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TGS 2016 COLLEGE FB PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE ACC--PART I

                                     by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

It's time to take a look at the ACC, with the Coastal half included in our first preview, followed by the Atlantic side of the loop.  Last year['s straight-up, spread, and over/under results are included for each team, presented in predicted order of finish...

The last time a Virginia Tech (2015 SUR 7-6, PSR 6-7, O/U 6-7) team was not coached by Frank Beamer, Wayne Gretzky still played for the Edmonton Oilers, Bill Walton played for the Boston Celtics, and Ronald Reagan was not quite halfway thru his second term in the White House. It was December of 1986, New Year’s Eve to be exact, at the Peach Bowl in the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, and the Hokies would win a thriller vs. NC State, 25-24, on PK Chris Kinzer’s 40-yard FG on the final play of the game.

Even with the excitement of the win, it was not an easy time for the VPI program, as HC Bill Dooley, who had served in the dual capacity of AD and HC for nine years, would be leaving the school with a $3.5 million settlement courtesy a breach of contract settlement. Beamer, a former Hokie star player in the late ‘60s, was thus summoned home from Murray State, but would soon be working under sanctions imposed by the NCAA due to recruiting violations on Dooley’s watch. With his job on the line in 1993, Beamer pulled a bowl bid out of his hat, and the rest is history...VPI would soon become a national contender and has been “bowling” every year since.

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No matter all of that success, the folks of Blacksburg have been ready for a while to turn the page on the era of Beamer, which had lost momentum in recent years as the coach endured some medical problems as he approached 70 years of age. The bowl streak also barely stayed alive three times in the past four seasons as the noted Beamer defense/special teams recipe lost its bite. Beamer’s hire of o.c. Scott Loeffler also turned sour, and there was talk each year of that campaign being Beamer’s last. Rather than stick around too long as did Joe Paterno and, to a lesser extent Bobby Bowden, Beamer was able to leave on his own terms last December before the decline became too steep. For good measure, Beamer would win his last game, though in uncharacteristic fashion as the Hokies hung on to win a 55-52 shootout over Tulsa in the Independence Bowl.

Though the program has slipped in recent years, a quick recovery is not out of the question, especially with well-regarded new HC Justin Fuente now in the fold. Fuente, who first came to prominence as o.c. for Gary Patterson at TCU, quickly resurrected the Memphis program in recent years before being lured to the hills of western Virginia. Along with him is the same uptempo spread offense that would score 40 ppg for the Tigers a year ago.

Fuente does not inherit a completely bare cupboard, as eight starters return from a strike force that scored a respectable 31 ppg. Fifth-year sr. QB Brandon Motley played enough last season to throw 11 TDP, but most ACC observers believe Fuente will opt for touted juco Jerod Evans, targeted by Fuente to replace NFL Broncos first-round draft pick Paxton Lynch at Memphis before the job-jumping last December. The 6'4, 235-lb. dual-threat Evans, considered perfect for the spread, will be throwing to Tech’s top three receivers from last season including explosive WR Isaiah Ford, who caught 75 passes good for 11 TDs.

Meanwhile, four starters return along a veteran and accomplished OL that has started a combined 89 games in their Hokie careers. There is experience and depth at the RB spots, with soph Travon McMillian gaining 1155 YR a year ago despite not assuming featured ball-toting duties until mid-October.

For many years, it was assumed that Beamer’s longtime sidekick, d.c. Bud Foster, was the HC-in-waiting, though VPI never installed a formal succession plan. Which prompted Foster to pursue other opportunities in recent seasons. Always, however, Foster would opt to remain in Blacksburg, and Fuente was happy to keep the accomplished Bud on board in the same role for the new regime.

Injuries, youth, and attrition contributed to 2015 being one of the worst defensive performances of the Foster era, and the mere 26 sacks and 10 picks were lows since Bud assumed the reins of the stop unit in 1995. New assistants have imported some fresh ideas but the aggressive Foster schemes are still time-tested and will be utilized again this fall.

There is plenty of experience in the secondary that returns all starters from the 19th-ranked pass defense, though the status of CB Adonis Alexander is up in the air after an offseason arrest and suspension. There are other mainstays, however, in sr. FS Chuck Clark and soph SS Terrell Edmunds. Foster has more perplexing personnel questions in his front seven, especially at the LB spots where Foster could use jr. MLB Andrew Motuapuaka to emerge as a playmaker. ACC sources say Foster likes his options on the line, led by sr. DE Ken Ekanem and his 14 career sacks.

The highlight of the non-conference slate is a unique September 10 date at the massive Bristol Motor Speedway (you’re reading that right) against Tennessee. Attendance records for an eternity could be set in the 160,000-seat venue, which is roughly equidistant from each school. The Hokies also make a first-ever visit to Notre Dame on November 19, but the schedule misses all of the heavyweight asides (Clemson, Florida State, Louisville) from the Atlantic half of the loop. All of which making VPI a very intriguing ACC sleeper, especially if juco QB Evans turns into the sort of leader Fuente expects, and the new coach provides a spark.

Spread-wise, Beamer’s teams experienced a downturn the past few years, and the Hokies have not recorded a winning record vs. the number since 2010. Along the way, Lane Stadium sacrificed its one-time edge, with the Hokies only 8-16-1 vs, the line at home since 2011. Beamer’s teams, long successful in the underdog role, were also just 9-10-1 in that role since 2010. Note that Fuente’s Memphis squads were renowned for their spread success on the road, where they stood 13-6-1 vs. the number their last 20 as a visitor.


Looking for the great escape act of the offseason? Try North Carolina (2015 SUR 11-3; PSR 8-6; O/U 8-6), which didn’t even need FBI Director James Comey to recommend no prosecution from NCAA investigators who seemed to have the Tar Heel basketball and football programs in their gunsights. Where many observers saw careless and reckless behavior and gross negligence in what seemed a clear case of academic fraud, the NCAA instead blinked.

More specifically, in late April, the NCAA issued a new Notice of Allegations against UNC, theoretically taking into account the new allegations involving women's hoops and men's soccer. The soccer and women’s basketball teams figure prominently in the new document. Magically, however, the words "impermissible benefits," "football" and "men's basketball" no longer appear.

So, all NCAA conspiracy theorists, we have found Jerry Tarkanian's Holy Grail: The NCAA is so mad at the Carolina football and hoops teams, it's going to lower the boom on soccer and women’s basketball instead!

Indeed, what initially looked like an insignificant announcement, dumped in between Deflate-gate and Steph Curry's MRI results, actually was quite huge. The amended document (not an amendment, which is a significant semantics differentiation) left more than a few people who know the inner workings of the NCAA more than a little bit stunned. As one person put it via text, "Big win for UNC today."

Because somewhere in the past year, in what most assumed would merely be a reworking of the Notice of Allegations to include the new potential violations, the NCAA flat-out removed accusations against the school’s two flagship sports. In the fall, we’re going to address this situation more in-depth in an early season edition of TGS Football. In the meantime, know that that noise you might be hearing from Tobacco Road is probably Heel coaches Roy Williams and Larry Fedora doing a lot of celebrating.

(To be fair to Fedora, he walked into the Chapel Hill mess long after the reported academic fraud supposedly took place; Williams, not so much, and his innocence demands more review. We’ll get to all of this in a feature story sometime early in the football season.)

Whatever, 2015 was a revelation on the gridiron for the Heels, who rolled to the Coastal crown and had visions of crashing the Final Four before losing a wild ACC title game vs. Clemson by a 45-37 count in Charlotte. A subsequent 49-38 loss to high-powered Baylor in the Russell Atheltic Bowl took none of the gloss off of an 11-3 record that re-established the Heels as a gridiron force in the region.

Credit for the ascent must go in part to d.c. Gene Chizik, the former Auburn HC and decorated coordinator at a variety of other stops who assumed his role a year ago after the Heels fielded one of the worst defenses in the country in 2014. The Chizik stop unit allowed 62 ypg fewer and 14.5 ppg fewer than the previous year, as well as dropping its yards per play from 6.53 (ranking 117th in 2014) to 5.50 (ranking 58th in 2015). Though there remains room for upgrades after UNC was still way too ginger vs. the run (ranking 122nd nationally) while being near the bottom in ACC sacks and third-down stops. And in the losses to Clemson and Baylor, the Heels allowed almost 1400 combined yards, conceding a staggering 645 rush yards to the Bears in the bowl defeat (whew!).

Chizik’s defensive line and secondary return mostly intact, though at least five underclassmen are likely to see significant time in the rotations up front, where three starters return including DE Dajuan Drennon and DT Nazir Jones. Chizik must also replace playmaking LBs Shakeel Rashad and Jeff Schoettmer, though he reportedly likes the athleticism of the replacements. Three starters return to a secondary that contributed to an 18th ranking in pass defense, with a pair of All-ACC candidates at the CB spots in jr. M.J. Stewart and sr. Des Lawrence.

Fedora’s high-powered, fast-paced spread offense, imported from Southern Miss four years ago, posting some whopping numbers a year ago including 40.7 ppg, good for 9th nationally. Fedora lost some key contributors, including QB Marquise Williams, to graduation, but seven starters return, plus jr. QB Mitch Trubisky, who finally gets his shot after caddying for Williams the past two seasons.

Trubisky might not be as mobile as Williams, who gained 948 YR a year ago, but he can run, completed a stunning 85% of his passes and 6 TD throws in limited work last season, and is expected to forge a seamless transition at QB. Unless he goes down with injury, as there is no experienced cover behind him, a luxury that Trubisky afforded Fedora the past two seasons.

There is plenty of help around Trubisky, as RBs Elijah Hood (1463 YR in 2015) and T.J. Logan (6.1 ypc LY) form a powerful 1-2 punch on the ground, and sr. WRs Ryan Switzer (55 catches LY), Bug Howard (71 catches the past two seasons), and Mack Hollins (almost 25 yards per catch in 2015) are established targets. Four starters are also back along an OL that helped UNC rush for a school-record 5.96 ypc and allow an ACC-best 1.1 sacks per game.

Fedora’s team will have a chance to make an early statement when it faces Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic in Atlanta on opening weekend, though should be docked something for scheduling a pair of FCS foes (James Madison and The Citadel) in the non-conference part of the slate. The Heels travel to Tallahassee to face Florida State on October 1 but miss Clemson and Louisville from the Atlantic half of the loop. Along with a favorable second half of the schedule, and the fact Trubisky (if he stays healthy) should be little or no drop-off from Marquise Williams, the Heels should be in the mix for another Coastal crown, especially if the defense continues the improvement it displayed for Chizik last season.

Spread-wise, note that Fedora has delivered a 5-2 spread mark at Chapel Hill in three of the past four seasons. The Heels have also been offering good value the past two years as a true visitor, covering the number in six of their last eight chances, though they’re only 2-7 vs. the number their last nine vs. non-ACC teams (not counting a 2014 cover at pseudo-ACC member Notre Dame).


There wasn’t much warning about last season’s collapse for Georgia Tech (2015 SUR 3-9; PSR 3-9; O/U 6-6), which had won the Orange Bowl in grand fashion the previous season over SEC Mississippi State and began 2015 scoring better than a point-per-minute in blowout wins over Alcorn State and Tulane. All of a sudden, however, just as happy Jackets fans were ordering another batch of chili dogs and frosted oranges at The Varsity across I-75/85, Tech seemed to get lost in one of the long TSA lines at Hartsfield International, dropping aggravating decision after aggravating decision.

Tech would briefly relocate its luggage in late October when knocking Florida State from the unbeaten ranks with a stirring win at Bobby Dodd Stadium/Grant Field when returning a deflected field goal for a TD on the final play, suggesting at a possible late-season rally. Which never happened as the Jackets would lose out to finish a startling 3-9. Being the best 3-9 team in the country was of little solace and a tremendous departure in form for Tech under HC Paul Johnson, whose personal bowl streak that dated to 2003 when at Navy was finally snapped. It was also revealing that the Engineers were still favored in nine of their twelve games last season despite the downturn.

Upon inspection, there were some explanations for the skid. The Jackets’ turnover margin was 18 worse than the previous season (from +11 to -7), reflected mainly in just 17 takeaways compared to 29 in 2014. The pass rush disappointed for d.c Ted Roof, registering just 14 sacks. Offensively, while the rush game again would characteristically rank in the top ten nationally, it was down to just 256 ypg, the lowest output of the Johnson era in Atlanta that began in 2008.

For the latter to improve, upgrades are needed across an OL that disappointed in 2015. Johnson has added a second OL coach, veteran Ron West, to help forge a recovery this fall, though a lot probably depends upon the return to healthy of key G Chris Griffin, who missed 2015 with an ACL injury and was mostly a bystander in spring. During spring, Johnson, who also saw starting G Gary Brown quit to start a cartoonist career in San Francisco, was shuffling all sorts of OL combinations before arriving at some satisfactory options that will require sophs Will Bryan and Trey Klock to deliver at the tackle spots.

Injuries and youth at the skill positions were also a problem last season, though after several runners and receivers were forced into action last fall, depth appears uncommonly good. Especially at the “A-back” spot which is further fortified with Georgia transfer J.J. Green and soph Qua Searcy, who was injured in the Notre Dame game last September. As a result, returning starter Ike Willis dropped down the depth chart in spring. Soph Clinton Lynch gained 9.5 ypc in limited work last fall and figures at the other “A-back” spot, while Marcus Marshall should man the “B” spot after gaining 654 YR as a frosh.

All of this ought to help sr. QB Justin Thomas, an electric option pilot earlier in his career but who struggled in 2015 when gaining only 3.4 ypc. Thomas, with five 100-yard rushing games in 2014, had zero of those a year ago. With a bit more help, expect Thomas to get back to his 2014 production levels. Passing remains just an occasional diversion in the Johnson option, but Thomas has been able to sneak the long pass downfield at times in the past, and leading returning WR Ricky Jeune (22 yards per catch on his 24 receptions LY) is capable of burning sleeping defenses.

Still, unless Roof coaxes some improvement from his defense, any upgrades from the “O” might go for naught after foes would short-pass the Jackets into submission a year ago. Lack of a credible pass rush was one major negative, and the loss of NT Adam Gotsis (NFL Broncos 2nd-round pick) removes the line’s best and most disruptive element. Still, ACC sources say Roof likes his options up front that include three returning upperclassmen starters. Junior DE K’Shaun Freeman might have NFL potential but needs to develop consistency.

Tech figures to have good stability in the middle of its 4-2-5 alignments thanks to sr. LB P.J. Davis, who has been the Jackets’ leading tackler each of the past two seasons. The bigger question is in the secondary, where young players are being pushed into lead roles around jr. nickel-back Lawrence Austin.

Tech has a chance to break quickly, facing rebuilding Boston College in Dublin, then hosting Mercer and Vanderbilt before ACC play starts. It gets tough in a hurry thereafter with Clemson and Miami visiting Atlanta, by which time we should have an idea if Johnson is going to be able to forge a significant rebound season to rival 2014. Given Johnson’s past successes, we wouldn’t bet against Tech at least becoming relevant again and getting back to a bowl, which had been de rigueur for Johnson teams prior to last season. We also aren’t buying the thought being floated by some ACC observers that the Johnson option offense is past its sell-by date and no longer catching foes by surprise, as conference foes are now keen to Johnson’s tricks. Only two years removed from an 11-3 mark and an Orange Bowl win, we’re certainly not ready to write off Johnson and the Jackets just yet.

Spread-wise, Johnson’s teams have been notoriously good as an underdog, and were 6-0 in that role as recently as 2014. As noted earlier, they only had three underdog chances a year ago, covering one of those, and we have learned never to underestimate a Johnson-coached team getting points. Tech dropped nine of its last ten both SU and vs. the line a year ago, but for the time being consider that an aberration.

It’s been a while since Miami-Florida (2015 SUR 8-5; PSR 7-6; O/U 7-6) has resembled its old self from the glory era that lasted thru the early days of the Larry Coker regime. That, however, was more than a decade ago, and the subsequent downturn at the end of the Coker years carried into the ill-fated Randy Shannon regime and mostly continued for Al Golden, hired away from Temple amid lots of hoopla in 2011. The Canes, however, never ignited for Golden (who admittedly had to deal with the cloud of an NCAA investigation and school-imposed penalties in his first few years on the job in Coral Gables), and a 58-0 home loss to Clemson last October proved the last straw as Golden was canned right then and there, with a modest 32-25 SU mark his Miami legacy. The Canes finished the season under interim HC Larry Scott and won 4 of 5, including a wild, last-play kickoff-lateral special at Duke that made Cal-Stanford’s “The Play” from ‘82 look like kid’s stuff, but would lose the Sun Bowl in cold El Paso vs. Mike Leach’s Washington State.

Scott, however, was not seriously considered for the full-time appointment, which drew plenty of interest (reportedly including Auburn HC Gus Malzahn and Mississippi State HC Dan Mullen). Miami would indeed look to the SEC for the future, but rather than Malzahn or Mullen would opt for Mark Richt, recently dismissed at Georgia but a big winner for most of his career in Athens. More importantly, Richt is an alum of “The U” where he once played QB behind Jim Kelly for Howard Schnellenberger’s teams in the early ‘80s. So, it was a homecoming of sorts for Richt, a regional native whose familiarity with Schnellenberger’s old “state of Miami” figures to serve him well in his new appointment.

With a new staff in tow, Richt embarks upon his next challenge with an established roster that returns 16 starters from last year’s 8-5 record. Including jr. QB Brad Kaaya, regarded as a peripheral Heisman candidate after throwing for 3238 yards a year ago. The concern for Richt, as he articulated in spring, was depth, which, upon first impression, is not of the quality that Richt was used to in the SEC and at Georgia. Including at the QB spot, where there is no experienced cover for Kaaya. With upgrades needed across the OL, and the defense dominating in the trenches in spring, Richt is legitimately worried about proper protection for his prized QB.

Interestingly, in addition to his HC chores, Richt is going to assume play-calling duties, which he mastered almost a generation ago under Bobby Bowden at Florida State and retained at Georgia thru 2006. Improving a ground game that ranked 117th nationally will be the first order of business, so improvements along the OL are crucial, not just to protect Kaaya, but to open up holes for RBs jr. Joe Yearby (1002 YR in 2015), soph Mark Walton, and physical Gus Edwards, sidelined most of last season with foot problems. (Check the status of Walton, who appeared to be the featured back in spring but was suspended in April after a DUI arrest, and his availability for the fall remains in question.) Kaaya has an experienced and productive receiving corps at the ready, led by sr. wideout Stacy Coley (47 catches LY), who decided to bypass the NFL draft to return for one more college season, and three established TEs including rising star soph David Njoku.

Richt’s concern with the OL is too many guard-types and not enough tackle-types with agility. How Richt solves this dilemma goes a long way to any Miami successes this fall. Special teams hold more promise with jr. PK Michael Badgley, a Lou Groza Award semifinalist after connecting on 25 of 30 FGs a year ago, and return threat deluxe DB Corn Elder, who scored the TD as the last of the 8-lateral leg to beat Duke.

Richt completely cleaned house on the defensive side, junking Golden’s read-and-react principles and instead looking in a different direction with accomplished d.c. Manny Diaz, another Miami-area native and most recently at Mississippi State. Diaz prefers the 4-3 looks of the best Hurricane defenses of the Schnellenberger and Jimmy Johnson eras. That the “D” seemed ahead of the “O” in spring suggests that Diaz might be further along with the evolution of his platoon than Richt is with the offense. New DL coach Craig Kuligowski arrives from Missouri, which produced four NFL first-round picks since 2009.

Up front, ACC sources believe that DEs Al-Quadin Muhammad and Chad Thomas both have high-round NFL Draft potential. A key player to watch in the front seven will be soph WLB Darrion Owens, returning from major knee surgery. Touted newcomers at LB are expected to contribute right away alongside big-play sr. SLB Jermaine Grace. Their additions to an upgraded rush “D” will be welcome after the Canes were a bit soft vs. the run a year ago (ranking 103rd). If the Diaz defense has the characteristics of his past platoons at other locales, it will be blitz-happy, which will put some added pressure on the secondary. There are experienced contributors at the safety spots led by srs. Rayshawn Jenkins (with 22 career starts) and Jamal Carter, but the aforementioned CB Corn Elder is being counted upon to emerge as more of a playmaker after recording the only pick of Kaaya in spring.

The good news for Richt is that the slate sets up nicely for him to work the kinks out of his new systems in September, with FBS Florida A&M, nearby C-USA Florida Atlanta, and Sun Belt App State out of the chute. October, however, gets a lot tougher, with Florida State and North Carolina at home and Notre Dame and Virginia Tech on the road. But no Clemson or Louisville from the Atlantic side of the loop means the notorious front-running Miami fans will be disappointed if their team doesn’t make the ACC title game. No matter, we’re betting they don’t show up in big numbers at Sun Life Stadium, which has often been embarrassingly empty for Canes games in recent years, though keeping Kaaya healthy should give Miami a puncher’s chance in every game.

Spread-wise, there is room for improvement, as Miami mostly floundered in the Golden years, and Richt’s recent seasons at Georgia were nothing special vs. the line, either. Richt’s once stellar mark as an underdog downgraded significantly the past few seasons, just 3-8 his last 11 getting points with the Bulldogs. Within the Coastal, take note of recent Cane success vs. Georgia Tech, against which Miami has won and covered 6 of its last 7.


When the dust cleared last December, the beginning of the Pat Narduzzi era at Pittsburgh (2015 SUR 8-5; PSR 6-7; O/U 6-7) looked an awful lot like the previous years for the Panthers under Paul Chryst, Todd Graham, Dave Wannstedt, and Walt Harris. Win a few more than lose, end up in a minor bowl, etc. etc. Pitt has seemingly perfected its role as the Atlanta Hawks of the ACC, who qualify for the playoffs almost every season but never seem to threaten for a championship...like the football Panthers.

For longtime Pitt followers, that’s still saying something, for there are some old enough to remember the dark days of the late ‘60s, when the program would collapse under HC Dave Hart. By 1968, the Panthers were bad enough to fall behind Notre Dame 49-0 at the half and prompt Irish HC Ara Parseghian to agree to play the final 30 minutes with a running clock. Though Pitt would begin a dramatic recovery a few years later after HC Johnny Majors arrived from Iowa State, the memory of the running clock at Notre Dame in ‘68 still haunts Pitt fans with long memories. Those sorts would be extra-appreciative when the program turned around and won a national title, with HB Tony Dorsett claiming the Heisman Trophy, in 1976. Can it really be 40 years since?

Fast forward to 2016, and it looks like more of the same from recent years for the Panthers. Good enough to cause some problems in the ACC Coastal and probably make another minor bowl. But a breakthrough, or something to remind of the glory years of four decades ago? Not likely.

Still, Pitt could author one of the best storylines of 2016 with the comeback of former star RB James Conner, who is expected to return to active duty after not only enduring MCL surgery after seeing action only in the 2015 opener vs. Youngstown State, but also offseason chemotherapy treatments for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It might be a bit much to expect Conner to replicate his form from 2014, when he rushed for a whopping 1765 yards and 26 TDs en route to ACC Player of the Year honors. But the Panthers probably don’t need that sort of production from Conner because in his absence they uncovered another slammer, 230-lb. Qadree Ollison, who bulled for 1121 YR in Conner’s straight-ahead style last fall, winning ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in the process. The best of all worlds for Narduzzi and new o.c. Matt Canada (recently at NC State, and familiar to Narduzzi from previous Big Ten days at Wisconsin) would be a dynamite 1-2 combo with Conner and Ollison, perfect fits for Canada’s pro-style, power-based offense.

On the other hand, the Panther braintrust might need big work from the ground game because do-everything WR Tyler Boyd and his 91 catches from a year ago have moved to the NFL, where Boyd was a second-round pick of the Bengals. What scares Pitt fans is that even with Boyd and graduated TE J.P. Holtz, the passing game still ranked a poor 99th nationally, putting added pressure on sr. and former Tennessee transfer QB Nathan Peterman to find some other targets in the fall.

Peterman, a pure drop-back passer, would perform ably once he took over from 2014 starter Chad Voytik, passing for 2287 yards and 20 TDs. Boyd, however, was the ultimate safety blanket. The leftover receiver corps is mostly untested, and will hope sr. Dontez Ford (26 catches LY) can emerge as a post-Boyd go-to target. Three starters return along the OL, though we have to wonder if Narduzzi and Canada might opt for Dee Andros’ old “Power T” formation and overload the offense with RBs because of the questions surrounding the receiving corps.

Narduzzi, longtime d.c. for Mark Dantonio at Michigan State and Cincinnati, preached the same ultra-aggressive defensive philosophy last fall with the Panthers as he did with the Spartans and Bearcats, reflected in high sack totals (2.85 pg ranked 16th nationally). Fifteen different Pitt defenders recorded sacks last season! Nonetheless, even with eight starters back on the platoon, Narduzzi and d.c. John Conklin spent spring juggling positions and moving some players from offense to the stop unit, looking for proper fits.

One position they won’t adjust is that of sr. DE Ejuan Price, who recorded five sacks against Louisville alone. Nor will they tamper with soph SS Jordan Whitehead, who recorded the most tackles (109) for a frosh in school history and also lined up at CB, a LB spot, and even on offense, where he carried the ball 12 times for 122 yards and scored a pair of TDs. Still, the stop unit leaked on several occasions, including when Navy ran roughshod in the Military Bowl, and only generated 16 takeaways, ranking a poor 97th.

The schedule is daunting, with a renewal of the old rivalry vs. Penn State taking place at Heinz Field on September 10, followed by a trip to explosive Big 12 rep Oklahoma State. Other road trips to North Carlina, Miami, and Clemson likely see the Panthers in an underdog role and will make it a chore to climb much above .500. While there appear to be some things to like about this Pitt side, it seems better built to have succeeded back in the Johnny Majors (or Dave Hart) eras. Without a credible passing threat, it is hard to forge a breakthrough these days, and unless QB Peterman can effectively balance the offense, another minor bowl is probably the best the Panthers can do this fall.

Against the number, it's worth noting that Narduzzi has yet to turn Heinz Field into a fortress, as the Panthers covered just 1 of 6 at home last year. Pitt enters this fall having covered just 1 of its last 8 as host, though it has covered 6 of its last 8 as a visitor dating to the end of the Chryst regime.


One of the most curious offseason coaching moves was when longtime BYU HC Bronco Mendenhall left Provo for the rebuild job at Virginia (2015 SUR 4-8; PSR 8-3-1; O/U 6-6), which finally pulled the overdue plug on the Mike London regime after four straight non-winning seasons. But why would Mendenhall leave BYU? And why would he want the Virginia job?

Sources say the answer to the first question is not hard, as BYU was playing cheap with Mendenhall, who won 99 games in 11 seasons with the Cougars and would have liked to have been paid a market rate for a coach with his credentials. BYU might also have been thinking it could call the bluff of Mendenhall, knowing he hadn’t left Provo when other suitors had come calling in the past. This time, however, Mendenhall was ready to move, and sources say that when BYU hemmed and hawed once more about significant contract upgrades, Bronco had enough and bolted for Charlottesville.

Now, there is a good question why Mendenhall would opt for the Wahoos after being courted by various other programs (including, reportedly, some Pac-12 schools, such as alma mater Oregon State, plus UCLA and Washington) in recent years. But many in the coaching fraternity are known to covet ACC jobs, which come with a bit less pressure than SEC or Big 12 assignments. Most programs can also win in the ACC, even ones with some academic restrictions such as Virginia. And when Cav AD Craig Littlepage gave Mendenhall predecessor London enough rope to repel down the Washington Monument, Mendenhall knew there would be only modest pressure to win for a few years. Coupled with a significant salary bump, and the pleasant Charlottesville locale a nice place to relocate his family, the move begins to make more sense.

Look for Mendenhall, a defensive specialist by trade, to make an immediate impact with the UVa stop unit despite the return of only five starters. Bronco, a disciple of Rocky Long, already switched alignments for the platoon in spring, opting for a straight 3-4 instead of the Long-influenced 3-3-5, but still junking the previous traditional 4-3 looks preferred by London. That also might be due to graduation of last year’s DL, and new starters having to step in up front. One of Bronco’s spring switches was once-touted jr. Andrew Brown moving from DT to a DE spot, where his skill-set seems better suited and where he might flourish.

There is more experience in Mendenhall’s inherited “back eight” especially at ILB where starters Zach Bradshaw and last year’s ACC tackle leader Micah Kiser still roam. The strength of the platoon would appear to be in the secondary, though the Cavs did rank a poor 97th in pass defense last season. Three starters return, including All-ACC FS Quin Blanding.

Mendenhall has also added to his defensive staff former East Carolina HC Ruffin McNeill, who had earlier in his career made a name for himself as a d.c., most notably at Texas Tech in the Mike Leach era.

The change theme in Wahoo-land continues on offense, where Mendenhall has brought along creative o.c. Robert Anae (with Texas Tech/Mike Leach era roots) from Provo to install a more aggressive offensive philosophy than the staid London. Holdover sr. QB Matt Johns (20 TDP LY) is not a great runner and will not give Anae as much flexibility as he had with recent BYU QBs (such as Taysom Hill), but getting the ball into the hands of playmakers such as RB Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell (671 YR LY plus 75 pass receptions) and a mostly-unproven but hungry group of wideouts, perhaps featuring spring sensation Doni Dowling, will be the focus. Johns, however, might have a tenuous grip on the job if he can’t decrease his painful 17 picks from a year ago, in which case East Carolina transfer Kurt Benkert could emerge. Three starters return on an all-upperclass OL.

Virginia can take no foes for granted, but the Cavs should be favored in three of their four non-ACC games (a long trip to Oregon the exception), and only Louisville among the three Atlantic heavyweights (no Florida State or Clemson) is on the slate. Getting to a bowl for the first time since 2011 might be a tall order, but expect Mendenhall to get the Cavs closer than they have been in recent years.

London would likely not have been moved out if based upon Virginia’s recent spread marks, which have been quite good (including 16-7-1 overall the past two seasons). The Cavs were also 9-1-1 their last 11 as a dog for London. Mendenhall has had generally good marks as a dog, too (12-7 in tole the past five seasons at BYU), a category that likely gets a good workout this fall in Charlottesville.


It can be argued that the job HC David Cutcliffe has done in recent years at Duke (2015 SUR 8-5; PSR 7-6; O/U 6-7) has been as good as any in the country. Even with the expanded bowl menu, getting the Blue Devils into the postseason four straight years is some accomplishment for a program that had been to four bowls the previous 57 years. Moreover, he has given Duke football a bit of a presence at the most basketball-centric of schools, with significant upgrades in the gridiron facilities including an overdue renovation of venerable Wallace Wade Stadium, which until recently had much the same look as it did when it hosted the lone Rose Bowl not played in Pasadena back in 1942, just a bit more than three weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack (which prompted the move from the west coast).

Cutcliffe, however, did not need Duke to establish his credentials, developed long ago in his days as the o.c. at Tennessee and his key role in the development of Peyton Manning, as well as bother Eli, who was at Ole Miss when Cutcliffe was the Rebel HC. Moreover, Cutcliffe seems to have won over hoops HC Mike Krzyzewski, not the easiest thing to do!

Cutcliffe’s magic touch, however, will be put to the test this fall. Only ten starters return from the team that won an exciting 44-41 Yankee Pinstripe Bowl vs. Indiana, the Blue Devils’ first bowl win since the 1954 team whipped Nebraska 34-7 in the Orange Bowl. Note that those ten starters also include sr. QB Thomas Sirk, whose status for the fall is up in the air after tearing his Achilles tendon in the offseason. Sirk, who passed for 2625 yards and ran for another 803 yards in 2015, would be an awful loss for the offense, which has no truly established cover. Redshirt soph Parker Boehme, who passed for 579 yards in a handful of relief appearances last fall, likely gets first crack at the job in Sirk isn’t available, though RS frosh Quentin Harris and Daniel Jones could enter the mix.

Do-everything Sirk was also the leading rusher a year ago, but Duke has some other established runners in sr. Jela Duncan (1575 career yards) and jr. Shaun Watson (1022 career YR). Returning wideouts T.J. Rahming and Anthony Nash combined for 75 catches in 2015. Tennessee transfer TE Daniel Helm was one of the star attractions in spring. Three starters return along the OL, including All-ACC RT Casey Blaser.

Duke’s ability to stay bowl-eligible in recent years also has had as much to do with defensive upgrades, as it has been a while since the Blue Devils resembled their old roadkill platoons. Still, they might miss departed A-A S Jeremy Cash, spending this summer in the NFL Panthers camp.

The 4-2-5 schemes of the Duke defense for co-coordinators Ben Albert and Jim Knowles call for playmakers like Cash at the safety spots, with upperclassmen such as returning starters Alonzo Saxton and Deondre Singleton now expected to step up their performance. Four starters do return in the secondary, including CBs Breon Borders and DeVon Edwards, who is considered a likely NFL draftee and also doubles as a lethal kick return threat (he’s taken six kicks back for scores in his career).

A key on the defense will be for the front to generate more pressure on opposing passers afer a handful of those (including graduated North Carolina QB Marquise Williams, who passed for 494 yards and 4 TDs in the 66-31 bomb the Heels dropped on the Blue Devils last November 7) torched Duke a year ago. Senior DT. Joe Wolf is the lone returning starter up front, where some of last year’s rotation pieces, and redshirt frosh, will be asked to contribute right away.

The schedule opens with a layup vs. NC Central and a winnable game vs. Wake Forest before early litmus tests in the midwest at Northwestern (which won at Durham last season) and Notre Dame. With few easy touches (not even Wake) in the ACC, and NC Central and perhaps Army the only non-conference gimmes, Cutcliffe is probably going to have to win some games as an underdog to get back to a bowl. And if the do-everything QB Sirk isn’t available, that job just got a lot tougher for Duke.

Spread-wise, Cutcliffe’s success in recent years at Durham finally waned a year ago when dropping the last three vs. the line at Wallace Wade Stadium; the Devils had covered 17 of their previous 24 at home. Overall, Cutcliffe had been 19-7-1 vs. the line in 2013-14 before slipping a bit to 7-6 a year ago. Since 2013, Cutcliffe is also 12-5 as an underdog.

NEXT UP:  ACC --PART II


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