Coastal closing the gap, but power in Atlantic throws balance in schedule strength toward that division
Once again, the balance of power in the ACC weighs heavily in the Atlantic Division.
With Florida State, Clemson and Louisville bringing back what they do, those three teams all look like top 15-type squads heading into the 2017 college football season. Therefore, when we look at which ACC schedules are the toughest that has to be taken into account.
However, the gap closes slightly this season. Both Virginia Tech and Miami are in the second year of promising new head coaches in Justin Fuente and Mark Richt, respectively, and programs like North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech are probably a slight step ahead of the second group in the Coastal Division.
There will be some terrific non-conference battles (hello, Alabama vs. Florida State), and whenever Clemson, Florida State or Louisville play, it should have national attention.
So let's take a peek around the league to see which teams have the toughest roads to hoe.
1. Florida State
Non-Con: Alabama (in Atlanta), vs. ULM, vs. Delaware State, at Florida
Atlantic Home: NC State, Louisville, Syracuse
Atlantic Road: Wake Forest, Boston College, Clemson
Crossover: vs. Miami, at Duke
Obviously, the season opener with the Crimson Tide is not just the best non-conference game in the league, but the country, as both teams have realistic national title ambitions. Add in road trips to Clemson and SEC East defending champion Florida and the slate outside of Doak Campbell Stadium is fierce. The Seminoles should be favored against Miami, but only beat the Hurricanes by a point last season.
Non-Con: vs. Kent State, vs. Auburn, vs. The Citadel, at South Carolina
Atlantic Home: Boston College, Wake Forest, Florida State
Atlantic Road: Louisville, Syracuse, NC State
Crossover: at Virginia Tech, vs. Georgia Tech
The non-conference slate is highlighted by a home game against an Auburn team that should be much improved with the addition of JUCO/former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham. The Louisville game could have gone the other way last year and that's at Papa John's Stadium this time around. The Tigers also pulled one of the most difficult crossover assignments from the Atlantic in going to Blacksburg to face Virginia Tech.
3. Georgia Tech
Non-Con: Tennessee (Atlanta), vs. Jacksonville State, at UCF, vs. Georgia
Coastal Home: Pittsburgh, North Carolina, Virginia Tech
Coastal Road: Miami, Virginia, Duke
Crossover: vs. Wake Forest, at Clemson
The Yellow Jackets return enough to be a contender in the Coastal Division, but they get no help from their schedule. The non-conference tussles with Tennessee and what should be a much-improved Georgia squad won't be easy. Conference road games against Miami and Clemson will also make life difficult for coach Paul Johnson and Co.
Non-Con: vs. Central Connecticut, vs. Middle Tennessee, vs. Central Michigan, at LSU
Atlantic Home: Clemson, Wake Forest, Boston College
Atlantic Road: NC State, Florida State, Louisville
Crossover: vs. Pittsburgh, at Miami
Three of the non-conference games are manageable, but the trip to Death Valley to face LSU, whose new offensive coordinator rolled up 76 points against Syracuse last year with Pittsburgh, is a bear. Outside of Clemson, NC State, Florida State and Louisville make up probably the toughest road stretch an Atlantic team can find. The trip to Miami also will be treacherous for the Orange.
Non-Con: vs. Youngstown State, at Penn State, vs. Oklahoma State, vs. Rice
Coastal Home: Virginia, North Carolina, Miami
Coastal Road: Georgia Tech, Duke, Virginia Tech
Crossover: at Syracuse, NC State
Yes, the Panthers avoid Clemson, Louisville and Florida State, so the crossover slate is manageable, as both the road trip to Syracuse and the home date against NC State are winnable. That said, the non-conference schedule is brutal, traveling to Happy Valley to face what should be a top-10 Penn State squad and hosting an Oklahoma State team that will be at least in the top 15 to start the season.
6. Boston College
Non-Con: at Northern Illinois, vs. Notre Dame, vs. Central Michigan, UConn (in Boston)
Atlantic Home: Wake Forest, Florida State, NC State
Atlantic Road: Clemson, Louisville, Syracuse
Crossover: vs. Virginia Tech, at Virginia
The meat of this schedule's challenges come within the division. The Eagles have to travel to both Clemson and Louisville and will be heavy underdogs in both. Boston College nearly upset Notre Dame the last time the teams met and traditionally plays the Irish tough, but pulling Virginia Tech out of the Coastal makes for a hard road.
Non-Con: vs. NC Central, vs. Northwestern, vs. Baylor, at Army
Coastal Home: Miami, Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech
Coastal Road: North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech
Crossover: vs. Florida State, at Wake Forest
As far as non-conference games are concerned, Duke has a pretty interesting group. The home games against Northwestern, which is expected to be a fringe top-25 team, and Baylor will both make for an uphill battle for the Blue Devils. Most of the toughest games on the schedule are at home, including the crossover heavyweight opponent in Florida State. The trip to Virginia Tech is the toughest road test.
Non-Con: vs. William & Mary, vs. Indiana, vs. UConn, at Boise State
Coastal Home: Duke, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech
Coastal Road: North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Miami
Crossover: Boston College, at Louisville
There are a few interesting non-conference battles on the horizon, particularly the trip to Boise to play the Broncos on the Blue Turf. Indiana and UConn are winnable games. The crossover trip to Papa John's Stadium to face Louisville will be intriguing, as the Cavaliers nearly pulled off the upset last year. Although Virginia has not beaten its in-state rival since 2003, avoiding the trip to Blacksburg to face Virginia Tech is preferred.
9. North Carolina
Non-Con: vs. California, at Old Dominion, vs. Notre Dame, vs. Western Carolina
Coastal Home: Duke, Virginia, Miami
Coastal Road: Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh
Crossover: vs. Louisville, at NC State
The Tar Heels have an interesting non-conference slate with visits from Cal and Notre Dame, both of which are at home. The crossover games are tough, as Louisville at home and the trip to NC State gives the Tar Heels games against two of the top four teams in the Atlantic. The road games within the division are also about as rough as it gets with visits to the three of the top four Coastal teams.
10. NC State
Non-Con: South Carolina (in Charlotte), vs. Marshall, vs. Furman, at Notre Dame
Atlantic Home: Syracuse, Louisville, Clemson
Atlantic Road: Florida State, Boston College, Wake Forest
Crossover: at Pittsburgh, vs. North Carolina
The non-conference portion of a neutral site game with South Carolina and a trip to Notre Dame is difficult, but the Wolfpack should be competitive with both and maybe favored against the Gamecocks. The trip to Tallahassee to face the Seminoles will be the toughest divisional game, but avoiding Miami and Virginia Tech out of the Coastal helps.
Non-Con: at Purdue, vs. Kent State, vs. Murray State, at Kentucky
Atlantic Home: Clemson, Boston College, Syracuse
Atlantic Road: NC State, Florida State, Wake Forest
Crossover: at North Carolina, vs. Virginia
Credit the Cardinals for playing two non-conference teams from Power Five conferences on the road, but neither Purdue nor Kentucky is a major player, even though the Wildcats beat Louisville last year. The Cardinals avoid Miami and Virginia Tech in the crossover games, but a trip to North Carolina won't be easy. Don't expect the trip to Tallahassee to be as easy for the Cardinals as their blowout win over the Seminoles last year.
12. Virginia Tech
Non-Con: West Virginia (Landover, Md.), vs. Delaware, at East Carolina, vs. Old Dominion
Coastal Home: North Carolina, Duke, Pittsburgh
Coastal Road: Miami, Georgia Tech, Virginia
Crossover: Clemson, at Boston College
For the most part, outside of the West Virginia neutral site game against a team many expect to start the season in the top 25, the non-conference games should be wins. The crossover games bring Clemson to Blacksburg, which should be one of the better matchups of the first half of the season. Miami and Georgia Tech are tough road games inside the division, but, realistically, 10 wins are not out of the question here.
Non-Con: vs. Bethune-Cookman, at Arkansas State, vs. Toledo, vs. Notre Dame
Coastal Home: Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Virginia
Coastal Road: Duke, North Carolina, Pittsburgh
Crossover: at Florida State, Syracuse
When you look at this non-conference schedule, it's easy to envision the 'Canes winning all four. Three of the games should be layups, while Notre Dame is at home. The annual rivalry game with Florida State is in Tallahassee and will likely be the only road game, at least at this stage, where the Hurricanes are the underdog. Getting Virginia Tech at home could be critical to how the Coastal title is decided. The 'Canes should win a minimum of nine, maybe 10 games with this schedule.
14. Wake Forest
Non-Con: vs. Presbyterian, vs. Utah State, at Appalachian State, at Notre Dame
Atlantic Home: Florida State, Louisville, NC State
Atlantic Road: Boston College, Clemson, Syracuse
Crossover: at Georgia Tech, vs. Duke
Even for an Atlantic team, this schedule is on the easier side when compared to the rest of the ACC teams. As far as the non-conference schedule is concerned, the trips to Appalachian State and Notre Dame will both be tough for the Demon Deacons, but the crossover games with Georgia Tech and Duke are manageable. Obviously, going to Clemson is no picnic, but Boston College and Syracuse are not all that difficult when it comes to divisional road games.
— Written by Adam Kurkjian, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and is a reporter for the Boston Herald. He has covered the World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup playoffs, Boston Marathon and Little League World Series, among other events from the high school, college and pro ranks. Follow him on Twitter @AdamKurkjian.