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How the Heels Stole the Coastal Division

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‘Steal’ is an operative word: can something that belongs to no one be ‘stolen’? By any measure, Virginia Tech has owned the Coastal so far, and the ACC at large: VT has won the division twice in its three-year existence and blew out the eventual champion the year it finished second; that doesn’t even include the Hokies’ conference title in 2004, before the league split into divisions. Tech has by far the best record since joining the ACC and has finished higher than any other ACC team in the final polls all four years. If there is an overlord here worthy of claiming ownership, it’s the Hokies.

But things change quickly, and even if the window is small, the mass exodus of multi-year starters that formed the backbone of the mini-dynasty in Blacksburg throws the Coastal division wide open. Not that you’d know it from anything you read this summer, every bit of which, while nodding to its potential flaws, holds Tech will be back in the ACC Championship against unanimous Atlantic favorite Clemson. This is like the Immutable Law of the ACC going in.

Hey! I'mtrying to keep this thing on the DL, dammit!
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The Hokies are extremely vulnerable, though, much moreso on paper than the Tigers on the other side. The consistently awesome defense was gutted by graduation and one killer early departure (Brandon Flowers) and what few promising options existed among a completely untested collection of offensive skill players are all either battling injuries or will miss the season altogether. The Hokie love is based in part on trust in the "Beamer Ball" brand and in part on the extreme undesirability of backing mysterious Georgia Tech behind its new coach and funky offensive scheme, foundering, dysfunctional Miami, or similarly gutted Virginia, which lost not only the best two players from the nation’s sketchiest nine-game winner to the first round of the draft, but also its starting quarterback and best up-and-coming defender to suspensions.

That leaves the Tar Heels, whom everyone recognizes must be the insurgent team in the conference, but on whom no one is willing to stake his obligatory "crazy pick" by pulling the trigger on UNC to overtake the Hokies for the division. That, based on the last four years, is too crazy. it? If the Heels are worth a flyer in second place -- and a majority of outlets so far think they are -- it’s worth considering how well they stack up directly against the largely rebuilding Hokies, and in a couple of cases, UNC comes out looking pretty well:

They’ve Played More. Virginia Tech not only loses most of its starters, but ranks as one of the ten youngest teams in the country, according to Phil Steele’s exhaustive "Experience Rating," whereas Carolina -- while still very young itself -- returns 18 starters, most in the ACC and among the highest numbers in any conference. Butch Davis’ first year in Chapel Hill was about taking lumps while establishing a foundation with pliable young ‘uns, much like Ron Zook’s building process at Illinois; as I pointed out in March, Carolina was almost untenably young last year, starting around a dozen true or redshirt freshmen at some point in the season and another half dozen sophomores. The result is that they actually have more than 100 percent of last year’s modest offensive production returning (Joe Dailey’s un-lamented departure was accompanied by negative rushing yards) and nine starters on defense, most of them members of Davis’ first heralded recruiting class. The results were nothing special, by ACC standards, but improvement in year two from so many young players should be at least as steep as last year’s learning curve.

They’re At Least as Talented. There’s been very little difference between North Carolina and Virginia Tech recruiting over the last five years, even less so in the last three years, and with the bulk of the Hokies’ best players graduating and UNC’s advancing into maturity, the gap should be considerably narrower. This is especially true on defense, where Tech was hit hardest and UNC is preparing to unveil the non-noob versions of five-star punisher Marvin Austin, Aleric Mullins, Tydreke Powell, Quan Sturdivant, Kendric Burney, Charles Brown and league defensive rookie of the year Deunta Williams, who combined for 53 starts in their first year.

Carolina should be every bit as improved on offense, based mainly on the late spark to the running game provided by Greg Little, a major receiver recruit who apparently found a home at running back in the last two games. Receiver was a little crowded, anyway -- Hakeem Nicks was all-conference as a sophomore, Brandon Tate led the league in yards per catch and all-purpose yards and Brooks Foster and sought-after true freshman Zach Pianalto (now a tight end) were reliable possession guys.

They Were Closer Than the Record Last Year. As Steele notes, Carolina lost six games in ‘07 by a touchdown or less, all games it ostensibly could have won with just a few friendly bounces:

"Swing points" are any points via defensive or special teams touchdowns, or from offensive possessions beginning inside opponents’ 25-yard line. See here.
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Here is the point I think the argument begins to strain. UNC indeed was, as Steele would say, minus-three net close losses (although his magazine lists Carolina as –4 in this category, for some reason), a sure sign of impending improvement. Again, those prospects aren’t really in dispute, but the circumstances of most of these games indicate there’s certainly a ceiling on any rise in the standings, because the gaps here can’t be attributed to a stray loose ball, blocked kick or unfriendly bounce: if the Tar Heels "should have" beaten Virginia Tech and South Carolina -- both games in which they had to score in the fourth quarter to bring the final score within a touchdown -- they were also just a couple plays away from defeat against Miami and Maryland, and their last time on the field was a narrow, fortunate escape against outmanned, lame duck Duke. UNC had to return two interceptions for touchdowns to make an otherwise lopsided affair with NC State look close. The wins were all flukier than the losses to East Carolina, Virginia and Georgia Tech; as close as they may have been to 7-5 and a bowl game, they were even closer to 1-11 misery. This bunch is still getting there -- it wasn’t playing at a consistently high enough level that a few breaks here and there could have dramatically changed the season -- and all optimism is inherently speculative.

The main difference in another very meh year and a true breakthrough on the order of Wake Forest’s in 2006 or Illinois’ last year will be in a couple areas where progress is less obvious: offensive line and quarterback. These go hand-in-hand, of course -- T.J. Yates wasn’t bad as a redshirt freshman, and hyped redshirt Mike Paulus might be even better if he can wrest the job, but where a young quarterback should be expected to improve in his second year, that can’t happen if he’s on his back. Yates was sacked more than any ACC quarterback last year except poor Thaddeus Lewis up the road in Duke, and except for possible draft pick Garrett Reynolds and maybe guard Calvin Darity, another senior without much in the way of individual recognition or team production to recommend the high opinion of recruitniks in 2004, the offensive line is the least ACC-worthy area of the team, talent-wise. Vast steps forward on defense and at the skill positions will be largely worthless if the core of the offense remains mired in mediocrity.

With three seniors and a pair of returning juniors who started every game, though, the line joins the receivers as the only area of the team that qualifies as a "veteran" unit, and if that mean Yates and/or Paulus will have more time, the offense suddenly becomes viable again for the first time in years. In that case, UNC becomes as plausible a pick as any team to win the Coastal -- not necessarily enough that I’m willing to pull the trigger on them, but maybe I’m just a wuss like that.

On the other hand...

The Have a Player Named ‘Richie Rich.’ I’m not sure this is actually a better name than "LaCount Fantroy," with whom Mssr. Rich will be competing for playing time in the custom of the common workingman behind starting corners Kendric Burney and Charles Brown, but despite his rigorously-parted hair, Eton collar and oversized red bowtie, having two of everything money can buy must be among the most effective secrets of UNC’s recruiting boom.