Earlier today, we looked at Georgia’s chances of winning the SEC East Division and returning to the conference championship game. The hump: Getting past Florida. (There’s still time to vote in the poll.)
Now we look at the school actually defending a conference title: Georgia Tech.
The Jackets are coming off their first outright ACC championship since 1990. The primary roadblock: Rebounding from losing four top players to the NFL draft (Demaryius Thomas and Jonathan Dwyer on offense; Derrick Morgan and Morgan Burnett on defense). Can they do it? Yes.
(The six Coastal teams, listed in order of perceived strength, with last year’s conference record in parenthesis.)
1. Georgia Tech: Paul Johnson is 20-7 (13-4 in conference) and has won ACC Coach of the Year honors twice in two seasons. So I think we can get past the, “Can he coach in a BCS conference” debate. The Jackets will be hurt by the loss of Thomas at wide receiver more than they will Dwyer because the option offense will produce rushing yardage. But having a third-year starting quarterback, senior Joshua Nesbitt, is a significant advantage. The other big difference will come on defense, where the recently hired Al Groh will switch to a 3-4, allowing Tech to rely more on its speed and less on size up front. Expect more blitzing. Groh’s defense doesn’t have to be great — it just can’t allow 30-plus points per game, as the Jackets did six times last year. That won’t happen this season. Key weeks: home against North Carolina in Week 3 and back-to-back games against Clemson (Oct. 23) and at Virginia Tech (Nov. 4)
2. Virginia Tech: For all of the hype about quarterback Tyrod Taylor, he struggled at times last season. The Hokies finished ninth in the conference in passing offense and eighth in sacks allowed (31). Running back Ryan Williams, who led the ACC with 1,655 yards and 22 touchdowns, is as good as they come but the offensive line could have issues. The Hokies were able to keep defensive coordinator Bud Foster (who turned down Georgia, among other jobs, and received a five-year, $1 million annuity to stay). But Tech lost a lot on defense, including three-quarters of the front. Frank Beamer has finished in first or second in the Coastal every year since Virginia Tech joined the ACC but that’s not a given this season.
3. Miami: The Hurricanes won nine games for the first time since 2005 and, in maybe an even bigger accomplishment for coach Randy Shannon, Miami players have not dominated the police blotter in the offseason. With quarterback Jacory Harris and a strong defense, Miami could be the real deal this year. But the schedule could wreck the team. After opening against Florida A&M, the Canes play at Ohio State, at Pittsburgh, at Clemson and home against Florida State in four consecutive games. They also play Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech in back to back weeks in November. Survive all this and there’s no question they’re in the national title hunt. The big question is whether Miami can avoid some of the mistakes and turnover issues (including 17 interceptions) it had last year, and uncertainty at running back (Graig Cooper is coming off knee surgery).
4. North Carolina: The college football Blue Ribbon yearbook lists five North Carolina players on the 12-member, all-ACC preseason defensive team. And zero on offense. Therein lies Butch Davis’s problem. The Tar Heels were No. 1 in total defense and No. 11 in total offense last season. That’s been the pattern since Davis arrived in Chapel Hill. They’ve had strong recruiting classes but most of the talent has been on the defensive side of the ball. Now there are reports that the NCAA is looking into possible rules violations, focusing primarily on contact between players and agents. Back to football: At some point, the Meineke Car Care Bowl is not going to be good enough for fans, given the kind of money Davis is making. But for the Heels to make a jump, they’ll need better play front quarterback T.J. Yates (17 interceptions last season).
5. Duke: Coach David Cutcliffe’s decision to not go back to Tennessee to rescue the Volunteers after Lane Kiffin’s resignation was the greatest non-transaction of the offseason. Cutcliffe has done a great job at Duke and he would’ve been a sacrificial lamb there in a year or two. At Duke, he’s a hero, and don’t be surprised if he turns sophomore Sean Renfree into one of the better quarterbacks in the conference this season. The Blue Devils could struggle running the ball again, but their passing attack might be good enough to get them to a bowl game — and that could put them ahead of Tennessee.
6. Virginia: The Cavaliers come to The Flats Oct. 9. Groh circled the game on his calendar when he took the Tech job. It should be enjoyable for him. Virginia finished 9-4 three years ago but dropped off to 8-17 (5-11 in conference) in the last two years, and recruiting went with it. The new coach, alum Mike London, is taking a big step up from FCS (1-AA) Richmond. The offense will be new, the defense is switching to a 4-3 and there is little talent to work with on either side of the ball. Last place seems a lock.
So what are your thoughts on Tech making it back to the ACC title game? And don’t forget to vote in the poll.