GREENSBORO, N.C. -- We can all agree just about every team in the cluttered Coastal Division has a chance to win it.
Yet, it was still a surprise to see Miami selected as the media’s preseason choice to play in its first ACC championship game. Sure, the Canes have a shot just like the other five teams that earned first-place votes, but it is hard to see how they have the best shot to make it to Charlotte.
Duke is my choice to finish first. Here is why I believe the Blue Devils have more of an edge than Miami headed into the season.
1. Quarterback. Duke is one of three teams in the league to return its starting quarterback. Senior Anthony Boone showed tremendous growth through 2013, and has used his fourth-quarter performance in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl as an opportunity to grow and learn, too. Coach David Cutcliffe says Boone has taken on much more leadership, responsibility and accountability. He should, especially with Brandon Connette out of the mix.
Miami, meanwhile, has no answers at quarterback -- not until Ryan Williams returns from a torn ACL. Kevin Olsen or Jake Heaps will have to pilot the Canes until then and there are major question marks around both. You don't need to read much into these comments from Johnson to wonder: Has Olsen matured? Can Heaps live up to the hype that trailed him out of high school? And even when Williams does return, he is no sure thing. He’s only taken a handful of snaps in mop-up duty at Miami and just two against Top 25 competition (garbage time in a blowout to Kansas State). Duke Johnson is one of the best players in the country, but Miami needs an effective quarterback to help him out. We don’t know yet whether he does.
2. Schedule. Miami plays one of the toughest schedules in the ACC. The Hurricanes get both Florida State and Louisville out of the Atlantic, and then have to play at Virginia Tech on a Thursday night. No other bona fide Coastal contender has to face that trifecta. Miami will definitively be without Williams for the opener at Louisville, a team that destroyed the Canes in the Russell Athletic Bowl in December. Louisville has a radically different look, but the Cards already are favored to win. Duke, meanwhile, avoids Florida State, Clemson Tigers and Louisville, playing Syracuse Orange and Wake Forest from the Atlantic. In addition, the Blue Devils get Virginia Tech and North Carolina at home. It seems pretty clear Duke has the schedule advantage.
3. Defense. The truth is, neither defense was stellar last season. Miami and Duke ranked toward the bottom in the ACC in just about every major defensive category. But no coordinator is under fire more than Mark D'Onofrio at Miami. There is a level of play people have come to expect from the Miami defense, and nobody has seen it in years. Al Golden has talked up his group headed into this season, but acknowledges the defensive line needs to transform itself into a dominating group. For Miami to make the jump to a championship, it needs a vastly improved group. I’m just not sure the Canes will field a dominating defense this year.
Certainly, Miami has the talent to make it to the title game. The Canes had early momentum last year before they fell back, mostly because Johnson was hurt. A healthy Johnson gives Miami an opportunity to win all its games. But remember, even when Johnson was healthy last season Miami was living on the edge, needing fourth-quarter comebacks against Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, North Carolina and Wake Forest.
The bottom line is this: There are far too many questions to overlook to believe in Miami as the preseason Coastal favorites.
Agree? Disagree? Vote in our poll and drop me a line in the mailbag with your thoughts. Best comments go up Friday.