Six of the ACC's 14 teams finished last season with losing records. Improvement has to be on the way for some, right? Five of those six teams had staff overhauls of some sort. The other, Wake Forest, enters Year 2 of a massive rebuilding project.
Which of the six teams that finished 2014 with losing records will have the best season this fall? Andrea Adelson and Matt Fortuna debate.
Andrea says North Carolina: North Carolina has not exactly lived up to preseason expectations over the last several seasons. But I still think it is safe to say the Tar Heels will be better in 2015 than they were in 2014.
Better than any other ACC team that finished last year with a losing record. There are three reasons why:
1. Offense will be better. North Carolina only loses its starting tight end off a team that moved the ball well at times a year ago, ranking No. 3 in the league in scoring offense and No. 5 in total offense. A healthier, deeper and better offensive line will be the biggest reason why the Tar Heels will play more consistently, and therefore rack up more yards and points. The backfield is deep and talented, and Marquise Williams will not have to keep looking over his shoulder, wondering whether Mitch Trubisky will come in to play some snaps. This is Williams' team. That will end up being huge.
2. Defense will be better. How much better remains to be seen, but it's impossible to believe this group will be worse with Gene Chizik in charge. His addition has to rank among the best coordinator hires in the entire country, because he clearly knows his way around the defense. There is some talent in this group, including defensive lineman Nazair Jones, Shakeel Rashad and Jeff Schoettmer. The position switches Chizik made in the spring will help, and so will the move to a 4-3 base. Here is predicting that the UNC defense will give up less than 400 yards per game, which would be a nearly 100 yard improvement over a year ago.
3. Schedule. Taking the schedule into consideration might be the biggest key in making projections like these. North Carolina has the most manageable schedule among all the teams that finished last year with a losing record. Miami, for example, has a chance to be a better team but plays one of the toughest schedules in the ACC, so I crossed the Hurricanes off the list. Virginia’s schedule will be a problem for the Cavaliers. Syracuse and Wake Forest are still a ways from getting back to above .500. Pittsburgh and North Carolina play the same division schedule, but the Panthers have the more difficult nonconference slate with games against Iowa and Notre Dame (not to mention Akron again). Pittsburgh has incredible talent in James Conner and Tyler Boyd, but I think the Panthers will be more of a work in progress with Pat Narduzzi in Year 1. UNC already had the upper hand last year between the two. If North Carolina doesn’t win at least eight games, the Tar Heels will have underachieved yet again.
Matt says Pitt: I want to say UNC. I really do. With as many as 10 starters returning from an offense that often impressed last season, the Heels are a tempting pick. Their staff overhaul on defense is intriguing and, as you stated, it's impossible to imagine that unit taking a step back after a tumultuous 2014. Still, I cannot bring myself to fully commit to UNC, not after getting embarrassed by NC State and Rutgers at the end of last season to the combined tune of 75-28 (with 21 of those offensive points coming in garbage time of both games). Ditto Miami, which dropped four straight to close last season and now says goodbye to seven guys good enough to get drafted into the NFL, including five on offense. The Hurricanes also have to face Clemson in addition to Florida State this season from the Atlantic. Syracuse and Wake Forest are, as you said, too far away, and Virginia has too tough of a schedule (in addition to a mini-exodus this spring).
So we turn our attention to the Steel City, the site of the only new head coach in the ACC. And though Pat Narduzzi is a first-time head coach, he walks into a fairly favorable situation.
Pitt's offense returns the best duo of skill players in the league in reigning ACC player of the year Conner and 1,000-yard receiver Boyd. Quarterback Chad Voytik, meanwhile, was overlooked last season but quietly made tremendous improvement over the course of the year. T.J. Clemmings is not exactly replaceable at right tackle, but with the return of center Artie Rowell from injury, this group could still end up trotting out a first unit consisting entirely of players with starting experience. That means a lot, especially with an offensive coordinator in Jim Chaney who oversaw a pair of 1,000-yard backs last season while at Arkansas.
The defense struggled immensely with generating pressure last season but brings back three of four starters up front. Narduzzi carved his path to this job by trotting out relentless attack after relentless attack as Michigan State's defensive coordinator, and this is where he will have to earn his money in Year 1. Hiring a coordinator in Josh Conklin whose 2014 FIU defense was one of the nation's best at forcing turnovers is a very good place for Narduzzi to start, too. And Conklin, whose primary field of expertise is in the secondary, has a fairly experienced group of defensive backs to work with, as Lafayette Pitts, Reggie Mitchell and Avonte Maddox are returning starters.
The Panthers' schedule doesn't look as easy as UNC's looks right now, but it's not exactly murderers' row, either, at least not in conference play. UNC's permanent Atlantic crossover, NC State, is probably comparable to Pitt's rotating one in 2015, Louisville. (And vice versa for UNC with Wake and Pitt with Syracuse.)
A half-dozen teams are in need of immediate improvement in 2015, but few might have the tools necessary to make that leap the way Pitt does as it undergoes another regime change.