* Draft prospects and grades courtesy of Draft Analyst's Tony Pauline.
|4||Virginia Tech||6-6 (3-5)|
|6||Georgia Tech||6-6 (3-5)|
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NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: S Jaquan Johnson (Rounds 1-2)
How should I think of this team? The U is back for good, friends.
The case for: Mark Richt won nine games in Year 1, 10 games in Year 2, and he’s well positioned to improve on that win total again. The Hurricanes started out 10-0 last year before flaming out with three consecutive double-digit losses to Pitt, Clemson and Wisconsin.
In hindsight, we probably should have seen that coming. By that point, injuries had ravaged the seasons of RB Mark Walton, WR Ahmmon Richards, WR Lawrence Cager and TE Christopher Herndon. This year, seven starters return on both offense and defense. And the two-deep just keeps getting better and better as the last vestiges of Al Golden’s regime graduate and are replaced by members of Richt’s top-12 classes (two straight). The defense, specifically, looks nasty — perhaps a top-15 national unit, and maybe even a top-10 one.
Miami opens with LSU in Arlington a week from Sunday (Sept. 2). A tough opener, but not overly so with LSU unsettled at QB, RB, WR and HC (we kid, Coach O!). Win that game, and the Hurricanes will likely be double-digit favorites in nine of the remaining 11 regular season games (the exceptions being vs. FSU and at Virginia Tech). If Miami makes it through that slate undefeated, they’ll have a chance to make the Playoff even if they lose to Clemson in the ACC title game.
The case against: The defense is great and the schedule is accommodating, but buying Miami as a Playoff contender means buying QB Malik Rosier as a Playoff quarterback. That’s not an easy sell. Rosier was solid during the 10-0 start, but he imploded from there and finished with 54.0% completions and a 26/14 TD/INT rate. His QB rating was right around Kelly Bryant’s, but the parallels end there because Bryant offers more as a runner and Clemson's roster is more talented on the whole. In other words: The Tigers were better suited to overcome Bryant last year than the Hurricanes are Rosier this fall.
The Hurricanes also need to do something about their special teams, or its going to cost them in a big spot this fall. Per S&P+, Miami fielded a bottom-30 special teams unit last year — and that was with an outstanding punt returner (Braxton Berrios) and a reliable (from short distances, anyway) kicker (Michael Badgley) who are both now gone.
Bovada win total over/under: 9.5
Projected Record: 11-1 (8-0)
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NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: WR Aaron Mathews (Round 5)
How should I think of this team? More exciting than an average Power 5 program has any business being.
The case for: In three years, Pat Narduzzi has won 21 games, an average of seven per campaign. Despite the so-so product, the Panthers under Narduzzi have emerged as a sort of giant killer, upsetting Big 10 champ Penn State and eventual national champ Clemson in 2016, and knocking off 10-0 Miami last November.
Narduzzi is now working primarily with his own recruits. And now he has nine starters back on defense. All of this is good news for his famously aggressive scheme. Narduzzi’s defenses have shockingly regressed in his time at Pitt, from No. 50 S&P+ in 2015 to 62 and 75, respectively, over the past two years. Narduzzi, one of the game’s best DCs when he was with Michigan State, didn’t become stupid overnight. A big defensive surge is possible this year.
Not only that, but Pitt’s offense appears to be in good hands moving forward now that sophomore QB Kenny Pickett and junior RB Darrin Hall have emerged. As you probably know (if you don’t, you’ll be reminded throughout the fall), Pickett led the Panthers to the upset over Miami in his first collegiate start. Pitt has plenty of injury insurance at both spots, with former top-10 QB recruit Ricky Town and a running back room featuring proven banger Qadree Ollison and a handful of former four-star recruits.
The case against: This is a volatile team — capable of knocking off anyone but also capable of losing to anyone, as last year’s OT win over Youngstown State or outright loss to a hapless UNC perhaps attested — about to embark on a brutal schedule (No. 20 in Phil Steele’s rankings). What does that mean? That anything could happen. Steele wrote in his mag that his nine sets of power rankings predict records of anywhere from 4-8 to 10-2. Meanwhile, S&P+ has Pitt as a huge favorite in one game and a huge ‘dog in four — with the other seven games all projected to have single-possession game lines.
You can look at Pitt any way you like. Do you see an unproven, inexperienced offense paired with another disappointing defense getting chopped down to size against a rough slate? A 4-8 type year? Or do you see Pickett and Hall making another developmental leap while the defense becomes the top-30 unit we’ve expected it to become under Narduzzi? Narduzzi’s flawed teams could beat anyone. If you see across-the-board improvement coming, a double-digit win season isn’t out of the question. The most likely scenario, however, is the 7-5 finish that Narduzzi has averaged during his three-year tenure.
Bovada win total over/under: 5
Projected Record: 7-5 (5-3)
Duke Blue Devils
NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: LB Joe Giles-Harris (Rounds 2-3)
How should I think of this team? A sock full of rocks
The case for: Defense, defense, defense. A unit that held opponents to 20.3 ppg and finished No. 41 S&P+ returns eight starters. OLB Joe Giles-Harris is one of the country's best players regardless of position, and CB Mark Gilbert is a coveted NFL prospect. There is enough talent and experience on hand to field a top-25 defense.
So now Duke only needs a competent offense to pair with it and they’ll be cooking. The Blue Devils finished No. 90 S&P+ offensively last fall. We’re in the good news portion of our proceedings, and I do have some. The Blue Devils have a trio of pillars to build the offense around in QB Daniel Jones (a legit NFL prospect), RB Brittain Brown and WR TJ Rahming.
Jones had a forgettable sophomore campaign, but it’s important to note that he was playing through minor injuries for a good chunk of the year. Those maladies made him think twice about leaving the pocket — which took his plus athleticism off the table — and probably hurt his accuracy and made him more tentative when he was in it. A healthy campaign and normal developmental gains would render Jones the dangerous NFL-style thrower this squad needs to get its offense off the mat.
The case against: While the offense has some interesting skill talent, the line tasked with protecting it must be rebuilt, with three starters departing. And Jones simply must start to make good on his promise. Last year, his struggles nearly torpedoed the season. The Blue Devils started 4-0, but were in jeopardy of missing the postseason a month and a half later after an 0-6 half-season swoon. Jones QB rating fell from 125.5 during the 4-0 start to 90.2 during the 0-6 stretch; it shot to 135.4 during Duke’s 3-0 stretch to end the year. Again, to be fair: Jones dealt with injuries during the 0-6 stretch. But his apologists are getting tired of apologizing without results.
And while the defense on paper looks like a top-20 national unit, it must make due without its architect, Jim Knowles, who was poached by Oklahoma State over the winter. Coordinator shifts can go a number of different ways. Perhaps Duke will continue its upward defensive trajectory, or perhaps they’ll unexpectedly fall off amid the transition. With a top-25 schedule on tap, the Blue Devils cannot afford any defensive regression.
Bovada win total over/under: 6
Projected Record: 6-6 (4-4)
Virginia Tech Hokies
NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: DE Trevon Hill (Round 3)
How should I think of this team? Unprecedented defensive losses coupled with a mediocre offense may knock the Hokies down a peg or two in 2018.
The case for: Justin Fuente went 19-8 in his first two seasons. He now enters Year 3 with a returning starting quarterback for the first time. Josh Jackson is one of seven returning offensive starters for the Hokies.
Fuente went 7-17 in his first two season at Memphis. His third Tigers squad went 10-3 and Memphis football has been back ever since. Fuente is a builder and a respected offensive mind. His offense last fall fell from No. 51 S&P+ to No. 96 as it replaced a small handful of NFL defections.
For a freshman, Jackson had a solid debut. He should be better in his second go-around in the system. He’ll be protected by a veteran offensive line. Ball State transfer WR Damon Hazelton feels like a ready-made replacement for Cam Phillips. Travon McMillian transferred to Colorado, but the good news is that the running game can’t be much worse than it was last year. On paper, this looks like a transition year. Fortunately, the schedule (Phil Steele’s No. 56) should provide a big boost — S&P+ projects the Hokies to be double-digit favorites in six games.
The case against: The defense has been decimated since we last saw Virginia Tech. DT Tim Settle, LB Tremaine Edmunds, S Terrell Edmunds, CB Greg Stroman were all drafted and LB Andrew Motuapuaka and CB Brandon Facyson were UDFA signings. But that was just the beginning. CB Adonis Alexander was ruled ineligible and was picked in the supplemental draft earlier this summer. The other projected starting CB, Jeremy Webb, tore his Achilles in June and is out for the year. A third projected starter, LB Mook Reynolds, was booted off the team last month, and freshman DT Cam Goode, who would have factored into the DL rotation, elected to transfer out around the same time.
Not good, Bob. Not good. The defensive line returns three starters and is going to be very good. The back seven? Umm. It returns one starter, S Reggie Floyd. The other six starters are new, young and, obviously, inexperienced. Bud Foster is a genius, not an alchemist. The offense was bad last year and it might not be a lot better. If it doesn't improve, this team may fall back into the seven-win territory it resided in for the last two years of Frank Beamer’s tenure -- or, gasp, worse.
Bovada win total over/under: 8.5
Projected Record: 6-6
The case for: Last season, HC Bronco Mendenhall coaxed a postseason appearance out of a humdrum roster by building a pass-first, pass-second offense around QB Kurt Benkert and a strong receiving corp and pairing it with a stingy defense. The pocket-passing Benkert attempted more than 500 passes. Now that Benkert is in the NFL, the pocket-passing-intensive system is going to change to accommodate Bryce Perkins.
Perkins, a dual-threat, began his career at Arizona State, transferred to a JUCO after he was beaten out by Manny Wilkins, and then led that JUCO to the national title game in 2017 (before falling short against the cantankerous Buddy Stephens and his East Mississippi squad). Perkins is a superb athlete with the speed of an NFL running back. Despite the presence of Benkert and star WR Olamide Zaccheaus, Virginia only finished No. 109 S&P+ offensively last fall.
There’s so much room for improvement here that it’s almost assured — so long as Perkins isn’t a dud. And if he’s a star? Then the Cavs are probably headed towards only their second winning season of the past 11 years. Because an already solid defense (No. 43 S&P+) is probably going to get better with eight starters returning.
The case against: Virginia’s rushing offense was quite bad last season, finishing No. 115 S&P+. Ground gains were so difficult to come by that Mendenhall and OC Robert Anae basically swapped out the running game in favor of short passes, leading to all those Benkert throws. By percentage, only two teams ran less on standard downs that the Cavs did in 2017. Perkins will help, sure, but a legitimate running back emerging would be clutch. It’s just hard to predict that with most of the same group returning and 60% of the offensive line turning over.
Virginia went 3-0 in one-possession games last year en route to the 6-7 finish. That’s the type of thing that could swing the other way in 2018, especially with a team that ranks No. 112 in Phil Steele’s experience rankings. The defense is going to be good, but it’s not going to matter if the offense can’t get out of its own way.
Bovada win total over/under: 5
Projected Record: 7-5 (3-5)
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: G Parker Braun (UDFA)
How should I think of this team? This expect-the-unexpected program could surprise us again — with a resurgent campaign despite a brutal schedule.
The case for: The offense is probably going to be the best its been since that dream 2014 season where Justin Thomas led the Yellow Jackets to an 11-3 finish and an Orange Bowl win over Mississippi State. Last year, with TaQuon Marshall replacing Thomas and most of the running back group turning over, the Jackets swooned to 5-6.
Continuity won’t be an issue this fall. Marshall is back, as is fellow 1,000-yard rusher KirVonte Benson. In all, eight offensive starters return — including the most important ones. That should lead to a big offensive jump.
Sick of defensive mediocrity — last year’s defense ranked No. 66 S&P+, which has become par for the course at GT — HC Paul Johnson hired former App State DC Nate Woody, who has overseen three consecutive top-40 S&P+ defenses for the Mountaineers (by contrast, Georgia Tech hasn’t finished in the top-40 since Johnson’s first season in Atlanta). Woody’s 3-4 defense created a ton of havoc in the Sun Belt. He's got more talent to work with here.
The case against: Woody has his work cut out for him. For five straight seasons, the Yellow Jackets have finished between No. 50 and 66 in Def. S&P+. That’s reliable mediocrity of the highest order. A return to the top-40, ala Johnson’s first season, would make this team legitimately dangerous in conjunction with the offense. But Rome wasn’t build in a day, and odds are that GT finishes 50th or lower again.
The Yellow Jackets have suffered losing seasons in two of the past three years. Avoiding a third — which would be disastrous for the 61-year-old Johnson — isn’t going to be an easy task against this schedule. GT has two scheduled freebies, but the other 10 games include road tilts at Louisville, Virginia Tech and Georgia and home dates against Miami and Clemson. South Florida, Duke and Pitt aren’t exactly easy outs, either.
Bovada win total over/under: 6
Projected Record: 6-6 (3-5)
North Carolina Tar Heels
NFL Draft Prospect to Watch: S Myles Dorn (Round 2)
How should I think of this team? The beginning of the end for Larry Fedora?
The case for: Entering last season, Larry Fedora was 40-25 at UNC, including 19-8 over the previous two seasons. The 2017 season was always set to be a rebuilding campaign for the Tar Heels, but that reboot unfortunately coincided with a rash of injuries that torched the two-deep and led to a demoralizing 3-9 season with the offense crashing from No. 21 S&P+ to No. 94.
Here’s the good news: Things probably can’t get worse, and, in many facets, they’re almost assured of improving. Especially on offense, which is Fedora’s specialty. Nathan Elliott has been thrust into the starting lineup (for reasons explained below) and, if nothing else, he got some seasoning last year (though he wasn’t particularly effective when on the field). If Elliott takes a big step forward, the Heels could return to the postseason. Fedora’s up-tempo, pass-first system requires stellar quarterback play. At least UNC has the WR/TE positions solved, between WRs Anthony Ratliff-Williams and Dazz Newsome and TE Brandon Fritts.
The defense finished No. 92 S&P+ last year as injuries ate away at the unit. With eight starters returning and the injury luck hopefully evening out, the Tar Heels can’t help but be better. Facing a manageable schedule that Phil Steele ranks No. 60 in the FBS, a return to the postseason is definitely possible.
The case against: Earlier this summer, I started talking myself into the idea of UNC as an ACC sleeper. And then the Heels suspended 13 players for selling team-issued Jordans earlier this month. Nine of those 13 will miss four games, including the two biggest names on the list, starting QB Chazz Surratt and DE Malik Carney. The other four will miss between one and two games, respectively.
That development would be an enormous shot to any program, but it’s a particularly cruel twist of fate for the Tar Heels on the, ahem, heels of what happened last year. Even if the suspensions had never happened, UNC still only would have ranked No. 83 in Phil Steel’s Experience Chart. And have I mentioned that projected starting RB Michael Carter is out until October due to a broken wrist? And that most of the offensive line is new? It already feels like last year’s nightmare has stretched through the space-time continuum to wrap its cold fingers around another Chapel Hill fall. I don’t know that Fedora can survive another debacle.
Bovada win total over/under: 5.5
Projected Record: 4-8 (2-6)