by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

College football is taking the ACC seriously once again. Although perhaps we should qualify that statement a bit and note that the nation is taking Florida State seriously once more after the Seminoles surged to their first national title in 14 years last season. But there are other positive developments beyond the nagging question of which team will represent the loop in the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl.

(Sigh...no more Beef O'Brady's St. Petersburg Bowl.)

Indeed, this offseason felt very differently than most recent versions for the ACC. As mentioned, the conference (read FSU) just broke the SEC's incredible streak of national championships, thanks to the Seminoles’ impressive undefeated season. Clemson put its previous Orange Bowl demons to the sword and beat Ohio State in a marquee matchup in January. The league traded a struggling Maryland for Louisville, gaining full access to the thrill ride that is Bobby Petrino. The loop also has a returning Heisman winner...and maybe the first repeater for that storied honor since Ohio State’s Archie Griffin in 1974-75. If, that is, Jameis Winston avoids the seafood department at local supermarkets this fall.

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Oh yes, there’s also a new affiliation with Notre Dame, which has already joined the league for hoops and will begin a gridiron scheduling agreement this fall that requires it to play as many as five ACC opponents each season, with the Fighting Irish rotating through the conference on a yearly basis to allow every school to get a chance to face the Domers. There will be four ACC foes (Syracuse, North Carolina, Florida State, and Louisville) on this year’s Irish football calendar.

Once again, Florida State is the favorite to win the conference title game at Charlotte in December, and is the league’s likeliest candidate for the creatively-named new College Football Playoff, but the Coastal Division is wide open. Plenty of intriguing storylines dot the league away from Tallahassee, too. Can Duke sustain success from its breathtaking emergence in 2013? Can Virginia Tech rediscover its offense? Is Frank Beamer close to retiring? What is Al Golden going to do about his QB situation at Miam? Are the Canes going to outdraw the hometown MLB Marlins? Will the NCAA investigators prove as much of a distraction too Larry Fedora at North Carolina, as they will to Roy Williams? Will Mike London be employed by Virginia on Columbus Day?

Meanwhile, the business side of things in the ACC is looking pretty good as well. Thanks, in part, to a grant-of-rights agreement last year from its member schools that gave it a new level of security, commish John Swofford and the ACC execs negotiated a new media rights deal with ESPN that is now among richest for all college conferences.

Soon, perhaps, ACC officials will turn their attention to launching their own league-branded network, joining the ranks of the Big Ten, Pac-12 and, now, SEC as conferences that own channels.

“We’ve got the strongest collegiate TV market in the country,” Swofford said. “We’re now in a position to accelerate talks with ESPN, which were already ongoing, about a network.”

The conference’s recent additions-- Notre Dame, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Syracuse--plus the grant of rights “enhance those discussions,” Swofford added. Those moves caused ESPN last year to sweeten its rights offer for an all-in media deal that will average $260 million a year through 2026-27. There are other contractual elements, sources said, that could push the value higher, especially if the conference starts its own network.

This is the third version of the ACC’s deal with ESPN that started with the 2011-12 academic year. They first reopened negotiations in 2012 after the conference added Syracuse and Pittsbugh, and it was reopened again in 2013 thanks to the addition of Notre Dame.

The ACC’s media rights deal with ESPN includes all game inventory, digital rights and corporate sponsorship. That, plus the security provided by the grant of rights, puts the ACC in a position of starting a network without having to buy back rights from third parties, as the SEC did with IMG College and Learfield Sports.

The ACC commissioned a study by Wasserman Media Group to determine whether the new conference footprint would support a network. Swofford said the ACC’s footprint along the Northeast and Southeast U.S. reaches 43 million TV households, more than other conferences.

“The grant of rights sets the table for us to have substantive conversations about a network,” said Clemson Athletic Director Dan Radakovich, who sits with Duke AD Kevin White and North Carolina’s Bubba Cunningham on the ACC’s TV subcommittee.

“With the expansion we’ve had, our demographics, our financials and our projections are much more palatable,” Radakovich said. “The only thing holding us up is time. The SEC Network was three years in the making. Distribution, programming, legal, it all takes time.”

Media contracts are how conferences are measured these days, Radakovich said. “I don’t know why they need to be measured, but that has become a huge measure. Now we feel like the ACC can compete at the highest level.”

To that end, ACC sources highlighted the fact that the $260 million average places the 15-team ACC on more level ground with its peer conferences. Notre Dame, which has its own football contract with NBC, doesn’t share in the football revenue, leaving that part of the deal to be shared by 14 ACC schools.

Heady times indeed for the ACC.

Following is the first of our two looks at the Atlantic Coast Conference, beginning with a preview of the Coastal Division. The Atlantic DIvision preview will follow in our next installment. As always, teams are presented in predicted orer of finish, with last year's straight-up and pointspread records included

Power vacuums are nothing new in the ACC; we recall one such instance not long ago, in the middle of the last decade, when simultaneous downturns by Florida State and Clemson in the Atlantic half of the loop, and Miami stumbling in the Coastal, provided an opening for Jim Grobe’s Wake Forest, which famously broke through for an unexpected league crown in 2006.

Similarly, the Coastal half collectively collapsed around Duke last season, allowing the Blue Devils to sneak in and steal the division. And while traditional powers Virginia Tech and Miami try to regroup this fall, there is room on the rail for another Duke-like entity to emerge in the Coastal.

Only this time, we suspect it will be North Carolina (2013 SUR 7-6, PSR 8-5).

There are several reasons to be interested in the Tar Heels, though before going much further, we are keeping a close watch on off-field developments regarding accusations of past academic fraud within the athletic department. Most of that focus is one the basketball side, as the NCAA has re-opened an investigation of UNC’s suspect Department of African-American Studies, and evidence of shenanigans that involved numerous athletes, including several high-profile sorts such as current whistle-blower and ex-hoopster Rashad McCants.

If the subject matter sounds familiar, it should. Since 2011, the university has conducted several reviews related to the academics scandal and provided the NCAA with updates. North Carolina announced in 2012 that it had found problems with 54 classes in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) taught from summer 2007 to summer 2011, including grade changes, forged faculty signatures on grade rolls and limited or no class time. UNC forwarded the results of that investigation to the NCAA, which ruled the university did not break any rules related to the AFAM scandal.

But, in February, the university hired former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein to conduct an independent investigation and instructed him to share relevant information directly with the NCAA. Former faculty member Julius Nyang'oro is on trial for felony criminal fraud as a result of the scandal, though the judge in his case is considering dropping the charges because he has been cooperating with the Wainstein investigation. The McCants revelations, recently aired on ESPN’s Outside the Lines, have added another dimension to the controversy.

Whether the football program gets caught in the crossfire (and not the Pat Buchanan/Bill Press style) remains to be seen. Remember, the UNC gridders were already fingered by the NCAA a few years ago. To refresh memories, in March of 2012, the Tar Heel football program was hit with heavy NCAA sanctions, including a bowl ban for 2012, scholarship reductions (15 over three years), vacated victories, and three years probation. All after other issues of academic fraud, impermissible agent interactions, and ineligible players had cost football coach Butch Davis and AD Dick Baddour their jobs.

Late in 2011, a new AD, Bubba Cunningham, was hired from Tulsa in hopes of cleaning up the mess. Meanwhile, after the football program waded through 2011 with an interim coach, d.c. Everett Withers, the Heels brought in the highly-respected Larry Fedora, who had led Southern Miss to some new heights in Hattiesburg, including a 12-2 mark in his final season of 2011 with the Golden Eagles.

Assuming the new NCAA investigation doesn’t cause extra distractions, it’s the presence of Fedora that makes us believe the Heels are the team to beat in the Coastal this season, especially after the postseason ban was lifted a year ago.

The 2014 Heels match the profile of a program and team on the ascent. For one, it is always natural to point to teams that finished strong the previous season and wonder if they can sustain that momentum into a new campaign. With a 6-1 stretch to close 2013, capped by a 39-17 thrashing of Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl, UNC fits this bill perfectly. Furthermore, Fedora’s credentials, though well-established before his hiring in Chapel Hill, have become even more burnished after the USM program collapsed upon his departure, losing 23 straight games at one point and already on its second head coach since Fedora’s departure.

A healthy dose of fourteen starters returns to the Tar Heel fold, split evenly among the offensive and defensive platoons (seven each). But before making reservations for the ACC title game at Charlotte, there are a couple of nagging questions. UNC still has a quarterback battle to solve, and it has some issues on both of its lines.

That there are some QB questions might come as a surprise, since jr. Marquise Williams flashed so much upside down the stretch in 2013 in relief of injured Bryn Renner. In just over half of the season, Williams’ numbers impressed greatly, including a combined 2,234 yards passing and rushing, along with 21 total touchdowns, to anchor a UNC turnaround from a 1-5 start to the season, to a bowl. But Fedora was adamant this spring that the QB job was up for grabs, and Williams will enter fall camp very much in a battle for his spot with ballyhooed RS frosh Mitch Trubisky, one of the nation’s top dual-threat signal callers from the Class of 2013.

ACC sources, however, suggest it is more likely that Fedora is spoiled for choice, and there is a chance that both are more than capable of detonating the fast-paced Fedora spread that scored 33 ppg last season. Williams also adds a dynamic run dimension to the mix. At the worst, most regional insiders believe UNC has two QBs it can use effectively. Since when has depth behind center been a negative?

Fedora also has plenty of depth at RB, where returning starter T.J. Logan (533 YR and 5.7 ypc in 2013) leads a quartet full of speed and power, and now adds the top recruit in North Carolina, Elijah Hood, a blistering 220-pounder who rambled for 3690 YR in his senior season at Charlotte Catholic. The receiving corps will have to proceed without the unique dimension of TE Eric Ebron (Lions 1st-round pick), but there are established targets still in the fold, including rangy 6’4 wideouts Quinshad Davis (10 TDs in 2013) and Bug Howard.

The questions offensively, as a year ago, lie up front, where last year’s forward wall was plagued by inconsistency, and its top two performers, including LT James Hurst (in the Ravens camp this summer), must be replaced. Still, three starters return, and the “O” did score 45 ppg in the last five games a year ago. There are other pluses, including a crackling return game that was responsible for a staggering seven KR/PR TDs in 2013 (five punt return TDs alone by soph Ryan Switzer, also a deep-threat WR, and two KR TDs by RB Logan).

We have little doubt the Fedora offense is capable of leading the Heels to the top of the Coastal. Defensively, however, we’re not quite so sure, although the platoon did seem to finally get the hang of d.c. Vic Koenning’s aggressive and unorthodox 3-3-5 alignments as last season progressed. The Heels would allow only 22.4 ppg in ACC play last season, down more than 10 points from the year before.

Koenning’s preference is to bring blitzes from all over the field, although it helps to get some push from the line, and to that end the replacement of impact DE Kareem Martin (Cardinals 3rd-round pick), and his 11 ½ sacks from last season, will be crucial. Senior “Bandit” Norkeithus Otis (7 ½ sacks LY), however, is the the sort of playmaker Koenning can deploy effectively.

In hopes of getting his best athletes on the field, Koenning made handful of position switches in spring. Speedy sr. Darius Lipford has shifted from “Bandit” to MLB, while sr. Tim Scott moved to safety to open up a CB spot for emerging soph Brian Walker. A key development will be the progress of sr. WLB Travis Hughes, whose enormous potential has gone mostly unfulfilled after being a highly-decorated recruit a few years ago.

The Heels catch one break with their schedule, avoiding Florida State, and will be able to ramp up to their meat of the slate that really begins with the September 27 trip to Clemson. But there is not a game that looks unwinnable. If that charge down the stretch last season (when the Heels won 6 of their last 7 SU and covered 7 of their last 8) was no mirage, the momentum could carry UNC a long way this fall. We know the Heels have the coach to get them to the ACC title game.

Between daydreaming about the legendary fries at the “Dirty O” on Forbes Avenue, we found time pay attention to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl last December. (We won’t hold it against you if you had something better to do, such as watching Cheers reruns, or Erin Burnett on CNN). In which there were some eye-opening developments regarding the immediate future of the Pitt Panthers (SUR 7-6, PSR 4-8-1). Specifically, a trio of frosh, including one who appeared almost out of nowhere, to save the game for Pitt.

That would be now-soph QB Chad Voytik, a Cleveland product who had thrown only two passes during the regular season while backing up starter Tom Savage, who suffered a rib injury in the bowl game vs. Bowling Green and could not answer the bell for the second half. But Voytik immediately displayed poise and cool, as well as nerve, and would scramble for a TD before another 19-yard run deep in the 4th Q was the key play in the drive to set up PK Chris Blewitt’s game-winning 39-yard FG with 1:17 to play in a 30-27 Panther win.

Voytik was hardly the only frosh weapon to shine for Pitt in the bowl; his contributions were simply the most unexpected. Punishing 230-lb. RB James Conner was the game’s MVP with a staggering 229-yard rushing effort, while WR Tyler Boyd caught 8 passes for 173 yards. Conner (799 YR in 2013) and Boyd (85 catches LY), however, had emerged as dangerous weapons earlier in the campaign.

Voytik, Conner, and Boyd. All sophs and nice building blocks for third-year GHC Paul Chryst to forge a breakthrough this fall after splitting 26 games over the past two seasons.

The redshirt soph Voytik, however, will be key to a move up the ACC Coastal table that the Panthers could not manage with the aforementioned Savage, a Rutgers transfer who impressed NFL scouts (the Texans took him as their 4th-round pick in the recent draft) but who lacked an escapability dimension and, frankly, did not make anyone forget predecessors Dan Marino, or even Matt Cavanaugh, leading an offense that ranked 80th nationally in scoring (26 ppg). We suspect Voytik will eventually prove a better fit for the pro-style Chryst offense that seeks to establish a powerful ground threat first, then attack through the air. Voytik’s mobility, on top of RB Conner’s power thrusts, should aid in that quest.

The OL remains a work in progress, though it showed signs of maturing late last season when four of 2014's projected starters were in the fold. With the bruising Conner and the mobile Voytik, we expect the Panthers to significantly improve upon their very modest 125 ypg on the ground (good for only a 102nd national ranking) last year. Which will help Voytik immensely as he also tries to locate another complementary receiving threat opposite the aforementioned game-breaker Tyler Boyd, who caught 1174 yards worth of passes last fall. Spring work featured former TE Manasseh Garner (33 catches LY) moving outside to provide another big target for Voytik.

Even if Savage’s departure from the offense doesn’t bother us as much as it might some Pitt backers, the graduation of star DT Aaron Donald (Rams 1st-round pick) is cause for a bit of concern on the stop unit. After all, the only first-round defensive tackles who show up for a sandwich at a local Primanti Brothers, or at Heinz Field, usually play for the Steelers, not the Panthers.

The question to be answered this fall will be how much Donald cleaned up the mess for other defenders a year ago when Pitt would rank a respectable 34th nationally in total defense. Some ACC insiders, however, believe Donald’s tenacity and work ethic will have a positive residual effect on the current and new Panther linemen. We’ll see.

A key development for the stop unit will be thick 305-lb. jr. NT Khaynin Mosley-Smith, who returns from a season-long suspension and provides the line with some experience and pop in the middle, even minus Donald. Much is also expected of soph DE Shakir Smith, who flashed some pass rush potential as a frosh. Pitt’s 4-3 could also use a new playmaker emerge up front after generating only 25 sacks last season...and that was with Donald in the fold.

What d.c. Matt House also needs is for his “D” to develop a more disruptive bent, especially a secondary that was mostly responsible for an abnormally-low 8 picks a year ago. Athletic WLB Todd Thomas will also need to do better in that regard after forcing no fumbles or recording an interception as a starter last season. There is hope that former QB Anthony Gonzalez will flourish in his senior year at a strongside LB spot. House could also use jr. CB Lafayette Pitts to more resemble his freshman form than last year’s soph version that did not record a pick. Senior center-fielder Ray Vinopal remains nice anchor for the secondary, and perhaps he can flash a bit more of that playmaking scent displayed in last year’s mild upset win over Notre Dame when recording two picks.

We were bullish on the Chryst hire two years ago, and believe the Panthers displayed signs of a breakthrough on his watch in 2013. He now has mostly his recruits in the program (only 17 remain on the roster from the Dave Wannstedt regime), and 12 frosh played extensively last season. Contending in the Coastal relies upon Voytik stepping into the QB role as seamlessly as possible, and the defense proving it can cope minus graduated Aaron Donald. But the schedule is not bad, and it is possible the Panthers could hit midseason at 6-0. Don’t forget that Pitt also misses ACC Atlantic heavyweights Florida State, Clemson, and Louisville, and Notre Dame is off of the schedule this season, too.

A bowl trip should be a minimum expectation, and if Voytik is up to the challenge, contention in the Coastal would come as no surprise.

Is it really Mike Krzyzewski’s nightmare for Duke (SUR 10-4, PSR 10-4) to emerge as a gridiron power? (You’d be amazed at how many ACC insiders think as much.)

Relax, Coach K, we don’t think the Blue Devil football team is going to threaten the hoopsters as the preferred recipient of largesse from the well-heeled alumni base anytime soon.

Don’t worry, Duke is still a basketball school. The only difference is that it is now a decent football school, too, something we haven’t been able to say for a generation. Especially after last year’s surprise (shock?) emergence as the winner of the Coastal half of the loop after the likes of Miami, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech all imploded during the second half of the season.

The architect is HC David Cutcliffe, who has restored some long-overdue order in Durham with back-to-back bowl qualifiers. Such developments would not be considered newsworthy at locales such as Florida State or Georgia. But at Wallace Wade Stadium, it almost analogous to splitting the atom, for Duke had never gone bowling in consecutive years prior to the last two seasons. When considering that the Blue Devils have been to a bowl just four times since Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, Cutcliffe’s enormous accomplishments are put further into perspective.

Can Duke do it again this fall? As Sarah Palin might say, “You betcha.” But, will the rest of the ACC be better prepared for the Blue Devils last fall after Cutcliffe engineered that surprise attack in 2013.

Cue to Sarah Palin again...”You betcha.”

Before discounting the Blue Devils, consider some of their assets this fall. Duke is the only team in the ACC to return its leading passer, rusher and receiver from a year ago. The Blue Devils return their top two leading tacklers, too.

Duke returns 72 percent of its offense, including leading receiver Jamison Crowder and QB Anthony Boone. Only Virginia returns more in the ACC, though the Hoos are changing quarterbacks and only produced two wins with virtually the same players a season ago. Plus, their offense took a hit in the offseason when leading receiver Jake McGee decided to transfer.

What should give Duke an edge is the experience and leadership it will have with returning QB Boone (2260 YP in 2013), WR Crowder (an ACC-record 108 catches a year ago) and top RB Josh Snead (651 YR last fall)...seniors all.

Crowder is the headliner of the group, after his monster 2013, and now needs just 1,153 yards to set the school and ACC career receiving yards record. Snead will once again split carries (Cutcliffe’s preferred RB-by-committee approach) in the backfield that also includes productive jr. Shaquille Powell (5.5 ypc in 2013), though the lineup rotation from last season might be disrupted by the offseason dismissal of RB Jela Duncan (1115 YR the past two seasons combined).

Indeed, it was the balance provided by the infantry that was in stark contrast to previous Cutcliffe editions in Durham; last season, Duke gained 178 ypg rushing, not Navy or Georgia Tech-like stuff but in context a major development for Duke, which was used to triple-digit rushing rankings before placing a respectable 54th nationally (and 5th in the ACC) last season.

Boone returns at QB, although do-everything backup Brandon Connette, used like a Swiss Army knife by Cutcliffe, has transferred to Fresno State. There are still some rough spots in Boone’s game (his int. total of 13 matched his TD pass total last fall), but he and Crowder are among the ACC’s most-potent and established pass-catch combos. Cutcliffe also uses his tight ends; another sr., Brandon Deaver, was second-team All-ACC last year when catching 46 passes.

Two starters must be replaced along the OL, but three vital parts (LT Takoby Cofield, RG Laken Tomlinson, and C Matt Skura) all return. And Cutcliffe’s special teams were really special lat year, too, featuring returning All-ACC compenents at PK (jr. Ross “Wild Wild West” Martin), P (jr. Will Monday), PR (Crowder), and KR (DeVon Edwards).

The Duke defense also was a key to last year’s breakout season, not playing roadkill as it has often done in the past. Keeping the entire DL healthy for the whole campaign was a good omen, though only sr. DT Jamal Bruce returns from that group which rates as a definite question mark entering the fall.

What helped the platoon immeasurably last season was the secondary’s ball-hawking bent that resulted in 18 picks among Duke’s 26 forced turnovers, fourth best in the ACC. The DBs, a major area of concern entering 2013, now loom as a source of strength, even without All-ACC CB Ross Cockrell (Bills camp this summer). Tackling machine Jeremy Cash is one of three returing starters at safety in d.c. Scottie Montgomery’s 4-2-5 looks. Touted RS frosh CB Evertee Edwards, one of the top recruits last season, will likely work his way into the starting lineup.

Cutcliffe deserved the mention he received in Coach of the Year balloting last season, and the former Ole Miss HC and Manning mentor has proven the best Blue Devil football coaching hire since Steve Spurrier more than a quarter-century ago. Let’s not forget, however, that this is still Duke, no football factory, and a lot of breaks went the Blue Devils’ way last season. Without Connette as a change-of-pace for Boone at QB, and with some real questions along the defensive front, we’re not sure Cutcliffe can replicate 2013. But with Atlantic powers Clemson, Florida State, and Louisville off of the schedule this fall, Cutcliffe should comfortably return Duke to a bowl for a third straight year...almost the college FB equivalent of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.

What happened last season to Miami (SUR 9-4, PSR 5-8)?After positioning themselves as a legit BCS contender with an unbeaten SU record entering November, the Hurricanes proved to be a false alarm on the lines of the Comet Kahoutek, blown out in three straight games by Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Duke, and then to be eventually blasted one more time by Louisville in the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando. (Note that Miami will get a quick shot at redemption against the Cards, who make their ACC debut in the opener on Labor Day night against the Canes.)

Now the pressure is on HC Al Golden, whose three-year mark of 22-15 is not recalling the glory days of Jimmy Johnson or Howard Schnellenberger in Coral Gables. In Golden’s defense, he did not inherit the same sort of juggernaut that Johnson did almost thirty years earlier. And during Golden’s first couple of seasons in charge, Miami had been working under the cloud of an NCAA investigation involving disgraced booster Nevin Shapiro. But those clouds have finally lifted, with the Canes getting only a slap on the wrist from the NCAA after doing quite a bit of internal policing, including self-imposed bowl sanctions in 2011 & ’12. So, at least those sorts of distractions should not be hovering over the program this fall.

Golden’s problem, however, rests with a defense that a year ago was badly mistaken for a series of high-profile Cane stop units over the decades that would feature the All-Pro likes of Bennie Blades, Cortez Kennedy, Waren Sapp, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed...or back to earlier generations of stars like the “Mad Stork” himself, Ted Hendricks, and CB Burgess Owens.

In fact , it was the worst Miami defense in memory, recalling the old NASCAR line...they ran good, then they blew up.

How bad was it for the Miami stop unit last fall? Try ranking 13th (out of 14) in the ACC, while continually struggling to get to the QB and stop the run...hardly a promising combination. The platoon would eventually spend too much time on the field, way too much, in fact (34:02 minutes, ranking an awful 118th in the country). The “D” also allowed a hefty 42% conversions on third downs, and the vast majority of its 27 forced turnovers came early in the season, a number that would drop precipitously in the last half of the campaign.

Moreover, for the first time in memory, ACC observers were noting the lack of foot seed and quicks on defense. What, you say, a slow Miami defense? Apparently so. Seven starters do return on the platoon, including All-ACC LB Denzel Perryman. Golden and d.c. Mark D’Onofrio are likely to give several newcomers a long look, especially on the DL, where five-star signee DE Chad Thomas (a Miami-area product) and juco DT Michael Wyche will be given every chance to crack the starting lineup. But there are no 300-lb.-plus DL destroyers in the Warren Sapp/Russell Maryland mold to collapse the middle of the opposing line as there have been in years past.

Beyond LB Perryman, the most-impactful defenders are probably in the secondary, where the returning starters at CB, Tracy Howard and Ladarius Gunter, are potential All-ACC picks.

The story on offense is a bit murky, too, especially since expected starting QB and former Memphis transfer Ryan Williams suffered a torn ACL in spring, jeopardizing his availability for the fall, although word from South Beach is that his rehab is progressing ahead of schedule. That might be because of a new contender at the QB spot, former BYU and Kansas QB Jake Heaps, who transferred to Coral Gables in mid-June and will be eligible immediately. Heaps, however, will be hitting Cane camp cold in August, and his past performances with the Cougars and Jayhawks do not suggest the second coming of George Mira or Bernie Kosar.

Redshirt frosh Kevin Olson, who was running number one at the end of spring after Williams’ injury, figures to be in the mix for snaps as well. But one has to wonder if the QB spot will prove an Albatross of sorts for the Canes, who could rely upon the graduated Stephen Morris to execute o.c. James Coley’s fast-paced attack the past couple of years.

Whichever QB emerges will also be without last year’s top receiver Allen Hurns (Jaguars camp this summer) and his 80 catches worth 1162 receiving yards last season. There are some targets with experience still in the mix, such as TE Clive Watford (34 catches LY), and sr. WR Philip Dorsett did catch 58 passes in 2012 before being slowed to a crawl by knee problems last season.

With the QB and WR situations in flux, the offense will likely focus upon jr. RB Duke Johnson (920 YR in 2013), a peripheral Heisman candidate whose broken ankle at Florida State last season roughly coincided with the Canes’ dropoff down the stretch. A bit more encouragement involves the left side of the OL, where G Jon “Jose” Feliciano, T Erick Flowers (regarded highly by NFL scouts), and C Shane McDermott have combined for 75 career starts.

Another disturbing development from last season was the sudden reversal of fortune in Golden’s pointspread mark, which had been “golden” dating to his days at Temple and 15-8-1 in his first two years with the Canes. But Miami dropped six straight spread decisions late last season en rote to a 1-7 mark in its last eight vs. the number.

Perhaps the Canes bounce back from last year’s late-season meltdown, but the swagger and mystique of the Hurricanes have been mostly fiction for the past decade. Without anything resembling its former swashbuckling defenses, we’re not convinced Miami recovers quickly from its fade a year ago...especially if the QB play isn’t up to par. We’ll get a better idea where things are headed with the Canes in the September 1 opener at Louisville.

They’ve been on a seven-to-eight win cycle at Georgia Tech (SUR 7-6, PSR 6-6-1) the past few years, as the Yellow Jackets seem stuck in some sort of a honeycomb, enough to get them to a bowl (which Tech has done for 17 straight seasons) but not really threatening to make an impact on the national scene. Which has surprised some who believed that the combination of Tech and former Navy HC Paul Johnson might end up dominating the ACC when he was hired prior to the 2008 season.

While Johnson has won consistently in Atlanta, it has not been overwhelmingly so (48-32 in six seasons), and the Jackets have regressed from their high-water mark in 2009, when winning the ACC and advancing to the BCS Orange Bowl. Along the way, many regional observers have wondered about the ceiling for the Johnson spread-option offense in a league with as many athletes as the ACC, after Johnson was able to use the offense with a bit more effectiveness during his stint in Annapolis.

Last season’s 7-6 mark was the latest example of some of this disappointment, because the pieces seemed in place for a Tech resurgence, with QB Vad Lee flashing real upside and the defense having recovered from Johnson’s previous mistake of hiring vet Al Groh as its coordinator, and subsequently rebounding for new d.c Ted Roof (a former Duke HC) midway in the preceding 2012 season. Roof’s 2013 stop unit indeed dropped Tech’s points allowed by almost a full TD from the previous year, but depth issues on his platoon resulted in handful of collapses against Miami, BYU, and Clemson.

Tired of watching so many ACC spread offenses outrun his schemes, Roof, who junked predecessor Groh’s pet 3-4 upon his hiring, is now switching from a base 4-3 to a new 4-2-5 look that was first deployed in spring.

Among adjustments made by Roof in the offseason were position switches that included MLB Jabari Hunt-Days and his move to the DE spot that departed All-ACC Jeremiah Attaochu (the school’s all-time sacks leader and a 2nd-round choice of the Chargers) filled in recent seasons. Getting sr. DT Shawn Green beyond recent injury woes that have limited his contributions will also be key this fall. The bulwark of the new “front six” for Roof could be sr. LB Quayshawn Neely, who served notice in spring work when impressing in every scrimmage, recording multiple sacks and forced fumbles in each.

Meanwhile, four safeties return with starting experience, including three-year starting FS Isaiah Johnson, who missed the 2013 season following spring ACL surgery. Roof also believes jr. CB D.J. White has All-ACC ability, but the pass defense ranked a poor 12th out of 14 in the ACC a year ago, so there is room for improvement.

As usual, Johnson’s option offense can be counted upon to chew up the yardage on the ground (last year Tech again ranked among the nation’s top rush teams, placing sixth a 299 ypg), although it will be minus aforementioned QB Vad Lee, who transferred to James Madison in the offseason. It was expected that touted soph Justin Thomas, a true sprinter and perhaps the best running threat Johnson has had at QB in Atlanta, would win the job, but former Middle Tennessee transfer Tim Byerly performed better in spring, when Thomas also missed the last week of workouts due to a shoudler injury.

Given that Johnson’s QBs are always proficient in running the option, we expect little drop-off from Lee with either Thomas or Byerly. The unknown for all Tech QBs is if they can provide just a hint of a passing threat; after all, star NFL wideouts such as Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas have emerged from Bobby Dodd Stadium/Grant Field in recent years, and 6'3 sr. DeAndre Smelter is the latest Tech receiver to be fancied by the pro scouts. Stay tuned this fall to see if either Thomas or Byerly can provide that aerial dimension.

Injuries depleted much of the RB corps in spring, with “A-backs” Deon Hill, Synjyn Days, and Charles Perkins sitting out most of the drills, although Johnson has never been caught short of RBs during his coaching career. “B-back” (FB) Zach Laskey could be ready for a breakout year after gaining 5.8 ypc from his fullback spot a year ago.

Pointspread-wise, it must be noted that Johnson’s long-standing prowess in an underdog role, dating to his days with Navy, took a broadside hit last season when the Jackets dropped all five of their spread decisions getting points. Whether or not that was simply a one-off remains to be seen.

Tech’s 2014 ACC schedule bypasses Florida State and Louisville from the Atlantic and offers three lay-ups to begin the season before things get serious on September 20 at Virginia Tech. Note that Johnson has also lost and failed to cover five straight vs. Coastal foe Miami, which has emerged as a real thorn in the Jackets’ side.

In the traffic jam of the Coastal, it would not shock if Tech emerges as a contender, but we have seen better-looking Johnson-coached Jacket teams fall short in that quest. At the least, another bowl bid (which would be Tech’s 18th straight) looks a safe bet for the fall.

We guess you could say we’re a bit down on Virginia Tech (SUR 8-5, PSR 4-8-1) if we’re pegging the Hokies this low in the Coastal table. The reasons are plentiful, including some rumblings of which we haven’t heard from Blacksburg in over 20 years, when longtime HC Frank Beamer was once on a very hot seat.

Since that ‘93 campaign when Beamer was last under the gun, Tech has been “bowling” for 21 straight seasons and Beamer has become an institution. He’s also now the longest-serving FBS head coach in the country, entering his 28th season this fall. Can it be that long ago that Beamer succeeded Bill Dooley (who retired after a 1986 Peach Bowl win) at Blacksburg?

While there is little chance that the 67-year-old Beamer is going to be pushed out at his alma mater, the “r” word (retirement) is now being mentioned a bit more frequently at VPI. And if the Hokies regress to the point where bowl qualification is iffy (as it was recently in 2012), the pressure could mount on Beamer to step aside. Curiously, there has yet to be any official successor plan put in place as a bridge to longtime sidekick and d.c. Bid 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 irreparabvly damage Foster’s hopes of being the successor to Beamer.

Foster’s defense, however, was not the reason the Hokies achieved only modest success (at least by VPI’s decades-long standards) last season, rather it was an inconsistent offense that has been a problem area for Beamer in recent years. Unfortunately for ‘ol Frank, we don’t think he has the right chap pushing the buttons on the attack end to help the attack out of its recent lurch.

Specifically, we’re not terribly high on o.c. Scott Loeffler, whose last success in that role came on Temple’s staff a few years ago, under Steve Addazio. Since then he has hastened Gene Chizik’s departure at Auburn by dismantling the Gus Malzahn offense (quickly reassembled by Malzahn upon his return to Jordan-Hare last season) and presided over a further downturn of the Hokies’ offensive fortunes last year when VPI ranked poorly in rush (109th), scoring (99th), and total offense (101st) stats. That the Hokies didn’t run better was a shocker after the Loeffler trademark had been to at least attempt to establish the infantry diversion in his previous locales, and suggests bigger problems at Lane Stadium..

Loeffler’s 2013 offense struggled behind erratic QB Logan Thomas, who has finally graduated (drafted by the Cardinals) after appearing to regress the past two seasons. Given Thomas’ uneven efforts, we don’t believe any dropoff to his siuccessor will be severe. Heading into fall camp, there is a good chance that late arrival Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer, who saw considerable work two years ago in Lubbock before injuring his back just prior to the 2013 campaign, might end up as the starter despite showing up in Blacksburg well after spring practice. Most ACC observers are betting on Brewer emerging as the starter after holdovers RS soph Brenden Motley & 5th-year sr. Mark Leal could not separate from one another during spring.

If strong-armed Brewer is as good as he was once advertised at Texas Tech, the offense might have a chance, especially with the top three receivers from 2013 back in the fold. Joshua Sanford, Willie Byrn, and Demitri Knowles all caught at least 40 passes last fall. But the target to watch is going to be converted QB Bucky Hodges, a 6'6 skyscraper with 4.5 speed who could be a matchup nightmare for opposing DBs.

A stable of established RBs, led by soph Trey Edmunds (675 YR in 2013 but recovering from a late-season broken leg), returns to the fold, though the infantry was mostly ineffecitve last season. Touted frosh RBs Shai McKenzie and Marshawn Willaims (considered a possible between-the-tackles beast) are probably going to get their chances in the fall.

Beamer and Loeffler are also going to cross their fingers that the OL does its job after much inconsistency last season. Five return with starting experience, but the unit will be working under its third position coach (Stacy Searels) in the past three years. Moreover, the once-proud Beamer special teams have regressed alarmingly in recent seasons. Especially with a kicking game that missed 11 FGs a year ago. Beamer has had myriads of problems with PKs in recent seasons, and might turn to incoming frosh Michael Santamaria as the potential answer in the fall.

As much as the offense has struggled lately, at least Foster has been upholding his end of the bargain with his defense. Foster, however, is in a modest reload mode after seven seniors departed from last year’s platoon that ranked near the top of the ACC in all categories, and was 4th nationally in total defense (284 ypg) and 11th in scoring (19.3 ppg).

Foster, however, is undergoing an overhaul with his front seven, especially a starting LB corps that was completely wiped out by graduation. Good news up front was that sr. DT Luther Maddy decided to bypass the NFL Draft to stick around for one more year in Blacksburg, and lineup rotations last year provided plenty of snaps for the likes of DEs Dadi Nicholas and Ken Ekanem, who both displayed a burst from the edge when on the field. The new-look LB crops is filled with upperclassmen who have been biding their time, but now the likes of 5th-year sr. ILB Chase Williams and jr. Deon Clarke finally get their chances.

Four with starting experience are also back in the secondary, though not Kyle Fuller, a first-round draft pick by the Bears. Soph CBs Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson combined for 11 picks a year, while rover Kyshawn Jarrett and FS Derrick Brown are a pair of experienced seniors in center field.

Another indicator of the erosion on Beamer's watch has been a once-sparkling pointspread record that has turned dull as dishwater the past few years. After another subpar 4-8-1 spread mark last season, Beamer’s team is 12-27-1 vs. the line since late in the 2010 campaign. And when last seen, VPI was getting throttled by UCLA, 40-12, in the Sun Bowl.

Perhaps QB Michael Brewer will provide a spark to the offense, but there is no hiding from the fact that the Hokies have been on a descending glide pattern the past three years. If Beamer can’t get results in tough September dates at Ohio State and home vs. Georgia Tech, we’re not even sure the bowl streak continues, as the slate gets even trickier once October commences.

What is Mike London still doing as the head coach at Virginia (SUR 2-10, PSR 5-6-1) after the Cavs program has endured a Roy Riegels-like wrong way run the past two seasons? That’s a good question that perhaps can only be answered by AD Craig Littlepage, especially since most ACC observers have soured on London in recent years.

Since a Chick-fil-A Bowl appearance in 2011, Virginia has won just 6 of its past 24 games. And the Cavs were winless in the ACC a year ago for the first time since Dick Bestwick’s 1-10 team in 1981, one that preceded the hiring of George Welsh from Navy and a resurrection of the program three decades ago.

Virginia, however, operates a bit differently than other FBS-level programs, especially those in the major conferences. That’s partly because the main support base is not necessarily football-centric; many of the school’s big-money donors are more concerned with the Hoos’ high-profile lacrosse program. (Really!) As for AD Littlepage, he has some extra insulation from any potentially angry football boosters at the moment with the recent resurrection of the basketball program under Tony Bennett, and the baseball team reaching the recent College World Seris in Omaha. Plus lacrosse. Indeed, it’s a pretty good time to be a Wahoo fan...unless you prefer the football program.

Still, even the lacrosse-oriented boosters are said to be taking notice of the football shortcomings. The clock is thus ticking on London, who, according to some, could find himself walking the plank by midseason if the Cavs cannot clear enough of their early-season hurdles. There are no shortage of interim coaching candidates on staff who have experience as FBS-level head coaches (such as ex-Colorado State Steve Fairchild, ex-Boston College & NC State Tom O’Brien, ex-LSU Mike Archer, and ex-Georgia Tech Jon Tenuta, a longtime d.c. who was HC for the Yellow Jackets in their 2007 Humanitarian Bowl after Chan Gailey was dismissed) who could, as the thinking goes, at least help smooth any potential transition period.

The culprit, at least last season, was the offense, under the watch of Fairchild, which couldn’t even tally 20 ppg (19.8) to rank a pitiful 109th nationally in scoring. Fairchild does welcome back seven starters, although holdover QB David Watford (2202 YP in 2013 but with 15 picks and only 8 TDP) might not be one of those after being outperformed by last year’s backup, soph Greyson Lambert, in spring drills.

Watford is certainly more elusive than Lambert but hurt the offense with his numerous mistakes, something that Lambert is going to be expected to avoid. Fairchild’s play-calling also left plenty to be desired last season, with the Hoos short of creativity and panache on the attack end. A rebuilt OL is going to make the chores even harder for Lambert or Watford, as the forward wall replaces key pieces Morgan Moses (Redskins 3rd-round pick) and Luke Bowanko (Jags sixth-round pick).

The strike (out?) force likely again will revolve around punishing sr. RB Kevin Parks, a between-the-tackles banger who became the first 1000-yard rusher in Charlottesville in a decade as he gained 1031 YR in 2013 and scored 11 TDs. It won’t revolve around 6'6, 250-lb. WR Jake McGee, a former TE who moved out wide last season and caught 71 passes for 769 yards and 7 TDs; McGee transferred to Florida in the offseason. Senior WR Darius Jennings, whose on-field vision has improved since he began wearing contact lenses, has 106 career catches but has yet to prove a downfield threat after gaining less than 10 yards per catch last season.

Prospects thus appear iffy at best for a resurgence on the attack end.

Injuries depleted Jon Tenuta’s defense last season, to the point the veteran coordinator had to dial back some of the high-pressure schemes for which he is noted. The Hoos still recorded 28 sacks and claimed 10 picks, though those numbers should improve with a bevy of starters (8) and other experience back in the fold on the stop end.

With so many veterans in the mix, Tenuta is expected to tinker with various different fronts and packages outside of the base 4-3 alignment. Hopefully, the Hoos can bring the sort of pressure from the edge that the best Tenuta defenses have featured over the years. Junior DE Eli Harold and soph OLB Max Vailes are the sort of speed rushers that Tenuta has utilized effectively in the past.

The “D” increased its takeaways from a poor 12 to a modest 21 last season, and continuing improvement in that area should be a bonus. Which isn’t impossible, as the secondary is loaded with experience, and sr. S Anthony Harris (one of four returning DB starters) led the nation with 8 picks a year ago.

As for London, he’s had problems everywhere, including an on-field run-in with Duke HC David Cutcliffe a few years ago, and problems against the spread, where he has never recorded a winning record in his four seasons at Charlottesville. The Cavs are a subpar 17-27-5 vs. the line on London’s watch.

While the Coastal race looks as if it could be a potential logjam, the one team in this half of the loop that we don’t envision getting involved in the title chase is Virginia. Instead, the hourglass looks to be running out on Mike London’s coaching career with the Hoos. Unless the offense perks up considerably, a slow start for the Cavs is possible, in which case London could become a lame duck by midseason, and it would only be up to the compassion of AD Littlepage to wait until the campaign concludes to hit the eject button on London. The clock is ticking on the coaching regime in Charlottesville.


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