Early ACC Coastal football thoughts: How to slot the ‘Hoos in 2020 race?

uva footballWhen the ACC announced in 2017 that it was scheduling Virginia for the Labor Day night national TV showcase, I remember thinking, John Swofford must know something that the rest of us don’t.

Think back to when the announcement was made. This wasn’t after the 2018 season, which ended with UVA notching its first bowl win in more than a decade, or after the 2017 season, which ended with a thud, sure, but at least the thud was a bowl game, the first postseason appearance for the ‘Hoos in six years.

It was after the 2016 season, the one that started with a blowout loss at home to Richmond, and ended with a 2-10 record.

Two and ten was the prelude to Virginia-Georgia on Labor Day night three years hence.

The ACC, surely, didn’t want to book a squash match for the SEC, but there was a lot of work that would need to be done to have anybody think that Virginia could field a team that would keep TV viewers tuned in even to halftime.

Turns out that Swofford might just know his football.

Virginia, as you know, is coming off a one-score loss to another SEC power, Florida, in the 2019 Orange Bowl, after winning the program’s first ACC Coastal Division title, clinching that deal with the first win over in-state rival Virginia Tech since 2003.

Coach Bronco Mendenhall, miracle worker that he has proven himself to be, has some work to do to get his team back up that level in 2020, given the loss of all-everything QB Bryce Perkins (3,530 yards, 22 TDs passing, 769 yards, 11 TDs rushing in 2019), and top wideouts Hasise Dubois (1,062 yards receiving) and Joe Reed (679 yards receiving, 796 yards on kick returns).

The QB1 battle between two-year backup Brennan Armstrong and Mississippi State transfer Keytaon Thompson should be interesting, but the important thing will be depth in that room.

The passing game should be fine, with senior Terrell Jana (878 yards in 2019) surrounded by young talents (Billy Kemp, Tavares Kelly, Dontayvion Wicks) who will have to step up.

The running game should be a point of focus, with depth and experience on the offensive line, and the continued growth of tailback Wayne Taulapapa (473 yards, 12 rushing TDs in 2019), one of the conference’s best goal-line backs a year ago.

The defense, banged up down the stretch in 2019, returns a ton of talent and experience, and should be among the best in the ACC in getting pressure on the quarterback again this fall.

Top contenders in the Coastal

North Carolina fans will tell you, hey, we were 7-6 last season, but it could have easily been 10-3 or 11-2, with three losses by three points or less, and three others within a touchdown.

OK, but it could have also been 3-9, with three of the wins by four or less

The Heels have the conference’s best QB not named Trevor Lawrence in sophomore Sam Howell (3,641 yards, 38 TDs in 2019), and inarguably the league’s best tailback tandem (Michael Carter had 1,003 yards on the ground in 2019, and Javonte Williams added 933).

The defense will have to get better, but the talent is there.

Miami has, for years, been a big winner on signing day, usually gets a lot of love at the ACC Football Kickoff, then fizzled when it comes time to actually play the games. The consistent issue over the years has been play at quarterback, but second-year coach Manny Diaz addressed that issue by grabbing the splash grad-transfer QB in the former of D’Eriq King, who put up big numbers two years ago at Houston (2,982 yards passing, 36 TDs, 674 yards, 14 TDs on the ground in 2018), before redshirting after clashing with new Cougars coach Dana Holgorsen.

Virginia Tech is getting some preseason buzz, but you can’t overlook what was a second straight winter of discontent in Blacksburg, which saw another crop of Hokies head to the transfer portal, with coach Justin Fuente also putting himself on the market by throwing his hat into the ring for the Baylor job. For the first time in forever, Bud Foster won’t be calling the defense at Tech. QB Hendon Hooker (1,555 yards, 13 TDs in 2019) emerged midseason in 2019 to become the guy, and seems to be a good fit in Fuente’s offense.

Slotting Virginia in the preseason

It seems that the consensus is that UNC will be the preseason favorite, with Miami and Virginia Tech battling for second, and Virginia as the clear fourth.

My take: all have reasons to love them, and all have flaws.

What to love: Carolina has the division’s best quarterback and running back tandem. Miami has the most depth. Virginia Tech will have several guys on the preseason All-ACC team. Virginia has the best defense of the group.

The flaws: UNC’s defense, Miami’s ability to put things together, Virginia Tech’s cohesiveness, Virginia’s inexperience at QB.

Any of these four could be your Coastal champion at the end of November. That includes your ‘Hoos.

Story by Chris Graham

         
 

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