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 North Carolina will win the Coastal
The running game. Last year’s team struggled to run the ball, finishing 11th overall in the conference in rushing with QB Marquise Williams serving as the team’s leading rusher. But dig a little deeper into the numbers and a more optimistic narrative unfolds. In UNC’s first seven games, it averaged 102 yards on the ground, 2.8 yards per carry and scored six rushing touchdowns. In its last six games, that average jumped to 202 yards per game, 5.1 yards per carry and the Heels scored 13 times on the ground. Now Larry Fedora’s crew adds hulking freshman Elijah Hood to a backfield that already includes T.J. Logan, Khris Francis and Romar Morris and promises to be one of the deepest, most diverse units in the league.
Special teams are special. Only Bowling Green (10) had more non-offensive touchdowns last season than UNC (9), and the Tar Heels’ special teams were a big reason why. Ryan Switzer was an All-American, scoring five times on punt returns last year, but Fedora says his sophomore only scratched the surface of his talent. Switzer may get work on kick returns this year, too. And even if teams work to avoid kicking to Switzer this year, he says that's fine by him. It will simply mean UNC will start every drive with solid field position as the opposition boots them short or out of bounds.
The QB competition. While the rest of the league is searching for one quarterback it can count on, North Carolina’s quandary is how to find reps for both of its QBs. Williams led the Tar Heels to a 6-1 finish last year and showed he can command the offense. Mitch Trubisky was a top recruit with a strong arm and impressive mobility. Fedora said he believes he can win with both -- and that means both will likely see some playing time. There may not be another team in the conference with as much depth at the QB spot as Carolina enjoys.
Why North Carolina won’t win the Coastal
The QB competition. Wait, what were we just saying about the advantages of having two QBs? You know the old saying — if you have two quarterbacks, you’ve got none. That may not necessarily apply to UNC’s situation, but regardless which QB is tabbed as the starter, the expectations will be high and any early struggles could quickly lead to a restless fan base and a divided locker room.
The offensive line. Fedora has been blunt in saying the Tar Heels will likely go just as far as their revamped offensive line can carry them. The unit lost two starters to the NFL after last season, and a host of spring injuries meant there was no time for cohesion to be built among the newcomers. Bentley Spain could be a breakout star at left tackle, but for a team with eyes on an ACC title, relying on a true freshman at that position is never an ideal scenario.
They’re just too young. It’s both exciting and unnerving, Fedora admits. He has just six seniors on his team. The offensive line has only three juniors on the entire depth chart. A host of key personnel on both sides of the ball are freshmen and sophomores. Yes, this is Year 3 for Fedora, and he believes last year’s strong finish was a good sign that players are beginning to grasp his philosophy, but with youth come mistakes, and in a crowded Coastal, there may not be room for too many setbacks.