PINEHURST, N.C. (AP) — Some of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s sleeping giants hope this is the year they return to prominence.
Neither Miami nor North Carolina has ever been to the ACC championship game. And lately, once-frequent division winner Virginia Tech has been no better than mediocre.
Those three big-name Coastal Division programs have been hovering around .500 for the past few years.
Now they’re feeling a sense of urgency to return to at least make a strong push in a wide-open division race.
“If you don’t feel pressure in this business,” Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said, “you’re misguided.”
It seems the best teams are once again concentrated in one division — the Atlantic, which has produced the last four league champions in either Florida State or Clemson. The voters expect the Tigers and preseason player of the year Deshaun Watson to make it five straight.
And then there’s the chaotic Coastal — where, for the first time, the preseason pick is a team other than the Hurricanes or Hokies.
Instead, the favorite is defending champion Georgia Tech, which has won the division three times in seven years under coach Paul Johnson.
Virginia Tech was picked second, followed by Miami. North Carolina was chosen fifth — the lowest it’s been since 2007, but what coach Larry Fedora said was “probably a pretty good place for us to start” based on their rough 2014 season.
Choosing a Coastal champion has been a total crapshoot. A total of 232 preseason ballots were cast in 2013 and ’14. Only one of them got it right — a single voter last year picked the Yellow Jackets. Duke, the 2013 champion, was picked to finish last.
This year, six of the seven teams — everyone but Virginia — received first-place votes.
“I think anybody can win it,” Miami coach Al Golden said. “I think it’s wide open. … It’s important for our guys to stay focused on what we’ve got to do.”
So far, though, his Hurricanes haven’t won it.
It seems like the ACC has been waiting for years for Miami and North Carolina to really get things rolling. Both programs have spent the past few years under their respective lingering dark clouds of NCAA issues.
Lately, they’ve both been middling programs, a shade above .500. Fedora is 21-17 in three years at North Carolina while Golden is 28-22 in four seasons with the Hurricanes — and 16-16 in league play.
The closest either team has come to making the ACC championship game came in 2012, when North Carolina, Miami and Georgia Tech each went 5-3 in league play.
The Yellow Jackets wound up in Charlotte because the Tar Heels were ineligible due to NCAA sanctions while the Hurricanes self-imposed a postseason ban in anticipation of NCAA penalties.
Fedora has plenty of job security as he cleans up the mess he inherited and brought in Gene Chizik, who won the 2010 national title at Auburn, to revamp a defense that last year was one of the nation’s worst.
Golden’s seat may be a little hotter, after disgruntled fans flew a banner over SunLife Stadium last season calling for his job.
“I don’t feel pressure,” Golden said, pointing to improvements to the stadium, practice and training facilities that he hopes will begin to pay off on gamedays.
“It’s incumbent on us to get it back to where we want it to be,” Golden said. “Not just get it back, but have a model that is sustainable and can endure.”
The Hokies had that for most of their first decade in the ACC. Not lately, though.
They won five division titles and four league championships from 2004-11. In the last three years, they’ve gone a combined 22-17 overall and 16-16 in the ACC.
They couldn’t keep a running back healthy last year, with four missing time due to injury, and had trouble protecting interception-prone quarterback Michael Brewer.
Beamer, who turns 69 in October, is the winningest active coach in the Bowl Subdivision. Entering his 29th season at Virginia Tech, he said he is driven by the challenge of returning his alma mater to an elite level.
“We just need to get back to the way football was for so many years at Virginia Tech,” Beamer said. “We’ve had some times away and haven’t had as many wins as we’d like to have, but hopefully we’ll get back to that.”
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