One look at the ACC standings after four weeks of play outlines just how crazy of a September this has been for the league’s 14 teams.
Clemson with an early league loss and major offensive issues, Boston College sitting at 4-0 playing a backup quarterback, Syracuse overachieving, and Florida State en route to being historically bad helps comprise an intriguing ACC Atlantic race.
But let’s focus on the ACC Coastal for now—and the opportunity that sits in front of the Miami Hurricanes for the remainder of the 2021 season.
A quick disclaimer: I completely understand if you have absolutely no desire to hear anything “positive” about the Hurricanes right now. The first three weeks of the season put a sour taste in my mouth and probably yours too.
That said, it cannot be denied that the way the first four weeks of ACC play unfolded has presented Miami with a unique opportunity. What the Hurricanes do with that opportunity will likely leave a major impact on Manny Diaz’s legacy as Hurricanes head coach.
Let’s explore the ACC Coastal a little further from top to bottom...
Note: All of the rankings discussed are pulled from ESPN’s SP+ rankings and can be found below.
WEEK 5 SP+ RANKINGS— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) September 26, 2021
* We have a new No. 1 ... AND a new No. 130!!
* 1 UGA, 2 Bama, 3 Ohio State, 4 Florida, 5 Penn State
* Only 2 points separate #4-8, and only 3 separate #10-21.
* TOP. TWENTY-FIVE. PITT.https://t.co/9BpFJIyFWl
The Hokies started ACC play in week one with what was a surprising victory over North Carolina that no longer seems all that surprising in late September.
Since then, Virginia Tech cruised past Middle Tennessee State 35-14, lost to West Virginia 27-21, and looked rather flat last Saturday in beating FCS Richmond 21-10. Not exactly an intimidating three weeks put together by the division leader.
The Hokies are ranked No. 41 in the SP+ rankings and honestly that feels about right. Since that opening victory, Virginia Tech has not looked like the best team in the division—but quite honestly, who has?
What to make of the Yellow Jackets? Ranked No. 62 by the SP+ after week four, Georgia Tech has an embarrassing 22-21 home loss to Northern Illinois (ranked No. 101 in SP+) on its resume.
But since then? A renaissance of sorts for Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets took Clemson to the wire in a 14-8 loss and then crushed ACC Coastal favorite North Carolina 45-22 last Saturday to get their first ACC win.
We will learn a lot more about Georgia Tech this week when it hosts Pitt, but it’s clear that the Yellow Jackets are no longer just an afterthought in the division.
Stunningly, Pittsburgh is one of two ACC Coastal teams in the SP+ top 25 as the Panthers sit at No. 21 overall after a 77-7 beatdown of New Hampshire.
But the Panthers also sport one of the worst losses of any team in the league—a 44-41 loss to Western Michigan—on their resume. That came one week after beating Tennessee on the road fairly easily.
SP+ presumably likes Pitt because the Panthers are averaging 52.5 points per game and only allowing just over 22. But Pitt is yet to play an ACC game and the schedule will get significantly tougher in October.
Duke is the lowest ranked ACC Coastal team in the SP+ at No. 78. But the Blue Devils have won three games in a row and are looking much better after an embarrassing season-opening loss to Charlotte.
Duke is likely the least talented team in the division but that doesn’t mean the Blue Devils won’t steal a game or two from somebody. They host division opponents Georgia Tech, Miami, and Pittsburgh and can factor into the division race by upsetting those teams or stealing a league game on the road.
What in the name of Mack Brown is going on in Chapel Hill? We knew UNC was going to lose a lot of playmakers off that 2020 team but the Tar Heels seem to have major issues on both sides of the ball that most ACC pundits did not predict.
UNC sits at 1-2 in league play with losses to Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech and a dominant victory over lowly Virginia. SP+ is still a believer as the Tar Heels are ranked No. 18 (tops in the division) but the damage might already be done for North Carolina as it still has Pittsburgh, Miami, and North Carolina State left on the schedule.
It’s hard to see the Tar Heels winning the division at this point but stranger things have happened. They can’t be counted out yet.
The Cavaliers are in last place in the division at 0-2 and have not been competitive in either ACC loss as they lost by 20 to North Carolina and Wake Forest.
SP+ puts Virginia at No. 58 thanks in large part to its absolutely awful defense. Quarterback Brennan Armstrong is averaging over 400 yards per game passing but it hasn’t mattered much in conference play.
The Hurricanes will see Virginia up close on Thursday as they open ACC play against the Cavaliers at 7:30pm at Hard Rock Stadium.
To recap Miami like the others—Miami is ranked No.31 in SP+ (third in the division) and has had a pretty inconsistent effort on both offense and defense this season. The health of starting quarterback D’Eriq King is a bit of a mystery and backup quarterbacks Tyler Van Dyke and Jake Garcia have looked good in relief of him—albeit against FCS competition.
The Hurricanes have major issues tackling on defense and have been putrid on coverage on special teams. Miami has two massive ACC games against Virginia and North Carolina coming up over the next few weeks and that stretch will begin to define the 2021 conference portion of the schedule.
What does it all mean?
Alright, thanks for the tour of the ACC Coastal, but what does this all mean for Miami?
Well that’s up for your interpretation and how you choose to define it for yourself. How you choose to process the state of the ACC from a Miami perspective depends on your own fandom and largely reflects how you view the program.
Is there a golden opportunity that the Hurricanes have in front of them that they are ready to seize? Or has that ship sailed because of what we saw on the field during the first three weeks of non-conference play?
There’s no right answer to that question. Only time will tell. Great analysis, I know.
But I will say this — it doesn’t have to be one or the other. It’s perfectly reasonable to be upset about the way Miami has played thus far this season while understanding that the ACC is more wide open than it has been in a long time.
Consider this, SP+ has all of Miami’s first three opponents in the top 30 in this week’s rankings with Alabama at No.2, Appalachian State at No.29, and Michigan State at No.30.
Now see below for Miami’s remaining schedule and where these teams rank after four weeks of play:
Virginia: No. 58
@ North Carolina: No. 18
North Carolina State: No. 42
@ Pittsburgh: No. 21
Georgia Tech: No. 62
@ Florida State: No. 73
Virginia Tech: No. 41
@ Duke: No. 78
That ACC schedule obviously does not seem as tough as the non-conference schedule based on the SP+ rankings.
Let’s just say for the sake of discussion, that Miami defeats every team it is ranked higher than and loses the games it has against higher ranked teams. That would leave the Hurricanes at 8-4 overall and 6-2 in ACC play at the conclusion of the regular season.
Is that a successful season? I would say absolutely not based on preseason expectations. Would that be enough to get to the ACC Championship Game? It might be considering that North Carolina already has two league losses and Pittsburgh has an extremely challenging October ACC schedule that includes a game against Clemson.
We can all analyze and project until we are blue in the face. But the bottom line is, the Hurricanes have an opportunity this year with a wide open ACC. What they do with that opportunity will define Diaz’s coaching career at Miami and the future of the program.