Now that the SEC announced it will stick with eight-game conference schedules in football, the ACC is the last power conference not to have a scheduling format in place.
That should change shortly, though. The idea of adding a ninth game to the ACC slate will almost certainly be voted on during the ACC’s annual spring meetings in Amelia Island, Fla., from May 12-15.
Complicating matters for the ACC, of course, is that the 14-member league has a kind-of, sort-of conference member to think about in the form of Notre Dame. the Fighting Irish are committed to playing five ACC members per year (it will only be four this season because of a scheduling conflict) as a partial member.
The Irish will not count as a league opponent since they won’t be able to play in the ACC title game, but in college football, every game counts.
And so if you’re Clemson, or Florida State, and you know that you are facing Notre Dame one year in addition to your regularly-scheduled games against SEC rivals (South Carolina and Florida, respectively), adding a conference game would mean 11 games against BCS opponents with little room for non-conference flexibility.
The SEC addressed the problem of scheduling too many of those out-of-conference, "easy" wins by mandating every team must schedule at least one power-conference opponent in non-conference play each year. But if you’re the ACC and you do that, where’s the opportunity — in the scenario where you have an SEC out-of-league rival plus a game against Notre Dame — for an easy win?
"I’ve been a proponent for keeping the eight games," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "I like the flexibility that it gives us, especially selfishly for us here at Clemson, and the fact that Notre Dame is rolling in as a non-conference opponent, as well."
ACC teams that don’t have an annual SEC opponent already on the schedule understandably wouldn’t mind going to nine conference games.
"Whatever we do, we need uniformity in terms of crossover opponents, out-of-conference opponents. Whatever the decision is, again, I’ve been in favor of going to nine," Miami head coach Al Golden said. "I think it would help balance our schedules. I like the way the league has grown, the new membership. Clearly it’s going to make us better. Very attractive markets that have helped our league out. I’m in favor of playing nine if we can."
There are potential benefits to a nine-game slate, of course. Now that there are 14 full-time members, a nine-game schedule ensures that ACC teams in different divisions get to see each other more often.
"The one thing that I really wish that was different was when a young man comes to Clemson, it would be great for him to be able to play every team in the league at some point over his career. With the setup that we have right now, that’s just not the case," Swinney said. "We just played Virginia this year, and I’m not sure we play them again until maybe 2020 or something like that, and I don’t think we go back up there until maybe ’23 or ’25.
"So that part of it I wish was structured a little bit differently."
As chairman of the ACC coaches’ committee, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe has a good feel for these types of issues and what the head coaches think about them. He is relatively certain it’s going to come up in a few weeks when the league’s coaches and administrators convene in Amelia Island, too.
"I think it’s going to be debated. I will say that. I wouldn’t be being truthful if I didn’t tell you that the coaches lean heavily toward eight. That’s where we are," Cutcliffe said. "We have schedules made out over the next few years. We have Notre Dame rotating in and out of there. We have Kansas, Northwestern. We have some Big 12, Big Ten, SEC schools on our schedule now.
"From a coaches’ standpoint, we’re happy with the eight games."
Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer is another of the dissenting voices. The Hokies routinely schedule tough out-of-conference games, though, so it’s not a matter of wanting to avoid those.
It’s a matter of other ACC teams avoiding those games.
"Certainly playing eight gives you a chance to do some scheduling, maybe overall help the league get people into bowl games," Beamer said. "I actually prefer to play a conference game. I think generally we need to schedule the same way. We’re in a conference where Georgia Tech plays Georgia, Florida State plays Florida, Clemson plays South Carolina. I think all the rest of us need to have a game of that caliber.
"I’d rather play a game that you need to win as opposed to play a game that you should win. Just from a coaching standpoint, I’d look more towards those challenges rather than the alumni getting all upset when they think you should have won a game. Sometimes their thinking is not quite the way the talent level is on the other side. I think I’d go for nine games."
Of course, there is a way to solve the problem of not seeing opponents from other divisions as often that doesn’t involve a nine-game schedule.
And that’s to get rid of divisions altogether.
But the ACC head coaches, for the most part, don’t seem receptive to that idea.
"There’s going to be debate from a standpoint of coaches heavily favoring two divisions, more meaningful games late in the year for more teams, et cetera," Cutcliffe said. "It’s why Major League Baseball, the NFL, why they stay within divisions."
But Swinney didn’t have a strong opinion on it one way or the other. Right now, each ACC team plays the six other teams in its division once, one permanent crossover opponent from the other division and then plays one other team from the other division each year.
I’d rather play a game that you need to win as opposed to play a game that you should win. Just from a coaching standpoint, I’d look more towards those challenges rather than the alumni getting all upset when they think you should have won a game.
— Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer
A lack of a permanent crossover could help solve that problem, but that impacts significant local rivalries like UNC-N.C. State or Duke-Wake Forest.
"I’m pretty indifferent on just the division stuff," Swinney said. "The bigger thing for me is if there was a way to where you would have more flexibility as far as these guys being able to experience playing every team in this league at some point before their four years are up."
It’s going to be nearly impossible to please everyone. But with the playoff system coming, the priority needs to be that the ACC finds a way to schedule strong out-of-conference games — preferably games that the individual teams can win. Virginia Tech has played Alabama (twice), Nebraska and Boise State in the last five seasons. It will play at Ohio State this year. All those teams were ranked. Virginia Tech won exactly one of those high-profile non-league games.
But at least they schedule them.
As a counterexample, in 2013, N.C. State hosted four non-conference games against Louisiana Tech, Richmond (an FCS team), Central Michigan and East Carolina. All three of N.C. State’s wins came against that slate. This year, the Wolfpack hosts Georgia Southern and Old Dominion (in its first year as a full-time Division I team) before traveling to South Florida and hosting Presbyterian.
Making schedules is a difficult endeavor, though, and it’s never as simple as it seems. LSU bought its way out of a home-and-home series (in 2017 and 2020) with N.C. State, forcing the Wolfpack to replace LSU with … Troy. So it’s not as if N.C. State isn’t trying to play tough games.
The point remains that ACC teams don’t have much to gain from playing — and beating — each other if they don’t play anyone out of conference.
"I think the primary motivation is to make sure everybody is playing the same type of schedule, that it’s balanced with who we’re playing. Clearly there’s a great disparity right now in out-of-conference play, not just between the ACC and other leagues, but within our league," Golden said. "We all need to understand better what the parameters are and what it’s going to take ultimately to get into a playoff and what those parameters are.
"It’s really hard for us as a head coach or as an organization or athletic director to make those decisions on a schedule when we really don’t know all the parameters that make it up."