Here is my ballot projecting the Coastal Division standings and ACC Champion as submitted at the ACC Football Kickoff event earlier this week. As is usually the case at this point in the summer, I haven't had a chance to win-share everything yet, so this was a bit of a preliminary exercise for me; I may tweak these a bit before the season. I’m already rethinking how high I have Georgia Tech, for example, as will be discussed below.
1. Virginia Tech (last year’s preseason projection: 6)
2. Georgia Tech (2)
3. North Carolina (1)
4. Miami (5)
5. Duke (3)
6. Virginia (7)
7. Pittsburgh (4)
ACC Champion: Florida State
The Coastal Division is a mess. I would not be surprised if any team—even Virginia—won the division. There is very little marginal difference between the best teams in the division and the worst, and the unbalanced cross-divisional schedules work out such that the teams most likely to be the best in the conference are also most likely to lose at least one cross-divisional game, essentially evening out the divisional standings. If I could have projected a seven-way tie, I would have (is this the year for the fabled #ACCpocalypse?)
My rankings largely relied on strength of cross-division schedules, though I’m already regretting putting Georgia Tech as high as I did. If I were to re-rank things today, I’d have the Yellow Jackets fifth behind Duke.
Georgia Tech does return eight players on defense, but they were not very good on that side of the ball in 2014, so I’m not sure how good they’ll be even with the returnees. Paul Johnson’s offense is a nightmare to defend and Justin Thomas is the best quarterback he’s had in Atlanta, but a big part of what made them so difficult to defend last year was their group of mammoth wide receivers, all of whom have since departed. That’s going to make things significantly more difficult for Thomas, who had a lot of margin for error throwing to that group. Between that and Georgia Tech’s cross-division games at Clemson and hosting FSU, I think this season will be a disappointment in Atlanta.
I was one of the few people in the country with a good read on Virginia Tech last preseason, projecting them to upset Ohio State at the Shoe in Week 2 and then finish sixth in the Coastal Division—precisely what happened. This year, I’m more bullish on the Hokies, though I do not expect them to upset the Buckeyes a second straight season. Instead, I expect a hard-fought loss in Blacksburg to open the season, followed by a division title.
VaTech returns what almost assured to be the conference’s top defense, with the best pair of defensive ends, a very good set of defensive tackles, and the best trio of cornerbacks in the conference—and they’re all healthy again, unlike the injury-plagued 2014 campaign. And an offense that was hamstrung by youth, a rash of injuries, a lack of depth, and a poor offensive coordinator last season is now older, healthier, and has better depth. They’ll still be limited by Scott Loeffler’s poor coordination (did you know he coached Tom Brady and was in Brady’s wedding?), but even a slightly below average offense might be enough to win the division given their defense and schedule (cross-divisional games against BC and NCSU).
I may have been a year early (or perhaps a decade early? It’s hard to know with UNC) in ignoring potential problems up front (violating Rule #1 of my projections in the process) and putting them on top of the Coastal standings last season. The Heels responded by cratering with one of the worst defenses I’ve ever seen and struggled to run the football well enough to keep the pressure off QB Marquise Williams, who had a terrific statistical season.
By contrast, this year’s UNC team projects as having the conference’s second-best OL to go with a deep stable of skill talent and a fifth-year senior QB, and the defense is bound to get better with Gene Chizik running a defense better suited to the personnel on the roster. And even last season, this team had enough talent to beat Georgia Tech. Given cross-divisional games at NC State and hosting Wake Forest, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Tar Heels finally win the Coastal in 2015. Or they could open the season with a stinker against South Carolina and wind up with five total wins. Either one.
Miami should be a bit improved in quarterback Brad Kayaa’s second season as starter but has the misfortune of traveling to FSU and hosting Clemson for their cross-divisional games, which is why I don’t see them finishing better than fourth in the division even though they may well be slightly better than the teams that finish above them.
Duke continues to outperform expectations under Cutcliffe, and cross-divisional games at Wake Forest and home against Boston College won’t hurt the cause. That said, I project the Blue Devils as underdogs against VaTech, UNC, and Miami and no better than a pick-em against Georgia Tech and Virginia, so it’ll take a couple upsets for them to finish better than fourth.
Virginia has a lot of talent on a well-coordinated defense and should be competitive in every conference game as a result. The cross-division game against Syracuse should be a win, but they’ll have their hands full against a Louisville team they beat last season. The Hoos might wind up a top 40 or 45 team that still falls short of bowl eligibility thanks to the nation’s stupidest non-conference schedule, including games against Notre Dame, UCLA, and Boise State. Quarterback Matt Johns still doesn’t give me enough confidence to expect a good offense in Charlottesville, so UVA will go as far as their outstanding defense can carry them and likely no further.
Pitt would compete for fourth in the Atlantic but I’ve got them in the cellar of the Coastal in Pat Narduzzi’s maiden voyage as their fourth head coach in the last six years. He’s a great defensive mind, but they’re going to miss Paul Chryst’s offensive mind and are thin across the board. I do like their young QB, Chad Voytek, and as long as Tyler Boyd is around they’ll have a passing game, but I think they’ve got the most holes overall on this side of the conference.
I’d be a bit surprised to see any Coastal team wind up better than 5-3, and we’re likely to see the division title settled by tiebreaker.
I have Florida State winning the conference again, as the young Seminoles should be very good by the end of the season if they manage to win their division. Even if it’s not FSU, the winner of the Atlantic should be favored over the Coastal winner.