The ACC’s Atlantic Division has been on fire in recent years. The division is famously responsible for two of the last four national champions, the top two vote-getters in last year’s Heisman race, and a 2016 season which saw signs of life from the rest of its members.
This theme was very evident, even shamelessly promoted, at the ACC Kickoff in Charlotte. For those uninitiated, the league split the two-day event by division— Thursday was the Atlantic media circus, Friday was a much more mild time with the coaches and players from the Coastal. The format absolutely lent itself to an interesting juxtaposition where the Atlantic was pitted as the bell cows for the league, and the Coastal represented the ACC’s strong middle tier.
Thursday: The Atlantic
Sitting in on interviews, the conversation for Wake Forest, Boston College, Syracuse, and N.C. State centered largely around what it was like to compete with national contenders for a division title. In the purest form of PC-speak, each of those four schools’ representatives talked about embracing the challenge of playing Florida State, Clemson, and Lamar Jackson’s Louisville annually.
Wake’s Dave Clawson, when asked what the next step for his improving Demon Deacons is, said flatly “beating one of the big boys”. Dave Doeren, who has been outspoken about the ‘unfair’ divisional structure in the past, walked his statement back a little bit.
I got the chance to ask Bobby Petrino this question directly (and actually remembered to record it!) His theme is closer to a Coastal team’s fan perspective— we just want to see the other division more often.
As each team shuffled through the media barrage, each coach was asked about the “best division in the best conference”. Each made it clear that they aspired to get to Clemson and Florida State’s level, but at least publicly made it clear that they weren’t afraid of the challenge (author note: they totally seemed afraid of the challenge).
From a pure media spectacle standpoint, Day 1 saw Dabo Swinney get rockstar treatment from media and officials. It saw Jackson posing with his Heisman, which was flanked by the CFP Championship trophy, the Orange Bowl trophy, and the ACC championship trophy— all earned by Atlantic teams. The exploits of Florida State and Clemson were the only show in town. Make no mistake, this is fair. As a rising tide lifts all boats, the weaker four programs in the Atlantic are all making progress. Wake and BC won bowl games last year. Dino Babers brings excitement to Syracuse unparalleled in most of the rest of the league.
The Atlantic is the king right now, and they got their king treatment on Thursday.
Day 2 was a bit more subdued with probably about 35% of the previous day’s media members gone, and thus a decent bit more laid back. After Day 1 was strategically laid out to ensure Louisville, FSU, and Clemson each had their moments in the sun, the Coastal’s order was random, at best: Virginia led off, followed by Duke, Pitt, Virginia Tech, lunch, Miami, Georgia Tech, then finished with Carolina.
Coaches were asked about the very thing the media helped to produce the day before— the superiority of the Atlantic division. Most were prepared, as Paul Johnson cited the Coastal’s “somewhat even, maybe even better” record in interdivisional matchups over the past few years, while Bronco Mendenhall specifically cited the Coastal’s 10-4 record in 2016.
Given that the Atlantic outpaced the Coastal in Sagarin ratings for the first time in four years in 2016, the Coastal coaches do have a fair share of cannon fodder— the balance of the Coastal outweighs the headliners of the Atlantic. Pitt and North Carolina, two teams who did not win the division, knocked off heavyweights Clemson and Florida State, respectively. There was a case to be made for the Coastal, but the narrative was already written for 2017.
After the initial ‘us vs. them’ line of questioning, the focus shifted to who would dethrone the Atlantic. As was typical, a rejuvenated Virginia Tech and a maybe-not-dormant-anymore Miami were the first two teams to come to the minds of those I talked with, and the writers’ projections reflected their faith. Given the success of both programs, this is a fair assessment. Tech rallied from a bad half-decade to take 10 wins and the Coastal in 2016, and Mark Richt has Miami a quarterback away from a huge season.
Interestingly enough, there was only one real mention of North Carolina— but I liked the authority on it. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, when asked what program reminded him of the one he built at Clemson, that Larry Fedora was in the process of building something special in Chapel Hill.
Fedora expounded on the culture himself, and returned the compliment: “It takes a few years to establish a culture...a consistency. Dabo had to do it at Clemson, and we ... think we’re close at UNC.”
The takeaway is this: while the Atlantic currently possesses all of the accolades, the Coastal seems to possess the most potential. The league’s writers— heck, even the commissioner— made this point loud and clear.
While the focus for this year’s ACC Kickoff was the Atlantic Division, the Coastal is poised to continue to build credibility, and perhaps win back some of the disappearing media.