Will the real 2017 ACC Coastal favorite please stand up? OK, that’s pretty much all seven Coastal teams stepping forward, jockeying toward the front and wedging themselves stuck in the doorway.
This offseason, there’s no Clemson or Florida State, i.e. a team projected to be clearly above division foes, in the Coastal. With so much roster turnover, there’s a jumble in the ACC Coastal as we attempt to forecast the upcoming season.
The ACC Coastal Division hasn’t been easy to diagnose lately. Not like its counterpart in the Atlantic, where Florida State and Clemson have ruled since the decade turned. This bunching of Coastal teams doesn’t even provide for a dark horse like Louisville. They’re all sort of favorite/dark horses depending on whom you ask.
Chances are we’ll dither over the next eight months until finally coming to a decision on a favorite -- only to potentially re-
evaluate a week into the season with Georgia Tech (Tennessee), North Carolina (California) and Virginia Tech (West Virginia) opening with Power 5 opponents.
Lacking definitive favorites doesn’t mean the division will fall off and spiral to 2012’s chaotic depths. But it does mean almost any Coastal team can be argued as the favorite to win the division (maybe 2018, Virginia). A few more slivers of hope than usual exist along the Eastern Seaboard this winter.
The biggest reason for the tangle of teams is the quarterback play, a catalyst for the ACC’s rise as the best conference in 2016, but now a question mark. At least five Coastal teams will have a new starter. It’s no easy task pegging a successor at Miami, North Carolina and Virginia Tech.
With a defense that finished ninth nationally in yards per play and returns the entire front seven, the Hurricanes could end up being the trendy pick come summer. But one of the players most responsible for rerouting Miami from its decade-long decline to being on the cusp of “back” is no longer taking snaps in Coral Gables. Brad Kaaya opted to leave for the NFL after helping swing the program’s fortunes and win its first bowl game since 2006.
A couple of young ESPN 300 signal-callers reside on the roster for Mark Richt to potentially mold into a No. 1 NFL draft pick, but they’ll have to grow up quick with a road trip to Way-Too-Early No. 2 Florida State on the schedule. The new quarterback won’t have the best offensive line to ease the burden, either.
The past two division champions weren’t prepared to lose their quarterbacks after just one season. North Carolina doesn’t know if its next starter is on the roster, and Virginia Tech not only has to make up for the loss of Jerod Evans’ arm but his legs, too; he was the team’s leading rusher.
At least the Hokies’ stingy defense will bolster the next quarterback. At North Carolina, name a contributor from last year’s team and odds are he’s off training for the NFL right now. North Carolina loses 14 starters this offseason.
Georgia Tech loses three-year starter Justin Thomas and 29 starts in 2016 among three defensive linemen. Pittsburgh won’t have Nathan Peterman or James Conner in the backfield, and Ejuan Price won’t be harassing opponents’ backfields, either. Duke loses several redshirt seniors who made a significant impact over multiple seasons.
With so many rosters in flux, scheduling could play an even bigger role this season. The Hurricanes always have the disadvantage of playing Florida State, and they also have to play at Pittsburgh. The Panthers' schedule could be the most forgiving, with Miami at home and NC State and Syracuse as the two draws from the Atlantic.
Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech both draw Clemson, though the Hokies welcome the Tigers to Lane Stadium. Duke hosts Florida State, and UNC has to try to corral the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Lamar Jackson.
When these games will be played is still undetermined as the ACC hasn’t yet released its schedule.
With the division making so many strong coaching hires lately, the staff continuity and the programs committed to maintaining winners, the talent exodus doesn’t mean the Coastal is in for a long-term setback. It should compete with the Atlantic winner in the conference title game.
Optimism persists throughout several Coastal fan bases, all rationalizing that it is their team destined to play in that championship setting. A true favorite is anyone’s guess at this point, but chances are it’ll be an unpredictable race throughout the season.