The ACC’s longstanding argument of "competitive balance" as its biggest reason to keep the Atlantic and Coastal Divisions status quo needs to end as an era with Louisville is about to begin.
Staunch proponents of maintaining their current divisional structure, ACC officials have finally conceded a willingness to change -- if, of course, the NCAA should decide to loosen its restrictions on the requirements to host a conference championship game. If the NCAA were to give conferences full autonomy over their title games, as the ACC has formally requested, the ACC could eliminate its divisions entirely. It could keep the divisions, but not require everyone to play each other in the same division, as the NCAA currently mandates. It could have the top two teams in the BCS standings playing for the league title.
At the very least -- with or without the help of the NCAA -- the ACC should capitalize on this opportunity to change and separate Louisville from Atlantic Division heavyweights Florida State and Clemson. The exchange of Maryland for Louisville was not an even trade: It was an upgrade. If the ACC truly wants to see competitive balance, it’s not going to get it from watching three top-15 teams cannibalize each other in the same division. Swap Louisville for a Coastal Division team, or eliminate the divisions entirely so that there is not such a drought between meetings, and rivalries can still be preserved.
Under the current structure, the Atlantic Division’s schedule is both its greatest strength and weakness, as each team will have to face Florida State -- the defending national champ -- No. 8 Clemson, and No. 15 Louisville. The addition of Louisville alone causes a glaring disparity between the competition in the divisions.
Using the final Associated Press rankings, the teams in the ACC’s Atlantic Division will play 19 opponents ranked in the top 15 of the final rankings, while the Coastal Division will face only seven. Duke and Pittsburgh have no opponents ranked that high, and Virginia Tech (Ohio State), North Carolina (at Clemson), and Georgia Tech (Clemson) each have one. Meanwhile, five of the seven teams in the Atlantic Division will each face three opponents ranked in the final top 15 -- and yes, most of those opponents come from within their own division.
Good luck, though, trying to find anyone in the Coastal Division who has a problem with that. Just about every one of those teams is trying to separate itself, and lining up against Louisville regularly certainly won’t help -- just ask Miami. Yes, Louisville will have a new coach and new quarterback, so some drop-off should be expected. Clemson also has to replace All-American receiver Sammy Watkins and quarterback Tajh Boyd, but in the big picture, neither of those programs appears to be disappearing anytime soon. In spite of all of their questions, both should still be projected to finish among the top three teams in the Atlantic Division in 2014.
There are plenty of scheduling questions in front of ACC athletic directors, coaches and officials right now, and lots to consider as the conference moves forward into the College Football Playoff system in 2014. Instead of trying to make the schedules more difficult, either by adding another conference game or some sort of partnership with the SEC, league officials should reevaluate just how tough it already is.
The ACC is looking for competitive balance, but the addition of Louisville has already tipped the scale.