ACC college football preview: Breaking down the wide-open Coastal DivisionESPN PLUS $ MATERIAL
With football conferences now allowed to eschew divisions in the name of a "permanent rivals, heavily rotated schedules and the top two teams in the conference championship game" era, the ultimate parity of the ACC Coastal division could soon be a thing of the past.
Overall, this shift is welcome: The heavy rotations mean big conferences will actually feel like conferences -- North Carolina and Wake Forest won't have to arrange a nonconference game just to see each other again -- and putting the two best teams in the conference title game makes a lot of sense for College Football Playoff stakes. Plus, it was always unfair that some programs randomly landed in the Florida State- and Clemson-dominated Atlantic division while peers of similar stature had a chance to win in the less-top-heavy Coastal.
Still, one cannot say that the Coastal has lacked charm. All seven teams won a title between 2013 and 2019, an absolutely perfect display of parity. It is one of a kind, and hey, it's not dead yet. Defending champ Pittsburgh is replacing important pieces, Miami remains a mystery, and SP+ projects five teams within 1.8 average wins atop the division. Things could get weird once again.
Let's preview the ACC Coastal!
Every week through the offseason, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 131 FBS teams. The previews will include 2021 breakdowns, 2022 previews and burning questions for each team.
Earlier previews: MWC West | MWC Mountain | AAC (Nos. 6-11) | AAC (Nos. 1-5) | MAC East | MAC West | Sun Belt West | Sun Belt East | Conference USA (Nos. 6-11) | Conference USA (No. 1-5) | Independents | Pac-12 South | Pac-12 North | ACC Atlantic
2021 recapThe 2021 campaign featured surprises but lacked drama. Pitt was voted fourth in the preseason, but thanks to another stellar defense and a breakout senior year by quarterback Kenny Pickett (third in the Heisman voting), Pat Narduzzi's Panthers won the division by two games and came within seven points of an unbeaten regular season.
The three projected favorites -- North Carolina, Miami and Virginia Tech -- all disappointed, going a combined 19-19 overall. UNC, voted into the preseason top 10 for the first time since 1997, fell victim to dreadful defense and inconsistent offense. Miami couldn't rely on its defense to buy time while freshman quarterback Tyler Van Dyke found his footing. Virginia Tech's defense couldn't pick up the slack for an offense that topped 30 points only three times.
Miami and Tech fired head coaches Manny Diaz and Justin Fuente, respectively, and UNC head coach Mack Brown hired a new defensive coordinator. The theme continued further down in the standings: Virginia's Bronco Mendenhall and Duke's David Cutcliffe both are gone after frustrating seasons, while Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins made major staff changes to buy himself another year.
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The Panthers are nearly guaranteed to regress offensively. Will that let someone else back in the race? If so, who will it be?
Burning questionsCan Pitt replace Kenny Pickett and Jordan Addison? There's a lot to like about Pitt heading into 2022. Ninety-nine percent of last year's offensive line snaps and 96% of carries are back. There's tons of senior leadership on both lines, plus star power from defensive end Habakkuk Baldonado, defensive tackle Calijah Kancey and left tackle Carter Warren. There's a strong spine of middle linebacker SirVocea Dennis and safeties Erick Hallett and Brandon Hill.
After establishing themselves as a perpetual 7-6 team through Narduzzi's first seven seasons, the Panthers combined experience with sudden elite play from Pickett and Addison. The culture and defensive depth remain, but Pickett and Addison are obviously massive losses. Narduzzi brought in USC transfer Kedon Slovis to battle Nick Patti for the starting quarterback job; Slovis was one of the nation's better quarterbacks as a freshman in 2019 but slipped to 74th in Total QBR last year.
A receiving corps by committee will try to help new coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. account for the 100 catches, 1,593 yards and 17 touchdowns that Addison takes to USC. No. 2 receiver Jared Wayne returns, and young players tight end Gavin Bartholomew and slot man Jaylon Barden showed potential in small roles. Transfers Konata Mumpfield (751 yards at Akron last season) and Bub Means (19.6 yards per catch as a Louisiana Tech freshman) could be asked to make big contributions quickly. With backs Vincent Davis, Israel Abanikanda and Rodney Hammond Jr. all running behind an excellent line, Slovis will have a strong run game to lean on when asked. But the passing game is what made Pitt a different team last year. We'll see if there's a little drop-off or a lot.
If Pitt isn't the favorite, is it Miami? North Carolina? Things could have turned out very differently for Miami last season. Star quarterback D'Eriq King rushed back from a 2020 knee injury, but he struggled, then was lost for the season to a shoulder injury three games in. Van Dyke beat out blue-chip freshman Jake Garcia for the starting job, but Miami lost a couple of tight games while he was getting his footing. From Oct. 23 onward, Miami went 5-1 and Van Dyke ranked fifth nationally in Total QBR, but the damage from a 2-4 start doomed Diaz. And it could benefit new head coach Mario Cristobal and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, who moved south from Michigan.
Van Dyke, slot man Xavier Restrepo and tight end Will Mallory could form the components of a strong passing game, though we'll see if Cristobal, who favors the physical game, has what he wants in backs Jaylan Knighton and Henry Parrish Jr. (via Ole Miss) and a reasonably young line. But after last year's defense cratered -- the Canes fell from ninth in defensive SP+ in 2019 to 51st -- Cristobal dipped heavily into the transfer portal. As many as six transfers could potentially start for coordinator Kevin Steele, including tackles Akheem Mesidor (West Virginia) and Antonio Moultrie (UAB), linebacker Mitchell Agude (UCLA) and corner Daryl Porter Jr. (WVU). There's a lot of change here, but there's a lot of proven talent, too. We'll see if the latter trumps the former.
Meanwhile, last year was unquestionably a missed opportunity for Mack Brown's Tar Heels. The defense fell apart, and the offensive line couldn't protect star quarterback Sam Howell against disruptive opponents. (Howell also frequently scrambled into pressure.) As they attempt a rebound, they have two major questions to answer:
1. Does the offense still have what coordinator Phil Longo needs? Howell was a spectacular tone-setter for the second Mack Brown era, but now it's up to either Jacolby Criswell or Drake Maye to take the Heels to another level. Whoever wins the starting job will inherit one of the most thrilling receivers in college football. Josh Downs went for 101 catches and 1,335 yards out of the slot, and batterymates Antoine Green, Kamari Morales and Justin Olson also return. But a sketchy line must replace three starters, and 1,000-yard rusher Ty Chandler is gone, too. This offense must maintain a high level with lots of new pieces.
2. Was Gene Chizik the right pick? Last season's defensive collapse, from 53rd to 101st in defensive SP+, was brought about in part by youth and injury. Nineteen players recorded at least 200 snaps, and 15 return, including high-level disruptors in tackle Myles Murphy and corner Tony Grimes. That should all but assure a certain level of improvement.
But at the coordinator level, Brown repeated one of his tendencies from the end of his Texas era. When a young coordinator (in this case, Jay Bateman) failed him, Brown replaced him with an old friend. The 60-year-old Chizik returns to coaching after five years as an SEC Network analyst. Per SP+, he hasn't been part of a top-40 defense since 2006, his last season as Brown's coordinator at Texas. He has experience and quality recruiting rankings at his disposal. But is he the right guy for the job?
Is Virginia's broken defense a short- or long-term fix? We came to expect certain things from a Bronco Mendenhall team over time. At BYU and Virginia, his defenses were usually stellar: top 50 in defensive SP+ 11 times between 2006 and '18, top 25 four times. But the script flipped late in his UVA tenure. His Cavaliers ranked higher on offense than defense for each of his last three years, eventually drifting to extremes of eighth in offensive SP+ and 100th in defensive SP+ last fall.
Longtime Dabo Swinney assistant Tony Elliott inherits an odd team. Quarterback Brennan Armstrong returns after an outstanding season (4,449 passing yards, 449 non-sack rushing yards, 40 combined touchdowns) and brings back his three leading receivers in Keytaon Thompson, Billy Kemp IV and deep threat Dontayvion Wicks. But last year's top six linemen are all gone -- junior tackle Jonathan Leech is the only returnee who took more than 20 snaps -- as is efficiency back Wayne Taulapapa. Elliott had to improvise a run-heavy attack last season at Clemson, as quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei lost the script a bit; in Charlottesville, Elliott and coordinator Des Kitchings will be dealing with the exact opposite.
Defensive coordinator John Rudzinski, meanwhile, will be working with a unit that suddenly appeared devoid of high-level talent and must fill holes both at outside linebacker and throughout the secondary. Granted, he comes from Air Force, where he turned a two-star two-deep into a top-40 defense last season; it still might take him a while to get things turned around, however. If lower-level stars, such as ends Kameron Butler (Miami-Ohio) and Paul Akere (Columbia), can click immediately, that would help. Butler was one of the best ends at the Group of 5 level last season.
Does Virginia Tech have ... enough talent? In his last two full seasons in Blacksburg, former Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente signed classes ranked just 62nd and 45th overall. You can almost count the number of former four-star recruits on the roster with one hand. It seemed Fuente stopped signing many high-level recruits and struggled to hold on to the ones he had. The Hokies went just 25-25 in his final four seasons, almost perfectly mediocre within a perfectly mediocre division, and he was shown the door. Former Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry takes over and inherits a lumpy roster that had too many players in some positions and not nearly enough in others.
Pry's first Tech roster isn't totally devoid of talent or experience. Dax Hollifield and Alan Tisdale headline what should be an excellent linebacking corps -- something Pry, a longtime linebackers coach, knows what to do with -- and end TyJuan Garbutt and safeties Chamarri Conner and Nasir Peoples could headline a solid pass defense.
On offense, transfers Grant Wells (Marshall) and Jason Brown (South Carolina and Saint Francis) are battling for the starting quarterback job. And while the run game will lean on youngsters, some of those players -- namely tackle Parker Clements, guard Kaden Moore and running back Malachi Thomas, all sophomores -- have pretty high-end talent. If Pry's defensive prowess combines with an offense that can run the ball just well enough to open up deep shots for Wells (presumably) and receiver Kaleb Smith, there are plenty of winnable games on Tech's schedule. But there are also lots of losable games if neither unit is up to snuff.
Will Geoff Collins' Hail Mary work? Hired to replace option-dependent Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech in 2019, Collins was always going to need some time to craft a more modern program. But three years in, he has a 9-25 record, and after jumping from 111th to 75th in his second season, his Jackets stumbled back to 96th in 2021 and lost a majority of their most talented players to either graduation or the transfer portal. His fourth Tech team currently ranks 118th in my returning production rankings; only five returnees took more than 400 snaps in a Tech uniform last year -- three on offense and two on defense.
There's just as much turnover on staff, where Collins brought in six new assistants, including former Notre Dame and Tulane offensive coordinator Chip Long. Collins also dipped heavily into the portal, focusing on the secondary (five newcomers), offensive line (four) and skill corps (four) and bringing in a pair of quarterbacks -- Akron's Zach Gibson and Clemson's Taisun Phommachanh -- to battle Jeff Sims for the starting job. By far the most proven transfer is one from last year: defensive end Keion White, who recorded 19 tackles for loss in 2019 but missed 2021 because of an ankle injury.
This is a whole lot of change. Collins had almost no choice but to give it a shot after three seasons of failing to build depth or a culture of success. A Hail Mary almost never works, and Georgia Tech's schedule is brutal: It features five projected top-20 teams (three in the first five games) and ranks as the seventh-hardest overall at the moment. Odds certainly favor Tech bringing in a new coach for 2023, but huge chemistry experiments work just often enough that the Yellow Jackets could be interesting to follow this season. For a while, at least.
Is the Duke job as hard as it was 14 years ago? One of my go-to references for talking about difficult football jobs is the good old "pushing the boulder up the hill." You can indeed get the boulder rolling, but the moment your momentum slows, it's going to run you over and roll all the way back to the bottom. David Cutcliffe's time at Duke is the ultimate case in point.
The four years before Cutcliffe's arrival (2004-07): 4-42 record (.087 win percentage), 106.0 average SP+ ranking
Cutcliffe's first four years (2008-11): 14-33 (.298), 88.8 average ranking
Cutcliffe's next eight years (2012-19): 57-46 (.553), 62.5 average ranking
Cutcliffe's last two years (2020-21): 5-18 (.217), 109.0 average ranking
After a 3-3 start in 2021, the Blue Devils lost their last six games by an average score of 51-14. The boulder was all the way at the bottom of the hill again.
Power to Mike Elko for deciding he could get it rolling all over again. The 44-year-old spent the past 13 seasons as an FBS defensive coordinator, most recently at Texas A&M, and he is evidently unafraid of a challenge.
His first Duke team has a high-end slot receiver in Jalon Calhoun, veterans on the offensive line, solid pass-rushers in end R.J. Oben, tackle DeWayne Carter and linebacker Shaka Heyward and ... I'm not sure what else. Coordinator Kevin Johns, a spread offense old hand, will choose between sophomores Riley Leonard and Jordan Moore at quarterback, and a lot of similarly inexperienced players will need to step up throughout the depth chart. Duke is a projected double-digit underdog in nine games. Forget the win total -- if we catch a few glimpses of the next decent Duke team this fall, the season was a success.
My 10 favorite playersQB Tyler Van Dyke, Miami. During Miami's 5-1 finish, Van Dyke compiled a 66% completion rate, an average of 14 yards per completion and a 20-to-3 TD-to-INT ratio. Quite a gift for Cristobal to inherit.
QB Brennan Armstrong, Virginia. Another gift for another first-year coach. Armstrong threw for 300-plus yards in 10 of his 11 games last season, and if -- IF -- his new line gives him time, his senior year could be a lot of fun.
SLOT Josh Downs, North Carolina. In his first year as WR No. 1, he gained at least 70 yards 10 times and at least 120 five times. He might be the best "take a short pass a very long way" player in college football.
ATH Keytaon Thompson, Virginia. The last UVA staff just listed Thompson as "Football Player" on the depth chart. The former quarterback averaged 12.7 yards per catch and 6.3 yards per rush, and it would be a disservice if the new staff doesn't use him in similarly creative ways.
RG DJ Scaife Jr., Miami. According to Sports Info Solutions, the 314-pound senior from Miami blew three blocks all of last season. Three! Of 788!
DE Habakkuk Baldonado, Pitt. Pitt has become a reliable producer of pass-rushing talent, and Baldonado became the latest star in 2021, taking part in 18 tackles for loss, sacking the quarterback nine times and forcing 15 incompletions.
DE Keion White, Georgia Tech. White's 2019 season at Old Dominion: 19 tackles for loss and 23 run stops. If he finds fifth gear again after an injury year, he could be a transformative presence up front for the Ramblin' Wreck.
LB Dax Hollifield, Virginia Tech. Hollifield committed to play for legendary defensive coordinator Bud Foster and will finish his career playing for Pry, a former Foster graduate assistant. He set career records for TFLs and sacks last season and could do it again under Pry.
LB Shaka Heyward, Duke. Heyward led the Blue Devils in tackles, tackles for loss and run stops. He was also their best blitzer and best linebacker in coverage. Whatever he's doing leaves a hole elsewhere in the Duke defense.
CB Tony Grimes, North Carolina. The former blue-chipper reclassified and played as an ultra-young freshman in 2020. As a freshman-aged sophomore in 2021, he broke up eight passes and allowed a 54.2 QBR against most teams' No. 1 receivers. With increasing maturity, we could soon see increasing dominance.
Honorable mention: QB Kedon Slovis (Pitt), QB Grant Wells (Virginia Tech), SLOT Xavier Restrepo (Miami), WR Antoine Green (North Carolina), SLOT Jalon Calhoun (Duke), DE Kameron Butler (Virginia), DT Calijah Kancey (Pitt), LB SirVocea Dennis (Pitt), CB Tyrique Stevenson (Miami), CB Dorian Strong (Virginia Tech)
AnniversariesIn 1952, 70 years ago, Bobby Dodd and Georgia Tech peaked. In 1951, the Ramblin' Wreck had jumped to 11-0-1 and fifth in the AP poll. They followed that up with perfection. The 1952 squad went 12-0, allowed only two teams to stay within 13 points (Florida and Alabama) and claimed a share of the national title with Michigan State. Dodd would engineer four more top-10 finishes before his retirement in 1966, but the program hasn't enjoyed another perfect season since.
In 1982, 40 years ago, Pitt started out No. 1. In an era dominated by blue bloods, Pitt emerged as the nation's top upstart. The Panthers came out of nowhere to win the 1976 national title, then enjoyed five more top-10 finishes in the next six seasons. They went 11-1 in 1981, spending the last month of the regular season at No. 1 before a devastating blowout loss to Penn State eliminated their title hopes. But a season-ending Sugar Bowl win over Herschel Walker and Georgia, plus the return of stars such as quarterback Dan Marino and all-world linemen Jimbo Covert and Bill Fralic, got the hype machine rolling again for 1982.
Three September wins over ranked teams kept the hype moving apace, but the Panthers collapsed late, losing at home to unranked Notre Dame and finishing with losses to Penn State and SMU. They eked out a No. 10 finish but haven't finished in the top 10 since.
In 1987, 35 years ago, Frank Beamer's Virginia Tech remodeling job began. The former Virginia Tech cornerback had just taken Murray State to the I-AA playoffs but came back home to help guide his program through a severe scholarship hit stemming from his predecessor's NCAA violations. He won just 24 games over his first six seasons in charge and didn't establish any particularly high level until 1993. But when the breakthrough began, it didn't stop: The Hokies enjoyed 16 ranked finishes from 1993 to 2011, along with shares of seven Big East and ACC titles.
In 1997, 25 years ago, Mack Brown led North Carolina to its best season in 49 years. As with Beamer, Mack Brown built slowly after taking the UNC job in 1988; he went 2-20 in his first two seasons, in fact, before improving the Heels' win total every year from 1990 to 1993. A fully stocked UNC roster put together its best back-to-back performance ever in 1996 and '97, going 10-2 and finishing 10th, then spending more than half of 1997 in the top five, losing only to No. 3 Florida State and finishing sixth. It remains the program's second-best performance on record, behind only Carl Snavely's No. 3 finish in 1948.
In 2002, 20 years ago, Miami's winning streak hit 34 games. After winning four national titles from 1983 to '91, The U had to battle through sanctions and scholarship restrictions. After Butch Davis took over in 1995, Miami settled into an eight-wins-a-year average over a five-year span.
The program's second peak, however, began in 2000. The Canes went 11-1 and nearly played for the national title, then ran away with everything in 2001, going 12-0. They were equally talented in 2002 and won their first 12 games by an average of 42-18. They hadn't lost a game since early 2000. It seemed like Oklahoma's record of 47 straight wins was within reach. Alas ...
In 2007, 15 years ago, Chris Long took over college football. Long was so good, Virginia retired his number before his college career was even over. After jumping from two to 10 to 12 tackles for loss over his first three seasons, the eventual two-time Super Bowl champion had one of the best senior seasons you'll ever see. He recorded 14 sacks among 19 tackles for loss and keyed a dominant Hoos defense. Despite a terribly mediocre offense, Al Groh's Cavaliers went 9-4 and humiliated Miami in the Canes' final home game at the Orange Bowl.
In 2012, 10 years ago, Duke started a bowling streak. From 1961 to 2011, Duke bowled twice and spent parts of just four seasons ranked. David Cutcliffe had taken over the program at a particularly low ebb and seemed stuck in a rut four years in. But his 2012 Blue Devils team beat Virginia and North Carolina on the way to a 6-2 start and bowled for the first time in 18 years. It became a trend. They won 10 games and the ACC Coastal title in 2013 and ended up bowling six times in a seven-year span, a remarkable achievement at the ACC's hardest job.