Cleat Geeks

ACC Football Fall Predictions: Coastal Division

Last month I gave my predictions for the Atlantic Division and it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Clemson and Florida State were the front runners. What might have come as a surprise, and not just from me, is the anticipated success of Louisville. ESPN has Louisville ranked 25th, with a warning to other teams to watch out for returning quarterback Lamar Jackson. Last season, he became one of only three players in FBS history to run and pass for more than 200 yards in a bowl game.

The three new coaches in the Coastal Division (Mark Richt – Miami; Brent Mendenhall – Virginia; and Justin Fuente – Virginia Tech) are all looking to shake things up and turn their teams around. While I’m not sure if any of the teams in the division can make a title run, there are a few teams poised to make a run at the ACC title.

 

Here are my predictions for the 2016 season for the ACC Coastal Division:

Coastal Division

Duke: 2015 record (8-5)

David Cutcliffe has turned the Duke Blue Devils into a legitimate contender not just in the Coastal Division, but in the ACC as a whole. Cutcliffe took a program that only made eight total bowl appearances between 1922 to 2011, to now seeking their fifth consecutive bowl appearance. In the last three seasons the Blue Devils are 27-13, were the Coastal Division champions, and had the school’s first 10-win season. Duke ended last season with a 44-41 overtime win against Indiana in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

This season, the Blue Devils are returning 14 starters. But, they may be missing their biggest offensive threat quarterback Thomas Sirk. Sirk suffered an Achilles tendon rupture early this spring and is currently listed as out indefinitely. He was Duke’s leading rusher with 803 yards and eight touchdowns. If Sirk remains unable to play this season, it will be a big loss in Duke’s offense.

The Blue Devils have tough back-to-back road games early in the season, and again at the end of the season. They travel to Northwestern in week 3, Notre Dame in week 4, Pittsburgh in week 12, then end the season at Miami. Without their best player, it may be tough for Duke to make their fifth consecutive bowl appearance.

2016 Prediction: (5-7)

Georgia Tech: 2015 record (3-9) 

To say Paul Johnson had a rough season last year would be like saying a blind man can’t see – extremely obvious and completely redundant. The Yellow Jackets went from 11-3 and Coastal Division Champions to 3-9 with a 5-game and a 4-game losing streak. They were able to sneak a win over Florida State giving the Jackets their only ACC win of the year, and possibly saving Paul Johnson’s job.

Georgia Tech will have two-year starting quarterback Justin Thomas returning for his senior year. Last season, the Jackets lost a strong offensive corps that surrounded Thomas, thus aiding to the decline in offensive stats. In 2014, he rushed for 1,086 yards with eight touchdowns while throwing for 1,1719 with 18 touchdowns and six interceptions. Last season, he only rushed for 488 yards with six touchdowns while throwing for 1,345 yards with 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Leading rusher, Marcus Marshall, and top receiver, Ricky Jeune, are also returning this season. That, coupled with the skill players being a year older and more experienced should make for a better season for the Jackets this year.

Georgia Tech still will have an uphill battle this season playing Pittsburgh, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, and Georgia all away. The Jackets did luck out playing Miami and Clemson at home. Georgia Tech hasn’t lost to Clemson at home since 2003.

2016 Prediction: (6-6)

Miami: 2015 record (8-5)

It’s a new year, and a new U. For the Miami faithful, the Al Gordon era has thankfully come to an end with the hire of former Georgia head coach, Mark Richt. Even with Richt’s record of 126-45 (.737 winning percentage), he was fired from UGA after 15 seasons. Richt is a native of south Florida and is a former Miami quarterback. Needless to say, Georgia’s loss is Miami’s gain.

Richt is taking over a well equipped Miami team with 16 returning starters, and ranking of 24 by ESPN’s Way-Too-Early Top 25. The starters are led by one of the ACC’s top returning passers, junior quarterback Brad Kaaya. It’s been said that Kaaya will further improve under the guidance of Coach Richt. The rest of the offense remains nearly unchanged, with all five starters from the offensive line returning. The biggest loss offensively comes from receiver Rashawn Scott graduating (52 catches last season).

Even though seven players are returning from last season, Richt will have the most difficulties with Miami’s defense. The Hurricanes gave up 6.1 yards per play in the ACC last season. Also, they will be replacing all four starters from the secondary.

Miami has a tough stretch of five games in the middle of their season starting with Florida State and North Carolina at home, away games at Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, then back home hosting Pittsburgh. Coach Richt has a decent chance claiming the Coastal division, especially with the new life he seems to have pumped into the previously lackluster Canes.

2016 Prediction: (9-3)

North Carolina: 2015  record (11-3) 

After finishing the 2014 season 6-7, Larry Fedora really turned things around for the North Carolina Tar Heels in 2015. After losing their season opener to South Carolina, the Tar Heels went on to win 11 straight games, claiming the Coastal Division. They played Clemson in the ACC Championship game, but lost by eight after a questionable onside kick penalty. North Carolina finished the year 11-3, and are not only looking towards having another similar season again but also winning the ACC this year.

With 14 starters returning, seven on both sides of the ball, it’s no wonder ESPN has the Tar Heels ranked 19th in their Way-Too-Early Top 25. Last season North Carolina averaged 40.7 points a game, ranking them 9th in scoring offense and 18th in overall offense. With the graduation of Marquise Williams, junior Mitch Trubisky will take over as starting quarterback. As a back-up, Trubisky completed 85.1 percent of his passes for 555 yards, six touchdowns, and no interceptions. Elijah Hood, one of the ACC’s top running backs, also returns after rushing for 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. Defensively, coordinator Gene Chizik is looking to further his improvement on the Tar Heels’ defense with the return of seven starters.

North Carolina has some tough road games this season. They open the season against Georgia at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Ga. The Tar Heels also travel to Florida State, Miami, and in-state rival Duke. Despite their tough road schedule, North Carolina is still in a good position to win the Coastal Division title again this year.

2016 Prediction: (9-3)

Pittsburgh: 2015 record (8-5)

In Pat Narduzzi’s first season as head coach at Pittsburgh, the Panthers’ 8-5 record was the best it’s been since 2010. They went 6-2 in ACC play, ending the season as runner-up in the Coastal Division. Considering the Panthers lost dominant running back and reigning ACC Player of Year, James Conner to torn knee ligaments in the season opener and later a lymphoma diagnosis, last season went pretty well for Narduzzi’s inaugural season.

Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma on Thanksgiving Day in 2015, and finished his 12th and final chemotherapy treatment May 10, 2016. While undergoing chemo treatments, Conner was participating in spring drills in preparation for the fall. He announced May 23rd, that he is cancer-free and continues to plan on returning for the season opener against Villanova.

Along with Conner, Pitt is returning 14 other starters, including last year’s ACC’s top offensive and defensive newcomers. Offensive Rookie of the Year, tailback Qadree Ollison, who rushed for 1,421 yards and 11 touchdowns, will be surrounded by a returning solid core with possibly one of the best offensive lines in the ACC. Similarly, safety Jordan Whitehead, the ACC’s Overall and Defensive Rookie of the Year, will be surrounded by six returning starters.

Pitt has a tough stretch of games early,  starting with a home game against rival Penn State, then back-to-back away games at Oklahoma State and North Carolina. The Panthers face another tough stretch in November with back-to-back road games against Miami and Clemson. If Pitt can manage to come out these stretches relatively unscathed, they also have a decent chance at winning the Coastal division this year. However, they’ll probably end up in second or third place when it’s all said and done.

2016 Prediction: (8-4)

Virginia: 2015 record (4-8) 

After four consecutive losing seasons and an overall record of 27-46, Mike London’s tenure at Virginia came to an end last season. With change in mind, the Cavaliers were able to snag Bronco Mendenhall from BYU. After winning 99 in ten seasons as head coach of the Cougars, Mendenhall should be a good candidate to turn Virginia around.

Even with 12 starters returning, Coach Mendenhall will have his work cut out for him on both sides of the ball. Returning quarterback Matt Johns will need to tighten up his play and make better decisions with the ball. Last season he threw 2o touchdowns against 17 interceptions. In the past five seasons, the Cavaliers have not finished higher than ninth in the ACC in scoring offense.

Defensive-minded Mendenhall, inherits a squad that allowed 32.2 points a game, ranking 96th in points allowed per game. He does have two of the ACC’s best defenders in middle linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding returning. However, Virginia’s defense will need more than those two to turn things aeound and get stops.

The Cavaliers travel to Oregon to play the Ducks in the second week of the season. Even though this game is nearly impossible for Virginia to win, it will give Mendenhall a good look at the mental toughness of his players. An early November game at Wake Forest might be the Cavaliers last chance at an ACC win, as they close out the remainder of their schedule at home against Miami, then travel to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. Mendenhall will make a difference at Virginia, just not this season.

2016 Prediction: (3-9)

Virginia Tech: 2015 record (7-6)

The legendary Frank Beamer era at Virginia Tech has come to a close. After eight consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins, he turned the Hokies into a consistent national contender. Unfortunately, the last four seasons weren’t as successful, with only seven and eight wins; which made it an appropriate time to step down as head coach.

Viginia Tech hired Justin Fuente as the new head coach. Fuente should be able to jump start the struggling Hokies’ offense of recent seasons. First off, he’ll have to decide who will start at quarterback,  JUCO transfer Jerod Evans, sophomore Dwayne Lawson, or senior Brenden Motley, the most experienced of the trio. The Hokies’ offense is returning their leading rusher, running back Travon McMillan (1047 yards) and top receiver, Isaiah Ford (1,164 yards).

Fuente was able to retain one of the best coordinators in college football, Bud Foster as well as the majority of Beamer’s defensive staff. Last season, Foster’s secondary held ACC quarterbacks to a 49 percent completion. This season, the defense is replacing 5 starters and hoping to continue smothering quarterbacks.

The Hokies have some speed bumps throughout their schedule, including an early September match-up against Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway. They were able to catch Miami at home, but will have to travel to North Carolina and Notre Dame. Depending on who emerges as quarterback and how quickly Fuente can impart his offense, Virginia Tech could make a run towards the Coastal Division title.

2016 Prediction: (7-5)

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