents to complete 63.8 percent of their passes for over 333 yards per game. Seven starters are gone from that unit including three along the defensive line. They’ll get some help from Tennessee and Penn State transfers Dewayne Hendrix and Kamonte Carter, but this unit is a big question mark.

Outside of early contests against Penn State and Oklahoma State and the Va. Tech, Miami games to end the year, Pitt’s schedule is manageable. They get NC State and UNC at home and face Ga. Tech, Syracuse and Duke on the road. However, like Va. Tech, they would have to pull an upset or win every game outside of the four games listed above to hit the over. They’re a bowl team, but I have them right at six wins. Under 7 wins.

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Credit: Cole Holcomb #36 of the North Carolina Tar Heels tries to stop Daniel Jones #17 of the Duke Blue Devils. Credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

North Carolina Tar Heels

The Tar Heels have experienced good success under Coach Fedora with only one losing season (2014, 6-7) in his five years here. Last year, their new QB Mitch Trubisky exploded into the national spotlight with an incredible campaign that ended with him being taken number two overall in the NFL Draft.  This year, Fedora needs to replenish multiple skill positions on offense, and the Tar Heels are likely to take a step back from last year’s eight wins.

To replace Mitch Trubisky, Fedora has multiple options at his disposal. A trio of redshirt freshman in Chaz Surratt, Nathan Elliott and Logan Byrd, along with LSU transfer Brandon Harris will compete for the job. The good news for the new QB is the offensive line returns three guys who started the final seven games. The bad news? The top two running backs and three of the top four wide receivers are gone. That’s a lot of inexperience. But, Fedora’s offense lends itself to big numbers and they’ve never scored less than 32 PPG in his tenure. So, expect a similar output this year.

On defense, things are a little more settled for coordinator John Papuchis in his first season. Seven guys are back from last years unit and they get DE Dajuan Drennon back after he missed much of last season due to injury. The biggest strength is the linebacker duo of Cole Holcomb and Andre Smith who combined for 228 tackles and 9 TFL last season. They’ll be helped out by safety Donnie Miles, who was number three on the team in tackles with 102 and leads a secondary that will look to create more turnovers after collecting just one interception against an FBS opponent last year.

The Tar Heels draw Louisville and NC State (away) out of the Atlantic, with intra-division games against Notre Dame, Va. Tech and Miami all coming in October over a four week stretch. That middle part of the season is brutal and while I think they’re a bowl team, like Pitt, I’m not sure they pull the upsets necessary to hit the over. Under 7 wins.

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Daniel Jones #17 of the Duke Blue Devils. Credit: Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Duke Blue Devils

Coach Cutcliffe had an impressive three-year run from 2013-15 as the Blue Devils racked up a 27-13 record with three bowl appearances (four straight if you include 2012). Last season, with a freshman QB, the Blue Devils struggled and finished 4-8. This year, the offense brings back seven guys while the defense is more concerning.

Duke is one of only two teams in this division with a returning starter at QB as Daniel Jones is back for his sophomore season following a freshman campaign in which he completed 62.8 percent of his passes for 2,836 yards and 16 TDs. Senior RB Shaun Wilson joins him in the backfield once more and will hope to have better numbers behind an offensive line with three starters back in the fold. Top receiver TJ Rahming (70 receptions 742 yards 1 TD) returns as well, which should make for a unit that tops last year’s 23.3 PPG average.

Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles has more work to do with just five starters back after his unit allowed 28.2 PPG last season. He has the benefit of top tacklers Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys returning, but loses three starters along the defensive line and in the secondary. How quickly those two groups get up to speed will determine whether or not they can match last year’s numbers.

The Blue Devils have just five road games this season and will likely be an underdog in just two of those. They do have to face Miami, Florida State and Pittsburgh all at home while drawing Northwestern and Baylor in the non-conference. The question is whether this will be more like the Duke teams of the 2012-15 run or of the first four years of Cutcliffe’s reign (15-33 from 2008-2011). I lean towards the former, putting them back in a bowl game. Over 5.5 wins.

Non-Bowl Teams

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Dedrick Mills #26 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Credit: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Paul Johnson and the Jackets had a nice rebound season in 2016, going 9-4 after a dismal 3-9 season in 2015. This year, Johnson has an experienced group (16 returning starters) but breaking in a new QB and a difficult schedule could keep them out of a bowl.

Three-year starting QB Justin Thomas departs after turning in a season in which he combined for 2,183 yards and 14 TDs. Junior Matt Jordan got some playing time last year and in 2015, so he’s had some in-game experience running Johnson’s offense which will help. He had sophomore Dedrick Mills (No. 1 rusher 771 yards 12 TD) in the backfield with him, behind an offensive line that should be more healthy than last year’s group. Despite the injuries they averaged 258 yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry last season, so those numbers are likely to improve with a healthier line. The top four receivers are back, though they aren’t targeted much in the triple option, they do provide explosiveness as all four guys averaged over 17 yards per catch.

The defense has eight guys back as well including the entire secondary and a pair of starters in the second level of the 4-2-5 with LB Brant Mitchell and NB Lawrence Austin back. The biggest problem last year was an inability to get after the QB as they recorded just 18 sacks for the season. The defensive line loses a pair of starters including one, NT Patrick Gamble, who had 7.5 of those sacks last season.

The Jackets open up with a “neutral site” game against Tennessee in Atlanta, but that’s essentially a home game considering Tech’s campus is all of two miles from the new Falcons stadium. Other than that game, they draw road trips against Miami and Clemson along with home games against Pitt, UNC and Va. Tech. If they handle Pitt and UNC at home, they clear this number. If they don’t? Well, it’s a long season in all likelihood. Under 6.5 wins.

Rebuilding

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Quarterback Kurt Benkert #6 of the Virginia Cavaliers. Credit: Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

Virginia Cavaliers

The Cavaliers haven’t had a winning season since 2011 and are coming off a 2-10 record in 2016. Bronco Mendenhall enters his second year with a veteran defense, but an inexperienced offense. Combine that with a tough schedule and it could be another long year in Charlottesville.

Like Duke, UVA has a returning starter at QB in senior Kurt Benkert (56.2% 2,552 yards 21 TD 11 INT). He has his top two receiving targets back in junior Olamide Zaccheaus and senior Doni Dowling, but both the offensive line and running back spot have key departures. At running back, both Taquan Mizzell and Albert Reid are gone, leaving behind junior Jordan Ellis who carried just 14 times for 61 yards last season. In the trenches, the Cavaliers have just two returning starters, but they do add a couple of graduate transfers in guards Colin McGovern and John Montelus (Notre Dame) and tackle Brandon Pertile (Oklahoma). Those departures would seem to bode poorly for the run game, but UVA averaged just 114 YPG on the ground last year anyway so, those numbers could go up. Still, I wouldn’t expect too much improvement out of this group in the PPG category (22.5 last year).

The defense will hope to be much stingier with eight starters back from last year’s group that allowed 33.8 PPG and 446.6 YPG. The star is MLB Micah Kiser who racked up 134 tackles with 6.5 sacks and 7 PBU last season. In the second year under the defensive minded Mendenhall, improvement is expected.

The schedule is where the Cavs run into problems. They have to travel to Boise State in the non-conference along with a home date against Indiana. In conference, they have road games against UNC, Pitt, Louisville and Miami, with a home date against the rival Hokies to end the year. That’s seven games that look like potential losses without even considering home dates with Duke, Boston College and Georgia Tech. Mendenhall will have these guys taking a step towards respectability after last year’s 2-10 season, but not enough of one to hit the over. Under 5 wins.

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