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ACC Kickoff: The Logical Fallacy Of "Competitive Balance," Division Alignment And Permanent Crossovers

The Atlantic Division is just 75-69 against the Coastal Division (.521) in eight regular seasons. Just don't mistake that as a reason to maintain the current division format and schedule model.

Jason Szenes

Invariably the question of the ACC's division alignment comes up at every league meeting; even more so now that the league has added newcomers Syracuse to the Atlantic Division, Pittsburgh to the Coastal Division and will make a Louisville-for-Maryland swap in the Atlantic. And every single time, Commissioner John Swofford or a member's A.D. will dismiss the idea out of division realignment out of hand citing competitive balance.

"For us, the benefits (of expansion) far outweigh that particular fact," Swofford said, adding that "competitive equity is one of the things that from the very beginning (of divisions) we wanted to try and address. And I don't know the exact numbers at this given point in time, but it's remarkable how close it is division versus division from a competitive standpoint. It's within a game or two."

"So our schools have continued to come back to where they are when they have (division realignment) discussions," Swofford said. "That doesn't mean it couldn't change sometime in the future, but so far those discussions have kept us where we are from a divisional standpoint."

At face, this argument makes a great deal of sense. The Atlantic Division is just 75-69 against the Coastal (.521) in eight regular seasons, with the divisions splitting the eight ACC Championship Games played to date. However, when you dig a bit deeper, you begin to realize that this is one of those classic situations where you can conjure up with any statistic you want to justify your particular viewpoint or decision.

Let's call a spade a spade: though the two divisions have played pretty even for the first eight years of division play, this doesn't in and of itself justify the division alignment Nor does it logically follow that by bolting on Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville into the existing structures does it mean that this trend will follow. All it really means is that on aggregate, the two divisions have played one another pretty close. When you start to dig into individual matchups, however, you begin to see where the argument falls apart.

Any discussion of division alignment and competitive balance going forward starts and ends with the protected cross-division games. Starting this season, these seven series will account for half of the annual meetings between Atlantic and Coastal Division opponents. The current division alignment falls apart without some of these matchups -- namely North Carolina-N.C. State and Florida State-Miami -- so any discussion about whether the current alignment will continue to be competitively balanced needs to focus almost exclusively on these matchups (as rotating cross-over matchups occur so infrequently as to provide meaningful data points).

What the league is left with is a bunch of non-competitive protected cross-over series; at least as evidenced by recent history.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this is the protected Duke-Wake Forest series. The Deacons won each of the first seven meetings between the two programs. While the individual games were pretty close, the Deacons dominance of the Blue Devils actually dates back to 2000; a string of 12 straight Wake Forest wins. It was only last season that Duke was able to notch its first win in the series, a 34-27 victory in Winston-Salem.

2012: Duke 34, @ Wake Forest 27
2011: Wake Forest 24, @ Duke 23
2010: @ Wake Forest 54, Duke 48
2009: Wake Forest 45, @ Duke 48
2008: @ Wake Forest 33, Duke 30
2007: Wake Forest 41, @ Duke 36
2006: @ Wake Forest 14, Duke 13
2005: Wake Forest 44, @ Duke 6

Division play series: Wake Forest leads 7-1

The ACC's newest protected cross-over rivalry, Pittsburgh vs. Syracuse, is also similarly skewed; just in the opposite direction. The Panthers have won seven of the last eight meetings between the two former Big East programs, including seven straight from 2005-2011. It was only last year, a 14-13 home win over Pitt, that the Orange were able to top the Panthers -- a full eight years into a Big East without Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech.

2012: @ Syracuse 14, Pittsburgh 13
2011: @ Pittsburgh 33, Syracuse 20
2010: Pittsburgh 45, @ Syracuse 14
2009: @ Pittsburgh 37, Syracuse 10
2008: Pittsburgh 34, @ Syracuse 24
2007: @ Pittsburgh 20, Syracuse 17
2006: Pittsburgh 21, @ Syracuse 11
2005: @ Pittsburgh 34, Syracuse 17

Big East series record, 2005-2012: Pittsburgh leads 7-1
Aggregate Atlantic vs. Coastal record: Tied 8-8 (.500)

We're now 2/7 through analyzing the ACC's protected cross-over matchups for competitive balance and are an even 8-8, though both series have been largely non-competitive during the time frame in question.

The ACC's marquee protected cross-over matchup -- Miami vs. Florida State -- has similarly been one-sided in the years following the divisional split. The Seminoles have won six of the last eight meetings between the two programs, including three straight. Other than a blowout FSU win in 2010 (45-17), the series has been competitive and I understand the importance of this rivalry series for the league. That doesn't necessarily imply that these two teams have to continue to be separated in opposite divisions.

2012: Florida State 33, @ Miami 20
2011: @ Florida State 23, Miami 19
2010: Florida State 47, @ Miami 17
2009: Miami 38, @ Florida State 34
2008: Florida State 41, @ Miami 39
2007: Miami 37, @ Florida State 29
2006: Florida State 13, @ Miami 10
2005: @ Florida State 10, Miami 7

Division play series: Florida State leads 6-2
Aggregate Atlantic vs. Coastal record: 14-10 Atlantic (.583)

Boston College fans are well aware of the luster lost of late in the Boston College-Virginia Tech series. After the Eagles won three of the first four regular season meetings between the two former Big East foes from 2005-2008, it's been all downhill for the Eagles since. The Hokies own a 5-3 record over BC in the regular season series and 7-3 overall, after throwing in a pair of victories in the ACC Championship Game. Though last year's game did go to OT, this series has grown increasingly non-competitive following BC's loss in the 2008 ACC title game. Virginia Tech has won four straight regular season meetings -- including just the second shutout in the all-time series -- and five straight overall.

2012: Virginia Tech 30, @ Boston College 23 (OT)
2011: @ Virginia Tech 30, Boston College 14
2010: Virginia Tech 19, @ Boston College 0
2009: @ Virginia Tech 48, Boston College 14
2008: @ Boston College 28, Virginia Tech 23
2007: Boston College 14, @ Virginia Tech 10
2006: @ Boston College 22, Virginia Tech 3
2005: @ Virginia Tech 30, Boston College 10

Division play series: Virginia Tech leads 5-3
Aggregate Atlantic vs. Coastal record: 17-15 Atlantic (.531)

The Clemson-Georgia Tech series is the only other permanent cross-division series where we've seen a rematch in the ACC Championship Game. It is the Yellow Jackets that own a 5-3 record in the series since division play began; 6-3 if you throw in an ACC Championship Game victory that was later vacated due to sanctions stemming from an NCAA investigation. Despite Georgia Tech winning 2/3 of the games in this series since 2005, this has been one of the more entertaining cross-divisional matchups over the first eight seasons of division play. The home team has won four straight regular season matchups and seven of eight.

2012: @ Clemson 47, Georgia Tech 31
2011: @ Georgia Tech 31, Clemson 17
2010: @ Clemson 27, Georgia Tech 13
2009: @ Georgia Tech 30, Clemson 27
2008: Georgia Tech 21, @ Clemson 17
2007: @ Georgia Tech 13, Clemson 3
2006: @ Clemson 31, Georgia Tech 7
2005: @ Georgia Tech 10, Clemson 9

Division play series: Georgia Tech leads 5-3
Aggregate Atlantic vs. Coastal record: Tied 20-20 (.500)

The N.C. State-North Carolina series is one of two current permanent cross-division series that must be protected in any reshuffling of the divisions or the scheduling model. Still, this series hasn't been without a few streaks. After North Carolina won the first two meetings in division play, it was N.C. State that rattled off five straight victories from 2007-2011 to take the lead in the cross-division series. North Carolina pulled within two games of State with a 43-35 victory last season. The all-time series, however, skews heavily towards North Carolina, with the Tar Heels having won nearly 2/3 of all meetings (64-32-6 UNC leads).

2012: @ North Carolina 43, N.C. State 36
2011: @ N.C. State 13, North Carolina 0
2010: N.C. State 29, @ North Carolina 25
2009: @ N.C. State 28, North Carolina 27
2008: N.C. State 41, @ North Carolina 10
2007: @ N.C. State 31, North Carolina 27
2006: @ North Carolina 23, N.C. State 9
2005: North Carolina 31, @ N.C. State 24

Division play series: N.C. State leads 5-3
Aggregate Atlantic vs. Coastal record: 25-23 Atlantic (.521)

The league's final permanent cross-division rivalry hasn't been played since 1989 and only twice ... ever. Louisville and Virginia split a home-and-home series back in 1988-89 with the road team winning each game. This new permanent cross-division rivalry is replacing the only series to finish with an even 4-4 record to date as the Terrapins and Cavaliers have split the last four meetings between the two.

While we don't have any on-field results to go off here, we can further this thought exercise by simulating matchups between the Cardinals and Cavaliers over the last eight seasons using Keeping the Maryland-Virginia schedule rotation constant and using the first simulation of each year's matchup, we are left with a series that skew slightly towards Louisville (5-3). Have to think that given the trajectory both of these programs are on, that Louisville will win more often than they'll lose in this permanent cross-over going forward.

2012: Louisville 42, @ Virginia 39
2011: Virginia 39, @ Louisville 19
2010: @ Virginia 30, Louisville 28
2009: @ Louisville 20, Virginia 13
2008: @ Virginia 31, Louisville 3
2007: @ Louisville 17, Virginia 14
2006: Louisville 26, @ Virginia 9
2005: @ Louisville 38, Virginia 24

While the league has done a good job balancing the divisions on aggregate, digging into the individual matchups presents a slightly different picture. Of all yearly cross-division games going forward, half will be protected cross-over games.

Those protected cross-over games consist of:

-- Two series that have been decidedly one-sided over the past eight seasons in Wake-Duke and Pitt-Syracuse
-- One series that needs to happen annually but is still more one-sided than not (Miami-Florida State)
-- Two series that have been balanced competitively and, in my opinion, appear to continue to be so going forward in Clemson-Georgia Tech and N.C. State-North Carolina
-- And two series that although have (or may have) been competitive in the past, are trending (or could trend) in the wrong direction (BC-Virginia Tech and Louisville-Virginia).

While fortunes can change pretty quickly in some of these series, I maintain that over half of these protected cross-overs will be more lopsided than not going forward. When aggregated together, the Atlantic and Coastal Division records against one another may continue to hover around the .500 mark, but that doesn't imply that the league is putting its best foot forward in terms of desirable cross-division matchups.

When more frequent matchups between Florida State-Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech-Clemson are lost to some of these protected cross-over series, it's hard to believe that the league is doing itself any favors with the current division alignment and scheduling model. "Competitively balanced" divisions don't necessarily give the ACC the optimal mix of cross-division games, something that I imagine to be pretty important to the league brass when discussing the possibility of an ACC Network.

So when you hear that the division record between the Atlantic Division and Coastal Divisions is pretty even through the first eight years of division play, all that means is on aggregate, the Atlantic has won just a few more games than the Coastal Division. This should not be used as a justification for the current division alignment or 6+1+1 schedule format, as all it serves to do is protect a majority of permanent cross-divisional matchups that are, and appear to be going forward, competitively imbalanced.