For a conference often dismissed as Florida State, Clemson and everybody else, the ACC has boosted its stock with some seemingly shrewd coaching hires over the past couple of seasons. Last year’s addition of Pat Narduzzi paid off with an 8–5 debut season at Pittsburgh, and the four new additions this off-season each drew rave reviews. Syracuse’s Dino Babers and Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente each received A’s in SI.com’s grades of coaching hires while Virginia’s Bronco Mendenhall and Miami’s Mark Richt got A-minuses.
But of course coaching is, to some extent, a zero-sum game. One school’s rise has to come at the expense of another school (or several schools). So, barring a complete reshuffling of the conference hierarchy, it’s nearly impossible for all four new ACC coaches to each find success in their first years with their new programs. Which teams are best poised for immediate improvement relative to their past results? Let’s play buy/sell/hold to determine whose stock to keep.
Mark Richt may not have won enough big games to keep his job at Georgia, but he consistently put together quality seasons and should be able to do so again in 2016 at Miami. It helps to inherit a star quarterback like Brad Kaaya, even more so when that star quarterback is surrounded by offensive support. The Hurricanes have three running backs capable of contributing, including 1000-yard rusher Joseph Yearby, and all five offensive line starters are back. There are questions about depth on that line, and Kaaya is in need of a breakout receiver, but there’s little reason to doubt Miami’s ability to score points this fall. And while the Hurricanes don’t appear likely to win any defensive slugfests with an inexperienced secondary and a porous front seven, keep in mind that North Carolina’s much-praised improvement under coordinator Gene Chizik still left the Tar Heels averaging 5.5 yards allowed per play. That was enough to get them to the ACC title game.
What Dino Babers did in his first two head coaching stops is remarkable: 19–7 in two seasons at Eastern Illinois and 18–9 in two years at Bowling Green. Both teams quickly adapted to his Art Briles-inspired offense and put up big points. But it’s important to keep in mind the quarterbacks he inherited. Jimmy Garoppolo won the Walter Payton Award at Eastern Illinois before moving on to the NFL, and while Matt Johnson got injured in Babers’s first season at Bowling Green, he recaptured his stellar form last season and threw for 4,946 yards.
Babers certainly deserves some credit for what those quarterbacks did; the questions now are how much, and if can he do it again. The task at Syracuse will be his toughest. The Orange’s quarterbacks combined for a 53.6% completion percentage, 6.15 yards per attempt, 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions last season, and no wide receiver recorded 600 or more receiving yards.
The schedule isn’t kind, either. Unlike the other coaches on this list, Babers is leading a team in the ACC Atlantic, meaning annual matchups with Florida State, Clemson and Louisville. Syracuse also faces Notre Dame in a nonconference game this fall and must travel to Pittsburgh to close out the season.
Once Babers gets his offense operating at full capacity, better results should follow. But he may need to recruit new players to fit his system before that can happen.
Virginia deserved its high marks for pulling Mendenhall out of BYU and over to Charlottesville. Even with Power 5-conference money, it’s not easy to convince a coach who has won eight or more games in all but one of the last 10 seasons to take over a team that’s won only 15 games total over the previous four years. Mendenhall’s track record suggests he will make the Cavaliers better. After all, BYU had won just 14 games in the three seasons before he became head coach.
But it took Mendenhall a year to get the Cougars on an upswing—they went 6–6 in his first season—and he’ll likely need some time at Virginia, too. The Cavaliers averaged only 5.49 yards per play and gave up 6.23 per play in 2015. Better teaching and in-game management should result in some improvement, but real progress will likely come if Mendenhall can use his record of success to recruit high-caliber players from the DMV and Tidewater areas.
Virginia Tech: Hold
There’s a lot to like about the situation Justin Fuente steps into. A proven offensive mind, he was at his best as a head coach when he had new Missouri head coach Barry Odom as his defensive coordinator. That’s why keeping Bud Foster around to oversee the Hokies’ defense is so critical; it allows Fuente to focus on what he does best, knowing he can trust the other side of the ball to live up to its end of the deal.
Then, there’s the arrival of Jerod Evans, the four-star junior college quarterback expected to step into the starting role. Evans presents a much more exciting option to lead the offense that Brenden Motley, who completed 56% of his passes for 7.04 yards per attempt last season. With Evans operating an attack supported by All-ACC receiver Isaiah Ford and tight end Bucky Hodges, Fuente has some quality pieces to work with right away.
But despite an average of just over seven wins in the past four seasons, truly buying into immediate success for Fuente means expecting a rapid return to contention for an ACC title. And it’s simply not clear the Hokies have the talent across the board to do that yet. Virginia Tech’s success on the recruiting trail waned over the latter part of Frank Beamer’s tenure. The Hokies have not brought in a top-25 recruiting class, according to Scout.com’s rankings, since 2008 and dropped to 56th in the country this year. A quality coach like Fuente may be able to develop those lower-regarded players, but that’s likely to take more than one off-season.