Luke DeCock

ACC football still skewed by division imbalance

ldecock@newsobserver.com

Florida State linebacker Terrance Smith, left, sacks Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson on Sept. 20, 2014. The two Atlantic Division teams combined for 125 of 158 championship votes in the ACC preseason poll, with Clemson the overwhelming pick to win the conference.
Florida State linebacker Terrance Smith, left, sacks Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson on Sept. 20, 2014. The two Atlantic Division teams combined for 125 of 158 championship votes in the ACC preseason poll, with Clemson the overwhelming pick to win the conference. MCT

The Coastal Division, as always, is wide open. Six different teams received first-place votes in the ACC preseason poll released Tuesday, and it’s not difficult to make an argument for Georgia Tech. Or Virginia Tech. Or Miami. Or Duke. Or North Carolina.

Teams in the Coastal are used to that, veterans of the annual free-for-all that all too often leads to frantic tiebreaking research going into the final weekend of the regular season.

Meanwhile, in the Atlantic Division, there’s another wide-open race. For third place.

Clemson and Florida State combined for 157 of 158 first-place Atlantic Division votes and 125 of 158 championship votes in the preseason poll, with Clemson the overwhelming pick to win the conference.

Is it unfair? I don’t know that you can say that. But it’s tilted right now.

N.C. State football coach Dave Doeren

Teams in the Atlantic are used to that, too.

“Right now it’s inequitable, but I know at one time it was the other way,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “If you’re in the Coastal, you’re going to say at one time it was the opposite and it probably was, but that’s not today. Is it unfair? I don’t know that you can say that. But it’s tilted right now.”

The ACC’s Atlantic Division had more players drafted this spring than the SEC’s East or West divisions. Sixteen of the 30 players came from Florida State and Clemson (and 10, somewhat surprisingly, from Louisville). The Coastal had 18.

For all the talk about potential future realignment, which remains unlikely pending major changes to the ACC – like dropping divisions entirely or the addition of Notre Dame and a 16th team for football – the reality is this inequity is a quirk of history.

The Atlantic Division wouldn’t look so out of whack if the Coastal Division weren’t so chaotic. Clemson and Florida State just happen to be nationally relevant at a time when traditional powers like Miami and Virginia Tech are not – and it wasn’t long ago, in the first seasons after expansion, that Clemson and Florida State were just as irrelevant.

In the limited scope of recent ACC history, and the limited scope of Triangle geography, that’s good news for Duke and North Carolina, which can nurture realistic thoughts of a division title, and will again this season, and bad news for N.C. State, which knows it has a tremendous amount of work to do to catch up with the two bullies in its neighborhood.

“When you’re a coach there’s nothing you can do about who’s on your schedule from a conference standpoint,” Doeren said. “You just gotta take what they give you. I’m just happy we have a bye week in the middle this year.”

But the Coastal isn’t immune from the impact of the imbalance, either. The title in that division could be heavily influenced by the inter-division matchups.

Georgia Tech crosses over with Clemson every season, but this season, by rotation, it plays Florida State as well. Miami crosses over with Florida State every season, but this season, by rotation, it plays Clemson as well. Duke and North Carolina (and Virginia Tech) avoid both this season.

“They had a poll, right? Who finished first and second?” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “So that’s an advantage.”

ACC preseason poll (Division, 1st place votes, total votes) Atlantic 1. Clemson 101 1,032 2. Florida State 56 992 3. Louisville 1 746 4. N.C. State 0 673 5. Boston College 0 473 6. Syracuse 0 291 7. Wake Forest 0 217 Coastal 1. Georgia Tech 96 991 2. Virginia Tech 44 841 3. Miami 7 632 4. Duke 4 615 5. North Carolina 4 590 6. Pitt 3 535 7. Virginia 0 220

The media, nevertheless, picked Georgia Tech as a narrow favorite in the Coastal over Virginia Tech, a statement of confidence in Paul Johnson’s system with Justin Thomas at quarterback, after so many years of annually overlooking the Yellow Jackets, who have won the division three times in the past six years.

“There is no way to look at something and say, ‘I’m glad we have an easier schedule.’ I see a lot of that,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “Do I have great respect for what Clemson and Florida State have? Absolutely. … Ultimately, you have to beat the best. It doesn’t matter whether you play them in the regular season or again in Charlotte.”

Realignment is a topic of conversation that comes up often among the 14 ACC football schools, but there’s never been enough of a consensus in one direction or another to provoke any change. The general sentiment is that the competitive imbalance is a short-term trend that will, somehow, someway resolve itself in the long term – just not in 2015.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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