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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#61 Virginia Cavaliers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#61

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#7

HEAD COACH: Mike London, 23-38 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Steve Fairchild | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jon Tenuta

Mike London enters his sixth season at Virginia squarely on the hot seat for the third consecutive season. The Cavaliers showed improvement last year, winning four of their first six games but struggled badly in ACC play over the second half of the season. In a wide-open Coastal Division, a postseason berth for Virginia and London may be the only thing that saves his job.

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Previewing Virginia’s Offense for 2015
 

Virginia has settled on an identity and style of play. And now, the Cavaliers can settle on a quarterback. Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns were competing through the spring. Lambert started nine games a year ago but wasn’t able to separate himself from Johns, who started three games when Lambert was hurt and played in all 12. Lambert decided to transfer in May, leaving Johns as the clear No. 1 quarterback this season. At 6'5", Johns is a tall-in-the-saddle type seemingly suited for a pro-style offense that seeks to emphasize the running game. Johns needs to be more accurate and less mistake-prone than a year ago, when the two Virginia quarterbacks combined for 18 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.

Virginia ranked 97th nationally in rushing offense in 2014. Hopes of being a power-running team rest on an offensive line that was banged up last year and did a good job in pass protection but struggled to open holes on the ground. The upside is that 10 players with game experience are back, including seven who have been starters at some point.

The graduation of tailback Kevin Parks creates an opportunity for former five-star recruit Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell, a potentially dynamic player who has shown only flashes of that talent in two seasons. If the Cavaliers can establish the running game, they feel good about their chances of taking shots down field, with an experienced corps of receivers that includes senior Canaan Severin, and North Carolina transfer T.J. Thorpe.

Previewing Virginia’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 ACC College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

A big chunk of Virginia’s pass rush left early for the NFL. Junior defensive end Eli Harold and sophomore linebacker Max Valles, who combined for 16 sacks and 27 tackles for a loss, are both gone, as is senior linebacker Henry Coley and his eight sacks.

Given those losses, it’s difficult to envision the Cavaliers being as disruptive again, even in a scheme designed to create havoc with blitzes and stunts.

The strength of the unit should be on the back end, where safety Quin Blanding, a Freshman All-American, should only get better, and where the return of cornerback Demetrious Nicholson from a turf toe injury adds to an already deep secondary.

Up front, tackle David Dean anchors a group that ranked 18th nationally against the run. Though not the speed rusher that Harold was, end Mike Moore had three sacks and will be counted on to bring heat from the edge. After an injury-plagued freshman year, former five-star recruit Andrew Brown is being counted on for a breakout season at tackle.

The linebacking corps must replace three starters, meaning the heart of the defense will be young. Expect a true freshman or two on the two-deep.


Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128
 

Previewing Virginia’s Specialists for 2015


Given Virginia’s inability to finish in the red zone, kicker Ian Frye was busy last year, hitting 22-of-27 field-goal attempts. Punter Alec Vozenilek was a valuable weapon and will be missed. Thorpe, the North Carolina transfer, is a former All-ACC returner who could bring some needed sizzle to the return game. 

Final Analysis

Coach Mike London is no stranger to the hot seat. He’s been under a cloud for three seasons. Last year’s improvement from 2–10 to 5–7 was encouraging to a point. But a second-half fade after a 4–2 start raised old questions about the team’s inability to finish close games under London.

Last year’s progress earned London a last chance. Nothing short of a bowl game appearance is likely to keep him around. With the usual questions on offense and big shoes to fill on defense — as well as another brutal non-conference schedule — Virginia has a lot to overcome for that to happen. Too much, probably. 

The Debate

Is Taquan Mizzell Primed for a Breakout Season?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#41 Pittsburgh Panthers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#41

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Pat Narduzzi, First season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jim Chaney | DEF. COORDINATOR: Josh Conklin

Another year. Another coach for Pittsburgh football. The Panthers got three full seasons out of Paul Chryst before he returned to Wisconsin, but that’s better than a stretch in 2010-12 when Pitt hired three head coaches and employed two interims in bowl games. It’s no wonder that Pitt has gone merely 6-6 in each of the last four regular seasons. Now, Pitt looks to Pat Narduzzi — Michigan State’s decorated defensive coordinator — to get the Panthers over the hump.

Previewing Pittsburgh’s Offense for 2015
 

As top-tier tandems go, James Conner and Tyler Boyd have few equals. Conner not only beat out defending Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston for ACC Player of the Year honors, but he was also named a first-team All-American after rushing for 1,765 yards (5.9 per carry) and an ACC-record 26 touchdowns. Boyd, meantime, became the first player in conference history to compile 1,000 receiving yards in both his freshman and sophomore seasons. The first-team All-ACC selection had 78 receptions for 1,261 yards (16.2 per catch). Conner is a legit Heisman candidate, Boyd a legit Biletnikoff Award contender. 

The question is: Can the two juniors provide enough firepower to an offense that features question marks at quarterback and on the offensive line? And can they help the program adjust to its fifth head coach in seven years? Former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi replaced Paul Chryst, who left for his alma mater, Wisconsin. “We’re here to lead this team,” Conner says. “We’re here to try to win a championship.”

Junior quarterback Chad Voytik is the X-factor. After a sluggish first half of last season, Voytik experienced a profound turnaround. He averaged nearly 200 yards and completed 64.5 percent of his passes as Pittsburgh averaged 35 points in its final six games. If he continues to evolve, the offense could flourish under new coordinator Jim Chaney, who mentored Drew Brees at Purdue and revitalized Arkansas’ offense last season.

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 ACC College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Pittsburgh’s Defense for 2015
 

First-year coordinator Josh Conklin was known for his attacking style last season at Florida International. “We want our defenses to have an opportunistic mentality,” Narduzzi says. “Josh will help us achieve that.” 

Unlike the offense, the defense lacks star power. It lost its top two tacklers from last season and faces uncertainty across the board. Third-year starting middle linebacker Matt Galambos must pilot the unit during this transition phase. 

An intriguing prospect is outside linebacker Bam Bradley, whose name resembles his hitting style. He had 36 tackles, four tackles for a loss, two sacks and an interception. On the opposite side, senior Nicholas Grigsby (three sacks) will be relied upon to use his speed and explosiveness to induce more turnovers and big plays. 

Fourth-year starter Lafayette Pitts provides experience in the secondary, and safety Reggie Mitchell returns after leading the team with seven pass breakups.  At defensive end, sophomore Rori Blair (team-high five sacks) could be a linchpin for this newfangled attack-first unit.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128
 

Previewing Pittsburgh’s Specialists for 2015
 

Kicker Chris Blewitt returns after converting 16-of-21 field goals (76 percent). Sophomore punter Ryan Winslow averaged 40.1 yards on 50 punts. Boyd ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the ACC in kickoff and punt returns, respectively. 

Final Analysis 
 

Seven years. Five coaches. Zero continuity. That is the storyline for Pittsburgh, which hired Narduzzi in December. The situation is confounding and maddening to a fan base that’s been witness to a program mired in mediocrity. Whether Narduzzi can provide stability is unclear, but the former Michigan State defensive coordinator offers a snappy résumé as a career assistant. Under Narduzzi, Michigan State was the only school in the FBS to rank in the top 10 in total and rushing defense the past four seasons. He inherits a Panthers team that was the youngest in the nation with 81 underclassmen (53 freshmen and 28 sophomores). Fifteen starters return. 

Pittsburgh features game-changers in Conner and Boyd, but a transition to a new coaching staff — again — and uncertainty at quarterback and on defense will surely create challenges.

The Debate

Is James Conner the Best Running Back in College Football?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#56 Boston College Eagles

NATIONAL FORECAST

#56

ACC Atlantic PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Steve Addazio, 14-12 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Todd Fitch | DEF. COORDINATOR: Don Brown

Steve Addazio has installed a personality in two seasons at Boston College. His teams have an identity, and the program is coming off back-to-back bowl games. The rest of the ACC knows exactly what it’s getting out of the Eagles on both sides of the ball and it’s still tough to stop. However, with just nine starters back, Addazio has his work cut out for him in the brutal Atlantic Division.


Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports
 

Previewing Boston College’s Offense for 2015
 

With former offensive coordinator Ryan Day now the quarterbacks coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, new OC Todd Fitch will have to break in a new system, a new starting quarterback and a new offensive line that replaces five starters. In other words, while the Eagles have plenty of returning talent at running back, there are more questions than answers for an offense that rushed for 254.7 yards per game last year, good for 14th in the nation.

Expect quarterback Darius Wade to start. The sophomore threw only eight passes a year ago, and the 6'0", 201-pound dual threat will need to be more accurate than the departed Tyler Murphy (57 percent completion rate in 2014) for the offense to take the next step. Tight end/receiver Dan Crimmins was expected to be the top target for Wade, but his status with the team is uncertain as of late May.

The ground game should be in good hands with sophomore running back Jon Hilliman, who gained 860 yards with 13 touchdowns last fall. He will lead another committee approach that includes Myles Willis, Tyler Rouse and Marcus Outlow. Although not a running back, the speedy Sherman Alston should get plenty of carries from his wide receiver spot on jet sweeps, as the sophomore rushed for 352 yards at 10.4 yards per carry as a true freshman.

The only fly in the ointment may be the offensive line, which replaces all five starters. That said, coach Steve Addazio likes what he has on the interior, with sixth-year senior Harris Williams, who can play either guard or center, leading the way.

Previewing Boston College’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 ACC College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Defensive coordinator Don Brown always puts together an attacking unit that is led by a rugged front seven and utilizes a lot of creative blitzes. Expect that to be the case again and for the Eagles to repeat as one of the top defenses in the country against the run. A year ago, the Eagles finished second only to Michigan State in rush defense, allowing only 94.5 yards per game.

Clearly, the strength of the defense — and possibly the team overall — is in the front seven. The Eagles return five starters there, including three along a defensive line that returns tackles Truman Gutapfel and Connor Wujciak and end Kevin Kavalec. Along with other projected starter Malachi Moore at end, those four combined for 29.5 tackles for a loss last year and should increase that production in 2015.

The linebackers are led by senior Steven Daniels, who was second on the team with 72 tackles last year, including 7.0 for a loss. The secondary loses cornerback Manny Asprilla and safety Dominique Williams, but free safety Justin Simmons, the team’s leading tackler, is back. Simmons, who made 76 stops and two interceptions a year ago, can also play cornerback and gives the secondary leadership and experience. 


Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128
 

Previewing Boston College’s Specialists for 2015
 

The Eagles will need more consistency out of kicker Alex Howell, who made just 5-of-11 field goal attempts last year, including 3-of-9 from 40 yards or longer. Howell acquitted himself much better as a punter with a 42.5-yard average. Returns should be in good hands with Willis and Alston back to handle kick and punt return duties, respectively.

Final Analysis 
 

Addazio has this program going in the right direction after taking over a 2–10 team and putting together back-to-back winning seasons. Still, the question remains whether or not the Eagles can take that next step and become a true contender in the ACC. The defense should give this team a chance, but an inexperienced offense may prevent any giant leaps forward.

The Debate

Where Does Jon Hilliman Rank Among ACC RBs?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#52 Duke Blue Devils

NATIONAL FORECAST

#52

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: David Cutcliffe , 40-48 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Scottie Montgomery | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jim Collins, Jim Knowles

Duke and David Cutcliffe have a good thing rolling in Durham and the 2015 season could prove this team is ready to reload rather than rebuild. A lucky schedule, upgraded facilities and 12 returning starters give the Blue Devils optimism entering fall camp. There are still holes to fill for this program, but Duke is now considered a threat every year in the ACC Coastal.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing Duke’s Offense for 2015

 

For the first time since David Cutcliffe took over at Duke in 2008, there’s not a clear-cut succession plan at quarterback. That said, junior Thomas Sirk emerged from spring practice as the leader in the race to replace Anthony Boone. Sirk has plenty of physical tools, but he still has rough edges to his throwing fundamentals. And while he has some reliable targets to throw to in wideout Max McCaffrey and tight end Braxton Deaver, the Blue Devils are still searching for a big-play receiver to replace Jamison Crowder. Duke’s hoping a candidate emerges from a collection of young but talented wideouts. Redshirt freshman Chris Taylor showed particular promise in the spring.

Look for Duke to lean more on the running game, where the Devils have power (Jela Duncan), speed (Shaun Wilson) and a mix of both (Shaq Powell).

There are big holes to fill on the offensive line as well, particularly at right guard, where four-year starter Laken Tomlinson moved on to the NFL. Cutcliffe believes the overall talent level of the program continues to rise and that there’s now depth across the board. Duke’s 2015 offense will put that belief to the test.

Previewing Duke’s Defense for 2015
 

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 ACC College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Any discussion of Duke’s defense must go from back to front, as the strength of the Devils’ defense — perhaps the strength of the team, period — is its secondary. All five starters return, including play-making safeties Jeremy Cash and DeVon Edwards.

Duke will look to ball-hawk because it still lacks the bodies up front to physically dominate an opposing offense and force a bunch of three-and-outs. A key will be the health of senior linebacker Kelby Brown, who’s been one of the ACC’s top defenders — when he’s avoided the injury bug. Brown’s younger brother Kyler is playing a new stand-up hybrid defensive end position called the “Devil,” in which he’ll pass rush or drop into coverage as needed.

As for the rest of the front, Carlos Wray is the only returning starter. But for a change, the Blue Devils have some talented wide bodies in the interior defensive line. It’s just that those players — such as Edgar Cerenord and Quaven Ferguson — are young and untested.


Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128
 

Previewing Duke’s Specialists for 2015
 

Duke’s blueprint involves using the special teams to take some of the pressure off an unproven offense, either by setting Sirk and Co. up with short fields or by doing their own scoring. That seems like a logical approach, given that the Blue Devils have proven All-ACC performers at key spots, including kicker (Ross Martin), punter (Will Monday) and kickoff returner (DeVon Edwards). For now, Duke has opted to go with the steady McCaffrey returning punts, but a talented true freshman could wind up with that job. 

Final Analysis 
 

Duke will play the 2015 season amid signs of its revival. The quaint track at Wallace Wade has finally been removed, seating has been brought closer to the field and a new tower of luxury boxes will be under construction during the season.

As for the on-field product, the Blue Devils can show progress by managing to maintain their current status quo — a winning season and another bowl trip. There are probably too many question marks on offense to contend for the Coastal Division crown. But a manageable non-conference schedule (Northwestern is the biggest challenge) and avoiding Florida State, Clemson and Louisville in conference provides Duke ample opportunity to get to at least six wins and another bowl berth. The key may be Cutcliffe’s ability to convince a team that’s won 25 games in the past three years that it still has something to prove. 

The Debate

Is David Cutcliffe the Best Coach in the ACC?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#43 Miami Hurricanes

NATIONAL FORECAST

#43

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Al Golden , 28-22 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: James Coley | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mark D’Onofrio

Al Golden has been at Miami four seasons and has yet to elevate the Hurricanes back to the ACC's elite. He has loads of talent — the Canes had seven players drafted in April — but hasn't been able to win a division crown. The offense has been solid every year Golden has been in Coral Gables. However, his defenses have been a major liability. With a star developing at quarterback, will 2015 finally be the season Miami returns to ACC title contention?

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports
 

Previewing Miami’s Offense for 2015
 

No Duke Johnson, no Phillip Dorsett, no Ereck Flowers … but at least the Hurricanes have Brad Kaaya. The quarterback-starved Canes thanked their lucky stars for the 6'4", 209-pound Southern California native who captured the ACC Rookie of the Year award and set UM true freshman records for passing yards and touchdowns. Now a sophomore, Kaaya’s the marquee player for an offense that loses a host of NFL-caliber talent — most notably Johnson, the program’s all-time leading rusher. Kaaya must also do without blazing-fast receiver Dorsett, athletic tight end Clive Walford and three offensive line starters, including Flowers, the elite left tackle. 

The Canes do have two promising backs in 5'9", 195-pound sophomore Joseph Yearby (509 yards and a touchdown as Johnson’s backup in 2014) and junior Gus Edwards, who has surprising burst for a 6'2", 230-pound power runner. They have a deep group of receivers, including Stacy Coley, who slumped last year but had a Freshman All-America season in 2013.

On the unfortunate side of things, Kaaya does not have a proven cast of offensive lineman. The only full-time starter returning is right guard Danny Isidora, though youngsters Kc McDermott, Trevor Darling and Nick Linder saw meaningful snaps last year. Kaaya is also not very mobile, which is why the Canes might give a dual-threat backup Malik Rosier a look in certain packages.
 

Previewing Miami’s Defense for 2015

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 ACC College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

The Hurricanes were 14th nationally in total defense last season, but that was mostly a mirage. UM allowed 300-plus rushing yards to Nebraska and Georgia Tech and couldn’t get the stops needed to put away Florida State or South Carolina.

It’s not a sure bet the unit will improve after losing stalwart middle linebacker Denzel Perryman and reliable defensive linemen Anthony Chickillo and Olsen Pierre. However, Miami’s talented secondary could be coming into its own. Senior safety Deon Bush (five forced fumbles) and junior corners Corn Elder and Artie Burns look like playmakers, and junior weak-side linebacker Jermaine Grace finished second on the team in tackles (60, 6.5 for a loss) despite playing second-string minutes. Defensive ends Chad Thomas and Al-Quadin Muhammad look like breakout players.

As a whole, the defensive line is unproven and largely underwhelming. There’s also little depth among the linebackers, which forced coach Al Golden to move pass-rusher Tyriq McCord to strong-side linebacker.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128
 

Previewing Miami’s Specialists for 2015


Though first-year punter Justin Vogel was reliable, true freshman kicker Michael Badgley was up-and-down (14-of-18 field goals, long of 48 yards, four missed extra points). The real problem area was the return game. The Canes will also have to be better in covering kicks; they were last in the ACC in return yardage allowed. 

Final Analysis

Few coaches in America occupy a hotter seat than Golden, who is 28–22 entering his fifth season. The Hurricanes lost four straight to finish 6–7 — UM’s third losing season in the last 35 years. He recruited well through a lengthy NCAA investigation, but fans howl that the program keeps sailing further and further from the glory years.

This year’s team is young, after losing a host of NFL-caliber talent, and has to battle a brutal October stretch that includes Florida State (in Tallahassee) and Clemson. The Canes haven’t played for the ACC title since joining the conference in 2004, and it doesn’t look like this will be the year.

The ‘U’ stands for ‘Underwhelming’ now, and if Golden doesn’t produce results this season, he might be looking for work elsewhere. 

The Debate

Where Does Brad Kaaya Rank Among ACC QBs?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#42 North Carolina Tar Heels

NATIONAL FORECAST

#42

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Larry Fedora , 21-17 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Seth Littrell | DEF. COORDINATOR: Gene Chizik

Larry Fedora enters a critical fourth season at North Carolina with lots of talent and high expectations. He's won more ACC games than he's lost (13-11) but hasn't been able to get the Tar Heels over the hump and compete for a division crown. In fact, Fedora's win total has dropped year over year in each of his three seasons at the helm in Chapel Hill. Marquise Williams is back under center on offense and former Auburn coach Gene Chizik joins the ranks in an effort to reform what was an atrocious defense a year ago.

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Previewing North Carolina’s Offense for 2015
 

North Carolina brings back 10 offensive starters and several key reserves from 2014, resulting in some unusual continuity. The Tar Heels return 100 percent of their rushing yards, 99.2 percent of their passing yards and 83.7 percent of their receiving yards from last season.

Quarterback Marquise Williams is the trigger man after setting a single-season school record for total offense. He is a dual threat who led the team in rushing last season, but coaches want to ease his burden in the run game so that he takes fewer hits in 2015.

The success of that plan depends on the play of UNC’s talented running backs and the improvement of a developing offensive line. The Tar Heels have running backs with a variety of skills in T.J. Logan (all-around ability), Elijah Hood (power), and Romar Morris (speed). The offensive line is headlined by senior right guard Landon Turner, who is joined by fellow third-year starter Jon Heck at right tackle. Sophomore Bentley Spain has ascended to the starting position at left tackle, where he figures to become a fixture.

In the passing game, UNC’s collection of receivers is impressive. Quinshad Davis, Mack Hollins, and Bug Howard all stand at least 6'4" and make for inviting targets, while 5'10" Ryan Switzer is a big-play threat on short and long passes alike.

Previewing North Carolina’s Defense for 2015
 

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 ACC College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Head coach Larry Fedora hired former Auburn coach Gene Chizik to fix a defense that finished last in the conference in every major category and set league records for points and yards allowed. Chizik is installing a base 4-3 to take the place of the 4-2-5 scheme that the Tar Heels used over the last three seasons, and players have noted that it is easier to understand and execute.

The defensive line lacks a proven stud, but it features some intriguing young prospects in sophomores Nazair Jones and Dajaun Drennon and freshmen Jeremiah Clarke and Jalen Dalton. Senior middle linebacker Jeff Schoettmer emerged during the spring as the leader of the defense, and he is coming off a season in which he finished second on the team in tackles. UNC returns seven of its top eight defensive backs from a year ago, including a potential standout in cornerback Brian Walker. But the Tar Heels need improvement from everyone in the secondary after allowing an ACC-record 31 touchdown passes last season.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128
 

Previewing North Carolina’s Specialists for 2015
 

After struggling on punt returns last season, Switzer is looking to recapture the form he showed in 2013 when he led the nation in punt return average and tied an NCAA record with five punt returns for touchdowns. UNC has far bigger worries on special teams. Kickoff specialist Nick Weiler and redshirt freshman Freeman Jones are competing for the placekicking job after the Tar Heels missed all seven of their field-goal tries from beyond 30 yards a year ago. UNC also is breaking in a new punter.

Final Analysis 
 

North Carolina's season depends heavily upon two factors: the health of Williams, and how much the defense can improve on last season’s disastrous results. The Tar Heels don’t look like a championship contender, but they have a couple of factors in their favor. One, they play in the ACC’s Coastal Division, so they don’t have to worry about league heavyweights Florida State and Clemson in the standings. And two, they don’t have to worry about Florida State and Clemson at all because they don’t play them (or Louisville, for that matter) this season. A winning season and another bowl trip are within reach, and any result substantially better than that could make Chizik an appealing candidate for a head coaching job with another program.

The Debate

Where Does Marquise Williams Rank Among the ACC's QBs?

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