CHARLOTTE -- Throughout the back half of the 2010s, the ACC Football Kickoff held a largely jubilant or celebratory tone. It was a run that saw the league claim three national championships and produce two Heisman Trophy winners in a six-year span. Off-field wins included the addition of Notre Dame as a partial member and the launch of the ACC Network. Clemson reached the College Football Playoff for six consecutive seasons, and when the Fighting Irish joined as a full member for the COVID-impacted 2020 season, the ACC joined the exclusive club of conferences to send two teams to the four-team playoff.
The winds have shifted in the past 12-18 months. The SEC kick-started another round of conference realignment with the addition of Texas and Oklahoma last offseason, playoff expansion efforts failed (in part due to the ACC's vote against the proposal) and the Big Ten reached coast-to-coast status with the addition of USC and UCLA to its future membership roster. These moves by the SEC and Big Ten are set to create record revenues from media rights deals, creating a major gap between those two leagues and the rest of college sports in terms of per-school, per-year payouts.
So ACC commissioner Jim Phillips, who just took over the role in June 2021, faced an audience at the ACC Football Kickoff that was far less interested in discussing on-field issues as it was addressing that revenue gap and the rapidly-shifting landscape in big-time college athletics.
Standing at the podium for his opening address, Phillips used a "gated communities" reference to explain his belief that college sports, and college football in particular, should serve all of the schools and conferences, not just the top "two or three." It was a well-meaning effort to implore those listening to support not just the ACC, but all of the conferences who see the sport consolidating into a superconference world. Phillips is opposed to a college football future that leaves those other schools behind, so he used the healthy neighborhoods reference to call for continued investment in the whole community of college football.
"Education matters. Winning matters. Resources matter. The ecosystem is not dissimilar to our respective neighborhoods that we live in. Keeping them healthy and diverse is a priority. There will always be a variety of communities: gated, upper class, middle class, or more modest," Phillips said.
"I will continue to do what's in the best interest of the ACC, but will also strongly advocate for college athletics to be a healthy neighborhood, not two or three gated communities. Resources may be different, but access, education, and competitive opportunity will remain the foundation going forward."
Not everyone wants to live in a gated community, but when you live right next to a gated community -- like the ACC does as it shares geography with the SEC -- you are reminded every time you drive by that you do not live in a gated community. Phillips is positioning himself as a voice for the voiceless in this conference realignment arms race, but while the cause may be noble in the eyes of college sports purists, it remains unknown if universities inside the ACC are as dedicated to the same cause in the midst of a growing revenue gap compared to the SEC and the Big Ten.
The word "revenue" was mentioned 14 times during Phillips' time at the podium, just once by the commissioner in his opening remarks and then 13 times in the final question-and-answer portion of the proceedings. Phillips wants to focus on all of the metrics that show the ACC as one of the leaders in college sports, but the media assembled here at the ACC Football Kickoff is focused on that one metric that is at the heart of conference realignment: revenue.
"Revenue is certainly one piece and a really big piece as we move forward, but I will say it again, we need all communities healthy," Phillips stressed. "When you think about where we're at right now, we're probably in the gated community as one of five. Maybe people have a different line of demarcation about who is in there ... We're going to continue to try to find new ways to generate revenue for our conference."
So how does the ACC respond? Right now, the league is considering all options. There are daily discussions with the league's media rights partner in ESPN as to what the future of the league looks like. Will there be a move by the ACC in conference realignment, or will the league stay with its current members?
"," Phillips said.
Should the ACC look to address the revenue gap for its most successful football programs and most valuable brands with unequal revenue distribution?
"All options are on the table."
The ACC's Grant of Rights, first signed in 2013 then amended in 2016 to run through 2036, ties all of the media rights to the conference. Does the commissioner expect the conference and all of the current members riding out that contract all the way into the mid-2030's?
"Everything is on the table."
There have been years when the ACC Football Kickoff felt like a pep rally, but Wednesday was much more of a status update from local officials in the midst of a severe weather event. The uncertainty of college football's future has created the specter of a storm, and the ACC is evaluating everything to try to make sure it's going to remain intact, with minimal damage, when the skies clear and we emerge in this new future for the sport. There will be changes to the NCAA, there will be changes to the playoff, there may be more conference realignment moves at the Power Five level. Will the ACC still place in college football at the highest level?
Inaction, or weathering the storm, may be a prudent way to navigate the next handful of years, but failure to move on one of the many options that are on the ACC's table will set up the conference for an even more uncertain future in the decades to come.
Other than big-picture conference issues, there were still plenty of notable conversations around the ACC Football Kickoff. Wednesday was a day for the Atlantic Division, bringing Clemson, Florida State, NC State, Wake Forest, Louisville, Boston College and Syracuse. They helped keep some of the focus on the field and the season ahead, including what to expect from the league's most powerful program as it pursues a return to the top of the conference.
A slimmed-down D.J. U looks for a bounce back
Dabo Swinney and senior defensive end K.J. Henry both joked that Tigers fans might want to fire the head coach after winning just 10 games, cracking wise at what constitutes a disappointing season for Clemson football in the modern era. The Clemson delegation was casual and confident, embracing the scars from last season's struggles as they got off to a 4-3 start before rolling off six straight wins to close the year. The changes at both offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator were notable, but the most important factor in getting better results on the field in 2022 will be better play at the quarterback position.
D.J. Uiagalelei flashed as a freshman when he was Trevor Lawrence's backup, but the nine-touchdown, 10-interception showing in 2021 had the former five-star prospect leading one of the least efficient passing attacks in the ACC. Uiagalelei's improvement has been a major theme of the offseason, and one factor he's taken control of to address his outlook has been his physical fitness. D.J. U says he misses sweets, especially ice cream, but the weight loss (about 20-30 pounds since end of 2021, he said) has provided some optimism that the play on the field will be greatly improved in 2022.
Louisville's QB wins best-dressed award
Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham said he was walking through a menswear store a couple of weeks ago when he spotted a bright red suit and immediately knew it was the perfect attire for media days. He needed to find some shoes to match, and that's where he flexed his fashion sense with a pair of Prada sneakers.
It was mentioned that Cunningham could have been channeling Lamar Jackson's red blazer from the 2016 Heisman Trophy ceremony, but while Cardinals quarterback said he was not influenced by the Louisville legend for his outfit, he acknowledgedd the influence Jackson left on him during his time around the program.
"I would say I took a lot from [Jackson] considering the type of person he was," Cunningham said. "More just off the field, how he helped his teammates around him, made the people around him better just the type of guy he was. He always made everybody smile."
Boston College's 'different' QB-WR duo
Boston College coach Jeff Hafley speaks passionately about his program and his players, but even his regular level of engagement clicked up a notch when it came time to boast about the dynamic duo of quarterback Phil Jurkovec and wide receiver Zay Flowers.
"I get passionate when I talk about those two guys because they are different, and there's not enough of that right now in college football."
Jurkovec missed time due to injury last season after exploding onto the scene in 2020, but the extent of his health-related adversity has not been fully explained quite like Hafley's description on Wednesday. Officially, Jurkovec played in six games in 2021, but Hafley said he was totally healthy for just one -- against Colgate in a 51-0 season opening win. Jurkovec suffered what Hafley described as a "freak" hand injury in Week 2, and despite an initial prognosis that suggested the quarterback would be out for the rest of the year, he came back to play against Virginia Tech on Nov. 5. He helped lead the Eagles to wins against the Hokies and Georgia Tech in back-to-back weeks, and those wins helped snap a four-game losing streak and get the program the six wins necessary for bowl eligibility.
"That says a lot about Phil because there's a lot of guys that, one, wouldn't want that tape to get out. Right? He is this hyped-up guy, can barely grip a ball and throw it down the field," Hafley said. "Two, he hasn't practiced. He comes back, and he puts the team before himself with 50% grip strength, barely practicing."
Hafley also elaborated on the story of All-ACC wide receiver Zay Flowers, who saw interest from other schools in the transfer portal and turned down big NIL offers.
"Zay is another story of what's right in college football right now. Everybody wants to talk about all these things that are wrong: NIL, transfer portal, conference realignment. We need good stories, stories like Zay, who had the opportunity to go get a ton of money to leave, as he is getting phone calls from other schools, but instead calls me and decides to stay because he cares about his team, because he cares about a real degree and because he wants to finish what he started."
NC State ready to be 'smiling at the end'
The Wolfpack had one of their most successful seasons of the Dave Doeren era in 2021. They knocked off Clemson at home, went 6-2 in ACC play and spent more than half of the season ranked in the national polls, finishing the year inside the top 20. Then, the chance to win 10 games for just the second time in program history -- the only other being with Philip Rivers in 2002 -- was dashed when the Holiday Bowl was canceled the day of the game because of COVID issues in the UCLA program.
The cancellation was another postseason gut punch for NC State on the heels of COVID issues ending a College World Series run, and it came at the end of a season when the two losses that prevented the Wolfpack from winning the ACC Atlantic Division came by a combined four points. For a program that has been knocking on the door of a major breakthrough for a half-decade, it's been frustrating to end up on the short end of small margins.
But Doeren is confident and optimistic that things are going to turn for NC State.
"It's going to come full circle, and we're going to be smiling at the end of it, and I believe that whole-heartedly. It's about how you act and how you respond and who you are with. I'm with three incredible people today that I get to go to work with a great staff and a great locker room, and that's going to come full circle. It will. I believe that. This is going to be a great time for that to happen," Doeren said.
"I know our fan base feels the same way, that there's been some bad things for whatever reason. I would love to set the record straight that we want to get that right and see the right things happen. I believe when you do the right things over and over and over, eventually it comes back to you. That's what we're going to try to do."
Two sides to ACC's scheduling changes
For the most part, the ACC's decision to get rid of divisions at the end of 2022 and enter into a new scheduling format has been celebrated. Beginning in 2023, the league will decide its conference championship matchup by taking the two teams with the best winning percentage in conference play instead of division champions. Future schedules will also be determined by a 3-5-5 rotation that has each program linked to three permanent rivals with five rotating opponents across the eight-game ACC schedule. The result is that instead of the six-year gaps between ACC schools playing each other, all full ACC members will play each other at least once in a two-year span and twice in a four-year span. If a player spends four years in the ACC, he will get to play everyone in the league at least twice and play in all 14 ACC stadiums.
Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson welcomes that chance for schedule equity and a balanced rotation across the league, but he also took his time with the media to mourn the end of a unique streak in college football history. The Demon Deacons and in-state rival NC State have played every season for 110 consecutive years, but that streak will come to an end. Wake Forest drew Duke, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech as permanent rivals, meaning the series with the Wolfpack will only be renewed every other season.
"We're excited that we get to play North Carolina more often, but I hate to see 110-year traditions ended," Clawson said. "I know for our football team the NC State game is always an important game. They have a good program. They're very competitive. There's a lot of players on our team that grew up and went to high school and played with or against people at NC State. So that to me is the only drawback."
The league had to make some tough decisions regarding how to line up all the permanent rivals, and among those included breaking up NC State and Wake Forest as annual opponents. The permanent rivals will set up new rivalries, but it also is going to mark a change in some traditional ones.