Certainly, other divisions in other conferences around college football are deeper and more top-heavy than the ACC Coastal. At best, the division will have one team crack the preseason Top 25–barely, if at all.
But no division promises the same kind of top-to-bottom unpredictably heading into the 2014 as the ACC Coastal.
Upon the ACC’s expansion to 12 teams in 2005, penciling in Virginia Tech as the Coastal division representative in the conference championship game was typically a safe bet. The Hokies played in five ACC Championship Games from 2005 through 2011, winning three.
Frank Beamer’s patented brand of Beamer Ball and coordinator Bud Foster’s stingy defense promise to have Virginia Tech in the thick of the ACC Coastal championship race once more. But the same offensive, and particularly quarterback woes that knocked the Hokies from their perch in 2012 and 2013 remain an issue in 2014.
That means the turbulence that landed a 6-6 Georgia Tech team (with the aid of NCAA sanctions and investigations at Miami and North Carolina) and perennial cellar dweller Duke in the last two ACC Championship Games should again define the ACC Coastal.
Until further notice, Duke is the team to beat in the Coastal after its surprise 10-win run; the program’s first above-.500 finish in 19 years.
The Blue Devils may be “lovable underdogs,” as Sports On Earth’s Matt Brown described them, but head coach David Cutcliffe has built a winner.
The quarterback guru Cutcliffe has another high-powered offense, this time imparting his knowledge on returning starter Anthony Boone. Operating with arguably the best wide receiver in the ACC, Jamison Crowder, Blue Devil football could score enough points to give Mike Krzyzewski’s basketball team a run for its money.
Still, returning just half of the starters from a defense that ranked a middling No. 68 a season ago could turn plenty of Blue Devil games into full-court grassketball.
Duke also faces competition from a familiar and hated source on Tobacco Road, North Carolina.
The Duke-North Carolina basketball rivalry ranks among Yankees-Red Sox, Real Madrid-Barcelona, Bears-Packers and Ohio State-Michigan as the most heated in sports. A key ingredient to the Blue Devils’ and Tar Heels’ mutual distaste for one another on the hardwood is that both are almost always in contention for the ACC championship.
That element finally makes its way onto the gridiron in 2014, one season removed from the first in which both finished above .500 since 1994. In an odd coincidence, that was the same year Duke basketball last finished below .500.
North Carolina should be a primary competitor to Duke’s ACC Coastal crown. Phil Steele slots the Tar Heels No. 18 in his preseason power rankings, best among all ACC Coastal teams. They have one of the conference’s top game-changing threats in wide receiver and returner Ryan Switzer, the roster is more veteran from top to bottom and Larry Fedora’s potent offense should run more fluidly this third year in the program.
The Heels’ acclimation Fedora was already evident during a dramatic midseason turnaround in 2013. The Tar Heels were floundering, coming off a four-game losing streak that included a 55-31 blowout loss to East Carolina and a 27-23 defeat to Miami punctuated with numerous perplexing plays in the final minutes.
Some speculated if Fedora was on the hot seat just a season-and-a-half into his tenure. College football fans and media can sometimes have microwave expectations. Fortunately for Fedora, the Heels heated up with microwave timing down the stretch, winning five straight and six of seven, including a rout of Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl.
North Carolina’s lone loss on the back-half of its schedule? Duke. Their Nov. 20 matchup in Wallace Wade Stadium could determine the ACC Coastal.
Of course, both must contend with Miami, which may be the most talented team in the division.
On the topic of microwave expectations, there’s some unrest among Hurricanes supporters after Al Golden’s first three years at the helm. A laborious NCAA investigation clouded his first two seasons, and the uncertainty over just how severely the program could be penalized prevented Miami from returning to national prominence instantly.
Still, rival Florida State’s reemergence as a national champion may have some wanting Golden to keep up with the Joneses–or Fishers–sooner than later.
Much like Virginia Tech, arguably the next most collectively talented roster in the division, a quarterback situation in flux may be the highest hurdle between Miami and the ACC Championship Game. The Hurricanes add journeyman veteran Jake Heaps, a former BYU and Kansas starter and competition to highly touted but unproven youngster Kevin Olsen.
Duke, Miami, North Carolina and Virginia Tech are as much front-runners as any teams in this neck-and-neck division can be, but the reigning champion Blue Devils are proof-positive that an unexpected contender can emerge.
Paul Chryst’s third Pitt team and second since moving to the ACC should be his best yet. Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets are unknown wild cards, but in a pivotal year for the head coach, they’ll be a team to watch. And as anemic as Virginia has been offensively since…well, most recent recollection, the Cavaliers’ defense returns most of its 2013 starters. That just might be enough to play a spoiler role in what is undoubtedly college football’s most unpredictable division.