Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner John Swofford will retire this year and a new commissioner will be named who will likely bring a new vision for the conference which could include conference scheduling.
Here’s one proposal to create a football schedule that is not dependent on permanent divisions, but rather, based on the goal of having each member of the ACC play each another school as often as possible. This proposal seeks to maintain natural annual rivalries, and to focus on geographical relationships that enhance fan interest by playing opponents as often as possible – as opposed to the current system of two divisions of permanent members, where each member plays six conference opponents only twice every 12 years.
With a 14-team conference, where each member plays eight conference games each year, this is best accomplished by having each member individually play the same three conference teams every year, and then each member will also play its remaining 10 conference opponents twice every four years. In other words, for every year, each member will have the same three annual rivals, and then play five other teams. But it will play those five other teams twice every four years. To achieve the goal of strengthening geographical relationships, the top four most northern members play each other very year, and the same is true for the four most southern members. Four of the six members in Virginia and North Carolina play each other every year, and all six of these members in the middle of the conference footprint play everyone in the north and south twice every four years.
There is no need for permanent divisions in this proposal, and rules can be created for naming the top two teams each year for the championship game. This proposal will maximize exposure of every player to the entire conference, and competitive balance will be achieved by the simple concept of each member playing every other team as often as mathematically possible. The diversity of the ACC cannot be a strength in the current system of permanent divisions; this proposal makes it an asset.
The 14 members of the ACC operate the scheduling of each football season in accordance with NCAA regulations which dictates how teams are chosen to play in the conference championship game. There are two divisions of seven teams and each division must play a round robin during the season. Each member will play the same six teams in its division every year and in addition, each member plays one permanent cross division game against a team in the other division and one other cross division game that rotates against one of the remaining six teams. With an eight-game schedule, that means that each ACC member has seven teams that it plays every year, and six teams that it plays only twice over a 12-year period.
The conference spreads along the entire eastern side of the country. Although there are four schools closer to the northern end of the conference’s footprint and four schools in the southern end, there is also a dense grouping of six schools in the middle of the conference, all in North Carolina and Virginia. Five of those six schools are charter members of the ACC. This wide geography from Miami to Boston with a dense grouping in the middle has made it challenging to split the whole conference geographically into northern and southern regions as it was unclear how to split the six schools in the middle.
Current NCAA rules do not allow three divisions, or pods. Since 2005, the ACC attempted to maintain as many rivalries as possible by using divisions based on that concept, but not based necessarily on geography. This created a situation where games between members that are very close to each other are only played twice every 12 years, and members that are very far from each other play every year. This has led to inequities of travel expense of the members, and the inability to create (or maintain) rivalries for members that are geographically close.
It is unlikely that any combination of the same seven members in two permanent divisions can make the situation better for everyone. But there is a solution. The NCAA has no restriction against changing (or swapping) the members of the two divisions in different years, just so long as there are two divisions where each plays a round-robin schedule each year. And there are no rules about how to handle cross-division games. You can have a combination where some members have a permanent cross-division game and some members have none that are permanent.
This proposal recommends a change by utilizing the flexibility of division membership and the scheduling of permanent and non-permanent cross division games to provide greater exposure of each ACC member to the entire conference. However, to do this, it has to be easy to follow and fair to everyone. It is. It is accomplished by viewing these changes over a four-year period.
This is how it works and this is what it accomplishes:
1). In accordance with NCAA regulations, there will be two divisions that play a round robin every year. The divisions will be unchanged for years one and two. Then for years three and four, there will be a swap of three teams from each side. Eight teams never change divisions. In other words, the members of the divisions for years three and four are the same, just as they are the same for years one and two. The process then repeats the following year.
2). The Northern anchor will include BC, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville and will never change divisions. The other division, the Southern anchor, will permanently include Miami, FSU, Georgia Tech and Clemson. None of these eight teams will have a permanent cross-division game. Rather, they will rotate two cross difference games against each other over a four-year period. Therefore, every team in the Northern anchor will play a team in the Southern anchor twice over a four-year period, and vice versa.
3). That leaves the six teams of the Mid-Atlantic. UNC, Virginia and Duke will always play each other in the same division, two years in the North and Two years in the South. Va. Tech, NC State and Wake Forest will operate identically in the other division from the first three schools. There will be three permanent cross division games: UNC-NC State, UVA-VT and Duke-Wake. Then each Mid-Atlantic member will one remaining floating game that can be played twice over a four-year period against the other two Mid-Atlantic members of the other division.
4). Consequently, by virtue of the swap after every two years, every team in the northern and southern anchors plays every team in the Mid-Atlantic. This will always be as a division game – twice every four years.
5). Over a four-year period, this proposal provides every ACC member with maximum access to every other ACC team. Each ACC member will play the same three teams every year, and each ACC member will play its other 10 opponents twice every four years. Every one of them. Games between members that are geographically close that have been rarely played for 15 years will now be played twice in four years (such as FSU-Ga. Tech, UNC-Wake, UVA-NCState and Clemson-VT). All annual rivalries have been retained (including UNC’s three annual games with UVA, Duke and NC State).
Editor’s note: This proposal would not impact the ACC’s deal with Notre Dame. In 2020, Notre Dame is set to play Wake Forest (in Charlotte, N.C.), at Pittsburgh, Duke, Clemson, at Georgia Tech and Louisville. FSU plays host to Notre Dame to open the 2021 season.
Proposed ACC Division Structure
I have created two visual examples that give a view of the results. First is a four-year schedule shown as “Proposed ACC Division Structure.” All four years are shown for each member. Teams colored red are in the Northern anchor, blue is the southern anchor, green represents half of the Mid-Atlantic and purple represents its other half. This color graph gives a visualization of how simply this works.
FSU’s ACC opponents 2020-23
The second schedule is a sample of FSU’s opponents, home and away, over the next four years (2020-23).