Last week’s unveiling of an alliance among the ACC, Big Ten and Pacific 12 was short on details, long on concepts. But in subsequent comments, some principals have shared visions that would profoundly affect the College Football Playoff and the sport’s regular-season scheduling.
Both components drip with intrigue, and good luck forecasting how this all transpires.
Could the alliance conferences, which endeavor to steer national policy, help veto the 12-team CFP proposal that upon its June release seemed destined for approval? Will every team in the ACC, Pac-12 and Big Ten eventually play one non-conference game annually against each of the other two leagues?
Starting with the playoff, let’s try to unpack all this.
Even before late July’s news that Texas and Oklahoma are leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, a revelation that inspired the alliance, it was striking how unenthusiastic some in the ACC are about tripling the playoff field to 12.
Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente and his Virginia counterpart, Bronco Mendenhall, have expressed reservations about the prolonged season. North Carolina’s Mack Brown favors six or eight teams and said most of his players agree, again based on the season’s duration.
Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, a veteran of six playoffs, opposes any expansion, and first-year ACC commissioner Jim Phillips is noncommittal.
North Carolina’s Bubba Cunningham is among four ACC athletic directors — UVA’s Carla Williams, Syracuse’s John Wildhack and Clemson’s Dan Radakovich are the others — serving on an 11-member alliance subcommittee, and he concurs with his head coach.
“I could be talked into [playoff] expansion,” Cunningham told me last week. “But I’m not real keen on it. However, I would favor expansion to eight. I’m not a fan of 12. Eight guarantees the Power Five champions, guarantee the best of the [Group of Five conferences] and two at-large. I’m OK with that.”
The current four-team bracket is composed solely of at-large selections. The 12-team model would include the six highest-ranked conference champions and six at-large selections.
Either format is fine by Notre Dame, historically and stubbornly independent in football and an ACC member in other sports. Indeed, Fighting Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick was on the four-man panel that crafted the 12-team proposal.
But Cunningham’s preference would seriously compromise Notre Dame’s playoff access and could nudge the Irish toward full ACC membership, just what the conference needs to enhance its television appeal and close the revenue gap with the Big Ten and SEC.
And rest assured, that’s part of the calculation for Cunningham, a Notre Dame graduate and former administrator at the school.
Clemson’s Jim Clements is among the 11 presidents and chancellors — one from each of the 10 Bowl Subdivision conferences, plus Notre Dame’s John Jenkins — who sit on the CFP board of managers and will ultimately determine the playoff’s future.
How will Clements vote on the 12-team model when the board convenes Sept. 28? Will the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 vote as a bloc? Since the CFP likes to present a united front, what would opposition from multiple Power Five conferences mean?
West Virginia’s Gordon Gee is the Big 12’s playoff board representative, and last week he told the WVU student newspaper, the Daily Athenaeum, that the 12-team proposal “is on life support.” Citing the instability in college athletics caused by Texas and Oklahoma bolting his conference, he said he will vote “no.”
Translation: Bring your popcorn to watch the fallout from Sept. 28.
Now let’s quickly toggle to the alliance’s aspiration to schedule more regular-season nonconference football games matching teams from the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12.
During a media op Friday at Washington State, new Pac-12 commissioner George Kliav-koff said that if his group and the Big Ten, with the blessing of their television partners of course, could transition quickly from nine to eight league games, additional nonconference dates versus the ACC and Big Ten could start in 2022.
“Over time the goal, the north star of the alliance, is to get to a place where every single school in each of the conferences is playing eight conference games, one home game and one away game against the two other conferences,” Kliavkoff said.
Good luck with that, and not just because the Pac-12 has two fewer teams than the 14-member ACC and Big Ten.
Consider Clemson, the ACC’s six-time defending champion. The Tigers close every regular season against the SEC’s South Carolina and have contracted dates with either another SEC opponent or Notre Dame each year through 2037.
Adding annual games against the Big Ten and Pac-12 — the Tigers have never played a Big Ten team in the regular season, and their only such contest against the Pac-12 was at Southern California in 1966 — would give them an unprecedented 12 regular-season games versus Power Five peers.
Radakovich told The State newspaper’s Alexis Cubit that he is “very comfortable” with Clemson’s long-term scheduling philosophy of 10 Power Five games, eight conference and two nonconference, plus one each against the Group of Five and Championship Subdivision.
North Carolina has only two vacancies on its nonconference docket from 2022 to 2028, but with upcoming series against the Big Ten’s Minnesota and Purdue, Cunningham sees a way to get creative. He suggested that “if somebody took, for instance, my Minnesota games, and I kept the Purdue games, I could pick up two Pac-12 games. Maybe that’s the kind of negotiation or horse-trading we can do.”
Virginia Tech has future series with Rutgers and Maryland of the Big Ten and could be similarly flexible, freeing the Hokies to schedule a Pac-12 opponent in the regular season for only the second time — the first was 2004 versus USC in Landover, Md.
Regardless of how the scheduling alliance unfolds, here are four first-time matchups the alliance needs to create.
California-Virginia: The nation’s second- and fourth-ranked public universities, as rated by U.S. News & World Report.
UCLA-North Carolina: Battle of the blues, and the Nos. 1 and 5 public universities.
Clemson-Michigan: Television gold.
Virginia Tech-Colorado: Trust me, Hokies faithful, you wouldn’t regret road-tripping to Boulder and watching Ralphie storm onto the field.