Projecting the 2013 season in minute detail, based on our preseason F/+ ratings. For the full ratings, see the this year's edition of the Football Outsiders Almanac.
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Previously: Projecting the ACC Atlantic.
1. VIRGINIA TECH
Best-Case. Pretty much from the moment the ACC cleaved into two divisions back in 2005, the first rule in the Coastal has never changed: When in doubt, bet Virginia Tech. In the first seven years of the format, the Hokies won their half of the conference five times, and ultimately topped all other ACC teams in the final polls all seven years. Neither rain nor sleet nor random September upsets nor the gloom of a Bryan Stinespring offense could keep them from their appointed rounds at the top of the league. Or so it went, until roughly last October, when the gloom kept right on glooming throughout a 7–6 debacle that marked the worst season in Blacksburg in 20 years.
Naturally, there is plenty of reasonable doubt about Tech's trajectory in the wake of such an unexpected, uncharacteristic lapse. Still, it pales in comparison to the doubts about the would-be usurpers at Georgia Tech, Miami and North Carolina, none which distinguished itself en route to a flavorless three-way tie in the Hokies' absence. In fact, at 4–4, Virginia Tech finished just a game back in the final standings, and took major steps to address its offensive issues by demoting Stinespring from offensive coordinator to tight ends coach and firing quarterbacks coach Mike O'Cain outright. Both moves were made for the sake of übermensch quarterback Logan Thomas, who wound up shouldering far too much of the offense – he personally accounted for 71.5 percent of the team's total yards – despite his obvious regression as a passer. (Among regular ACC starters, Thomas finished dead last for completion percentage (51.3) and interception percentage (3.7), and his overall efficiency rating plummeted by nearly 20 points from 2011.) Now a senior, Thomas still hasn't come within sight of the elusive "ceiling" that makes pro scouts weak in the knees. But given a more familiar supporting cast, opposite a typically knee-capping defense, the potential alone is enough to keep the bar at its usual height – that would be right around 10 wins – and make the Hokies favorites against everyone on this schedule who isn't Alabama.
Worst-Case. Déjà vu. Larger track record notwithstanding, 2012 can't be written off as a mulligan. In fact, as ugly as it looks next to a string of eight straight 10-win seasons from 2004–11, the 7–6 finish slightly understates how close the Hokies came to rock bottom. Of those seven wins, four came on the last play of the game, three of them overtime affairs in which Tech trailed well into the fourth quarter. (In the last ten years, the only other teams with three OT triumphs in the same season are South Florida in 2003, Northwestern (2004), Buffalo (2008) and Louisiana-Monroe (2012).) That included the bowl game, a come-from-behind, 13-10 escape against Rutgers that redefined "winning ugly." Which, for this offense, is saying something: In the final S&P+ ratings, the offense finished 80th or worse nationally in rushing, passing and play efficiency.
The guy they hired to fix that? Journeyman QB guru Scott Loeffler, whose brief turn in charge of Auburn's offense in 2012 negates the notion that it can't be any worse. There are three new starters on the offensive line and no reliable playmakers. If Thomas has to singlehandedly dead lift the offense week-in, week-out, those numbers won't change, and neither will the numbers in the loss column.
Reality. It took Virginia Tech the better part of a decade to reinforce its status as the most consistent, bankable frontrunner in the ACC, and roughly three months for that reputation to be overtaken by rust: The Hokies are unranked in the preseason coaches' poll for the first time since 2004, their first season in the conference, and have also been snubbed by a vast majority of the preseason magazines. Thomas is regarded as an underachiever, and at 66, Frank Beamer doesn't have the luxury of rebuilding from the ground up.
A competitive turn against Alabama in the opener would be an encouraging start. (Recall that in 2009 Tech led the eventual BCS champs through three quarters on opening night before fading in the fourth.) But the season will ultimately turn on a three-game, midseason stretch against Coastal peers Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Pitt, by which point we should know whether 2012 was a fluke or the new normal.
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Projected Record: 9–3 (6–2 ACC)
Best-Case. The question rests with two highly embattled, unpredictable entities: The NCAA, and Stephen Morris. On one hand, the looming specter of NCAA sanctions in the Nevin Shapiro affair has been diminished by the all-purpose incompetence of the sport's governing body, which prompted Miami to push for a full acquittal. (The university appeared before the NCAA for a formal hearing in June; any further penalties are certain to be met with lengthy appeals that will allow the Canes to return to a bowl game this winter.) On the other, more immediately relevant hand, there's Morris, who could be on track for the best season by a Miami quarterback in a generation. Or, you know, not.
Although he is not nearly the galloping colossus that Logan Thomas is, Morris is similarly divisive among the scouts, many of whom left the Manning Passing Academy in July convinced they'd uncovered a first-round talent. The film, however, tells a different story about his consistency, as does the paper: Prolific as it could be at times, the offense still fizzled in 2012 against respectable defenses, failing to top 20 points in losses to Kansas State, Notre Dame, North Carolina and FSU. Like Thomas, Morris has not scratched his ceiling, and ten wins is easily within reach if he does.
Worst-Case. Unlike Thomas, Morris can't rely on his defense to bail him out, or even to be the same defense from week to week: Twenty-four different defenders started at least one game last year in search of some shred of cohesion, which they never found. The result was a different starting lineup in every game, a musical chairs approach that left Miami ranked last in the ACC in rushing defense, pass defense and total defense, and 88th nationally in Defensive F/+. Opponents went over 30 points in six of eight conference games, and averaged 30 for the season for the first time since World War II.
Not surprisingly, the post-spring depth chart was noncommittal, listing multiple starters at five positions and a true freshman, Alex Figueroa, in front of three veteran linebackers with starting experience. Until something sticks, at least half the teams on the schedule are capable of keeping pace in a shootout, and of rendering the bowl question moot.
Reality. This time last year, the Canes seemed to be roughly neck-and-neck with Florida and Florida State on the rebuilding curve. Now they're clearly behind, and aren't as monolithically talented as the Gators or Noles across the board. A win in either of those games would qualify as an upset, and possibly (depending on how the season is going elsewhere) a breakthrough. First things first, though: In nearly a decade, Miami still hasn't played in the ACC Championship Game, and hasn't won more than five conference games in a season since 2005. Sanctions or not, at this point there's no reason to believe it until we see it.
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Projected Record: 8–4 (5–3 ACC)
Bob Donnan/USA Today Sports
3. NORTH CAROLINA
Best-Case. The third and final senior quarterback on our tour is Bryn Renner, who, like Logan Thomas and Stephen Morris, is a strong-armed prototype with two seasons as a starter under his belt and the NFL in his future. Like Thomas and Morris, he's on pace to leave with a library's worth of school passing records; after a decade of mediocrity and worse, UNC finished in the top 15 nationally last year in both yards and points per game under offensive-minded head coach Larry Fedora, and 20th in offensive F/+. Of the three, Renner has been the most consistent and efficient, by far, and he outdueled both Thomas and Morris last October in Tar Heel wins.
True, Renner also delivered two of his most pedestrian performances in losses at Wake Forest and Duke, a pair of random lapses that cost UNC its first 10-win season since Mack Brown's swan song in Chapel Hill in 1997. But lapses are correctable, and in one sense they can even serve as an argument for the Heels' baseline strength: Clearly, the talent is there to compete against the top of the schedule. Hold the line on that front, shore up the sloppiness against the bottom of the schedule, and all of a sudden you're looking less like a flake and more like the frontrunner no one else wants to be.
Worst-Case. A more compelling argument can be made that random lapses aren't really that random when the defense is so prone to them. In four losses, Carolina allowed 42 points and nearly 500 yards per game – including 588 yards in a 68–50 debacle against Georgia Tech – and also allowed at least 34 points in three games it won. Dating back to his tenure at Southern Miss, Fedora's teams have a history of inexplicable flops and late fades. (A majority of his losses as a head coach, 13 of 23, have come in games in which his team led or was tied in the fourth quarter.) If the Heels can't hold the line against the top three or four teams on the schedule early on, they'll be in danger of lapsing themselves right out of a bowl game.
Reality. Surprisingly, for an outfit that technically won the division in 2012, could have won more and still doesn't have to play Florida State or Clemson from the Atlantic Division, UNC is persona non grata in most preseason forecast. (This guy appears to be alone in picking the Heels to win the division or finish in the top 25.) It won't take long to check their work: After the opening night litmus test at South Carolina, the games that will decide the division – at Georgia Tech, at Virginia, Miami – are all on deck by midseason. Realistically, the Heels can probably get away with one loss in those three and make up enough ground over the second half to sweat out a tiebreaker. But only if there are no more unpleasant surprises down the stretch.
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Projected Record: 8–4 (5–3 ACC)
4. GEORGIA TECH
Best-Case. In this business, Georgia Tech under Paul Johnson is about as predictable as it gets: Glorified tailback at the controls of the triple option, better athletes on defense than the middling recruiting rankings suggest, the detritus of mangled kneecaps left in the Jackets' wake, etc. Aside from a surprise ACC championship run in 2009 – the one year defenses were actually forced to acknowledge a receiving threat, courtesy of Demaryius Thomas – Johnson's teams in ACC play have come in at 5–3 (2008), 4–4 (2010), 5–3 (2011) and 5–3 (2012). Given that the 2013 edition does not boast a would-be Demariyus Thomas to exploit run-obsessed secondaries, it's tempting to cap its in-conference potential at … wait for it … 5–3.
If there is a sixth win to be had, though, the schedule obliges by bringing four of the five defining "toss-up" games (against North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Syracuse and Pittsburgh) to Atlanta, thereby making up for sending the Jackets to Clemson in November. Despite last year's logjam of mediocrity, getting back to the ACC title game will almost certainly require Tech to either a) Win all four of those games, or b) Win three of them while also upsetting Miami or Clemson on the road. (While also avoiding upset bids at Duke and Virginia.) Both of those scenarios bend plausibility a bit, but don't break it.
Worst-Case. As of right now Georgia Tech has dropped three straight against Virginia Tech, four straight against Miami and Georgia and two straight at Clemson; since 2009, its only win over a ranked team was a 2011 upset over the Tigers, in Atlanta. The Jackets have also been good for one completely random loss per season, falling at Kansas in 2010, at Virginia in 2011 and at home against Middle Tennessee in 2012, all games Tech was favored to win by at least a touchdown. Between Miami, Clemson, Georgia and four legitimate toss-ups, one of them against a BYU outfit that thumped Tech by 24 points last October, a stubbed toe against Syracuse or Virginia could mean the end of a 16-year bowl streak).
Reality. Johnson tried to address last year's defensive issues by hiring ex-Tech All-American/journeyman coordinator Ted Roof to revamp that side of the ball, and he's not losing anything at quarterback in the transition from the maddening Tevin Washington to Vad Lee. But unless Lee is a revelation, there is no missing ingredient that makes this edition appreciably better than any of the last three, and no reason to expect the record to reflect otherwise.
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Projected Record: 7–5 (5–3 ACC)
Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports
Best-Case. What is there to say about a team coming off three consecutive trips to the BBVA Compass Bowl under three different head coaches? Only that it won't be back in Birmingham this winter – thank the lord – because its new conference doesn't have a tie-in there. Otherwise, Pitt is a program so bland, so perfectly mediocre, it would almost command more respect if it was truly terrible. Since opening at No. 15 in the preseason AP poll in 2010, the Panthers are 20–19, have not appeared in the poll again and have not beaten an opponent that finished there. Over their final two seasons in the Big East, they were 7–7 in conference games. No Panther player was drafted after either season. The 2012 team, under first-year coach Paul Chryst, finished 51st in the overall F/+ ratings, 50th in offensive S&P+ and 52nd in defensive S&P+. The most memorable moment of the season was a missed field goal at Notre Dame that kept the Irish's perfect season alive in overtime.
That said, the Panthers did improve enough over the course of Paul Chryst's first season as head coach to salvage a bowl bid out of a miserable start, and proved in convincing upsets over Virginia Tech and Rutgers (not to mention the close call in South Bend) that they can potentially win any game on the schedule. If one their unsuspecting victims happens to be Florida State on opening night – FSU comes north with a redshirt freshman quarterback who has yet to take a college snap – or Virginia Tech again in an Oct. 12 grudge match, there's a clear path to six wins by Halloween. That would leave room for a mulligan down the stretch against Georgia Tech, North Carolina or Miami, and a golden opportunity for Pitt to break out of its rut by taking care of business in the other two.
Worst-Case. As a team breaking in a new quarterback of its own behind a renovated offensive line – the front is in such a state of flux that the starting five could conceivably feature a true freshman (Dorian Johnson), a pair of redshirt freshmen (Adam Bisnowaty and Gabe Roberts) and/or a newly converted defensive lineman (T.J. Clemmings) – Pitt could potentially lose almost any game on the schedule, too. That includes early conference dates with Duke and Virginia, either of which could quickly disabuse the Panthers of any notions of taking their new conference by storm, and later trips to Navy and Syracuse. If the Panthers are shut out against the top half of the schedule, a single stumble against the bottom half means a losing record and no bowl game of any kind for the first time since 2007.
Reality. Pitt is not far enough behind the usual suspects in the Coastal to be dismissed as a darkhorse, but it's done nothing in recent memory to recommend it as a serious contender, either. It's worth recalling that, less than three years ago, this is the same program that kicked Dave Wannstedt to the curb for going 7–5 in 2010, on the heels of nine and ten-win seasons in 2008–09. Chryst has brought some much-needed stability in the wake of the turbulence that preceded him. But in lieu of a major step forward in year two, the moment Dave Wannstedt era starts to look like the standard bearer is the moment the incumbent has to begin looking over his shoulder.
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Projected Record: 7–5 (4–4 ACC)
Best-Case. No team has lived and died on the margins the last two years quite as explicitly as Virginia. In 2011, the Cavaliers went 5–1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, and came within a game of winning its first division title. In 2012, with virtually identical numbers in terms of total offense and defense, the Cavs went 2–4 in games decided by a touchdown or less and plummeted to last place. Twelve months after Mike London was voted ACC Coach of the Year for overseeing the 2011 turnaround, he found himself firing four assistants and watching a fifth bail for the NFL as the program settled back into rebuilding mode.
On the bright side, the difference can be boiled down to two seemingly correctable areas: Special teams and turnover margin. Out of 124 teams nationally, UVA ranked 123rd last year in special teams F/+, a combination of mediocre place-kicking (11-of-17 on field goals), an anemic return game and atrocious coverage on kickoffs (opponents averaged 27.5 yards per return, second-worst in the FBS, with two touchdowns). As for turnovers, the Cavs were even sloppier, turning in the worst margin in the ACC and finishing in the red in every loss; outside of a November upset over N.C. State, the defense managed a single interception – count it, one – against everyone else. Even an average turn in those departments could make enough of a difference in close games to bring the record back up to .500.
Worst-Case. Regardless of what happens on the margins, the deeper problem remains the lack of any reliable, down-to-down difference makers on offense and defense. Barring a star turn by freshman tailback Taquan "Smoke" Mizell (the first five-star signee on London's watch) or sophomore defensive end Eli Harold (10 tackles for loss as a true freshman), no amount of veteran savvy is going to make up for the persistent lack of firepower. The swath of red covering the second half of the schedule says it all: Assuming a rocky start against BYU and Oregon, the window for keeping the season on track against Pittsburgh, Ball State, Maryland and Duke is very small. If it gets away from them there, they won't get it back.
Reality. Aside from Oregon and possibly Clemson, no one seems very likely to run Virginia out of the stadium, although lopsided losses last year against Georgia Tech, Duke and North Carolina suggest it's going to happen. And at some point the Cavs will pull an ambush no one saw coming; they've upset Miami three years in a row, with equally surprising wins over Georgia Tech, Florida State and Penn State in the last two. The way this slate sets up, though, it will take the combined skin on the teeth of the entire student body just to keep bowl eligibility alive into November. After that, the margin for error is too small.
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Projected Record: 4–8 (2–6 ACC)
Best-Case. For most of the last two decades, the answer here was "don't embarrass the basketball team." But that was before last December, when the 2012 Blue Devils snapped an 18-year bowl drought, and before the math revealed that the 2013 edition has logged more career starts entering the season (353) than any other FBS roster except Texas. So the bar has been nudged a bit: Are we going to get a winning record now, or what?
That depends very largely on the new quarterback, Anthony Boone, and how seamlessly he slides into the role vacated by Sean Renfree; otherwise, there should be no dropoff from Connor Vernon to Jamison Crowder at wide receiver, and the rest of the offense is effectively the same as the one that averaged upwards of 30 points and 400 yards per game last year for the first time in school history. The schedule supplies just enough
rope hope: If Duke takes care of business in five obviously winnable games (North Carolina Central, Memphis, Troy, Navy, Wake Forest), another bowl trip – and a shot at magic win number seven – is only one upset away.
Worst-Case. Good vibes should not be mistaken for actual upward mobility, especially when the ceiling was all too obvious. With a loss in the bowl game, the Devils ended their "breakthrough" campaign on a five-game losing streak, dropping those games by an average margin of 23 points. Opposing offenses in that skid averaged an astounding 585 yards per game on 8.2 per play. In seven games against other bowl teams, Duke allowed at least 41 points in all seven, winning none. The defense as a whole finished 112th in the S&P+ ratings and 116th in F/+, worst in the ACC by far on both counts.
In that context, returning 15 defenders with starting experience is not exactly a positive. The must-win dates with Memphis, Troy and especially Navy all have the potential to go very bad, very quickly, and there's still not a single coach in the ACC who doesn't circle Duke as a game his team should win.
Reality. It's impossible to ignore the progress here under David Cutcliffe, who inherited a program in 2007 in the midst of a 25-game conference losing streak. Five years later, he's won a grand total of nine conference games, three of them last year in an effort that was regarded as a borderline miracle. If he pulls that off two years in a row, with this defense, it really will be.
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Projected Record: 4–8 (1–7 ACC)