A conference divided: ACC returns to two-division format

Notre Dame is back to being independent, and the Atlantic and Coastal return for 2021

NC State coach Dave Doeren answers a question during ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte last Thursday. (Nell Redmond / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — Opinion is split right down the middle when it comes to the return of divisional play in the ACC.

Coaches in the Coastal Division are all for it. Their counterparts in the Atlantic? Not so much.

Well, at least most of them.

“If you ask every Atlantic coach if they want divisional play or not, there’s only one that wants divisional,” Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson said Thursday at the ACC’s Football Kickoff event.

He was referring, of course, to Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, whose team has won the division championship — along with the overall conference title — every year since 2015.

“There’s only one that’s for it, and he’s just happy to win the Atlantic every year for the last (six) years,” Clawson said. “And then yesterday if you asked, those guys are all against it. I wonder why that is?”

The obvious answer is that teams in the Coastal Division, whose coaches appeared at the league’s preseason media gathering the previous day, don’t have to compete directly against the powerful Tigers during the regular season.

Clemson is once again the overwhelming favorite to continue its dominance, garnering 146 of a possible 147 votes in a preseason media poll. NC State was a distant second, followed by Boston College, Florida State, Wake Forest, Louisville and Syracuse.

By contrast, six of the seven teams in the Coastal — preseason pick North Carolina, Miami, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, Virginia, Georgia Tech — received at least one first-place vote. Duke, which was predicted to finish last, is the only one that didn’t.

So while Clawson’s Deacons and their fellow Atlantic foes go into every year hoping to finish first but realistically understanding that they’re probably playing for second, the league’s other seven teams actually stand a realistic chance of sitting atop their division standings.

In fact, each of them, including Duke, has won the Coastal and made an appearance in the ACC Championship Game during the past seven seasons the conference has featured divisional play.

That doesn’t include last year, when the league scrapped its traditional format in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of the two division winners facing one another in the title game, the teams with two best regular season winning percentages met in Charlotte.

That created a rematch between Clemson and Notre Dame, which joined the league on a temporary basis.

With the league going back to an eight-game schedule and the Irish returning to independent status after their brief cameo, the ACC has reinstated its traditional two-division format for 2021.

And just as Clawson suggested, those in the Coastal Division are happy about it.

“I think it creates more excitement for the player to have the opportunity to win a division championship,” Duke’s David Cutcliffe said. “You get into November where college football gets really serious, where champions are determined, and you’re going to end up having five or six teams in the hunt for an opportunity to be an ACC champion with division play. I think it’s the better way to go.”

Love it or hate it, the ACC didn’t have any choice in the decision to return to divisional play.

According to NCAA rules, which were waived last year because of the pandemic, conferences must either play their championship game between division winners or between the top two teams following a full round-robin schedule involving all league members.

If there’s one thing about the current format coaches from both the Atlantic and the Coastal can agree, it’s that the ACC needs to find a way to adjust its schedule to allow nondivisional teams to meet more than once every 12 years.

It’s a situation that has become so frustrating to some once-traditional rivals that UNC and Wake Forest decided to play one another in 2019 in a game that didn’t count in the conference standings.

“I don’t think that’s fair to the student-athletes at any of these schools,” NC State’s Dave Doeren said of the current cross-divisional scheduling rotation. “(Wolfpack linebacker) Payton Wilson is a great example. He grows up going to Duke football games, he comes to NC State, he gets to play them one time. Some of our guys don’t ever get to play Duke. I just don’t think that’s a good way to put it together.

“I loved last year, playing as many teams as we got to play from the other side. What’s the best way to do that? That’s not for me to decide. I would just like to see a little bit more of a rotation. How does that get done? Is it getting rid of divisions, realigning, adding another conference game? I don’t know. That’s for people ahead of me to decide.”