The Coastal Division died as it lived — namely, by producing a nonrepeat champion that got mauled by the Atlantic champ in the ACC championship. From 2011 to 2021, Coastal winners went 1-10 in title games, losing by an average score of 41-18. In the final title game before the ACC ditched divisions for an increasingly common 1 vs. 2 approach, North Carolina made its first appearance in seven years and lost to Clemson 39-10.
In theory, it could be a while before a former Coastal member sees Charlotte, North Carolina, in early December. None of these seven teams are currently projected higher than 28th in SP+, and only North Carolina has a projected conference win total above 4.5. The Tar Heels, with star quarterback Drake Maye, don’t need that many breaks to move into contention, but are they the ones with a shot? Can Miami deploy a second-year surge after Mario Cristobal’s dismal debut season as head coach? Can Pitt replenish its defensive front and find a bit more offense? Can Duke turn turnovers luck into something sustainable?
The Coastal Division is no more, but for the purposes of this two-part ACC preview, we’ll keep them together out of sentimentality. Former Coastal now, former Atlantic next week.
It’s time to preview the ACC!
Every week through the offseason, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 133 FBS teams. The previews will include 2022 breakdowns, 2023 previews and burning questions for each team.
Earlier previews: Conference USA, part 1 | Conference USA, part 2 | MAC East | MAC West | MWC Mountain | MWC West | Sun Belt West | Sun Belt East | AAC, part 1 | AAC, part 2 | Independents
The Coastal always had a bit of an “expect the unexpected” vibe. It did, after all, produce seven different champions in seven years. And in its last year, preseason projections in almost no way matched in-season output. SP+ projected 8.7 wins for Pitt, and Pat Narduzzi’s Panthers cooperated by winning nine games, but almost no one else’s season went according to plan.
Miami, Virginia and Virginia Tech were projected to average 22.2 wins among them, and they went a combined 11-22. Duke, meanwhile, told SP+ to shove its three-win projection and went 9-4. Georgia Tech won some close, late games after firing its head coach, and North Carolina won Mack Brown his first Coastal title with a six-game winning streak midseason. The Heels then ended the year with four straight losses.
Today’s previewed teams are in bold.
The ACC features only two projected top-25 teams — Florida State and Clemson — so the conference title race will basically come down to whether one of those programs disappoints or whether a talented third program can make things interesting. UNC’s got the quarterback, Miami’s got the raw talent, Pitt’s got an intriguing recent track record and Duke’s got some buzz. Of this pack, SP+ thinks UNC is the most realistic challenger.
Does Drake Maye have the supporting cast? When North Carolina hired the retired Brown, then 67, to replace Larry Fedora in 2019, the move honestly felt a bit desperate to me. Brown hadn’t coached in five years, and despite his recruiting prowess, his last four seasons at Texas (2010 to 2013) had produced only one ranked finish. It felt like the program was looking for a quick fix after some late-tenure slippage from Fedora, and I figured either Brown’s recruiting would lead to some early success before more slippage or the entire thing wouldn’t really get off the ground at all.
Turns out, neither happened. Instead, under Brown, North Carolina has continued to just be North Carolina.
UNC, 10 years before Brown: 40.9 average SP+ ranking, 6.7 wins per year
UNC, four years under Brown: 41.8 average SP+ ranking, 7.5 wins per year
If nothing else, however, Brown’s ability to recruit blue-chip quarterbacks has made the Heels more entertaining. Sam Howell threw for 10,283 yards in Brown’s (and coordinator Phil Longo’s) first three seasons, then another star recruit, Maye, took over and topped Howell, going for 4,321 yards and a top-10 Total QBR rating last fall.
The Tar Heels have averaged an offensive SP+ ranking of 16.3 since Brown moved back to Chapel Hill, and they’ll have a chance to produce something similar this fall. Maye’s got a senior-heavy offensive line in front of him, but he’ll be throwing to different receivers (leaders Josh Downs and Antoine Green, with their 1,827 combined yards, are gone) and working with a different playcaller. Longo left for Wisconsin, so Brown brought in former Gus Malzahn assistant and Troy head coach Chip Lindsey. Lindsey knows how to work with mobile QBs, and with his 144 non-sack rushes in 2022, Maye certainly brings that to the table. He’ll probably need to click with a pair of receiver transfers (Kent State‘s Devontez Walker and Georgia Tech’s Nate McCollum), but it’s hard to worry much about the offense.
It’s hard not to worry about the defense. The Heels have averaged an 85.5 ranking in defensive SP+ under Brown, and after collapsing to 112th in 2021, they rebounded only to 105th last fall after Brown hired another retiree, Gene Chizik, as coordinator. They attempted some sort of inefficient, bend-don’t-break approach, but they broke a few too many times, and they were an absolute red zone sieve.
Linebacker Cedric Gray is a star, and the front seven at least brings experience to the table, but the number of proven playmakers beyond Gray is limited. Chizik might have to lean heavily on transfers like linebacker Amari Gainer (Florida State) and corners Armani Chatman (Virginia Tech) and Alijah Huzzie (ETSU). Granted, change might not be a bad thing for this dreadful defense, but the burden of proof remains ridiculously high for both Chizik and the Heels.
What the heck was that, Miami? The story of Miami’s past 19 seasons is one of frustration. After four straight top-five finishes from 2000 to 2004, the Hurricanes fell to 11th and 17th over the next two seasons and said goodbye to Larry Coker after a seven-win 2006. Since then, they’ve finished ranked only four times.
This is obviously disappointing, but The U’s floor has remained pretty high — they had still managed to finish over .500 for all but one season in this disappointing run, underachieving but never completely collapsing.
After pushing Manny Diaz out for merely going 7-5 in 2021, Miami was finally able to lure favorite son Cristobal to town. They got their guy … and immediately collapsed to 5-7 and 74th in SP+. An offense that had finished in the offensive SP+ top 15 for two straight years plummeted to 77th. A defense that had suddenly collapsed in Diaz’s last season rebounded, but only to 74th in defensive SP+. The Hurricanes made no big plays and gave up a ridiculous amount of them.
(Apologies to Miami fans if they’re having flashbacks to the 71-, 69- and 98-yard touchdowns they allowed to Middle Tennessee.)
Per SP+, this was the worst team Miami fielded since 1970. First-year coaches sometimes deal with reset years before thriving, and maybe that’s exactly what happens here. But damn, that was dire.
Predictably, Cristobal has brought in lots of new blood. He replaced offensive coordinator Josh Gattis with Houston‘s Shannon Dawson, and when defensive coordinator Kevin Steele left for Alabama, Cristobal replaced him with exciting Marshall’s (and briefly Tulane‘s) Lance Guidry. He also brought in a number of other power conference teams’ starters through the portal, including Alabama guard Javion Cohen, Purdue defensive tackle Branson Deen, Oklahoma corner Jaden Davis and a pair of solid UCF starters, corner Davonte Brown and center Matthew Lee. Combine that with a top-five recruiting class, and you’ve got yourself a solid talent upgrade. Of course, a lack of blue-chippers wasn’t really the issue last season.
Cristobal needs a lot of rebounds, but the biggest comes at QB. Tyler Van Dyke battled injury throughout 2022, but even accounting for that his statistical collapse was stunning: He went from 8.1 yards per dropback to 6.5, and his Total QBR fell from 80.1 (11th) to 52.9 (81st). Van Dyke saw almost no success throwing downfield, and he was slow to react to pressure — Miami was 53rd in pressure rate allowed but 98th in sack rate. Most of last year’s wideouts return, but he needs someone to become a star. Alabama (and Louisville) transfer Tyler Harrell, perhaps?
Does Pitt’s front seven still have the playmakers? It’s incredible to say, but only one former Coastal team has actually had a winning record in each of the past two years. North Carolina, Miami and Duke are all between 12-13 and 15-12 in that span; Virginia Tech, Virginia and Georgia Tech are all between 8-16 and 9-13. Then there’s Narduzzi’s Pitt, winner of 20 games and, with its 2021 title, the only team not named Clemson or FSU to win the ACC since 2010.
The Panthers have easily been the best team of this batch over the past two years. Why are they the third team we’re talking about here? A couple of reasons. First, they were pretty dismal over the first half of 2022, starting 4-4 and finding themselves as low as 59th in SP+ before rallying (with a couple of tight wins) late in the year. They finished 39th, even lower than they finished while going 6-5 in 2020. That could be a warning sign. So, too, could the serious turnover Narduzzi is dealing with this year: The Panthers’ leading passer, rusher, receiver, ace pass-rushers and both starting safeties are gone. This feels like the beginning of a new cycle for Narduzzi and Pitt.
Narduzzi brought in two new quarterbacks — Boston College‘s Phil Jurkovec and Penn State backup Christian Veilleux — and some other offensive transfers, but he didn’t do much to plump the defensive two-deep despite losing his top three defensive ends and two of four tackles.
Does he still have what he needs? While players like Jurkovec, receiver transfer Daejon Reynolds (Florida) and corners A.J. Woods and M.J. Devonshire have plenty of potential, the Panthers are lower on proven playmakers than they’ve been over the past couple of seasons. That’s especially true in the front seven, where only one returnee, outside linebacker Solomon DeShields, had even four sacks in 2022. You get the benefit of the doubt when you win 20 games in two years — and when you’ve had at least two guys with 12-plus TFLs in each of the past four years — but there are quite a few questions to answer here and a lot of new stars that need to emerge.
Even if there’s a setback for Pitt in 2023, it’s hard not to be intrigued by this program overall. It still feels like the Panthers might have another gear if Narduzzi can ever get both sides of the ball clicking at the same time. In his eight seasons in charge, Pitt has twice fielded a top-10 offense (per SP+), but his defenses averaged a No. 72 ranking in those years; he’s fielded three top-30 defenses, too, but the offense averaged an 84.3 ranking in those years. The 2022 team was almost surprising in its balance — 44th on offense, 51st on defense. Which unit is more likely to jump forward in 2023?
Was Duke’s turnover margin sustainable? There were 36 fumbles in Duke games last year; Mike Elko’s Blue Devils recovered 24 of them (67%). Opponents defended — intercepted or broke up — 57 passes last year, which would typically produce about 12 interceptions on average; opponents held onto only five of those potential picks.
Based on typical national averages, Duke should have expected a turnover margin around plus-5.5. Actual turnover margin: plus-16. Turnovers are worth about 4 to 5 points in terms of field position value gained and lost, so the turnovers fairy basically gifted Duke about seven touchdowns’ worth of turnovers luck in 2022. Among power conference teams, only USC benefited more. That likely made a difference in a season that saw the Blue Devils win three games by one score, nearly upset both North Carolina and Pitt and triple their win total from three to nine.
That’s not sustainable. But damned if Duke wasn’t still much, much better than expected in Elko’s first season in charge. SP+ does take turnovers luck into account, and the Blue Devils still leaped from 113th to 48th last year. The offense overachieved by a massive amount early in the season, and a bend-don’t-break defense took root late. They probably weren’t 9-4 good, but Elko still took the pieces of a really bad team and crafted Duke’s best squad in at least four years.
Most of those pieces return in 2023, too: eight starters on both sides of the ball. Elko brought in a pair of transfers for each of the two units that lost more than the rest — offensive line (three starters gone) and the secondary (two) — but otherwise let it ride. Last year’s stars will be this year’s, from quarterback Riley Leonard (2,967 passing yards, 797 non-sack rushing yards), to slot man extraordinaire Jalon Calhoun (873 yards, 2.6 per route run), to all-conference left tackle Graham Barton to active defensive tackles DeWayne Carter and Ja’Mion Franklin, to do-everything nickel Brandon Johnson.
The turnovers luck, plus a massive upgrade in schedule strength, creates a strange situation, where Duke could easily improve on paper while regressing in the win column. A top-40 schedule features visits from Clemson and Notre Dame and trips to North Carolina and Florida State, and if Duke isn’t getting a few points per game from the turnovers fairy, the Blue Devils will potentially labor to get to a bowl. Either way, Elko surprised us once and has put Duke on a completely different trajectory in a short amount of time.
Was Georgia Tech actually better in late 2022? In his first three seasons succeeding option wizard Paul Johnson (whose 11 Tech teams averaged an SP+ ranking of 36.5), Geoff Collins went just 9-25 with an average ranking of 100.7. The school gave him a fourth year, and Collins made a ton of staff changes, but the early results were dire. Collins was predictably let go after three early losses by a combined 110-20.
That Brent Key went 4-4 the rest of the way as interim was instantly impressive. A former guard for George O’Leary’s awesome late-’90s Tech teams (and an O’Leary assistant for over a decade), Key was one of Collins’ first hires at Tech. If you’ve got a guy with a Tech friendly résumé, and he brings your first taste of .500 in a while, you’re going to consider him for the head-coaching job. (That’s doubly true if you aren’t flush with cash at the moment.) Tech did just that, making Key’s hire permanent.
Here’s my concern: When Key took over, Georgia Tech ranked 103rd in SP+. They finished the year 102nd. Their four wins came by a combined 13 points, their four losses by a combined 76. The team obviously fought really hard for Key, but it’s hard to definitively say their improvement was necessarily impressive enough to earn him the job over other candidates.
Regardless, he got the job. And this year’s roster isn’t going to look much like last year’s, at least on offense, where they’ve averaged a 91.3 ranking in offensive SP+ the past four years. Key brought in Texas A&M quarterback Haynes King, Louisville running back Trevion Cooley and seven receivers and tight ends from the transfer portal and handed the offensive reins to coordinator Buster Faulkner, who has spent 11 years as a coordinator, plus three as a quality control guy at Georgia. There’s still not a ton of proven talent here, but hey, the bar’s low.
It’s easier to see potential for growth on defense, at least if Kevin Sherrer turns out to be a strong hire. Sherrer takes over as DC after spending the past two seasons coaching New York Giants linebackers. He was Nick Saban’s director of player development at the start of the past decade, and he logged stops at Mark Richt’s Georgia and Jeremy Pruitt’s Tennessee. He inherits a defense that was pretty good against the pass, albeit with two stars — corner Zamari Walton and pass rusher Keion White — who are now gone. Overall experience levels are good, though, and safety LaMiles Brooks is an absolute keeper. Key plumped up the linebacking corps with four transfers, too, including a major potential playmaker in Texas A&M’s Andre White Jr.
UVA RB Mike Hollins gets the first touch of the Cavaliers’ spring game
Mike Hollins, who survived a gunshot wound to the stomach in a November shooting attack, got the first touch of Virginia’s spring game Saturday.
Who bounces back first, Virginia or Virginia Tech? It’s always really difficult to talk about football with the specter of tragedy in the background. Obviously, the most important thing regarding Virginia football at the moment is the loss of three players — receivers Lavel Davis Jr. and Devin Chandler and linebacker D’Sean Perry — to gun violence in November. UVA canceled its final two games of the season, and the biggest story of spring practice was a fourth shooting victim, running back Mike Hollins, returning to the field.
Tactfully transitioning from that topic to head coach Tony Elliott’s performance on the field is impossible, but this piece is a preview, so let’s try.
After three straight top-40 SP+ finishes under Bronco Mendenhall, Elliott took over in Charlottesville and hit the reset button. He inherited a great offense and terrible defense, and while the D stabilized under former Air Force coordinator John Rudzinski, the offense fell apart. Elliott and OC Des Kitchings stripped away a lot of the uniqueness of the 2021 offense, leaving behind, well, not much of anything. Quarterback Brennan Armstrong fell from 23rd to 101st in Total QBR, and UVA fell from 16th to 117th in offensive SP+.
The defense returns exciting performers in tackle Aaron Faumui and edge rusher Chico Bennett Jr., and SP+ sees further improvement coming, though I’m concerned about the turnover at cornerback, where Anthony Johnson and Fentrell Cypress II are gone after combining for two picks and 23 breakups.
The offense, however, will likely remain problematic. Armstrong predictably transferred, and a line that lost pretty much everyone a year ago, double dips in the turnover department with another three starters gone. Elliott clearly wanted to establish the sort of safe, runs-and-short-passes approach that worked (mostly) at Clemson, but poor blocking and a lack of playmakers gives that approach no hope. Former Clemson running back Kobe Pace and Northwestern slot man Malik Washington are almost immediately the most proven guys here. The QB job will likely either go to 2022 backup Jay Woolfolk, Monmouth transfer Tony Muskett or freshman Anthony Colandrea.
That UVA stumbled wasn’t necessarily a surprise. That Virginia Tech collapsed was a bit more jarring. Things had definitely been sliding in recent years — the Hokies went just 11-13 in Justin Fuente’s past two seasons — but Fuente left new head coach Brent Pry a weird and unbalanced roster, one with few scholarship availabilities for transfers. The defense found traction midseason (not exactly surprising considering Pry’s success as Penn State’s defensive coordinator), but the offense was dreadful. Tech didn’t hit 30 points even once (not even against Wofford) and finished a shocking 125th in offensive SP+.
You can talk yourself into this defense. The Hokies return eight of the 13 players who saw at least 300 snaps and really did show late-2022 growth. A pair of sophomores, corner Mansoor Delane and linebacker Keli Lawson, could be absolute stars soon, and the addition of Florida end Antwaun Powell-Ryland Jr. could turn out well. But as with UVA, the questions are mostly on offense. With more scholarships to work with, Pry leaned heavily on the portal and brought in a pair of thrilling Group of 5 deep threats: MTSU’s Jaylin Lane and Old Dominion‘s Ali Jennings III. Pry also brought in Baylor‘s Kyron Drones to push incumbent Grant Wells at quarterback. Wells has had his moments at both Marshall and Virginia Tech, but he threw nine picks and took 30 sacks last year. If the run game doesn’t improve as much as offensive coordinator Tyler Bowen probably wants, he might have to find a more pass-happy Plan B.
My 10 favorite players
QB Drake Maye, North Carolina. Returning quarterbacks who threw for over 4,000 yards with a top-10 Total QBR: Caleb Williams and Maye. The hype levels are high for the 6-foot-4, 225-pounder.
QB Riley Leonard, Duke. One of the nation’s more unique dual threats, Leonard throws accurately, scrambles effectively and can knock out tough yards in designed runs. (He also takes a lot of hits, so cross your fingers there.)
SLOT Jalon Calhoun, Duke. Returning ACC receivers who averaged at least 2.5 yards per route run last season (a lovely measure that combines consistency, explosiveness and the frequency with which your QB looked your way): FSU’s Johnny Wilson and Calhoun.
WR Ali Jennings III, Virginia Tech. The Hokies landed two of the most explosive wideouts in the G5 ranks, and the 6-2 Jennings might just be scratching the surface: In his past 12 games at ODU, he caught 73 passes for 1,431 yards and 12 TDs.
G Jalen Rivers, Miami. Miami’s O-line got some reinforcements from the portal, but it already had one anchor in Rivers, who had a 1.0% blown block rate, committed zero penalties and had zero sacks attributed to him last season.
DE Akheem Mesidor, Miami. As with the Miami O-line, the defensive front is bringing in reinforcements, but The U does have one known star in Mesidor, who posted 11.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks and eight run stops during last year’s trying season.
EDGE Chico Bennett Jr., Virginia. The offense was too poor for it to matter, but UVA’s defense attacked well on the edge, and Bennett, with seven sacks and two forced fumbles, was the primary reason for that.
LB Cedric Gray, North Carolina. He might be the only proven entity on the Tar Heels defense, but he’s one of the better run defenders in the country (23 run stops!). He’s dangerous dropping into coverage, too (two INTs, four breakups).
LB Andre White, Georgia Tech. Generally, averaging havoc plays (TFLs, passes defended, forced fumbles) on more than 1.5% of your snaps is pretty good. In seven games with A&M last year, White averaged 3.0%. Give him a starring role and watch him post star-level numbers.
CB A.J. Woods, Pitt. Pitt needs new playmakers up front on D, but the Panthers will have one of the best cornerback trios in the conference. M.J. Devonshire and Marquis Williams are good, and Woods, with one INT, 12 breakups and a 38.0 QBR allowed in 2022, is excellent.
In 1988, 35 years ago, Mack Brown and Frank Beamer went a combined 4-18. If early-tenure coaches like Brent Pry, Tony Elliott and Mario Cristobal need encouragement after frustrating starts on the field, they don’t have to look very far. Two of the most successful ACC coaches of the past 40 years started even worse.
Brown began his first UNC tenure with back-to-back 1-10 seasons before going 6-4-1 in 1990, then 10-3 in 1993 and eventually peaking with a combined 20-3 record, with back-to-back top-10 finishes, in 1996 and 1997. For Beamer at Virginia Tech, the growth was even slower. He went 5-17 in his first two seasons, settled in at .500 for the next three and collapsed to 2-8-1 in 1992, his sixth year. But everything ignited after that: The Hokies finished ranked in 1993, finished in the top 10 in 1995 and made the national title game in 1998, embarking on a 27-year bowl streak and, eventually, an eight-year streak of double-digit wins.
Sometimes it takes a minute to get rolling, perhaps even in the transfer portal era.
In 1998, 25 years ago, George O’Leary’s Georgia Tech won 10 games. The 1990s for Georgia Tech were one of the stranger decades you’ll ever see for a football program. The Yellow Jackets won an out-of-nowhere national title in 1990 but slid to 8-5 in 1991 and a combined 11-22 from 1992 to 1994. George O’Leary took over as interim at the end of a dire 1-10 campaign; he went 0-3 but still got the full-time job and stabilized things, going 18-16 over his first three years. In his fourth season, behind the work of star quarterback Joe Hamilton, Tech beat four ranked teams (including Georgia and Notre Dame) on the way to 10 wins and a top-10 finish. From No. 1 to 1-10 back to top 10 in a single decade.
Also in 1998, George Welsh’s last awesome Virginia team won nine. Welsh’s Cavaliers spent much of 1990 at No. 1 before succumbing to Georgia Tech and a late-season funk. From there, they were the opposite of Georgia Tech, settling into a nice existence of winning between seven and nine games every single year from 1992 to 1999. Welsh’s last peak came in 1998, when the Hoos shut out Auburn and used a 5-0 start to move into the top 10. Another gut-wrenching loss to Georgia Tech knocked them backwards, but they beat Virginia Tech to finish 9-2 and played a humdinger against Georgia in the Peach Bowl, eventually succumbing 35-33.
In 2003, 20 years ago, Miami finished in the top five for the last time to date. The Hurricanes had gone a combined 46-4 from 2000 to 2003, winning one national title and nearly winning two others. It was actually a disappointment that they lost twice in 2003. They joined the ACC in 2004 … and immediately sank. I don’t think there’s a strong cause-and-effect there, but won nine games in 2004 and 2005, ran Larry Coker out of town after going 7-6 in 2006 and proceeded to average just 7.3 wins per year in the 16 seasons (and five head coaches) that followed.
In 2008, 15 years ago, Pitt and Oregon State met in the Sun Bowl. Hey, anniversaries can be anniversaries for lots of different reasons — some good, some bad and some … just plain memorable.
Pitt enjoyed a lovely 2008 campaign, winning eight of 10 after an early upset loss to Bowling Green and beating both No. 10 USF Bulls (remember when “top 10 USF” was a thing?) and rival West Virginia. They went to El Paso to play No. 24 Oregon State, and the game was as close and competitive as expected.
Oh yeah, it also had more turnovers (five) than points (three). And almost as many punts (20) as first downs (25).
Oregon State’s Justin Kahut hit a 44-yard field goal in the second quarter, and that turned out to be it. Pitt’s Connor Lee narrowly missed a late 58-yard attempt, and the Beavers won 3-0.
Oregon State’s last game before this, by the way? A 65-38 track meet. Makes total sense, right?
In 2013, 10 years ago, Duke won the Coastal. We were early in our “seven different teams winning in seven years” cycle when Duke reached a peak no one could have predicted.
In 2008, David Cutcliffe had taken over a program coming off one of the worst decades imaginable. From 1996 to 2007, Duke had won just 19 total games; that he managed to go 15-33 in his first four seasons was a mini-miracle. But then it won six games and bowled in 2012. And in 2013, the Blue Devils parlayed an eight-game winning streak, with victories over ranked Virginia Tech and Miami teams, into a stunning Coastal title. They got thumped by eventual national champion Florida State and lost a Chick-fil-A Bowl track meet against Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M to finish the year, but 10 wins and a division crown in Durham was an epic achievement.