For those of us who see ACC games against FCS opponents as glorified exhibitions – an excuse to part fans from their money while propping up coaches’ records, even despite the occasional upset – perhaps the greatest fringe benefit of the forthcoming ACC Network is ESPN’s demand for more quality inventory.
The ACC Network already provoked a bump from an 18-game to a 20-game basketball schedule, coincident with the network’s launch. Now the days of football teams playing two FCS opponents – as North Carolina has done the past two seasons and N.C. State did in 2011– will soon be over.
The ACC’s athletic directors will vote at their fall meeting, set for Oct. 5-6, on one of two options for future football scheduling, at ESPN’s behest. The league can remain at eight games while committing to play two Power 5 nonconference opponents each season, or go to nine ACC games and one Power 5 opponent.
Fans can’t lose: Either way, there’s going to be one more game worth watching each season. For ACC schools, though, there’s a big divide in opinion even though one option is clearly better for the league at large than the other.
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The ACC approved a nine-game schedule in 2012, but quickly backtracked when Notre Dame joined the ACC in everything but football and committed to five games each season against ACC opponents. Nine games and potentially Notre Dame was deemed too much of a scheduling burden for teams that already play an SEC rival on a regular basis.
Thanks to ESPN and the ACC Network, that’s exactly the position teams are going to be in now, one way or another. It’s just hard to see which way things will go next month.
There are a couple factors that divide the league. One are those SEC games. For Clemson, Florida State, Louisville and Georgia Tech, there’s going to be one Power 5 opponent on their schedule whether they like it or not. (Pittsburgh may find itself in the same boat if this year’s game against Penn State serves to revive that rivalry on an annual basis.)
Those teams tend to lean toward the 8+2 option because they would exert more control over their second Power 5 opponent than they would a ninth ACC opponent – and there’s a big difference between scheduling Kansas and getting Florida State dumped in your lap.
The other big factor that divides the league is resources. Teams with more money and more prestige will find it easier to schedule winnable Power 5 games, while others may get stuck committing to a difficult home-and-home series just to fill the schedule.
For the latter group, rolling the dice on a ninth ACC opponent is a better (presumably cheaper) option – especially for teams in the Atlantic Division, who don’t have to worry about rolling the dice and landing on Clemson or Florida State. Coastal teams, meanwhile, would just as soon see what they can do on their own.
Given that, you’d expect UNC and Duke to lean toward 8+2 while N.C. State and Wake Forest lean 9+1, but it’s hard to say how the league will vote when the moment comes.
It’s easy to say the nine-game option is better for fans. As things stand, with Coastal teams playing one team from the Atlantic on an annual basis and rotating through the others, Duke and N.C. State played in 2013 and won’t see each other again until 2020. North Carolina and Wake Forest played last season but wouldn’t again until 2022 if they hadn’t taken the initiative to schedule a nonconference home-and-home on their own in 2019 and 2021.
Regardless of self-interest, it should come down to this: What’s the point of being in the same conference if teams never play each other?
The eight-game schedule is clearly better for some. The nine-game schedule is better for all.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock