Following is our preview of the Atlantic Coast Conference, divided into two parts.  First up is the Coastal half of the loop, presented in order of predicted finish, with 2014 straight-up, spread, and over/under results included.  The Atlantic preview will follow...

by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We were a bit surprised a year ago when many otherwise sharp college football observers who would gather across I-75/85 from campus at The Varsity were routinely dismissing Georgia Tech (2014 SUR 11-3, PSR 10-4, O/U 8-6) and HC Paul Johnson after a couple of admittedly lackluster seasons in Atlanta. Those sorts, however, would eventually be reminded of Johnson’s acumen when the Yellow Jackets rallied from the middle of the pack to win the Coastal half of the ACC, then beating rival Georgia in a thrilling regular-season finale before narrowly missing an upset of then-unbeaten Florida State in the conference title game.

Proving that the 2014 renaissance was no fluke, Tech would then dismantle a Mississippi State squad that had ascended to the top of the polls earlier in the season. The Yellow Jackets were well worth their 49-34 romp on the Orange Bowl that restored some honor for the ACC and provided a much-needed boost of confidence for the conference thanks to handily beating a second well-regarded foe from the ballyhooed SEC in a five-week span. 

Those in the know, however, have always realized that Johnson remains one of college football’s shrewdest game managers, and one who had long ago proven an ability to get his teams punching above their weight (remember all of the successes at Navy between 2002-07). Since moving to Tech in 2008, Johnson’s Jackets have been “bowling” each year. Granted, some campaigns disappointed, specifically when Johnson’s ill-advised hire of Al Groh as d.c. would boomerang a few years ago. In 2013, Tech also floundered somewhat as Johnson’s attempt to modernize his option-based offense by customizing the playbook for QB Vad Lee’s passing abilities would instead backfire.

But no one ever said Johnson was dumb, so it was no surprise to see Tech return to Johnson’s option-centric infantry roots last season while the “D” had stabilized post-Groh under the steady hand of respected d.c. Ted Roof, once upon a time the HC at Duke.

Having the proper option pilot in Justin Thomas was the key to last year’s offensive renaissance that produced a whopping 37.9 ppg (ranked 11th nationally). Thomas, perhaps the fastest-ever QB in a Johnson offense, ignited the option by rushing for over 1000 yards while proving a dangerous pass threat as well, tossing for 18 TD passes (almost Dan Marino-like for a Johnson “O”) last fall. Now a junior, Thomas has generated some peripheral Heisman mention entering the fall, though there is a bit of concern regarding a supporting staff that lost some established firepower to graduation after the Orange Bowl win.

Specifically, a productive RB corps would depart almost en masse, as the graduated trio of Synjyn Days (in the Dallas Cowboys camp this summer), Zach Laskey (in the St. Louis Rams camp this summer), and Charles Perkins would combined for 337 carries and 2218 YR last season as the Ramblin’ Wreck would rank tops nationally with 342 ypg rushing. But no Johnson offense has ever been short of quality backs, and even potential season-ending injuries in spring to expected replacements C.J. Leggett and Quaide Weimerskirich might not slow the option which has added a Stanford transfer, Patrick Skov, to the RB mix along with a couple of well-regarded true frosh, Marcus Marshall and Mikell Lands-Davis, plus various RS frosh itching to contribute. ACC sources also suggest that position switches that have moved RS frosh Qua Searcy and former WR Marcus Allen to the backfield give Johnson plenty of coast-to-coast options in his backfield. Better yet, all will be motoring behind a vet OL that returns four starters led by likely NFL draftees LT Bryan Chamberlain and C Freddie Burden.

Thomas will also be aiming passes toward a restructured WR corps after the graduation of big-play threats DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller, but jr. Michael Summers looks a capable heir apparent, and there will be plenty of speedy targets for Thomas to utilize.

The Roof “D” was a bit permissive vs. the run in 2015 but has an experienced look about it with seven returning starters and several others who saw considerable action a year ago. Moreover, sr. Jabari Hunt-Days is eligible again after missing all of 2014 due to academics and is expected to make a significant impact at DT after being moved from DE in spring. Soph DE KeShun Freeman also earned various Frosh A-A accolades last fall and looms as an impact presence on the edge.

Roof, who junked Groh’s ill-advised 3-4 in 2013 for more-traditional 4-3 looks that often morph into 4-2-5 alignments as needed, also has plenty of veteran options in his back 7. Junior OLB P.J. Davis now appears comfy with Roof’s schemes and is another potential impact presence on the edge, while the secondary is the deepest in memory at Bobby Dodd Stadium, with an all-senior projected starting lineup led by big-play CB D.J. White, involved in game-saving takeaways vs. Virginia Tech and Georgia last season.

2014 was also a pointspread recovery for Johnson, whose superb marks vs. the number from earlier in his career (especially as a dog and on the road) took some hits in recent years. Tech covered 6 of 7 as a dog last season en route to covering 10 of 14 overall.

Every game looks winnable on the Tech schedule, but overall it looks a more-challenging slate than a year ago, especially a four-game stretch beginning in late September that includes trips to Notre Dame and Duke before hosting North Carolina and a 3-hour bus ride on I-85 to Clemson. November is not easy, either, with a trip to Miami sandwiched by home games vs. revenge-minded Virginia Tech and Georgia. Those various banana peels make it unlikely for the Jackets to be involved in any Final Four discussion. But Johnson won the Coastal with a young team in 2014, and a more-experienced roster again looks the best in the GT half of the ACC. Don’t be surprised if, like a year ago, Tech sneaks its way back into the New Year’s Six, where another opposing coach (such as Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen last December) will be cursing his luck that he drew the Jackets and Johnson’s option.

The chili and slaw dogs and the frosted oranges at The Varsity will likely go down very easy for Tech backers this fall.

If there is one significant development to keep an eye on at Chapel Hill in late summer, it regards possible NCAA sanctions that could be coming soon against the athletic department at North Carolina (2014 SUR 6-7, PSR 5-8, O/U 5-7). When and to what severity were not known as we went to press in early July, and whether the “cash cow” sports football and basketball escape the brunt of the penalties remains to be seen. (Some regional sources believe there’s a chance the big-money sports might survive mostly unscathed, but we ll see.)

At the moment, however, the Tar Heel football team remains probation-free, and even if sanctions are levied, there’s a good chance those penalties might not happen until after the 2015 season.

On the field, we suspect UNC will have a much-better look than the last time seen in Detroit’s Quick Lane Bowl, when Rutgers rolled to a 40-21 win. In the aftermath, HC Larry Fedora made sweeping changes to his defensive staff, and has enlisted former Iowa State and Auburn HC Gene Chizik, a decorated defensive coordinator earlier in his career (especially at Texas for the 2005 national champ Horns) to take over the Tar Heel stop unit.

Upgrades can thus be assumed on the defensive platoon, though to what degree likely determines the success (and failure) of the 2015 Tar Heels. Under the deposed Dan Disch (relieved of duties along with a pair of other Carolina defensive assistants), who followed Fedora from Southern Miss, UNC collapsed on the stop end a year ago, ranking in the triple digits nationally in all significant defensive stat categories, including an unsightly 116th in scoring (39 ppg) and 117th vs. the rush (240.5 ypg). Six foes hit 40 points or more, and three of those hit the half-century mark, including East Carolina, which dropped a humiliating 70-point bomb on the Heels last September 20 at Greenville.

Chizik, who was effectively handed the keys to the defense by Fedora and authorized to do whatever he thought necessary to stop the bleeding, immediately got around to implementing his changes during spring, ditching Disch’s 4-2-5 schemes for a more-traditional base 4-3 look that played to rave reviews among (importantly) the players, who noted that the new design was easier to understand and execute. Since last year’s “D” neither understood nor executed Disch’s schemes, that was an expected response from the defenders, though there is some reason for optimism, especially in a secondary that returns 7 of its top 8 DBs from 2014, including a potential standout CB in junior Bryan Walker. Senior MLB Jeff Schoettmer also emerged as the leader of the platoon during spring, when Chizik basically opened up competition for all jobs. So, despite six returning starters, the Heels could have a significantly new personnel look as well as the change in schemes authorized by Chizik.

ACC sources have alerted to keep an eye on some intriguing prospects along the DL, especially true frosh DE Jalen Dalton, the top-rated recruit from the class of 2015 who opened some eyes in spring after enrolling early. It is hoped that sophs such as DT Nazir Jones and DE Dajuan Drennon will be more impactful as well after being thrown to the wolves as freshmen.

Even modest improvement from the “D” could be significant because the Heels believe they can trade points against any foe with a strike force that returns ten starters from a potent attack that scored 33 ppg in 2014. UNC returns 100% of its rushing yards, 99.2% of the passing yards, and 83.7% of the receiving yards from last season. Electric sr. QB Marquise Williams set a single-season school record for total offense a year ago and is on the periphery of the Heisman Trophy discussion.

Remaining in the fold are also a collection of Plaxico Burress-sized big wideouts, as Quinshad Davis, Mack Hollins, and Bug Howard all stand 6'4 or taller. Though the go-to target might remain all-purpose threat Ryan Switzer, relatively puny at (5’10) compared to the other WRs but the leading returning receiver after catching 61 passes a year ago, and a dangerous punt-return threat to boot. After an adjustment period a year ago, a veteran, upperclass OL returns four starters and could evolve into a dominant unit, potentially opening plenty of holes for what might be the ACC’s most-versatile set of RBs in Elijah Hood (power), Romar Morris (speed), and T.J. Logan (combo of Hood and Morris), plus the mobile QB Williams, who ran for 788 yards and 13 TDs a year ago.

Fedora’s UNC teams have yet to develop much of a pointspread personality aside from failing against non-ACC competition, against which the Heels have covered only 3 of their last 10, with one of those covers a blowout of FBS newbie old Dominion in 2013. The Heels, who mildly disappointed a year ago, also need to improve their form at home in Kenan Stadium, where they have dropped 5 of their last 7 vs. the line.

What we do like about UNC in 2015 (besides the returning offensive firepower and the addition of Chizik to the staff) is the schedule, which misses the top contenders (Florida State, Clemson, and Louisville), save Tobacco Road neighbor NC State, from the Atlantic half of the loop, and competes in the more-forgiving ACC Coastal. Keep in mind that UNC beat defending Coastal champ Georgia Tech last October. The manageable 2015 non-conference slate also features no road games, only a neutral-field battle vs. Steve Spurrier’s rebuilding South Carolina at Charlotte, and three very winnable contests at Chapel Hill, where Coastal contenders Duke and Miami must also visit in November.

The combo of a forgiving schedule, potential significant improvement on defense with new coordinator Chizik, and a possible Heisman contender in Marquise Williams leading the offense, makes it not far-fetched to envision the Tar Heels unscathed heading into a big November that conclude with road games at Virginia Tech and not far up the street at NC State. UNC should get back to a bowl, and perhaps a good one at that, without much trouble...unless the NCAA decides to intercede beforehand.

And then there was one. One, that is, major college head football coach who remains on the job from the 1980s. Which causes us at TGS to pause, for when we began to publish in the late 1950s, there were a handful of coaches still working who had commenced their careers in the 1920s. But as we enter 2015, only Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech (2014 SUR 7-6, PSR 6-7, O/U 3-8-1) remains on the job from Ronald Reagan’s second term in the White House. (Beamer succeeded legendary Bill Dooley in 1987.) Indeed, with Larry Blakeney retiring at Troy, Beamer is also the only college head coach remaining from Bill Clinton’s first term in office. Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz and Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops (both hired in 1999) are the only other major college coaches who date on their jobs to pre-2000.

Understandably, Beamer retirement talk began to heat up again last fall when the Hokies looked in danger of missing a bowl for the first time since Clinton’s presidential election year of 1992, an era in which the longtime VPI coach was on the hottest of seats. Behind QB Maurice DeShazo and a feisty defense, Beamer pulled an Independence Bowl bowl bid (and lopsided win over Bill Mallory’s Indiana, 45-20) out of his hat to save his job in 1993 and had been a postseason regular for two decades, at least until a year ago when the streak appeared in real jeopardy. But a nervy yet delightful season-ending win over state rival Virginia (a favorite whipping post of Beamer’s through the years) kept the Cavs out of the postseason and got the Hokies to the lowest rung of bowl eligibility, whereupon VPI played one of its better games of the year when beating Cincinnati, 33-17, in the Annapolis Military Bowl.

That, however, probably wasn’t the Hokies’ best game of 2014; remember, earlier in the season VPI was good enough to go into Columbus and deal Ohio State its only loss of the campaign in a 35-21 finale that might not have been as close as the score indicated. All part of a puzzling 2014 that also included a nil-nil regulation draw vs. Wake Forest (how could the defense-poor Deacons record a 60-minute shutout?) before the Gobblers lost in OT at Winston-Salem.

But Beamer’s future last December seemed more potentially clouded by health issues (throat surgery) that prompted him coaching the bowl game from the press box. Considering Beamer’s age (he turns 69 in October), physical issues, and the program’s gradual decline, it was natural for many to believe the end of an era might have been at hand in 2014. But the status quo remains at Blacksburg, where alumnus Beamer (entering his 29th season this fall) still pulls the strings, and where longtime d.c. Bud Foster remains on staff.

Curiously, there has yet to be any official successor plan put in place as a bridge to Beamer’s longtime sidekick Foster, who has been assumed to be the heir apparent for more than a decade, a period in which Foster has resisted pursuing many other jobs. But with the Hokies flattening out in recent years, there has been no movement to put Foster next-in-line, and any further downgrade of Tech’s fortunes might irreparably damage Foster’s hopes of being the successor to Beamer.  Stay tuned for further developments.

Still, we have seen too many of Beamer’s teams surprisingly rise to relevance before completely writing off any Hokie editions led by the old coach, although the “Beamer-ball” recipe has gone stale in recent years as the team has slumped to 22-17 SU since 2012. Specifically, the old “special teams edge” Beamer’s squads enjoyed for years has been harder to identify the past couple of seasons. And while the Hokie defenses remain gnarly as ever for the iconic d.c. Foster, the VPI “O” feels as it if it has been stuck in neutral since the days of Michael Vick.

Both of Beamer’s platoons return a hefty eight starters from 2014, but it’s the offense, as usual, that is of the most concern to Hokie backers. And for good reason, as the attack has sputtered the past couple of years under coordinator Scott Loeffler, whose days as an up-and-coming o.c. on Al Golden’s Temple staff several years ago appear way back in the rear-view mirror after he was in charge of the desultory Auburn “O” that got Gene Chizik fired after 2012, and subpar output from VPI attacks the past two seasons. To better illustrate his recent plight, neither of Loeffler’s first two VPI offensesranked better than 93rd in scoring or 96th in total offense.

Loeffler could claim the introduction of his system and a rash of injuries and youth have thwarted progress the past two years, but most ACC sources believe prospects for meaningful offensive upgrades appear cloudy in 2015, especially since former Texas Tech transfer QB Michael Brewer again appears to be the primary option behind center. Brewer had his moments, both good and bad in 2014, but his self-destruct tendencies (he threw a whopping 15 picks a year ago) continually negated some of the positives a year ago.

Now a senior, Brewer can at least be cautiously optimistic about more help from his supporting cast this fall. The running game showed signs of life last season before injuries decimated the tailback position. The team’s most promising runners, Marshawn Williams and Shai McKenzie, both missed spring ball recuperating from ACL injuries (McKenzie also had to contend with legal issues), but 2013 leading rusher Trey Edmunds should finally be close to 100% after dealing with a severe broken leg suffered vs. Virginia at the end of the ’13 season. All should get the green light this fall. Now-sr. J.C. Coleman is a serviceable alternative after running for 468 yards in the final four games a year ago.

Meanwhile, this might be the best collection of receivers at Blacksburg since, well, continuing our White House theme, the days of the George W. Bush administration. Soph wideouts Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips displayed considerable upside and homerun potential in their frosh debuts a year ago when combining for 96 catches and 9 TDs, while soph TE Bucky Hodges set the school’s single-season reception marks for the position with 45 catches and 7 TDs as a RS frosh in 2014. There is also hope that a recently-jumbled OL situation has solidified after it went through the entire spring with a set lineup. This after much position-juggling last season uncovered a potential nugget when bruising soph LG Wyatt Teller entered the starting lineup midway thru the campaign and would become a stalwart.

As usual, Bud Foster’s attack-happy “D” will be the featured platoon, though the vet coordinator is stressing more playmaking from his defenders after VPI slipped to an uncharacteristic 89th in TO margin (-7) last season. Brewer’s penchant for picks didn’t help that number but the Hokies were not forcing TOs as in the past, either.

Foster held out several key performers who were nursing nagging or worse injuries in spring, but defensive prospects for the fall seem more cheery, especially with four linemen on hand who have earned All-ACC recognition at one time or another in the VPI careers. Tackle Luther Maddy sat out 2014 with a medical redshirt (knee), but expects to return to anchor the middle along with run-stuffing Corey Marshall, who also sat out spring with ankle injuries not deemed too serious. Meanwhile, disruptive DEs Dadi Nicholas and Ken Ekanem combined for 18 ½ sacks a year ago and rate as perhaps the ACC’s best edge-rushing combo.

There are some concerns at the LB spots where sr. ILB Deon Clarke will be joined by newcomers in the lineup, and the secondary must replace a pair of three-year starters. But jr. CB Kendall Fuller is a likely future NFL first-round pick and might be the best in a long line of decorated Hokie DBs of the Beamer era, and if promising soph CB Brandon Facyson can return from last eyar’s stress fracture to his leg, Foster can move big-hitting jr. Chuck Clark back to his normal FS spot.

As mentioned earlier, the missing element from recent Beamer editions has been stellar special teams play, but the Hokies welcome back both of their kickers and hope punt return ace Greg Stroman can finally break some long ones after coming close a year ago. A reappearance of the old Beamer kick-block magic, however, would definitely come in handy.

Beamer’s spread fortunes have also sagged with his straight-up record in recent seasons, though the Hokies did cover 4 of 5 as a dog (long a good role for Beamer) a year ago. VPI continues to mysteriously underperform at Lane Stadium, however, dropping 5 of 7 vs. the number a year ago and now 8-16-1 vs. the line at Blacksburg since 2011. Not surprisingly, the Hokies have trended “under” (29-17-1) the past four season as well.

VPI has a chance to make another loud non-conference statement when hosting  revenge-minded, defending national champ Ohio State in the opener on Labor Day, but the course of the season will likely be determined by a challenging October gauntlet within the ACC that fortunately features three (Pitt, NC State, and Duke) of a four-game stretch at home. Still, there are too many questions involving coordinator Loeffler and the erratic QB Brewer on the offensive end to expect a return to the glory days of Beamer’s tenure in Blacksburg. But another expected nasty Bud Foster “D” will look familiar and should be more than enough to get the Hokies to their 23rd straight bowl.

As for Beamer, he's now a year-to-year proposition at this stage of his career, so let’s enjoy the last remaining college head coach from the wonderful ‘80s while we can.

Fairly or unfairly, it’s likely win (big) or else for Miami-Florida (2014 SUR 6-7, PSR 5-8; O/U 4-9) HC Al Golden, who enters his fifth season at Coral Gables having yet to achieve much lift-off for the Hurricane program on his watch. We say fairly because the Miami partisans (of which there are surprisingly not many in a decidedly pro sports-oriented marketplace) believe their team should neither be floundering beneath .500, as the Canes finished last season, nor sitting at just 28-22 after four seasons under a coach who arrived with high expectations following heroic work at Temple, resurrecting a dormant Owl program. A four-game losing streak to conclude 2014, and bowl defeats the past two seasons vs. Louisville and South Carolina, have further fueled the discontent among critics.

We say unfairly, however, because Golden unsuspectingly walked into a hornet’s nest shortly after his hire at Miami with the ramifications of the Nevin Shapiro scandal hitting the football program front and center. The school would self-impose bowl bans during Golden’s first two years in charge, and while the Canes appeared ready to re-emerge on the national stage for a while in 2013, Miami has now lost 11 of 19 games since a midseason blowout loss at Tallahassee vs. Florida State twenty months ago. Whatever, most ACC sources agree that Golden’s program needs to make a significant move above .500 and into a decent bowl to keep the coach out of hot water.

We are not convinced that Golden avoids trouble this fall, as the schedule is tough (more on that in a moment) and the Canes lost a host of NFL-caliber athletes (seven players drafted, five in the first three rounds) from last year’s team. But, unlike last summer, Miami is at least better-set at the all-important QB position than it was at this time a year ago.

That’s because 6'4 soph Brad Kaaya returns with a year’s worth of staring experience under his belt. Kaaya set true frosh passing records at the “U” when flinging for 3198 yards and 26 TD passes a year ago while also earning the ACC Rookie of the Year award. Regional sources report Kaaya appeared even more comfy in the offense during spring work, when he was more settled in the pocket and demonstrated many of the leadership skills that Golden and the staff were expecting.

Though the QB position appears solid, questions on offense (which only returns three starters, including Kaaya) still abound due to the departure of foundation pieces and NFL draftees RB Duke Johnson and WR Philip Dorsett, as well as four starters along the forward wall. How Kaaya’s supporting cast develops will have a lot to say about Golden’s job status come December.

Hope does not appear lost, however, because (if scouting services are to be believed) Golden has recruited at a fairly high level the past few years, and the Canes are usually not short of talent. The infantry intrigues, as soph RB Joseph Yearby (509 YR in 2014) ran with some flair when Duke Johnson was injured a year ago, while 230-lb. slammer Gus Edwards was one of the revelations of spring, running with considerable power. There is potential explosiveness in the WR corps, too, though jr. Stacy Coley will be expected to have a bounce-back season after his 2014 slump that followed a Frosh A-A campaign in 2013 when he caught 33 passes, 7 for TDs.

Even assuming the skill-positions do not experience much drop-off, there are legit questions along an OL that returns only one full-time starter (RG Danny Isidora) and one part-time starter (LT Trevor Darling) from a year ago. If pass-blocking becomes an issue, it could force Golden and o.c. James Coley to consider using backup QB Malik Rosier, much more mobile than starter Kaaya, who unfortunately lacks the wheels to cause opposing defenses much concern when he breaks the pocket.

The “D” had fewer departure issues than the “O” in the offseason, but among those who left are stalwart tackling machine LB Denzell Perryman, a second-round pick of the San Diego Chargers. Despite last year’s overall 14th rating on defense, coordinator Mark D’Onofrio came under criticism when the platoon could not get off of the field in losses to Nebraska, Georgia Tech, Pitt, and Virginia. But the Canes were good enough to put the shackles on potent Duke and North Carolina offenses and throttle Virginia Tech at Blacksburg a year ago.

The DL is mostly rebuilt but ACC insiders note the usual physical specimens still dot the Cane stop unit, especially up front where soph DEs Chad Thomas and Al-Quadin Muhammad look to be potential breakout players. There is also plenty of experience in the secondary, where sr. FS Deon Bush (five forced fumbles in 2014) and junior corners Corn Elder and Artie Burns look like playmakers. The questions on “D” are mostly within the post-Perryman LB corps, where Golden would move pass-rusher Tyriq McCord from DE to the strong-side LB spot in spring, reckoning his explosiveness could be put to extra use on the edge.

The Canes could also use upgrades on their special teams, where true frosh PK Michael Badgley was inconsistent last season when he missed four PATs, and the return coverage teams, which ranked last in the ACC in yards allowed.

Spread-wise, after a promising beginning at Coral Gables that followed several successful years vs. the number at Temple (especially as a dog and on the road), Golden has slumped lately, as the Canes have dropped 15 of 21 vs. the number since mid 2013. There has also been no significant edge at home, where the Canes have covered just 4 of their last 10 entering 2015 and often play before a half-filled (if that) Sun Life Stadium...another reason for Golden to worry about his future.

Ah, yes, that schedule. Tough, with non-conference dates vs. Nebraska and Cincinnati, and a brutal three-week October stretch that includes Florida State (at Tallahassee), revenge-minded Virginia Tech, and Clemson. We’re not sure Al Golden survives into 2016. But, to paraphrase long-ago actor John Houseman from the iconic Smith Barney TV commercials, if Golden is to save his job this fall, he will have done it the old-fashioned way...he will have e-a-r-n-e-d it.

Many Big Ten observers were wondering when longtime Mark Dantonio sidekick Pat Narduzzi would strike out on his own and give it a go in a head coaching opportunity. Narduzzi, Dantonio’s d.c. at Cincinnati and Michigan State, has had opportunities to fly solo before, but has turned down many suitors (most recently at UConn after 2013) in recent years. Apparently, however, he finally found a job he could not bypass, and will play a bit of Big Ten-ACC musical chairs with Paul Chryst, now at Wisconsin after a two-year stint at Pittsburgh (2014 SUR 6-7, PSR 6-7, O/U 8-5) while Narduzzi takes over the Panthers in 2015.

When we last saw Pitt, the team Narduzzi inherits was coughing up a 21-point lead in the final 3:41 of the Armed Forces Bowl against Houston, surrendering three TDs sandwiched around a pair of onside-kick recoveries by the Cougars, who would emerge improbable 35-34 winners in one of the most wild of many wild bowl finishes a year ago. That late collapse, however, was merely a microcosm of an infuriating campaign in which the Panthers lost four games by five points or fewer en route to finishing on the wrong side of .500.

Unfortunately, the events of last season continue a disturbing trend in the Steel City, as the Pitt program strives for the sort of stability it has not really sustained since the long-ago days of legendary HC Jock Sutherland. Even the glory years of the Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill regimes in the 70s and 80s were relatively short-lived (four and five seasons, respectively) before each moved on to greener financial pastures, as would Walt Harris, who would immediately bolt to Stanford after leading the Panthers into the old BCS in the 2004 campaign. The recent scorecard now reads five coaches in seven years...and zero continuity. The modest fan base in a decidedly Steelers-centric town is growing frustrated and hopes that Narduzzi and his snappy resume’ can at least provide some much needed stability.

Narduzzi’s credentials certainly encourage, as his defenses at East Lansing consistently ranked among the nation’s best, as the Spartans would be the only school in the FBS to rank in the top ten in total and rushing defense the past four seasons. And there should be reason for optimism at the “Dirty O” across campus on Forbes Avenue, where between munches of the legendary heaps of french fries the Panther fans can excite themselves with the prospects of fifteen returning starters from what was the nation’s youngest team a year ago with a staggering 81 underclassmen (53 frosh and 28 sophs).

There is some star power offensively, too, for Narduzzi’s new coordinator Jim Chaney, most recently in the SEC with stints at Tennessee and Arkansas. Chaney, who also mentored Drew Brees many years ago at Purdue, is also Narduzzi’s QB coach but will nonetheless have his hands full trying to extract something out of junior QB Chad Voytik, who made a nice splash in his breakout game two years agio vs. Bowling Green in the Little Caesar’s Bowl but often struggled a year ago in his debut as the starter before putting up better numbers down the stretch en route to 2233 YP. Still, there is room for improvement in an aerial game that ranked 102nd nationally and looked as outdated as VHS tapes in comparison to some of the other unique and often high-tech offenses elsewhere in the ACC.

Fortunately for Chaney, and Voytik, there are legit headliners in the supporting cast, as bulldozing 250-lb. TB James Conner would sledgehammer his way to a whopping 1765 YR and 26 TDs as a soph and enters 2015 as a peripheral Heisman contender. A north-south runner deluxe, Conner provides the thunder for the offense while fellow jr. WR Tyler Boyd (78 catches and 8 TDs in 2014) is an established big-play threat who adds the lightning while figuring to be a strong contender for the Biletnikoff Award this season. Three starters are also back along an OL that was a priority for Chryst in his short-lived regime but will be expected to improve its pass-protection skills after Voytik was often running for his life a year ago.

Narduzzi’s initial major contributions figure to be on the “D” where his expertise will be expected to help plug the Panther defensive dike that would spring far too many leaks down the stretch a season ago when four of the final six foes scored 30 or more, with two of those cracking 50, not to mention the late-game collapse in the bowl vs. Houston. Narduzzi’s hand-picked coordinator, Josh Conklin, shares a similar attack-minded philosophy that was displayed last season at Florida International when the Golden Panthers would improve significantly to rank 35th nationally in total defense (an especially good number for a Conference USA rep).

Unlike the offense, the Panther “D” lost its headliners from last season with impact LBs and top tacklers Anthony Gonzalez and Todd Thomas both departing, but there are three seniors who figure to start along the DL in the Panther 4-3 including agile 310-lb. DT K.K. Mosley-Smith, who should draw some attention in the upcoming NFL draft. Soph DE Ron Blair played with some flair a year ago as a frosh when recording five sacks, and aptly-named jr. Money (outside) LB Bam Bradley could thrive in the Narduzzi-Conklin schemes.

There are established anchors in the secondary, where sr. CB Lafayette Pitts likely contends for All-ACC honors, and heady jr. FS Reggie Mitchell led the team with seven pass breakups a year ago. True frosh CB Jordan Whitehead is an in-state product who was the headliner of the 2015 recruiting class and might be hard to keep off the field. Overall, ACC sources report that the platoon seemed to grasp the initial installation of the Narduzzi defense in spring, which was perhaps the biggest positive development in April.

Special teams are headlined by the aforementioned Tyler Boyd, also a top-notch punt and kick return threat in roles that are a perfect showcase for his big-play bent. The unfortunately named PK Chris Blewitt returns after converting 16 of 21 FG tries a year ago, though he’s still hearing about when he “blew it” (literally) with a potential game-winning 26-yard FG that went awry in the final seconds of regulation in an eventual OT loss to Duke.

While we understand some of the optimism at Pitt, we also suggest it should be of the cautions variety with any longtime coordinator such as Narduzzi making his debut as a head coach. (Bob Diaco’s difficult transition to his new HC role in his first year at UConn last fall is the latest such example to come to mind). For all of their highly-touted offensive weapons, the Panthers found ways to lose games they should have won a year ago, and we remain unconvinced that QB Voytik can lead Pitt back to the promised land. How the Panthers fare in an early three-game road stretch that concludes at Iowa and Virginia Tech should give us an early indicator if the Narduzzi regime is ready to make an immediate upgrade or will simply be a work in progress...as the Panther program has been for much of the past decade.

It is not easy to put David Cucliffe’s accomplishments at Duke (2014 SUR 9-04, PSR 9-4, O/U 4-8) into some sort of perspective, at least relative to other programs. After all, many schools have become bowl regulars, and qualifying for the postseason is a minimum expectation at various ACC locales. But not necessarily at Duke, where the shadow of Mike Krzyzewski and the hoops program always looms large and where football has rarely occupied center stage since the long-ago days of HC Wallace Wade and his “Iron Dukes” from 1938, who were unscored upon until the final minute of a 7-3 Rose Bowl loss to Southern Cal. Not to mention his 1941 team that would host the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day in 1942 against Oregon State after the FDR Administration decreed no major event should be held on the West Coast just barely three weeks after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. So, the game was moved from Pasadena to Durham, though the “host” Blue Devils would lose to the Beavers, 20-16.

Speaking of the 1942 Rose Bowl, a permanent reminder of that occasion can be found at current Wallace Wade Stadium in the form of a rose bush and a plaque (noting “With Deep Appreciation Tournament of Roses Pasadena, California”) recalling that landmark game, the only Rose Bowl ever played outside of Pasadena. The display remains at the entrance to the stadium, which has undergone extensive renovations over the past 12 months, including a lowering of the field by five feet (necessitating the removal of the running track) and the addition of 3000 new seats to create a seating bowl closer to the field. The new-look facility is on course to be ready for the September 12 home opener vs. NC Central.

That Duke is committing such resources to its football program is the ultimate validation of the work done by Cutcliffe, who has led the Blue Devils to bowls in three straight seasons. If that doesn’t seem like much, consider that Duke has only been “bowling” five times since the end of the Dwight Eisenhower administration. Moreover, this uncommon gridiron stability in Durham figures to endure a while longer with the creative Cutcliffe, who made his earlier marks tutoring the Mannings (Peyton while o.c. at Tennessee and Eli while HC at Ole Miss) but appears satisfied at Duke and has resisted offers to move elsewhere, a temptation that proved too much for the last coach who won big at Durham, Steve Spurrier, who bolted after a brief three-year run culminated in a 1989 bowl appearance...one of those rare postseason appearances by the Blue Devils over the past half century.

(Duke still hasn’t won a bowl game since Bill Murray’s 1954 team beat Nebraska, 34-7, in the Orange Bowl, but postseason trips are still such a novelty in Durham that no one is complaining, even after three straight narrow bowl defeats under Cutcliffe, the latest a 36-31 heartbreaker at last season’s Sun Bowl vs. Arizona State.)

Making it four bowls in a row might be a bit tricky for Cutcliffe, however, especially since there is not a clear-cut successor at QB for the first time since he arrived at Durham in 2008. Longtime starter Anthony Boone, who turned into an unexpectedly good fit for the Cutcliffe offense, has finally graduated, and no heir apparent had been anointed upon his departure. Though Cutcliffe would exit spring having handed the reins to junior Thomas Sirk, a heretofore short-yardage specialist and better runner than passer who would, on the surface at least, seem a curious choice for the sophisticated Cutcliffe attack. Sirk, however, has plenty of size at 6-4 and lots of athleticism, and whatever rough edges fundamentally in his throwing motion will continue to be addressed by QB tutor deluxe Cutcliffe and o.c. Scottie Montgomery.

Unfortunately, highly productive receiver Jamison Crowder has also departed, though RS frosh Chris Taylor wowed ‘em (at least those not paying attention to Coach K’s hoopsters) in spring as he hinted at becoming a lethal downfield threat. Sure-handed wideout Max McCaffrey (37 catches, but barely 10 yards per, a year ago) is back in the mix, and TE Braxton Deaver returns from 2014, but it will mostly be up to Taylor and other unproven sorts to give the aerial game some bite. Three starters return along the OL but decorated G Laken Tomlinson is off to the NFL, where he was a first-round pick of the Lions in the recent draft. Still, at the outset, expect Cutcliffe to rely a bit more than usual on the ground game (which finished a very respectable 46th in national rush stats a year ago) and his versatile collection of vet RBs led by sr. Shaquille Powell and powerful Jela Duncan, who returns from suspension.

Also, do not be surprised if Cutcliffe runs a variation of the “four-corner” offense he employed early in his Durham tenure, when the coach had then-QB Thaddeus Lewis slow the pace of the game and run the play clock almost to zero on every snap. Sirk’s skill-set would seem equipped for such an assignment.

A major difference between the Duke that Cutcliffe inherited in 2008 and the current edition is on defense, where the Blue Devils have been holding their own the past couple of years (allowing only 21.8 ppg a year ago, ranking 24th nationally) after being roadkill for more than a decade and into the early years of the current regime. The strength of the Duke 4-2-5 lies in its secondary that returns all five starters from last season and is likely on a par with any group of D-backs in the ACC, led by play-making safeties sr. Jeremy Cash & jr. DeVon Edwards.

That experience in the secondary should come in handy as the “D” will likely have to look to ballhawk this fall with considerable reloading taking place in front of it. Only one starter returns along the front six (sr. DT Carlos Wray), though Cutcliffe and co-d.c.’s Jim Knowles and Jim Collins will welcome back LB Kelby Brown, an All-ACC selection in 2013 who missed all of last season with a torn ACL before being granted a sixth year of eligibility for this fall.

Also coming in handy should be a collection of established special teams weapons that include All-ACC performers at PK (sr. Ross “Wild West West” Martin, who has missed only four FG tries inside of 39 yards in his career), punter (sr. Will Monday) and kickoff returns (safety DeVon Edwards). No team in the ACC (Frank Beamer’s Virginia Tech included) has been able to benefit from special teams as much as the Blue Devils in recent years.

Cutcliffe’s pointspread marks have been mostly positive throughout his career, especially so the past two seasons when standing 19-8 against the number. Along the way, the Blue Devils have made a fortress out of Wallace Wade Stadium, where they’ve covered 12 of their last 15. We’ll see if that success went the way of the old look of the stadium after the renovations are complete this fall.

While the issues at QB and the adjustment period for Sirk probably make a run at the Coastal title (which Duke won in 2013) a bit remote, a very manageable non-conference slate (Tulane, NC Central, Northwestern, and Army) will likely give the Blue Devils a chance at a fourth straight bowl bid. And even in the days of a bloated postseason schedule, such accomplishments are always going to be praiseworthy at Duke...and the ultimate feather in the cap of the shrewd Cutcliffe.

So much for the proverbial “hot seat” in Charlottesville. With almost every observer in the region believing that HC Mike London was going to walk the plank with another losing campaign last fall at Virginia (2014 SUR 5-7, PSR 7-5, O/U 4-8), AD Craig Littlepage had other ideas and surprised the masses by announcing that no coaching change would be forthcoming, curiously right before the season-ender vs. Virginia Tech that the Cavs (and, for good measure, the Hokies) would need to win to become bowl-eligible.

Well, a lot of good that did the ‘Hoos, who lost for an 11th straight time to their hated rival from Blacksburg, ensuring London a third straight sub-.500 season and fourth in five years on his watch. But unlike ADs at other locales, Littlepage does not get an overload of complaints about his football program from the majority of his big-money boosters, many of whom more concerned with the lacrosse team. And London did seem to fill Littlepage’s vague criteria about the team “showing improvement” last season, though missing bowls for three straight years in this day and age would have forced an AD to hit the eject button on a coach at most college football outposts (at least those not named Virginia or Indiana).

But this season, ACC sources swear the bar is a bit higher in Charlottesville, where it really should be bowl-or-else for London and the Cavs. AD Littlepage, on the job since 2001, can only bask in the limelight of hiring hoops coach Tony Bennett for so long. And even the AD has a breaking point; remember, after giving Al Groh’s preceding regime plenty of rope, Littlepage eventually made a change after the 2009 season, so the patience of the AD apparently has its limits.

Though, to be fair to London, his 2014 team had its moments, including an early upset win over Louisville, and was sitting at 4-2 and looking good for a bowl into mid-October. But bitter losses to Duke and North Carolina sent the season careening in the wrong direction, and even an impressive penultimate win over Miami was not enough to get Virginia to a bowl, which the painful 24-20 loss to VPI would confirm.

Spring work was hardly uneventful in Charlottesville, where London would eventually opt for the more-mobile Matt Johns, who started three games a year ago, at QB over sr. Greyson Lambert, who would decide to transfer thereafter and landed at Georgia. Neither Lambert nor Johns could take firm control of the QB job a year ago when the Cav QBs combined for a poor TDP-interception ratio of 18/16. But Johns, the better-runner, does provide the different look that o.c. Steve Fairchild hopes will provide a jump-start in London’s desire to develop a power-run offense that was not exactly visible a year ago when the ‘Hoos ranked near the bottom of the ACC and 97th nationally in rush yards. And that was with now-graduated top rusher Kevin Parks, who will be spending this summer in the NFL Oakland Raiders camp.

With Parks gone, the baton is passed to former five-star RB recruit Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell, who is running out of time to prove his old hype was justified after displaying only brief exhaust trails the past two seasons. He’ll get perhaps his last chance this fall. If the Cavs can run, the thought is that the downfield passing game will have more bite, especially with North Carolina grad transfer T.J. Thorpe (also a dynamic kick-return threat) now in the mix. Thorpe, a homerun receiver, caught 42 passes as a Tar Heel and could be the deep threat the “O” needs...if Johns can get him the ball, that is. The OL ought to improve after last year’s spate of injuries and the byproduct of considerable experience gained by several, 10 of whom with game experience returning, though among those only RT Eric Smith was a listed starter a year ago.

The unexpected departure of Lambert, however, has left UVa dangerously thin at QB, and should Johns go down with injury, the chances to save the season (and London’s job) might go down the drain.

Meanwhile, respected coordinator Jon Tenuta’s “D” did not get pushed around last year, ranking 18th vs. the rush, 28th overall, and 32nd in scoring. Tenuta’s aggressive style was rewarded with several takeaways and sacks, and flustered some capable offenses such as UCLA’s and Louisville’s in the early going. But the departure of several impact performers, including a couple of early entries into the NFL draft (DE Eli Harold to the 49ers in the third round and OLB Max Valles to the Raiders in the sixth round), have created some vacancies that will be hard to initially fill.

Tenuta’s variety of blitzes and stunts could still be effective, but only four starters return to the platoon. Senior DE Mike Moore, with three sacks last season, is going to be asked to fill the role of early-departer Harold. Former five-star DT recruit Andrew Brown is also worth watching after an injury-plagued frosh season. With Valles’ early departure, all three starters must be replaced from the LB corps, a concern since Tentua’s LBs are often involved in his various blitz packages, and the position group will be expected to mature in a hurry.

The best news defensively is on the back end, where soph FS Quin Blanding was a Frosh A-A in 2014, and there is added experience with sr. CB Demetrious Nelson back in the mix after last year’s turf toe injury.

Interestingly, London fashioned his first winning record vs. the spread (7-5) in five years last season, though upon closer inspection the bulk of that damage was done when the Cavs covered their first five games. As has been the case in most of London’s years at Charlottesville, Virginia would fade late and lose many close decisions. And London still has yet to beat despised rival Virginia Tech, which hasn’t lost to the Cavs since 2003.

Unfortunately for London, the non-conference slate is no picnic, with a trip to UCLA and home games vs. ranked Notre Dame and Boise State, all before September is complete. If the Cavs are any worse than 2-2 heading in October, the writing should be on the wall at Charlottesville, where this time we are almost certain that no bowl bid spells the end of the London regime. At least we think that’s the case...AD Littlepage can’t be expected to come to London’s rescue again. Or can he?

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