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Early 2014 ACC Coastal power rankings: Miami could lead crowded division

Let Steven Muma try to make some sense out of the mad world known as the ACC's Coastal Division. It's way too early to lock in a standings prediction, but we can try and estimate how they might stack up.

David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

While Florida State and Clemson managed to set themselves apart in recent years and create a little order in the Atlantic as a result, the ACC's Coastal Division has been chaotic. There's no current dominant force, not with the recent decline of Frank Beamer's Virginia Tech program.

Instead, the last two seasons have seen a bunch of fringe top-25 teams beating each other up without establishing much clarity. In 2012, three teams finished tied for first with 5-3 league records; in 2013, Duke rose just above the fray to claim the outright division crown at 6-2.

What's in store for 2014? There's no telling, but here is some foolishly early prognosticating (also, here's a way-too-early look at the ACC Atlantic):

1. Miami

2013 finish: 9-4, tied for second in Coastal, unranked

Returning starters: 14 [Editor's note: As always, a nebulous number, since these things aren't official.]

Assuming Miami is able to adequately replace quarterback Stephen Morris, there's a lot to like about the Hurricanes' prospects. Among the starters returning are the guys who led the team in rushing yards (Duke Johnson), tackles (Denzel Perryman), sacks (Tyriq McCord) and interceptions (Tracy Howard) in 2013.

Just getting Johnson back healthy does enough for Miami's outlook; he missed a significant portion of last season because of a serious ankle injury, depriving the Hurricanes of its most explosive backfield option -- during his absence, the Canes went 2-3, though the schedule did get much tougher. The Hurricanes were also without wide receiver Phillip Dorsett for quite a while as well. He led the team in receiving in 2012, and when you add him back into the mix alongside the emerging Stacy Coley, this offense begins to look formidable.

Help's coming, too. The Hurricanes put together the best recruiting class in the division; it includes several four-star players on both sides of the ball who might end up making early impacts, including quarterback Brad Kaaya.

That recruiting class is good news for a Miami defense that, in general, wasn't good last season. The unit ranked 91st in the country according to F/+, and if there's a compelling reason to knock the Hurricanes down a peg or two, that is it.

2. North Carolina

2013 finish: 7-6, fifth in Coastal, unranked

Returning starters: 14

Losing quarterback Bryn Renner to multiple injuries may have cost the 2013 Heels some progress but it should end up paying off in 2014, since the situation forced Marquise Williams to get more meaningful reps. By the time November rolled around, it was Williams' show, and he helped the Tar Heels finish strong after a 1-5 start to the year.

North Carolina will have to replace all-conference tight end Eric Ebron, but this is a team with the tools to do it. UNC had five guys not named Ebron catch 20-plus passes last season, all of whom are returning. Quinshad Davis is a safe bet to step into the No. 1 receiver role, and his ability to make plays will ease the pain of Ebron's exit.

There are some pressing issues for the Heels, however. Offensive coordinator Blake Anderson left to take the head coaching job at Arkansas State, and he brought a couple of UNC assistants with him. It's fair to wonder how the Tar Heels' offense will adjust, but Larry Fedora promoted from within to help fill that absence, which will help -- Gunter Brewer and Kapilovic will serve as co-offensive coordinators. Fedora also nabbed Indiana offensive coordinator Seth Littrell, who'll oversee the offense. Littrell ran a similar style of offense with the Hoosiers.

On the other side of the ball, UNC returns the bulk of its starters, though it will need to replace All-ACC defensive end Kareem Martin, who led the team with 11.5 sacks, and a couple of experienced players in the secondary. This unit hasn't always been dependable since Fedora's arrival; it will have to get better for the Heels to claim the Coastal.

3. Duke

2013 finish: 10-4, first in Coastal, No. 22 in Coaches Poll, No. 23 in AP Poll

Returning starters: 15

Duke's breakthrough can largely be credited to its defense, which improved from 116th in 2012 to 40th in 2013, according to F/+. The Blue Devils went from complete disaster to competent almost overnight, and for all the credit David Cutcliffe rightfully gets as a coach who can construct an offense, the job his staff did with its defense is perhaps his biggest accomplishment in Durham.

This program is no flash in the pan, strange as that still seems at times -- the foundation is there for continued success, and the Blue Devils return enough key contributors to keep them in the division hunt. Quarterbacks Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette will be back, as will all-conference receiver Jamison Crowder, who caught 108 passes last season.

Like their rivals up the road, the Blue Devils lost their offensive coordinator during the offseason -- Kurt Roper was hired by Florida in an effort to revive the Gators' offense. But Duke also has the perfect man to lead a transition like this in Cutcliffe. The offense is already crafted in his image, which is reason enough to think there won't be major hiccups.

4. Virginia Tech

2013 finish: 8-5, tied for second in Coastal, unranked

Returning starters: 13

It's safe to say that the Logan Thomas era in Blacksburg didn't play out the way most had figured it would. The Hokies won a total of 14 games over the last two seasons, which isn't bad, but it is far below the standards set by the program since joining the ACC (and well before that, too). Thomas was never a consistent passer, leading to some confusing and unpleasant outcomes for the Hokies.

If there's a silver lining in that, it's that Virginia Tech doesn't have to worry about a major decline on the offensive side even though it has a starting quarterback to replace. On the one hand, there's just not much further to fall, but beyond that, adequately replacing Thomas' production is not exactly a huge hurdle. Or so we're going to guess.

The Hokies were tremendous defensively last season; aside from Florida State, no ACC defense was better. But this is also the side that is getting hit the hardest by departures. A significant portion of the front seven is gone, including defensive ends James Gayle and Derrick Hopkins and linebackers Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards. Hopkins and Tyler both earned second-team All-ACC nods.

Beamer and defensive coordinator Bud Foster know a thing or two about defense, so it's hard to imagine that a major collapse is on the way, especially with the emergence of 2013 freshmen like Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson and a top-30 2014 recruiting class. Decline is coming, though, and if the offense can't compensate sufficiently, the Hokies will be treading water for another season.

5. Georgia Tech

2013 finish: 7-6, tied for second in Coastal, unranked

Returning starters: 10

With the unexpected transfer of quarterback Vad Lee, Georgia Tech is suddenly faced with replacing its top three rushers from last season. We could take on faith that Paul Johnson will sort it out and construct another competent rushing attack, but there are a lot of questions to address.

The Jackets are also faced with replacing Robert Godhigh, who could be counted on to do a bit of everything; he was second on the team in rushing, averaging more than nine yards per carry, and he led the team in receiving.

Georgia Tech's defense, which was only mediocre in 2013 anyway, will suffer from significant attrition that includes the graduation of established talents like defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu, a second-team all-conference pick.

Only about a paltry 10 starters returning, the starting quarterback gone, the best playmaker gone, the top pass rusher gone. That's a difficult set of circumstances for Johnson and his staff, and given the modest recruiting haul they put together for 2014, immediate answers appear lacking.

6. Pittsburgh

2013 finish: 7-6, sixth in Coastal, unranked

Returning starters: 13

Pittsburgh has one of the largest single voids to fill among any team in the conference (or the country, for that matter) in all-everything defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who rightfully earned nearly every accolade possible for a season in which he recorded 11 sacks and 28.5 tackles for loss.

The departure of someone like that -- at his position -- could reverberate throughout the Pittsburgh defense in 2014. Four other players, including leading tackler Jason Hendricks, are also gone from a Panthers defense that ranked 37th last season.

Offensively, Pitt has quarterback Tom Savage and second-leading receiver Devin Street to replace. Fortunately, leading rusher James Conner and leading receiver Tyler Boyd are only rising sophomores. Boyd earned second-team All-ACC honors as a freshman and is poised for another 1,000-yard season.

Who's going to be throwing him the ball, though? Chad Voytik played sparingly as a freshman, attempting just 11 passes. The Panthers also signed a couple of prep quarterbacks for 2014, but they are not considered blue-chip prospects by the recruiting services.

Pitt's got some good pieces; how they all come together, and behind which quarterback, remains to be seen.

7. Virginia

2013 finish: 2-10, seventh in Coastal, unranked

Returning starters: 16

It's tempting to gamble on Virginia having a surprising season because this is a division of odd goings-on, and hey, Mike London has pulled eight wins seemingly out of thin air before. Going back and considering how bad UVa's quarterback play was, however, makes it difficult to figure where the boost might come from.

Incumbent QB David Watford threw almost twice as many interceptions as touchdowns, and as a team, the Cavs averaged just five yards per pass attempt. That ranked dead last in the FBS.

The return of leading rusher Kevin Parks as well as the bulk of their top receivers will help, but without some major strides from Watford -- or whichever guy ends up getting the reps -- the ceiling remains limited. Maybe newcomer Corwin Cutler will give the Cavaliers exactly the jolt they need to put together a solid season; until he arrives for fall camp, though, that's anybody's guess.

Cutler is part of a talented UVa recruiting class that makes it  that much harder to pin down the Cavs in 2014. There is potential for instant impact in a number of places with five-stars kids like safety Quin Blanding and early-enrollee defensive tackle Andrew Brown on the way. Plus four-star athlete Jamil Kamara, four-star guard Steven Moss, and the aforementioned Cutler.

Does that injection of talent give UVa enough for a bounce-back season? For now, the bet is no.

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