Craig Littlepage and Whit Babcock took opposite sides in the ACC's recent football-scheduling debate but agree that the conference's Coastal and Atlantic divisions likely will remain intact, at least for the early years of college football's playoff era.
In separate interviews of 30-plus minutes Wednesday, the athletic directors from Virginia and Virginia Tech addressed the decisions and discussions central to the ACC's annual spring meetings last week in Florida. The issues included proposed NCAA reforms such as enhancing scholarships, easing time demands on athletes and granting governance autonomy to the ACC and its four power-conference brethren.
But the most important and concrete news from the meetings was the ACC's 8-6 vote to continue with an eight-game league football schedule rather than expand to nine. Littlepage and Virginia advocated nine, Babcock and Virginia Tech eight.
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"I wouldn't say I was disappointed, and I wasn't all that surprised," Littlepage said. "It wasn't one of those things I felt was a deal-breaker in terms of where I see ACC football being able to go in the future. It's debatable whether eight is better than nine. The folks that favored eight apparently had more persuasive arguments than those of us that (favored) nine."
Littlepage prefers nine because it's one fewer non-conference date to schedule and, most important, a ninth league game would "further enhance the rivalries and brand of the ACC."
Babcock acknowledged the downside of eight, which is playing Atlantic Division programs such as Florida State, Clemson and Louisville — Tech and Virginia compete in the Coastal — only once every six years. But he did not like the prospect of five road league games every other season, and he wants the added non-conference scheduling flexibility.
"I don't think you beat your team up every week of the season," Babcock said, "but you've got to schedule aggressively in this new (playoff) model and to keep fans coming to your games."
Major-college football's four-team playoff debuts this year, and selection committee members have said repeatedly that strength-of-schedule will be a critical component. Toward that end, the ACC's eight-game decision carries a mandate that every team play at least one opponent from a power conference, or independent Notre Dame, every season starting in 2017.
"Our schedule has always reflected that sort of quality anyway," said Littlepage, who has agreed to future games against Stanford, Illinois and Oregon. "So that doesn't do anything for us at all."
ACC commissioner John Swofford said at the league meetings that independent Brigham Young would not satisfy the power conference requirement, a stance Littlepage wants to revisit in light of the Cavaliers' 2019 and 2020 games against the Cougars.
"That's something that will get continuing conversation," Littlepage said. "Certainly (BYU has) been as high-profile a football program as any (outside) the (power) conferences."
Babcock sensed strong resistance to including the Cougars.
"If you're going to say a power five, that's where it needs to stay, because where (would exceptions) stop after (BYU)?" he said "I think it's power five or nothing."
Babcock arrived at Tech in February and inherited from his predecessor, Jim Weaver, future schedules that in 2015 and '16, and from 2020-23, include two opponents from major conferences such as the Southeastern and Big Ten.
Is that too ambitious?
"I think Hokies fans have come to expect the best and having a program that's on the national stage," he said. "So it's daunting, but I know it fits the brand of where we want to be. I did chuckle a little bit when I got here and thought, 'Well, that was nice of Jim to leave me with Michigan and Wisconsin and all that.' But he did a great job of scheduling."
Babcock confirmed that the verdict on eight games increases the chance of Tech playing West Virginia in 2017 at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., where the Hokies have played Southern California, Boise State and Cincinnati, the latter when Babcock was the Bearcats' athletic director.
Tech has one non-conference opening in 2017 and needs a marquee opponent — East Carolina, Old Dominion and Delaware are on the docket.
"We're trying to iron out the details," Babcock said, "While I love playing games in Blacksburg, and will do that first and foremost, to get one potentially into D.C that would have our fan base and West Virginia's large alumni base there (is attractive)."
The eight-game decision prompted some chatter of ACC teams, bizarre though it sounds, scheduling one another for contests that would not count in the league standings. That would be one way of playing some teams in the opposite division more frequently than once every six years.
"I think it's something that we would consider, yes," Littlepage said. "We have not had such discussions at this point in time. There are other ACC schools that have had more formal discussions. For the same reasons I mentioned before, it would make sense. … The concern that I have is just confusion (regarding standings and potential tiebreakers)."
While supporting the autonomy to schedule such games, Babcock does not envision Tech participating, simply because of its full non-conference dance card.
Another way to play ACC rivals more often would be to scrap annual interdivision contests such as Tech-Boston College, Virginia-Louisville, North Carolina-N.C. State and Miami-Florida State. Or, if the NCAA grants such flexibility as expected, to eliminate divisions and determine ACC championship game participants by standings and/or rankings.
Neither Babcock nor Littlepage anticipates such radical overhaul short-term.
"I've been a proponent of the divisions, and I don't see that position changing," Littlepage said. "I just like the idea of more teams being able to play significant games deeper into the year, which results from the divisions."
Babcock and Littlepage agree that divisions create more balanced schedules and a more equitable method of determining who advances to the league title game.
"It seemed like there was strong consensus to remain in divisions," Babcock said, "but I guess as this evolving playoff model gets going, anything and everything is up to be looked at again. …
There will be a whole lot of new opinions after we run through a (playoff) cycle. Everybody right now is trying to give their best guess as to what's it going to take to get there. But once we see what teams get left out and why, I think that will … bring a lot of people back to the table."