After just two weeks of football, the sky is falling for ACC football. The ACCpocalypse is upon us. The ACC will leapfrog the Big East for the "worst conference" title, and is merely counting down the days until the tipoff of the college basketball season. Another year, another early-season black eye for the conference in football.
You'll probably hear 150 different variants on a theme when you make the morning rounds after last weekend's ACC college football action. I'm hear to tell you that the ACC disaster weekend is completely overblown. Well, the losses are still bad, but perhaps these early season ACC football meltdowns can be avoided in the future.
First, let's survey the flaming wreckage of week 2 of ACC football. The entire ACC Coastal Division lost last weekend, with losses ranging from the acceptable (Virginia's close 17-14 loss at USC, though the Trojans are the Trojans in name only at this point) to the completely unacceptable (Virginia Tech losing to I-AA James Madison). North Carolina was off this weekend, but they've certainly done their part to bring a few dark clouds over ACC football in the form of two NCAA investigations into the Tar Heels football program.
In the Atlantic, Wake Forest beat Duke in a ACC season-opening shootout. Boston College, Clemson, Maryland and N.C. State were also winners, with arguably the signature ACC win of the weekend being the Wolfpack's 28-21 victory at UCF. The only Atlantic Division loss of the weekend was the Seminoles' 47-17 loss to Oklahoma in Norman.
Some of the ACC's losses were predictable. Florida State got beat soundly by a good Oklahoma team. Miami looked listless in a loss at Ohio State. Those are tough road games against teams with National Championship aspirations. The Virginia loss would look even better, that is, if this year's USC was anything close to the USC we've grown to know over the past decade.
Some of the losses were unacceptable. Few saw the defending league champs traveling to Lawrence, only to lose to a Kansas team that had lost eight straight and was coming off a loss to I-AA North Dakota State. Fewer thought it conceivable that the Hokies could drop their home opener to the CAA's James Madison Dukes.
I'm not discounting how bad some of these ACC losses were last weekend. They were bad. But to a large extent, the annual ACC meltdown weekend is a product of the schedule the conference and the 12 ACC programs have set up.
Here are a few suggestions on how such a weekend can be avoided in the future.
Schedule ACC football league games multiple years out. If there is any better indication of the league's basketball-first mentality, it's in the ACC football scheduling department. You would think one of the six BCS conferences in college football could schedule dates for future ACC football games more than nine months out. The SEC already has dates set for the 2011 season. The Big 12, before Nebraska and Colorado jumped ship and threw the league's schedule out of whack, had league games scheduled multiple years out. The Big Ten already has a schedule for the 2011 and 2012 seasons to accommodate their newest member Nebraska. The Pac-10 will have to tweak their schedule and the conference alignment with the additions of Utah and Colorado, but the league also had previously published league schedules for the 2011, 2012 and 2013 seasons.
Yet the ACC is still on a year-to-year cycle when it comes to putting dates to paper for ACC football. My question is why? If every other BCS conference is dictating when they can play their non-conference games, why isn't the ACC? The league now has a long-term television contract. You would think that the ACC would be able to schedule league games multiple years out with the newly acquired stability of a 12-year, $1.86 billion television rights deal with ESPN.
Why is this important? For one thing, it gives ACC programs leverage when negotiating future dates with non-conference opponents. If ACC programs know they have set weekends where they can schedule non-conference opponents, they can take more control over when marquee non-conference opponents are placed on the schedule. They can also more easily dictate to non-AQ league opponents when and where they are to going to play. Having more control over the non-conference schedule and more leverage when it comes to negotiating these contracts will help the 12 ACC programs make better scheduling decisions long-term.
Prove yourself in the early going with wins the first few weeks. Under the current system, there's really no need to schedule games like Florida State at Oklahoma and Miami at Ohio State in the first two weeks of the season. I realize I'm advocating for a watering down of the schedule in the first few weeks of the season, but it's become a necessity give the current BCS system we have in place.
Need proof? Just take a look at the week 3 Associated Press top 25. The highest ranked ACC team in the poll this week is 1-1 Miami at number 17. That's it. That's the list of ACC teams ranked in the top 25. Above Miami are six -- yes, six -- SEC programs. Check out the resume of those six programs through two weeks:
Alabama (2-0) - W 48-3 over San Jose State, W 24-3 over Penn State
Florida (2-0) - W 34-12 over Miami (Ohio), W 38-14 over USF
Arkansas (2-0) - W 44-3 over Tennessee Tech, W 31-7 over Louisiana-Monroe
South Carolina (2-0) - W 41-13 over Southern Miss, W 17-6 over Georgia
LSU (2-0) - W 30-24 over North Carolina, W 27-3 over Vanderbilt
Auburn (2-0) - W 52-26 over Arkansas State, W 17-14 over Mississippi State
Defending champ Alabama's 24-3 win at home vs. Penn State is probably the marquee win of the bunch, with LSU's season-opening win over North Carolina looking less impressive with all the players UNC lost to its NCAA investigation. Aside from Penn State and maybe North Carolina, there's a lot of early season fodder to get six SEC programs to 2-0 and ranked in the top 25. A combined 12 wins with only three of those coming to non-SEC, BCS programs.
The ACC had a record five teams ranked in the preseason Top 20. With a few tweaks to the schedule, the league could still have five teams in the Top 20 after two weeks of play. Instead, those 5 preseason ACC teams are a combined 3-6 with zero wins against FBS competition.
Move games against I-AA opponents off opening weekend. If there's any league that is fully aware of the pitfalls of scheduling an FCS team in week 1, it's the ACC. Virginia and Duke were upset by I-AA teams last year. Two years ago, Maryland struggled to put away Delaware in the opening weekend, and followed that up by needing overtime to beat James Madison last year. This season, while the ACC avoided catching the I-AA upset bug in the opening weekend, it caught up with them in week 2 with Virginia Tech losing to James Madison.
Scheduling I-AA programs to start the season is definitely a Catch-22. The program gains nothing by winning and loses everything if they happen to lose. The FCS program has the entire offseason to gear up for what amounts to their season's Super Bowl as they try to knock off one of the only big boys on their schedule.
I think these games are best placed in week 3 or 4 on the schedule. ACC programs should instead open against teams from non-AQ conferences like the Sun Belt, MAC, WAC and Conference USA and work out the kinks before taking on I-AA opponents. This would also help with ticket sales. In the case of BC, the I-AA opponent could return to its rightful place on the schedule -- during Parents' Weekend -- which would basically guarantees an extra 10,000 tickets sold for the game.
If your program insists on keeping their I-AA game opening weekend, consider scheduling a team nicknamed the "Blue Hose" and avoid -- at all costs -- scheduling programs from the CAA South not named Towson.
Stop playing in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic. Really, just stop. Save the annual ACC vs. SEC conference schwartz competition for the last weekend of the regular season (see below). This game has done nothing to help further the image of ACC football as the league has fallen flat against a marquee SEC opponent for three consecutive years running. A matchup hasn't been set for 2011 just yet, and the ACC would be best served sitting it out a year.
Move all marquee, non-conference rivalry games to the last weekend of the season. BC has made strides in this department by scheduling Syracuse over the next 10 years, joining Florida State-Florida, Georgia Tech-Georgia, Clemson-South Carolina in their end-of-year, non-conference rivalry game scheduling practice. More ACC programs should join the party, moving one of their marquee non-conference matchups to the end of the season.
If Maryland and Navy are serious about making the Crab Bowl a permanent fixture on the schedule, then they should move that game to this weekend, too (as Army-Navy is usually the weekend after or two weeks out). Miami has scheduled USF to end the regular season the next four seasons, and if that series continues beyond 2013, that matchup seems like a good addition to an ACC rivalry weekend.
There are some league games that probably shouldn't be moved from this weekend -- Virginia-Virginia Tech, chief among them -- and if you move Wake Forest-Duke and N.C. State-North Carolina to the final weekend, you've now got 12 ACC rivalry games for the final weekend of the regular season. Scheduling in this way will also help with ACC Championship Game ticket sales, as the matchup will likely be set more than a week before the game.
To recap, the ACC can avoid their annual meltdown weekend with a few quick fixes to the schedule. Start scheduling like a true BCS conference by publishing the league schedule multiple years out and encourage the following scheduling format for ACC programs:
Week 1 - Extremely winnable game against an FBS opponent (Sun Belt / MAC / Conference USA)
Week 2 - Another winnable FBS / BCS opponent
Week 3 - Marquee BCS non-conference opponent OR I-AA
Week 4 - Marquee BCS non-conference opponent OR I-AA
Week 5-12 - ACC league schedule, with a two-team bye week rotation starting in week 6
Week 13 - Non-conference rivalry weekend (plus Virginia-Virginia Tech and the Carolina school interleague rivalry games)
Worst case, you simply delay the inevitable and push the meltdown back to the final week of the regular season. Best case is you have multiple "named" ACC programs at 4-0 going into the conference portion of the schedule, getting some Top 25 love throughout the month of September.
Hey, it works for the Big Ten, Big 12 and the SEC. Why can't it work for the ACC?