Duke’s surprise run to the ACC title game last season offered a template for big turnarounds in the conference. But the Blue Devils became the first team outside the conference’s traditional power brokers (FSU, Clemson, Virginia Tech) to reach 10 wins since 2009, so surprise improvements are hardly an annual tradition.
Still, after a season in which nearly half the league finished with seven wins, there are definitely others poised for a big leap forward in 2014. With that in mind, we’re looked at each of the ACC’s eight teams that won seven or fewer games last season and asked whether they’re capable of making a Duke-like jump in the standings -- i.e. at least four more wins and a spot in the conference title game.
Here’s how we’d rank them entering the summer:
North Carolina (7-6, 4-4 ACC)
Before Duke made its run to the Coastal last season, it suffered through a Jekyll-and-Hyde 2012 campaign. UNC did the same in 2013, only it ended on a high note. A cadre of freshmen blossomed late, offering ample optimism for 2014. And like last season's Duke squad, the Tar Heels are capable of scoring on defense and special teams (nine non-offensive TDs last year), have depth at quarterback and a go-to receiver in Quinshad Davis. The difference for UNC, however, is questions on both sides of the line. Adding four wins might be tough, but UNC travels to Duke in the penultimate game of the regular season, and the Coastal could be on the line.
Pitt (7-6, 3-5 ACC)
The Panthers were one of just two teams to beat Duke in last season's regular season, narrowly escaping in a 58-55 shootout. A solid offensive line should be a strength for this season's Pitt squad -- as it was for Duke a year ago -- and Pitt has perhaps the ACC’s best offensive playmaker in Tyler Boyd. Pitt also enjoys a manageable schedule with nonconference games against Delaware, Akron and FIU while avoiding FSU, Clemson and Louisville in conference. Pitt needs to find replacements for Tom Savage and Aaron Donald, but there’s a clear path for the Panthers to a Coastal title.
Syracuse (7-6, 4-4 ACC)
The Orange were another mild surprise in the ACC a year ago, so making a huge leap in the standings this season could be asking a lot. Still, Syracuse looks to be a safe bet for improvement, at least offensively. Scott Shafer has depth at running back and a wealth of talented (but young) receivers and returns four starters on the offensive line. With a year of experience under his belt, QB Terrel Hunt is expected to improve, too, which could give Syracuse a formidable offense. A young secondary and a tough schedule, however, might leave the Orange right around that same seven-win mark again in 2014.
NC State (3-9, 0-8 ACC)
The Wolfpack finally have an answer at quarterback, and that’s more than enough reason for optimism. The defense needs to improve, too, if the Wolfpack will challenge in the incredibly tough Atlantic, but NC State should eclipse last season's win total by Week 4 with an abundantly easy stretch to open the season (Georgia Southern, Old Dominion, USF and Presbyterian) before playing FSU, Clemson and Louisville in three of its next four. If the Wolfpack can weather that brutal midseason stretch, eight wins is a possibility. A division title on the other hand? That’d be a real surprise.
Georgia Tech (7-6, 5-3 ACC)
Judging by Duke’s 2013 template for success, Georgia Tech could be in big trouble in 2014. There’s turnover at quarterback, major losses in the pass rush and secondary, no established stars at running back or receiver and after an easy three games to open the year, the schedule gets awfully tough. The Yellow Jackets were the last surprise team to make a run to 10 wins in 2009, but that feels like a long time ago for most fans these days.
Boston College (7-6, 4-4)
Think Duke had a big turnaround in 2013? Boston College added five wins to its total from the previous season and had a Heisman trophy finalist to boot. Of course, Andre Williams is gone -- along with the Eagles’ starting QB, top wide receiver, two leading tacklers and their best pass rusher. Add the fact that BC plays in the extremely tough Atlantic Division, and improving on last year’s seven-win campaign looks difficult.
Virginia (2-10, 0-8 ACC)
The Hoos have some reason for optimism, including strong recruiting classes in recent years and talent in both the front and back end of the defense. But Mike London’s job security will be an issue from Day 1, and Virginia has tough nonconference dates (UCLA, BYU) along with the bad luck to draw Louisville and Florida State in its cross-divisional games. Virginia will almost certainly be improved, but getting to even six wins might be a lot to ask with that schedule.
Wake Forest (4-8, 2-6 ACC)
The 2014 season may be a case of taking a step back in order to move forward for Wake Forest. There just aren’t enough playmakers on offense or the defensive front, and the Deacons’ place in an extremely competitive division means there will be few gimmes. Dave Clawson’s crew will likely take its lumps this season, but a few tough lessons helped Duke turn things around eventually, too.