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Teel: Geographic 'pods' could be the key to salvaging ACC football season

Teel: Geographic 'pods' could be the key to salvaging ACC football season

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David Cutcliffe has a stock response to the myriad crises he confronts these days as a parent and as Duke’s football coach.

“It’s 2020.”

Translation: Expect to get blindsided by the pandemic, and when you do, understand that solutions can be as extraordinary as the times.

For example, Cutcliffe has no reservations about the ACC possibly adopting a regionalized, virtually conference-only football schedule.

“If you have to play somebody twice,” he said, “play ’em twice. … Just make it easy to play some games. I think the public would enjoy that, just the uniqueness of a season that certainly we will all remember.”

If there is a season, and that’s a massive if, home-and-homes among ACC teams could be the rule rather than exception, saving athletic departments considerable travel costs.

One proposal league athletic directors are considering is dividing the ACC’s 15 schools — traditional football independent and partial conference member Notre Dame would be included — into three geographic pods of five. Teams would play each pod rival twice, accounting for eight games.

The aim then would be, in concert with the Southeastern Conference, to add a ninth, and hopefully 10th, contest for each school, preserving the four annual ACC-SEC in-state rivalries: Clemson-South Carolina, Florida State-Florida, Georgia Tech-Georgia and Louisville-Kentucky.

With coronavirus cases spiking, a regular season beyond 10 games appears to be a pipe dream. And that would hold true if the season were delayed until spring, since staging two complete college football seasons in a calendar year would be logistically and morally — think player safety — untenable.

Now pods and multiple games against an opponent aren’t the sole way to craft an abbreviated season. The ACC could retain its divisions, Coastal and Atlantic, and count only those six games in the league standings, creating more flexibility with the remainder of the schedule and still preserving the ACC-SEC dates.

Before delving into details, a nugget on the savings of regionalized competition. Depending on distance, charter flights for ACC football teams cost approximately $80,000-$100,000 per game. Bus trips cost about one-fifth as much, $15,000-$25,000.

Multiply that savings times a few road games and you’re talking real money, especially when athletic departments are slashing salaries, furloughing staff and eliminating positions. Spending $200,000 less on football travel might save a job or two.

Such is the allure of pods. There are innumerable ways to arrange them, but here are three to spark debate.

None, by the way, is ideal. The North Carolina and/or Virginia schools have to be separated, and balance would prove elusive. But ideal left town months ago.

Remember, teams in different pods can play one another, but probably not twice.

Option No. 1

Pod A: Miami, Florida State, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Duke.

Pod B: Virginia Tech, Virginia, Clemson, N.C. State, Wake Forest.

Pod C: Syracuse, Boston College, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Notre Dame.

Option No. 2

Pod A: Miami, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Virginia Tech.

Pod B: North Carolina, N.C. State, Duke, Wake Forest, Virginia.

Pod C: Syracuse, Boston College, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Notre Dame.

Option No. 3

Pod A: Miami, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Louisville.

Pod B: North Carolina, N.C. State, Duke, Wake Forest, Virginia.

Pod C: Syracuse, Boston College, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech.

“This is a time for innovation and unique solutions,” UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said, “doing the very best we can through the circumstances, and I think that proposal has merit. I’d much prefer to play each team once, not twice, but again, that expands the regional play. I think that probably puts us at more risk than local play, and so the regional pod idea, it might be what the best thing is for us this year.”

Whatever the resolution, Mendenhall has a benchmark for even attempting to play.

“Anything less than eight [games],” he said, “I don’t think would be appropriate to ask of [the players]. So that’s the minimum cutoff I have internally just based on my own threshold, nobody else’s. Anything more than that I think would be worth it, anything less hard to justify, knowing that I understand the revenue part.

“I understand, man, the athletic department’s need for resources. I understand [football’s] effect on other sports, and so I want to help that at the highest level as well.”

Regarding Mendenhall’s preference not to play teams twice: Pods aren’t the sole way to craft an eight- or 10-game regular season. The ACC could retain its divisions, Coastal and Atlantic, and count only those six games in the league standings, creating more flexibility with the remainder of the schedule.

This model could still preserve the ACC-SEC dates and accommodate valued partner Notre Dame.

I’m deranged enough to have modeled team-by-team schedules, with and without pods, but before venturing into those weeds, let’s wait for further clarity on whether a season, fall or spring, is remotely practical.

If your head’s spinning from the uncertainty, you’ve got company. After all, it’s 2020.

@ByDavidTeel

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