Expect ACC to once again play an influential role as playoff era begins

Florida State's win over Auburn ended the SEC's stranglehold on the BCS title. (USATSI)
Florida State's win over Auburn ended the SEC's stranglehold on the BCS title. (USATSI)

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It's not the sort of anniversary many remember. But ask John Swofford. He recalls the day his conference may have saved itself, at the same time saving college football.

It was about this time a year ago that the ACC announced a grant of rights that effectively stopped conference realignment in its tracks. The musical chairs league-hopping that almost tore the game apart was all but finished when the ACC members agreed to a grant of rights.

“It was a very pivotal point, not just for our conference,” said Swofford, the ACC commissioner. “I think it settled the overall landscape with the major conferences.”

It also put the ACC in a leadership position that continues today. Not the leadership position. Don't get upset, Joe Bob SEC. But Florida State did break the SEC's stranglehold on the national championship. Notre Dame joined the conference in everything in football. The Irish will begin this year a scheduling agreement to play ACC teams that benefits both entities in the playoff era.

The ACC is also considering its own network. Presidents were impressed with the potential reach of the league (including Notre Dame), when presented with demographics last year by a media consultant.

It starts with the grant of agreement that essentially legally locks teams into their conferences. If they leave for another league, the previous conference keeps their TV rights. Swofford was quietly instrumental in convincing league presidents to go all in on a conference that just a year ago looked shaky.

The only BCS conference now not to have a grant of rights is the SEC. Reason: Why would anyone want to leave the SEC?

But the ACC? It was in danger of dissolving after the Big Ten had poached Maryland and there was talk of Florida State and/or Clemson being interested in the Big 12.

Swofford's league wasn't an innocent. It accelerated the demise of the Big East (in its old form) by snatching Virginia Tech, Miami (both 2004), Boston College (2005) Syracuse and Pittsburgh (2013) as well as Louisville (2014).

Notre Dame joined in 2013 in everything but football. Beginning in the fall, the Irish will play those five games against ACC opponents each year. ND will cycle through the league every three years. It will not play for the ACC title but it has access to the ACC bowl lineup and can get in the Orange Bowl a maximum of twice in 12 years.

The arrangement benefitted ND which needed to address its independent status in the playoff. Also, the ACC needed access to a contract bowl that would rotate through the playoff. Its champion is committed to the Orange Bowl.

But how will that champion be determined in the future? CBSSports.com first reported the ACC and Big 12 had partnered on NCAA legislation that would change the rules for staging a conference championship game.

The idea is adapt competitively in the playoff era. As it stands, subjectivity will rein as a selection committee will pick the four teams for the playoff as well as the 12 total teams in the playoff bowls.

The so-called deregulation of conference title games would allow leagues to select the teams without the required round-robin divisional play. That becomes an issue as the ACC goes into the second season of 14 members (seven in each division) in football.

“You wouldn't necessarily have to have divisions,” Swofford said.

“You could look at several different ways -- the two best winning percentages within the conferences. That would be a pretty sophisticated tiebreaker.”

Just using last season as a template, three conferences would have had problems deciding the participants based on conference records alone -- Big 12, SEC, Pac-12.

Deregulation also would diminish the likelihood of a devastating upset that could knock a conference out of the four-team playoff. Think of an 8-4 division winner beating an 11-1 opponent ranked in the top five. In that case, neither team gets in.

Both Swofford and Big 12 counterpart Bob Bowlsby said they could possibly use the rankings from the selection committee to select their two teams. That presents other issues: The AP and coaches' polls are basically out because neither will be used to determine playoff participants. Meanwhile, the committee has been vague how often it will release its top 25 during the season.

It is generally assumed that the rankings will begin at midseason -- but how frequently? Every week? Every other week? And if the rankings conclude before the end of the regular season, will the committee produce a special set of rankings for those conferences?

The only part of that we know for sure is that there will be no voting totals assigned to those rankings.

Part of that concern could be eliminated if conferences went to a one division format.

“There are pros and cons either way,” Swofford said. “In divisions people have won their way there. That has propelled them into a championship game. It keeps interest, later in the season. The other side of the coin is it doesn't (necessarily) mean your best is playing.”

Deregulation is expected to fly through and could be passed quickly by the NCAA board of directors. Both Swofford and Bowlsby have indicated there is no push-back from other conferences on the measure.

Then its up to conferences on how to determine their champion in the playoff era.

As for that strength of schedule, the ACC is discussing whether to go from eight to nine conference games. One school of thought: Adding Notre Dame already provides an automatic schedule strength upgrade. Another: The ACC has to consider a nine-game schedule given that the Big 12 and Pac-12 already have one and the SEC is considering it.

The ACC has an informal interest in perhaps partnering with the SEC or Big 12 in an “8 + 1” model.

“We're still playing with it, trying to figure out what's best,” the commissioner said.

On the subject of autonomy Swofford said, “I don't think the student-athlete has been neglected.”

He is one of the big five commissioners who will basically take over legislation at the Division I level in NCAA restructuring (also called autonomy). The new model is due to be finalized in August. Many of the goals in autonomy are the same as the rights sought by the Northwestern players in unionization.

“Realistically the opportunity to play a sport you love and receive a free education at a quality institution ... that's a beautiful combination that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world except in the United States.

“But it hasn't evolved,” Swofford said. “It's like the system got stuck somewhere.”

Duke coach David Cutcliffe was nominated by the ACC to join the controversial football rules committee but there wasn't an open spot, Swofford said.

NCAA committees are bound by requires regarding gender, diversity and divisional alignment (NCAA divisions I, II and III). Part of the criticism in the 10-second rule debate was that only two FBS coaches are on the 12-person roster.

They are Air Force's Troy Calhoun and Louisiana-Monroe's Todd Berry.

“You have to have the stakeholders represented,” Swofford said. “You have to get back to having the best people. The balance of representation, we all understand that.

“In our restructuring conversations it sort of gets back at a broader level of having the ADs involved. They're the practitioners on a day-to-day basis, yet the overall structure has excluded them to some degree.”

Could restructuring yield a rules committee with more FBS ADs and coaches? You bet. They have the most to lose especially as something as the misguided 10-second rule got as far as it did.

 
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