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Will the Blue Devils finish ahead of the Tar Heels?
The ACC Coastal should be one of the toughest divisions to predict in 2014. After all, Duke won the league with a 6-2 conference record last season and three teams finished tied at 5-3 just behind the Blue Devils.
Considering how close the top six teams in the division are, another 5-3 record might be enough to finish second and 6-2 will probably win the division.
Duke and North Carolina are both in the discussion for the Coastal Division title in 2014, but both teams will be pushed by Virginia Tech, Miami, Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech.
The Tar Heels finished two games behind the Blue Devils last year and barely lost to Duke 27-25 in Chapel Hill in the regular season finale. Larry Fedora’s team is expected to take another step forward in the win column in 2014, especially with an offense that should be among the best in the ACC. North Carolina’s schedule certainly isn’t easy, but home games against Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech will help in a tight division battle.
David Cutcliffe has raised the bar at Duke, guiding the Blue Devils to the most wins in school history last year. And even with a few concerns about the defense, Cutcliffe should have Duke back in the discussion for the Coastal Division title.
Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
Duke or North Carolina: Which Team Finishes Higher in the Coastal in 2014?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I don’t expect much separation in the win column among the top six teams in the Coastal this year, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if North Carolina and Duke tied with a 5-3 or 4-4 conference record. However, even with little room to maneuver in the win column, I think the Tar Heels will finish ahead of the Blue Devils. North Carolina finished last season on a tear, averaging 40.6 points per game (slightly skewed by the 80 points scored on ODU) over its final seven contests. Most of the offense returns intact, as coach Larry Fedora has assembled one of the ACC’s deepest collection of skill players, and quarterback Marquise Williams is a contender for All-ACC honors. The biggest concern is a line that loses standout tackle James Hurst and center Russell Bodine. And it’s a good thing North Carolina should have one of the best offenses in the ACC, as the defense is still searching for the right pieces. However, improvement should be noticeable on that side of the ball in 2014. Duke won’t take a huge step back in the standings, but this team is a good candidate to regress after being outgained by 73.4 yards per game in ACC contests last year. Also, the Blue Devils no longer have Brandon Connette to help with short-yardage and goal-line situations, the defensive line must be rebuilt, and standout cornerback Ross Cockrell has expired his eligibility. Duke also has four potential swing games on the road, including a crossover date against Syracuse and a Sept. 27 matchup at Miami. North Carolina and Duke should both go bowling in 2014, but I’ll take the Tar Heels to finish ahead in the standings.
I realize the Blue Devils are the reigning Coastal Division champions and I am not expecting David Cutcliffe's team to take a gigantic step backwards this season. However, I also think it's perfectly fair to say that Duke got quite a few breaks to go its way last season. After all, this is a team that while it won 10 games, it was out-gained by more than 73 yards per contest in ACC play. The blowout loss to Florida State in the conference championship game has a lot to do with this deficit, if you will, but Duke beat Virginia Tech on the road by three points in a game in which the Blue Devils didn't convert a single third down and threw four interceptions. What's more, most of the starting defensive line and all-conference cornerback Ross Cockrell are gone, leaving some pretty big holes to fill. Cutcliffe's team doesn't have a particularly (ahem) devilish schedule to contend with this season, but I don't expect him to orchestrate anything that closely resembles a repeat of 2013's success either.
To that point, North Carolina was a late defensive stop away from ruining Duke's title chances last fall. The Tar Heels fell to the Blue Devils 27-25 in Chapel Hill, a victory that put Duke in the ACC Championship Game. But with UNC welcoming 14 starters back and the pieces in place to produce one of the nation's most prolific offenses, there's a chance that the roles between these two basketball-centric schools could be flipped for 2014. Yards and points shouldn't be an issue for Larry Fedora's team this fall, at least not from an offensive standpoint. With dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams leading the way, the Tar Heels should improve on their production from last season, when it ranked 49th in the country in total offense and 43rd in scoring. The key will be the improved play of the defense, which struggled mightily to start but got better as the season progressed. An early road trip to Clemson will serve as an ideal barometer for how far the defense has come and if the Tar Heels can be considered a legitimate contender in the Coastal. But regardless of the outcome in Death Valley, I expect North Carolina to finish higher in the division standings than Duke this fall. Who would have ever thought that a Duke-UNC matchup in late November would generate as much attention as one in February or March?
Listen to our staff discuss every team in the ACC as Athlon starts to look to 2014.
John Cassillo, (@JohnCassillo), NunesMagician.com
Both teams have their issues -- Duke's running game, North Carolina's defense -- but for the last few seasons (and this year, too), they're pretty evenly matched. So in what should be a wide-open division yet again, it may end up coming down to schedule construction. Both squads visit Miami, while Duke's other conference road games include Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Syracuse; a slightly easier group of teams than the Heels' respective ACC road opponents, Clemson, Virginia and Duke. The winner of that mid-November Duke-UNC matchup may not only finish higher in the division of these two teams, but also end up representing the Coastal in the ACC Championship Game. And for right now, I'm going with the Blue Devils there, who should look even more consistent on offense now that Anthony Boone has more experience under his belt. With Miami already dealing with a key injury (QB Ryan Williams), and Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech breaking in new quarterbacks themselves, this division may find itself ruled over by its North Carolina squads in 2014.
Matt McClusky, (@MatthewMcClusky), NunesMagician.com
Really, when you're talking Duke and North Carolina, you're talking Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Wil...oh, right, this is football! And isn't it nice that the Tar Heels and Blue Devils are both relevant enough on the gridiron to be worth discussing? David Cutcliffe and Larry Fedora seem to have their respective teams heading in the right direction and the beauty of that is the two rivals are in the same division.
Actually, he two are flying high after Duke took the Coastal last season and North Carolina ending the year with a bowl win over Cincinnati. Good times behind with good times seemingly ahead. So which one will finish higher in 2014? Well, that answer will likely come November 20, when the Tar Heels head to Durham for a game that could rival their basketball counterparts in terms of hype.
Still, with the Blue Devils hitting the road for four of their first five ACC games, Cutcliffe's boys may be destined for something of a letdown. Plus, quarterback Brandon Connette, who accounted for 27 touchdowns in 2013 alone, is transferring to be closer to home to be with his is ailing mother. Of course, Anthony Boone, who split time at QB with Connette, looks ready for prime time but Cutcliffe also has to replace the likes of Kenny Anunike and Justin Foxx on the defensive front line. The foundation is certainly set in Durham for success, so the seasons of two or three wins are gone, but it will be tough to replicate the meteoric rise last season brought.
That's not to say UNC doesn't have issues of its own -- the offensive line being a major concern. But quarterback Marquise Williams looks like the real deal with a ton of skilled talent for him to get the ball to on offense. Plus, the final month of the season gives the Tar Heels a bye week and two home games sandwiched around the trip to Durham. Ultimately, it will be close, but I'm going with UNC to finish higher than Duke in the Coastal and to likely contend for the division championship -- only fitting the year after the Blue Devils take the Coastal, the Tar Heels get their answer. It's what makes a rivalry fun to talk about.
Ryan Tice, (@RyanTice), TheWolfpacker.com
This is a pretty tough question with how wide-open the Coastal Division is. The first thing to keep in mind is that North Carolina’s game at Notre Dame is a non-conference one this year, so that might tip the scales their way.
When I look at the two teams’ conference schedules in late April, I would give them the same number of games I expect each to win, lose and what I’d deem toss-ups games. With everything still pretty equal, it’s time to look at what each squad lost and returns.
UNC won six of its last seven games, but lost its best two offensive linemen, its stud tight end and several key pieces on defense. Meanwhile, Duke returns 17 starters off of their 10-win squad, including eight on offense and six on defense. The transfer of quarterback Brandon Connette, who was an automatic seven inside of the red zone, is underrated, but I’m putting my faith in David Cutcliffe to keep the Blue Devils from taking too far of a step back and stay ahead of the Tar Heels in 2014.