Don’t feel bad. So do the SEC and Big Ten.
This is the price of conference expansion. While good for the league’s coffers, it is a pain in the you-know-what for schedule-makers. Twelve teams was manageable. Sixteen would have made for good symmetry. But 14, where it seems most of the big conferences will be stuck for at least this term of TV contracts, is incredibly awkward.
You can split 12 into two divisions and still have teams face each other quit a bit. You can divvy up 16 into four groups and work a scheduling rotation easily from that. But there’s no good way to divide 14. And as everyone has seen from future ACC schedules, some matchups just won’t happen very often.
It makes you ask yourself: what’s the point of being in the same conference as a team you’ll face twice in 12 years?
The division setup requires you to play all six of the teams in your half of the conference. A crossover rival eats up another game. That leaves one rotating opponent to fill out the schedule, which, in the ACC’s case, takes 12 years to complete a full home-and-home cycle.
Teams don’t play in the Atlantic Coast Conference in football. They play in the Atlantic and Coastal Divisions, subsidiaries of the ACC that rarely allow for contests against one another.
I’ve tweeted the numbers before, but they bear repeating: from now until 2024, the end of this ACC scheduling cycle, Virginia Tech will play Florida State, Clemson and Louisville five times. It will play East Carolina, a non-ACC member, seven times between 2014 and 2020. To borrow a Frank Beamer phrase, that’s out of whack.
What’s the point of being in the same conference if matchups are so infrequent that entire classes of players will not play a certain team in the league? Well, that’s exactly what will happen with Virginia Tech’s incoming freshman class this year and Florida State, who won’t play the Hokies again until 2018, and on the road at that.
There are a couple of easy solutions that would alleviate the problem somewhat, although the ACC appears to have no interest in doing them:
1) Eliminate the annual crossover rivals. This is untenable because the league doesn’t want to lose Florida State-Miami or North Carolina-N.C. State or Clemson-Georgia Tech on a yearly basis. And honestly, those games should stay. It’s just that by protecting these yearly games, you limit how quickly each team can play everybody else in the conference.
2) Go to nine league games. This won’t happen because certain schools with state rivals in the SEC — Florida State with Florida, Georgia Tech with Georgia and Clemson with South Carolina — want to have certain flexibility in their scheduling. They’d also prefer not to be hammered in a given year and possibly play nine league games, their SEC rival and Notre Dame, an 11-game slate that one non-conference cupcake wouldn’t do too much to balance out.
I’ve seen ideas to realign the divisions to guarantee better yearly crossover rivalries, but all that does is shift the problem. The issue is that with eight games, with one being a crossover rival — neither of which seems to be going away anytime soon — playing the rest of the teams in the league takes considerable time.
So we’re at an impasse, unless we try to think outside the box. And that’s where my proposal comes in (and by no means and I”m claiming to be the first person to suggest this).
Here it is: Eliminate the divisions. Have every team play three fixed rivals per year. Play five more games against non-fixed opponents in a given year, then the other five the next, allowing for each team to play everybody in the league at least once on the road and at home in a four-year cycle. Then have the teams with the best two records play in the ACC championship game.
It maintains rivalries. It keeps an eight-game schedule to allow flexibility for those who need it. And it allows everyone in the conference to play one another with some regularity.
Here are the fixed matchups I came up with. I tried to keep as many historic or geographic rivalries intact as possible. I admit up front that a few were shoehorned in there to round things out (Duke-Miami and Georgia Tech-N.C. State, specifically):
- Boston College — Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Virginia
- Clemson — Florida State, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest
- Duke — Miami, North Carolina, Wake Forest
- Florida State — Clemson, Miami, N.C. State
- Georgia Tech — Clemson, Miami, N.C. State
- Louisville — Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Virginia Tech
- Miami — Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech
- North Carolina — Duke, N.C. State, Virginia
- N.C. State — Florida State, Georgia Tech, North Carolina
- Pittsburgh — Boston College, Louisville, Syracuse
- Syracuse — Boston College, Louisville, Pittsburgh
- Virginia — Boston College, North Carolina, Virginia Tech
- Virginia Tech — Louisville, Virginia, Wake Forest
- Wake Forest — Clemson, Duke, Virginia Tech
Yes, it’s implausible. And there are plenty of issues. I know. Let me explain a couple, though, and why I don’t think it’s a terrible idea.
So this is a pretty major issue. The NCAA requires a two-division setup for a league to put on a championship game. The rule reads:
(c) Twelve-Member Conference Championship Game. [FBS/FCS] A conference championship game between division champions of a member conference of 12 or more institutions that is divided into two divisions (of six or more institutions each), each of which conducts round-robin, regular-season competition among the members of that division;
This is, to say the least, quite arbitrary. The Big 12, which has 10 teams, has at least had discussions about petitioning the NCAA to stage a game without the requisite number of teams. I can see why that would get denied, since the league already has a round robin schedule for the entire league. Why duplicate things with a title game?
But in the era of enormous power conferences, where scheduling is a nightmare and schools go long periods of time without facing each other, perhaps it’s time for the NCAA to loosen the reins here a little bit. It might be worth a shot for the ACC. And hey, the SEC and Big Ten have similar scheduling issues with 14 teams. Get Mike Slive and Jim Delaney on your side and lobby together.
Honestly, it seems like this would be beneficial. Dividing leagues up into divisions that are either geographic (SEC, Pac-12, Big Ten now) and often confusing (ACC’s Atlantic and Coastal, the old Big Ten’s easily-ridiculed Legends and Leaders), just limits the chance that you’ll actually stage a championship game featuring the two best teams. And isn’t that what everyone wants at the end of the year?
Given the number of postseason bans being given out, many of these championship games are becoming a mockery anyway. In the last two years, league title games have featured 6-6 Georgia Tech, 6-6 UCLA and 7-5 Wisconsin (the only of the three to win). And conferences wonder why ticket sales are sluggish?
Is there really anybody who would have been opposed to seeing Florida State and Clemson meet in last year’s ACC title game? Yeah, it’s a regular season rematch, but it would have given the Tigers a shot at the ‘Noles in a neutral setting, instead of letting the luck of the schedule determine the home team. It’s the best game the league could have put forward. I think Charlotte could have sold out that game fairly quick.
From a league standpoint, especially heading into the new playoff that will reward teams with tough schedules, having another marquee game tacked on at the end of the year could certainly put the ACC champion in a better position to be one of the four teams chosen.
Could it cut out the possibility of two teams from the ACC getting into the playoff? Absolutely. But let’s be realistic. Even in the BCS era, which recently has included 10 spots for teams, the league has had one at-large selection in its history. I don’t think this is a big concern.
2. There’s going to be some inequity in the matchups.
I tried as much as I could to balance the fixed opponents, but I didn’t want to sacrifice traditional rivals.
Here is every team’s record in the BCS era, an imperfect way to judge the strength of a program (I don’t think anyone would argue that Virginia Tech is 12 spots better than North Carolina right now), but it’s a good historical look anyway.
Records since 1998
- 1. Virginia Tech — 148-48
- 2. Miami — 130-57
- 3. Florida State — 127-56
- 4. Louisville — 122-65
- 5. Georgia Tech — 120-73
- 6. Clemson — 115-74
- 7. Boston College — 113-75
- 8. Pittsburgh — 101-83
- 9. N.C. State — 102-84
- 10. Virginia — 97-88
- 11. Wake Forest — 85-96
- 12. Syracuse — 82-99
- 13. North Carolina — 70-96
- 14. Duke — 38-137
Using those records, the teams with the easiest fixed opponents would be North Carolina (N.C. State, Duke, Virginia), Boston College (Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Virginia) and Duke (Miami, North Carolina, Wake Forest). The hardest are Florida State (Clemson, Miami, N.C. State), Georgia Tech (Clemson, Miami, N.C. State) and Clemson (Florida State, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest).
This was mostly unavoidable. UNC is 10 miles from Duke. They have to play. N.C. State is a crossover rival that I assume the fans would prefer not to see go. And Virginia and North Carolina play in the South’s oldest rivalry, with 115 meetings dating back to 1892. That’s the kind of game this whole exercise is aimed at preserving. Boston College is the most geographically isolated school in the league, so you have to keep fixed rivals close.
As for Florida State, Georgia Tech and Miami, I see no real way around those matchups. I’d imagine Seminoles fans would definitely want Clemson and Miami on the schedule every year. Geography and the North Carolina schools’ closeness makes it hard to find natural rivals that aren’t to the south for Georgia Tech and Clemson (and giving the Yellow Jackets FSU, Miami and Clemson every year is hardly fair).
But those inequities will balance out with the other five teams that will appear on the schedule. Georgia Tech might have to play FSU, Clemson and N.C. State every year, but that also puts traditionally weaker programs like Duke, Wake Forest, Virginia and others in the rotation every other year.
The two fixed opponents that were most forced were Duke and Miami (it’d be unfair to pit the ‘Canes against FSU, Clemson and Georgia Tech, three of the six best teams in the BCS era, every year) and N.C. State and Georgia Tech (two teams that aren’t that far away from each other but are currently in opposite divisions, so they don’t face each other very often).
I’m open to anybody’s idea for how to set up the fixed opponents, but the setup would remain the same.
As for the overall inequity, you see that right now anyway. Miami plays Florida State every year. Virginia Tech plays Boston College (the Eagles now, not five years ago). That’s not an advantage when all conference games count the same? If anything, that’s even more pronounced with fewer rotating opponents from the other division each year. There’d still be gripes under the proposed setup, but it’s not too different from the current issues.
3. You’re losing some decent annual games.
Yes, that’s a drawback. Just from Virginia Tech’s perspective, the North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Miami games have become interesting simply because of the schools’ familiarity with each other. Those matchups would be diminished, but I think the benefit of playing everybody currently in the other division outweighs this drawback.
Here’s how frequently the Hokies will play opponents in the league through 2024 under the current setup:
- UVa, UNC, Mia, GT, Duke, Pitt, BC — 12
- FSU, Clem, WF, NCST, Syr, Lou/Md — 2
Under the proposed, no-division setup:
- UVa, Lou, WF — 12
- Mia, GT, Duke, Pitt, BC, FSU, Clem, NCST, Syr – 6
The difference in matchups comes out to this:
- UVa — Same
- Lou , WF — 10 more times
- Mia, UNC, GT, Duke, Pitt, BC — 6 fewer
- FSU, Clem, NCST, Syr — 4 more
That’s a whole lot less of Miami, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and a potentially interesting rival in Pittsburgh, but it means you’d get Florida State and Clemson much more and actually welcome them to your stadium more than once in 12 years. That seems like a decent tradeoff.
The larger point in this whole proposal is to maximize the number of times the league will see good matchups. And getting Virginia Tech-Florida State or Virginia Tech-Clemson or Virginia Tech-Louisville only twice in a decade each doesn’t seem like good business. Wouldn’t TV want these matchups more often? Isn’t that what guided this expansion process in the first place, the gobs of money ESPN was doling out to broadcast interesting games?
I realize this proposal is a fantasy, but I’d still like to hear your thoughts on it. Like it, hate it, have major issues with it? Leave a comment below.