The ACC Coastal Division Race Is Thrown Into Chaos

Everything was all set for the remainder of the ACC football season to be simple. Florida State’s anticipated 59-3 wipeout of Wake Forest formally clinched the Seminoles’ spot in the conference championship game and coupled with Oregon’s loss at Stanford, FSU has complete control of the push for a spot in the BCS National Championship Game.

All that was needed was for Miami to take care of business on Saturday night against Virginia Tech, and we could just wait for the renewal of the Miami-Florida State rivalry in the ACC title game.

I suppose TheSportsNotebook should have known better than to think it would be this easy. All the way back in August, when previewing the ACC’s Coastal Division (the MiamiVirginia Tech side of the league), I wrote that while Miami was the best team and would play in the division’s biggest games, the Hurricanes could also be counted on to lose the game that mattered most. In the driving rain of South Beach that’s exactly what happened and the ACC Coastal Division race was thrown into glorious chaos.

Before looking at the big picture, let’s briefly emphasize just how poorly Miami played on Saturday night. They were hammered on the ground, giving up 183 yards rushing. They allowed Virginia Tech’s offense–previously one of the most inept in the country–to do a fair imitation of the 2007 New England Patriots, as quarterback Logan Thomas repeatedly marched the Hokies up and down the field.

Defensively, Miami looked completely unprepared. I would pan their open-field tackling, except they rarely had a defender close enough to even miss a tackle on a short crossing routes over the middle. I still think the ‘Canes are the division’s best, the only ones with even a chance at beating Florida State, but Miami richly deserved to lose this football game and as I wrote in August, that’s been a pattern with this program in recent years.

Another surprise outcome in this division was Pitt’s 28-21 win over Notre Dame, as the Panthers let Irish quarterback Tommy Rees beat himself and Notre Dame showed why some of us where highly skeptical of their claim to be fighting for a major bowl bid. Though not a conference game, it gave Pitt their fifth win. In last week’s ACC bowl projections, I had the Panthers missing out. The schedule is still tough (vs. North Carolina, at Syracuse, vs. Miami), but now Pitt just needs one win to get bowl eligible.

The big race though is for the ACC Coastal and four teams are tied with two conference losses. The drama is heightened by the fact that none of the teams control their own destiny. Here are the four, with their conference record and remaining ACC games…

Georgia Tech (5-2), at Clemson
Virginia Tech (4-2), vs. Maryland, at Virginia
Duke (3-2), vs. Maryland, at Wake Forest, at North Carolina
Miami (3-2), at Duke, Virginia, at Pitt

Now here is what each team has done against their fellow contenders…

Georgia Tech: beat Duke, lost to Virginia Tech & Miami
Virginia Tech: beat Georgia Tech & Miami, lost to Duke
Duke: beat Virginia Tech, lost to Georgia Tech
Miami: beat Georgia Tech, lost to Virginia Tech

If you really want to go crazy, you can also look at North Carolina and Pitt, who have three conference losses. It’s certainly not unthinkable that all four of the main contenders could lose and take chaos to another level. But before we go there and turn this article into a 10,000-word treatise on tiebreaker scenarios, let’s have the Tar Heels and Panthers play this coming Saturday in Pittsburgh and have one team get knocked out.

There are two games that loom above all others amongst the contenders. The first comes this Thursday night when Georgia Tech visits Clemson. The anticipated Yellow Jacket loss aids Virginia Tech in the short-term and aids the three-loss crackup scenario in the long-term. Since it’s Georgia Tech’s last league game, an upset win would eliminate both UNC and Pitt.

The other big one is Saturday in Durham, when Miami visits Duke. The Blue Devils are coming on strong since the return of quarterback Anthony Boone. If Georgia Tech loses on Thursday, Duke takes the field knowing they control their own destiny.

Here’s a basic outline of the most likely scenario that each of the four contenders needs, ranked in order of probability…

Duke: They need Georgia Tech to lose, and then to win out. This scenario puts the Blue Devils in a tie with Virginia Tech, whom Duke beat. The reason the Dookies need Georgia Tech lose is that a three-way tie of Duke, GT & VT would be settled by divisional record, which favors the Hokies.

Virginia Tech: Va Tech needs to win out, and hope either Georgia Tech beats Clemson, or that Duke loses one of its three remaining games. It need not be Miami–the Blue Devils still play Wake Forest and North Carolina and while Duke would be favored in those, especially coming off a presumed Miami win, I don’t know that we’re at the point we put the words “Duke” and “lock win” in the same sentence.

Georgia Tech: Their tiebreaker situation is tough. They need both Miami and Virginia Tech to lose, and the Hokie schedule is not imposing. The bigger problem though, is assuming a Yellow Jacket win in Clemson on Thursday.

Miami: The ‘Canes need to win out and hope Virginia Tech loses once. As just noted, it’s not likely, but the Hokies have hardly been a model consistency. Another option for Miami–admittedly a longshot–is that they go 10-2, finish second and end up under consideration for a BCS at-large spot. This option would have been more in play had they not been beaten so soundly on Saturday.

Miami is currently ranked 23rd and would have to have all of the following happen–both Northern Illinois and Fresno State lose, the Big 12 contenders completely beat each other up in November, and they’d probably need a Wisconsin loss.

Which of the four is most likely to go to Charlotte and get their crack at Florida State? Duke’s position is the strongest, but my preseason choice was the Hokies, and I still believe the landscape of the chaotic ACC Coastal Division is likely to fall in their favor.