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

Lauren Brownlow looks at the teams that should vie for the ACC Coastal Division crown.

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).

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