Luke DeCock

ACC Coastal football: Three unbeatens, three games, three weeks

Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk scrambles away from Virginia Tech cornerback Mook Reynolds Lane Stadium in Blacksburg.
Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk scrambles away from Virginia Tech cornerback Mook Reynolds Lane Stadium in Blacksburg. Getty Images

After all the years the Coastal Division has been a chaotic mess, finally some clarity. There’s still the possibility of mathematical gridlock, but there’s also a three-game, three-week referendum on the title that could – should – go a long way toward determining a champion.

Duke, North Carolina and Pittsburgh all remain unbeaten in ACC play. Every other team in the Coastal has at least two losses. No. 22 Duke, No. 23 Pittsburgh and North Carolina will all play each other over the next three weeks. Rarely are things wrapped up in a package this neat and tidy.

If that trio conspires to go 1-1 then we’re back where we started, but the opportunity is there for someone to go 2-0 and essentially clinch the division starting Thursday when the Tar Heels visit the Panthers. Duke travels to North Carolina on Nov. 7. Pittsburgh goes to Durham on Nov. 14.

“If we just keep taking care of our business, we should be OK,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said Monday. “I haven’t even really looked at the standings to see where everybody is. I just know we have a good team coming up.”

To make things even more equitable, outside of the round-robin all three teams still play Miami at home, not that the wobbling, coachless Hurricanes should pose much of a threat at this point.

Everything else being equal, Duke’s remaining ACC games (at Virginia, at Wake Forest) are easier than North Carolina’s (at Virginia Tech, at N.C. State) and slightly easier than Pittsburgh’s (vs. Louisville), giving the Blue Devils a slight advantage.

If you believe that quality of competition matters the most, the three teams have beaten roughly the same level of competition but Pittsburgh has the best loss, at undefeated Iowa on a buzzer-beating 52-yard field goal.

The Sagarin computer rankings have Duke and North Carolina in a virtual dead heat, with Pittsburgh only a few points behind, which gives the Tar Heels the edge – potentially good enough to overcome the Panthers’ home-field advantage while using their own to defeat Duke in Chapel Hill.

“I know the schedule by hand,” UNC’s Ryan Switzer said. “We’ve got Pitt, Duke, Miami, Virginia Tech, N.C. State. If you look at it like that, it’s kind of overwhelming. We’ve got a ranked team this week and a ranked team next week. If you take it game by game, it’s kind of like making a checklist for yourself with all the chores you’ve got to do, cleaning your room and all that. It’s a lot clearer.”

So the three teams will share a roughly level playing field on the way to the finish, even if Pittsburgh has one more ACC win than the other two because the Panthers play Notre Dame between the North Carolina and Duke games, an unwelcome interlude given the circumstances.

With three unbeaten teams, there’s a chance for an authoritative champion in a division that hasn’t had a winner with only one ACC loss since 2011 or one unbeaten in conference play since 2010 (in both cases, Virginia Tech).

Georgia Tech and Duke won the division with 6-2 records the past two seasons and 2012 was the awful mess when North Carolina, Miami and Georgia Tech all tied at 5-3 but both the Tar Heels and Hurricanes were ineligible.

We’ve come to expect Coastal chaos. Now we may once again be delivered a clear-cut and commanding Coastal champion.

The prize for all that winning would be the opportunity to serve as Clemson’s speed bump in Charlotte on its way to the College Football Playoff. The Tigers defeated their two Coastal opponents, Georgia Tech and Miami, by a combined 101-24.

Both of those teams are effectively eliminated from division contention. Whichever team emerges among the three Coastal contenders will certainly be hoping for better.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

Three for all

UNC, Duke at Pittsburgh, each unbeaten in the ACC, will each play one another over the next three weeks to likely decide the Coastal Division title:

PITTSBURGH (6-1, 4-0 ACC)

Thursday: vs. UNC, 7

Nov. 7: vs. Notre Dame, noon

Nov. 14: at Duke, TBA

UNC (6-1, 3-0 ACC)

Thursday: at Pittsburgh, 7

Nov. 7: vs. Duke, noon*

Nov. 14: vs. Miami, TBA

DUKE (6-1, 3-0 ACC)

Saturday: vs. Miami, 7

Nov. 7: at UNC, noon*

Nov. 14: vs. Pittsburgh, TBA

* or 12:30 p.m.

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