The Big Ten’s announcement on Thursday that it would move to a conference-only format for the 2020 football season and a similar announcement from the Pac-12 on Friday were merely the latest indications that, if this season is actually played, it will look significantly different than any that has been played in generations.
When the ACC makes a decision for the fall sports season in late July, as the league announced Friday that it expected to do, it’s likely that the conference will reach a similar solution as the Big Ten and Pac-12. Such a plan wouldn’t be any guarantee of games being played, but simply the conference’s best option at this time in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What might it look like?
First off, the ACC could well land on a 10-game schedule, playing only league opponents and Notre Dame, a member for all sports but football and ice hockey. For sake of ticket revenue (if fans are permitted to attend games) and content for ESPN and the ACC Network, schools would want to play as many games as they could, but perhaps not so many that they would lose flexibility in scheduling.
Starting out with 10 games would also give the league the option to drop down to eight or nine games if the situation dictates.
The flexibility to move around games if necessary is among the most appealing features of a conference-only format. Let’s say that Georgia Tech and Clemson stayed as opponents in the opening week of the season, but the Tigers were unable to play due to an overwhelming number of infections on the team. It would be easier to push that game later into the season if schedule makers don’t have to try to alter a non-conference game to make it happen.
Beyond that, the possible scheduling models are many, which is one reason why the league will need more time to decide than the Big Ten. One of the biggest factors for the deliberation is Notre Dame, which would likely keep its six games against ACC opponents (including Georgia Tech at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Nov. 14) that were already scheduled, and possibly more. It’s conceivable that the Fighting Irish could actually play all 10 games against ACC opponents.
As it stands, of Notre Dame’s six scheduled games against non-ACC teams, four are against power-conference opponents: Arkansas, Wisconsin, Stanford and USC. Wisconsin is already off the books because of the Big Ten’s scheduling decision. Stanford and USC look like they’ll have to do likewise with the Pac-12’s conference-only decision, and Arkansas could join them.
For Notre Dame, playing only ACC teams may be a simpler and safer tack, not a small consideration for this season in particular. Moreover, as a conference member, Notre Dame officials would figure to be inclined to act in the conference’s best interests anyway.
But if Notre Dame essentially becomes a 15th member for football – whether it could play for a championship is uncertain – it makes scheduling more unwieldy. If there were only 14 teams to account for, open dates could be planned more easily. One possible feature in a 10-game schedule would be to build in an open week when no team plays, during which make-up games could be played. However, with an odd number of teams, at least one team has to have an open date each week, adding complexity to such a plan.
As far as how scheduling could go, teams could play their currently scheduled eight ACC opponents and add two more (or one more in the case of the teams already playing Notre Dame). Or, divisional alignments and this year’s schedule could be scrapped altogether.
One possible model is to split the teams into three pods of five, presumably including Notre Dame. (If divided geographically for ease of travel, Tech’s pod might include Miami, Florida State, Clemson and one of the four North Carolina schools.) Teams would play a home-and-home with their four pod opponents and then have two “swing” games, perhaps against another ACC team, Notre Dame or a non-conference rival, like Georgia for Tech.
But, it’s also conceivable that the league could stick with playing only league opponents and Notre Dame.
As noted above, including non-conference games would add another variable into an arrangement that could easily be shaken up on a weekly basis and reduce the flexibility that the league is seeking with its conference-only format. On a video conference with media Friday, Duke coach David Cutcliffe said that “I don’t think there’s any way” that the league can go through this season without teams not being able to play at some point in the season. Following that logic, it’s not unreasonable to think that a team could start the season and not finish.
As jarring a thought as that might be in any other year but this one, that’s the reality that league and school officials are having to consider – if, in fact, the season is played.
There are at least two other reasons why the ACC might want to use a conference-only model. One is that league members could agree on a testing protocol to give players and coaches a higher degree of confidence that their opponents are free of COVID-19. Another relates to why avoiding non-conference games – like Tech-Georgia – might be preferable.
If you guessed that reason to be money, you are (unsurprisingly) correct. Tech, for example, would owe Gardner-Webb $750,000 for canceling their game scheduled for Sept. 12 at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Tech and other schools trying to cancel non-conference games could try to invoke the “force majeure” clauses of their game contracts and claim that the cancellation was out of their hands as the conference-only format (plus Notre Dame) was a league mandate.
Tech’s contract with Gardner-Webb states that the game can be canceled without damages owed in the event of “an unforeseen catastrophe or disaster” or by order of government, military, public authority or “any competent judicial or other government authority.” Whether the ACC is a “judicial authority” is debatable, but conference and institute attorneys could certainly make the case.
A 10-game season could start play on Sept. 12 – a week after the original opening week – while giving teams two open dates and finish on Nov. 28, the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Will this actually happen? It’s uncertain. If the ACC lands on this model or something similar, it won’t necessarily be because it’s confident that a season can be played. It will simply be the best available option taking into account the health and safety of players, coaches and fans and the financial incentives of playing games.
The league may try to move forward with the plan it announces in late July only to realize in August that it simply won’t be feasible, and then move to the next option, playing in the spring.
For fans hungering for games and a taste of normalcy, perhaps none of the options are appetizing, and the options may continue to be reduced in coming weeks. And that’s not even considering the possibility of limited or no attendance at games.
But, in a strange time, it may be all college football players, coaches and fans have.
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