ACC explains how Georgia Tech’s primary partners were determined

Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei (5) fumbles as he is hit by Georgia Tech defenders in the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

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Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei (5) fumbles as he is hit by Georgia Tech defenders in the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

As the ACC’s senior associate commissioner for football, Michael Strickland invested no small amount of time and effort into leading the development of the conference’s new scheduling model that was rolled out in late June.

Geography, mixing Coastal and Atlantic Division teams and series history were among factors that determined which three teams each school would have as its primary partners, opponents that they will play annually from 2023-26 when the new one-division format begins. (Teams will play the remaining 10 opponents twice each over that four-year span.)

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The public response was what you might expect.

“I don’t think we were surprised that not everybody loves all three,” Strickland said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But that’s why we did a four-year rotation, so that we can assess it after three years or the fourth year and say, ‘Do we want to re-up exactly as it is or do we want to do something completely different?’”

Speaking at the ACC Kickoff last week in Charlotte, N.C., Strickland lent insight into how the schedule was made, and particularly how Tech ended up with its three partners – Clemson, Louisville and Wake Forest – and not others.

First, Strickland said the schedule organizers were guided by principles such as proximity and rivalry history. Cross-pollinating Atlantic and Coastal teams was another factor. A big driver in changing from a two-division format – which allowed inter-division opponents, not counting permanent partners, to face each other twice in a 12-year cycle – was the ability to play every team more frequently.

Clemson has been Tech’s permanent partner, and Louisville and Wake Forest have been in the Atlantic Division opposite Tech. There were other factors, such as trying to prevent teams from having to make trips to Florida State and Miami (or Syracuse and Boston College) in the same season or keep teams from making trips to the same opponent in 2022 and 2023.

“So that impacts the cadence of opponents and who could be and who couldn’t be primary opponents,” Strickland said.

The interests of each school and also the entire conference were considered. Strickland said that there were particular rivalries that schools and the conference made a priority to keep, such as Florida State-Miami, Virginia Tech-Virginia and North Carolina-Duke. Tech and Clemson was another.

“It was a premium matchup that was really important to a lot of people that it continue,” he said. “And also, it makes a lot of sense for a number of other areas. The geographic proximity is huge.”

Strickland did suggest, though, that it wasn’t a high priority for either school, though the teams have played each other 87 times, making Clemson fourth among Tech’s frequently played opponents. Clemson winning the past seven games by 27.1 points dulled the rivalry, and Tech athletic director Todd Stansbury didn’t seem especially keen on continuing to face juggernauts Clemson and Georgia annually.

“I don’t think that matchup necessarily rose to that level (of Florida State-Miami), but it’s a very meaningful matchup for the ACC,” Strickland said. “So maybe it scored higher under the column of ‘it matters to the ACC’ than it matters to either individual fan base or institution.”

Tech-Wake Forest was attractive because the two teams have been in opposite divisions (they’ve faced each other once in the past 11 seasons) and are fairly close geographically. (It’s Tech’s third-closest ACC opponent, following Clemson and Florida State.)

To the argument that Tech-Wake Forest lacks appeal on the lack of recent history, Strickland responded, “That’s the point. You used to (have a history), and you’ve gone 12 or how many years it’s been now without a chance to play, and you will have history.”

As for the choice of Louisville – a team that Tech has little history with and is a farther drive from Atlanta than seven ACC schools (though some barely) – Strickland acknowledged that it might not have made sense to Tech fans, who are taking one for the good of the league in this partnership.

“But you’ve got to look at it from the other teams’ perspective,” he said. “Louisville needs three, as well. And so who are you going to pair them up with?”

As the newest ACC member, Louisville doesn’t have an obvious rival and was matched with Miami and Virginia besides Tech. Atlanta is the third-closest ACC city from Louisville.

“And I think Nashville’s a nice stopping-off point in the middle,” Strickland said helpfully. “And that’d be a fun trip for people in Atlanta to make, and it’s only six hours up the road, but it made a lot of sense from the Louisville perspective.”

There were Tech fans who also were irritated about Duke not being a primary partner, as the Yellow Jackets and Blue Devils have played each other annually since 1933, Tech’s longest active streak after Tech and Georgia did not play in 2020. It was deemed not a premium rivalry in the way that Clemson-Tech or Miami-Florida State were.

“Just in general, just because you’ve done something for a long time, it doesn’t mean it’s the same stature as something else,” Strickland said.

In instances like Tech-Duke, the league tried to assess what would be gained in not making the schools primary partners and what would be lost. Not having Duke may have helped Tech-Wake Forest to become a pair.

Strickland did say that there were versions of the schedule that paired Tech and Florida State, teams that are in opposite divisions, have proximity and a history. They have the consolation of facing each other far more in the future than they have in recent years, although they do play this season.

“You just weigh the pros and cons of each different setup,” Strickland said.

Strickland said that the two matchups that schedule makers had the most angst about not being able to include were Virginia Tech-Miami and Wake Forest-North Carolina.

According to a tweet from ESPN writer David Hale, Tech’s primary opponents have the highest winning percentage against power-conference competition both in the College Football Playoff era (.602) and also in the past three seasons (.611) of any team in the conference. Strickland said that was considered, but that schedule organizers gave as much consideration to the balance of the entire eight-game league schedule as they did to the relative strengths of each team’s primary partners.

“If you look at every team’s schedule each of the seasons and look at how it flows and compares and contrasts with everybody else in the league, I think you’ll see that there’s a great deal of balance,” he said.

As an example, Strickland said, Miami and Virginia Tech both ranked highly in the win-loss comparisons that the league used to set schedule balance. As a result, the league tried to limit instances where a team would play both in the same season.

Georgia Tech does not play both teams in the same season of any of the four years of the scheduling model.

“So I would encourage people to look at all eight games, as opposed to just the three, and then form your opinion of whether you think there’s a historical strength-of-schedule balance or not,” Strickland said.