The college football season is a couple of months away, but the countdown to 2012 has officially begun. Athlon Sports’ 2012 preseason annuals will be hitting newsstands in early June and its official top 25 countdown will begin on May 1. Picking the order of finish in each conference and compiling the top 25 is no easy task. Each day leading up to the release of No. 25 on May 1, Athlon’s editors will tackle some of the top preseason debates and question marks facing the teams and conferences for 2012.
Which Team Will Be Virginia Tech's Biggest Challenger in the ACC Coastal?
Jim Young, ACCSports.com (@ACCSports)
Virginia Tech has its flaws, but so does everyone else in the Coastal Division - BIG flaws in some cases - which makes it hard to find a truly credible challenger to the Hokies. After hemming and hawing for a while, I've settled on Georgia Tech. The O-line returns much of its experience and should have better depth. Tevin Washington is in year two of running the offense. B-back David Sims has looked good in spring practice and Johnson has added a shotgun option wrinkle to his potent rushing attack. Meanwhile the defense, which returns six starters, will be in the third year of its transition to a 3-4 unit and should finally be getting the hang of Al Groh's scheme. A key for the D - mammoth nose guard T.J. Barnes has been impressive this spring.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
By process of elimination, this pretty much has to be Virginia, right? The Cavaliers were a different team after Mike London ditched the quarterback rotation and stuck with Michael Rocco as his starter. I like the depth at the running back and receiver, as well. The Cavs’ defense is going to be a major question after losing some key players up front and a shutdown corner, Chase Minnifield. And beyond that, this is a team that lost 38-0 at home to Virginia Tech last season (and followed that with a 43-23 loss to Auburn in the bowl game). If not Virginia, then North Carolina may be a sneaky team in the division. New coach Larry Fedora – whose Southern Miss team beat Virginia in Charlottesville last year, mind you – has a good foundation on offense with quarterback Bryn Renner and running back Giovani Bernard. North Carolina also has a beneficial schedule (no Clemson, no Florida State, Virginia Tech in Chapel Hill). Those are two awfully shaky contenders, including one that is barred from playing for the ACC title. If Virginia Tech has another 1,000-yard running back up its sleeve and finds stability on the offensive line, the Hokies could win this division without much drama.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Miami is too young and Duke just doesn’t have the horses to compete. That leaves North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Virginia as the top competitors to Hokie dominance in the Coastal Division. I really want to pick North Carolina, which looks like the most talented team on paper and won’t have to face Clemson or Florida State in crossover play. They have the most offensive skill talent of the three teams and possesses arguably the top offensive line in the league. Yet, winning a division (aka claiming the best record) with a whole new coaching staff while on sanctions seems a tall order. The Wahoos took major steps forward into prominence last fall by beating North Carolina and Georgia Tech. Virginia also misses the Tigers and the Seminoles in Atlantic Division play. But they are limited offensively and got hammered by 57 combined points at the hands of Virginia Tech (with the ACC title game trip on the line) and Auburn to end the 2011 season.
With 16 starters back, one of the league’s best coaches, a deep and talented running back corps that features a returning starter under center and stellar offensive line comparable to that in Chapel Hill, I will take the Yellow Jackets to be the top challenge for the Hokies. Paul Johnson’s bunch will face a brutal first month to its season that features road trips to Virginia Tech (Labor Day night) and Clemson to go with home divisional tests against Miami and Virginia — all within the first six games of the year. If the Jackets can escape that stretch with only one conference loss, they will be in a great position to compete for another ACC title. That loss better be to Clemson, however, as the first weekend match-up with Virginia Tech will likely decide the entire season. The winner of the Tech-mo Bowl has gone on to win the Coastal Division every year of its existence — and Beamer’s bunch will have all summer to prepare for the triple option.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Barring a huge surprise, Virginia Tech is going to be the only ranked team out of the Coastal Division. The Hokies are clearly the top team in the division, and there’s really not much separating Virginia, Georgia Tech and North Carolina for second place. Considering how close all three are, it wouldn’t be a shock to see all three potentially tie at 5-3 or 4-4 in ACC play.
Even though North Carolina is ineligible for a bowl and is going through a coaching transition, I like the Tar Heels to finish second in the Coastal. Out of the three teams most likely to finish second, North Carolina has the best quarterback-running back combination and perhaps the best offensive line in the ACC. The Tar Heels also have a favorable schedule, missing Florida State and Clemson from the Atlantic, while hosting Virginia Tech, NC State and Georgia Tech. North Carolina suffered some key losses on defense, but coordinator Vic Koenning did a good job at Illinois and his arrival should help this unit from struggling too much in 2012. I like the direction Virginia is headed and think Georgia Tech will be solid once again, but the Tar Heels will find a way to edge out second in the Coastal.
Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
I think the choice is North Carolina. Georgia Tech and Virginia will be contenders as well, but a new direction in Chapel Hill will be beneficial for a talented UNC roster. There will be an adjustment period with new coach Larry Fedora and staff, but the Tar Heels return a solid offense led by All-ACC running back Giovani Bernard and quarterback Bryn Renner. With four offensive linemen back, Fedora should be able to engineer plenty of points. UNC’s main challenge will be replacing several quality defenders, but Vic Koenning and Dan Disch should get the most of out of that unit. North Carolina catches a break in not having to face Florida State or Clemson from the Atlantic, and the Tar Heels get Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and NC State at home. Virginia also misses the Seminoles and Tigers, but I see UNC playing well in Fedora’s first ACC season and finishing second to the Hokies.
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