Three things to know heading into the season:
1. THE EXPECTATIONS HAVE CHANGED: Maybe not from the outside -- the Blue Devils were picked last in the Coastal for the eighth time since 2005, when the ACC split into divisions -- but certainly from within. Cutcliffe, who led Mississippi to five bowls in six-plus seasons at Mississippi from 1998-2004, says the bowl loss "left you wanting more, and that's what you wanted to see." A manageable schedule should allow Duke to claim one of the ACC's nine bowl berths -- especially if the Blue Devils can go undefeated in regular-season nonconference games for the first time since 1994.
2. SO HAS THE OFFENSE: That pro-style offensive scheme of Cutcliffe's that helped groom Peyton and Eli Manning into Super Bowl MVPs has been tweaked. Sure, the Blue Devils will still throw it plenty, but they also are incorporating some elements of the trendy zone-read option to better take advantage of new starting QB Anthony Boone -- who's exponentially more mobile than Sean Renfree ever was. Offensive coordinator Kurt Roper says Boone won't necessarily rush for 100 yards per game "but the schemes that we can use in the run game, that's another factor the defense has to account for."
3. PUT THE "D" IN DUKE: The Blue Devils' 4-2-5 defensive system should be better this year -- mainly because it'd be tough to be worse. Duke ranked 10th or lower in all four of the ACC's main stat categories, allowed a league-worst 36 points per game and gave up at least 41 points in six of its final seven games, going 1-6 in that span. Duke needs its experienced front six (with three redshirt seniors) to avoid being overmatched, after two years when DBs had to lead the team in tackles. LB Kelby Brown, who missed all of 2012 after having knee surgery, and Ohio State transfer Jeremy Cash at "strike" safety will be key.
Predicted finish in the ACC Coastal: Fifth.
Three things to watch during the Hurricanes' season:
1. SCHEDULE: Miami doesn't leave the Sunshine State until Oct. 17, plays seven of its 12 regular-season games at home and hosts Virginia Tech for the second straight year, a quirky gift that came because of how the schedules had to be configured in the expanded ACC. So in that regard, the Hurricanes seem to have a favorable schedule. But they're also the only presumed Coastal contender that will meet Florida State this season.
2. STATE BATTLES: The mythical-but-still-brag-worthy state championship should be on Miami's radar this season. The Hurricanes open at home against Florida Atlantic (Aug. 30), play host to Florida on Sept. 7, make the quick trip to face a rebuilding South Florida team three weeks later and then visit Florida State on Nov. 2. Miami has lost four of its last six games against in-state opponents from major conferences.
3. OFFENSIVE LINE: Stephen Morris and Duke Johnson are good on their own, but Miami's fortunes are tied to the group who'll block for them. Offensive line play should be a strength for the Hurricanes, with plenty of size and experience. Brandon Linder and Shane McDermott might be two of the smarter Hurricanes in years, and Seantrel Henderson says his last season will be played with purpose. If this group stays healthy, Miami will score plenty.
Predicted finish in the ACC Coastal: First
Here are three things to watch with the Tar Heels this season:
1. DEFENSIVE STRIDES: UNC allowed an average of 33 points in league games, including 68 to Georgia Tech. Fedora said the defense had "a little bit of a confidence problem" late last year, though Boston said defensive players are more comfortable with the scheme now. "We're ready to play, we know our plays and we know the playbook like the back of our hands," he said.
2. GIO'S ABSENCE: It's not just about whether A.J. Blue or Romar Morris, or even newcomers Khris Francis and T.J. Logan carry the ball at tailback. Bernard also left another key vacancy at returner. Fedora said four players are returning punts in training camp, including sophomore receiver T.J. Thorpe, who missed last season with a broken foot.
3. REBUILDING UP FRONT: The return of Hurst and center Russell Bodine brings experience to the offensive line, but the Tar Heels will need time to gel once their new five-man unit is set later this month. Redshirt freshman Caleb Peterson and sophomore Landon Turner (four starts in 2012) are settling in at the guard positions, while redshirt freshmen Jon Heck and John Ferranto are battling at right tackle. "It'll take probably all the way up until that last week to really solidify who goes where," offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said.
Predicted finish in the ACC Coastal: Third
Here are three things to look for from Pitt this season.
1. IN A RUSH WITHOUT RUSHEL: The departure of senior running back Ray Graham appeared to swing the door wide open for the Rushel Shell Era to begin. Yet the all-time leading rusher in Pennsylvania high school history decided to transfer after just one season. He ended up at West Virginia, where he'll have to sit out a year before attempting to resurrect his career. Shell's abrupt about face leaves Pitt with more questions than answers in the backfield. Isaac Bennett and Malcolm Crockett -- who combined for all of 191 yards rushing a year ago -- will get the first chance to start. "We have a great legacy at running back," Bennett said. "We're going to continue to keep it going, keep the tradition going."
2. JOURNEY'S END: Tom Savage appeared destined for stardom in 2009 after he threw for 2,211 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman at Rutgers in 2009. Now Savage is nearly three years removed from his last meaningful snap. He transferred to Arizona in 2011 and sat out the year only to find out he wanted to be closer to home. Savage sat out last season after coming to Pitt but barring injury will almost certainly have the starting job against Florida State. "Tom's got a good feel for the game," Chryst said. "He's got a good command out in the huddle and he loves to compete."
3. FINDING HIS GUYS: This is the first time since 2010 the Panthers begin a season with the same coach as the year before. Chryst has spent the last 12 months weeding through his locker room trying to see who "really likes to play football" at Pitt. That list apparently didn't include Shell or junior linebacker Todd Thomas, who left the team early in training camp. Chryst insists he is not sending a message but listen to his players and you'll get a different story. "He's making changes around the locker room and everyone has accepted it and no one is complaining," Bennett said. "We're all happy to be here."
Predicted finish in the ACC Coastal: Seventh
Here are three things to watch as keys to Virginia's season:
1. DAVID WATFORD: He has said his confidence grew as his understanding of the game from the sidelines did last season, and will have to show it in games. Teammates rave about his athleticism and speed, and he will need to use both in an offense with plays designed to let him show off those skills. His running means redshirt freshman Greyson Lambert needs to be ready, too.
2. OFFENSIVE LINE AND RUNNING GAME: The line's lack of toughness showed as the team struggled to run the ball. Getting tailbacks Kevin Parks and five-star freshman Taquan Mizzell into open spaces would make Watford's job much easier.
3. JAKE McGEE & TIM SMITH: By far the most talented receiver on the team, the 6-foot-6 McGee was under-utilized at tight end last spring, even though he has shown the ability to make tough, athletic catches in traffic. Smith is an oft-hobbled deep threat hoping his final college season is also his healthiest.
Predicted finish in the ACC Coastal: Sixth
Here are three things to watch as keys to Virginia Tech's season:
1. LOGAN THOMAS: Expectations have always been high for the 6-foot-6, 254-pound Thomas, and this is his final chance to put it all together, Loeffler tweaked his mechanics with an eye on better accuracy, and also schooled him on leadership. The result was a more assertive -- Beamer said "aggressive" -- Thomas over the summer, one not afraid to call a teammate out for running the wrong route in players-only practices.
2. OFFENSIVE LINE AND RUNNING GAME: Grimes has moved players around on the line, and the result could find a true freshman playing left tackle, and thereby guarding Thomas' blind side. A meager running game last season limited Thomas' ability to be effective in the running game, too, and it had a paralyzing effect on the Hokies' ability to move the ball. In redhsirt freshman Trey Edmunds and bulked up sophomore speedster J.C. Coleman, the Hokies hope they have a solution to that stagnant ground game.
3. THE EMERGENCE OF A GO-TO RECEIVER: Loeffler loves using the tight end, and the Hokies have a good one in Ryan Malleck, but the receiver spot is still uncertain.
Predicted finish in the ACC Coastal: Second
-- Associated Press