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ACC Football: Ranking the Coastal Division

7 UVA

2015 Record: 4-8 (3-5 ACC)

Returning Starters

Offense: 5

Defense: 5

Points Per Game: 25.8

Opponents Points Per Game: 32.2

Bronco Mendenhall looks to turn around the UVA program after the departure of Mike London. With safety Quin Blanding and linebacker Micah Kiser leading the way for the Cavaliers defense, they’ve got a decent starting point as they transition to a 3-4 defense. On offense, Taquan Mizzell’s play making ability should be on full display in 2016 as well. What’s a team without quarterback controversy? Seems that’s the recurring theme with most college football teams including this team who has Matt Johns, Connor Brewer, and ECU transfer Kurt Benkert in the stable. Until they find a consistent play caller, UVA could see another abysmal 2016 season.

Key Game: @ Virginia Tech, Nov. 26.

The Hokies have beaten the Cavaliers in the last 12 meetings. If Bronco Mendenhall wants to set the tone, it’s in their annual Commonwealth Cup game. In a battle of first year of coaches, the first season match up will set the overall tone for the rivalry series.

 

6 Georgia Tech

2015 Record: 3-9 (1-7 ACC)

Returning Starters

Offense: 6

Defense: 5

Points Per Game: 29.2

Opponents Points Per Game: 25.8

The Yellow Jackets started the 2015 in the top 25 and ended the season in the bottom of the barrel. The Yellow Jackets fall from grace was a bit unexpected as quarterback Justin Thomas saw a drop in his numbers as he rushed for 485 yards and completed just 41.7 % of his passes in 2015 after a stellar 2014 season where he rushed for 1,086 yards and completed 51.3% of his passes. The Georgia Tech offense looks to stay healthy in 2016 and provide a semblance of consistency on the defensive side of the ball as well, the Yellow Jacket defense tallied 14 sacks last season, good for last place in the ACC, and lost all four starters in the secondary.

Key Game: Vanderbilt, Sept. 17.

The Yellow Jackets play the Commodores in an ACC/SEC matchup that means more to each respective team than the conference itself. As both programs are on the crossroads of success, this game is the barometer for the 2016 for the Yellow Jackets.

5 Virginia Tech

2015 Record: 7-6 (4-4 ACC)

Returning Starters

Offense: 8

Defense: 6

Points Per Game: 31.0

Opponents Points Per Game: 26.3

Balance is the name of the game for the Virginia Tech Hokies under new head coach Justin Fuente. With running back Travon McMillian returning with receiver Isaiah Ford and tight end Bucky Hodges, the Hokies have a good base to work with on offense. McMillian was Virginia Tech’s first 1,000 yard rusher since 2011 (David Wilson). Virginia Tech has to replace three starters on their defensive line to go alongside end Ken Ekanem but with Bud Foster as defensive coordinator still, expect the Hokies defense to revamp into something special. Quarterback still remains a toss up between Brendan Motley and Jerrod Evans, and if I’m Justin Fuente, I’d milk this thing until the first game of the season. Keep opposing teams guessing, who knows, maybe he ends up playing both of them.

Key Game: Tennessee, Sept. 10.

The Battle at Bristol is a good test for Virginia Tech and Justin Fuente. It allows for the Hokies to see where they measure up against what is predicted to be a good Tennessee football team and it gives Coach Fuente an opportunity to show what he can do on the national stage in his first season as head coach for Virginia Tech.

 

4 Duke

2015 Record: 8-5 (4-4 ACC)

Returning Starters

Offense: 5

Defense: 5

Points Per Game: 31.5

Opponents Points Per Game: 25.4

The Duke Blue Devils got its first postseason win since 1960 after defeating Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl 44-41. While the Blue Devils return just 10 starters on both sides of the ball, with head coach David Cutcliffe leading the way, there’s no panic in Durham. It remains to be seen if Thomas Sirk won’t be ready for the season opener, as of now Sirk is the starter. The Blue Devils defense returns looking to avenge a lot of ACC losses that left them hopeless in the Coastal Division a season ago. The Blue Devils gave up 42 points to Virginia and 66 points to North Carolina in 2015. The Blue Devils are riding four straight seasons with a bowl appearance and enter the 2016 season in decent shape in the ACC Coastal.

 

Key Game: @Georgia Tech, Oct. 29.

This is a key game for two reasons: 1) The Blue Devils upset the #20 ranked Yellow Jackets last season, something that is still on their minds entering 2016. 2) This game begins a tough stretch of games for the Blue Devils. After the Yellow Jackets, the Blue Devils face Virginia Tech, UNC, Pitt on the road, and Miami on the road to close out their ACC schedule.

 

3 Miami

2015 Record: 8-5 (5-3 ACC)

Returning Starters

Offense: 9

Defense: 7

Points Per Game: 27.8

Opponents Points Per Game: 28.2

The Hurricanes are in an interesting position as Mark Richt takes over hoping to bring his SEC pedigree to the ACC. In year 1, Richt has a good quarterback in Brad Kaaya, a downhill rusher in Josh Yearby, and returns 16 starters on both sides of the ball. Now if you’re me, you’re wondering if “The U” is certainly back or do we wait another season? The Hurricanes haven’t made an ACC Championship game or won an ACC Football Championship since joining the ACC in 2004. 2016 could definitely be their year as the Coastal Division is ripe for the taking with no clear favorite. Currently, however, the Hurricanes remain the third best team.

Key Game: Florida State, October 8

A game that brings Florida State to town is Mark Richt’s early season test. The Hurricanes lost last season’s match up 29-24 where they had a chance to score at the end and could not. This season’s match up between Jimbo Fisher and Mark Richt shouldn’t disappoint in what will be a fun rivalry to watch.

 

2 UNC

2015 Record: 11-3 (8-1 ACC)

Returning Starters

Offense: 7

Defense: 6

Points Per Game: 40.7

Opponents Points Per Game: 24.5

The Tar Heels return after winning the ACC Coastal in 2015. To repeat, they’ll need to revamp their defense who gave up 247.8 rushing yards per game last season, good for last in the ACC. It shouldn’t be difficult for Gene Chizik to do in his second season. In his first season as defensive coordinator, his UNC defense allowed 24.5 points per game, first best in the ACC Coastal and only 188.1 passing yards per game, third best in the ACC. Not to mention, as long as this team feeds Elijah Hood the ball at a healthy rate, it shouldn’t be too hard to maintain pace in the ACC Coastal if the Tar Heels are to repeat. Hood averaged 6.7 yards a carry last season to the tune of 1,463 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. The Tar Heels return three offensive linemen from last season.

Key Game: Georgia, September 3.

Yes, the Tar Heels open their season against SEC opponent University of Georgia in Atlanta. The Tar Heels are setting the bar a bit high for themselves entering 2016 but this will be a good test for starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky in his first start.

 

1 Pittsburgh

2015 Record: 8-5 (6-2 ACC)

Returning Starters

Offense: 8

Defense: 8

Points Per Game: 28.2

Opponents Points Per Game: 26.1

James Conner’s return boosts the Panthers to the top of the ACC Coastal rankings and if all goes well, they could be sitting on top of the Coastal for all of 2016. It will be very difficult to stop this Pittsburgh Panthers rushing attack as well as they return four starters on the offensive line and Jaryd Jones-Smith also returns from a knee injury. Running back Qadree Ollison took first year starter duties in stride, rushing for 1,121 yards and 11 touchdowns, combine Ollison with what Conner can do, and it’s just scary to imagine the possibilities on offense for this Panthers squad. If the Panthers pass rush defense is as good as advertised, look for their defense to maintain a new attitude which forces turnovers and takeaways in 2016.

Key Game: @Oklahoma State, September 17.

While everybody went out and played an SEC team, the Panthers went against the grain and scheduled a good Big 12 team that boasts a very good offensive scheme. This game will be Pittsburgh measuring stick with the rest of the ACC before entering ACC play in Week 4 against UNC.