Chaos in ACC Coastal Division leaves opening for Georgia Tech to surprise

Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins instructs during the 2022 Tech spring game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Thursday, March 17, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins instructs during the 2022 Tech spring game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Thursday, March 17, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Clemson is the big bully in the ACC’s Atlantic Division, and Florida State used to be. Every team has a chance to rule the Coastal Division, and they have. All seven teams won the division from 2013 to 2019, with Georgia Tech taking its turn in 2014. Miami won the Coastal in 2020, and Pitt did it last season. Now the division looks open at the top in 2022 and unsettled below.

Four Coastal teams have new head coaches. Pitt is replacing their star quarterback (Kenny Pickett) and wide receiver (Jordan Addison) while breaking in a new play-caller. Only five players from the Coastal were voted preseason All-ACC offense or defense. The Atlantic could have three teams voted preseason Top 25; Pitt might be it from the Coastal.

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Perhaps all that Coastal commotion will benefit Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins. His team is expected to be bad again, but maybe some of the other Coastal teams won’t be as good as expected. There’s usually a transition period after changing coaches and losing top-level talent. It’s plausible that the Jackets improve, their Coastal rivals recede, and they go over the 3.5 over/under win total at sportsbooks.

Those circumstances are part of my most optimistic assessment of Tech football in 2022. Admittedly, that sunny outlook is undermined by Tech’s 2021 season and the aftermath.

The Coastal was down last season, and Tech still lost four of six games against division foes. The Yellow Jackets finished with three victories overall for the third consecutive season. Then Collins saw a lot of talented players transfer and turned over more than half of his staff for Year 4.

Collins cites the staff changes as reasons to believe the Jackets will be better. The Jackets ended up with a net positive of talent from the transfer portal, per 247Sports. Collins said there’s less “flash” in his program and promises to field a tough and physical team. He said the Jackets learned lessons from losing, developed an edge and are ready to win more games.

There’s nothing wrong with optimism at this time of year. But we’ve heard that kind of talk before from Collins, who has yet to back it up with results. Tech’s non-schedule conference will make that task harder. This season it includes Ole Miss in addition to the annual talent-disparity games against Clemson and Georgia.

ExploreLow expectations widespread in Collins’ fourth season at Tech

To beat expectations, the Jackets will have to find more wins in the Coastal. Duke, Virginia and Virginia Tech all have first-time head coaches. Miami, Pitt and North Carolina should be good, but as mentioned, those programs also are going through a lot of changes.

Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi’s assembled a great offense in 2021 to go along with his always-good defense. The Panthers broke through for 11 wins. Now Pickett plays for the Steelers, Addison transferred to USC and coordinator Mark Whipple quit to take the same position at Nebraska.

The Hurricanes fired coach Manny Diaz and replaced him with Miami native Mario Cristobal. He won two Pac-12 titles as Oregon’s coach and inherits a talented roster, but when do the ‘Canes ever live up to the hype? Also, Collins’ team has punched above its weight in two games at Miami, with a win in Year 1 and a loss by a field goal last season. Miami comes here in November.

UNC’s Mack Brown fired his defensive coordinator after the Tar Heels surrendered at least 35 points to seven opponents, including the Jackets. Brown lured Gene Chizik, 60, away from TV work to be his coordinator. UNC did the same when it hired Brown to be head coach, and that’s turned out fine. But Chizik hasn’t run a good defense since he was on Brown’s Texas staff 16 years ago.

The Jackets figure to be heavy underdogs against Pitt, Miami, and UNC. They should be on more even footing with their other three Coastal opponents. All have rookie head coaches.

Justin Fuente’s replacement at Virginia Tech, Brent Pry, ran Penn State’s defense for the past five years. Bronco Mendenhall resigned at Virginia, and Tony Elliott, formerly Clemson’s offensive coordinator, took over. The David Cutliffe era finally ended at Duke, and his successor is Mike Elko, Jimbo Fisher’s defensive coordinator at Texas A&M.

The first-time head coaches at Virginia, Virginia Tech and Duke are taking over for coaches who produced some good seasons. Tech is stable by comparison. Collins gutted his staff, but he’s tied with Brown for the second-longest tenure among Coastal head coaches behind Narduzzi’s seven seasons. And I wonder about Narduzzi’s ability to keep the Panthers rolling after he recently criticized Whipple for not running the ball more, which is a strange thing to say after Pitt ranked third nationally in scoring.

The question is whether Tech’s coaching stability is a good thing. I predicted Tech would make a leap in Year 3 with Collins. I was wrong, but it seemed like it would happen after the Jackets came back to win at Duke on Oct. 9. That was a week after Pitt pummeled them at home, which followed Tech’s blowout victory over UNC.

The victory over Duke evened Tech’s record at 3-3 overall and 2-2 in the Coastal. The Jackets had a bye week before playing at Virginia. They didn’t win another game. Tech fell short at Virginia after a furious rally that included two onside kicks recovered. The Jackets couldn’t hold a fourth-quarter lead the next week at Miami.

Tech’s six-game losing streak to end the season included a 55-0 defeat at Notre Dame and a 45-0 home decision against Georgia. It’s not reasonable to expect the Jackets to beat teams of that caliber. They should be able to handle the likes of Virginia, Virginia Tech and Duke. Those programs and Miami are in transition this year, so maybe Tech can pull off some surprises in the Coastal.