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What role does conference schedule play in determining Coastal champ?

Since the ACC expanded to 14 teams in 2013, the Coastal Division has had three different winners. Two of them avoided playing the best teams in the Atlantic.

Is that a coincidence or direct correlation?

We decided to take a closer look to find out.

North Carolina (2015) and Duke (2013) both faced Wake Forest and NC State the years they won the Coastal Division. For Duke, that meant playing two teams that failed to reach a bowl game. When North Carolina played them last year, NC State had already clinched a postseason spot.

But they were not the only two teams with a perceived schedule advantage in those respective seasons. In 2013, North Carolina played Boston College (7-6) and NC State (3-9) and won both those games. It was a 2-4 record in its own division that hurt the Tar Heels.

When Georgia Tech won the Coastal in 2014 with Atlantic games against Clemson (10-3) and NC State (8-5), two other Coastal teams had easier crossover schedules. Virginia Tech got Boston College (7-6) and Wake Forest (3-9). Duke had Syracuse (3-9) and Wake Forest (3-9).

Then last season, Virginia Tech had what appeared to be another somewhat favorable Atlantic Division draw, with Boston College (3-9) and NC State (7-6). Duke got Boston College (3-9) and Wake Forest (3-9). Losing Coastal records ended up hurting both teams.

What has made some Coastal schedules more difficult than others? The schedule structure in a 14-team league creates a little more inequity. Before expansion, league teams played a permanent crossover division rival and two rotating crossover rivals, allowing all programs to play each other more frequently.

But with only one rotating crossover opponent, schedule strengths vary from year to year. For example, Miami and Georgia Tech both played Florida State and Clemson last year in the regular season. In an eight-conference game model, they are the only schools that would ever have to play both in one season because Miami has Florida State as a permanent rival, and Georgia Tech has Clemson as a permanent rival.

With the recent emergence of Florida State and Clemson as national powers, any Coastal schedule that features them automatically becomes more difficult. This season, nobody plays both. And there is only one team that avoids a preseason Top 25 program from the Atlantic: Virginia Tech.

While Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech play No. 2 Clemson; Miami and North Carolina play No. 4 Florida State; and Duke and Virginia get Louisville, the Hokies face Boston College and Syracuse from the Atlantic. Neither team made a bowl game a year ago.

On paper, that looks like an advantage. But the Hokies have had an easier Atlantic draw for the last several years and were never really in contention for the Coastal. Clemson comes back onto the schedule in 2017 and Florida State in 2018.

What is interesting to note, though, is Virginia Tech won the Coastal Division three times while playing the Atlantic Division champion in the regular season (2007, 2008, 2011). All three years, the Hokies lost in the regular season but still won the division title. In 2007 and 2008, they won the rematch over Boston College in the ACC championship game.

The sample size is small, so it is hard to definitively say a slightly easier Atlantic schedule played a magnified role in determining the Coastal Division champions. North Carolina and Duke took advantage, and had historic seasons and terrific teams. Others with similar schedules did not fare as well as they did. Georgia Tech, meanwhile, won the Coastal multiple times with Clemson on its schedule.

It might be tempting to look at the schedules and pick a team with an advantage based on that, but in this game there are no guarantees.