At the midway point in the 2012 season, little is decided in the ACC. Neither division has a clear frontrunner, no team is assured a trip to the postseason and no team has clinched a bowl spot either. Nonetheless, it’s been an entertaining season within the conference — something we’ll try to highlight here. Along with evaluations for each team, we’ll be providing brief predictions for the second half as well.
Below is the Coastal division midseason evaluation. Also be sure to check out the Atlantic division recap too, which appeared earlier.
Duke Blue Devils (5-2) (2-1): The Blue Devils have been one of the nation’s biggest and best surprise stories thus far, getting themselves within one victory of their first bowl appearance since 1994. Though they’ve had a strong passing game in past seasons behind Sean Renfree and Conner Vernon, what’s set this group apart is that its paired with a staunch defense. Or at least it was, up until this past weekend. For as much as everyone has happily jumped aboard the Duke bandwagon, we all seemed to sweep their poor strength of schedule under the rug. It’s come back to bite them against both Stanford and Virginia Tech, which leads us to the more difficult second half of the season. With no sure wins left on the slate, they’ll have to catch lightning in a bottle just one more time to get themselves to the six-victory plateau. If they fail to, this will be biggest failure of all, in Duke’s two decades of ineptitude.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (2-4) (1-3): We transition from the shock of Duke’s success, to the surprise of Georgia Tech’s failure. With 2012 championed as “the year” this particular group of Yellow Jackets turned the corner and took the Coastal division as their own, it’s been nothing short of dumbfounding to see them fall so flat. And we can’t even sit here and blame Paul Johnson’s triple-option (though make no mistake, it’s a factor here too) for their futility. Rather, it’s been all about the defense, which has allowed over 30 points per game (about 36 per, if you only count FBS opponents). Since he’s fired Al Groh, Johnson’s remaining excuse is gone, however. If they fail to deliver against a manageable final six games, we could see the end of an era at Tech.
Miami Hurricanes (4-3) (3-1): Stephen Morris‘s ankle injury aside, the ‘Canes have been a team searching for their identity all season. But if you remove Morris, one of their most talented players, you’d now have a chicken running around with its head cut off. For as powerful as Miami’s offense has looked in spurts, thriving behind big games from Mike James and Duke Johnson, everything has ultimately fallen on how Morris delivered. Against subpar opponents earlier, the Hurricanes have looked like a vintage brand of the U from the early 00s, flying around the field and scoring at will. Lately, it’s appeared they’ve been figured out and what we’re left with is a shoddy defense and an inexperienced group of offensive playmakers. They should make a bowl, but I don’t see them remaining on top of the division much longer.
North Carolina Tar Heels (5-2) (2-1): If there was any doubt left about this Tar Heels squad, it was likely dashed this past weekend when they dispatched the Hurricanes in a close, defensive-driven matchup. While they started off the year shaky — in part due to Giovani Bernard missing time — this UNC team has since come on in a big way, racking up quality in-conference wins. Of course, the big problem with all this is that they’re ineligible for the postseason, as well as a division title (which, if they beat Duke this Saturday, they’d likely win with ease). On the bright side, most of their playmakers are underclassmen, meaning next year’s team will arrive with a chip on their shoulders, regardless of how many wins they rack up. Larry Fedora’s group should be feared in the remainder of their games.
Pittsburgh Panthers (2-4): The Pittsburgh team that went 0-2 these past two weekends is a much different group than the one that started the year in a daze. Still, losses are losses, and the Panthers now find themselves in a very sticky situation as they head into the second half of the season. To right the ship, they’ll need consistency from both the running game and defense — areas which were thought to be strengths going into the year. Considering the talent in the backfield, it’s almost unbelievable to think Pitt’s managed just 120 rushing yards combined in its last two games. Similarly, it’s hard to fathom how this D has let up 30 points or more in three of their first six games. Someone has to help QB Tino Sunseri, or else they’re staying home this holiday season.
Virginia Cavaliers (2-5) (0-3): All that momentum and goodwill we thought Mike London had accumulated in Charlottesville? Gone, for the time being. Between a several-month quarterback controversy and a secondary full of first-time starters, the Cavaliers were set up to deal with some issues. That said, what’s happened over the last five games has been too brutal to chalk up to some inconsistency and inexperience. They’ve been blown out at home and on the road. They’ve failed to run the ball well, despite having two of the ACC’s better running backs (Kevin Parks and Perry Jones) on the roster. This team just hasn’t even looked competitive. Many still have faith in London going forward, but at the same time, 2012 has been (and will likely prove to be) a huge step backward in the rebuilding process.
Virginia Tech Hokies (4-3) (2-1): Apparently down for the count, Virginia Tech proved on Saturday why they remain the league’s best team in the expansion era. And after their huge 41-20 comeback victory over Duke, they are once again in the driver’s seat to take home the Coastal title for the sixth time (thanks to UNC’s ineligibility). Overall, the defense has still left much to be desired this season, but their second-half shutout of the Blue Devils may have been just the spark they needed. If they can continue to both stop the run, and rush the passer more effectively, it’ll be a huge step in the right direction. The other part of the equation is the running game, which (for the first time all season) carried the load and then some. If the pieces continue clicking like that, we may see a return to form in the second half.