Clemson will be the team to beat in the ACC once again in 2021, but the conference has an intriguing race poised to unfold in the Coastal Division between North Carolina and Miami. The Tar Heels’ win over the Hurricanes last season propelled coach Mack Brown’s team to the Orange Bowl and an 8-4 overall record. But Miami showed big improvement in coach Manny Diaz’s second year at the helm and return one of the nation’s most dynamic quarterbacks in D’Eriq King. North Carolina also has an elite signal-caller in junior Sam Howell, and a roster that’s increasing in talent thanks to Brown’s work on the recruiting trail. Neither team plays Clemson in crossover play, so the winner of the Oct. 16 matchup in Chapel Hill is likely to claim the top spot in the division next fall and get a shot at taking down the favored Tigers in early December.
Miami or North Carolina: Which Team Will Win the ACC Coastal in 2021?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The ACC Coastal Division is always unpredictable, but I give an edge to North Carolina over Miami for the top spot in the division. The Tar Heels have made steady gains under coach Mack Brown and return 16 overall starters off a team that finished 8-4 and made a trip to the Orange Bowl last season. Scoring points won’t be a problem once again with Sam Howell back under center, along with an improving line that returns all five starters. There are holes to fill at running back and receiver, but there are options for coordinator Phil Longo to deploy, and it’s hard to worry about the passing game with a quarterback of Howell’s caliber in place. North Carolina’s defense has room to improve after giving up 29.4 points a game last fall. Also, replacing standout linebacker Chazz Surratt won’t be easy. But with eight starters back and an improving talent base thanks to solid recruiting hauls, the Tar Heels are poised to take a step forward on this side of the ball. And with the showdown against the ‘Canes coming in Chapel Hill, the path to winning the Coastal should go through North Carolina.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
North Carolina lost a lot of firepower to the NFL draft but two key figures are still in the picture — quarterback Sam Howell and head coach Mack Brown. Miami has plenty of talent on both sides of the ball and it's quarterback/head coach duo is back as well but there's still plenty of uncertainty surrounding the health of D'Eriq King, who is coming back from a torn ACL he suffered in late December. The same also can be said about the Hurricanes under Manny Diaz, who are just 14-10 in his first two seasons. So even though there's obviously plenty of others who will be directly involved in how the two teams' 2021 seasons will go, I will focus on the two most important parts. And in that regard, I have to give the edge to the Tar Heels, who have a Hall of Fame head coach calling the shots and a healthy signal-caller who could be the first pick in next year's draft.
Ben Weinrib (@benweinrib)
Sam Howell is rightfully getting Heisman Trophy and No. 1 draft pick buzz, but Miami is the most complete ACC Coastal team heading into the fall. It’s going to be hard for the Tar Heels to replace their top two running backs and wide receivers. Assuming D'Eriq King can come back healthy, Miami has all the pieces to make another run. Few teams have used the transfer portal as well as Manny Diaz has, and he could have another group of stars in wide receiver Charleston Rambo, cornerback Tyrique Stevenson, and defensive end Deandre Johnson.
Nicholas Ian Allen (@NicholasIAllen)
I understand why a lot of college football fans and analysts are high on North Carolina. Sam Howell is one of the top quarterbacks in the country, and offensive coordinator Phil Longo is one of the best in the business. Mack Brown has raised the talent level as well, giving them all a lot of talented playmakers to work with. In this debate specifically, the fact the Tar Heels host Miami Oct. 16 is significant.
Nevertheless, I'm worried a lot of folks are too quick to dismiss the amount of NFL talent North Carolina lost. Ty Chandler was underrated at Tennessee and should help offset the departures of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, but those two accounted for more than 80 percent of the Tar Heels' rushing attack last season. The pair also was No. 4 and No. 5 on the team in receiving, which compounds the losses of Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome. There have been some injury concerns among the receivers Carolina will rely on to step up and become Howell's top targets. The defense also struggled often in 2020 and lost its best player in linebacker Chazz Surratt.
Miami has its share of turnover as well, especially in terms of its pass rush, and obviously the injury to D'Eriq King is a concern until we see him fully healthy on the field. However, Miami welcomes back more than 95 percent of its rushing production and 80 percent of its receiving yardage (plus its entire offensive line, like UNC), and has its own respected coordinator in Rhett Lashlee. Plus, even with Jaelen Phillips and Quincy Roche gone, the Hurricanes return 73.1 percent of their havoc plays from last season and even added two potential starters through the transfer portal. Plus, though the Canes must travel to Chapel Hill, they have an extra week to prepare for the game. Miami also gets both Virginia Tech and NC State at home, and the Heels play both on the road.
Both teams are pretty evenly matched, and it should be a fun division race. But if King is healthy, and it's a big "if," I think Miami has an easier path to the ACC Championship Game.
Jon Kinne (@JonRKinne)
Admittedly, last December's 62-26 bludgeoning of Miami by Carolina, with an Orange Bowl bid up for grabs, still lingers in my mind. Add in the fact that last year's game was played at Miami and this year the game will be in Chapel Hill and you have a convincing enough argument for the Tar Heels right there.
But that's not the only reason. Both teams have very good quarterbacks though Sam Howell is a notch above D'Eriq King. UNC loses some top-flight skill-position talent, but there is more waiting to step in, and the Miami offense, while good, bogged down at times in 2020. Defensively, both teams return most of their starting group but the Miami losses of Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche are more impactful.
That is why I believe Mack Brown's third year at North Carolina (this time around) will be better than Manny Diaz's third year as head coach of the Canes.
(Top photo courtesy of @CanesFootball)
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