- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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In the ACC, we didn’t have to wait until season’s end to get a taste of just how tough the job of the new College Football Playoff selection committee might be. We put our heads together to compile the conference’s preseason power rankings, and though we had a consensus on the top three spots, No. 4 was complete chaos.
Like the selection committee members, we each come armed with our own criteria for the No. 4 spot, so we figured it would be a worthy exercise to see just how the votes shook out.
Matt Fortuna picked Pitt: In a season in which the Coastal Division is wide open, things are set up to break nicely for a Pitt squad entering its second season of ACC play.
The Panthers finally have some program stability, as head coach Paul Chryst enters Year 3 with his fingerprints all over the program. They have a quarterback in Chad Voytik who showed plenty of promise in lifting the team to a Little Caesars Pizza Bowl win in December. They have strong running backs and a very experienced offensive line, which one has to figure will only be much better than it was a year ago. There is also, of course, sensational receiver Tyler Boyd.
The defense does have some question marks, particularly in the thin secondary, but the schedule sets up nicely for a possible run to Charlotte, N.C., as Pitt gets Virginia Tech and Duke at home and gets Boston College instead of Florida State as its rotating Atlantic opponent.
Andrea Adelson picked Louisville: The Cards are one of three teams in the ACC coming off consecutive double-digit win seasons. The other two have the first two spots in our power rankings. Though it is true Louisville might have racked up those wins in a weaker conference, there is no denying the talent that remains on this team as it transitions into a tougher league.
Louisville has one of the best receiver groups in the ACC, depth at running back (including former BCS national championship game MVP Michael Dyer), a veteran offensive line, a sack master in Lorenzo Mauldin, hard-hitting linebackers in Keith Brown and James Burgess, and a lockdown cornerback in Charles Gaines. Plus, new head coach Bobby Petrino has coached winners at all his previous stops, and took Louisville to a BCS game in his first stint with the Cards.
This team has the pieces in place to compete right away in the ACC.
Jared Shanker picked Virginia Tech: The Hokies won almost as many games in 2010 and 2011 (11 each year) as they did in 2012 and 2013 combined (13), but I'm still giving the benefit of the doubt to Beamer Ball: great special teams and great defense.
The special teams have been average over the past few seasons, but it's clear the recipe has worked in Blacksburg: eight consecutive seasons with double-digit wins from 2004-2011. The quarterback situation is once again shaky, but running back Trey Edmunds could be one of the ACC's top rushers by season's end. There is also a lot of pressure on Frank Beamer to win in 2014 because of the average seasons of late coupled with mediocre returns on the recruiting trail, but I think the heat will be a positive for Beamer and the Hokies. Rarely has Beamer's name been associated a list of coaches on the hot seat, so it could help light a spark within the program.
David Hale picked North Carolina: OK, I didn’t actually have the Tar Heels at No. 4 on my ballot (I went with Louisville) but that is the funny thing about how the voting went. There was a wide variety of input on the fourth spot, but North Carolina was No. 5 across the board. And perhaps that, more than anything, is the argument for why the Heels are the most deserving of the bunch.
Sure, North Carolina has some flaws. The offensive line has questions, the defensive line lacks depth and as coach Larry Fedora is quick to mention, this is a particularly young team. But compare the Heels to Pitt or Louisville or Virginia Tech (or Miami, for that matter) and there isn’t anyone with significantly fewer questions than UNC. What Fedora’s crew does have going for it, however, is last season's strong finish (6-1 down the stretch), talent and depth in several key areas, and playmakers aplenty.
In other words, we can all disagree about who might be a little better than North Carolina, but no one seems to be arguing that the Heels won’t be good. In the chaos that is the Coastal, that’s saying something.
9hDavid M. Hale