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Miami's Defense or Virginia Tech's Offense: Which is a Bigger Concern in 2014?

Al Golden

Al Golden

The ACC Coastal has been one of the toughest divisions to predict over the last few years, and nothing is expected to change in 2014.

In 2012, North Carolina, Miami and Georgia Tech tied for the division crown at 5-3. Last year, Duke won the Coastal with a 6-2 mark but three teams finished just a game behind the Blue Devils.

It’s hard to find much separation among the top six teams in the Coastal this year, so it may take another 5-3 record in conference play to win the division.

Miami and Virginia Tech are considered among the favorites to win the Coastal in 2014, but both teams have big question marks. The Hurricanes have struggled on defense over the last two seasons, and the Hokies’ offense is a concern after averaging only 22.8 points per game in ACC games in 2013.

Considering how tight the top six teams are expected to be within the division, slight improvement by Virginia Tech’s offense or Miami’s defense could be enough to vault either team into the top spot.

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, will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.

Miami's Defense or Virginia Tech's Offense: Which is a Bigger Concern in 2014?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
This is a close call, but I have to say the Miami defense. Over the last two years, the Hurricanes are the only unit in the ACC to allow over six yards per play in conference games. And despite having three straight top-15 recruiting classes, Miami has showed very little improvement on defense. With upperclassmen like end Anthony Chickillo, linebacker Denzel Perryman and cornerback Tracy Howard, this unit has to take a step forward in 2014. The depth has certainly improved for Miami’s defense over the last two years, but the pass rush (just 12 sacks in ACC games last year) and stopping the run are still a concern. The offenses in the Coastal aren’t particularly prolific, but the Hurricanes still have to face Georgia Tech, an improving Pittsburgh offense, North Carolina, Duke and Florida State and Louisville in crossover play. Virginia Tech’s offense may not show much improvement in the stat column, but the Hokies have a very favorable schedule, and the skill players around new quarterback Mark Leal are improving. Also, with a Virginia Tech defense expected to be among the best in the nation, the Hokies won’t need to make a significant jump in production to win the Coastal. It’s tough to put either team in the top 25 for 2014 with the question marks surrounding both squads, but I have more concerns about Miami’s defense heading into the fall.

Mark Ross
For me, it's Virginia Tech's offense, as the improvement or lack thereof from this side of the ball will likely determine how the Hokies' 2014 campaign shakes out. Consider this: Virginia Tech's offense finished 99th or worse among FBS teams last year in total, scoring and rushing offense yet the Hokies still won eight games. What's more, all three of their conference losses were by seven or fewer points, including a three-point home loss to Duke that ended up determining the Coastal Division champion. Now while it's hard to see the defense repeat its top-11 national showing in all four major categories this season, especially with so much talent and experience having departed, there's no reason to expect a dramatic drop-off either, not as long as coordinator Bud Foster is in charge.

No the bugaboo for Frank Beamer's team the last couple of years has been the offense, but maybe this is the year coordinator Scott Loeffler finds his rhythm with his personnel and things come together. Quarterback is a big question mark, but the addition of Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer gives Loeffler another option to consider, as Brewer will provide Mark Leal with competition for the starting job when fall camp opens. Virginia Tech doesn't lack for playmakers per se, but the running backs and wide receivers are still relatively unproven and have yet to produce on a consistent basis. That said, the schedule shapes up nicely with Boston College and Wake Forest the crossover games from the Atlantic Division and Georgia Tech and Miami coming to Lane Stadium. As long as the defense doesn't take too much of a step backwards, Virginia Tech should at least contend for yet another division title. And if the offense can show even moderate improvement, then it's possible that the Hokies could get back to double-digit wins, something this program did consistently not too long ago.

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John Cassillo, (@JohnCassillo),
To me, this is pretty clear: Virginia Tech's offense is the bigger concern, and I don't even think it's close. The Hokies' offense has been phenomenally bad these past couple years, especially last year when they pretty much hit rock bottom (100th in points per game and 102nd in yards per game). Problem is, though, they might end up sinking deeper. Offensive line's a consistent issue and now without Logan Thomas -- flawed as he was, he was the team's only real offensive weapon -- they'll need to figure out how to protect an inexperienced passer, too. At the running back position, there will be additional stress placed on sophomore Trey Edmunds too, as he'll largely be relied upon to guide Tech's offense in the early going. All seems like a recipe for disaster.

Miami's defense certainly has some work to do, but at least they have the pieces to do it. Their collection of young defensive backs showed an ability to ball-hawk last year and should continue to develop. The 'Canes also showed themselves capable of getting after opposing QBs, increasing their sacks numbers by 16 compared to 2012. They'll lose a couple of those contributors, but you have to like the potential of what they bring back -- especially when comparing it to what Virginia Tech loses (and still fails to possess) on offense.

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Virginia Tech’s offense has to be the bigger concern. This unit used to be fairly consistent with a run game that was fairly automatic. When Hokies had an above average quarterback, they were a top-10 or top-five team. That’s changed in recent years. Virginia Tech’s offense has been in decline. The Hokies’ yards per play performance has dropped every season starting in 2010. Same with yards per carry. That includes one season with David Wilson as the primary tailback and two with NFL prospect Logan Thomas at quarterback. Miami at least improved defensively last season and has enough returning personnel to be optimistic that trend can continue. Miami returns seven starters on defense, including Anthony Chickillo, Denzel Perryman and Tracy Howard. That’s a high-level player at each level of the defense. I’m not sure if Virginia Tech has that equivalent on offense. 

Ryan Tice (@RyanTice),
Miami’s defense is the bigger concern, simply because quarterback Ryan Williams just went down with a torn ACL and that side of the ball will have to carry a heavier load. The presence of linebacker Denzel Perryman definitely helps. 

Last year, the Canes’ defense ranked 89th nationally with an average of 426 yards allowed per game, and they were the main culprit in the squad’s three-game losing streak. FSU scored 41 points, followed by Virginia Tech going off for 42 and then Duke got in on the fun with 48.

Another concern is that Louisville, who the Canes open up against on Sept. 1, had their way against Miami’s defense in the Russell Athletic Bowl — although the Cardinals must obviously replace quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Both sides of this argument should be major cause for concern heading into the first year of College Football Playoff – especially for two coaches entering critical years at their respective schools and with expectations of a division title looming. But the answer has to be Tech's offense. Yes, Miami has allowed big chunks of yards in each of the last two seasons but there was progress, however small, a year ago. And with very talented names stepping into starring roles as juniors and seniors — Denzel Perryman, Tracy Howard, Deon Bush, Anthony Chickillo — there are at least some excellent pieces for Al Golden to work with in Coral Gables. Frank Beamer and Scott Loeffler have little in the way of proven big-play talent on the offensive roster returning with the exception of possibly Trey Edmunds. And while Logan Thomas likely ruined more than a few Saturday evenings in Blacksburg, he also set offensive records for the Hokies and there is virtually zero experience returning at the QB position. Texas Tech's Michael Brewer is the wildcard and could save the day, but he has his hands full when he arrives this summer. Until then, I will say Miami's defense has more upside and potential.

Matt McClusky, (@MatthewMcClusky),
The real concern for both teams, along with every other team in the ACC for that matter, has to be the fact that Florida State is still playing football. But, other than the Seminoles waiting as a roadblock down the line, I would say Miami's defense is probably a bigger "concern" than Virginia Tech's offense.

I write that because, well, Miami's defense couldn't get much worse than it was in 2013. The Hurricanes finished ranked No. 13 in total defense in the ACC last season -- that's out of 14 total teams. '13 was such a bad year on that side of the ball that UM recorded a meager 12 sacks in eight conference games, not exactly a stat to brag about for such a vaunted program. The secondary wasn't much better than the guys up front either, being routinely burned for big plays. Things were so un-Miami like, that opponents hung 40 or more points on the Hurricanes during a three-week stretch in November, a list of teams that included Virginia Tech.

Sure, the Hokies obviously have issues to be worked out on offense this coming season, but it's Miami with Coastal Division championship aspirations (along with, I'm sure, delusional hopes of a national championship). And for the 'Canes to follow through on any preseason goals or hype, they'll have to put things together defensively quickly because the season opens at Louisville with a trip to Nebraska and a home date with Florida State. The likes of Al-Quadin Muhammad and Tyriq McCord need to step up, something most observers expect to see happen, or defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio will be looking for work before Thanksgiving and Miami will once again play little brother to those boys upstate.