Column | The Coastal division might be gone, but ACC chaos will still remain

By Alexander Ganias, Staff Writer

When Clemson defeated North Carolina in the ACC Title Game on Sunday, it signified the end of an era. Yes, it was the last game of the ACC football season, but the game also wrapped up a tumultuous era that started in 2005. It lasted 17 seasons and saw turnover so frequently that the ACC decided it wasn’t worth the trouble.

And now, the Coastal division is no more.

When Louisville moved conferences from the American to the ACC in 2014, the two divisions were set in stone. Pitt, North Carolina, Duke, Georgia Tech, Miami, Virginia and Virginia Tech made up the Coastal Division. And so-called “Coastal Chaos” was prevalent from the very beginning.

It first struck when a top five unbeaten Virginia Tech team faced Miami and couldn’t pull out the win. The Hurricanes played spoiler to a perfect season by shutting out the Hokies through three quarters. A measly touchdown couldn’t prevent VT from losing its only game of the regular season 27-7.

Even the first ever ACC Football Championship game couldn’t escape the chaos. The game took place in 2005 in Jacksonville, with Florida State facing off against Virginia Tech, and it looked like the Seminoles would easily win after three quarters of play, leading 27-3. But the Hokies put a scare into the Atlantic division with 19 unanswered points in the final quarter. Florida State still won 27-22, but that was just a taste of future chaos.

Everything changed in 2013. The ACC added Pitt and Syracuse from the old Big East Conference, and the league now featured 14 teams, seven in each division. By this point, Clemson and Florida State owned the ACC, and the Coastal division couldn’t figure out how to take down the juggernauts. The chaos was now internal, and the division became a merry-go-round.

Duke started the cycle of turbulence in the Coastal back in 2013, eventually losing to Florida State 45-7 after its improbable run to the division championship. The Seminoles then won the last ever BCS National Championship after that game. Georgia Tech met the same fate the next season. However, they kept it much closer in the title game. Then it was Clemson’s turn to run the conference, and even three ranked opponents in a row (UNC, VT and Miami) couldn’t stop the powerhouse Tigers. 

The Coastal needed a hero to save them from the cycle, but Pitt couldn’t find its footing in 2018. And even after Virginia narrowly defeated its in-state rival VT to earn a spot in the title game, they allowed a title game-record 62 points in the championship against Clemson. 

But let’s rewind to Pitt. If there was a team in the Coastal that ruffled the feathers of the conference, it was the Panthers. In 2016, they gave Clemson its first home loss against an unranked opponent in eight seasons. The next year, some redshirt first-year quarterback named Kenny Pickett led the Panthers to an upset against No. 2 Miami, ruining their chance at a spot in the CFP.

Unsurprisingly, after Pitt lost the 2018 ACC Championship, head coach Pat Narduzzi made a statement that hinted at a change of the guard

“We’re going to keep getting better,” he said. “It’s a great experience, and we’re going to learn from it.”

What? You’re going to get better? You fool, this is the Coastal Division. You don’t “get better,” you wait your turn and advance to the championship when the ACC gods have determined so. You’re not supposed to fight the chaos, you accept it and move on. Do you know what would happen if the normal series of events are disturbed?

Pitt clearly did not know, and it did not care. 

The ACC removed divisions in 2020 due to COVID-19, a sign of what the future held. But in 2021, the conference put the divisions back, and the chaos returned with a vengeance. Pitt beat Clemson and won the Coastal. Clemson ran the table for the rest of the season, but it didn’t matter — Wake Forest represented the Atlantic Division in the title game and reporters predicted blood.

Wake was not ready for the chaos. Pickett fake-slid in his first offensive drive, then the defense embarrassed redshirt-sophomore quarterback Sam Hartman — four interceptions including a pick-6 and zero points scored after the first quarter. Pitt won the ACC, and everyone lost their minds.

Despite the lack of offense, Wake head coach Dave Clawson decided to complain about Pickett’s slide. The NCAA banned fake slides less than a week after the game, and the ACC announced that they would be removing divisions in 2023. The conference cited working in the student-athlete’s best interests and other conferences like the SEC and the Pac-12 plan to or have already implemented division-less standings.

But was this an attempt to kill the Chaos? It seems fishy that the conference made its decision after a Coastal team won the Title Game. Perhaps that wasn’t the rationale, but one thing is for certain…when it comes to ACC football, the Coastal is dead. But the Chaos will still remain.