During football season, the ACC doesn’t get enough credit for happily living in the shadow of the big, bad SEC.
Or at least tolerating this regional relationship.
To clarify, the ACC might not love ceding the main spotlight to the SEC during the fall months; but the league’s powers-that-be are also smart enough to know that, in national circles, the SEC has the influence and financial juice to set the football trends.
If that weren’t the case, for example, the ACC’s football policy-makers would have already forged plans to expand the per-team league schedule to nine games, every year for every member, as a means of matching the logistical models conceived by the Big 12, Pac-12 and Big Ten (coming in 2016) — the other Power 5 conferences.
Instead, the 14-team ACC (along with part-time “member” Notre Dame) primarily follows the lead of the 14-team SEC, in terms of maintaining the eight-game schedule during conference action (with one notable caveat — more on that later).
As such, that could be one fewer opportunity for a rankings-crippling defeat in the eyes of the College Football Playoff committee.
We have yet to close the books on Year 2 of the College Football Playoff experiment — determining four national semifinalists and eight other schools for major bowls — but do you really need to see how this ends before passing judgment?
Here are two readily apparent truths about how the CFP committee handles its business:
a) Regarding the so-called Final Four, conference champions trump non-champions with similarly stellar resumes. For example, it would take a minor miracle for the SEC’s Alabama and Florida or the Big Ten’s Ohio State and Michigan State to make the Playoff semis in the same year.
(It’s part of the built-in angst that comes with choosing four Playoff teams among five conference champions … and then Notre Dame on an elite-level year.)
b) Strength of schedule means very little … provided the conference champion goes undefeated.
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Back on Sept. 19, Iowa kicker Marshall Koehn booted a game-winning field goal from 57 yards to beat Pittsburgh at the final gun, easily the Hawkeyes’ most thrilling win of the season; and if we’re being honest, it was also 10-0 Iowa’s most significant victory.
More important than prevailing at Wisconsin (Oct. 3), which has played in three of the last four Big Ten title games?
More vital than a road rout of Northwestern (Oct. 17), which is now No. 20 in the CFP rankings?
Both questions deserve an emphatic “Yes” for two simple reasons: If Koehn’s long-distance prayer had gone unanswered back in September and Iowa had subsequently fallen to Pitt in overtime, the Big Ten West-leading Hawkeyes would never have landed a CFP ranking higher than 15th or so, despite a perfect Big Ten mark. That’s because of a less-than-sexy schedule (no Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State during the regular season) and marginal reputation in recent years (just 24 combined victories from 2011 to 2014).
But as an undefeated squad, No. 5 Iowa surprisingly controls its own Playoff destiny: As in, beat Purdue, Nebraska and the East champion (presumably Ohio State) in the Big Ten title game … and the Hawkeyes are virtual locks for the national semifinals.
In other words, coach Kirk Ferentz deserves credit for keeping his team perfect this late in the campaign. Iowa athletic director Gary Barta merits praise for approving an easy-to-navigate non-conference slate — Pitt, at Iowa State, Illinois State and North Texas. And the unknown Big Ten master schedule-maker (human or computer) gets a shout-out … for hand-delivering division-crossover patsies to the Hawkeyes — Indiana and Maryland (combined 0-12 in league play).
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It’s not Clemson’s fault that Louisville, Miami, North Carolina State, Syracuse and South Carolina — the Tigers’ five road games in 2015 — have combined for 26 losses at the mid-November mark. Dabo Swinney’s program also holds minimal responsibility for five ACC teams posting three or fewer victories this late in the season, slightly diluting the conference’s power ranking.
In this CFP age, staying undefeated carries more weight than any other factor involving Power 5 schools — no matter what the Playoff committee claims to be true.
Which brings us to this: Yes, Clemson fans are still giddy about their team’s 24-22 victory, amid near-hurricane conditions, over Notre Dame on Oct. 3, and how it birthed one of the great post-game speeches of Swinney’s coaching career.
But here’s the deal: With the Fighting Irish obligated to play five ACC teams every year — as part of their ACC “membership” agreement covering the other major varsity sports, but not counting as “conference” games — Clemson would still likely own a top-four slot in this week’s Playoff rankings even if Notre Dame wasn’t part of the 2015 schedule. (The Irish’s five ACC foes in 2016: Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina State, Miami, Virginia Tech.)
At worst, a replacement victory over some random school from a middling conference would have kept Clemson among the Big Four.
Just as long as the Tigers remain undefeated.
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This risk-averse scheduling notion has its place in the SEC, as well.
LSU athletic director Joe Alleva, who lampooned the league’s 12-year, permanent-crossover model back in April 2014 (LSU vs. Florida, Alabama vs. Tennessee, Auburn vs. Georgia, etc.), has already done the math:
Given how the SEC consistently ranks as the nation’s best and deepest conference, it makes little sense for the Tigers to over-extend themselves with non-league scheduling.
Consequently, minus a non-league rival of national appeal (outside of maybe Texas), LSU opted for a sound strategy of one harmless Louisiana-based school (McNeese State), one floundering MAC program (Eastern Michigan), one Conference USA power (Western Kentucky) and one road tilt against a bottom-rung ACC club (at Syracuse).
The plan worked to perfection early on, with LSU claiming seven victories in the first eight weeks (weather forced a game cancellation against McNeese State) and riding the hot hand of tailback Leonard Fournette, who rushed for 150-plus yards and at least one touchdown in the Tigers’ initial seven outings.
As confirmation, the Playoff committee rewarded LSU with a No. 2 ranking on Nov. 3 — prior to stern, resume-building tests against Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss.
Of course, the Tigers were dumped by the Crimson Tide and Razorbacks in successive weeks. But that’s beyond an athletic director’s realm of control. As LSU’s Alleva, Iowa’s Barta and even Clemson’s Dan Radakovich already know … positioning a program for an unblemished record come mid-November remains the ultimate goal. And it’s a great chess move, given the grueling conference slate. (In fairness to LSU, the Tigers will open the 2016 season at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, a de facto home game for the Wisconsin Badgers.)
After that, everything essentially falls onto the coaches and players, for better or worse.
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The football fan in me appreciates how the Power 5 conferences (SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Big 12, Pac-12) are phasing out the time-tested strategy of scheduling FCS schools.
The Big Ten, SEC and ACC have even upped the ante in this regard, requiring all members to schedule at least one non-conference outing against a Power 5 team, while also exempting Notre Dame, BYU, Army (high-profile independents), Cincinnati, Connecticut and Navy (American Athletic Conference) into that narrow request.
Yes, the big-time conferences are commendably on the same page these days, minus one shocking oversight: The five leagues have different philosophies about the number of conference games, and this could lead to the Pac-12 and Big 12 being shut out of the Playoff semifinals.
a) The 10-team Big 12 has a simple round-robin model for conference play, with a clear winner (hopefully) emerging from the nine-game slate, eliminating the need for a year-ending title game.
b) The Pac-12 calls for a nine-game conference schedule, with five intra-divisional outings and four crossovers. In the case of Southern California (7-3 overall, 5-2 Pac-12), the Trojans must endure a daunting schedule that includes seven of the conference’s other eight best teams (Stanford, Oregon, Utah, UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona, California) — with the lone exception of surprising Washington State (7-3 overall).
By contrast, including Penn State (7-3 overall, 4-2 Big Ten), the six current victims on No. 3 Ohio State’s conference resume (Rutgers, Maryland, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota) have a combined league record of 8-29. And as mentioned earlier, Iowa’s two crossovers from the East division — Indiana and Maryland — are both 0-6 in league play.
Bottom line: The eventual Pac-12 champion (either Stanford, Oregon, Utah or USC) has no tangible shot of reaching the Playoff semis, minus collective late-season collapses from Ohio State, Iowa, Florida, Alabama and Notre Dame.
To be fair, the division winners from the SEC, ACC and Big Ten would, in effect, play nine conference games this year; and Notre Dame adds to the ACC’s obligations — once every three years, per team. Plus, Stanford’s season got off to a rocky start long before conference play began, mustering just six points in a Week 1 loss to Northwestern.
And Utah — briefly garnering a top-five ranking last month — incurred an 18-point drubbing to USC in October, effectively ending the Utes’ bid as serious national-title contenders. (With Utah and Stanford going down last week, every Pac-12 team now has at least two overall defeats.)
However, the Pac-12 master schedule, as currently constituted, puts conference officials in the precarious position of watching their schools cannibalize one another during the regular season, knowing that only super teams, like Oregon in 2014 (led by Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota), will likely emerge as Playoff locks.
The same sense of impending doom potentially hovers over the Big 12 champion. Yes, 10-0 Oklahoma State should leapfrog No. 4 Notre Dame (9-1 record) in the final Playoff rankings (Dec. 6), on the presumption of an undefeated campaign. But if one-loss Oklahoma — perhaps the hottest team in the nation right now — topples TCU and Oklahoma State over the next two weekends … the Sooners would need to pray for a Notre Dame loss to Stanford (Nov. 28).
Otherwise, when considering the No. 4 slot for the Playoff, the CFP committee would ultimately be left with the apples-to-apples comparison of Notre Dame vs. Texas (the Irish won 38-3) and Oklahoma vs. Texas (the Longhorns stunned the Sooners in Dallas).
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.