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How the ACC Coastal can silence critics, catch up to Atlantic Division

We're here to take up for the ACC Coastal, major college football's most bullied division.

The Coastal Division has been subject to denunciation for years inside the ACC and beyond its borders. A late-rising fan out west might awake each fall Saturday to contemptuous Twitter commentary and images of torched dumpsters to describe the Coastal’s latest letdowns.

It’s earned most of it, providing a milquetoast counterpart to an Atlantic Division that’s won five straight conference titles and houses three teams that reached the playoff and/or won a BCS bowl since 2012.

Earlier this week, colleague Andrea Adelson pointed out the Atlantic could have three 10-win teams and 50 percent of the College Football Playoff this coming season.

She also made note of how one division from each of the four Power 5 conferences with divisions dominates the Way-Too-Early 2016 rankings. Four of the Pac-12’s six teams reside in the North, and UCLA and USC brand-named themselves in after going a combined 16-11 in 2015. The SEC’s power resides in the West. All three ranked Big Ten East teams are ahead of Iowa, the lone West representative.

I wouldn’t take the undesirable position of shielding college football’s most sympathetic character if the Coastal wasn’t willing to help itself. But it was clear this offseason the division pulled the extinguisher pin and put out the dumpster inferno.

Miami opened up its checkbook for Mark Richt's homecoming. Virginia convinced Bronco Mendenhall to leave BYU and take his five double-digit-win seasons to resurrect the Cavaliers. The other half of the Commonwealth Cup made maybe the best hire of the season in Justin Fuente. Bud Foster is sticking around Blacksburg, too. They join two former Bobby Dodd coach of the year winners, a 2015 Paul “Bear” Bryant coach of the year finalist and a former Broyles Award winner (two counting UNC’s Gene Chizik, another 2015 hire).

What’s the next step for the Coastal to begin making national noise like the top of the Atlantic? The simple, long-term answer is recruit better. Duke (26th), Miami (16th) and North Carolina (28th) all have solid 2016 classes. The Hokies are 36th but should return to being a top-25 staple under Fuente.

As for the immediate future, Duke, Georgia Tech and North Carolina proved the last few seasons it’s not far from the Coastal outhouse to that mid-floor corner apartment. So, here’s where each Coastal team needs to improve most to win the division and knock off the Atlantic.

Duke: The Blue Devils, despite the recent success, still have little room for error. The offensive stars who changed the direction of the program left after 2014, meaning the defense needed to step up. They were fifth nationally in expected points added on defense through the first games but 121st over the final six of the regular season. Duke can’t keep giving up big plays on defense.

Georgia Tech: Most of the backfield returns, but it won’t mean much if the O-line doesn’t improve. The Jackets were first in 2014 in lowest percentage of rushes going for zero or negative yardage against Power 5 teams. They dropped to 30th in 2015. Georgia Tech hired a new co-offensive line coach Thursday.

Miami: Most of the offense returns, which means Richt, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and D-line coach Craig Kuligowski can focus on repairing Miami’s defensive image. A program with a tradition for ruthless defenses has been rather docile recently. If the D is back, the U will follow.

North Carolina: Baylor rushed for 645 yards without even the slightest threat of a passing attack. Clemson rushed for 319 yards the game before. It’s rather clear where the Tar Heels need to improve. Mitch Trubisky should at least be solid at QB.

Pittsburgh: Under Pat Narduzzi, the defense climbed 32 spots in efficiency. It should keep trending upward under Narduzzi. With the departures of offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and All-ACC receiver Tyler Boyd, the Panthers’ passing attack will need to develop. Boyd accounted for 91 of the 212 receptions last season.

Virginia: The losing records belie the talent on the roster as Mike London recruited well. But the Cavs lacked discipline. There are obvious holes on both sides of the football, but Mendenhall’s first order should be ending the penalties and turnovers.

Virginia Tech: The defense dipped last season and the group will suffer significant departures, but the Hokies need to find a consistent passing attack. Fuente, who groomed Andy Dalton and Paxton Lynch, has a trio of options in Brenden Motley, former top-five prep quarterback Dwayne Lawson and junior college transfer Jerod Evans to choose from. Nine offensive starters return.