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Should ACC Football Move To A Nine Game Conference Schedule?

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This week, the Big Ten announced that the conference would be moving to a nine-game conference schedule in football starting in 2017. I have been a big advocate of the ACC making a similar move once the current conference schedule runs its course after the 2015 season.

Here's what I wrote about a possible 9-game ACC football schedule back in May:

"But I think a 9-game conference schedule is the next logical step. It probably won't happen right away given that the conference and ESPN are just heading into a 12 year media rights deal, but I think it will happen eventually. The Big 12(-2) is moving to a 9-game, round-robin conference schedule. The Pac-12 is keeping its 9-game rotation, and they were handsomely rewarded by TV for the extra game inventory. The schedule format is on the agenda during the B1G Ten's spring meetings, and if the Big East moves to 10 teams and invites Villanova or UCF or Houston or UMass or Don Bosco Prep, my guess is the conference will also move to a nine game, round-robin format.

A nine-game conference schedule would give the conference a larger inventory of games for its television partners and decrease the costs associated with luring hapless, I-AA and MAC opponents to campus (but these games, unfortunately, aren't the ones most likely to be removed from the schedule). The downside is that the so-called "elite programs" like Florida State might balk at the conference adding an extra hurdle to reaching the BCS at an at-large. For the past few years, only the Pac-12 has played a 9-game conference schedule and the conference has found it difficult to earn an at-large berth to the BCS. Correlation or causation? Further, the ACC has yet to produce a BCS at-large playing an 8-game sched ..."

Other ACC bloggers are big proponents of this proposal as well, and today Eagle in Atlanta added yet another reason why you should be excited about this idea:

"The 9th ACC games provides ESPN with more valuable content. Plus, if I understand it correctly, it would allow the conference to reopen the current deal. In addition to the money a smart deal would require that a high percentage of the 9th games get carried on ESPN or ESPN 2. By doing that ESPN would have less room for any potential Big East games. And they certainly wouldn't go paying a premium for them. With fewer bidders, the Big East's deal with Versus/NBC Cable or Fox would be less lucrative." 

To recap, moving to a 9-game conference schedule would pit BC up against one of its traditional rivals on the gridiron more often (Miami), decrease payouts for guarantee games against MACrificial lambs and FCS opponents and put another ACC Coastal Division team on the annual schedule. PLUS opening up the possibility of sticking it to the Big East? Where do we sign up?

Over the past few days though, I've been getting a bit of cold feet about any possible move to a nine-game conference schedule. Here's why.

While a move to 9-conference games would benefit a school like BC in numerous ways outlined above, I'm beginning to question the benefit of this plan. Especially now with both Notre Dame and Syracuse locked into long-term series with the Eagles. If the conference moved to a nine game conference schedule, would one of these two series have to inevitably fall off BC's annual schedule?

With the limit of regular season college football games still set at 12 (that is, without a trip to Hawaii), would you really expect GDF to continue to put together an annual football schedule that includes 9 ACC opponents, Notre Dame and Syracuse? While I am a big proponent of this sort of tough scheduling, I just can't see the AD moving to a schedule that annually has 11 regular season games against BCS AQ opponents. Particularly not with the way the current incentives structure is set up in college football.

We can use history as a bit of a guide here. The Pac-10 (now Pac-12) was the first BCS conference to adopt a nine-game conference format, moving to a nine-game sched for the 2006 season after the NCAA approved programs playing a 12-game regular season. Let's take a look at the types of non-conference opponents the Pac-10 programs have brought in from 2006-2011.

After the Pac-10 moved to a nine-game conference sched, the conference broke down into two neat little camps in terms of non-conference scheduling philosophy. Generally, there are the programs that schedule "anyone, anytime" and those that are happy to schedule one additional BCS opponent and a pair of speed bumps.

Programs like USC, Stanford, UCLA, Washington and (to a lesser extent) Cal haven't been afraid to schedule more than one BCS conference opponent in non-conference play over the past few years. In fact, USC and UCLA are two of the three remaining I-A programs who have yet to schedule a program from college football's lower division (Notre Dame being the other).

On the other end of the Pac-10 non-conference scheduling spectrum are programs like Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon State and more recently, Washington State. These programs have no qualms with scheduling one BCS non-conference opponent and a combination of lesser Mountain West, WAC and Division I-AA programs to round out the annual football schedule. Naturally the logic here is that the nine-game Pac-10 schedule is challenging enough so best to schedule a few wins that can get your program closer to bowl eligibility.

Pac-10 non-conference scheduling heat map below (click to enlarge)

Orange cells = BCS AQ + Notre Dame, light blue = non-AQ, white = I-AA opponent

First, let me say I realize the above is a gross simplification -- teams like BYU, Utah, TCU and Boise State are much tougher outs than many, many BCS AQ conference opponents. Pac-10 programs also had less flexibility in scheduling in the first few years after the move to nine games, so some schedules in 2006, 2007 and 2008 may not be indicative of the general philosophy of the athletics department (think BC's non-conf schedules immediately following the move to the ACC). That said, you can start to see how the Pac-10 breaks down when it comes to non-conference scheduling philosophies.

The reason the above is important is that should the ACC move to a nine-game conference schedule, ADs will have a decision to make. Will they continue to schedule tough, adding multiple BCS Big Six opponents (and Notre Dame) to the non-conference schedule? Or will they play it conservative, leveraging the blueprint laid down by several programs in the Pac-10? A blueprint that includes scheduling just one non-conf BCS opponent, a non-AQ and a Division I-AA program.

If I had to wager a guess, I'd think BC would opt for the latter over the former. This is where BC would then face a tough choice.

While there is no telling what will come of the Notre Dame series after this new six-game deal runs its course (or the Syracuse deal, for that matter), BC currently does have two long-term deals with BCS AQ programs -- Notre Dame and Syracuse -- both of which just so happen to be two of the Eagles' more traditional gridiron rivals. Would GDF opt to let one of these two deals expire without a renewal if the ACC moves to nine conference games? If so, which one?

Would BC trading one of these two series in for more Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Virginia, Duke and Miami really be in the best interest of the program? Unlike some other ACC programs who may not have many traditional rivals outside of the conference -- the founding ACC members like Virginia, Maryland and the Carolina schools come to mind -- BC maintains two significant non-conference rivalries in Notre Dame and Syracuse.

There are also some difficulties in adding two BCS non-conference opponents to the schedule as those programs would likely demand home-and-homes, which may make scheduling difficult in years where the program plays five conference road games. In fact, Michigan's AD recently took this point so far as to say that he won't schedule any non-conference road games other than games against Notre Dame. And while Michigan Stadium seats a few more fans than Alumni Stadium, the financial benefits of having a 7-8 game home schedule versus 5-6 are fairly obvious.

Would the BC AD adopt a Stanford, USC or UCLA mentality here -- keeping both Notre Dame and Syracuse on future schedules? Or would a future three-game BC non-conference schedule look more like:

-- Notre Dame OR Syracuse
-- UMass or other MACrificial lamb
-- I-AA opponent (e.g. New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, Fordham)

Again, if push comes to shove, my guess is BC would choose the latter. While I am all for seeing Miami on the schedule more than four times in ten, in those other seasons, a Notre Dame or Syracuse trade for Georgia Tech, Duke, Virginia or North Carolina isn't exactly a fair one for the ACC's northernmost program.

Basically, I'm now torn on this issue. I suppose a lot depends on how you think GDF and the Boston College athletic department would play this thing. But if you think a BCS AQ non-conference opponent would disappear from the Eagles future schedules, I'm not sure a nine-game conference schedule is in the best interests of BC, even with the numerous benefits that come with upping the number of ACC conference games.