Despite what's been an eventful offseason littered with news, the march to football kicks off officially and in earnest on Monday when the ACC takes center stage at the Pinehurst Resort in Pinehurst, North Carolina.
The Pinehurst is no stranger to big events. Opened in the late 1800s, it's held seven major golf tournaments, including four since the turn of the century to the 00s. The 2005 and 2014 US Open site, it'll no doubt offer coaches and media members a challenging course to play, offering a laid-back atmosphere and backdrop for some of the hot seat questions that'll be served up.
As we get started, we'll take at the big stories impacting teams entering the season. We'll also take a look at some of the underlying stories that could become bigger as the season progresses. We begin with the Coastal Division:
Duke: Can this team reload?
After winning nine games for the second straight year, the Blue Devils enter '15 in need of help. They'll need to replace Laken Tomlinson on the offensive line, Anthony Boone at the quarterback position, Jamison Crowder in the receiving game, and a defensive front returning only one player. If they expect to remain at or near the top of the Coastal Division, they'll need to replace those holes with guys who are capable.
Head coach David Cutcliffe is considered a master builder, and he's made Duke, a longtime doormat, a football force in the ACC. But if he's wrong about his recruitment and his depth, he's going to find himself regressing instead of reloading.
Underlying storyline: Until renovations began, Wallace Wade Stadium was historically one of the worst in the ACC. With $100 million of renovations underway, the track is being removed, the field lowered, luxury boxes added, and a new video board installed, it's something that will undeniably help with the recruitment process. All of a sudden, Duke doesn't look so bad as a football school.
Georgia Tech: Can they get over the hump and win the ACC?
The beautiful thing about Georgia Tech is that their offense is always going to compete at a good to great level. The triple option might be a complete gimmick, but it's one that works VERY well. They're living proof that if a team 100% buys into a system, they can make it highly successful, especially after finishing as a top 10 team and Orange Bowl champions a year ago.
With the option offense this year comes a new wrinkle: Justin Thomas is a quarterback capable of throwing the ball. That means the triple option can add a fourth dimension to it, and if it does, they conceivably could be the best team offense in the ACC. I always felt the Yellow Jackets were the best overall team in the ACC last year, and I'm riding them high as the team most likely to win the league this year if they can stay at a high level.
Underlying storyline: If there's an Achilles' Heel to the offense, it's the defense. They gave up 48 points to North Carolina and 37 to Florida State in a couple of losses last year. With an offense that chews up the clock and is predicated on ball control, the defense needs to come up with two or three stops per game in order to win. That said, it's incredibly undersized, and that's something that worries me about their chances of beating teams like Miami.
Miami: Is last year an aberration or the start of something bad?
Two years ago, the Hurricanes were a nine-win team on the rise under Al Golden. Golden was starting to lay the groundwork for his own program in South Florida, potentially rising just as Duke would open the door after their run at the top.
Then last year happened. Miami opened 6-3 but lost their last four, including a bad 30-13 loss to Virginia and a 24-21 loss in the Independence Bowl to South Carolina. Just like that, the head coach went from golden boy to golden goose, and now he enters 2015 in the proverbial hot seat.
That hot seat can go away if the 'Canes open up on fire. With their talent, they could easily go 4-0 heading into Florida State or even 6-0 heading into a home game with Clemson. That said, they could just as easily open up 3-2 or worse and be 2-5 heading into a game at Duke. If that's the case, expect Golden to be dealing with rumors of his firing.
Underlying storyline: Sophomore Brad Kaaya is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and much of the Miami offensive success will reside on his shoulders. He threw for 3,200 yards and 26 touchdowns last year as the ACC Rookie of the Year. For all the talk of Deshaun Watson, Kaaya might actually be better than the Clemson star.
North Carolina: Will the Tar Heels play defense?
In their first four games of the season, UNC averaged just under 41 points per game. Halfway through the season, they averaged 37 points per game. Only four times did they score less than 30 points. Yet they still only went 6-7, including a .500 regular season.
Why? Because they simply didn't play defense. They lost 70-41 at East Carolina, 50-35 at Clemson, and 50-43 at Notre Dame. They held teams under 30 points only four times, and two of those games were against Liberty and San Diego State (who scored 29 and 27, respectively). They gave up an average of 495 yards per game and an average of 38.9 points per game.
Dan Disch and Ron West are gone, and in their place is Gene Chizik, the former head coach of Auburn who led the Tigers to the 2010 BCS Championship Game. You do the math on the rest of it.
Underlying storyline: Because the offense is so good, the Tar Heels could be a dark horse candidate to win the Coastal Division. The division is typically wide open, and they open with two out of their first three against South Carolina and Illinois. If they come out of those with wins, we'll know if that prediction could be true.
Pittsburgh: Conner For Heisman
We know Pittsburgh returns major components from a sneaky-good offense. Chad Voytik is the type of game manager capable of not losing football games, and Tyler Boyd is the explosive threat capable of making his quarterback that much better. But James Conner, the defending ACC Player of the Year and First Team All-American, is the guy who is going to receive all of the much-deserved attention.
Conner rushed for 1,765 yards last year with 26 touchdowns as a sophomore. This came on the heels of a breakout performance his freshman year, a 230-yard game in the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl. If he keeps getting better, he's going to look at pushing north of the 2,000 yard border, a feat less than 20 backs have achieved in the history of the game. We all know what that number can do for someone (see also: Williams, Andre).
Underlying storyline: Under first year head coach Pat Narduzzi, is this team ready to make a run at the top of the division? The defense could be nasty enough to stop the triple option of Georgia Tech, and if Miami and Duke are, indeed, down, that opens up the door for Pitt to become the latest smash-mouth champion of the Steel City.
Virginia: Is bowl eligibility a thing?
Mike London took Virginia to a bowl in 2011 when the Cavaliers went 8-5. Since then, it's been two years of regression. Now he has his players in the system, bouncing back from 2-10 in 2013 to 5-7 last year. If they're going to consistently be a factor, it starts this year with eligibility.
Virginia opens up with UCLA, Notre Dame, and Boise State in three of their first four games, so we'll know by October if the Cavs are capable of being a bowl team. If they're 3-3 after playing them plus William & Mary, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse, they could actually be in trouble with UNC, Georgia Tech, Miami, Louisville, Duke, and Virginia Tech down the stretch. If they somehow manage to go 4-2, that could be the difference in playing in a bowl game or not.
Underlying storyline: Virginia's game against Virginia Tech could be the game deciding the fate of both teams, making for a fun last-game match in the Commonwealth.
Virginia Tech: Is Frank Beamer done?
I get accused of harping on this way too much, but there's a big part of me that says Beamerball's magic is no more. After going 11-3 in 2011 and advancing to the Sugar Bowl, the Hokies have gone 7-6, 8-5, and 7-6—respectable, but by no means what they're accustomed to in Blacksburg. They've lost more games in the past three seasons (with zero BCS/New Year's Six appearances) combined than in the five seasons combined where they went to four BCS games. Last year, they defeated the eventual national champion but got spanked by East Carolina and lost, 6-3, in overtime, to Wake Forest in a game ending 0-0 after the fourth quarter. There's also the indelible image of an excited Coach Beamer, arms outstretched in exultation, celebrating that scoreless tie.
They've done this despite bringing in some good, if not elite, recruiting classes. That's something that, like Bobby Bowden before him, indicates time is passing Beamer by. He's had a tremendous career, but if this four-year cycle ends with another bad season by their standards, there has to be a major level of concern for Hokies fans.
Underlying storyline: The Virginia Tech defense is one of the best of the ACC, if not one of the best in the nation, if not one of the best ever. They're ridiculously talented. Watching that team march into the history books is going to be part of the intertwined storyline with the major theme of the season. With a unit predicted to be that good, if they can't win, that's a mega problem.