ACC Coastal preview: Virginia, Pittsburgh, Duke

It’s that time of year … when baseball’s All-Star break highlights the slowest week on the sports calendar.

It’s also approaching that time when each conference holds its annual media days in the lead-up to college football. Which means — that’s right — it’s preview time! Watch list time! Projected league standings/All-Conference/All-America/(Insert Name) Award Watch List time!

So in reverse order of projected Coastal Division finish, we’ll kick off the ACC preview with the likely bottom three finishers:

7. Virginia (2012 Record: 4-8, 2-6 ACC)

Why They’re Here: Um, does anyone want to play quarterback at Virginia? No, seriously. Michael Rocco and Phillip Sims split time at quarterback last year, and both have now transferred.

Virginia has some talented alternatives (sophomore David Watford and redshirt freshman Greyson Lambert), but if the weird quarterback rotation head coach Mike London used last year resurfaces in 2013, their talent may not matter.

Virginia hired Steve Fairchild (who was with the Chargers last year) as the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach in January, and he’ll have to install a new system with a relatively new quarterback. London is doing some big-time things in recruiting, but it’s going to take some time for this program to fully transition back to what it once was.

Non-Conference Narrative Game: Virginia opens its 2013 schedule by hosting BYU in Week 1 and … Oregon in Week 2. Yikes. Now, Virginia is supposed to lose those games; but a Sept. 21 matchup against VMI (FCS opponent) looms, and that is a must-not-lose-please-and-thank-you game. Like, do not lose that game. Likely, though, if the Cavaliers get humiliated in their first two games, that will be damage enough.

Biggest Problem: Consistency. Here’s some fun with transitive property: Last year, UVa was beaten soundly at Duke (42-17), then later went on the road to N.C. State (a team that knocked off Florida State) and won, 33-6.

This is why the ACC cannot have nice things. Still, the Cavaliers did show potential in wins like that, and the next week against Miami. This team is young, but talented and if they can string success together, there’s no telling what they can do. But that’s a big if, especially this year.

The Season Rides On … How quickly the young defense can progress. Holding a team like N.C. State to just six points — at home, no less — is nothing to sneeze at. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, they allowed 35 or more points five times and 40 or more four times.

Oh, and the Virginia defense only forced a grand total of 12 turnovers last year. Twelve. In 12 games. That’s almost impossible to do, seemingly. (And just four of those were interceptions.) There’s some bad turnover luck there, to be sure, but there’s a lot of work still to do defensively.

Random Numbers: Cavaliers fans already know this statistic, but considering how topsy-turvy the league has been, it’s mind-boggling to think that Virginia has not beaten Virginia Tech since 2003. Yes, Virginia Tech has been the more consistent program, but, um, James Madison has a win over Virginia Tech in that span.

And from 2009-11, the Hokies won the three games by a combined score of 117-20. Last year, Virginia lost 17-14, so … progress? Mike London will be in his fourth year as head coach at UVa. His records have been, in order, 4-8, 8-5, 4-8. That’s certainly strange, to say the least.

6. Pittsburgh (2012 Record: 6-7, 3-4 Big East) (BBVA Compass Bowl, L 17-38 to Ole Miss)

Why They’re Here: With all of the turnover and instability surrounding the program in the last few years, there’s just no way to know if this will be the Pitt team that nearly knocked off Notre Dame or the one that lost its opener to Youngstown State.

Pitt does have seven home games, which is nice. And it could very well be the Panthers hit their stride late; they close with three of four at home (Notre Dame, North Carolina and Miami). So it’s possible they finish higher, but that stretch will decide it.

Non-Conference Narrative Game: Since most ACC narratives are established early in the year, it would seem to be Pittsburgh’s home game against New Mexico on Aug. 14 — 12 days after the Panthers’ season/ACC opener against Florida State.

It certainly couldn’t hurt the league for Pittsburgh to win that one. But an Oct. 26 trip to Navy — oddly-timed in the middle of the season, and against an unconventional offense — might be more likely to trip up the Panthers. It’s not an easy game for any team, but losing that one would mean more pointing and laughing at the ACC.

Biggest Problem: Basically, the entire offense. Or most of it. Rutgers transfer Tom Savage is going to get another shot at being a starting quarterback, but it didn’t end well for him at his last stop. Or his last few stops, for that matter.

Savage transferred from Rutgers, then to Arizona, then  tried to go back to Rutgers, and now he’s at Pitt for his final season. No matter how good Savage is this year, though, it may not matter, if he doesn’t have a ton of play-making weapons and standing behind a shaky offensive line. All of which are true.

The Season Rides On … Pitt’s defense. The offense isn’t going to be trustworthy enough, especially early, for Pitt to be able to win games with that alone. But the Panthers return nine defensive starters from a unit that finished 17th in the nation last year in total defense, and that was in spite of the fact that it didn’t always get a ton of support from the Panthers’ offense.

Of course, that lack of support could very well be worse this year.

Random Numbers: In the last three years, Pitt has had six (!!!) different head coaches. This will be the second season under Paul Chryst, thankfully.

On a related note, Pitt has two true seniors on the roster this year. TWO! … Despite the offensive trouble Pitt had, starting QB Tino Sunseri went nine games without throwing an interception. He was sacked a ridiculous 38 times.

5. Duke (2012 Record: 6-7, 3-5 ACC) (Belk Bowl, L 34-48 to Cincinnati)

Why They’re Here: I believe in Duke football! In all seriousness, the Blue Devils’ non-conference slate doesn’t present a ton of problems (North Carolina Central, at Memphis, Troy and Navy); and if Duke can find two other ACC wins, the Blue Devils will make back-to-back bowl games for the first time in program history.

That’s not a typo. Last year’s Belk Bowl trip (to nearby Charlotte) was Duke’s first since 1994.

Non-Conference Narrative Game: This is probably at Memphis in Week 2. It wasn’t long ago that Duke and Memphis were fighting it out for worst BCS program status. Now that Duke is no longer in the running for that, Memphis seemingly wants to make sure it keeps that title.

But it’s not like it’s routine for Duke to go on the road and win against anyone, even a hapless Memphis squad. Duke will need to get this win — preferably convincingly — to prove the ACC is for real because of its depth.

Biggest Problem: The secondary. Duke has a lot of young talent there, and the Blue Devils were hit with a ton of injuries to that unit alone a year ago. But Duke was still 11th in the league in pass defense, surrendering nearly 268 yards per game through the air, and dead-last in pass efficiency defense.

Senior cornerback Ross Cockrell had a great year, but he’s going to need help. Duke was absolutely torched through the air far too often a year ago.

The Season Rides On … Anthony Boone. The junior quarterback has a lot more experience than most first-year starters do, and that should work to his advantage. He’s more mobile than his predecessor, Sean Renfree, but the staff believes he’s more than ready to take over.

If he is, and he stays healthy, a more manageable schedule has Duke in great shape.

Random Numbers: Reigning ACC Coach of the Year David Cutcliffe is entering his sixth season at Duke. In his first five, he has won 21 games. Which is 11 more than Duke had won in the previous eight seasons combined before he got there.

Cutcliffe’s Duke teams are 1-18 in the month of November. This year, though, the Blue Devils could change that — with the final four games taking place in-state … with home tilts against N.C. State and Miami and road trips to Wake Forest (where Duke won in 2012) and North Carolina (whom the Devils beat last year).