CHARLOTTE, N.C. — While Las Vegas gives North Carolina the best chance to claim the ACC’s Coastal Division title, followed by Miami and Virginia Tech, Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong scoffed at the notion that the Cavaliers — the 2019 division champions — will be hunting those opponents this season.
“I’m not really hunting. I feel like we’re still the champions,” said Armstrong during the league’s media day event Wednesday. “Last year, there wasn’t a Coastal champion. We’re the champions. We can go back to back. … That’s kind of the way I’m looking at it. I feel like a lot of teams are hunting us. I know UNC is hunting us, because they haven’t got us yet.”
Armstrong’s characteristic bravado notwithstanding, the return to the two-division format this season means a potential return to Coastal chaos.
In that half of the ACC, each of its seven members won one division crown from 2013 to 2019, a remarkable run of unpredictability that outsiders derided as mediocrity, while league members labeled parity.
While the Atlantic figures to be Clemson’s for the taking again this year, for a seventh straight season, the Coastal appears to again be up for grabs.
“We think the Coastal championship goes through Charlottesville,” said UVa coach Bronco Mendenhall, whose team went 5-5 last season a year after a 9-5 showing that won the division. “We’re the defending champion. Seven teams in seven years. Someone has to win it again and I like our chances.”
Of course, optimism overflows in the preseason, player and coach after player and coach expressed their belief that their team will be a factor in the division, eager to play a season when COVID-19 isn’t overshadowing every practice, game and road trip.
“I think we were just holding on last year. Our mission was to find a way to play,” said Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente, whose team is coming off a 5-6 campaign. “That will not be the case this year. This is a case where we can focus on the more fundamental things of team and give ourselves an opportunity to win.”
The league won’t release its official preseason poll until Monday, but that vote figures to mirror the Vegas odds — with North Carolina the Coastal favorite, followed by Miami, Virginia Tech, UVa, Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech and Duke.
Six of the seven Coastal teams — all except Duke — return a quarterback who started at least five games for them last season, a group highlighted by North Carolina’s Sam Howell, Miami’s D’Eriq King and Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett.
At UVa and Virginia Tech, Armstrong and Braxton Burmeister have the potential to become breakout stars. For both players, there’s a sense that how they play may dictate how well their teams compete in the Coastal.
“It’s definitely motivating to be in a division that’s wide open,” Burmeister said. “Different people win it every year, and from my perspective, I feel like we should be one of the top teams in it and have a good shot to win it.”
Both teams also hope to have defenses that show a marked improvement over their 2020 play. Virginia Tech struggled to adjust in the first season under new defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton, while UVa struggled in its defensive backfield.
It won’t take long to begin sorting out the unpredictable Coastal. Tech hosts North Carolina in the season opener and Virginia visits the Tar Heels, who they’ve beaten four straight years, in Week 3.