by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


As in the ACC Atlantic preview, teams are listed in predicted order of finish in the Coastal, with 2012 straight-up and spread records included for each.

Although HC Paul Johnson appears to be in no immediate danger at Georgia Tech (2012 SUR 7-7; PSR 9-5), it is fair to speculate whether the Yellow Jackets have hit a plateau on his watch. Tech has been in an unmistakable descent since winning the ACC title in 2009 and advancing to the Orange Bowl; indeed, the Engineers are only 21-20 straight up in their last 41 games dating to that bowl loss vs. Iowa three-plus years ago.

There are a few schools of thought why the Ramblin’ Wreck has flattened out in recent seasons. Some suspect that as the ACC has become more familiar with Johnson’s unique flexbone attack, Tech is not the mystery it was when Johnson took over from Chan Gailey in 2008. Others also wonder if the talent pool at Johnson’s disposal has diminished.

Or, as some observers like ourselves suspect, was it some ill-advised tweaks to the Jackets’ staff that contributed to the downgrade the past few seasons?

If it’s the latter (and we suspect it might be), the worst might be behind Tech, and the Jackets could be ready to buzz again this fall. We saw some indicators late last season that our hunch about the staff might have been right.

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Specifically, it was Johnson’s ill-advised hire of the past sell-by date Al Groh as his defensive coordinator in 2010 that coincided with the recent downturn in Jacket fortunes. Groh immediately junked the existing Tech defense and instead installed his pet 3-4 looks that proved mostly a downgrade from the outset. The Jackets lacked sufficient playmakers at the linebacker spots to effectively execute Groh’s schemes, which became predictable and stale. By midway through last season, after the Jackets had conceded 40+ points in three straight games (and lost them all), Johnson had finally seen enough. Groh was terminated two days after a 47-31 loss at Clemson.

Not coincidentally, the “D” performed with a lot more bite for the rest of the way as Tech won four of its last six regular-season games to get bowl-eligible (even though the Jackets would eventually need a special dispensation from the NCAA to qualify for the postseason with a 6-7 record) and qualify for the ACC title game, which was also courtesy of Miami and North Carolina ineligibility. Interestingly, a couple of Tech’s better defensive games of the season came right at the end of the campaign against Florida State in the ACC title game and then Southern Cal in the Sun Bowl, when an aroused Tech scored a 21-7 upset win in El Paso.

Johnson decided to move even further away from the Groh failure when tabbing the well-respected Ted Roof, most recently at Penn State, as the new d.c. for 2013. The one-time Duke HC immediately junked the Groh 3-4 and will have the Jackets aligned in 4-3 looks this fall. Roof, on a second tour of duty at Tech after coordinating defenses for George O’Leary’s teams between 1999-2001, can be expected to have his stop unit flying all over the field as they were the past two years with the Nittany Lions, and an expected departure from the often-passive Groh platoons.

One of Roof’s first moves was switching impactful OLB Jeremiah Attaochu (10 sacks in 2012) from OLB to DE, where Roof suspects he can emerge as an even greater sack monster. At 245 pounds, the thought is that the cat-quick Attaochu will routinely require double-teams, as few opposing OTs will be able to cope in passing situations. Which should create more opportunities for a still-deep crew of LBs (Jabari Hunt-Days, Quayshawn Neely, and Brandon Watts all recording 40 or more tackles last season) to wreak havoc.

Overall, Roof has eight starters back from 2012, including a pair of returning starters on the corners in srs. James Thomas and Louis Young.

Oh yes, the familiar Johnson option attack. As usual, Tech ranked among the nation’s rush leaders (311 ypg; 4th) a season ago, and nothing figures to change much this fall, especially if soph QB Vad Lee performs as many expect. Lee flashed real upside when filling in for the graduated Tevin Washington last season, especially in the wild 68-50 win at North Carolina when he passed for 169 yards and ran for another 112.

Acknowledging Lee’s promise as a passer, expect Johnson to introduce more shotgun looks to the attack that could feature the best duel-threat QB that Johnson has had at Tech. For a change-of-pace, RS frosh Justin Thomas, more of a pure option wizard, figures to get his share of snaps, too. The leading rushers from the past two seasons, FBs David Sims and Zack Laskey, are also back to run behind an OL that returns four starters.

Another threat with the ball is return specialist Jamal Golden, a junior who was the only player in the country to rank in the top ten in both punt (sixth) and kickoff (10th) return average last season.

We suspect the presence of Groh also had a lot to do with another downgrade, Johnson’s once-glossy spread record, the past few seasons; again, we think it was also no coincidence that Johnson’s Tech started to cover pointspreads once again (six of eight chances) after Groh’s dismissal. It would not surprise us one bit if Johnson, once one of the nation’s most successful pointspread coaches during his six years at Navy and first two years at Tech, again provides good value vs. the line with this year's Tech edition.

Nor would it surprise us if Johnson’s Tech reassumes its status among the ACC’s elite...and not need any assistance with postseason bans from others to get back to the conference title game.

After fighting for conference championships and BCS berths for most of the past two decades, it was more than a bit of a surprise to see Frank Beamer’s Virginia Tech (SUR 7-6; PSR 4-9) struggle just to get bowl-eligible last season. Especially since many pegged the Hokies as a BCS threat after qualifying for the Sugar Bowl the previous season.

When the smoke cleared, Beamer had salvaged his bowl streak (now 20 and counting) thanks to narrow wins over subpar Boston College and Virginia sides at the end of the regular season. The Hokies also managed to avoid their first sub-.500 finish since 1992 when rallying to beat Rutgers 13-10 in OT in what was an unwatchable Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando.

Don’t expect Beamer to have as much trouble keeping those bowl and winning-season streaks alive this fall, but the long-range prognosis for the program on his watch is now more of an issue than at any time since he was on the hot seat 20 years ago. Some are wondering if Beamer has lost his magic touch, especially since the familiar “Beamer Ball” style of big play defense and special teams has mosty been absent the past few seasons. There’s also the matter of long-time sidekick and d.c Bud Foster, who has been the unofficial “coach in waiting” at Blacksburg for most of Beamer’s tenure. Foster, who played and coached for Beamer at Murray State, is almost joined at the hip to the coach, but the school has yet to make any official succession plans once Beamer decides to hang ‘em up. Meanwhile, the respected Foster still flies across the radar of many interested suitors.

Regional sources say Foster wants his chance to become a head coach and is willing to wait it out at VPI, but here are no guarantees. Especially if the Hokies continue to regress on the field. Some observers believe Beamer might be likely to step aside after 2016, which would be his 30th year on the job. Still, however, no official word from Hokie headquarters. Stay tuned for further developments.

In retrospect, we wonder if 2012 might have gone a bit differently for VPI had it managed to hang on to a late lead against Cincinnati on Sept. 29 at the Redskins’ FedEx Field, when what looked like a rousing 24-20 win instead turned into a gut-wrenching 27-24 last-second loss thanks a long and desperate Bearcat TD pass in the final moments. That began a stretch of five losses in six games, and a slump in which the Hokies didn’t recover until late in the season.

Beamer, however, suspected it was more than just a loss of momentum that haunted VPI last season, and to that end made some staff adjustments on the offensive side in the offseason. Curiously, he enlisted a part of Gene Chizik’s failed Auburn staff, including o.c./QB coach Scott Loeffler and OL coach Jeff Grimes, although it should be noted that Loeffler had played to rave reviews in his prior stint at Temple and the Owls’ New Mexico Bowl-winning side of 2011.

Beamer, obviously overlooking Auburn’s issues last season, nonetheless likes Loeffler’s history of stressing a physical infantry diversion, something the Hokies lacked a year ago. The thought persists that king-sized sr. QB Logan Thomas, who regressed in his second year as a starter in 2012 when tossing 16 picks, would benefit from a real running threat (as he did in 2011 with RB David Wilson), not to mention more tutelage from a QB mentor. At RB, redshirt frosh Trey Edmunds has been compared to some of the best VPI runners from recent years and will have a chance to steal carries from soph J.C. Coleman and emerge this fall. But the OL needs upgrades, and the Hokies are going to be in trouble if QB Thomas again leads the team in rushing as he did a year ago (524 yards).

The real encouragement in Blacksburg, however, revolves around Foster’s “D” that returns nine starters and began to resemble some of the past big-play Hokie stop units down the stretch last season. VPI recorded 27 sacks in its last seven games of 2012, and the entire DL returns featuring All-ACC DE James Gayle and the thick but very quick DT combo of 312-;b. Derrick Hopkins and 295-lbn. Luther Maddy. The return of sr. OLB Tariq Edwards, who missed almost all of 2012 due to injury, should be another plus.

The secondary also returns in tact, although shutdown CB Antoine Exum is still recuperating from a knee injury and might not be ready for the opener vs. Alabama at the Georgia Dome.

With all of this experience on hand, expect the platoon to improve upon the modest 21 turnovers it forced a year ago, ranking only 66th in the nation and historically low for a Foster stop unit.

Mention of that opener vs. the Crimson Tide distorts a non-conference slate that beyond the Bama game isn’t too demanding (Western Carolina, East Carolina, and Marshall the other non-ACC foes). Other than the Crimson Tide, the schedule is quite manageable, and a quick recovery from last year’s subpar (by Beamer standards, at least) 7-6 effort would be no surprise. We’ll also be paying close attention to see if the Hokies improve upon their recent spread woes, as VPI has been an uncharacteristic 8-20 its last 28 on the board, a surprise for Beamer teams that have often been among the nation’s pointspread overachievers the past 20 years.

Old habits die hard, especially those in regard to the Miami Hurricanes (SUR 7-5, PSR 9-3), who are more than a decade removed from their last real period of dominance, yet continue to be granted a wide berth by analysts and prognosticators who have found it hard to look past the perception of the “U” as an eternal powerhouse.

The fact is that Miami has been good, but not great, for several years. And the distractions that have haunted the Cane athletic program in recent years aren’t going away anytime soon. The specter of looming NCAA sanctions, mostly in relation to the Nevin Shapiro controversy, remain a fact of life in south Florida.

What the Canes are hoping for is some resolution to the NCAA investigation, which has taken several twists and turns (some of those related to NCAA bumbling) over the past two years. Penalties are expected to be announced soon; stay tuned for further details.

It is the hope of Miami administrators that their quick actions once the allegations were revealed will reduce whatever sanctions the NCAA might decide to impose. Unlike Southern Cal, which did its best to stonewall the investigation related to the Reggie Bush controversy, the Canes have been fully cooperative and have invoked self-imposed sanctions on the football program the past two years, in both campaigns making themselves ineligible for bowls. This “time served” approach could definitely figure into whatever the NCAA eventually decides, and a major difference between the conduct at Miami and that at Southern Cal during the investigative phase of the Trojans’ case a few years ago.

Still, this wasn’t what former Temple HC Al Golden bargained for when taking over from Randy Shannon after the 2010 season, but we can’t be sure how much the distractions have impacted the Canes the past two seasons. What we do know is that they are just 13-11 over that span, so it is fair to wonder if all of the hype Miami continues to receive is justified.

(Golden, however, was up to his old pointspread tricks last season when the Canes overachieved vs. the number, covering 9 of 12 on the board; remember that “Touch of” covered better 63% of his games in his last four seasons at Temple, and his teams are 22-11 as a dog since 2007.)

The Miami defense has certainly not resembled units that featured past stars such as Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and others; the Canes ranked an abysmal 116th in national total defense stats last season when surrendering nearly 500 ypg, as well as 218 ypg on the ground, where Miami ranked 112th. So losing seven starters from that 2012 platoon might not be the worst news.

Indeed, the vision of Miami being helpless to stop the likes of not only Kansas State and Notre Dame, but also Virginia and Duke, is hard to erase from the memory.

Defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio thought the Canes were too small at the point of attack last season and is encouraged that much of his front seven has added at least 20 pounds from a year ago. But will added bulk help Miami locate a pass rush that generated only 13 sacks last fall? That lack of pressure on opposing QBs might have also contributed to the Cane DBs recording only five picks all of 2012. Those numbers must improve for Miami to make a move into the national rankings.

More bad news for D’Onofrio came in spring, when LB Eddie Johnson, an impact frosh in 2012 who led the team with 7 ½ tackles for loss, was suspended indefinitely and left the university. Some playmakers remains, including hard-hitting jr. OLB Denzel Perryman, but Miami is going to be relatively young in the middle in its 4-3, as frosh Alex Figueroa and soph Raphael Kirby likely join Perryman in the LB mix.

Most of the excitement in Miami revolves around an offense that did show improvement last season, scoring over 31 ppg as QB Stephen Morris matured into a force. Now a senior, Morris is off a 3345-yard passing season in 2012, although accuracy (only 58% completions last season) must improve.

Better news is that all of the OL returns, while soph RB Duke Johnson burst upon the scene like gangbusters as a frosh when gaining 947 yards. All of that as a backup while breaking Clinton Portis' school frosh rushing record. Morris’ top receiving threats also return, led by little 5'10 Phillip Dorsett and big 6'3 Allen Hurns and 6'2 Rashawn Scott.

The offense should be fine; the defense, we’re not so sure. And until the latter makes some real improvement over last season, we have to wonder once again if the usual hype in Miami is warranted.

The worst is probably behind North Carolina (SUR 8-4; PSR 6-6) after last year’s bowl ban thanks to NCAA sanctions related to a scandal that, frankly, probably deserved more scrutiny from the national press than it received. In that regard, the Tar Heels might have been one of the few beneficiaries of a controversial year in which much of the media’s attention was focused upon Penn State and the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky fiasco.

Although the bowl ban has been lifted, UNC is still not completely out of the clear. The NCAA sanctions went beyond the one-year bowl ban, including scholarship reductions (15 over three years), vacated victories, and three years probation. All after academic fraud, impermissible agent interactions, and ineligible players had cost football coach Butch Davis and AD Dick Baddour their jobs.

There was also the matter of possible further fraud related to additional academic no-nos that were apparently committed while the school was in the middle of the NCAA investigation, related to courses offered in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. While this seemed to meet the threshold of NCAA infractions, too, there have been no further investigations or penalties (at least not yet) since the school announced its own thorough review and housecleaning of that department.

So, for the moment, at least, the Tar Heel football program can at least get around to the business of focusing on a bowl berth, maybe a really good bowl berth. Which is a big relief for HC Larry Fedora, who was not expecting to walk into such a hornets nest when moving from Southern Miss after the 2011 campaign. Fedora’s rep, however, was only enhanced with last year’s 8-4 record amid all the distractions at Chapel Hill, not to mention the fact his old Southern Miss team went from an 12-2 record on his watch in 2011 to 0-12 under successor Ellis Johnson a year ago.

Fedora’s first Tar Heel attack looked a lot like his prolific Southern Miss offense as it scored a whopping 40.6 ppg, ranking 8th nationally. More of the same could be in store this fall; despite the early departure of RB Gio Bernard (taken by the Bengals in the NFL Draft), QB Bryn Renner has opted to return for his senior season after smashing several school records en route to passing for 3356 yards and 28 TDs last fall.

Even minus Bernard, Renner, operating Fedora’s fast-paced spread, is surrounded by enough established playmakers to rate as a peripheral Heisman candidate entering the fall. Most expect RBs A.J. Blue (a punishing 225-pounder) and Romar Morris (a 180-lb. slasher) to effectively fill Bernard’s role. UNC also returns starting wideouts Sean Tapley and Quinshad Davis, the latter having tied a school record with 16 receptions in a 37-13 late November win at Virginia.

There is some concern along the forward wall with three OL starters having departed, although mountainous 6'7 sr. LT James Hurst is a potential All-America candidate.

It is also expected that the Heel defense will be a bit more comfy in the second year of the 4-2-5 alignment preferred by d.c. Dan Disch, although Carolina ended up in more shootouts than Fedora and Disch would have desired last season. The Heels allowed 33 ppg in ACC play and were napalmed by a 68-point bomb dropped by Georgia Tech at Chapel Hill.

Six starters are back on the platoon, but they don’t include road-blocking DT Sylvester Williams, the Denver Broncos’ first-round draft choice, or productive MLB Kevin Reddick, spending his summer in the New Orleans Saints camp. Which presents some concerns in the middle of the stop unit and in front of a secondary that was far too leaky in 2012 as it consistently was burned deep. Disch does return both of his starting corners in sr. Jabari Price and jr. Tim Scott. A continuation of the pressure provided by playmaking sr. DE Kareem Martin (team-best 18 ½ tackles for loss last season) will be crucial.

We’ll get an idea of how far the Heels have progressed, and if Renner might be up for a longshot Heisman run, in the difficult August 29 opener at South Carolina. Our best guess is that Renner and the offense post more big numbers and the Heels get back to a bowl, but defensive concerns probably prevent a serious breakthrough into the national rankings.

The last time we saw Duke (SUR 6-7, PSR 6-7) on the gridiron...well, we’d rather not talk about it, since we backed the Blue Devils in the Charlotte Belk Bowl against Cincinnati. But, in the spirit of full disclosure, or maybe penance, we’ll reminisce.

Things definitely looked pretty good for those at the sports books in Las Vegas who had Duke plus the eight points against the Bearcats that late December night, especially when the Devils driving inside of the Cincy 10 yard-line, approaching the last minute of the game, tied at 34-34. Those holding Duke tickets couldn’t lose, right?

Wrong. A lost fumble inside of the 10, an 83-yard TD pass from Bearcat QB Brendon Kay to Travis Kelce with 44 seconds to play, and then, incredibly, a 55-yard interception return for a TD by Cincy’s Nick Temple with only 14 remaining on the clock would doom the Blue Devils to a beyond-bitter 48-34 loss and one of the “bad beats” of all-time for Duke backers in Las Vegas.

Six months later, the sting of that result has mostly worn off...but not quite!

As for Duke, it remains winless in bowls since Bill Murray’s 1954 team beat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, 34-7.

Bowls and the Blue Devils, however, rarely are mentioned in the same breath, as last season’s Belk visit was Duke’s first postseason trip since Fred Goldmsith’s 1994 edition played in the Hall-of-Fame Bowl vs. Wisconsin in Tampa. Including that game and last year’s battle vs. Cincy, Duke has only made five bowl visits in the 59 years since Murray’s 1954 team beat Nebraska.

Which, right there, confirms the savvy of HC David Cutcliffe, who has resurrected the Blue Devils from the basement of the ACC to the middle of the pack (no easy feat) since taking over at Durham in 2008.

Cutcliffe, of course, arrived with glossy credentials, having been a decorated o.c. at Tennessee and a fairly successful head coach at Ole Miss. Along the way Cutcliffe coached both Peyton and Eli Manning while establishing himself as one of the shrewd offensive strategists in the game.

As usual, Cutcliffe has his work cut out for himself this fall, and will be going to battle without longtime three-year starting QB Sean Renfree, who was a perfect triggerman for the ball-control passing offense that Cutciffe prefers while completing better than 67% of his passes last year. The careers of productive wideouts Conner Vernon and Desmond Scott, who combined for 151 catches a year ago, also expired after the Belk Bowl.

Cutcliffe, however, has an experienced option at QB in jr. Anthony Boone, who has seen plenty of live action in relief of Renfree the past two seasons and acquitted himself quite well when forced into the starting lineup last October 6 vs. Virginia, throwing 4 TD passes while running for another 41 yards in the Blue Devils’ 42-17 romp. Boone’s feet are definitely not in concrete, either, and offers a much better running option at QB than did Renfree.

And not all of the offensive supporting cast left Durham, either; jr. WR Jamison Crowder, smallish at 5'9 but with great hands, caught almost every pass aimed in his direction last season and actually led the Devils with 76 catches worth 1074 yards. Athletic safety Brandon Braxton also moved to offense and a receiver spot in spring and is expected to fill the shoes of the graduated Vernon. Four starters are also back along the OL, and a TB rotation featuring returning RBs Juwan Thompson and Jela Duncan helped Duke rush for 200 yards in the bowl game vs. Cincy.

Expect Cutcliffe to make use of his veteran stable of offensive linemen and running backs, as well as Boone’s mobility, to significantly upgrade the infantry in the fall.

If only the defense had as many options. Long the Achilles Heel of the Blue Devil operation, the “D” was a liability again last season when ranking in triple digits nationally in all relevant defensive categories. Only five starters return on the platoon, with a significant personnel overhaul due in the back seven.

On the plus side, the stop unit enters the third year deployed in d.c. Jim Knowles’ 4-2-5 schemes, although upgrades are needed up front after safeties led the team in tackles the past two seasons. There are some established playmakers in the mix, including sixth-year DE Kenny Anunike and All-ACC CB Ross Cockrell, but the stop unit remains generally undersized, and it would help if another couple of impact components (perhaps including soph safety Jeremy Cash, an Ohio State transfer) would emerge.

With a favorable non-conference slate (NC Central, Memphis, Troy, and Navy), another run at a bowl bid is certainly possible, especially since we don't believe the offense will regress with Boone at the controls. Also note recent Duke spread trends that have turned around from past patterns; Cutcliffe has now covered his last five chances as a favorite, though the Blue Devils’ once noteworthy dog prowess was not evident last season when dropping 7 of 9 chances getting points.

After 20 years as one of its original and flagship members, Pittsburgh (SUR 6-7; PSR 8-5) escaped the burning house otherwise known as Big East football, and along with Syracuse makes the jump to the ACC for 2013.

As with the Orange, it is fair to ask how the Panthers are going to fare against what would seem to be an upgraded (though maybe only slightly) group of opponents in the ACC. If it is an upgrade, the consequences could keep Pitt out of the postseason after the Panthers did the bare minimum (a 6-6 regular-season mark last season) before qualifying for Birmingham’s BBVA Compass Bowl as a member of the Big East last season. Getting to 6-6 might be a bit more difficult in the ACC.

Having said that, however, the natives who dine at Primanti Brothers and the “Dirty O” adjacent to campus are mostly smiling these days as they reflect on the direction of Panther football. Which finally seems to be back on course under HC Paul Chryst, who looks to have brought some stability to a program that has employed four head coaches in the past three seasons (if counting the very short tenure of Mike Haywood, who never coached a game at the school, after the 2010 season). Chryst, however, appears to be in it for the longer haul, and the fact he showed little interest, at least outwardly, in moving back to Wisconsin (from whence he came to Pitt) after Bret Bielema’s surprise departure to Arkansas was not lost on Panther backers who were hardly amused at the revolving door the position of football coach had come at their storied program.

There were plenty of twists and turns in Chryst’s debut campaign which began with a thud when the Panthers were smacked by Youngstown State and Cincinnati out of the chute and never won more than two games in a row the entire campaign. But there were a couple of rousing results at home in wipeout wins over bowl-bound Virginia Tech and Rutgers. Plus a near-miss at Notre Dame, when the Panthers could have spared the country from watching the Irish in the BCS title game if they could have either held on to a late lead in regulation or converted a very makeable field goal in overtime to win at South Bend. Neither happened, however, and the best chance to keep Notre Dame out of a national title game in which it would eventually get embarrassed had been lost.

Chryst was not quite able to establish the sort of durable, Wisconsin-like all-terrain ground game a year ago as many expected, even with star RB Ray Graham still in the fold. At 133 ypg, the Panthers ranked a lowly 92nd in national rush stats, instead relying mostly upon the passing accuracy of QB Tino Sunseri, who quietly posted some superb numbers last season that included 65% completions, 21 TD passes, and only 3 picks. But Graham, Sunseri, and another important piece to last season’s offensive puzzle, RB Rushel Shell (who transferred to UCLA), are not on board this fall, forcing Chryst and o.c. Paul Rudolph to fill some important gaps on the attack end.

It looks as if former Rutgers QB Tom Savage, once a highly-decorated recruit out of Cardinal O’Hara High in the leafy Philadelphia suburbs, will complete his roundabout college career as the Panthers’ starting QB after detouring through Arizona (where he never took a snap) on his way to Heinz Field. Savage, who performed with some flair as a frosh starter for the Scarlet Knights in 2009 but lost his starting job the following year, is the sort of pocket passer that would seem to fit nicely into the pro-style looks that Chryst prefers. But Pitt also has some shoring up to do along an OL that didn’t protect the graduated Sunseri very well in 2012 when allowing 38 sacks (ranking a poor 102nd in the country), and since Savage isn’t exactly RG III, the aerial game could be grounded unless the OL improves. Three new starters must be plugged into the forward wall.

The graduation of Graham (spending the summer in the NFL Houston Texans’ camp) and transfer of the once-ballyhooed Shell have left the RB spots to some unproven sorts; the projected starter, sr. Ivan Bennett, rushed for only 150 yards last season. The featured returning performer on the “O” is productive WR Devin Street, who caught 73 passes last fall and figures to be Savage’s favorite target. But a complementary wideout on the other side must emerge.

After d.c. Dave Huxtable moved to NC State, first-year coordinator Matt House retains the 4-3 looks that helped the Pitt “D” post some solid numbers last season, including a robust 17th (331 ypg) national rank in total defense. The return of eight starters from that platoon is another plus for House, although one wonders if a generally-upgraded group of foes on the 2013 slate will provide a much greater challenge for the Panthers than a year ago when dealing with a variety of limited Big East offenses. It’s worth noting, too, that Pitt had little success slowing the higher-powered attacks (Cincinnati, Louisville, and bowl foe Ole Miss combined to score 39 ppg) on last year’s slate.

One change from the Big East days is the challenge of the numerous spread offenses of the ACC, but an athletic LB corps highlighted by do-everything MLB Shane Gordon will come in handy. A seasoned DL with headliner DT Aaron Donald (12th in the nation in tackles for loss in 2012) has also been augmented by the addition of Ohio State transfer DE David Durham, a converted FB with a non-stop motor. Three starters are also back in the secondary, including bookends on the corners with sr. K’Waun Williams & soph Lafayette Pitts.

There is also extra pressure on the stop unit, as most regionals sources suggest the burden will most assuredly be on the “D” to carry the “O” until further notice.

Pitt’s baptism to the ACC comes right off the bat when hosting defending conference champ Florida State in the opener on Labor Day night, and the rest of the Panther schedule (which again includes Notre Dame in non-conference action) looks tougher than it did a year ago. Chryst, whose first team also covered eight of its last ten regular-season games and five of its last six as chalk, will be doing well to post those same sorts of numbers and get Pitt to a bowl in the tougher environs of the ACC.

The hottest seat in the ACC might be burning under HC Mike London at Virginia (SUR 4-8, PSR 3-9) . After what seemed a breakthrough campaign in 2011 and a Chick fil-A Bowl berth vs. Auburn, UVa took several steps backward last fall when slumping to an ugly 4-8 mark.

The pressure thus mounts on London, now in his fourth year, to stop the bleeding ASAP. His answer is a return to his preferred power-football style which will require a lot more from his infantry than its 129 ypg (and 96th ranking nationally) from a year ago. To that end, London has revamped his coaching staff, especially on the offensive end where several former FBS head coaches (including ex-NC State HC Tom O'Brien and ex-Colorado State HC Steve Fairchild) are now on staff. Unfortunately, both of last year's QBs have left the program; Michael Rocco transferred to Richmond and former Alabama transfer QB Phillip Sims, in contention for the starting job in spring, subsequently became academically ineligible, likely leaving the job to soph David Watford.

Four starters return along the OL, but their efficiency must improve after the Cavs posted those unimpressive rush numbers last fall, which was a troubling development for a coach like London who emphasizes a potent infantry. The switch of NFL prospect Morgan Moses from right to left tackle will hopefully pay dividends, but any benefits there might come in pass protection; Cav run blocking was surprsingly inept last season.

The good news is there is plenty of experience in the skill position spots, led by RB Kevin Parks (734 YR in 2012 to rank 6th in the ACC), and top receiving targets Darius Jennings, Tim Smith, and Dominique Terrell all return as well. But questions at QB and along the OL temper the enthusiasm at Scott Stadium.

There is some encouragement, however, as another respected assistant, Jon Tenuta, a Virginia alum and most recently on O’Brien’s NC State staff, takes over a defense that on paper looks to be potentially menacing, especially with seven starters (including the entire secondary) back in the fold. But the Cavs were not very disruptive last fall, contributing to their poor TO ratio (-14), and Tenuta’s reputation for bringing heat with aggressive, blitzing schemes will be warmly welcomed in Charlottesville after UVa ranked 10th in sacks and last in forcing turnovers in the ACC a year ago.

A beneficiary of the Tenuta caution-to-the-wind defensive approach is likely to be soph DE Eli Harold, a speed-rusher deluxe who made an impact as a true frosh in 2012. All four starters also return in the secondary. But the LB corps is mostly inexperienced, and depth in the DB corps is also a concern.

London’s Cavs have also been pointspread underacheivers, covering just 33% of the time (11-22-1) since early in his first season of 2010. UVa also dropped its last six vs. the line at Scott Stadium a year ago.

While much attention this fall in the Commonwealth will be paid to the high-profile gubernatorial election between Ken Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe, it will not distract enough attention away from London if he suffers another losing campaign. ACC sources almost all suggest that another bowl miss by Brit Hume's alma mater puts London directly in the crosshairs.


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