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 vast. 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 Miami will win the Coastal:
1. They have recruited the best. Steve Spurrier says the recruiting rankings are usually right, so, first off, pat on the back RecruitingNation. If it was sarcasm, Steve, keep it to yourself. Miami would like to think so, too, as no program in the Coastal has recruited better than the Hurricanes despite the NCAA sanctions. In four out of the last five cycles, Miami has had the best class among Coastal teams. The only time they didn’t finish first is when Golden was hired two months before signing day in 2011. This most recent class finished in the top 10, and the 2013 class had budding star Stacy Coley and Al-Quadin Muhammad, who could make a national name for himself this fall. The 2012 class finished No. 8 nationally, and as third-year players it is time for them to become the core group that will elevate Miami to a conference championship game.
2. Duke Johnson is 100 percent healthy. Miami’s offense is a question mark going into the season. A case can be made for four different quarterbacks to be the starter opening day. One thing Golden won’t need to worry about is the player behind his signal-caller. Johnson said he felt 100 percent last month and will be ready for preseason practice. He is the conference’s best running back and will challenge the 100-yard mark in every game this season. Golden and Johnson agree the junior running back is even better than he was a year ago and won’t come off the field often. When he does, Johnson is doing his best to make sure there is little to no drop in production. He regrets not preparing Miami’s younger running backs last season before his injury, so he has taken Joseph Yearby, the No. 4 running back in the 2014 class nationally, under his wing.
3. There is talent on defense. Canes fans hoped Golden would relieve Mark D’Onofrio as defensive coordinator at the end of last season, but Golden refused to fire his long-time friend. The defense will have to be markedly better for D’Onofrio to return to Miami fans’ good graces, but there are capable players throughout the defense, especially in the back seven. Denzel Perryman is one of the conference’s best linebackers as a tackler and in pass coverage. Cornerback Tracy Howard and Deon Bush are coming into their own in the defensive backfield. And maybe this is the season Anthony Chickillo puts it all together.
Why Miami won’t win the Coastal
1. They don’t have a starting quarterback. The sense around Coral Gables is Ryan Williams needs to return from his April knee surgery as quickly as he can. Golden and Johnson made it clear redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen still has a lot to prove, not only on the field but as a leader. Jake Heaps is eligible to play right away but he’s been the college equivalent of a journeyman, bouncing from program to program. Brad Kaaya was a blue-chip prep quarterback but has not been on campus long. It’s rare for a team to win a conference championship with shaky quarterback play, and, outside of Wake Forest, no team is worse at the position right now than the Canes. If Williams returns after missing only a few games or Olsen can step up during preseason drills and just manage the game, Johnson might be able to carry Miami all the way to Charlotte.
2. The defensive line is still shaky. The hope is Chickillo will live up to the expectations that followed him when he arrived at Miami, but he’s been inconsistent in his career. Muhammad has the promise and look of a great lineman, but he’ll still take his lumps early in his sophomore season. Golden looked to the junior college ranks for help and signed Calvin Heurtelou, but determining the impact of a juco prospect in their first year is a guessing game. If the defensive line does not improve, chances are it won’t matter how talented the back seven of the defense is. Bush and Howard cannot cover all day, and Perryman will be far less effective when the running back is charging at him with a 300-pound lineman lead blocking.
3. The schedule could be an issue. The hope is Williams returns by the Nebraska game Sept. 20, but if he does not it could put Miami in an early hole. The Canes open up the season at Louisville in a Monday night game, and it is the Cardinals’ first game as an ACC team. Expect a wild atmosphere in what could be a Week 1 loss for Miami. The week after the nonconference Nebraska game, Miami plays host to Duke, the reigning Coastal champions. If Williams does not play in that game, will Miami be able to score enough points to hang with Duke? If he does, will he have shaken off the rust in time? It could be a double-edged sword. Miami also has to play at Virginia Tech in prime time on a Thursday, and let’s not forget the annual rivalry game against Florida State. The Seminoles are going to be the preseason No. 1 team in all likelihood.