Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:57 AM
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ACC - Coastal Division
They’re still celebrating hoops at Virginia (2018 SU 8-5; ATS 9-4; O/U 7-6) after Tony Bennett’s bunch won the national title in exciting fashion this past April. But the good times were already rolling at Brit Hume’s alma mater a few months earlier as the football ‘Hoos scored another point for the ACC against the SEC even before Clemson dismantled Alabama in the national title game. A hint of more to come happened in the Belk Bowl when UVa throttled South Carolina, 28-0. That was an angry-looking Cav team in Charlotte after a pair of beyond-bitter OT losses to close the regular season against Georgia Tech and hated Virginia Tech cost a chance to win the Coastal, which instead fell into the lap of Pitt (which, to be fair, had beaten Virginia on Nov. 2). But it also signaled that real progress was being made on the watch of third-year HC Bronco Mendenhall, who was a surprise hire in Charlottesville from BYU a few years before, but seems to be getting the hang of things in the ACC.
Taking the next step in 2019 is a reasonable assumption after the Cavs not only notched their first winning record since 2011 but also improved their scoring margin a whopping 14.3 ppg, the eighth-best jump in the country. The offense had a sharper edge thanks to juco (and former Arizona State) transfer QB Bryce Perkins, who might have been the most-dynamic non-Trevor Lawrence performer in the ACC. Perkins, like one of Mendenhall’s previous QBs at BYU, Taysom Hill, did a bit of everything while accounting for 34 TDs (25 via pass, 9 via run), though ask him what he remembers about 2018 and he’ll probably say the late-game fumble near the Virginia Tech goal line which cost the Cavs a chance to break a losing streak that has now grown to 15 straight vs. the disliked Hokies. Perkins (2680 YP, 923 YR in 2018) might even be a darkhorse Heisman candidate, though graduated 1000-yard RB Jordan Ellis proved a nice diversion last season. If jr. P.K. Kier can prove a capable replacement for Ellis, the offense should hum, as Perkins has some experienced targets in wideouts Hasise Dubois (52 catches LY) and big-play Joe Reed (almost 19 yards per catch on his 25 receptions). Three starters also return along the OL, which has been reinforced by Air Force transfer C Victor Oluwatimi, moving two-year starter Dillon Reinkensmeyer to a G spot. The key, however, remains Perkins, and the strike force remains dangerous as long as he’s on the field.
Mendenhall, a Rocky Long disciple, often deploys his defense in the same 3-3-5 alignments as his mentor (though the ‘Hoos also operate out of a 3-4), and the platoon has improved each year on Bronco’s watch. Good news came in the offseason when star CB Bryce Hall opted against early entry to the NFL Draft to return for a senior season. Juniors Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson figure as one of the best safety combos in the ACC. ACC insiders believe Mendenhall is again loaded in the secondary and at the LB spots, where OLB Charles Snowden and ILB Jordan Mack (66 tackles LY despite missing time due to injury) appear poised for big years. Senior DT Eli Hanback has 36 career starts and will be counted upon to anchor the line. But the big plus for the stop unit is Mendenhall, an accomplished teacher and respected tactician who historically has been able to “coach up” his charges.
Schedule-wise, a revenge match in the opener vs. Pitt is a rare conference battle at the top of the slate and could certainly set the early tenor for the Coastal, with the winner thinking it has the inside track to the division crown. That might not be wholly inaccurate. Before September is complete, the Cavs also face Florida State (at Charlottesville) and trek to Notre Dame, so we’ll have an idea before October if Bronco has a serious contender on his hands. The slate eases up past midseason and closes with three straight at Scott Stadium, including the finale vs. Virginia Tech, which should be a crusade for the ‘Hoos as they look to beat their cross-state rival for the first time since 2003. Survive September, and things could begin to look positively sunny for UVa.
Spread-wise, Mendenhall, once a notable overachiever vs. the number in his BYU days, finally recalled some of those successes as the Cavs covered 9 of 13 a year ago, including a 5-1 mark as a dog, once a consistent winning role for Bronco (who was 11-4 in that role at Prove between 2009-12). Within the Coastal, note wins and covers in four straight vs. David Cutcliffe’s Duke.
Forgive us for taking the bait early last season with Virginia Tech (2018 SU 6-7; ATS 6-7; O/U 8-5) after the Hokies looked like a possible Final Four contender when dominating Florida State, 24-3, at Tallahassee in last year’s opener. What we didn’t know at the time was how bad the Seminoles (who would miss a bowl for the first time in 36 years) were, though that still couldn’t come close to explaining VPI's 49-35 September 22 loss at Old Dominion, which entered that game as a 29-point dog. That shocker sent the Hokies gyrating wildly like Neil Armstrong and David Scott’s Gemini 8 space capsule, part of a debilitating 2-6 stretch. VPI did reocver just in time to salvage a couple of sacred streaks–a 15th straight win over rival Virginia in thrilling 34-31 OT fashion, and salvaging of what is now the nation’s longest bowl streak (26 years) after Florida State’s miss, though the latter needed a hastily-arranged makeup game with Marshall on Dec. 1, a game postponed by inclement weather back in mid-September to qualify for the postseason. (That contest vs. the Herd wouldn’t have even been played had the Hokies lost to the Wahoos.) The effort was good in the Military Bowl vs. Cincinnati but it was still a loss that left VPI under .500 and took some of the luster off of the rising star that seemed to be 3rd-year HC Justin Fuente, no longer thought by local folk to be the perfect successor to the retired legend Frank Beamer, whose teams were not know for losing six games by double digits, or four by 20 points or more, like last year.
Most ACC insiders, however, expect Fuente to bounce back this fall with a team more reminiscent of his first two Blacksburg editions that finished a combined 19-8. That’s because most cannot believe that sage d.c. Bud Foster, one of the most accomplished defensive minds in the business, suddenly lost the plot in 2018 after most of his VPI platoons ranked in the top ten for the preceding two-plus decades. The Hokies allowed more points (31 pg) and yards (439 pg) than any of Foster’s previous 23 VPI editions. Injuries and youth could be blamed for some of the collapse; nine frosh or soph were in the starting lineup for the bowl at Annapolis vs. the Bearcats. Now, however, Foster has an experienced unit, with 10 starters back in the fold. Though impact DT Ricky Walker graduated, plenty of impact performers remain in the front seven, and the D is also excited about a couple of juco imports, DT DaShawn Crawford and CB Jimmy Webb, who missed last season due to Achilles tendon issues. Key ILB Rayshard Ashby (team-best 105 tackles LY) reminds of some of the many destroyers on past Foster platoons.
It didn’t help the offense last season that QB Josh Jackson (since transferred to Maryland) went down with a broken leg in the ODU upset, though now-sr. Ryan Willis looked comfy in relief and ended up with some decent numbers, including 24 TDP. The job now belongs solely to Willis, who should benefit from some experienced pass-catchers including jr. WR Damon Hazelton (51 catches LY) and soph Tre Turner, who gained better than 20 yards per receptions and scored three Tds in the final five games. Fuente, an offensive specialist, is reportedly high on the athleticism along his OL which could compensate for the return of only two starters. Spring work suggested that jr. RB Jalen Holston (289 YR in 2018) could be poised for a breakout campaign.
The schedule is set up for VPI to make a strong recovery in 2019, but we’re not sure any plaudits should be forthcoming for scheduling not one, but two FCS opponents, Furman & Rhode Island. Furman and Rhode Island? Sheesh, Hokies! VPI will also be big favorites at home vs. Old Dominion as it looks to avenge one of last season’s stunning results, and trek to Notre Dame in late October. Still, every game on the slate appears winnable, and good news that Clemson is still cycling out of the slate. No surprise if the Coastal crown comes down to a grudge match on Thanksgiving Friday vs. cross-state Virginia, which hasn’t beaten VPI since George W. Bush’s first term in the White House (2003!). And there should be less sweat than a year ago maintaining the nation’s longest bowl streak, which ought to increase to 27 in a row this fall and remove some of the pressure that appeared for the first time on Fuente’s watch a season ago.
Spread-wise, Fuente has been subpar the past two years, as even covers in the final three games only improved the mark vs. the number to 6-7 (for the second straight year). At one point the Hokies dropped six straight vs. the line last season, and Fuente is only 3-8 as visiting chalk since arriving at Blacksburg in 2016. No wonder they're grumbling a bit in Hokie-land.
Timing is everything, we suppose. Just ask Miami-Florida (2018 SU 7-6; ATS 5-8; O/U 5-8), which if HC Mark Richt had announced his surprise resignation just a bit earlier might not have had to fork over a seven-figure buyout fee to Temple for stealing away the Owls’ just-hired HC Manny Diaz, who arrived in Philly from...Miami, where Diaz has been employed as the d.c. the past few years. Thus, Diaz “returning” after a couple of weeks smooths over the usual adjustment phase for remaining players to a new coach, with Diaz a familiar face to all of the Canes. And it was certainly not the Diaz defense that was respsonsible for Miami way undershooting expectations last fall, when the Canes were regarded by most as a Top 10 team entering the season after making a legit run at the Final Four in 2017. Among the general complaints included toughness questions, as Miami didn’t respond well to adversity, and many believed there was too much “cool” and not enough steel on a roster that seemed more interested in gold chains than real in-your-face football. Watching Wisconsin bludgeon and manhandle the Canes in the Pinstripe Bowl was final confirmation and convinced Richt that the aggravation wasn’t worth it. The Howard Schnellenberger/Jimmy Jones Canes these weren’t.
More than attitude, however, it was offense, or lack thereof, that held back the "U" a year ago and proved so frustrating to Richt that he decided to resign rather than jettison his offensive staff that included son Jon. Miami ranked an un-Cane-like 105th in total offense and an embarrassing 113th in passing as neither sr. Malik Rosier nor RS frosh N’Kosi Perry provided anything remotely consistent at the QB spot. Thus, the most important Diaz hire might be new o.c Dan Enos, a former Michigan State QB and onetime HC at Central Michigan who was most recently the QB coach on Nick Saban’s Alabama staff. Perry is likely to be beaten out by Ohio State transfer Tate Martell, who was granted immediate eligibility, though RS frosh Jarren Williams could also get involved in the mix. Needing a true No. 1 target, Buffalo grad transfer K.J. Osborn could fit the bill after catching 53 passes and 7 TDs for the Bulls last season. Junior wideout Jeff Thomas caught 35 passes for better than 16 yards per catch a season ago, and the consensus opinion is that there is ample talent at the receiver spots if one of the QBs (likely not Perry) can get them the ball. Considering the passing game offered so little diversion last season, the infantry did rather well, especially all-name jr. RB DeeJay Dallas (617 YR and 5.7 ypc). There is also plenty of re-tooling needed along an OL that lost five of its seven linemen who started games last season, and spring work suggested the forward wall will be a work-in-progress into the fall. But if Enos gets one of the QBs (likely Martell) firing, that will be a big plus from a year ago.
With Diaz still in the fold, the D ought to remain orneryafter leading the nation in “havoc rate” (total combined tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles, divided by total plays) a year ago. Some key playmakers must be replaced but there are still plenty of go-getters in the fold, including jr. DE Jonathan Garvin (17 TFLs and 5.5 sacks LY), now the featured defender after the graduation of impact teammates DE Joe (Joseph!) Jackson (drafted by the Cowboys) and DT Gerald Willis III (Ravens camp). Several transfers, including ex-UCLA DT Chigozie Nnoruka, could make an impact in front of what might be the ACC’s best corps of LBs led by the senior trio of Michael Pinckney, Shaq Quarterman, and Zach mcCloud, who all decided by stick around one more year rather than test the NFL Draft waters. There are, however, some questions in the secondary even after last year’s pass defense ranked tops in the country. Three starters departed, though jr. CB Trahjan Bandy might be future first-round draft pick, and USC transfer S Bubba Bolden was a blue-chipper out of high school.
One last note of concern for Diaz is improved special teams work, especially punting, which in 2018 was the worst in the FBS ranks, not a good combo with a struggling offense. To that end, juco P Louis Hedley could be one of 2019's most important Miami recruits.
We’ll find out quickly where the Canes stand, as Diaz gets a barn-burner off the bat, in “week zero” no less, facing upstate Florida at Orlando in a very early August 24 lid-lifter. The schools, who used to play annually, haven’t faced off since 2013, and not in an opener since 1987, when the Canes won by the oddball score of 31-4. (That’s right, 4, only one of three 4-point games we recall in the TGS era; Oregon in a 1982 loss to Fresno State and Penn State in a 2004 loss to Iowa being the others!). The rest of the non-conference slate doesn’t appear too difficult and includes a local visit to FIU, completing a sort of penance for the Canes who also played at nearby FAU 2015. (Very magnanimous of Miami to schedule these neighborhood foes from C-USA away from Hard Rock Stadium!). The make-or-break weeks in the Coastal probably come back-to-back in early October vs. Virginia and Virginia Tech, part of a 5-game homestand.
Spread-wise, it is probably good riddance to Mark Richt, whose teams badly undershot after the supposed watershed win over Notre Dame in 2017; that instead became the apex of the Richt era with the Canes, who dropped 12 of their next 17 vs. the number, part of a 7-15 spread skid to close Richt’s career at Miami. Diaz will be looking to improve upon recently miserable Cane spread marks away from Hard Rock, dropping 9 of their last 11.
Be careful before downgrading Duke (2018 SU 8-5; ATS 7-6; O/U 7-6) just because HC David Cutcliffe’s latest protégé, QB Daniel Jones, was taken as the fifth pick in the first round of the April NFL Draft by the Giants. Cutcliffe’s line of QB pupils, as you probably know, is long and distinguished, including as it does both Peyton and Eli Manning. Cutcliffe usually get pretty good mileage out of his QBs, and he had already propped up the Blue Devil program to unprecedented heights even before Jones arrived on the scene. Indeed, Duke has become a bowl regular, reaching the postseason in six of the last seven years (after just three bowl visits in the previous 58 seasons) on the watch of Cutcliffe, who took over a carcass of a program from Ted Roof in 2008. Since then, Duke has been punching above its weight, and we hardly expect that to change in 2019...even minus Jones.
The reason? Well, it’s mostly Cutcliffe, but also keep in mind that Jones’ successor Quentin Harris is a fifth-year senior already marinated in the Cutcliffe system. Not being able to beat out an NFL first-round draft pick is hardly an indictment, either, and for what it’s worth, Harris excelled in Cutcliffe’s red-zone package last season, was 2-0 as a starter, and closed out the road win at Northwestern when Jones went down. Cutcliffe will not ask Harris to do as much thru the air as Jones, though Harris can move smoothly out of the pocket and will have the benefit of a couple of experienced RBs in jrs. Deon Jackson (847 YR LY) and Brittain Brown (369 YR in 2018). Jackson (26 catches LY) is also the leading returning receiver, which on the surface is a concern, but then again we’re talking about Cutcliffe’s offense and his creative schemes, which have been plugging productive wideouts into the mix for the past decade in Durham. New receivers coach Trooper Taylor is regarded as one of the best in the business, too. The OL is seasoned with four returning starters to make life a bit easier for Harris and the runners.
Many ACC insiders are so respectful of Cutcliffe’s offensive acumen that they believe the D could miss 3-year starters Joe Giles-Harris (Jacksonville Jaguars camp) and Ben Humphreys more than the O will miss Jones. But nine other starters are back in the fold for the stop unit including the entirety of the DL that likely features soph DE Chris Rumph II, a Freshman All-American last season. Many of those returnees got their baptism under fire a year ago when injuries his the platoon pretty hard; as a result eight different players who have started games in the secondary are still in the mix, with jack-of-all trades jr. S Michael Carter II capable of playing any of the five spots in the Blue Devil secondary. Most ACC sources believe Duke’s D has frontline talent comparable with most of the Coastal contenders but have questions about depth along the DL and LB spots.
No one can accuse Cutcliffe of ducking anyone on the non-conference side, as Duke draws Alabama (at Atlanta on the opener) and Notre Dame (which, in its rotation of ACC foes, makes a rare visit to Durham on November 9) in the non-league part of the slate. (Alabama and Notre Dame...bravo Duke!) And games vs. top Coastal contenders Virginia Tech and Virginia are on the road. But the schedule (with no Clemson as a crossover foe from the Atlantic) provides enough opportunities to get the Blue Devils back to a bowl, which has become expected on Cutcliffe’s watch, a fact that itself is quite a remarkable achievement at this most-basketball of schools..
Spread-wise, once again last season, Cutcliffe’s prowess as an underdog was on display, as Duke covered all six chances getting points in 2018. Cutcliffe was covering as the short long before Daniel Jones showed as QB, too, as the Blue Devils are now 26-10-1 vs. number getting points since early in the 2013 campaign!
You’d think that winning the Coastal Division crown last season would be a signal that HC Pat Narduzzi has things on course at Pittsburgh (2018 SU 7-7; ATS 8-6; O/U 5-9). But we, like many Panther backers, aren’t so sure. That’s because Pitt seems to have stalled in its progress for Narduzzi, who won eight games each of his first two seasons in the Steel City, but tailed off to 5 and last year’s 7, respectively, since. And last term’s win in the Coastal had as much to do with the likes of preseason favorites Miami and Virginia Tech far undershooting expectations; the Panthers merely finished ahead of a modest lot in their division. In the process Pitt also lost four games by 3 TDs or more in 2018 and went 0-4 vs. non-ACC FBS opposition; the only non-league win came against the Albany Great Danes. Throw out the Albany win and Narduzzi was under .500 a year ago, which is why the jury on his tenure still remains out for much of the win-hungry fan base that still clings to the Tony Dorsett and Dan Marino glory days from the 70s and early 80s.
The offense could use some fixing after scoring just 26 points across the final three games and ranking a poor 121st in passing....especially bad for a non-option team. Sensing a change was necessary as the O has mostly sputtered after the departure of o.c. Matt Canada a couple of years ago, Narduzzi moved out o.c. Shawn Watson and replaced him with former UMass HC Mark Whipple, in the past a QB whisperer of some repute who once tutored a young Ben Roethlisberger in his first few years with the Steelers. Whipple’s immediate project is jr. QB Kenny Pickett, who didn’t throw a TD pass across the last three games and indeed tossed only 12 scores in 310 pass attempts a season ago. Pitt simply has to get more big plays out of its aerial game and reduce the 33 sacks it allowed on Pickett. Wideouts Maurice Ffrench (that’s right, two “Fs”) and Taysir Mack demonstrated big-play ability a year ago, and it will be up to Whipple to enhance their production. More troubling for the offense is the departure of last year’s 1000-yard runners Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall. “We’re not going to be Air Narduzzi,”the coach said in spring, suggesting this will still be a run-first offense, but if so the hire of the pass-savvy Whipple seems curious. The forward wall might get a boost from Michigan grad transfer RT Nolan Ulizio, but is still mostly inexperienced. To be sure, questions still abound on the attack end.
Narduzzi, whose calling card has been on defense dating to his years as Mark Dantonio’s coordinator at Cincy and Michigan State, will probably have to ride his stop unit again this fall. Replacing a trio of LBs who combined for 171 tackles and 20.5 TFLs a year ago complicates matters, though converted safety Paul Campbell seemed to make a smooth switch to OLB in spring. A Narduzzi-style playmaker up front is jr. DE Rashad Weaver, who registered 6.5 sacks and 14 TFLs a year ago. There is also senior leadership in the secondary with CB Dane Jackson and S Damar Hamlin, both honorable mention All-ACC a year ago. The platoon was pretty gnarly last season, allowing only 323 ypg across the last six games to key Pitt’s rise in the Coastal. But it might have to be just as good this fall for the Panthers to have a chance to have a chance nto get back to a bowl, much less defend their Coastal crown.
Safe to say that we’ll get a report card on the progress Narduzzi has made with the offense within the first four weeks of the season, when the Panthers host Virginia in a Coastal crucial, trek to Penn State looking to atone for a 51-6 loss last season, and host UCF, which has only lost once the past two seasons and buried the Panthers 45-14 in Orlando last term. If Pitt can’t win any of those games, this isn’t going to be the breakthrough season that Narduzzi eventually is going to need to keep the wolves at bay. And while no one is talking coaching change yet, that could be a topic of conversation at this time next year of the Panthers miss a bowl.
Spread-wise, Pitt did uncork a 6-game cover streak midway last season, noteworthy because during that span it halted an extended run of failures vs. the spread at Heinz Field; Narduzzi had compiled a 6-16 spread mark as host prior to that rally. The Panthers are also 12-6 as a visiting dog since Narduzzi arrived in 2015.
On the surface, we suppose it was about time for Georgia Tech (2018 SU 7-6; ATS 5-8; O/U 8-5) to chart a new course. Though we are a bit sad to see the end of the Paul Johnson era, which mostly flourished for a decade in Atlanta before the option-master decided to hang ‘em up after last season. (We were big fans of Johnson during his previous stop at Navy, too.) That the Jackets hardly sent their long-serving mentor out on a proper note when a no-show for the Motor City Bowl vs. Minnesota shouldn’t detract from what Johnson accomplished at Bobby Dodd Stadium, which included a pair of trips to the Orange Bowl and a memorable win over Dak Prescott and Mississippi State in 2014. Whatever, they seem excited in the “Showcase City of the South” in successor Geoff Collins a regional product who arrives after a successful two-year run at Temple. Collins, however, inherited an Owl machine that was humming pretty smootly for predecessor Matt Rhule, and was competing in the American, with more soft touches than the ACC.
Johnson’s option is now a thing of the past on “The Flats” but it might take some time for Collins to figure out how to fit the square pegs of those recruited for the Johnson offense to fit in the round holes of Collins’ NFL-style spread. More than 20 players were seeing time on both offense and defense in spring as Collins was in the midst of the sort of wholesale re-deployments on his roster reminiscent of Ara Parseghian’s re-make of Notre Dame in 1964. (It will be quite a neat trick, however, if Collins can raise Tech to the top of the polls as Parseghian did with the Domers in ‘64.) Among the many changes on offense are incorporating a tight end (not utilized in the Johnson years) and redistributing some of the weaponry to the receiver spots instead of the overload at RB of the Johnson rosters. (Nathan Cottrell, who had 46 carries for Johnson last year, is one of those already on the move, switched to the slot in spring). All three potential QBs were recruited to run Johnson’s option; whichever best acclimates to the new Collins offense will be determined in fall camp. Soph Tobias Oliver looks the favorite to win the job, but threw only 16 passes last fall compared to 152 rushes; California product Lucas Johnson, a jr. whose grandfather is former D-I AD Neale Stoner, was a big-time passes in high school in the San Diego area but has seen even less action than Oliver. There are still plenty of Johnson’s RBs in the fold, including KirVonte Benson, who gained 1053 YR in 2017 but was sidelined by an ACL tear last fall. Much will depend upon how a veteran OL adjusts to new blocking styles and schemes to accommodate the Collins offense, which will almost always be operating from the shotgun.
Collins, who first came to prominence as a d.c. at Mississippi State and Florida with platoons noted for wreaking havoc, would like to get aggressive with his charges but inherits a stop unit almost completely rebuilt along the line and at the LB spots. Collins and co-d.c.’s Nathan Burton and Andrew Thacker are effectively starting from scratch along the DL, which featured auditions from several moving from the OL in spring. Former C Jahaziel Lee is one of those and is penciled in at a DT spot, but only DE Antwan Owens returns from making significant contributions along the D-line in 2018. The strength of the platoon should be in the secondary, with several returning playmakers, led by jr. S Tariq Carpenter and soph CB Tre Swilling (the latest in a long line of Swillings at GT). The adjustment phase might be shorter than it is on offense, but there are still several questions to be answered on the stop end.
The schedule plays a cruel trick on Collins, whose first game in his new job will be a Thursday nighter on national TV at none other than defending national champ Clemson. Completing an unenviable bookend on the slate is the closing game against old rival Georgia, which hasn’t lost at Bobby Dodd Stadium in this millennium (last loss as series visitor in 1999). That in-state battle vs. the nearby Bulldogs is one of three straight home games to close the regular season. A non-league game of real intrigue comes on Sept. 28 at Grant Field when Collins’ former Temple team treks to Atlanta, but Tech will have to feel like the season is a raging success if it can become bowl-eligible. We’re not sure the Jackets get there.
Spread-wise, Johnson’s GT at times provided smashing success vs. the number, though not a year ago (5-8 vs. line). Collins, however, mostly overachieved vs. the spread at Temple; after starting slow with the Owls, Collins covered 15 of his last 21, including 9 of his last ten as a visitor.
How will this particular “Back to the Future” theme play at North Carolina (2018 SU 2-9; ATS 6-5; O/U 7-3-1)? After the Larry Fedora experiment has fizzled at the end of a 2-9 mess last fall (and losses in 21 of the last 24 vs. FBS competition), the Heels decided to dig deep into their past–to the previous millennium–and pulled out of the hat none other than Mack Brown, who when last seen at Chapel Hill was almost as well-regarded in the region as Dean Smith after leading UNC to a 10-1 mark in 1997 that prompted a move to Texas (d.c. Carl Torbush was promoted to succeed Brown prior to the Gator Bowl romp past Virginia Tech). Brown was flying high in those days as he was for most of his career in Austin, which was capped by a thrilling Vince Young-led run to the 2005 national crown and that unforgettable win in the title game at the Rose Bowl against Pete Carroll’s USC. But things eventually started to go downhill for Brown's Longhorns, with four lackluster campaigns preceding his exit after 2013. Mack thereafter found work at ESPN before heeding the call to return to the sidelines at the age of 68. Which, on the surface, has some comparing Brown’s move to other coaches who returned to the battles after stints in TV (Bud Wilkinson, Bill Walsh, and Bob Davie come to mind; Dick Vermeil, too, though his long absence was between NFL jobs).
By us, this reminds more of Johnny Majors returning to Pitt in 1993, seventeen years after leaving the Panthers, close to the 22 years between Brown's Chapel Hill stints. Majors didn’t move from the TV booth, rather from getting not-so-gently pushed out at Tennessee, but his return to Pitt hardly went well. The “Back to the Future” thing also didn’t work too well for Walsh at Stanford or John Robinson at USC, who was unceremoniously fired by the Trojans to end his second stint. Will Brown fare any better? For what it’s worth, most regional sources are skeptical, and believe UNC could have done more with this hire, and wonder if Brown can be as engaged as he was in the 90s. We’ll see.
Fedora did not exactly leave a powerhouse behind, especially on defense with a platoon that ranked in the triple digits statistically almost across the board. Indeed, Fedora could never quite figure out how to make the stop unit work in Chapel Hill, even when the accomplished Gene Chizik took a shot as coordinator for a couple of seasons. Brown is hoping that new d.c. Jay Bateman, who recently got his Army platoons to punch above their weight, might be able to do the same in Chapel Hill. Bateman, however, almost surely won’t have the luxury he had at West Point, where the offense played ball control and limited opposing possessions. Bateman will also not have LB Cole Holcomb, UNC's leading tackler from the last three seasons who was drafted by the Redskins in April. Spring work suggested Bateman will bounce between 3-4 and 4-3 alignments and send blitzers from all angles; DE Tomon Fox and OLB Dominique Ross are pass rushers to note and will likely be featured in passing situations. But the D lost three CBs to injury in spring, and depth is a concern all over the platoon. Inheriting a unit that allowed nearly 35 ppg last fall, Bateman has his work cut out.
Fedora’s once-progressive passing schemes also didn’t resonate as much the past couple of years, especially after the departure of QB Mitchell Trubisky to the NFL and the Bears. Undeterred, Brown has opted to go full-throttle Air Raid in the new-look UNC attack, and hired Phil Longo off of the Ole Miss staff to implement the new fireworks. Deemed a poor fit for the pilot’s chair is former QB Chazz Surratt, who took plenty of snaps two years ago but has been moved to LB, leaving ballyhooed frosh Sam Howell and RS frosh Cade Fortin (who had limited work last season) as the likely conductors of the aerial show. How this new style fits with an offense that seems to have better personnel to run the ball with established backs Michael Carter and Antonio Williams remains to be seen. Note, too, how the receivers are not accomplished and were guilty of a case of “dropsies” in the spring, and only four starters in total for the O are back in the fold. Like his counterpart Bateman on offense, Longo is going to have his work cut out making this new offense fly, especially with the inexperience at QB.
Schedule-wise, Brown might have been better-advised to go the Virginia Tech route this season and schedule a pair of FCS foes; the Heels get only one of those, Mercer, but not until Nov. 23.Projecting things in the summer, that could also be the first game in which we can safely say UNC will be favored, especially as Appalachian State, which travels to Chapel Hill on Sept. 21, looms as the team to beat in the Sun Belt and, according to our TGS calculations, would have been a full TD favorite at Kenan Stadium at the end of last season. Indeed, Brown might be wondering why he stepped back into the arena by the time the season is complete.
Spread-wise, the Heels were mostly treading water during the Fedora years, though maintained their curious whammy over Pitt, extending their SU win streak to six against the Panthers, and 5-1 vs. the line in those games. Worth noting that Brown cooled down considerably vs. the number in his final years at Texas (thru 2013), just 22-32 vs. the spread his last 54 with the Longhorns.
ACC - Coastal Division
Welcome to the Clemson (2018 SU 15-0; ATS 9-6; O/U 7-8) Invitational, otherwise known as the ACC Atlantic Division. With Florida State having dropped from serious contention in recent years, the Tigers have basically gone unchallenged in the Atlantic the past four seasons. Sports books posting odds to win the Atlantic might be tempted to go the route of Hialeah in the 1966 Flamingo Stakes, which was run as a non-wagering race due to the presence of overwhelming favorite Buckpasser. Then again, a flyer bet on one of the Atlantic also-rans seems almost free money for the sports books.
What we have witnessed in the past several years, however, is a dramatic rise by the Tigers to the college football pantheon, qualifying for the playoff four years running, meeting Alabama each year, and beating the Tide in two of the past three seasons to win the national title. Heady stuff for HC Dabo Swinney and the “IPTAY” (I Pay Ten A Year) Clemson crowd that would have had to wake up and apologize for even dreaming about this sort of success when Dabo was promoted to succeed Tommy Bowden midway in the 2008 season. Swinney’s success has become so all-encompassing at “Death Valley” that he seems ensconced for the rest of his career at Clemson, as talk that he would eventually succeed Nick Saban at alma mater Alabama has dissipated in recent years. Dabo has it rolling at Clemson, with every bell and whistle a program could ask, and admissions that are not too prohibitive. Why ever leave Clemson, especially for the pressure cooker that would be Tuscaloosa whenever Saban hangs ‘em up?
There were many keys to Dabo’s second national title a season ago, though none quite as dramatic as the emergence of true frosh QB Trevor Lawrence, who more than lived up to the ballyhoo after supplanting holdover Kelly Bryant at QB in late September. (We weren't sure we were ever going to see another Clemson QB as good as Deshaun Watson...until Lawrence arrived.) There was a brief scare in the Syracuse game on Sept. 29, after Bryant had left the program earlier in the week following his demotion, and Lawrence was KO’d with a concussion in the second quarter. Forced to turn to 3rd-strong QB Chase Brice (who was running sixth string for a time in the offseason), the Tigers found themselves down by 10 to Eric Dungey and the Orange in the 4th Q before Brice rallied the troops, finally surging ahead with just over a minute to play on a short TD run by Travis Etienne. That 27-23 scare behind them, the Tigers were not threatened the rest of the way as Lawrence would reward Dabo and then some by tossing 30 TDP and just 4 picks, more than confirming the hype. Many believe Lawrence would have been the first player taken had he been able to come out for last April’s NFL Draft. Some also believe the NFL-ready Lawrence might be tempted to even sit out next season and not risk his almost sure selection as the top pick in the 2021 draft, the first one in which he’ll be eligible. But that might be a storyline for next summer...not now.
Clemson can repeat because of the various established weapons around Lawrence, including the aforementioned Etinene, who gained a staggering 8.1 ypc and scored 24 TDs while piling u[ 1658 YR in his soph year. In the Final Four, neither Notre Dame nor Alabama (beaten a combined 74-19) could contain Lawrence’s targets Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross (almost 22 yards per catch in 2018!). Who, along with fellow wideout Amari Rodgers, combined for 160 catches and 21 TDs last season. (Rodgers tore an ACL in spring, though Dabo believes he could return by Septmeber.) If that abundance of riches weren't enough, four starters are back on the OL from a team that scored 44.2 ppg and gained 527 ypg, ranking 4th and 3rd, respectively, in the nation.
While only four starters are back on defense, don’t be fooled, as it really just means re-load for the Tigers and shrewd d.c. Brent Venables, who is on a payscale like many head coaches elsewhere in the country. Moreover, Venables has proven conclusively that he can deal with mass graduation losses to the NFL in recent years. Nonetheless, it was good news that three key cogs from last year's stop unit–LB Isaiah Simmons and safeties K'Von Wallace and Tanner Muse--decided to hold off and not declare early for the NFL Draft and return for another go in Death Valley as did last year’s linemen Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, and Austin Bryant, all now in the NFL. Still, if there is something to give hope to opponents, it’s that 62% of Clemson’s tackles for loss and 76% of its sacks from last season have departed. Projected starting soph DTs Jordan Williams and Nyles Pinckney also both missed spring drills with injuries but are expected to be good to go for the fall. These minor concerns aside, the beat should continue for Venables and his platoon.
Clemson is now the team no one wants to face, though expect old rival Jimbo Fisher to have his Texas A&M primed when it treks to Death Valley in Week Two, already penciled in as the featured ABC-TV telecast; keep in mind that Jimbo almost pulled off the upset in the second week last season at College Station, though that was before Lawrence took control of the offense. Indeed, the pair of banana peels that the Tigers must overcome are early in the slate, with recent nemesis Syracuse the week after A&M; remember, Dabo was upset the last time he ventured to the Carrier Dome in 2017. But we might be just splitting hairs here, as Clemson projects to be a favorite in every game this season before they likely give it another go in the Final Four.
Spread-wise, what jumps off the page regarding the Tigers in recent years is their bowl/playoff/ACC title game record; since 2011, Dabo is 12-2 vs. the line in those games. But a bit of caution, as Clemson has been far from an automatic go-with in the regular season, indeed mostly treading water as home chalk (usually big home chalk) at Death Valley, where the Tigers are just 14-14 their last 28 laying points as a host. And they’ll be laying lots of points in their seven games at Death Valley later this year.
Now comes the tough part for Syracuse (2018 SU 10-3; ATS 9-3-1; O.U 7-6), which has to be prepared for poachers lurking nearby in hopes of liberating HC Dino Babers from the Carrier Dome. The Orange made a pre-emptive strike last December when extending and upping the contract for Babers, who had previously ranked in the bottom half of compensation for ACC coaches. But there is bound to be interest in Dino, who stewarded a dramatic turnaround last fall with the ‘Cuse, which hit double-digit wins for the first time since Paul Pasqualoni’s 2001 edition won 10 times. This after Babers forged a similar upswing at Bowling Green before taking the Orange job following the 2015 campaign. Along the way, Babers teams have been as progressive as they get on the attack end, topping out with last year’s exciting Orange edition that scored better than 40 ppg. Moreover, Dino has given Clemson fits, scoring a massive upset over the Tigers in 2017 before almost turning the trick again last September 29 at Death Valley (although Clemson was reduced to its third-string QB in that game). Safe to say that Babers is going to be on a short list of any high-profile schools (like USC, perhaps) that might be looking for new leadership in the near future. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, Babers will try to pick up where he left off last fall without dual-threat QB Eric Dungey, a multi-year starter who passed for 2868 yards and ran for another 754 as the perfect trigger-man for the Babers spread last season, and is spending this summer in the camp of the NFL Giants. But the Orange O is not a bare cupboard with six starters back in the fold, and that doesn’t count soph QB Tommy DeVito (no relation to Danny...we don’t think), who proved an effective reliever for Dungey last season. DeVito, however, is not the runner like Dungey, so Babers and o.c. Mike Lynch are trying to implement more screen passes for an ample stable of backs, and check-downs for DeVito to hopefully limit some of the pressure he’ll likely see. There is depth at the RB spots, where sr. Moe Neal returns after gaining 849 and recording 5.6 ypc, and former Oklahoma transfer Abdul Adams scored twice in the bowl win over West Virginia. Moreover, proven targets are on hand in the slot with Sean Riley and Nykiem Johnson, who combined for 105 catches last season, and former Michigan State transfer Trishton Jackson seems poised for a breakthrough. The OL will get a boost from South Alabama grad transfer Ryan Alexander, penciled to step in at LT.
Continued improvement from the D might be needed if the post-Dungey offense regresses a bit, but the trendline is good after reducing yards per play from 6.4 to 5.8 last season and ppg from 32.2 to 27. Seven starters are back in the fold, so the upgrades could continue, especially with senior edge rushers Des Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman both off of double-digit sack seasons. The secondary also returns in tact, though d.c. Brian Ward is trying to tighten up the coverage after the Orange ranked 116th in pass defense a year ago. The concern on the stop unit is at the LB spots which were hit hard by graduation, though srs. Andrew Armstrong and Lakiem Williams were involved in the rotations last season.
An underrated stat that revealed much of the Cuse’s success last season was a +7.6 yards field position margin, which ranked second in the entire FBS.
The ‘Cuse will get a report card on its progress a bit earlier than usual when it when another crack at Clemson on September 14 at the Carrier Dome, though we ought to get a preliminary barometer on this version of the Orange the previous week at Maryland. At this stage, however, we’re not sure the ‘Cuse projects as an underdog in any of its games save that battle vs. Dabo Swinney’s team. The schedule provides ample opportunity for Babers to have another solid winning campaign. And we’d be remiss if not pointing out some early ‘Cuse season-win numbers at sports books that look far too low...first 5, then a move to 5.5. Still w-a-a-y-y too low by us!
Spread-wise, Babers has proven very good value lately as a dog, especially the past two seasons as the Orange covered in 9 of 12 chances getting points. Babers has produced two big seasons against the line the past four years...9-3-1 in 2015 at Bowling Green, and 10-3 last year with the ‘Cuse. Interestingly, Baber’s first two Orange teams were 17-6-1 “under” before that record effectively leveled last season (7-6 favoring the “overs”).
We admit, we’re fans of Wake Forest (2018 SU 7-6; ATS 5-8; O/U 7-6) and HC Dave Clawson, by us one of the more underrated mentors in the country. The Deacs are also on the verge of something special, at least in Wake terms; the school has never had four straight winning seasons, which can change this fall, and has also never won three straight bowls, the current streak. Credit Clawson, who won at Richmond before being hired away as o.c. by Tennessee, and thought for a short time to be Phil Fulmer’s heir apparent, but was instead like the baby thrown out with the bath water after the Vols faded in 2008 before landing on his feet at Bowling Green. After propping up the Falcs, Clawson moved to Wake and has become the latest in a mold of respected Deac mentors from the past generation such as Bill Dooley and Jim Grobe who seemed perfectly content in Winston-Salem, where the pressure to win big is mostly absent.
Like Dooley and Grobe, Clawson, too, seems locked in for the long haul, as he signed an extension thru 2026 in the offseason. After rejecting some overtures from other suitors (which reportedly included none other than Tennessee a year ago), Clawson seems content to ride the Deac job into retirement. And his 2018 production might have been one of his best, as Wake survived injuries, a midseason slump, and some unaccustomed bumps to get bowl-eligible thanks to a couple of November road upsets at NC State and Duke, the latter by a 59-7 count, one of the most-startling scorelines of the 2018 campaign.
What made the recovery of 2018 so noteworthy was the early-season meltdowns at home against BC and Notre Dame, when the defense disappeared by surrendering a combined 97 points in the two home losses. Clawson promptly hit the eject button on d.c. Jeff Sowell;indeed, the Deacs have sagged on the stop end since d.c. Mike Elko moved to Notre Dame (and subsequently Texas A&M) a few years ago. But Clawson believes things have stabilized under d.c Lyle Hemphill, who took on an expanded role after Sowell’s discharge. The platoon will still operate out of a 4-2-5, but will likely to load up a bit more in the secondary by playing three corners or safeties as opposed to a “rover” LB in hopes of improving upon a 117th rating in pass defense. Two of the four returning starters are sr. CBs Amari Henderson and Essang Bassey. Clawson expects breakthroughs from soph LBs Chase Monroe and Jeff Burley, both touted recruits who have been slowed by injuries the past two seasons. A standout from spring along the line was DE Shamar McCollum, a true frosh who enrolled early before wowing ‘em in March.
Few teams are like the Deacs and return three QBs who have started games, though Clawson moved Kendall Hinton, who has battled injuries and off-field incidents in the past, to a WR spot in the spring. Wake has proven it can win with its other pair of QBs, and Clawson will decide in fall camp between soph Sam Hartman and jr. Jamie Newman. Hartman took most of the snaps a year ago and passed for nearly 2000 yards (and ranked 4th in ACC total offense into early November), but was hurt down the stretch when the bigger (6-4, 235 lb.) Newman took over and led wins in three of his four starts, including the road shockers at NC State and Duke and a big comeback in the Birmingham Bowl vs. Memphis. It will be no surprise of Clawson uses both in the fall. Wildly productive Greg Dortch, a mighty-mite (5-8) wideout who caught 89 passes and returned a pair of punts for TDs last season, is no longer in the fold after jumping early to the NFL (Jets camp this summer). But soph Sage Surratt displayed plenty of upside when nabbing 41 passes as a RS frosh last fall, and sr. Sonny Washington has 73 catches the past two seasons despite fighting injuries. Meanwhile, smashmouth sr. RB Cade Carney is a north-south plowhorse who powered for 1005 YR and 5.3 ypc a year ago. There is some reloading required along an OL that lost three starters, though LT Justin Herron started in 2017 before being felled by a knee injury in the opener last season. Playing at a brisk pace, Wake scored 33 ppg a year ago and was one of the best-balanced teams in the country, rushing for 214 ypg and passing for 236 more.
More than a few observers are keeping keen eye on the Deacs’ opener against Utah State (in HC Gary Andersen’s return to the Utags) on August 30 as one of the potential sneaky-good games of opening week. If Clawson is to make a bowl for the fourth straight season, he’ll probably have to do a lot of business before November, as the schedule closes pretty tough (road games at Virginia Tech, Clemson, and Syracuse in November). But given his track record at Wake, another postseason berth looks well within reach.
Spread-wise, Clawson usually fares better than last year’s 5-8 vs. the number, but we’re tempted to give him a mulligan, considering some of the early-season issues in 2018 that appear a one-off in Winston Salem. The Deacs steadied down the stretch and began to once again excel as an underdog late in the campaign after Clawson posted a combined 10-2-1 dog mark the previous two seasons.
What to make of the collapse last season at Florida State (2018 SU 5-7; ATS 4-8; O/U 8-4)? Do we give then-first-year HC Willie Taggart a mulligan? After all, he was not inheriting the normal Seminole powerhouse team from Jimbo Fisher, whose last edition in 2017 barely got bowl-eligible. Or was the curtain simply pulled back on Taggart, who could not prevent FSU from destroying a near-sacred bowl streak of 36 seasons, which ended last fall. What to make of five opponents walloping the Noles by 21 points or more, including Clemson, which more than doubled that margin in a 59-10 romp?
It was too soon for FSU to consider making a coaching change, as a buyout would have been in the $20 million range. Five more seasons remain on the contract of Taggart, whose supporters note that Willie experienced very good success in years 2 and 3 of previous assignments at Western Kentucky and South Florida (Taggart only lasted one season at Oregon, his stop prior to Tallahassee). But there are plenty of questions in Seminole Country about Taggart being up to the task, while Clemson has separated a Gulf of Mexico-like distance from FSU and the rest of the league.
Realizing he needed to do something, and fast, especially on the attack end, Taggart completely disassembled an offense that sunk to levels not seen in Tallhassee since the days of Darrell “The Professa” Mudra before Bobby Bowden arrived in the mid 70s. To wit: FSU ranked near the bottom nationally in scoring (21.9 ppg; 113th), rushing (91.1 ypg; 127th) and total offense (361 ypg; 103rd). The staff was turned inside-out, with Kendal Briles, well-schooled in spread mechanics under his papa Art, assuming coordinator duties from Walt Bell, who escaped before the axe fell and took over the thankless task as HC at UMass (but we digress). The QB derby changed in the offseason when one-time starter and once-ballyhooed Deondre Francois, whose career veered off course after a knee injury in the 2017 opener vs. Bama, was kicked out of school. Still around is James Blackman, who took most of the snaps two years ago in 2017, but competition arrives in the form of Wisconsin grad transfer Alex Hornibrook, whose left-handed windup often looks about as slow as Madison Bumgarner’s delivery to the plate for the San Francisco Giants. A complete overhaul of the OL, which has added NIU grad transfer T Ryan Roberts, was another prerequisite in the offseason, and improvement up front could revive a dormant infantry that almost disappeared in 2018 and could revive the career of jr. RB Cam Akers, whose production dropped markedly as a soph (706 YR & 4.4 ypc) after setting a Nole frosh record with 1024 YR the previous year. Whoever wins the QB job will have some established deep threat targets, including soph Tamorrion Terry (21.6 per reception last year). The hope is that Briles, who made an immediate impact in past stops at Houston and FAU, can forge another quick turnaround in Tallahassee. We’ll see.
The D wasn’t quite as responsible for last year’s bowl miss, but there is room for improvement after conceding an un-Nole-like 32 ppg. The good news is that eight of the top ten tacklers from a year ago are back for d.c. Harlon Barnett, but upgrades are needed, especially a pass defense that ranked last in the ACC. Getting NG Marvin Wilson, a former five-star recruit, fully healthy will be a plus; Wilson has been regarded as the next great FSU defensive lineman. Barnett has done some shuffling in his back seven, with for S Hamsah Nasirldeen, the team’s top tackler LY, moving to OLB in spring. The secondary is hoping that the switch of CB Levonta Taylor to the a safety spot will shore up leaks in pass coverage. Special teams will also require some attention after FSU finished -9.3 yards in field position margin, which was the worst in the FBS ranks.
After last year’s struggles, nothing is going to look easy on the schedule for Taggart, especially regular-season bookends in the opener vs. Mountain West power Boise State at Jacksonville, and the finale in the annual Sunshine State showdown at Florida, which blasted the Noles last season. Aside from ULM and Alabama State, no other games look like sure-fire wins (even against Louisville, which in a downtrodden state a year ago still almost upset the Noles). So much went wrong last season that a quick FSU recovery sounds too optimistic for us. We don’t think Taggart misses another bowl, but if he does, he’ll be working under a new definition of pressure in 2020 at Doak Campbell. If he’s still working in Tallahassee, that is.
Spread-wise, Taggart’s spread woes last season merely picked up where Jimbo left things the year before; FSU has only covered four games in each of the last two years.To illustrate how far things have fallen at FSU, the Noles have been an underdog nine times the past two terms, after getting points just eight times the preceding seven campaigns. Now that we have to concern ourselves a bit more about Noles’ underdog performance, note they’re just 2-7 getting points since 2017. But as mentioned earlier, remember that Taggart has done his best work in the past in his second and third seasons, as he was a combined 34-17 vs. the line in Years 2 and 3 at WKU and South Florida.
Though Boston College (2018 SU 7-5; ATS 7-5; O/U 6-6) hasn’t really had a breakthrough season yet for seventh-year HC Steve Addazio, the Eagles have been consistent and holding their own, winning more than they are losing, and garnering bowl invitations. For the latter, five of those in Addazio’s six seasons, though last year’s edition never got to display its wares in the postseason as the Dallas Bowl vs. Boise State was cancelled due to inclement weather. Nonetheless, in truth Addazio is barely staying on the safe side, as his BC has never garnered more than seven wins, and even though he has a new two-year contract extension thru 2022, at some point Addazio is going to be expected to do something aside from treading water. We’re not sure that happens in 2019, though getting back to another minor bowl seems well within reach.
There is good news, as jarring, 250-lb. RB A.J. Dillon looks to crack the 1000-yard barrier for the third successive campaign. Dillon’s numbers did drop in 2018, down to 1108 YR after cracking the 1500-yard barrier as a frosh, but he also missed a couple of games last season and nursed injuries (including a bothersome ankle). Dillon thus enters the fall as a peripheral Heisman threat, and might actually benefit from the change at o.c., where the stodgy Scot Loeffler (who has moved to Bowling Green as the Falcons’ new HC) has been replaced by Mike Bajakian, who moves from the NFL and the Tampa Bay Bucs. In jr. QB Anthony Brown, Bakajian inherits an improving passer who tossed for 2121 yards and 20 TDs as a soph, and welcomes back top target Kobay White (almost 16 yards per catch a year ago). There are four new starters to be plugged in across the DL but Addazio is reportedly high on the new-look forward wall, especially soph C Alec Lindstrom (potentially “elite” says the coach).
That the Eagles got bowl-eligible without a normal rock-ribbed Addazio D a year ago could mean two things; either the days of BC as a dominant defensive team are in the past, or a recovery could be in store for 2019. The latter is a harder sell with only three starters back in the fold, and Addazio also switched coaching assignments in the offseason, with LB coach Bill Sheridan now coordinating the unit and Jim Reid demoted from d.c. to DE coach. Still, BC has been renown for hard-hitting defense since the Frank Spaziani years, and one of the returning starters, DT sr. Tanner Karafa, is likely NFL-bound. The secondary lost several ballhawks and was rocked by the decision of CB Hamp Cheevers (Titans camp) to jump early into the NFL, though Addazio believes that Cheevers’ replacement, soph CB Tate Haynes, might be the best athlete on the team.
Schedule-wise, some in the ACC believe the August 31 opener vs. Virginia Tech (from the Coastal side) is a fork-in-the-road type clash which could act as a launching pad for the winner. The Eagle schedule isn’t too scary until midseason when things begin to ramp up considerably. Road games at Clemson, Florida State, and Notre Dame in a four-game late-season stretch could end up keeping the Eagles out of a bowl if they don’t bag enough wins by mid-October. And contract extension or not, Addazio is feeling a bit of heat, which is one reason why he made so many staff changes (especially on defense) in the offseason. He’ll likely survive another 6-6 type campaign, though at some point the win totals have to begin increasing.
Spread-wise, Addazio’s teams at both previous stop Temple and BC have usually provided decent value; his Eagles have recorded winning spread marks in five of his six seasons at the helm in Chestnut Hill. Addazio’s BC has also been a force in the underdog role, recording a 23-12-1 mark getting points since 2013.
Has HC Dave Doeren built up enough equity at North Carolina State (2018 SU 9-4; ATS 6-7; O/U 5-7-1) to survive a potential backslide this fall? One would think so after back-to-back 9-win seasons and bowl visits the past four years. But that bowl didn’t go smoothly last December when Jimbo Fisher’s Texas A&M ran up a 52-13 scoreline in the Gator. And in the most-dreaded development for all coaches, a new AD has come on board in Raleigh, with Boo Corrigan hired from Army to replace the retired Debbie Yow on May 1. Remember, it was Yow who was reportedly one game away from pink-slipping Doeren at the end of the 2016 campaign, until the Wolfpack scored an upset win down Tobacco Road at Chapel Hill vs. hatred UNC to get bowl-eligible, before dismantling Vanderbilt in the Independence Bowl. Doeren has been on firmer ground since, and reportedly was on the radar of Tennessee for a brief time in the Vols’ roundabout coaching the previous winter, but the combination of some reloading on the roster and a new AD suggests that if nothing else, Doeren could put himself on the hot seat in 2020 if NCS slips too much. It is not lost upon ACC observers that new AD Corrigan might be fond of the coach he hired at West Point, Jeff Monken, a Paul Johnson disciple who has installed a bruising style with accompanying success at Army.
Doeren is more into rebuild than reload with his 2019 offense that will have a new play-caller, new QB, new starting receivers, and a new featured RB from last season. The play-caller job opened when Eliah Drinkwitz took over the HC job at App State (after Scott Satterfield moved to Louisville). Assistants Des Kitchings and George McDonald have been promoted as co-o.c.’s, but such arrangements often don’t work as intended. It will still be spread looks and a stretch runs on the attack end, but QB Ryan Finley has moved to the NFL (4th round pick of the Bengals) after throwing for nearly 4000 yards last season. The inside track to succeed Finley belongs to 3rd-year RS soph Matthew Mckay, who has displayed more of a bent for running than passing in limited previous work. Top receivers Jakobi Meyers & Kelvin Harmon, who combined for 173 catches LY, have also graduated, as has 1091-yard rusher Reggie Gallaspy. There are still some established receiving targets, including jr. Emeka Emezie, who caught 53 passes LY, but the Pack’s string of three different 1000-yard rushers the past three years might not extend, with soph Ricky Person Jr. a good change-of-pace back when gaining 471 YR behind Gallaspy last season, but maybe not durable enough to handle a heavy load, and there is not much experienced depth. Moreover, Pack runners got stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage a numbing 23% of the time in 2018 (ranking a lowly 112th). Touted frosh RB Bam Knight could emerge, but new OL coach John Garrison is also breaking in three new starters up front, so not sure the backs will have any more room to run than last season. NCS would seem hard-pressed to replicate the 34 ppg it scored a year ago.
Eight starters are back on defense, but the platoon leaked in 2018, and was especially vulnerable thru the air (ranked 108th in pass defense). Last year’s stop unit also sagged significantly from the 2017 version that sent its entire starting line to the NFL. Among returning playmakers, sr. DE James Smith-Williams registered six sacks a season ago and is expected to provide pressure from the edge, and some highly-rated in-state recruits (RS frosh Payton Wilson and true frosh Drake Thomas) could make immediate impacts at the LB spots. The secondary would be helped by the healthy return of S Stephen Griffin, who was sidelined half of last season by injuries. But this was hardly an airtight platoon a year ago.
It would be no surprise if NCS starts off quickly, assuredly favored in at least three of its first four, and catching West Virginia in rebuild mode at Morgantown. But that game and Sept. 28 at Florida State are both on the road, and for the Nov. 9 game at Raleigh vs. Clemson to have some collision possibilities, the Pack is going to have to win a couple of more away from Carter Stadium. Glass-is-half-full expectations aside, the Pack likely gets bowl-eligible simply because the schedule seems to provide enough soft spots to get to six wins, but we expect NCS will have lots of trouble reaching its recent 9-win plateaus.
Spread-wise, though Doeren has been getting to bowls in recent years, he hasn’t recorded a winning spread mark in the past three seasons. One enduring trend in recent years has been subpar work as an underdog, with NCS just 6-11 getting points since the 2015 campaign.
Well, we finally found out last season what would happen when Bobby Petrino stuck around too long at the party. The peripatetic Petrino had never served more than four consecutive seasons in any of his 17 previous career assignments until last year, his fifth at Louisville (2018 SU 2-10; ATS 1-11; O/U 8-4), when the Cards dropped from the basement into the mine shaft of the ACC. By mid-November, after the Cards had been napalmed into submission, allowing 66, 38, 56, 77, and 54 points in a five-game stretch, AD Vince Tyra humanely dismissed Petrino, though it couldn’t prevent subsequent losses of 52-10 (vs. NC State) and 56-10 (vs. Kentucky), both at home in front of many empty seats at Cardinal Stadium, which dropped its Papa John’s sponsorship last summer. Hard to believe last season’s disaster was just two years after Lamar Jackson’s breathless run to the 2016 Heisman, a season in which the ‘Ville spent three weeks sitting as high as number three in the national rankings. We hadn’t seen such a fall from grace in less than two years since Richard Nixon in 1972-74. Starting anew, Tyra pulled one of the acknowledged up-and-comers in the business, Scott Satterfield, out of Appalachian State to hopefully stop the bleeding after failing in his attempts to bring back alum Jeff Brohm from Purdue.
We’ll see how much damage Petrino actually did to the program by how quickly Satterfield can re-assemble the pieces. It might take some time, especially as the Satterfield preference for running the ball runs counter to the Petrino passing emphasis, and many of the returnees having been brought in to run the old Petrino offense. (This slower pace might prove a benefit, and could be akin to the ball-control offense that Bob Davie installed when arriving at New Mexico in 2012 to better dictate the tempo of the games and help camouflage a defense he inherited that was about as bad as the ‘Ville’s last season.) Which is why soph Malik Cunningham, a better runner than aptly-named jr. Jawon Pass, who took most of the snaps a year ago but whose mechanics need work, is expected by many ACC scouts to get first chance at piloting the new offense. Cunningham might even lead the ‘Ville in rushing again after scrambling for a team-best 497 YR in 2018, though the new offense ought to provide opportunities for potentially-flashy soph RB Hassan Hall (303 YR LY) to get to the edge and utilize his speed. Holdover receivers like sr. Seth Dawkins and jr. Dez Fitzpatrick both saw their reception numbers dip alarmingly post-Jackson, but at least provide experienced targets for the QBs. Meanwhile only two starters are back along an OL that allowed an ACC-worst 43 sacks and was largely responsible for the second-worst ACC rush offense in 2018.
The offense, however, will cause fewer headaches for Satterfield compared to a defense that completely disappeared last fall when posting some of the worst numbers in the country, including a ghastly 44.1 ppg (ranking 128th). Accompanying Satterfield from Boone is new d.c. Bryan Brown, the 4th different d.c. in as many seasons at the ‘Ville and looking to instill some pride and work ethic in a platoon that displayed little of either for Brian Van Gorder last season. As many as ten former starters could still be in the fold when fall camp opens, but that might not necessarily be good news, and Brown opened up competition at all positions in spring. Yes, Brown’s D led the Sun Belt in fewest yards allowed a season ago with the Mountaineers, but the ACC isn’t the Sun Belt, and few of the returnees distinguished themselves a year ago. Of those, former Ohio State transfer DB Rodjay Burns hinted at being the playmaker the Cards need and even returned a punt for a score last season. But after the defense effectively quit a year ago and several transferred away, the clear-out of the stench left over from Petrino could continue into the fall.
Satterfield won’t have the luxury of a tune-up game in his debut, either; instead, the whole nation will be watching on Labor Day night when the ‘Ville hosts Notre Dame. After winning just twice last year, no game is going to be a gimme anyway, even those vs. the directional Kentucky schools that appear in September. Crossover foes from the Coastal side of the ACC include two of the favored teams from that side of the conference, Virginia and Miami. At least Satterfield and staff know this is going to be a major rebuild; we hope the fans at the ‘Ville are as understanding. After recruiting tailed off at the end of the Petrino regime, Satterfield’s best-case scenario is probably a multi-year rebuild.
Spread-wise, one of the few things worse than the Cards’ 2-10 SU mark last term was their spread record (1-11!). The ‘Ville this enters 2019 having dropped 23 of its last 29 vs. the number dating to mid 2016, which also covers a bulk of the Lamar Jackson era and one last, stinging indictment of the Petrino regime. Enter Satterfield, whose App State stood 13-3-1 vs. the number from late in the 2017 campaign thru last season (counting the bowl win over MTSU, after Satterfield lef); could the Cards be well undervalued at the start of the season, and a possible value play in the early going?