ACC decides on 11-game season, Georgia Tech can still play UGA

Georgia Tech and the rest of the ACC may still play football this fall. But if they do, they now have a plan to follow, one that looks a lot different than the one that was scheduled in the days before the coronavirus pandemic.

On Wednesday, the ACC released a scheduling model in which teams will play 11 games – including one non-conference game – and that includes Notre Dame as a conference member eligible for the ACC championship.

The schedule was pushed back one week, with games (and all ACC fall-sports competition) scheduled to start the week of Sept. 7-12. Teams will play in one division instead of two, with the top two teams (as decided by conference record) playing for the league championship in Charlotte, N.C., on either Dec. 12 or 19. That game has been played on the first Saturday of December.

The league also released a plan for the 10 league games (including Notre Dame) that teams will play. Tech’s five home games are against Clemson, Duke, Louisville, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh. Its five road games are against Boston College, Florida State, Miami, N.C. State and Syracuse.

Tech was to play six of those games in the original ACC schedule – Clemson, Duke, Miami Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse – along with Virginia and Virginia Tech. Boston College, Florida State, Louisville and N.C State would all be new.

“I’m pleased for our fall sports’ student-athletes, coaches and fans that we now have a little more clarity on what the upcoming seasons will look like,” Tech athletic director Todd Stansbury said in a statement. “We hope to have even more details that we can share with our fans in the coming days and weeks as we approach the fall sports seasons.”

In this model that includes space for only one non-conference game, Tech’s strong preference almost certainly would be to play archrival Georgia and to drop Central Florida and Gardner-Webb. The policy also dictates that the non-conference game must be played inside the state of the ACC school. One upshot of that arrangement is that Georgia’s scheduled Chick-fil-A Kickoff game against Virginia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium is off the table, although UGA, if given the choice, likely would pick Tech over Virginia anyway.

Creating space for a non-conference game now puts the onus on the SEC to match. According to a Sports Illustrated report, the SEC was moving towards adopting a conference-only model, which would not leave room for ACC-SEC rivalries between Tech and Georgia, South Carolina and Clemson, Florida and Florida State and Kentucky and Louisville. Should the SEC continue with that plan, it will have to deal with the repercussions of squashing (for one year, at least) those tradition-bound games.

One question that will have to be answered is how Tech and other member schools will address the contracts that they’ve signed with those schools. Tech’s contract with Gardner-Webb, for instance, states that if either school breaks the contract within 12 months of the scheduled date, it owes the other $750,000, although certain conditions would lift that obligation.

There is no certainty that the games will be played as planned. Epidemiologists have warned of the dangers inherent in playing football at a time when COVID-19 infection rates are still high, and of doing so on college campuses. MLB having to pause the season of the Miami Marlins speaks to the challenges of fielding a team and playing games during the pandemic, as does the decision by multiple FCS leagues to cancel their fall sports seasons.

The conference’s news release made that lack of certainty clear. The plan to start fall-sports competition the week of Sept. 7-12 will be enacted “if public health guidance allows,” the release said. In a statement, commissioner John Swofford described the plan as “a path, if public health guidance allows, to move forward with competition.” He further stated that there was a need “to be nimble and make adjustments in the future. We will be as prepared as possible should that need arise.”

On a videoconference call following the announcement of the 11-game schedule, Miami athletic director Blake James reportedly said that “We all recognize that it’s very aspirational.”

An 11-game season that began Sept. 12 and concluded Dec. 12, a week before a Dec. 19 championship game, would have three open dates. It’s acknowledgement of the possibility that games may have to be canceled and moved because of COVID-19 infections. Such flexibility is one significant advantage of playing a schedule largely comprised of conference games.

It could be a pivotal moment in Notre Dame’s partnership with the ACC, which it joined in 2013 for all sports but football and ice hockey, choosing to preserve its prized independence (and NBC contract) in football. As part of the agreement to permit the Fighting Irish to play for the league title, the 14 full-member schools and Notre Dame will equally share their television revenue from ESPN and NBC, respectively. It’s conceivable that this could be another step toward Notre Dame joining the ACC for football.

There were other details in the ACC announcement that will be impactful in their own ways. All team members (including players, coaches and support staff in close contact with players) will be tested weekly for COVID-19 within three days of competition at minimum. Athletes testing positive will be required to be isolated for least 10 days from the onset of symptoms or a positive test and at least one day following recovery. During games, players, coaches and staff in the bench area must wear face coverings with the exception of players wearing helmets.

Also, the league’s non-revenue sports will have their seasons impacted drastically. There will be no golf competitions in the fall, for instance, and the league’s volleyball teams will play 10 conference matches, the NCAA minimum. Teams have normally played 18 league matches.

Tech is scheduled to begin preseason camp Aug. 5. The school has not made a decision on whether fans will be permitted at games. But, for now, there are at least plans to play them.