Full disclosure: Andrea Adelson and I have no idea who is going to win the Coastal Division this year. (Shocking, I know, in spite of our heaps of expertise.) Don’t believe anyone who tells you they do. There’s not a coach or player in this league who can figure out that division, which has turned into a showdown between two basketball schools.
AA and I both think Duke and North Carolina are the front-runners in the division, and we’re leaning toward picking the Blue Devils as the preseason winners. We’ve watched the ACC too long, though, to declare anyone king before, well, Nov. 29.
Based on what we know now, here’s a look at our top five contenders to win the division. Take a look, and then cast your own vote:
Duke: The Blue Devils had a special season last year that ended with the program’s first appearance in the ACC championship and a spot in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Coach David Cutcliffe has said that the 2013 season won’t be a flash in the pan, and he’s got good reason to believe it. Duke has 17 starters returning from a team that won a school-record 10 games last fall, including quarterback Anthony Boone, who is just one of five quarterbacks in the conference who started last year. Duke also returns Jamison Crowder, who set the school single-season record for pass receptions (108, also an ACC record), and three starters along the offensive line.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels ended 2013 with positive momentum, winning five of their last six regular-season games and punctuating the season with a 39-17 win over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. They return experience at quarterback with Marquise Williams, and they’ve got one of the top punt returners in the country in Ryan Switzer. There’s a lot of young talent on the roster that got valuable reps last fall, and the team should be even more cohesive now that coach Larry Fedora has been there for two seasons. If the Tar Heels can find some answers on their offensive line this spring, and get more out of their running game – and win at Duke – they could find themselves in Charlotte.
Pitt: The Panthers had an average first season in the ACC, finishing 7-6 with a bowl victory over Bowling Green. They’ve got to do better, though, against their own division. Pitt went 2-4 last year against the rest of the Coastal Division, beating Duke and Virginia in September. Quarterback Chad Voytik is the leading candidate to replace Tom Savage, and the Panthers will also sorely miss defensive tackle Aaron Donald and wide receiver Devin Street. They’ve got some special talent returning, though, in receiver Tyler Boyd and running back James Conner. They ranked 102nd in the country, though, in rushing yards, and constantly struggled to protect Savage. They’ve got to be better up front to be a contender.
Miami: There are two main storylines this spring for the Canes: Finding a new starting quarterback and getting better on defense. If Miami can figure out those two issues before the season opener against Louisville, they’ve got a chance to take the next step and play for the school’s first ACC title. Of course, neither of those are small tasks. Ryan Williams is the front-runner to replace Stephen Morris, and he has some dynamic players around him to make his job easier. Running back Duke Johnson is one of the country’s most exciting players, and the Canes also return wide receiver Phillip Dorsett and Stacy Coley. The defense should get a big boost from the return of linebacker Denzel Perryman, but Miami fans are expecting more from embattled coordinator Mark D’Onofrio.
Virginia Tech: Offense, offense, offense. The Hokies need to find it if they’re going to move up this list. Fifth-year senior Mark Leal is the front-runner to replace Logan Thomas this spring, but the quarterback position is hardly the only question facing coordinator Scot Loeffler this spring. Virginia Tech needs to get more out of its running game. It needs the wide receivers to be more physical, more consistent, and a deep threat must be found. It needs better blocking from the offensive line and fewer errors. Sure, the Hokies have some big shoes to fill on defense, but the standard has already been set under Bud Foster, and the expectation is to reload. If this season is going to be different for Virginia Tech, it’s on the offense to get them there.