Future of ACC football: Coaches to discuss schedules, divisions

jgiglio@newsobserver.comApril 26, 2014 

For the next two seasons, the structure of the ACC football schedule will remain the same as it has been since the league expanded to 12 teams.

After that, who knows?

With an eye on maintaining competitive balance, the league’s coaches will meet in Amelia Island, Fla., next month to discuss a range of topics, notably the future alignment of the conference and its schedule.

There are multiple options, and coaches are just in discussion phase, but there are seemingly two different results to the discussions: improving the conference championship game by putting in the two best teams – regardless of division – or protecting the conference’s interests and viability in the new four-team College Football Playoff.

Any relatively minor changes, such as going to nine-game conference schedule, would require a vote of the league’s athletic directors. A major change – eliminating divisions and adopting a rotating schedule model, such as one used in basketball – would require NCAA legislation.

There will be plenty of options to debate, especially over the future of divisions and the setup of the ACC championship game.

“It’s going to be pro and con,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said last week on a conference call with the media. “It’s going to be voiced very strongly by some. It’s going to be listened to hopefully by all.

“In the end, we do what’s best for the conferences and what’s best for the institutions.”

The ACC wants to have the final say in what’s best for its postseason structure. Under the current regulations, the NCAA controls the guidelines for any conference championship game.

In the current system, a conference has to have at least 12 teams (the ACC has 14 for football), split into two divisions with the division winners meeting in the championship game.

In March, ACC commissioner John Swofford made an official request to the NCAA Board of Directors to give control of the championship game format to each conference. The other four major conferences – the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 – joined Swofford in support of the request.

Thursday’s decision by the board of directors, to give those five conferences more autonomy in funding scholarships and health care issues, was the first step of many by the conferences in taking more control from the NCAA.

One option Swofford has discussed is doing away with the division format and putting the two best teams in the championship game.

Under that proposal, Clemson (7-1 in the ACC) would have been in the ACC title game last season, not Coastal Division champion Duke (6-2 ACC). That possibly would have made for a more competitive game but it also could have kept FSU, which went on to win the national title, out of the title game.

Some coaches have come out against eliminating the divisions. Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, whose team has won the Coastal title five times since the division format was adopted in 2005, prefers the status quo.

“Every sport that you think about, they play divisions,” Beamer said on the conference call. “You have two winners there, then you have the winner.”

Louisville adds to imbalance

But the addition of Louisville in the Atlantic Division, replacing Maryland for the 2014 season, increases the recent imbalance between the two divisions.

The Cardinals were 23-3 the past two seasons, winning the Big East title and Sugar Bowl in 2012 and going 12-1 in its lone season in the American Athletic Conference in 2013.

Since the start of the 2012 season, Clemson and Florida State have gone a combined 27-1 against the rest of the ACC.

Louisville, Clemson and Florida State each finished in the top 15 of the final AP poll in 2012 and 2013. No Coastal Division team did in either season.

Wins and losses can come and go, like the tide – 2013 national champion FSU was 7-6 in 2009 – but the real competitive issue with the current division alignment comes down to frequency.

Under the current schedule model, there are six division games, one permanent crossover game and then what amounts to a six-year rotation for the other game.

For example, N.C. State and Duke met in 2013 but aren’t scheduled to meet again until 2020. Clemson and Virginia are on the same track.

In an email to other ACC athletic directors last December, obtained by the Associated Press, Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross complained specifically about his school’s inability to play in major recruiting markets in Miami and Atlanta on a regular basis.

The coaches have talked about adding a ninth conference game, specifically to address the problem but if the division model is scrapped, a rotation could be set up to get every team to every stadium every fourth year.

“The one thing that I really wish that was different was when a young man comes to Clemson, it would be great for him to be able to play every team in the league at some point over his career,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said on the conference call.

“With the setup that we have right now, that’s just not the case.”

The 2016 season would likely be the earliest any major structural changes could happen, depending on the NCAA’s decision in August by the board of directors.

Any changes made by the league have to be approved by a vote of the athletic directors. A simple majority, eight votes, would be needed to make a change.

Giglio: 919-828938

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