The ACC Coastal looks to be wide-open in 2016, as it has been pretty much any season since Virginia Tech’s reign of dominance ended a half-decade ago.
The division’s sent a different representative each of the last three seasons, and on paper, six of the ACC Coastal’s seven teams could realistically advance to Charlotte for a showdown with Clemson or Florida State (almost assuredly). Among those six: Georgia Tech, which seems to generate the least attention this offseason.
Don’t misunderstand; I get why the prognosticating community might shy from the Yellow Jackets. After winning the ACC Coastal in 2014, very nearly knocking Florida State off its perch, and putting a lump on Mississippi State’s head in the Orange Bowl, Tech had more cachet before last season than any campaign in recent memory.
In this very space, I posited Clean Old-Fashioned Hate might be a College Football Playoff elimination game.
Bearing that in mind, talking me out of Georgia Tech as the team to beat in the ACC Coastal shouldn’t be that difficult, right?
The Coastal adds plenty of firepower. Miami’s the beneficiary of ludicrous (pun intended) expectations at Georgia, adding alum Mark Richt to guide the Hurricanes back to national prominence. Al Golden’s tenure may not have gone according to plan, but Golden recruited South Florida well, leaving plenty of talent behind.
Miami’s most promising returning, however, came from California: quarterback Brad Kaaya.
Virginia Tech’s new coaching hire should also inspire excitement, and perhaps hope for an ACC Coastal title. The Hokies maintained one of the best defenses in college football, despite slipping from the lofty standard Frank Beamer’s teams held through the late 1990s into the 2000s.
Add Justin Fuente’s innovative offensive approach to a well-established defensive legacy, and the Hokies could be positioned to return to their peak.
Up at Pitt, James Conner’s return gives the Panthers one of the best backfields in college football. And, if the College Football Gods deal in karma, Pitt’s sweet throwback uniforms are worth a few extra wins, on top of the ceiling a veteran lineup has established.
— Brent Yarina (@BTNBrentYarina) August 16, 2016
Nevertheless, here I am spending another August mulling over Georgia Tech’s chance. The Yellow Jackets don’t return a ton of starters — six on offense, just five on defense. Among the offensive players back in the fold is quarterback Justin Thomas, an absolute dynamo in 2014 whose production backslid in 2015.
Thomas noted while speaking with ESPN.com’s David Hale that the corps of running backs this season boasts much more experience. That goes a long way for an offense as reliant on the rushing attack as Georgia Tech.
In an ironic twist, Tech — arguably the program most synonymous with the triple option in today’s college football landscape — was an outlier among its option brethren.
Georgia Southern enjoyed another great year under Willie Fritz (now at Tulane), reaching the program’s first-ever bowl game; The Citadel upset South Carolina and participated in the FCS Playoffs; New Mexico finished on the right side of .500 and reached a bowl; Air Force played in its first Mountain West Conference Championship Game; and Navy, where Tech head coach Paul Johnson refined his option attack, enjoyed one of the best seasons in its history.
2015 was truly a renaissance season for the option, and its Power Five representative spent it on the sidelines.
I trust Johnson to remedy the issues that plagued an anemic Georgia Tech offense, which in turn should benefit a defense that performed admirably, given its circumstances.
None of the above means I’m picking the Jackets to win the ACC Coastal. I know better than to try to make sense of the division, especially after Duke and North Carolina took top honors in two of the last three seasons. Basketball’s bleeding over to the gridiron, apparently.
On the flip-side, I’m not writing off Georgia Tech. I’ll hear a compelling case as to why I should doubt a resurgence from Johnson’s crew, but I’m not promising anything.