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2019 ACC Coastal Preview

By Dave Holcomb
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Virginia is out to make college football history.

The ACC Coastal has been one of the most fun, chaotic and wacky divisions in college football during this decade. No stat proves that to be true better than the fact that in the last six years, six different teams have won the Coastal Division. Last year, Pitt captured the division crown for the first time since joining the conference in 2013.

The lone team who hasn’t won the Coastal this decade -- Virginia. But the Cavaliers are out to change that this fall and make it seven different teams representing the Coastal in the ACC Championship Game in seven years.

The biggest reason to like Virginia’s chances is quarterback Bryce Perkins. The dual-threat quarterback threw for 2,680 yards and 25 touchdowns while rushing for 923 yards and nine additional scores during his first season as a starter in Charlottesville. He returns as the best passer in the Coastal.

Cornerback Bryce Hall is back for the Cavaliers as well, which is somewhat surprising because he was eligible for the NFL draft and received quite a bit of praise during mock draft season. But Virginia’s top defender returns from a defense that finished third in the ACC in points allowed.

The biggest obstacles for Virginia completing the historic seven teams winning the Coastal in seven years are a road game at Miami and the rivalry with Virginia Tech. In this chaotic division, the Cavaliers might not have to win both, but they can’t lose both either. Virginia hasn’t won in Miami since 2011, and the Cavaliers are on a 15-game losing streak against the Hokies.

With the unsettled quarterback situations in Miami and Virginia Tech, the next best signal caller in the division might be Kenny Pickett, who led Pitt to its first Coastal title in 2018. Pickett played a small part in the run to the division crown, though, as the Panthers running attack carried the team to the ACC Championship, averaging about 290 rushing yards per contest in the final five ACC regular season games.

But under new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, who used to be an NFL quarterbacks coach and helped develop Steelers star Ben Roethlisberger, Pickett and the Panthers passing game are expected to take a major step forward. If that comes to fruition, the Cavaliers-Panthers matchup in Week 1 could be a very important game for tiebreakers in November.

With all the chaos within the division, however, it still feels as though Miami is just a year or two away from becoming the Coastal’s version of the Clemson Tigers. The Hurricanes appeared on their way to that in 2017 when they started 10-0, but the program is 7-9 since then and suffered an embarrassing bowl loss to Wisconsin last year.

Under new coach Manny Diaz, who was the team’s defensive coordinator the past couple seasons, the Miami defense will remain elite. But that will only keep the focus on the team’s ability to develop a quarterback.

Miami landed transfer Tate Martell, who earned a hardship waiver from the NCAA in order to be eligible immediately, but he had an underwhelming spring. Martell is competing with N’Kosi Perry, who split playing time with Malik Rosier at quarterback last year.

Virginia Tech is another traditional ACC football power that is feeling a little down at the moment. The Hokies barely kept their 26-year bowl streak alive, going 6-6 during the regular season. A loss then in the Military Bowl handed Virginia Tech its first losing season since 1992.

Ryan Willis appears to be the front runner to start behind center, but the key to Virginia Tech winning the Coastal is its defense bouncing back. The Hokies defense, which allowed 31 points per game last year, was one of the worst defensive units for the program since coordinator Bud Foster took over in 1995.

A big part of the issue was injuries, but that did give a lot of young defensive players last year an opportunity for more playing time. That experience could benefit those players this year, and Foster should be able to make the proper adjustments to help his group become much better this fall.

Any of the previously discussed four teams could be considered “wild cards” in this chaotic division, but if those four are the top contenders, North Carolina enters as the biggest sleeper. The Tar Heels are breathing new life under new-old coach Mack Brown. North Carolina is undergoing plenty of changes on offense this summer, but if things come together quickly with Brown back at the helm, they could be competitive in this wide-open division.

Duke and Georgia Tech are expected to bring up the rear in the Coastal, but it also wouldn’t be crazy to see either program win six games. The Blue Devils need to replace quarterback Daniel Jones, and the Yellow Jackets are rebuilding under new coach Geoff Collins, who has the difficult task of transitioning his offense away from the run-option.

One thing is for certain in the chaotic Coastal. Expect the unexpected.

Holcomb’s ACC Coastal 2019 Standings Prediction

1. Virginia
2. Miami
3. Virginia Tech
4. Pitt
5. North Carolina
6. Duke
7. Georgia Tech