In recent memory, the Atlantic Division of the ACC has dominated the conference championships. That looks like it will hold true this year as there are about three teams that have a legitimate chance to make the College Football Playoff in the Atlantic. Anyone in the Coastal making it that far would be considered an upset. The division is getting stronger top to bottom and should be better this year, but there is still not the top-of-the-line teams to take on the very best from the Atlantic.
The top five teams from last year all have to replace their starting quarterback. That is why this is potentially one of the most volatile conferences in America. The top tier should be comprised of Miami and Virginia Tech again, with the rest of the pack following suit.
Team Previews (With Last Year’s Records)
Virginia Tech 10-4 (6-2)
As Justin Fuente enters his second year in Blacksburg, there is a ton of uncertainty surrounding this season. After making it to the ACC Championship and winning the division last year, this team loses a lot on the offensive side of the ball. The Hokies will have to deal with the loss of quarterback Jerrod Evans, who would’ve been among the best QBs in the league had he returned. In addition, they are losing two of their best playmakers in Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges. On the defensive side of the ball they will return two great safeties in the form of Terrell Edmunds and Mook Reynolds. Apart from their home ACC opener against the defending National Champs, the most important game of the season for the Hokies may be their first one, as they look to set the tone at FedEx Field against the West Virginia Mountaineers. If the new quarterback turns out to be just as good as Evans then this team could be primed for a repeat of last season, if not, they may find themselves in a rebuilding year.
Miami 9-4 (5-3)
The Miami Hurricanes have an opportunity to have their best season since joining the ACC. Under second year head coach Mark Richt, the Hurricanes will also have to deal with the loss of their quarterback Brad Kaaya to the draft. Even with that big loss though, there is still plenty of hope in Coral Gables. The defensive unit for Miami returns a great front seven that may be the best in the country. If Kaaya had returned for his senior campaign, this team very likely could’ve found themselves on the cusp of a playoff berth. A week three matchup against cross-state rivals Florida State may end up as the measuring stick this season. Miami has lost their last seven matchups to the Seminoles. If they can handle the rest of the Coastal schedule, Miami has a chance at running the table through conference play and setting up a rematch with Florida State in what would be their first division title in 14 ACC seasons.
North Carolina 8-5 (5-3)
This year’s Tar Heels will look a lot different. That is because they lost virtually their whole offense. Among the subtractions were 2nd overall pick in the NFL Draft, Mitch Trubisky, Elijah Hood, Ryan Switzer, and three starters on the offensive line. They add one of the most intriguing transfers in former LSU QB, Brandon Harris. Harris was very inefficient at LSU but a change of scenery and offesnvie style may be just what he needs. Larry Fedora has built a solid program in Chapel Hill and 2017 may end up as a necessary rebuilding year. If the new talent shines through this year, however, that could be a good omen for the future of Carolina football.
Pittsburgh 8-5 (5-3)
Pittsburgh will be dealing with a lot of losses on offense this season, including their quarterback (sound familiar?). The best returners on the offense include duo of Quadree Henderson and Jester Weah. The Panthers will also have to deal with the loss of Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada to LSU. Without Canada, Nathan Peterman, and James Conner, it’s hard to tell what this team can (or will), be. Shawn Watson, who was fired from Texas, will serve as the new play caller. Pat Narduzzi’s squad will need to see dramatic improvement on the defense in order to be competitive this season. An important matchup lurks when Pitt has to travel to Happy Valley to take on Penn State in week two. After that they are then punished again by having to take on Oklahoma State just a week later. This tough part of the schedule may prove detrimental and Pittsburgh could seriously falter this year down the stretch.
Georgia Tech 8-5 (5-3)
The Yellow Jackets are always a hard team to predict. With the loss of Justin Thomas at the helm (trend continues), Georgia Tech should see some regression at quarterback, however, there is a lot returning on this 8-5 team that could make them effective. The spread among this tier of teams in the ACC is so little that a veteran team like Georgia Tech could very well finish in the upper section of the standings.
Duke 4-8 (1-7)
Finally! The first team that actually returns a starting quarterback! Aaaaand it’s Duke. Even with Daniel Jones and almost his full receiving core returning, a weak defense and tough schedule may prove costly again. Duke could make a bowl game, but they also very well could put up just a single tally in the win column.
Virginia 2-10 (1-7)
The Cavaliers go into their second season under Bronco Mendenhall with virtually no expectations. This team should improve from their 2-10 mark last season if they can overcome their losses at the skill positions. Virginia actually has a solid front seven behind leader Micah Kiser and could see some improvement over what they were in 2016.
Offensive Player of the Year: Mark Walton
With the lack of quarterbacks returning, this award will likely go to a skill player. Although there are no surefire picks, I’ll go with Mark Walton. The running back led the Hurricanes in yards last season with 1117 and 14 TDs on the ground, in addition to 240 yards while receiving. This year Walton should see his production increase with the loss of Kaaya.
Defensive Player of the Year: Jordan Whitehead Pittsburgh
Whitehead is a playmaker at safety that can make plays all over the field. He is thought to be one of the top safeties in college football and very well could end up as a first round selection in next year’s draft. Micah Kiser is another player who could have a chance here.
Key Non-Conference Games:
West Virginia vs. Virginia Tech
This game will likely set the table for both of these teams. We will learn a lot about the Hokies and their new offense right from the get-go.
Pittsburgh at Penn State
This is another early season matchup, and one that may determine the fate of the Pitt Panthers. Pitt was able to eke out a three point victory last season against the Nittany Lions, but may not face that same fate again this year. A win here would be huge in seeing what this Pittsburgh team is all about though.
Notre Dame vs. Miami
Catholics vs. Convicts returns. This storied rivalry will write a new chapter in Coral Gables this fall. Notre Dame will be a lot better than their 4-8 from last year and Miami will also be improved. I expect this to be a major, nationally televised showdown and the biggest non-conference game for the Coastal all year.
Pac 12 North
Pac 12 South