newsseth megginson acc coastal division preview

Seth Megginson: ACC Coastal Division preview

Last season the ACC Coastal Division race was as wide open as it had ever been. Five of the seven teams in the division finished with a .500 over above record, with the Virginia Tech Hokies eventually claiming the title.

acc footballThis season an argument could be made that the division is once again wide open. The Hokies are again one of the better teams in the Coastal, but despite being the defending division champions, Tech may not be the favorite come this fall. Could this be the year that Miami finally breaks through and captures its first division title in the ACC? The always tough Yellow Jackets of Georgia Tech will also be in the mix and perhaps teams like UNC and Pittsburgh can surprise some people this fall.

Starting with the defending Coastal champs Virginia Tech, the Hokies once again bring a very good defense under coordinator Bud Foster into the 2017 season. Tech ranked 18th overall in the country on defense last season and returning seven starters will only help keep the defense strong. Tech’s defense is led by a strong linebacker unit. Andrew Motuapauka and Tremaine Edmunds are both all-ACC type talents who are sure tacklers. Motuapauka led Tech last year with 114 tackles while Edmunds had 18.5 tackles for loss.

Edmunds’ brother, safety Terrell Edmunds, is also one of the leaders on this Tech defense. Terrell Edmunds intercepted four balls last season and emerged as a true threat in the defensive backfield. Brandon Facyson and Greg Stroman also are back for their senior years making the Hokie secondary one of the best in the country.

The Hokies’ question lie on the offensive side of the ball. Three of Tech’s best offensive players last year declared for the draft early, must surprisingly quarterback Jerod Evans, who in his lone season in Blacksburg played better than must Hokie fans could have hoped for. It seems that redshirt freshman Josh Jackson will be the starter once the season gets underway. The good news for Jackson is he will have a dangerous wideout to throw to in Cam Phillips. Still the question remains if the Hokies offense will have enough playmakers beside Phillips to help out their great defense.

The biggest obstacle in Tech’s way this season appears to be the Hurricanes of Miami. Like the Hokies, the Canes return seven players on a defense that ranked 20th in the nation last season. The Canes led the ACC in turnover margin last year with nine more takeaways then they had turnovers. The entire front seven of Miami returns this season, giving them one of the best front sevens in the entire country. Miami is led by linebacker Shaq Quarterman. As a freshman last season, Quarterman racked up 84 tackles and is the leader of a young but talented corps of linebackers. The Canes will have to replace all of their secondary this season.

On offense the Canes will try and ride talented junior running back Mark Walton to success. Last season Walton rushed for 1,117 yards and scored 14 touchdowns. Much like the Hokies, the Canes’ biggest question mark is at quarterback. Junior Malik Rosier looks to be the starter come fall, but do not be shocked if freshman N’Kosi Perry gets the job before the season is over. Whoever the quarterback is, they will be protected by an experienced offensive line and will have dangerous sophomore wide receiver Ahmmon Richardson to throw to.

If you are looking for a dark horse to win the Coastal, however, the Yellow Jackets of Georgia Tech may be the team that will surprise people in 2017. The Jackets won six of their last seven last season with wins over Virginia Tech and Georgia last November. For the Yellow Jackets to win the Coastal they will have to rely on Matthew Jordan at quarterback, who is replacing Justin Thomas. Georgia Tech, however, seems to have no problem finding the guys who can run their triple option system, and the Jackets are returning more starters than any other team in the Coastal this season. This makes Georgia Tech a dangerous opponent for whoever they face and a real threat to win the Coastal.

UNC and Pittsburgh both finished 2016 with 8-5 records and once again should be on even par with each other in 2017. UNC last year was much better than people might assume on defense. The Heels finished first in the ACC in pass defense and 43rd in the country in scoring defense. The Tar Heels’ main problem last season was stopping the run and getting their run game going. UNC will also have to replace Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback, but has LSU graduate transfer Brandon Harris coming in. If UNC can get the most out of Harris, then the Heels maybe better than some people think.

Pittsburgh last year pulled off the huge upset victory of Clemson in Death Valley last November. The Panthers had one of the top scoring offenses in 2016 finishing 10th in the country. Their defense, however, gave up way too many points and big pass plays. Pitt finished near the bottom of the country in pass defense, finishing 127th. The Panthers’ defense must improve to help USC transfer quarterback Max Browne, who is taking over for Nathan Peterman. If Pitt has to rely on outscoring their opponents once again this season, their offense may not be as up for the task as last year’s team was.

Rounding out the ACC Coastal are Duke and Virginia. Both teams had disappointing 2016 campaigns, with the Cavaliers only winning two games and the Blue Devils four. One thing that both of these teams have in their favor is they are the only two teams in the Coastal returning their quarterbacks. For the Blue Devils, there seems to be promise in their sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones. Jones put up a respectful season, throwing for 2,836 yards and 16 touchdowns. If the Devils can improve on both sides of the ball, there is no reason to think they cannot make it back to a bowl game come December.

The Cavaliers, however, may have a longer way to go. UVA returns Kurt Benkert at quarterback, who threw for 2,552 yards last season and 21 touchdowns. Benkert threw his fair share of interceptions, sometimes in the worst possible moments that hurt UVA last season. UVA finished near the bottom of the country in almost every offense category besides passing offense. Scoring, rushing, and total offense all finished below 110th. The Cavs will hope that their three graduate transfers on the offensive line will help keep Benkert more protected and in turn show an improvement for the offense.

UVA defense returns eight starters with two all-ACC players leading the way. Linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quinn Blanding were two bright spots in a very bleak 2016. Kiser was the leading tackler in the ACC with 134, which also put him at third in the nation in tackles. With two strong leaders on defense, the Cavs should improve on that side of the ball in head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s second season in Charlottesville.

The ACC Coastal is usually one of the more unpredictable divisions in all of college football. The division title will once again run through Blacksburg, but teams like Miami and Georgia Tech will challenge the Hokies. Pittsburgh and UNC will likely be teams that can manage six or seven wins but will be a dangerous out for all of their opponents. UVA and Duke will both just be hoping for improvement in 2017, and hopefully that improvement will result in bowl appearances for both. At the end of the day it looks to be a three-team race with the Hokies, Canes, and Yellow Jackets, and I will declare before the 2017 season starts that this is the year that Miami gets their first trip to the ACC title game.

Column by Seth Megginson

Seth Megginson

Seth Megginson

Seth Megginson covers sports for AFP. A graduate of Radford University, Seth has done freelance work for the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg covering high school and college football.