Through the first five weeks of the college football season, there have been several shocking developments: the Pac-12 appears to have already played itself out of a playoff bid, normally defensive-minded LSU has a high-powered spread offense and Michigan was embarrassed in a blowout loss to Wisconsin.
But perhaps the most surprising development is that the Duke may be the front-runner in the ACC Coastal Division.
The Blue Devils certainly opened my eyes with their 45-10 beatdown of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. Lane Stadium has the reputation of one of the hardest places to play in the country, but Duke looked right at home last Friday, as Quentin Harris threw for 163 yards and ran for another 100.
Virginia Tech is traditionally one of the top teams in the Coastal Division, but the Blue Devils strolled in and handed the Hokies their worst home conference loss since 1950. The rest of the Coastal Division, outside of Virginia, has looked similarly uninspired, leaving Duke and the Cavaliers sitting pretty at the top of the standings.
Let’s run through each of the teams in the division in order of current standings and see if the Blue Devils have a real chance at their first Coastal crown since 2013.
The Cavaliers are a pleasant surprise in a year where much of the ACC seems disinterested in playing competitive football. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall has his team playing hard-nosed football, scoring wins against Florida State and Pittsburgh. But No. 23 Virginia barely squeaked past Old Dominion and then were blown out by Notre Dame in the last two weeks, which could signal a downward spiral.
After the season opening stomping by Alabama, Duke has impressed. The defense has gelled, not allowing more than 20 points in the last three games, while Harris and the offense have started to find an identity, averaging almost 200 yards rushing per game. The Blue Devils will have to travel to Charlottesville, Va., but, besides that, the ACC schedule is set up well for success, with a visit from Notre Dame not counting toward ACC standings.
North Carolina came close to upsetting No. 2 Clemson last week, falling by just one point. The Tar Heels have looked inspired in Mack Brown’s first season of his second stint in Chapel Hill, but they also lost at home to Appalachian State two weeks ago. A tough schedule, headlined by road trips to Pittsburgh and North Carolina State, make a run for the Tar Heels unlikely.
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The Panthers are an inconsistent team that went from knocking off No. 18 UCF to almost losing to FCS Delaware. Pittsburgh tries to make every game a rock fight and drag opposing teams down to their level. The loss to Virginia could haunt the Panthers, but we will know more about them after they travel to Durham this coming weekend.
Miami is breaking in first-year coach Manny Diaz and the process has been bumpy. The Hurricanes barely squeaked by Central Michigan and have already lost to North Carolina. Miami has plenty of talent, but it has yet to click, with player and fan frustration already starting to boil over with no consistent quarterback on the roster.
Georgia Tech's season is already an abject failure, losing by double digits to Temple and falling to Citadel. Yellow Jacket fans are already starting to count the days until the season ends and the rebuilding can commence.
Then, Virginia Tech sits in last place, already 0-2 in the ACC. The Hokies have fallen off a great deal since the heyday of former head coach Frank Beamer and current coach Justin Fuente’s seat is scorching hot. They lost to a Boston College team that was blown out by Kansas, the poster child of ineptitude. At this rate, it would be surprising if Fuente finished the season with his job.
All things considered, Duke has to be considered at least co-favorite with Virginia to return to the ACC championship game. And if a year that did not begin with much optimism ends in Charlotte, this should be considered among David Cutcliffe’s finest coaching jobs.
It is best not to think about what would happen in a likely ACC championship with Clemson, but if Harris and the rest of the rapidly improving Blue Devils can continue to play the way they did against Virginia Tech, there may not be a team in the ACC Coastal capable of matching them.