The ACC’s new and improved television deal with ESPN does not come without strings.
ESPN wants the ACC to upgrade its football schedule. The options the cable network gave the ACC pit what’s easier for the majority of the ACC teams against what’s best for the ACC’s best teams.
Hence, as the (Newport News, Va.) Daily Press reported, there was a “deadlocked” vote among league athletic directors this past Friday on the future of its football schedules. A resolution isn’t expected until October.
Given the historic dynamic between the Triangle schools, it’s of little surprise that Duke and North Carolina are on one side and N.C. State is on the other.
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All three schools do agree that the easiest path to meet ESPN’s demands for better “inventory” would be to expand the conference schedule to nine games (it’s currently at eight and has been since Florida State joined the league in 1992).
Given the labyrinth that is college football scheduling, all college administrators understand what headaches and obstacles would be avoided by simply adding another league game. You also get the double bonus of actually playing more teams from the other division more frequently.
But is what’s easier also what’s best for the ACC or even the individual schools?
The ACC and ESPN agreed to a new, more lucrative deal with a linear cable network and “over-the-top” online component in July. ESPN has said that the improvement of Clemson, national runner-up last year, and FSU, national champion in 2013, was one of the main reasons after years of capitulation for the go-ahead on the ACC Network.
Since ESPN will be showing more ACC games, and on its own network, it wants better games. Better is a relative concept, but everyone would agree that Boston College-Pittsburgh is more interesting than Boston College-Buffalo or N.C. State-Duke is more entertaining than N.C. State-Old Dominion.
On the basketball side, the schools quickly adopted a 20-game schedule, an increase of two games, on the same day the league announced its plans for the ACC Network back in July. In football, ESPN gave the ACC two options, according to the Daily Press:
▪ Stay at eight conference games and every team has to play two opponents from a “Power 5” conference (SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 or Notre Dame), annually. In shorthand, the “8+2” model.
▪ Go to nine conference games with one game against a “Power 5” opponent annually or the “9+1” model.
ESPN has told the ACC schools that their preferred option will be kicked in by the start of the 2019 season, which coincides with the launch of the linear cable channel.
Clemson and Florida State, understandably, are leading the charge for the “8+2” model. With an annual built-in rivalry game with the SEC, the Tigers and Seminoles would prefer to keep the flexibility to control their other three games. This makes financial and competitive sense for them (as well as Georgia Tech and Louisville, who have SEC crossover games).
Clemson and Florida State are both playing two SEC opponents this season, which will help their College Football Playoff cause come December. The Tigers and Noles have been the exceptions to the rule for the ACC recently. The precedent is there in basketball (with Duke and Carolina), for the ACC to follow what’s best for its best teams.
In football, all you have to do is look at the schedules for Duke, Carolina or N.C. State, future or past, to figure out what would be easier for them. The Tar Heels were the only Triangle team to play two Power 5 opponents last year (South Carolina, Illinois) and the only one since Duke played Northwestern and Vanderbilt in 2008.
N.C. State hasn’t played two P5 teams in the same season since 2003 when it faced Ohio State and Texas Tech. The Wolfpack only has one schedule, between now and 2028, that would fit the “8+2” requirement. (It has both Notre Dame and South Carolina on the books for 2017.) For that logical reason, N.C. State is a proponent of a nine-game ACC schedule.
UNC and Duke are in favor of the flexibility of the eight-game schedule. Both UNC and Duke have two P5 opponents on their schedules this year. Last week, UNC coach Larry Fedora noted games like this year’s neutral-site opener against Georgia and last year’s against South Carolina could possibly be squeezed out by a “9+1” model.
The Notre Dame factor
Duke doesn’t want to give up its ability to find wins outside the ACC. With some shrewd scheduling, Duke has gone 14-2 in regular-season nonconference games since 2012 (alas, only three of those games, including two losses, were against P5 opponents).
But wanting flexibility and getting P5 games on the books are two different things. Going forward, from the ESPN start time of 2019, there are only three times when either Duke or UNC would meet the “8+2” requirement.
Even with the ACC’s deal with Notre Dame, getting two P5 opponents on the same schedule is easier said than done. The Fighting Irish, a member in all other ACC sports, is scheduled to play an average of five ACC games per year until 2025.
That certainly helps, but finding other Power 5 opponents in non-Notre Dame years, especially for the 10 ACC schools that do not have an annual rivalry game with an SEC opponent, is a chore. Only Pittsburgh and UNC will face two P5 teams other than Notre Dame this year.
The Notre Dame deal has become a sticking point with the four ACC teams with an SEC partner because a nine-game ACC schedule would mean they would control only one game on their nonconference schedule. The positive for Clemson and FSU is adding (and beating) Notre Dame helped them reach the College Football Playoff the past two years.
Nonconference ACC games
Notre Dame creates some problems with its self interests, but the ACC knew that when it made a deal with the Irish. There’s probably a scenario where Notre Dame would join the ACC (if the playoff committee makes a conference championship a requirement), but there isn’t a scenario where Notre Dame would play nine conference games.
The Notre Dame issue aside, UNC just might have the answer to the scheduling dilemma in the form of a compromise. If the ACC schedule stays at eight games, more ACC teams should follow UNC’s lead and play a nonconference game against another ACC team.
UNC has scheduled a home-and-home with Wake Forest in 2019 and ’21. There’s nothing to prevent N.C. State from playing Duke, or Virginia, in a game that doesn’t count in the ACC standings.
Same goes with Syracuse and Miami or any other rarely played cross-divisional games, which under the current format only happen on average once every seven years. ESPN could help the ACC get more ACC teams together on a nonconference basis or since it also runs the SEC Network, might even lend a hand in getting more SEC teams to play September games against the ACC.
The Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 all play nine-game conference schedules. The SEC is the only other P5 conference at eight, which means some deal with the ACC would make sense. What makes sense and what happens aren’t always the same thing. The ACC has until October to decide which way it wants to go.
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio