ATLANTA — There's no other way to say it: The ACC's Coastal Division is a mess.
A month is left in the season, and — for better or worse — the race remains wide open.
The preseason favorite is having its worst season in two decades. Last week's leader absorbed a 41-point beating from the first-place team in the other division. What could be the division's most complete team isn't allowed to win it.
And the struggles in the Coastal — and the rest of the league, really — aren't helping the ACC's two best teams in the BCS rankings.
No. 9 Florida State and No. 10 Clemson, both in the Atlantic Division, are in the top 10 of the human polls used by the BCS. But they each have an average computer ranking of No. 21 and are considered longshots to climb back into the national championship picture, in large part due to the mediocrity of their conference mates.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney isn't worried that the rest of the ACC is dragging down his team's ranking.
"When it's all said and done, we will be where we need to be," Swinney said.
But there's no escaping this: The team that advances out of the Atlantic Division and reaches the ACC championship game won't get much of a strength-of-schedule boost from their opponent in Charlotte. Not when the Coastal has nobody in the Top 25 and four two-loss teams topping the standings.
Yet the coaches don't see that as a negative — but a positive, because for the most part, everyone still has a shot.
"I'm glad it's a muddled mess that we're muddling in it," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "That's a good thing. That's November and meaningful games."
Since the ACC went to its bidivisional format in 2005, the Coastal generally has been the stronger of the two divisions. But Coastal teams are 5-7 so far against those in the Atlantic with six matchups remaining. Three of those are this week, so that record realistically could slip to 5-10.
In each of the past five seasons, the Coastal champion has reached a BCS bowl. But that figures to be a long shot this year. The winner is assured of having at least two, and probably three, conference losses — just the second time that's happened.
So while Florida State and Clemson rule the Atlantic, there doesn't seem to be anybody in charge in the Coastal. Duke, North Carolina and Miami are 3-2 in league play while Virginia Tech at 2-2.
"You look around, and everyone has their own issues," Virginia coach Mike London said.
Virginia Tech, the overwhelming preseason favorite, has struggled to establish the run and its defense has been surprisingly leaky at inopportune times — two factors that have them with their worst record through eight games since 1992. Yet the Hokies will share the division lead with a win at Miami on Thursday night.
Georgia Tech, picked to finish second, has won just once since Sept. 15, giving up 40 points in four of its last five games to fall into fifth place and jeopardize its streak of 15 straight bowl berths.
North Carolina might be the division's best all-around team, but the Tar Heels can't win it because of their one-year bowl ban and a new ACC policy doesn't allow ineligible teams to claim regular season or division titles.
"That was our No. 1 goal going into the season, was to win the Coastal Division," first-year coach Larry Fedora said. "Whether or not we're recognized, it's still about our football team and what our goals are and what we can accomplish. We can't worry about what happened outside. It has nothing to do with this football team right now."
Duke had first place all to itself last week and — in what could be seen as an illustration of the gap between the divisions — the Seminoles handed the Blue Devils a 48-7 beating.
Miami failed to reach the league title game in any of its previous eight seasons in the conference, but the Hurricanes remain very much alive despite a young defense that has given up at least 415 total yards to each of the seven Bowl Subdivision teams it has faced.
And last year's surprise story — Virginia — is losing all those close games that went the Cavaliers' way during their charmed 2011 season. As a result, they're the only team in either division winless in league play.
"You look at the frustration of being where we are right now ... a couple of games that we've lost have been within a touchdown. You win those games, it puts you kind of back in that having won some conference games and being .500 or slightly above .500," London said.
So, which Coastal team has the best shot to play in Charlotte on Dec. 1?
The winner of this week's Virginia Tech-Miami game would seem to have the inside track because both teams have manageable paths down the stretch. The Hokies' final four ACC opponents — which include the last-place teams in both divisions — have a combined conference record of 9-11. The Hurricanes' is 5-8.
Had the Tar Heels been eligible, they would seem to be in control because their final three league opponents are a combined 4-9. And, as topsy-turvy as this season has been in the Coastal, it's hard to rule out Duke — which finishes against Georgia Tech and Miami.
"Every time you win in November, the next game's bigger, because there's a real prize out there, and that's a serious prize," Cutcliffe said.