We stay in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic where this division features coaching changes, this is the ACC Coastal.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Our first stop is Chapel Hill, where the Tar Heels won 11 games and the Coastal division last season. Despite key departures, they’re the favorite again. No Marquis Williams, no problem, Mitch Trubisky is a capable dual threat quarterback, throwing zero interceptions last year. Preseason all-ACC running back Elijah Hood and backfield mate T.J. Hogan are a monstrous combo. Mack Hollins, Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard are a veteran, dynamic receiving corps.
The defense was one of the most improved in the nation last season, but there’s still room to grow. Defensive end Dajuan Drennon and tackle Nazair Jones need help to pressure up front as the Heels were near the bottom of the ACC in sacks. Preseason all-ACC cornerback Des Lawrence and fellow corner M.J. Stewart are one of the top secondary tandems in the conference.
Mark Richt is back at Miami as their new head coach, and he could be the missing link into getting “the U” back to being a power. He’ll have talent to work with, including quarterback Brad Kaaya, who finished top three in the ACC last season in categories such as passing rating and fewest interceptions. The offensive line MUST keep him upright. Stacy Coley and tight end David Njoku lead a strong receiving corps. Joe Yeardley, Mark Walton and Gus Edwards, who’s coming back from a foot injury, lead a bruising backfield.
Veteran defensive coordinator and Miami native Manny Diaz takes over and Miami will be switching to a 3-4 defense. Ends Chad Thomas and Al-Quadin Muhammed, tackle Gerald Willis and linebacker Jermaine Grace will be able to run the 3-4, but they need other unproven guys to step up, as well.
They host Florida State, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Duke. They face Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame on the road.
Virginia Tech Hokies
To Blacksburg, we go next, where a new era begins as Memphis head coach Justin Fuente takes over. He brings a more up tempo spread offense to the Hokies. Travon McMillian rushed for 1,000 yards last year, and he just started in mid-October. Wide receivers Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips and tight end Bucky Rodgers are as good of a corps as any in the ACC. We’ll see who starts at quarterback as it could either be fifth year senior Brendon Moxley or junior college transfer Jerrod Evans, who Fuente recruited to take over for Paxton Lynch at Memphis.
Bud Foster returns for his 21st season as defensive coordinator. After his defense allowed all-time highs in total yards allowed, points allowed and rushing yards allowed, he wants to redeem himself. They also only had 26 sacks and 10 interceptions, both all-time lows during Foster’s tenure. Injuries and youth were the problems last season. Defensive end Ken Ekenam, tackle Woody Baron, linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka and safety Chuck Clark have talent and with Foster’s experience can help turn the defense around.
They play Tennessee to start this season at Bristol, they host Miami and Georgia Tech. They must face North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Duke and Notre Dame on the road.
In Pittsburgh, expectations are high for head coach Pat Narduzzi and the Panthers. Running back James Conner is not only coming back from a season-ending MCL injury from last year, he’s also in remission after receiving treatments for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Once he’s back at full strength, he and Qadree Olson, who rushed for over 1,100 yards in Conner’s absence can be a dangerous one, two combo. Quarterback Nathan Peterman threw only one interception in league play last year and finished third in the league in touchdown passes.
The strength of the team is their defense. They ranked third in the ACC and 16th in the nation in sacks. End Ejuan Price finished in the top ten in sacks. Remember the name Jordan Whitehead, he can play linebacker, safety, and even some offense. Whitehead just missed setting the record for most tackles in program history and won ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The Rest of the ACC Coastal
In Atlanta, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets will try to rebound from winning just one conference game and a disappointing 3-9 last year. Quarterback Justin Thomas is back for one more year. He needs his supporting cast to step up if the Jackets want to go back to a bowl game. They didn’t have a single 1,000 yard rusher last season and the defense only forced 17 turnovers.
In Durham, the Duke Blue Devils will have a tough schedule to contend with. Jela Duncan and Shaun Wilson lead a talented backfield and Anthony Nash lead a solid receiving corps. Thomas Sirk tore his Achilles in February, so the quarterback position is a question mark. They must replace all-American Jeremy Cash at safety.
And finally to Charlottesville, where the most interesting coaching change was Bronco Mendenhall leaving BYU for Virginia. Only ten starters are back from last year’s team. Preseason all-American and all-ACC safety Quin Blanding could be one of the best in the nation.
That’s it for the ACC, next we preview the Pac 12 North.