The ACC's Coastal Division is wide open entering the 2014 season. With six of seven teams receiving at least one first-place vote in the preseason media poll, the possibilities for how this race shakes out are seemingly endless. Here, we take a look at the six teams that garnered first-place votes, examining reasons that are working for and against them in their quests to get to the ACC title game.
Why Duke will win the Coastal
1) The Blue Devils are the defending champs. The program has had a steady climb under David Cutcliffe, most notably in the last two seasons, with a six-win campaign in 2012 preceding a 10-win, division-winning season last fall. Similar improvements this season, particularly on defense, will have Duke running away with the division, though one has to wonder how much higher this group has left to climb. Still, Cutcliffe has said that Duke is here to stay. And despite finishing second in the preseason media poll, the Blue Devils had the most first-place votes (33) of anyone, six more than the next-highest total, North Carolina at 27. They are good, and they know it. As does everyone else.
2) They have the skill players. Don't be surprised if Anthony Boone enters this season with a chip on his shoulder after seeing multiple preseason All-ACC teams list UNC's Marquise Williams ahead of him as the second-team quarterback. Boone took his Blue Devils into Chapel Hill last season and beat Williams and the Tar Heels, and Williams isn't even assured of starting this season. More importantly, Boone is throwing to one of the nation's most versatile receivers in Jamison Crowder, along with tight end Braxton Deaver and a talented stable of running backs who will be protected by an offensive line that brings back three key starters.
3) Their secondary is strong. The loss of All-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell is not nearly as devastating as it probably could be, given the talent returning among the defensive backs. Safety Jeremy Cash is coming off a 121-tackle, four-interception season. DeVon Edwards is flexible in the back end and has a knack for making plays wherever he is on the field, including on kick returns. Breon Borders is looking to build off a freshman campaign that featured him picking off Jameis Winston twice in the ACC title game. Given the youth up front on the defensive line, this group will probably get tested more often, and it appears well-equipped to handle the workload.
Why Duke won't win the Coastal
1) The Blue Devils are the defending champs. Yes, Duke's success could -- could -- be the reason for its downfall, if there is one. As stated above, this program is no longer a secret commodity. In fact, some Coastal teams are probably still irked by the fact that Duke finished ahead of them in football. It's silly, yes, but it also presents a whole new set of challenges for a program that had not experienced much recent success until the last two seasons. How well Duke can handle having the target on its back will go a long way toward determining its fate in the division race.
2) Brandon Connette's legs will be missed. Connette is the program's career leader in rushing touchdowns (31), and his running ability was crucial in the red zone, which helped his efficiency as a passer as well. With Connette having transferred to Fresno State to be closer to his sick mother, more will be on Boone's plate, as the new No. 2, Thomas Sirk, has yet to take a college snap. Cutcliffe is high on the redshirt sophomore, but asking him to do what Connette was able to accomplish might be a tall task this early.
3) The defensive line is an unknown. Tackle Jamal Bruce is the only returning starter up front, though the other three linemen joining him on the first team are upperclassmen who have seen extensive time before. And, to be fair, the line was hardly dominant last season, averaging less than two sacks per game. Having a pair of 100-tackle linebackers back in David Helton and Kelby Brown sure helps, as does that secondary, but the pass rush cannot afford to take a step back in 2014.