ACC looking to replace two-division format for football

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)

AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. – Long under consideration, a change in the football scheduling model appears to be in the works for the ACC.

The conference, which adopted a two-division format in 2005 when it expanded to 12 teams, is moving closer to replacing that format. Conference athletic directors have been debating different models at the league’s spring meetings this week.

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“We’re moving forward (with the conversation),” Miami athletic director Dan Radakovich said Tuesday. “We’re closer to the end than the beginning on that, but we need to talk a little bit with our TV partners to see what they think, kind of run it through the car wash one more time.”

Radakovich, the former Georgia Tech (and Clemson) AD, said that the proposal that has gained the most favor among athletic directors is one in which every team would have three opponents that it would play annually and then play the other 10 on a rotating basis, five one year and the other five the next for an eight-game league schedule.

That model would address perhaps the biggest complaint about the current two-division format – that teams play six of the seven teams in the opposite division twice every 12 years. It means that a player could be on a team for five seasons and not play every team in the conference. In the proposed 3-5-5 format, a team would play every other conference team home and away at least twice in a four-year span.

Said Radakovich of the model, “That really got a lot of thumbs up around the room.”

Other options include similar models with one or two permanent opponents instead of three. Retaining the two-division format remains a possibility, too.

“I think it’s still under discussion,” Florida State AD Michael Alford said of the two-division format. “There’s pros and cons.”

Tech athletic director Todd Stansbury said that a committee assigned to the topic ran simulations with about 30 different scheduling models.

“It’s one of those things that some just don’t work automatically,” he said. “So wherever we end up, this thing has boiled down from pretty much every imaginable model.”

The league is considering options with the idea of putting one in place for the 2023 season. It’s not expected that a final decision will be made at this week’s meetings, which conclude Thursday.

“We just want to be deliberate about it, make sure that we’re doing everything right,” Radakovich said.

A next question would be who the permanent opponents would be. As for who Tech’s potential three permanent opponents could be, Clemson makes sense in that the Tigers are Tech’s closest geographical ACC opponent, have been the Jackets’ permanent cross-division partner since the league went to two divisions and have a long history. Tech and Clemson have played 87 times in a series that began in 1898.

Florida State, which is the second closest opponent geographically after Clemson, has a history of highly entertaining games in its series with the Jackets. Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech also have had a series of memorable games when both were at the top of the Coastal Division.

However, a change in format offers the league and member schools a chance to reconsider. For instance, is Tech-Clemson a rivalry that needs to be played annually instead of every other year? At this point, with the Tigers having won seven in a row over Tech, many Jackets fans likely would contend that it doesn’t.

Alford, the FSU AD, proposed that having Tech as a permanent partner might not be optimal for his school. He said that he considered Atlanta “part of (FSU’s) market” with significant alumni support and strong TV viewership numbers for Seminoles games in that market.

“What I’d like to do personally is expand our brand to different markets, and I also think that’s for the betterment for the league,” he said.

The permanent-opponent decisions could prove an intriguing debate between competing interests for the member teams and league.

“At the end of the day, it’s about moving the conference forward, and you’ve got to put your conference hat on and take your individual institution hat off and understand that we’ll look and do what’s best for the conference as a whole, because we’re all part of it,” Wilcox said.

Beyond the objective of enabling team members to play teams more regularly, the athletic directors have also considered which options would best position the league to create compelling games, get teams into the College Football Playoff and market the league.

Another drawback of the two-division format is that the conference’s two best teams have often been in the same division. If both were in contention for a CFP bid and able to play each other for the conference title, the league would be in a position where either team winning would be helpful in advancing a team to the playoff.

However, the two-division format carries the risk of an eight- or nine-win division champion pulling a championship-game upset over a division champion vying for the playoff, a scenario which could keep all of the league’s teams out of the playoff.

To that end, the 2020 season was instructive. In that COVID-altered season, the ACC included Notre Dame as a temporary football member and played in one division, with the second-ranked Fighting Irish and No. 3 Clemson playing for the conference title. When the Tigers defeated Notre Dame, both teams were able to get into the four-team playoff.

Stansbury said that an overriding conversation among AD’s and coaches is “how do we enhance ACC football and put ourselves in the best position possible, and obviously, scheduling is going to be a part of that.”

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