Talkin’ Football: Is Virginia Tech new favorite in Coastal?

Each week during college football season, columnist Luke DeCock and our college reporters will answer the most important questions of the weekend. Our roundtable discussion begins with what improvements area teams need to make.

1. We’ve seen two games now. What’s the one thing area teams must improve upon to reach their potential during their next 10 games?

Andrew Carter (North Carolina beat reporter): UNC has to get better up front on both sides. Defensively, the pass rush has been virtually nonexistent and, on offense, the Tar Heels haven’t opened many holes for the running game. Injuries have played a role in some of the problems but, beyond that, some younger players are going to have to emerge quickly for the lines to improve dramatically.

Luke DeCock: Let’s take a moment to acknowledge all three Triangle teams are 2-0, which even given the dismal collective strength of schedule so far is nothing to disregard. Still, North Carolina needs to be more consistent on both sides of the ball, N.C. State needs to get off to better starts and Duke’s defensive line needs to show improvement.

Joe Giglio (N.C. State beat reporter): N.C. State has to start faster and has to tackle better – the two are connected, hence my effort to shoehorn two things into your request for one.

Through 14 games under Dave Doeren, N.C. State has been outscored 128-61 in the first quarter and hasn’t led at the half since the Central Michigan game last year. Tackling was a major issue last season and has been in the first half of each of the first two games this season.

In the second half of the Old Dominion game, N.C. State’s defense played better and got more pressure on the quarterback but, in general, the defensive line hasn’t generated enough pressure to force the opponent to go faster than it wants.

Laura Keeley (Duke beat reporter): Duke is going to need to generate more consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks to be successful once conference play starts. The pressure has been inconsistent at best against Elon and Troy, and, obviously, the opponents will only get bigger, faster and stronger from here.

2. Jumping off that, has anything happened during the first two weeks to change the expectations surrounding Duke, N.C. State and North Carolina? The Tar Heels and Wolfpack, especially, have had their struggles though they’re both 2-0.

Carter: UNC struggled before blowing out Liberty, and then the Tar Heels labored again through a victory against San Diego State – a win that wasn’t decided until the final seconds. UNC right now does not look like a team that can compete for the Coastal Division championship, which was the goal entering the season. It’s still possible, but the Tar Heels have to improve in a lot of areas – starting with the lines.

DeCock: I’m not surprised that N.C. State has struggled to win; simply winning those games is good enough for the Wolfpack, which needs to build all the confidence it can. North Carolina’s failure to put away two lesser opponents at home is disconcerting, and it does raise questions whether the Tar Heels have enough to compete with Coastal teams that have vastly exceeded expectations so far. I’ll wait to see how they fare in Greenville next week before I start selling UNC stock short.

Giglio: Georgia Southern and Old Dominion fall under the category of “sneaky,” since they are relative newcomers to Division I and have little name-brand value, but I didn’t expect N.C. State to boat-race either team. I would expect State’s only rout of the season to be on Sept. 20 against Presbyterian.

This game, with South Florida, and the games with Boston College, Syracuse and Georgia Tech will likely determine’s their bowl fate. That was apparent before the season and has not changed after two games.

Keeley: No, I don’t think so. At least not the expectations I have for each team.

3. Virginia Tech went on the road and beat Ohio State. Pitt looks like it could have an ACC Player of the Year candidate in running back James Conner. Is the Coastal Division all of a sudden a lot more formidable than we thought it’d be, and are the Hokies the clear favorite now?

Carter: The Coastal does seem a lot more challenging than it did two weeks ago. If you re-did the preseason media poll now, Virginia Tech would likely be the overwhelming favorite. As impressive as that win at Ohio State was, though, the Hokies have to prove over the long haul that their woes on offense are behind them. Conner has been the best player in the conference through two weeks but, again, it’s a long season. I still think any one of about four teams can win the division.

DeCock: The Hokies are certainly firmly in the mix, but the Coastal picture only seems even more clouded than it was before the season. As impressive as he has been, Conner might not even be Pittsburgh’s most dangerous player (receiver Tyler Boyd might be). Meanwhile, we may look back at Virginia Tech’s past few seasons and say that Logan Thomas was the only thing keeping the Hokies from being the Hokies. Michael Brewer has given them the reliable quarterback play they lacked with the talented but erratic Thomas.

Giglio: Let’s pump the brakes on the Hokies, at least until they take care of East Carolina. I wrote in the spring Pitt was the sleeper of the Coastal, this year’s “Duke” if you will, and so far the Panthers have not disappointed. Still, let’s not go overboard. I don’t think anyone in the Coastal would finish in the top 3 of the Atlantic.

Keeley: I still think the division is wide open, but, yes, the level of play amongst the six teams that received first-place votes seems higher than I anticipated. I doubted the Hokies’ ability to find an offense (they have), and, like most voters, I had Pitt a half-step behind the Duke, UNC, Miami and Virginia Tech quartet. That appears to have been a mistake, as Conner looks unstoppable running the ball. The key will be to see if any one team can consistently play at a high level – we may be heading to a massive tiebreaker scenario.