ACC Coastal Preview: Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, UNC, Miami

Any of these teams could win the Coastal. That seems like a cop out, but
it’s not necessarily a compliment. All of these teams have question
marks or flaws (or both). And so it came down to the ACC schedule, and
which team is perhaps best equipped to take the next step.

4. Virginia Tech (2012 Record: 7-6, 4-4 ACC; Russell Athletic Bowl, W 13-10 over Rutgers)

Why They’re Here: Since
this division is too close to call, essentially, someone has to be in
fourth. Virginia Tech always manages to find a way to have a good season
(with last year’s 7-6 being the notable exception), and this year
should be much better than last, both record-wise and just using the eye
test. But the Hokies play most of their tough games on the road. Their
first league road game is at Georgia Tech on a Thursday night (and on
just five days’ rest), and they also travel to Miami. The schedule
itself isn’t that bad — no Florida State and no Clemson — but losing
to two division rivals might be enough in this tight race.

Non-Conference Narrative Game:
Week 1. Atlanta. Defending national champion and likely preseason No.
1, Alabama. The last time Virginia Tech opened the season against a
high-profile non-conference foe was at FedEx Field against Boise State
in 2010 (Virginia Tech lost). It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the
Hokies can do anything, save actually winning the game (or perhaps
losing a close one), that would lead anyone to say the ACC is “back.”
Virginia Tech is one of the higher-profile programs in the ACC, and if
Alabama crushes them, it will be more proof of the SEC’s utter dominance
and of how far the ACC still lags behind. Even if a dominating victory
would be more or less the expected result, considering one time won the
national title last year and the other barely made a bowl game.  

Biggest Problem: The
offense. The Hokies are trying to make wholesale changes on that side
of the ball, adding a zone blocking scheme and generally trying to
inject toughness into the offensive line. But quarterback Logan Thomas
struggled at times last year with his decision-making, and he often had
to do way too much without a reliable running game. He lost some of his
best receivers, but there is still talent there. Generating a running
game and Thomas being careful with the football are both keys to this
season.

The Season Rides On: Beamerball. That’s not just
head coach Frank Beamer’s emphasis on special teams. It’s the defense
under he and Bud Foster, too. That’s been the identity of this program
for decades. And while it’s easy to blame Thomas for last year’s
struggles, the defense looked like a ghost of what Foster’s defenses
have been in the past. This program built its identity on its defense
and special teams, and the Hokies will need to get back to that.

Random Numbers:
Remember
Beamerball? If you’ve forgotten, it’s hard to blame you. Virginia Tech
has blocked just one punt against an FBS opponent since 2010 (Boise
State, in the opener). … Thomas needs just 922 yards this season to
pass the school record for career passing yards (Tyrod Taylor holds that
with 7,017 yards).

3. Georgia Tech (2012 Record: 7-7, 5-3 ACC; Sun Bowl, W 21-7 over USC)

Why They’re Here: Georgia
Tech is going to be a very dangerous team, but they might have one
tough road game too many. Every projected top-four team in the Coastal
avoids Clemson — except Georgia Tech. And the Yellow Jackets get the
Tigers in Death Valley, on a Thursday night. Yikes. That game could
decide the division if Georgia Tech can’t take care of business at Miami
(their other significant road game). But Georgia Tech has been just up
and down enough the past few years that it wouldn’t be a shock if they
beat a team like Clemson and lost, say, at home to Pittsburgh.

Non-Conference Narrative Game:
Only one of Georgia Tech’s non-conference games comes early this
season, and that will be hosting Elon. The Yellow Jackets travel to BYU
on October 12, so that one has potential. But yet again, it will likely
come down to SEC vs. ACC, which means that the matchup the final week of
the season — a home game against Georgia — will help drive the ACC
narrative. And let’s face it — if Georgia Tech has a mediocre year AND
gets pummeled by its in-state rival once again, fans are going to start
to get restless.

Biggest Problem: Wide receiver. Or a
lack thereof. All the Yellow Jackets need is one, really. Unfortunately,
one is all they had during spring practice. (Literally. Just one —
Darren Waller — was healthy.) And they only have two with any career
catches (Waller with eight and Anthony Autry with three). Quarterback
Vad Lee showed last year that he’s a true dual-threat quarterback, but
he’ll need to throw to someone who’s not a running back. A great wide
receiver in that offense can really stretch the field and make it almost
impossible to defend. Waller is the best threat to be that guy. At
6-foot-5, 228 pounds, he’s in the mold of some of the past Georgia Tech
greats. But he’ll have to step up and fill that role.  

The Season Rides On: The
defense. Things were so bad on that side of the ball a year ago that
defensive coordinator Al Groh was fired midseason after allowing an
average of 46 points during a three-game losing streak. (That streak
included a 49-28 loss — at HOME — to Middle Tennessee State.) After
Groh left, things got better but the defense was still inconsistent.
Now, Ted Roof brings his 4-3 scheme to Atlanta and he’ll have a lot of
talented veterans to work with. If they can play up to their potential,
Georgia Tech could very well end up winning the division.

Random Numbers: Georgia
Tech players with a total of 361 starts, fourth-most in all of FBS. …
The Yellow Jackets beat North Carolina in a shootout of sorts, 68-50, a
year ago. Georgia Tech’s basketball team scored more than that in just
11 of 31 games last season.

2. North Carolina (2012 Record: 8-4, 5-3 ACC; no bowl game due to NCAA sanctions)

Why They’re Here:
The Tar Heels would have won the Coastal Division and played in the ACC
title game a year ago had they not been for NCAA sanctions. They return
a lot of their crucial parts from a year ago, and this year’s slate is
relatively manageable. UNC’s road games are at Georgia Tech (coming off
of an open date), at Virginia Tech, at North Carolina State and at Pitt.
The latter two are just tricky enough that they could trip up the Tar
Heels, but they avoid the dangerous Atlantic Division games. Still,
traveling to both Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech could end up being the
difference in a tight division race.

Non-Conference Narrative Game:
Aug. 29, a Thursday night, 6:00, at South Carolina. It’s sure to be a
muggy evening, and the fans in Williams-Brice will be going absolutely
bonkers. Bryn Renner and the UNC offense, sans two of the top 30 or so
picks in last year’s NFL draft (one of which is right guard Jonathan
Cooper) will try to survive 80-90 snaps against Jadeveon Clowney. Um.
But again, if the Tar Heels’ high-powered offense is shut down by one of
the nation’s best defenses, it will be that SEC power always trumps
everyone else’s finesse/new-fangled offenses. Which, until proven
otherwise, is kind of true.

Biggest Problem: A bad defense
loses a few of its best players from a year ago and still has a ton of
question marks. In theory, UNC’s defense should be much better in Year 2
of the 4-2-5 scheme, but it didn’t seem like the Tar Heels got used to
it even as last year wore on. Georgia Tech put up 68 points against UNC,
the most allowed in school history, in November. A Maryland team with a
linebacker playing quarterback put up 38 points on UNC in the final
game of the year. This defense is going to have to get a lot better in a
hurry, and they have the talent/potential to do it. But seeing will be
believing with this bunch.

The Season Rides On: The UNC
offense staying as dangerous as it was last year without its best
weapon, Giovani Bernard (not to mention three offensive linemen,
including Cooper). But there is plenty of talent in the backfield and on
the offensive line still in Chapel Hill, and the Tar Heels should be
fine. With a year under head coach Larry Fedora’s up-tempo attack, Bryn
Renner — already one of the best quarterbacks in the league — should
continue to progress. The Tar Heels were able to outscore quite a few
teams last year, even when its defense struggled to stop opponents. If
they can continue to do that, they’ll be fine. But they can’t take a
step back.

Random Numbers: North Carolina’s five road
games this year are all against teams that went to a bowl game last
year. … Of the 308 points North Carolina allowed a season ago, 120 of
those were in the second quarter alone. And of the 487 points the Tar
Heels put up, they had at least 121 in every quarter except the fourth
(99). The defense allowed just 41 fourth-quarter points all of last
season.

1. Miami (2012 Record: 7-5, 5-3 ACC; no bowl game due to NCAA sanctions)

Why They’re Here:
The Hurricanes are essentially here by default, although they are going
to be a much-improved team this year. The schedule sets up very nicely
for Miami, though — trips to Chapel Hill and Florida State will be
tough, but the Hurricanes host Georgia Tech AND Virginia Tech. As long
as Miami takes care of business against the teams it should beat,
particularly at home, the Hurricanes should only take two ACC losses.
And that would give the other teams contending for the Coastal crown
very little margin for error.

Non-Conference Narrative Game:
Miami hosts Florida in Week 2. It’s the first matchup between these two
teams since 2008 (Florida won 26-3). You can pretty much scroll up
through all of the previous non-conference narrative games and repeat
those. But this one might just be the ACC’s best shot at a win over an
SEC school. Miami will be at home, and a much-improved team. Florida, in
case anyone forgot, was pretty much dominated by Louisville in the
Sugar Bowl a year ago. This is the one the ACC needs to take in the
first few weeks of the season, and frankly, Miami really needs a win
like this too.

Biggest Problem: The defense, especially
up front. Miami’s secondary wasn’t half bad last year, actually. But the
defensive line couldn’t get much pressure, if any, and allowed
opponents to run the ball seemingly at will against them. And it gave
quarterbacks all day to sit back and survey the field; even the best
corners and safeties in the world can’t do much in that situation. Miami
allowed nearly 218 yards per game on the ground last year (112th
nationally) and 486.4 yards total (116th). Without a +7 turnover margin,
things might have been uglier for Miami last year. But some of that is a
product of luck, and the defense – a year more experienced, if nothing
else – is going to have to be stouter.

The Season Rides On:
The offense’s ability to execute against good teams. Last year, Miami
put up plenty of points, passing the 35-point mark seven times and
scoring 132 points in the last three games. But in three games against
top-25 teams, Miami’s offense averaged 58.3 plays and 268.3 yards
compared to 71.4 plays and 497.4 in its other nine games. Time of
possession was a problem for Miami all year, too: the Hurricanes’
average of possession was 26:04, and they were over 30:00 just twice all
season. Former FSU recruiting coordinator James Coley will take over
the play-calling duties in Coral Gables this year, and Miami will need
to ride talented sophomore tailback Duke Johnson more this year and get
more clock-eating drives going.

Random Numbers: Miami
hasn’t had a 10-win season since 2003. This is certainly its best chance
since then. … Since 2010, Miami is just 2-7 against ranked teams. …
Miami will get to face former Big East opponent Pittsburgh in its
regular-season finale this year. The Hurricanes have won 15 of the last
16 and seven in a row against the Panthers, including a dominant 31-3
win in the last meeting (in 2010).