2017 ACC Coastal Preview

1. Miami Hurricanes– Mark Richt enters his second year as the head coach at the famous football institution and to some, they are the favorites to win this division and get to the conference title game. There will be many changes for them, as there are for many teams, as the fall approaches. Brad Kaaya and his 27 touchdown passes left early for the NFL. Malik Rosier enters as the leader to replace Kaaya as the guy under center. Until Rosier gets comfortable within the system, I see the offense leaning heavily on Mark Walton. The receiving core will also look different. David Njoku is now playing professionally and receiver Stacy Coley is also gone. I see the strength of this team being on the defensive side of things. Joe Jackson, Chad Thomas and Kendrick Norton are back to lead the way for a talented defensive line.

2. Virginia Tech Hokies– Justin Fuente was tapped as the guy to replace the legendary Frank Beamer and he did well in his first season as the Hokies new head coach. He capped off a nice debut season with a trip to the conference title game. Despite losing some pieces from a personnel standpoint on offense, I see Fuente still keeping this team together and in contention for another division title. Jerod Evans is gone and Joshua Jackson is the front runner to replace him as starting quarterback. I also look for receiver Cam Phillips to have a bigger role on the perimeter. A few key players on the defense, end Ken Ekanem, tackle Woody Barron and safety Chuck Clark – depart from the defense. However, Bud Foster’s group should still rank near the top of the ACC.

3. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets– They improved their win total by six games last season and can be a dark horse within the Coastal division. Matthew Jordan will replace Justin Thomas as the starting quarterback and should still keep the offense on track. Some offseason shuffling of the offensive line is in order after center Freddie Burden expired his eligibility, and tackles Trey Klock and Eason Fromayan decided not to return in 2017. Linebacker P.J. Davis and tackles Patrick Gamble and Francis Kallon are the biggest losses for a defense that allowed 24.5 points a game last fall. Georgia Tech’s schedule features a neutral site matchup against Tennessee in Week 1 but key swing games against Pitt, Virginia Tech and North Carolina are all at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

4. Pittsburgh Panthers– They’ve finished 8-5 in back to back seasons and are looking to keep climbing up the standings now. They should still be a competitive team despite losing some key pieces within their offense. Quarterback Nathan Peterman is gone and star running back, James Conner also decided to leave early for the NFL. Pittsburgh should be fine at quarterback with Max Browne transferring from USC. The running back depth chart is stacked. Darrin Hall, Chawntez Moss and Qadree Ollison are all up for the starting job in the backfield. With the losses on the offensive side of things, the defense will need to step it up to alleviate some pressure on the offense. Safety Jordan Whitehead also returns after missing some time with an injury.

5. North Carolina Tar Heels– This will be considered a rebuilding year for Larry Fedora in Chapel Hill. Mitchell Tribusky was the second overall pick in the NFL draft and standout running back, Elijah Hood is also gone. With the offense retooling and rebuilding, I look for this defense to step it up until the offense settles behind the new quarterback, whoever that maybe. Tackle Nazair Jones left early for the NFL, but enough talent returns to expect improvement in 2017. Cornerback M.J. Stewart should be one of the top defensive backs in the ACC next fall.

6. Duke Blue Devils– They had a streak of four consecutive bowl games going entering last season. It all came to an end after posting a 4-8 record in 2016 and this was their first losing record since 2012. I don’t see these guys staying down for long. Quarterback Daniel Jones is back after a solid freshman campaign along with leading rusher Shaun Wilson and three of the top receiving options returning to Durham. Their biggest losses are on the offensive line with Casey Blaser and Tanner Stone expiring their eligibility. The defense definitely needs to improve. You have to be able to get off the field and you can’t win football games giving up almost 6.5 yards per play.

7. Virginia Cavaliers– We weren’t expecting success overnight for new head coach Bronco Mendenhall. The Cavaliers finished 2-10 but defeated Duke in ACC play and lost two games (Louisville and Wake Forest) by a touchdown. Mendenhall and this staff have a lot of work to do as offseason workouts begin for 2017. Quarterback Kurt Benkert (21 TDs, 11 INTs) returns, along with the team’s top two receivers in Doni Dowling (50 catches) and Olamide Zaccheaus (51). However, running back Taquan Mizzell (940 yards and 52 catches) departs. The offensive line needs to play with more consistency after giving up 36 sacks in 2016. After giving up 6.3 yards per play last year, the defense also enters spring ball looking to take a step forward. There are building blocks for Mendenhall on this side of the ball. Linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding are two of the top defenders in the ACC, and tackle Andrew Brown is back after generating six sacks in 2016.

Prediction: I like the Miami Hurricanes to be victorious and win the ACC Coastal. With Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech both losing their quarterbacks, along with the Hurricanes, However, I see Mark Walton having a nice season for the U and the ‘Canes should have one of the best front sevens in the conference, if not the nation. So long as Miami figures out its quarterback situation soon enough, it can get the job done.