Jacobs: ACC heading toward tougher football schedules

As Yogi Berra might have said, when it comes to non-conference football schedules, there are more than two sides to every coin.

In fact, the coin is spinning, making it difficult to keep track of just how many sides there are. The game’s imperatives are evolving. Just accumulating wins, even in an era when bowl berths are acquired with a breakeven record, no longer suffices. Now league edicts and national incentives are pushing a higher degree of scheduling difficulty, even if that’s not entirely evident in 2015.

Last season’s inaugural national championship playoffs factored strength of schedule into rating participants, much in the manner of the NCAA basketball tournament. A team’s slate of non-conference opponents will soon provide an incontrovertible tipoff to how seriously a school is committed to competing for championships.

More of what Michael Strickland, the ACC’s senior associate commissioner for football, calls “benchmark games against our peer conferences” can only bolster the league’s middling on-field reputation. Or not. So far in 2015, the ACC is 5-11 against other power leagues and independents Army, Boise State and Notre Dame.

Given the shifting circumstances, some non-league schedules we’ve seen in the ACC this year – Boston College and N.C. State come to mind – are apt to be shunned in the near future. They won’t be missed.

“I’ve got guys calling me now because they want to upgrade their schedules,” says N.C. State alum Gary Stokan, president and CEO of Atlanta’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, which stages a kickoff game and a December 31 bowl. “In the last two years, the whole scheduling mantra has changed.”

Starting in 2017, the ACC and its peers require members to face at least one opponent annually from what ACC commissioner John Swofford calls the “Autonomy 5” conferences. The ACC already made this a bit less optional by scheduling its teams over the next decade against Notre Dame, a formidable quasi-affiliate. The Irish visit Raleigh and host Duke next season, travel to Chapel Hill and host N.C. State and Wake Forest in 2017.

Payouts enticing

Meanwhile, a proliferation of neutral sites offer highly lucrative marquee matchups to open the season, such as North Carolina facing South Carolina in Charlotte and Louisville against Auburn in the Georgia Dome. Next year it’s Florida State versus Mississippi in Orlando and UNC versus Georgia in Atlanta.

The payouts (around $3 million per school), exposure and competitive benefits of appearing in the kickoff events are hard to resist. “What we’ve learned from…coaches is that the off-season workouts by the players in the spring and in the summer coming into camp, they go to a whole new intensity level because they’re playing a ranked opponent on national TV in their first game, versus playing a lesser FBS or FCS opponent,” Stokan says.

Such contests also cast an unflattering light on farcical openers at schools like FSU, a national title aspirant. Coach Jimbo Fisher has inaugurated 4 of his 6 seasons at Tallahassee with wins that came by an average score of 55-8, including a 59-16 stomping of Texas State this year.

Widespread schedule padding in part reflects the reality that six victories virtually assure a bowl appearance. With the number of bowls (40 plus the national championship contest) fast approaching the number of states in the union, mediocrity has become its own reward.

But fattening won-lost records by gorging on a pair of lower-division opponents, as Boston College did this year with Maine and Howard, may soon be a vestige of a little-lamented past. The Big Ten has more or less banned playing FCS teams altogether. That’s too severe. This year five ACC programs hosted HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities). Welcoming one FCS squad annually to an ACC stadium provides the visitor with a crucial payday, incentive and visibility, and builds relationships, particularly in-state.

In-state rivals

By now, most ACC teams have concluded their non-conference games. But not all. Happily, in an era when longstanding rivalries and traditions are discarded like so many fast-food wrappers, Clemson, FSU, Georgia Tech and Louisville cling to their annual series with in-state SEC opponents South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and Kentucky, respectively.

North Carolina tries to include an in-state rival, not necessarily a challenging one. This season it was North Carolina A&T. In 2017 it’s Western Carolina. East Carolina and Western are on the 2018 schedule. Wake Forest appears as a non-ACC opponent in 2019 and 2021.

Duke resurrected football in part by sprinkling private universities with a similar academic profile – Tulane, Northwestern, Stanford, Baylor (2017, 2018) – into a manageable mix. Making it easier to build a winning program, divisional separation limited Blue Devil exposure to three games against Clemson and FSU during the last seven ACC regular seasons.

“We think we’ve identified a scheduling formula that’s working really well for us,” says Duke athletic director Kevin White. “If anyone ever said they had an absolute, drilled-down formula for football scheduling, they’re lying to you like Pinocchio. It’s an art form, and you’re just trying to put yourself in the best position to be successful.” White seeks flexibility; Duke embraces the present template of eight ACC opponents and four non-conference games.

Not all football schedules are straitjackets fixed in place five, 10 or more years in advance. True, Virginia Tech is almost completely committed through 2025, when current coach Frank Beamer would be 78. But the Blue Devils are fully scheduled only in 2016, 2017 and 2020.

Keeping focus

N.C. State AD Debbie Yow supports 9 ACC games, if necessary by doing away with the Atlantic and Coastal divisions. As league schedules are currently configured, the Wolfpack has played Triangle rival Duke only once in the past six seasons (2013). “How does that make sense?” Yow asks. Harkening to an original impetus for the conference’s formation in 1953, she adds, “I want our players to know what it’s like to play everyone in the ACC.”

Yow’s preferred changes probably aren’t on the near horizon. Nor are we apt to see another ACC program with a non-league schedule like N.C. State faced this season. The Wolfpack opened 4-0, but didn’t play a power-conference opponent. Last week, even after its ACC opener against Louisville, N.C. State’s schedule ranked lowest among the top 58 teams in Jeff Sagarin’s ratings for USA Today.

Consequently, Dave Doeren had to worry about players maintaining focus, the opposite effect reported about opening with big-time competition. “You really have to work hard as a coach when you’re playing teams in a lesser conference to make sure (players) work the way you want them to work,” the N.C. State coach said.

But that problem paled in comparison with the lesson embedded in the team’s disappointing ACC opener against Louisville, in which it took at least a half for the Wolfpack to adjust to the speed, size and athleticism of a big-time opponent.

At least the schedule provided N.C. State breathing room to build confidence. On the dark side of the coin, consider Virginia, with a non-ACC schedule that would challenge a national power, let alone a program struggling to regain relevance. Coach Mike London’s job status already appeared tenuous before the Cavaliers lost to powerful UCLA, Notre Dame and Boise State in their first four 2015 outings.

“It’s very easy to overschedule,” says White, speaking generally. “We’re responsible for providing kids that throw in with us a really good experience. The last time I checked, unless you have success kids aren’t going to have a great experience.”