ACC 'Carnival' in Coastal Division Poised for Wild Finish

The New York Times Sports 2 months ago

Chaos is brewing in the ACC's Coastal Division once again.

With the midpoint of the regular season approaching, the Atlantic Coast Conference race is shaping up with prohibitive favorite Clemson sitting atop the Atlantic Division and more unpredictability dominating the Coastal.

Nothing can be taken for granted. Two teams in the up-and-down division blew 20-point leads on the same day — and still managed to win.

The division seems poised for another wacky stretch run to sort out which of the Coastal's mostly mediocre members will earn the right to most likely lose to the second-ranked Tigers in the title game.

"You're at a carnival going onto one of the rides — now here is the Coastal ride," Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall quipped. "And holy cow, you never know what's going to happen when you're on that ride."

A week into October, and his 20th-ranked Cavaliers (4-1, 2-0) are the lone Coastal team without a league loss.

Looking at the history of the division, the Cavaliers aren't likely to finish that way.

Since the ACC expanded to 14 teams in 2013, the only Coastal champion to finish 8-0 in league play was North Carolina in 2015. Meanwhile, four other division winners had two league losses. Last year's winner, Pittsburgh, had an overall record of 7-7.

"When I say (it's) even, a lot of people think of that as a bunch of average teams," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "It's not."

No Coastal team has won the league championship since Virginia Tech in 2010. Florida State and Clemson have combined for four undefeated finishes in ACC play and all eight titles during that timeframe.

That is the key difference between the divisions.

For much of the past decade, the ACC as a whole — and the Atlantic Division in particular — has been dominated by one powerhouse program, either the Seminoles or Clemson.

The Coastal has been a free-for-all, with six different champions in six years. The only team that hasn't won it in that stretch — Virginia — currently holds first place. And only once since 2013 has a Coastal team has finished in the top 10 of the final AP Top 25, when Georgia Tech ended 2014 at No. 8.

"There's no singular program that has in recent years been able to have that consistency year to year to win the division," ACC Commissioner John Swofford said. "It's sort of fascinating to watch. And we've had some really entertaining games."

The data indicates more parity: In Jeff Sagarin's latest computer ratings, five Coastal schools — Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Miami — are bunched between Nos. 31 and 55 nationally. Of the four highest-ranked ACC teams, three (Clemson, Wake Forest and Florida State) are in the Atlantic.

"I think it's a very balanced league, the ACC overall and especially the Coastal Division," Duke quarterback Quentin Harris said. "You have a lot of teams that are really good teams, and if you don't bring your best effort, you could easily find yourself on the wrong side of a score or a shootout — or even a defensive battle, too."

That parity tends to produce days like this past Saturday, when in the span of a few hours, two Coastal teams let huge leads slip away before regrouping to beat division rivals.

Virginia Tech was up by 28 points on Miami before the Hurricanes scored three touchdowns in less than 4 minutes late to tie it. The Hokies came up with the winning touchdown with 1:03 remaining.

A few hours later, Pittsburgh staged an even more daunting escape at Duke.

In a game that had a combined 10 turnovers, the Panthers led by 23 points with less than 3 minutes left in the third quarter before the Blue Devils reeled off 27 straight points to take a 30-26 lead with 1:30 remaining.

Kenny Pickett then threw a touchdown pass with 38 seconds left to give the Panthers a 33-30 victory and cap what Pitt defensive back Dane Jackson called one of the "probably top-five, top-three" wildest games of the redshirt senior's career.

There's a good chance there could be more during the second half of the season.

His Panthers (4-2, 1-1) have a chance to repeat as Coastal champs with a schedule built for a stretch run: None of their final six opponents own a record better than 3-2.

Virginia holds the tiebreaker with Pitt, but the division might come down to the finale against rival Virginia Tech — which has won the last 15 meetings in the series. And don't count out Duke or North Carolina — which fell one point shy of upsetting Clemson in what would have been the season's biggest upset.

"Just from that (Virginia Tech-Miami) game alone," Virginia safety Joey Blount said, "you can tell that the Coastal, or the ACC in general, is up for grabs."

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AP Sports Writers Hank Kurz Jr. in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Aaron Beard in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed to this report.

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