Lengthy debate on future ACC football schedules close to resolution

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The vote is too close to call, and don't let Nate Silver or Pew Research tell you differently. Raging for years and influenced by provincial concerns, 11th-hour reversals and, yes, a leprechaun, the debate finally appears set for resolution next month.

Maybe.

When the ACC gathers for its annual spring meetings May 12-15 in Florida, a primary topic, again, will be the league's football schedule. Specifically, should teams play eight conference games, as they have since 1992, or nine to better reflect expanded membership?

A definitive vote — please! — is possible, even probable, but not mandatory. Officials could table the matter yet again, delaying a decision until October's fall meetings.

"It's going to be pro and con," said Duke's David Cutcliffe, chairman of the ACC football coaches. "It's going to be voiced very strongly by some. It's going to be listened to hopefully by all. In the end, we do what's best for the conference and what's best for the institutions."

But what is best? The ACC can't seem to decide.

In February 2012, league officials adopted a nine-game format, set to begin in 2013. This in response to the then-impending additions of Syracuse and Pittsburgh, which brought football membership to 14 teams.

Adding that ninth conference game allowed the expanded ACC to retain a once-every-three-years ratio for teams playing opponents in the opposite division.

But eight months later, the league reversed course and voted to remain at eight games. Triggering the decision, in large measure, was the ACC's new football collaboration with Notre Dame, which obligates the Fighting Irish to five games annually against rotating ACC opponents, starting this year.

The Notre Dame arrangement limits schools' non-conference scheduling flexibility, too much for some tastes, especially Clemson and Florida State, programs that play annual non-league games against powerful state rivals South Carolina and Florida, respectively.

Yet a month ago the ACC seemed to be fast-tracking back toward nine. Changes among the league's athletic directors — six of the conference's 15 members have welcomed new ADs in the last 18 months — college football's upcoming playoff and the push for an ACC cable channel have changed voting dynamics.

Today, I'm not so sure. As one source said, conference officials "are all over the map."

Indeed, when I asked Cutcliffe about the schedule during the league's spring practice media call, he said ACC coaches "lean heavily toward eight." Moments later, Miami's Al Golden and Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer voiced their preference for nine, while Virginia's Mike London said he was undecided.

"I'd rather play a game that you need to win (conference) as opposed to play a game that you should win (Championship Subdivision or obscure Bowl Subdivision opponent)," Beamer said. "Just from a coaching standpoint, I look more toward those challenges."

"I've been in favor of going to nine," 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."

Conversely, Clemson's Dabo Swinney landed in the eight camp, citing the flexibility that he said allowed the Tigers to play recent non-conference opponents such as Georgia and Auburn. But to his credit, and without prompting, Swinney mentioned the current structure's primary shortcoming: With the exception of the annual interdivision rival, teams play opponents in the opposite division only once every six years.

"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," Swinney said. "With the setup that we have right now, that's just not the case. … 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."

Swinney is right. The Tigers and Cavaliers are not scheduled to play again until 2020, at Death Valley. As for Clemson's next trip to Charlottesville, it's not on the books in a rotation that extends through 2024. Similarly, Virginia Tech doesn't play ACC newcomer Louisville until 2020.

There are two ways to remedy the farce, to play one another more often, while staying at eight games.

The first is to eliminate the annual crossover rivalries. But that would end yearly games such as Florida State-Miami, North Carolina-North Carolina State, and Georgia Tech-Clemson. I doubt the ACC will go there.

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