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That Awkward Family Reunion

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How can the ACC improve its conference’s identity?

North Carolina State v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

You know how it is. Every year or so the family gathers for a reunion. You look forward to that one aunt’s chicken and hope that one cousin didn’t bring that friend who made their potato salad. You are all family. But there are those relatives you see all the time who attend every year and others that are around so infrequently you struggle to figure out how you’re even related.

The ACC began as conference in 1953 and since then our “family” has seen some welcome additions (GT, FSU, VPI) and those we were happy to disown (Maryland). Yet due to the expansion of our family, those we used to see regularly are drifting farther and farther apart.

This was the acknowledgement of both Dave Doeren & Bronco Mendenhall as State prepares to host UVA this week. With neither being homegrown ACC purists, this came off as more of an unfortunate observation rather than a call to action. And as we begin to settle further into our new reality, the idea of whether this conference, this family, exists in name only will persist.

Of the Power 5, the ACC’s identity has suffered most due to the necessity to survive and advance through periods of expansion. The B1G has grown but also willingly created unbalanced divisions to keep its most notable rivalries intact. The Pac-12 and SEC are geographically in-tune with their programs. And even the Big 12 with West-by-God-Virginia as a distinct outlier, has a schedule where every team plays one another every season. It is not necessary for a major conference to have an identity to be successful in football, but it is an asset for recruiting (“kid you’ll be playing in the ACC!”) and long-term branding ($). So let’s look at some steps that can be taken to bring the family closer together.

Expand the Conference Season to 9 Games: The B1G (with its 14 teams) and the Big 12 (with its uh 10) play 9 conference games per season. On the positive side, this allows more opportunities for a recruiting class to play every team in its conference at least once before it graduates or goes to the NFL. This works perfectly for the Big 12, where you play everyone each year, and the B1G because the vast majority of their rivalries are intra-division.

The problem for the ACC is notable. Four teams have SEC rivalries and a few more have semi-regular non-conference matchups that complicate scheduling (State/CH w ECU & Pitt w Penn State). A nine conference-game season would limit the ability to maximize scheduling for bowl eligibility or home game revenue. This is not even counting the years where teams have to play Notre Dame which could hurt playoff/bowl hopes when a team like Georgia Tech has to play ND and UGA in the same season.

Eliminate Divisions: This has been a constant call across the internet. I first saw it on the mothership, but variations of this are everywhere. And it makes perfect sense, as it creates balance for all teams, rotates the schedule so every team plays one another within a reasonable period. Problem is the ACC title game is a cash cow and makes more sense when a champion of the Atlantic and a champion of the Coastal face each other, rather than the controversy over a 3-way tie for 1st or 2nd that ends in a convoluted tie-breaker that excludes the ACC’s precious national title contender from the opportunity. Also, the potential for an in-season rematch is higher which could cut into the title game buzz and revenue. Granted the same thing can happen in divisions (and it has before) but less likely than in this scenario. Plus, simply eliminating the title game will never happen.

End Permanent Rivalries: I know I know...but it would guarantee you’d play every team over the course of 4 years and adds more balance to conference schedule difficulty. We know though...its a non-starter. One of the biggest complaints for us in football (and other sports for that matter) is the lack of times we play Duke on yearly basis. Imagine if this were the case for Chapel Hill. They might be OK with that considering our dominance over the past decade but that would be frustrating overall.

Blow Up Divisions and Start Over: The B1G makes it work. While the ACC doesn’t want to spend money on more trophies to manufacture rivalries like they do, there are still some obvious splits that will at least keep historical connections closer. So how about just take an original-ish ACC (State, Duke, WF, Clemson, UVA, UNC-CH, GT) and the newcomers (FSU, BC, Syracuse, The U, UofL, Pitt, VPI)? This might be my favorite of them all. You have a division of the original ACC with long-time member GT and one with members of the Big East plus FSU. Importantly, the meaningful rivalries stay intact if you keep that one permanent cross-division opponent (UVA-VT can stay!, All four NC schools play yearly!).

But we know the ACC would have a problem with “competitive balance” by putting FSU, Miami, VT in the same division, which also ruins their dream FSU-The U ACC title game. And for recruiting purposes the “Originals” division wouldn’t get a yearly trip to Florida. So hey, why not just switch FSU & GT? Seems like that it’d solve both problems (even if it sullies the purity).

It’s true you don’t always want to see your family. Like I’m fine with never seeing that weird uncle Maryland again. And there are definitely some fanbases folks wouldn’t mind avoiding yearly. But regardless of it all if you’re in the ACC, you’re still family and these reunions need to happen more often then they have been. Now...what to do about that step-cousin Notre Dame...