How the ACC’s football schedule could work with no divisions and 3 annual opponents

Well, well, well. Look who finally has come around.

The ACC has, at last, come to grips with the fact that it has a football scheduling problem — too many teams to play everybody in a timely manner given the two-division setup.

The solution that seems to be gaining traction, possibly going into effect as early as 2023? A 3-5 model, with each team having three annual rivals and cycling in five new opponents per year. In this model, divisions would be eliminated, and the top two teams would play for the ACC championship.

It would allow every program in the ACC to play every other team home and away during a four-year cycle. Right now, it takes 12 years to do that. You’re almost not in the same conference. This model would fix that.

I’m particularly fond of this idea because I proposed it nearly nine years ago, attempting to find a solution for a league that flirted with (but ultimately didn’t implement) a nine-game schedule and never has had much of a stomach for eliminating crossover division rivals. I’ll be expecting my finder’s fee from commissioner Jim Phillips any day now.

The format is easy. The harder part is coming up with three annual rivals that work for everybody. This is not a pod system, with a closed circle of four teams. The numbers don’t work that way. And though some schools might have an annual opponent high on their priority list, the feeling might not be reciprocal. Inevitably, there are going to be some matchups that aren’t ideal, which makes this a difficult exercise.

For example, our own Matt Fortuna and Andy Staples took a stab at the pairings earlier this week:

Come on, now. We can do better than that, lads. And I know I’d like another swing at it after looking back at some of my original pairings in 2013.

So we ACC beat writers at The Athletic are putting out our own versions here. Tell us what you think.

— Andy Bitter

Andy Bitter — Virginia Tech beat writer

Boston College: Syracuse, Pitt, Miami

Clemson: Florida State, Georgia Tech, NC State

Duke: North Carolina, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech

Florida State: Miami, Clemson, Louisville

Georgia Tech: Clemson, Duke, Virginia

Louisville: Syracuse, Florida State, Wake Forest

Miami: Florida State, Virginia Tech, Boston College

North Carolina: NC State, Duke, Virginia

NC State: North Carolina, Clemson, Wake Forest

Pitt: Syracuse, Boston College, Virginia Tech

Syracuse: Pitt, Boston College, Louisville

Virginia: Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Georgia Tech

Virginia Tech: Virginia, Miami, Pitt

Wake Forest: Duke, NC State, Louisville

What did you prioritize the most? History and prominence. That’s what this whole exercise is about: keeping matchups worth keeping, highlighting marquee games and cycling through the rest with decent frequency.

So there were a few untouchables — Duke-UNC, UNC-NC State, NC State-Wake Forest, Florida State-Miami, Georgia Tech-Clemson, Virginia Tech-Virginia and a few more.

But then I wanted to get games that people really want to see and are prioritized by the fan bases, even if there isn’t an incredibly long history of the rivalry. Virginia Tech-Miami, for instance, isn’t the longest-running rivalry in the conference, but they’ve met for 30 straight years, are 15-15 against each other in that time and from what I gather, don’t like each other very much.

Plus, you want to pit the big brands of the ACC against each other as often as possible, for the conference’s marketability. That means Clemson-Florida State annually and despite both teams being in down periods, Virginia Tech-Miami.

What were the toughest knots to untangle? In a perfect world, I’d just give the four North Carolina schools each other, and they could play a round-robin for the Sweet Tea Trophy or whatever they want to call it. But UNC-Virginia is a fly in the ointment, as the South’s Oldest Rivalry, a game that has been played 126 times dating back to 1892. That’s exactly the type of game that you want to preserve in this system.

So the North Carolina schools get only two other teams from their state, with UNC also getting Virginia, Duke playing Georgia Tech (a game that has been played 89 times), NC State continuing the Textile Bowl with Clemson, and Wake Forest kind of as the odd man out, getting Louisville in what’s a continuation of an Atlantic Division game.

It’s not ideal, but there are going to be tradeoffs in this setup. And if it’s really a sticking point, just switch up the fixed opponents every four years. It’s not like these pairings were handed to us on stone tablets.

Any misconceptions about opponents people think teams need to play? There seems to be this thought that the one-time Big East teams should always be paired with old Big East teams, which seems like it defeats the purpose of coming into the ACC.

For instance, Virginia Tech-Boston College has run its course as a rivalry — at least as an annual game. Yes, they were old Big East foes. Yes, they played in two straight ACC championship games more than a decade ago. (Seriously, look it up.) But it’s just not a game that has much juice these days, and I’d think the majority of both fan bases would agree it’s time to move on.

That’s not to say all the old Big East rivalries can’t be revisited. In fact, I’ve paired up many of the northern schools with old Big East opponents, but just because they were once in the same conference doesn’t automatically mean there’s some bond between them forever. This new model is a chance to reframe things.

Who was tough to find three good rivals for? Louisville is so new that it doesn’t feel like there are a lot of obvious options for the Cardinals. When Maryland was in the conference, it would have been a natural opponent for UVa. But Louisville? I know they’ve been crossover partners, but it doesn’t feel like that’s an annual game that needs to be saved.

In the end, I gave Louisville the trio of Syracuse, Florida State and Wake Forest. The Orange pairing is sort of a “last ones into the conference” type of deal. There’s some history with Florida State. Wake Forest felt a bit forced, but I liked the Virginia Tech-Pitt matchup more. You probably could switch those around a bit, with Pitt playing Louisville and Virginia Tech playing Wake Forest, just for proximity’s sake, but the arrangement above keeps the familiarity those programs have from the division setup.

Boston College was hard too, primarily because it’s so isolated geographically from a lot of the conference. Syracuse and Pitt are the closest to Boston, and Miami is a nod to their Big East past that seems to work well enough. If they have to get on a plane anyway, might as well make them play each other, right?

Don’t like it? Here’s an alternate plan that might be more amenable: pair Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech (the Techmo Bowl), UVa and Wake Forest (old ACC, 50 all-time meetings), Louisville and BC (Atlantic Division history) and Miami and Pitt (Coastal Division, Big East history).

What were the hardest games to leave on the cutting room floor? It’s easy: North Carolina-Wake Forest. We actually have the Tar Heels and Demon Deacons to thank for highlighting the absurdity of the old setup since they scheduled each other as nonconference opponents to get around the infrequency of meetings between schools 80 miles apart.

Ideally, I would have gotten them paired up here to protect a game that has been played 109 times, but something had to go. The problem is UNC has so many long-standing rivals that it’s hard to limit the Tar Heels to just three.

Think of it this way: In the old system, these two would play each other once every six years. Now it’s down to once every two. That feels like progress.

Manny Navarro — Miami beat writer

Boston College: Syracuse, Pitt, Louisville

Clemson: Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, NC State

Duke: Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Wake Forest

Florida State: Miami, Virginia Tech, Louisville

Georgia Tech: Duke, Clemson, Virginia

Louisville: Syracuse, Florida State, Boston College

Miami: Florida State, Pitt, Virginia Tech

North Carolina: Virginia, Duke, NC State

NC State: Wake Forest, North Carolina, Clemson

Pitt: Syracuse, Miami, Boston College

Syracuse: Pitt, Boston College, Louisville

Virginia: North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech

Virginia Tech: Virginia, Miami, Florida State

Wake Forest: NC State, Duke, Clemson

What did you prioritize the most in your pairings? First, I spent way too much time diving into this — three full days of research into ACC attendance figures going back to 2014. I wanted to quantify factors such as which rivalries drew the most fans and how many sellout crowds the pairings combined for and what percentage of the stadium was filled when those teams met. I have an entire list I’m going to shove in your face below because I didn’t spend 72 hours crunching numbers for nothing.

But in the end, I realized ACC fans don’t show up because the opponent is highly ranked (although it helps when Clemson is among the best teams in college football or Louisville is having a great season). The reality is home attendance is more dependent on whether your team is good — or located in a place like Blacksburg, where football Saturdays are the place to be. (Virginia Tech’s 14 home sellouts since 2014 are the most in the ACC.)

The Hokies, for instance, sold out games against William & Mary in 2018 and Old Dominion in 2017. They were 6-7 in 2018 and 9-4 in 2017. Clemson, which sold out 13 home games since 2014, had a packed house in 2019 against Charlotte and Wofford and South Carolina State in 2014.

Miami, meanwhile, has had just four home sellouts since 2014: FSU (2018, 2016, 2014) and Notre Dame (2017). Pittsburgh, which just won its first ACC title last year and played for another in 2018, has had only three home sellouts since 2014: Penn State (2018, 2016) and Notre Dame (2015).

So, I leaned on history (most games played between teams) over attendance, distance between schools and TV ratings. In the end, I created an Excel sheet, ranked the top-eight ACC opponents based on games played and started pairing them.

I was able to link five schools — Clemson, Duke, Miami, NC State and Pitt — with their top three most-played ACC opponents. I got six more programs — Georgia Tech, Louisville, North Carolina, Syracuse, Virginia and Wake Forest — lined up with three of their top four most-played ACC foes. Virginia Tech is paired with three of its top five, and Boston College and Florida State got paired with their top rivals and another team in their top five, plus Louisville, which was obviously the toughest pairing for the other 13 ACC teams.

What were the hardest games to leave on the cutting room floor? Obviously, when you cut out divisions and shrink the number of teams you play on an annual basis from seven to three, you’re going to turn some good annual rivalries into games played every other year.

The good news is it’s only going to be every other year. The most historic or longest-running ACC rivalry that didn’t get the annual treatment from me is North Carolina and Wake Forest, which have scheduled nonconference games against each other of late to make sure they see each other more often than every few years in crossover games. I don’t feel bad about it. With the new format, every other year should be good enough for the Heels and Demon Deacons.

Outside of that, the toughest decision I made was not keeping the Atlantic Division rivalry going between Florida State and Clemson. It was obviously great when both teams were competing for national championships. But let’s face it, the old Bowden Bowl is kind of stale, and Mike Norvell isn’t giving me vibes he’ll have the Seminoles back in the championship picture any time soon. By the way, four other Atlantic Division rivals — Boston College, Louisville, Wake Forest and NC State — have been involved in the same number of sellouts when they’ve played Clemson (three) as FSU has since 2014.

Any rivalries you’d consider keeping or establishing as an alternative? If the ACC feels like it’s more important to keep Clemson and FSU on each other’s schedule than, say, Clemson-Wake Forest or FSU-Louisville, I wouldn’t have an issue with it. I did create a bubble list during this process of alternative matchups for each school.

Boston College-Miami: Besides being able to play those Hail Flutie highlights every year in the week leading up to the game, the Hurricanes and Eagles share plenty of Big East history and 30 previous meetings. It’s not a bad pairing if Miami has to switch out Pitt for some reason and BC is able to shed Louisville. But the Canes need to play Virginia Tech and FSU every year.

North Carolina-Virginia Tech: I know there’s no way they’ll end up playing each other each year, but the Tar Heels and Hokies have sold out five times since 2014 — more than any other ACC rivalry during that span.

Oldest rivalries in the ACC

Rivalry

  

Games

  

Leader

  

North Carolina-Virginia

116

UNC 63-49-4

NC State-Wake Forest

114

NCST 67-42-5

North Carolina-Wake Forest

104

UNC 69-33-2

NC State-North Carolina

101

UNC 60-37-4

Duke-North Carolina

101

UNC 61-36-4

Virginia-Virginia Tech

98

VT 60-33-5

Duke-Wake Forest

97

Duke 55-40-2

Duke-Georgia Tech

89

GT 53-35-1

Clemson-Wake Forest

87

Clemson 69-17-1

NC State-Clemson

86

Clemson 57-29

Georgia Tech-Clemson

85

GT 51-32-2

NC State-Duke

83

Duke 41-37-5

Pittsburgh-Syracuse

77

Pitt 42-32-3

Duke-Virginia

69

Virginia 37-32

Florida State-Miami

64

Miami 33-31

NC State-Virginia

56

NC State 35-21

Clemson-North Carolina

56

Clemson 37-18-1

Georgia Tech-North Carolina

56

GT 31-22-3

Boston College-Syracuse

54

Syracuse 32-22

Clemson-Duke

54

Clemson 37-16-1

Wake Forest-Virginia

50

Virginia 33-17

Clemson-Virginia

49

Clemson 40-8-1

NC State-Virginia Tech

47

VT 25-18-4

Georgia Tech-Virginia

43

Tied 21-21-1

Miami-Pitt

41

Miami 29-11-1

NC State-Florida State

40

FSU 26-14

Florida State-Wake Forest

39

FSU 30-8-1

Miami-Virginia Tech

39

Miami 24-15

UNC-Virginia Tech

39

VT 24-11-4

Virginia Tech-Wake Forest

39

VT 25-13-1

Florida State-Virginia Tech

37

FSU 23-13-1

Clemson-Florida State

34

FSU 20-14

Clemson-Virginia Tech

34

Clemson 22-11-1

Boston College-Pitt

32

Pitt 17-15

Boston College-Clemson

31

Clemson 20-9-2

NC State-Georgia Tech

31

GT 20-11

Georgia Tech-Wake Forest

31

GT 23-8

Boston College-Miami

30

Miami 24-6

Boston College-Virginia Tech

30

VT 19-11

Grace Raynor — Clemson beat writer

Boston College: Syracuse, Pitt, Louisville

Clemson: Florida State, NC State, Georgia Tech

Duke: North Carolina, Wake Forest, Miami

Florida State: Clemson, Miami, Syracuse

Georgia Tech: Clemson, Wake Forest, Louisville

Louisville: Boston College, Georgia Tech, Pitt

Miami: Florida State, Virginia Tech, Duke

North Carolina: NC State, Virginia, Duke

NC State: Clemson, North Carolina, Wake Forest

Pitt: Boston College, Louisville, Virginia

Syracuse: Boston College, Florida State, Virginia Tech

Virginia: North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Pitt

Virginia Tech: Virginia, Miami, Syracuse

Wake Forest: NC State, Duke, Georgia Tech

What did you prioritize the most? There were several matchups I knew I had to have on my list, so I started there and worked my way out. Pairing Clemson with Florida State, NC State and Georgia Tech was a no-brainer for me given the competition between the Tigers and Seminoles when they’re at their best, the utter wackiness of the Tigers and Wolfpack any given year (hello, Laptop Gate) and the history of the Tigers and Yellow Jackets dating back to their first matchup in 1898. The ACC is at its best when Clemson and Florida State are national powers, so protecting that matchup was a top priority, even if Florida State is still rebuilding.

After Clemson, I moved on to UNC. The Tar Heels had probably the three most obvious opponents in NC State, Virginia and Duke, with UNC and Virginia dating back to 1892. Lastly, of course, Virginia-Virginia Tech was a priority. Interrupting any traditional in-state rivalry was an automatic dealbreaker.

What were the toughest knots to untangle? Honestly, the math alone had my head spinning, as Andy and Manny can attest. I’m not proud of how long it took me to simply get the numbers right.

User error aside, I had a hard time untangling what to do with Georgia Tech after pairing the Yellow Jackets with Clemson.

I don’t love the Wake Forest-Georgia Tech matchup but picked it so that small-market Wake Forest could play in a big market like Atlanta after winning the ACC Atlantic Division last year. The Demon Deacons are hoping to grow their national brand, which is good for a weak ACC, and Atlanta is a hotbed for recruits — especially if Wake Forest somehow could score a game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Georgia Tech-Louisville came down to each team needing a final matchup mathematically.

Syracuse was also a little tricky, but I went heavy on geography for the Orange versus Boston College and Virginia Tech. I also gave them Florida State after FSU athletic director Michael Alford publicly expressed his desire to be paired with either Boston College or Syracuse to get the Seminoles in front of a big market for recruiting purposes.

Any opponents that you would have liked to pair up? North Carolina and Miami is a matchup I would have loved to have worked in, and both teams now have big-name coaches with Mack Brown coaching the Tar Heels and Mario Cristobal coaching the Hurricanes. If both teams play up to expectations, a win against the other certainly would be a résumé booster. But ultimately, I felt like North Carolina needed to play NC State, Duke and Virginia more. But it was a bummer when I realized that.

Who was tough to find three good rivals for? Louisville. By far. The Cardinals have no natural rival in the ACC, and their geography doesn’t help create one. There was a time when Louisville-Clemson was a must-see matchup when Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson were quarterbacking the Tigers and Cardinals, respectively, but that’s the only time I can remember feeling like Louisville had a “can’t-miss” ACC game.

I put Louisville with Boston College, Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh mostly thanks to the process of elimination. In my model, the Cardinals get to play in three of the conference’s bigger markets from a city standpoint, but there really was no compelling matchup that I felt like Louisville had to have.

What were the hardest games to leave on the cutting room floor? UNC-Wake Forest was easily the hardest matchup to leave behind. These two teams wanted to play each other so badly in recent years that they scheduled each other as nonconference opponents. I hate that there’s no clear path for them every year in this model.

(Photo: Jim Dedmon / USA Today)

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