Tuesday, July 31, 2012

ACC Coastal Preview: Rise and Fall

Already blabbered about: SEC West, SEC East

I took a look at college football's overlord, the SEC West, and the also impressive but not quite overlord-y/more Darth Vader-esque right-hand man that is the SEC East last week. This offseason preview effort in the weeks leading up to fall camp that isn't a complete waste of time that nobody will read no not at all now shifts its focus to the nebulous yet mostly static world of the ACC.

As you probably know, the conference's very existence has come under fire this offseason. With the New World Order that is the much clamored for by bloggers college football playoff coming into play, John Swofford had to make some sort of moves to keep the conference afloat as the flotsam and jetsam of college football shifted conferences with alacrity. This was an especially urgent situation, as various college football folks, in lieu of all the playoff debates, built up the viability and/or necessity of the eventual existence of four superconferences to rule them all. With the Big Ten, Pac 12, and SEC being stable, intact, and ready for the new college football order (and the Big 12 having seemingly survived the departures of Texas A&M and Missouri by adding WVU and TCU), the ACC was in a precarious position: it was perhaps just a step or two away from potential irrelevance.

The ACC added traditional basketball powers Syracuse and Pitt last fall, but they won't be joining the fray until 2013. For now, the ACC is still a player, as the BCS still has two more years to go before it is finally put down forever. However, after that point, things become much murkier for the ACC.

More importantly, for all the criticism that the B1G gets for not performing at the BCS level and not producing teams that can compete for and win a national championship, the ACC has been much, much worse. After the Virginia Tech and Clemson losses this past bowl season, the ACC dropped to 2-13 in BCS games. For some perspective, if you count Ohio State's vacated Sugar Bowl victory against Arkansas, the B1G is 12-13 in BCS games, a record which hardly seems so bad when juxtaposed with the ACC's mark. With Miami and FSU not being what they once were, Virginia Tech has carried the banner for the ACC. As a fan of college football, I really enjoy watching the Hokies play (the Sugar Bowl only increased this appreciation), but they have consistently been just a cut or two below the quality of a true national contender.

Probably not about to be sacked due to being, you know, not that much smaller than RVB,  A STRONG SIDE DEFENSIVE END. 

To continue from the aforementioned, the ACC went an awful 2-6 last bowl season, its only wins coming in the Belk Bowl against Louisville (NC State) and the Champs Sports Bowl against Notre Dame (Florida State). It was another mostly disappointing year for the conference in what has been a a long streak of such seasons. It's no coincidence that this significant drop-off has coincided with the decline of Miami and FSU, teams which have continued to bring in talent over recent years while also continuing to be consistently underwhelming at the same time.

Miami eventually let go of Randy Shannon, who took over after the post-2003 Larry Coker era fizzled out in Coral Gables. Al Golden's first year at Miami was the definition of up and down, a 6-6 season that featured wins against Ohio State and Georgia Tech and losses against Maryland and Boston College. Of course, the specter of the NCAA's Completely Arbitrary Punishment Wing still looms over the program: it's unclear when that whole Nevin Shapiro thing will be dealt with.

Elsewhere, the Butch Davis era finally came to an ugly end in Chapel Hill. After being fired last summer, the Tar Heels hired Everitt Withers--now Ohio State Co-DC--to be the interim head coach in 2011. The Heels limped to a disappointing 7-6 (3-5) record, ending with a bowl game thumping at the hands of Mizzou (initiate completely unironic S-E-C! S-E-C! S-E-C!). For some time now, many have wondered if UNC would ever break through to do anything of consequence, anything that would make Tar Heel fans not think about basketball for at least little while. Despite brief stretches of hope sprinkled in here and there, the Heels have been the definition of mediocre, right in the middle of a conference that has been mostly mediocre of late. From 2002 on, UNC has won the following number of games, by season: 3, 2, 6, 5, 3, 4, 8, 8, 8, 7. Obviously, the program as improved considerably since the early part of the last decade, but the improvement has not merited any sort of lofty praise.

Virginia Tech continues to roll on with its time-tested model of stingy defense, effective special teams play, and a strong running game. Virginia Tech's 2011 season was by and large a success. Save for two losses against Clemson--a thumping at home and a loss in the ACC title game--the Hokies breezed through most of their schedule before suffering a heart-wrenching and incredibly unlucky loss against our Wolverines in NOLA. The Hokies will always be at or near the top of the ACC, a constant as ironclad as the concept of there always being money in the banana stand. With half rhinoceros, half quarterback Logan Thomas returning, the Hokies will be a favorite to seize the ACC's BCS auto-bid once again.

The ACC Coastal also boasts upstart Virginia under now second year HC Mike London. The Cavaliers had a very nice season in 2011, going 8-5, their highest win total since the 9-win 2007 season. Double digit losses against NC State and UNC would be disappointing if there were any expectations in place for this program, but after four out of five sub-.500 seasons in the years preceding London's arrival, to criticize the Cavaliers' 2011 season would be to protest too much, as some guy once said. However, a 38-0 loss at home against VT and a bowl loss against a decidedly mediocre Auburn team underscore the fact that UVA has a long way to go before they are considered even a darkhorse Coastal contender.

Georgia Tech, like VT, is a constant in it own way. Paul Johnson is still there, like a barnacle on the bottom of an Atlantic ocean liner, plugging away with his option offense generally outside of the realm of the prying eyes that exist in, say, Athens. After starting 6-0, the Ramblin' Wreck finished a somewhat disappointing 8-5 (5-3), ending with a bowl loss against Utah. With that said, it was an improvement upon 2010's 6-7 record. Plus, Tevin Washington is back to run the option offense one more time.

Lastly, we have Duke. Yeah...they're Duke. They went 3-9 last season. They are bad. They haven't finished above .500 since 1994, when they went 8-4. Abandon all hope ye who enter here and find your way to Cameron Indoor.

Comings and Goings 
Key losses, by team:
  • Virginia Tech: RB David Wilson, WR Jarrett Boykin, WR Danny Coale, CB Jayron Hosley, OT Andrew Lanier, OG Greg Nosal, OG Jaymes Brooks, OT Blake DeChristopher
  • Virginia: OG Austin Pasztor, C Anthony Mihota, DT Matt Conrath, DT Nick Jenkins, DE Cam Johnson, CB Chase Minnifield, SS Rodney McLeod, FS Corey Mosley
  • Georgia Tech-WR Stephen Hill, DE Jason Peters, OLB Steven Sylvester, NT Logan Walls, S Rashaad Reid
  • Miami-QB Jacory Harris, RB Lamar Miller, WR Tommy Streeter, OT Brandon Washington, DT Marcus Forston, DE Olivier Vernon
  • Duke-G Austin Rivers, F Miles Plumlee...HA DO YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE. I already told you to abandon all hope, man.
  • North Carolina- DE Quinton Coples, DT Tydreke Powell, DT Donte Paige-Moss, TB Ryan Houston, TB Christian Wilson, WR Dwight Jones-WR, C Cam Holland
Total returning starters, in order from most to least (including special teams):  1) Duke-17 2) UNC-15 3) GT-15 4) VT-13 5) Miami-12 6) UVA-11

Virginia Tech lost quite a bit on offense, namely tailback David Wilson and 80% of the offensive line. Otherwise, there isn't much of note here other than the fact that UVA has to replace quite a bit if it wants to tread water, let alone improve upon last season's 8-5 mark. Oh, there's also the fact that Duke returns 17 starters, which clearly means that they are in the driver's seat of the Coastal division, and by driver's seat I mean they're piloting the Model T that is Duke football straight into the Abermarie Sound (Why are they there? Who knows. Let's not ask too many questions about Duke.)

Intra-Division Games To Watch 
Here's the always handy helmet schedule for your personal perusal.

1) Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech, September 3rd. This is a critical tilt right off the bat for both teams. Other than UVA, whose legitimacy remains to be seen, GT is probably the next best challenger to VT's Coastal division throne. Last year's matchup in Atlanta was a decisive 37-26 victory for the Hokies. The same thing needs to happen if Beamer's squad wants to be comfortable essentially all season about their hold on the division. A loss would be far from catastrophic, but it would be a loss at home, something that doesn't happen all that often at Lane Stadium (notwithstanding last year's loss to Clemson).

2) Georgia Tech-Virginia, September 15th. This is the Orgo I of Coastal divison games. That is, it is a game that should weed out the unworthy. As the two main contenders other than VT, the loser would suffer a significant blow to their divisional hopes. The Cavs picked off GT by a field goal last season. This time, the Yellow Jackets get them at home.

3) Miami-Georgia Tech, September 22nd. For the second week in a row, GT gets a divisional foe at home. Regardless of the result of the UVA game, GT needs this one. It's hard to get a grip on what Miami actually is these days. I like Al Golden and all, but I get the feeling that Miami is in for at least a couple more years of mediocrity/not being very good outright. The Hurricanes need this one just as badly, as they start the season off at Boston College and then at Kansas State the next week.

4) North Carolina-Virginia Tech, October 6th. UNC is probably not a legitimate contender, but a win here would put them in the discussion, obviously. This contest will be UNC's first divisional game of the season; five games will already have been in the books for UNC by this point, so we'll have a pretty good picture of whether or not they will be able to hang with the Hokies. My guess? Probably not.

5) Miami-Virginia Tech, November 1st. The fact that this is on this mostly arbitrary list is probably not a good sign for the entertainment value of this division. Nonetheless, this will be a primetime Thursday night game at home for the Hurricanes. I'm not sure that this will mean anything for Miami vis-a-vis the divisional race, since I think they will probably be out of it at this point. Still, being about 1.66 seasons into the Al Golden era, this will be a nice sort of State of the Union game for the Hurricanes.

  • UVA: contender or pretender? The fact that UVA's 8-5 mark last season was seen as an exceptional achievement by many is a testament to how poorly the Cavs had performed the previous three seasons. That said, Mike London has made a fan out of me, and I will be excited to see how this team performs going forward. As mentioned, UVA experienced a decent amount of turnover in the two-deep, so if the Cavs can simply tread water this year, then you can probably ratchet up the Mike London hype machine. 
  • Does Miami football still exist? At this point, the only answer I have is "I don't really know." With an uncertain future re: the NCAA's impending punishment, Miami has much bigger problems to worry about. However, Miami still has talent to the point that saying "Miami has talent" is not yet simply lazy lip-service-paying. 
  • Can VT figure out mastermind Dabo Swinney? Although not a divisional foe, VT would probably like to avenge last year's two losses against the unpredictable Tigers of Clemson. This year, the Hokies have to travel to Death Valley, a game which marks the beginning of a tough stretch in the schedule (@Clemson, @Miami, FSU). 
  • Has Georgia Tech officially laid its head down on the comforting pillow of perpetual mediocrity? After the 2009 season, in which GT went 11-3, winning the ACC* and making a trip to the Orange Bowl, the question that follows is: has GT officially settled into a perpetual groove of 6-8 win seasons? With a senior QB in Tevin Washington, the option attack should still be strong. The defense, on the other hand, requires significant improvement after relinquishing 26 ppg in 2011 (good for 60th in the country). 
*Since vacated, unfortunately. 

Obligatory Heisman Candidate Section That Nobody Cares About But Here It Is Anyway 
This section should basically just say "Logan Thomas", but I will give you four anyway.

1) Logan Thomas, QB, Virginia Tech
2) Tevin Washington, QB, Georgia Tech
3) Giovani Bernard, RB, UNC
4) Orwin Smith, RB, Georgia Tech

To be quite honest, this division seems like a slam dunk for Virginia Tech. Given that this is a school whose basketball team had been coached by Seth Greenberg, perpetual denizen of the NCAA tournament bubble, perhaps that mixed metaphor isn't such a good thing. Nonetheless, Georgia Tech is not strong enough defensively, and as fun as the option offense is to watch, teams like Virginia Tech generally tend to eat it up. North Carolina will be under a first year HC in Larry Fedora, who comes to UNC from Southern Miss. They shouldn't be expected to do much more than qualify for a bowl game.

Miami is somewhat of an enigma. Jacory Harris is gone, which is probably a good thing, even though replacing a a long time stater at quarterback, even a bad one, isn't really something you want to have to do if you're trying to climb up the ladder. Paul Myerberg of Pre-Snap Read sums it up nicely:
What reason do you have to think this team is going to better its six-win mark of a season ago? None, really. The bigger question for this program is whether it can weather this storm – one that could only grow darker should the N.C.A.A. hand down some harsh penalties – and come out stronger on the other side. One factor in Miami’s favor: Golden. The program has a head coach well-versed in the trials and tribulations involved in playing the hand he’s dealt, thanks to his time at Temple. I trust in his ability to keep Miami competitive through another year or two of roster turnover and development – but won’t go so far as to say that he’ll lead the program back to its glory days. Again, this is going to take patience. This isn’t a very good team; Miami is too young, inexperienced and thin at several spots to be taken seriously. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. Be patient.
Virginia is the team to watch outside of Virginia Tech. I like what Mike London was able to do in his debut season in Charlottesville, but the annals of college football are littered with coaches who exceeded expectations at first only to fail to meet those built up expectations going forward. The bright side is that this division is not exactly brimming with established big name teams. Other than Virginia Tech, it's pretty much wide open. A second place finish in the division--matching last year's tie for second with GT--would be nothing to scoff at for a program that had fallen on hard times of late.

To make an already way too long story short, unless Virginia Tech somehow goes 0-3 during that aforementioned tough stretch of @Clemson-@Miami-FSU in late October/early November, this division is VT's for the taking. I'll get to the Atlantic division tomorrow, but the odds of another VT-Clemson ACC title game happening this season are prettyyyy prettyyyy prettyyyy good.

ACC Coastal Standings
1) Virginia Tech
2) Georgia Tech
3) Virginia
4) North Carolina
5) Miami
6) Duke

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