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Preseason predictions: Picking how the Coastal will finish

What predicting the Atlantic Division lacks in intrigue trying to pick how things will finish at season’s end in the Coastal surely makes up for. Only once since 2012 (Miami in 2017) has the preseason pick to win the Coastal by the ACC media won the division. In four of the last eight years the team that finished first in the Coastal at the end of the regular season was picked to finish fifth or worse in the ACC Media preseason poll. This is why they call it Coastal Chaos. Plus you can’t really blame any of the teams in the Coastal for being unselfish and spreading the wealth around the division, after all the reward for winning the division crown is a date (and an unpleasant one) with the Clemson in the ACC Championship game.

As I have said before: Preseason rankings and forecasting are part educated opinion, part fortune teller and part hogwash. And you may find my picks to be more of one than the other but it is a fun exercise with the start of fall camp just around the corner.

  1. North Carolina – The Tar Heels will likely enter the season trying to prove that last year’s 10-3 record wasn’t a fluke. Mack Brown’s team went 6-2 in the ACC but failed to reach the championship game because of Notre Dame’s temporary membership in the conference in 2020. You can expect that to be a selling point for Brown this fall as the program continues to try and establish itself as the second-best program in the league. Quarterback Sam Howell is back and widely considered the top quarterback in the conference. He is surrounded by seven other players who started on last year’s offense but will be without four skill position players, including RB Michael Carter and WR Dynami Brown who are now playing in the NFL. UNC will have to replace over 4,700 yards of total offense from a year ago but Howell does return his entire offensive line intact. The defense was the weak link for the Tar Heels in 2020 where they finished 59th in total defense. They do return eight of their nine leading tacklers and that should bring about improvement for a defense that gave up more than 29 points per game last year. Is Brown simply reloading or is this more a rebuilding year? If Howell proves himself to be a first-round draft pick this season my guess is UNC will find itself in Charlotte to face off against Clemson in the conference championship game. Media pick: North Carolina
  2. Miami – The Hurricanes will enter the season inside most people’s top 20 but they will have their hands full trying to stay there. A lot Miami’s success in 2021 could be determined by the health of quarterback D’Eriq King, who tore his ACL in the Hurricanes’ bowl game. A healthy King makes the Hurricanes’ offense dangerous against just about everybody they play with the exception of the season opener against Alabama. The offense does return 10 other starters, the top four rushers and four of the top five pass catchers from last year. That experience could come in handy if head coach Manny Diaz is forced to play one of his three freshmen quarterbacks who are vying to be King’s backup. Defensively, Diaz will take over calling the defense in 2021 after replacing three assistant coaches on that side of the ball after last season when the Hurricanes finished 67th in country in total defense. They do return nine players on that side of the ball who have starting experience, including four of their top seven tacklers from last season. A healthy King and improved defense will certainly help Miami to compete for the Coastal but without those two things the Canes could find themselves moving down the ACC standings instead of up. Media pick: Miami
  3. Pitt: College football is a quarterback-driven sport and my reason for having the Panthers at No. 3 in the Coastal is because I like their starting signal-caller, Kenny Pickett, more than I do any of the quarterbacks on the teams ranked below them. Pickett got no help from his running game last season (finishing 111th in rushing offense) and still led the Panthers to seven victories. With two one-point losses (to North Carolina and BC) the Panthers were literally two plays away from winning nine games. If Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi can help Pickett, who has completed over 60 perecent of his career passes, with more production in the running game and their usually stout defense that returns just six starters don’t be surprised if the Panthers are still in the thick of the Coastal battle in mid-November. Media pick: Virginia Tech
  4. Virginia – It was a coin flip as to whether UVA or Virginia Tech got my fourth-place vote. I could see either team winning as many as eight games or as few as five but figure both will flirt with the .500-mark in ACC play. The Cavaliers ended last season on a roll, winning four of their last five games behind the arm and legs of dual-threat quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who threw for 2,117 yards and ran for 552 yards. UVA will need to ride the momentum it found at the end of last season into 2021. The Cavs face North Carolina, Wake Forest and Miami in their first three ACC games coming against North Carolina and Miami. If they can find a way to win two of those three games they will find themselves in the middle of the Coastal race in October. Lose two of those three and the Cavs are likely playing to finish in the middle of the pack. The Cavs didn’t do itself any favors with its out of conference schedule. They play BYU and Notre Dame in weeks nine and 10, respectively, just before games against Pitt and Virginia Tech to end the season. Media pick-Pitt
  5. Virginia Tech – Head coach Justin Fuente is finding out that replacing a legend (Frank Beamer) isn’t easy. After winning 19 of his first 27 games as the Hokies’ head coach, he has gone just 19-18 since then. And they will need to get off to a fast start in 2021, where they face North Carolina (season opener), West Virginia and Notre Dame in three of their first five games. Obviously, only one of those games counts in the conference standings but the results in those games could have a huge impact on how the Hokies feel about themselves heading into the seven-week conference run that ends their season, including games at Boston College, at Miami and at Virginia (VT may be underdogs in all of those games). Part-time starting quarterback Braxton Burmeister is back but gone are the team’s top two rushers from last season. They do get their four leading receivers back from a year ago, albeit from an 89th-ranked passing offense. The defense returns eight players with starting experience from a unit that finished 103rd in total defense in 2020. There are just too many questions about the 2021 Hokies to place them in front of the other four programs ranked ahead of them. Media pick: Virginia
  6. Georgia Tech – Tech’s early schedule will make it hard for them to be much of a factor in the Coastal division race. Geoff Collins’ team should be better than they were a year ago, where they finished 5-7, but it might not be reflected in the win-loss column at season’s end. Quarterback Jeff Sims should improve after completing just 54 percent of his passes last year as a true freshman. However, there are a lot of questions on defense for a team that will need to find answers sooner rather than later in the season and that will be a very difficult task. The Jackets open their ACC schedule at Clemson, then get North Carolina and Pitt at home. They will need to win at least one of those games to have any chance at being in the Coastal conversation in October or November with games at Virginia and Miami still left on the schedule along with home games against Boston College and Virginia Tech. Media pick: Georgia Tech
  7. Duke – The Blue Devils return just 10 starters from last year’s team that went 2-9 last season and was clearly uncompetitive by season’s end, where they gave 48 points or more in their final four contests including three games where they gave up 56 points. Head coach David Cutcliffe has done a remarkable job in his 13 seasons in Durham (74-88 overall record). However, the renowned developer of quarterbacks will be breaking in a new starter this season on an offense that really doesn’t have a big-play threat outside of running back Mataeo Durant, who ran for 817 yards and eight touchdowns last year. Couple that with the loss of two of their best defensive players (defensive ends Chris Rumph II and Victor Dimukeje) from last season and the outlook in Durham is bleak for a team that resides in a division where the majority of the teams will be more competitive than they were in 2020. Media pick: Duke

Coastal Division
(First-place votes in parenthesis)
North Carolina – 979 (109)
Miami – 881 (28)
Virginia Tech – 582 (3)
Pitt – 576 (1)
Virginia – 540 (2)
Georgia Tech – 340 (4)
Duke – 218