Three weeks ago, the idea that Georgia Tech had a shot at the ACC Coastal Division title seemed laughable.
Defeated by Pittsburgh on the road and convincingly at home by Clemson and Duke, the Yellow Jackets were 1-3 in league play and seemingly out of the division race. Following their defeat of the Jackets, the Blue Devils improved to 1-1 in the ACC and 5-1 overall and bore the look of certified division contender.
Move forward two weeks, though, and Duke is teetering after losing two league games in a row while the Jackets are standing tall having authored a stunningly decisive triumph at Virginia Tech – the same team that had previously beaten Duke with ease in Durham, N.C. This week, Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe acknowledged his surprise at his team’s turn of events, driven in part by a spate of injuries.
“There’s no question that this team is not the same team (as the one that beat Tech),” he said.
Meanwhile, Tech is quite happy to find itself in the hunt for the Coastal title, in better health and visiting North Carolina on Saturday to try to improve to 3-3 in league play. The Jackets are long shots, but a division title isn’t out of the question.
“It’s pretty crazy how the division’s going, just week in and week out, some of the teams that are winning, some of the teams that are losing,” quarterback TaQuon Marshall said.
As the weekend opened, Virginia and Pittsburgh both had just one league loss before facing off Friday night. If either the Cavaliers or Panthers prevail in the Coastal, it will continue a remarkable pattern – starting in 2013, a different team has won the division each season – Duke (2013), Georgia Tech (2014), North Carolina (2015), Virginia Tech (2016) and Miami (2017).
In the relatively short history of two-division conferences, that’s happened twice among power conferences, the SEC West (1998-2002) and the Pac-12 South (2012-16). No FBS division has gone six years without a repeat champion, as the Coastal is attempting.
It won’t be a surprise if the Cavaliers, two years removed from a 2-10 season that prompted a coaching change and led by a game-changing quarterback (Bryce Perkins), finish atop the Coastal, regardless of the result of their Friday night game against Pittsburgh.
Asked to assess the division this week, Cutcliffe gave the slightest of endorsements to Virginia, “but I wouldn’t call a winner right now,” he said. “It’s a horse race that you can’t call.”
The balance and unpredictability in the division have often prompted ridicule and the #coastalchaos pining for a season in which every team finishes 4-4. It often doesn’t seem far off.
Starting in 2012, when Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Miami all tied for first at 5-3 and the Jackets won by virtue of both the Tar Heels and Hurricanes serving postseason bans, Coastal teams have finished between 5-3 and 3-5 a total of 29 times. In the Atlantic, it’s been a mere 17.
Intra-division torment is served routinely. In league play, Miami has won 12 of the past 13 against Duke, which has won four of the past five against Georgia Tech, which has won four of the past five against Virginia Tech, which has won five of the past six against North Carolina, which has won six in a row against Pittsburgh, which has won four of the past five against Virginia.
For the sake of poetry, it would be ideal to complete the circle with Virginia’s run of success against Miami. However, the Cavaliers can’t make that claim – they did win four of five 2010-14 – nor can anyone else in the division. And, still, the Hurricanes’ Coastal title last year was its first. (Virginia has beaten Duke four years in a row, though.)
Explanations are not easy.
“Teams are getting closer to each other I think in all phases,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “And you know, why is that? Maybe it’s a style of offenses and what we enable people to be able to do in the college game. I don’t know.”
But perhaps the annual Coastal logjam should not surprise anyone. When the ACC went to a two-division format in 2005, the expectation was that Miami would annually be the division’s top dog opposite Florida State in the Atlantic.
Miami, however, did not comply, going through four coaches (not counting interims) since division play began in search of a return to its past glory. The opposite has held true in the Atlantic, where Clemson and Florida State have more frequently risen to their potential and have been the division’s only champions for the past nine years.
“Miami just has not lived up to their end of the bargain,” said Dave Archer, who has been Raycom Sports’ excellent analyst for ACC games since 2010. “So it opened the door for some of the other teams. They’re the two teams that have stepped through the door.”
In the first eight seasons of two-division play (2005-2012), Virginia Tech won five times and Georgia Tech three. But the Hokies tailed off in coach Frank Beamer’s final seasons, and the rest of the division has caught up with the Jackets.
“Outside of Clemson, everybody in our league is pretty close,” Tech coach Paul Johnson said of this season.
Unless Miami can regain its status as a perennial national championship contender, the division may remain a free-for-all, seven crabs in a bucket. Schools have made commitments in money and resources to increase competitiveness – Duke under Cutcliffe stands as a particular example. However, with the exception of Miami and Virginia Tech, none of the other five seem poised to win at a high level for a prolonged period of time, rising and falling with talent, injuries and inter-division scheduling, among other factors.
In such an environment, chaos might be the unsurprising outcome.