In the midst of a blowout win over Boston College two weekends ago, Clemson defensive end Logan Rudolph saw a chance to put his mark on the game. After teammate Chad Smith ended an Eagles drive with a strip-sack of quarterback Dennis Grosel, Rudolph pounced on the loose ball, shrugged off a Boston College lineman and thundered to the purple-and-orange-clad end zone. The sophomore from Rock Hill, South Carolina, scored the first touchdown of his collegiate career, and the Tigers’ lead mushroomed to 45-7.
The lopsided score, along with Rudolph’s near-unaccompanied waltz into the end zone, is perhaps a microcosm of the modern Atlantic Coast Conference. Despite technically owning two of the past three national championships and appearing in four of the past six title games, the conference usually boils down to one team and “everyone else.”
Back in 2014, it was the Florida State Seminoles, led by Heisman winner Jameis Winston and a cast of other future NFL draftees, that laid waste to the conference en route to an appearance in the inaugural College Football Playoff, following the team’s national title in 2013 and ACC title the season prior. These days, the Atlantic Coast Conference might as well be renamed the “All Clemson Conference”: Since the Tigers arrived as national title contenders in 2015, head coach Dabo Swinney has led his program to absolute domination in the conference, going 36-2 over that stretch. This season, the Tigers are well positioned for a fifth consecutive playoff appearance, as our model gives them an 84 percent chance of making the sport’s final four.
Clemson’s best stretch in program history, though, has obscured the mediocrity of the rest of the conference. Clemson has mastered its opponents in the Atlantic Division, losing just once — to Syracuse in 2017 — and maintaining its hold on the division’s spot in the ACC Championship Game since the days of Winston and Company. Meanwhile, the Coastal Division has had no back-to-back winners since 2010-11 and has seen five different champs in the past five years. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Coastal Division champion has not won a single ACC title game since 2010, with its representative losing to Clemson in 2011, falling to Florida State during the Seminoles’ three-peat of 2012 to 2014, and then losing to Clemson again in 2015 through 2018. In some respects, the Coastal’s poor performance has seemed like a vicious cycle.
|Year||Atlantic Champ||Coastal Champ|
|2005||Florida State||Virginia Tech|
|2006||Wake Forest||Georgia Tech|
|2007||Boston College||Virginia Tech|
|2008||Boston College||Virginia Tech|
|2010||Florida State||Virginia Tech|
|2012||Florida State||Georgia Tech|
|2014||Florida State||Georgia Tech|
The Coastal Division hasn’t always been defined by chaos and weakness at the top. In fact, at the beginning of the ACC’s two-division era — after the conference expanded in 2005 — Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech commanded the Coastal, accounting for all division titles from 2005 to 2012.1 And in six of the seven seasons from 2005 to 2011, ACC Atlantic teams’ win totals against conference opponents fell within a narrower range than Coastal teams’ conference win totals,2 suggesting that, the Atlantic was more balanced than the Coastal at the time.
Since 2011 — the beginning of the Atlantic’s winning streak in the championship game — the relative separation between Coastal teams has narrowed slightly, while the gap between Atlantic teams has increased.3 The year-to-year excitement over the Coastal Division winner may have come at the expense of producing a viable contender for ACC hardware in December, let alone for a national title. If the Atlantic Division has been a case study in hegemony, the Coastal has been one in extreme parity — and ignominy.
The conference has also languished in terms of overall performance. Since 2011, the ACC has had just 23 teams finish in the final top 25 of Simple Rating System (SRS). For reference, the SEC West Division by itself has had 34 teams4 in the top 25 over the same time period. Granted, the SEC West is arguably the best single division in college football, but the ACC’s mark is the lowest of any Power Five conference over this period. Nobody doubts that the ACC is capable of producing a single great team, but if the conference as a whole were matched up against any other Power Five conference, it would likely get trounced.
The ACC’s struggles extend to its difficulty in producing top-tier collegiate talent. Since its inception in 2005, the Coastal has produced just eight All-American selections, the worst mark of any single Power Five conference division.5 But aside from the dynasty in Death Valley and Florida State’s three-year run, the Atlantic hasn’t been much better. The Atlantic has produced 36 All-American selections since 2005 and 26 since 2011, but the accolades have gone mostly to the two dynastic programs, Clemson and Florida State, who have combined for 24 of the 36 selections and 19 since 2011.
Clemson and Florida State’s apparent hogging of the talent also seems to track with recruiting ratings over time: According to 247 Sports’ Team Rankings, there hasn’t been a drastic disparity in the overall incoming talent between the Atlantic and Coastal Divisions. In fact, from 2011 through 2018, there was hardly any difference between the average recruiting ratings of the two divisions, though the Atlantic came out slightly ahead, with an average score of 203.65 to the Coastal’s 201.26.6 Once again, however, the year-to-year ratings of Clemson and Florida State stand above the rest of the pack, with the occasional exception of Miami.
So while Clemson’s current run is impressive in its own right — its performances in the College Football Playoff are evidence that its routine inclusion in the playoff is justified — it is arguably facing a slate of opponents that does not rise to the standard of its competitors in the playoff. Even Florida State, which is the only other ACC team to feature on the national scene in the post-BCS era, has gone through a lull since Jimbo Fisher left, and Miami has consistently underachieved relative to its incoming talent (which often rivals that of Clemson and Florida State).
As a Tiger, Logan Rudolph has only ever known the bright lights of the playoff. For him and many other Tigers, every snap of every game until late December is just a prelude to playing for another banner. But for most of the ACC, a basic truth persists: The stakes and the strength of the competition could hardly be lower.
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