The North Carolina Tar Heels won the Coastal Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2015 and gave the Clemson Tigers all that they wanted in the ACC Championship Game before going down. Then, they looked like garbage against Baylor in their bowl game.
But, expect the Tar Heels to bounce back and battle for the ACC championship again in 2016. That’s what they have been pushing for since they hired Larry Fedora from Southern Mississippi.
Fedora heads into his 5th season as the head coach at North Carolina with a 32-20 record and he might improve on that record dramatically in 2016. He has the horses in place to have maybe the best Tar Heel team since Mack Brown.
The key thing for Fedora was hiring former Auburn head coach Gene Chizek as his Defensive Coordinator. The Tar Heels had a great offense, but their defense was greatly improved as well.
Key players for the Tar Heels in 2016 are new Quarterback Mitch Trubisky Trubisky
Outstanding Running Back Elijah Hood and Wide Receivers Mack Hollins, Bug Howard, Ryan Switzer and Austin Proehl make maybe the third best skill position players in the ACC. They return 4 out of 5 Offensive Linemen including Jon Heck and Bentley Spain.
The defense returns top tackler and best Safety in Donnie Miles. They lost their best two Linebackers, but they return most of their other defensive players. With another year to work with his players, Gene Chizek can do wonders.
The Tar Heels have a fairly tough schedule opening with Georgia and their new coach Kirby Smart. Then, they pay Illinois and their new coach Lovie Smith. Their fourth game is against conference challenger Pittsburgh and then they play always tough Florida State.
Virginia Tech and Miami are next and both also have new coaches. Virginia is next and they also have a first year coach.
Next is Georgia Tech and they are dangerous with Quarterback Justin Thomas if he returns to 2014 form. Duke follows and they could be tough yet again.
The Citadel should be little challenge, but they close up with rival North Carolina State.
I feel the Tar Heels are the best team in the Coastal Division, but their schedule could be brutal.
The Duke Blue Devils were once always at the bottom of the standings in the ACC, but along came David Cutcliffe and all of that is behind them. They had a bit of a down season in 2015 finishing 8-5, but the Miami loss was a joke.
Thomas Sirk had his struggles as a first year starter at Quarterback, but he is an outstanding athlete
with 803 yards rushing in 2015 along with his 2,625 passing yards. The Blue Devils lost their leading receiver Max McCaffrey and they need somebody else to step up.
They had their best recruiting class in school history this past February which I wrote about here: Here come the Dukies
The defense lost their top two tacklers.
Pittsburgh is a team on the rise and they could give the Tar Heels a run for their money this season. Nate Peterman returns at Quarterback after surprising most people with how much better he really is than he showed at Tennessee. Pitt QB
The Panthers return one of the best Offensive Lines in the country ACC OL’s
They also return James Conner who missed all of the 2015 season and his replacement, Qadree Ollison. Tyler Boyd was a huge loss and they need a play maker at Wide Receiver.
Jordan Whitehead leads the defense and they should be improved over last season. Whitehead
Whitehead could be that play maker that they need on offense again.
I see Pittsburgh or Miami as the top challengers to North Carolina for the Coastal Division championship.
The Miami Hurricanes have been a mere shadow of themselves in recent seasons. But, the return of former Cane Quarterback Mark Richt could be all they need to get back to the days of old. The team has plenty of talent, but lacked direction under previous coaching staffs.
The Hurricanes return one of the nation’s best Quarterbacks in Brad Kaaya and with him they return
every starter on the Offensive Line. The Line has been poor in recent years, but that was due to youth, inexperience and other factors. Richt always had good Offensive Lines at Georgia and he hired one of his former Offensive Line coaches in Stacy Searels. I’ve followed Searels since he played Right Tackle at Auburn and as an Offensive Line coach and he’s clearly one of the best. He will have a host of players to work with at Miami, many of whom have played since their freshmen seasons.
The Hurricanes return talented Running Backs Joseph Yearby and Gus Edwards, plus maybe Mark Walton. Edwards was strangely little used by the previous coaching staff and Walton was suspended. Gus ‘the bus’ Edwards is 6-2, 230 and runs like a freight train.
Mark Richt must be licking his chops at the Wide Receivers either already on campus, or available for next Fall. Stacy Coley decided to return for his senior season and sophomore to be Lawrence Cager could be the next big thing in more ways than one. Cager is 6-5, 220 and a talent. The Canes also signed some great Wide Receivers in Sam Bruce and Michael Irving Jr from St Thomas Aquinas High School, Dionte Mullins from Miami Gulliver Prep and Ahmmon Richards from Wellington, Florida.
Miami Tight Ends are about as good as anyones: TE’s
David Njoku and Christopher Herndon IV could pass for twin brothers in talent and size. They will tear it up in 2016.
The Defense will be coached by Manny Diaz, the former Mississippi State Defensive Coordinator and they have some speed and talent returning. Watch out for Florida transfer Gerald Willis. He is talented and mean at Defensive Tackle.
I am predicting a return to greatness by Miami. Greatness may not be in 2016, but it will happen soon enough. They will present a huge challenge for anyone in the ACC Coastal.
Virginia Tech Hokies will be starting over for the first time in decades with the retirement of Frank Beamer and the hiring of Justin Fuente from Memphis. It’s hard to say how good the Hokies will be in year one under Fuente, but he has proven that he can get the job done. He took a program at Memphis that was really in the dumpster and made them into a solid football team, even beating Ole Miss last season.
Fuente proved he knew something about Quarterbacks at Memphis with the Paxton Lynch situation. Probably the biggest issue going in is finding a Quarterback.
The most experienced is senior Brenden Motley. While Motley is a good athlete which he
demonstrated by running for 224 yards as a back up Quarterback last season, he has never impressed enough to earn a starter’s spot.
Dwayne Lawson is a 6-6, 230 prospect who redshirted as a freshman and then played sparingly last season. Clearly, Fuente likes tall Quarterbacks since he coached Lynch last year.
Maybe the most likely to win the starting spot is Junior College transfer Jerod Evans from Texas. Evans was probably the top JC Quarterback a year ago and was recruited by a lot of schools. Or, the other most likely might be true freshman Joshua Jackson from Saline, Michigan. He is a talented 6-2, 200 Dual Threat kind of guy that may surprise some people in his first season. New coaches often like to go with their own guys at Quarterback which will be bad news for Motley and Lawson.
The Quarterbacks will have one of the top Wide Receivers in the country in Isaiah Ford and one of the best Tight Ends in Bucky Hodges to help their stats.
Travon McMillian is back at Running Back after running for 1,042 yards and 7 Touchdowns as a freshman.
Under Beamer, the Hokies always played great defense. The Hokies will have 4 senior starters in the Defensive Line led by Ken Ekanem at Defensive End. Tim Settle is a highly recruited star in the
making at Defensive Tackle.
Their leading tackler was Chuck Clark last season and he returns for his senior season at Free Safety. Middle Linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka could be outstanding.
It’s always hard to exactly figure how a new coach will do, but Justin Fuente is one of the hottest names in all of coaching right now. He does have some talent to work with in Blacksburg and this team could be competitive if somebody steps up at Quarterback. Beamer will be missed, but it’s hard not to be excited about Fuente.
In one of the strangest moves of the year, the Virginia Cavaliers hired long time BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall last year after they fired their previous coach. Mendenhall has never had a losing season, but that record is in jeopardy now at Virginia.
He has some good talent to work with on defense including Safety Quin Blanding, Defensive Lineman Andrew Brown and Inside Linebacker Micah Kiser.
The offense may struggle for a while, but their defense should be somewhat competitive.
The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets shocked everyone in 2014 by winning the ACC Coastal and then losing in a good game against Florida State in the ACC Championship game. They, then, handed Mississippi State an embarrassing spanking in the Orange Bowl. But, last season was a humbling
experience which brought them back to earth.
Justin Thomas is back for one more year at Quarterback after having a disappointing junior season. He was brilliant as a sophomore, but the losses of talent from that season plus a lot of injuries in 2015 ruined their season.
Freshman Marcus Marshall led the team in rushing and the Jackets should get most of their injured players back.
The defense was also affected by the injury bug. The Jackets struggled to a disappointing 3-9 season last year and they probably don’t end up anywhere near the top of the conference standings in 2016.