AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. — The ACC is moving closer to adopting a new football scheduling format that would scrap divisions and give teams an opportunity to play each other more frequently, starting as early as 2023.
Though no vote was taken to formally change the format, commissioner Jim Phillips and multiple athletic directors discussed a 3-5-5 scheduling model in which league teams would play three permanent opponents, then rotate through the rest over a two-year period (five one year, five the next).
Earlier this week, the NCAA Football Oversight Committee recommended conferences no longer be required to have divisions to hold a conference championship game. The Division I Council is set to vote on it later this month, when it is expected to pass.
Phillips has repeatedly said conferences should have the right to determine their conference champion, and he had been in favor of passing the required legislation to make it happen. Phillips discussed the new scheduling format with ADs and coaches during leaguewide meetings to get their feedback.
“The two, I think, drivers to this: One, is the opportunity for our student athletes to play every school in the ACC over a four-year period of time,” Phillips said. “That’s just not the case right now. The other piece of it is, I’ve always felt that was a local decision about how you handle your conference. You’re seeing that across multiple conferences that they’d like to dictate what their championship structure looks like, and which will eventually lead into an expanded football playoff.
“You want your two best teams to have a chance to play at the end of the year for a lot of reasons. So that’s why it’s taken us … you may think it’s a little bit longer, but it really isn’t. We’re really very much on track. But again, want to make sure we’ve talked to everybody to see, are we missing something here?”
When Phillips became the commissioner, he said he wanted to reevaluate everything inside the ACC, and that included the scheduling format.
Miami athletic director Dan Radakovich said he believes the league is “closer to the end than the beginning on that.
“We need to talk a little bit to our TV partners and see what they think and run it through the car wash one more time,” Radakovich said. “It’s not urgent to get it done right now because even if we decide to move this forward for 2023, there’s time to get it done. We want to be deliberate about it and make sure we’re doing it the right way.”
There also is an acknowledgment there will be tradeoffs that programs have to make when it comes to the permanent opponents each team is assigned — and that is one area that remains under discussion.
Coaches are not unanimously in favor of getting rid of divisions. Several, including Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi, like having the opportunity to play for a division championship. Coaches did have the opportunity to offer feedback, but ultimately it is the ADs who will vote on what happens.
“You’re never going to come up with a model that all 14 schools are happy with,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said. “We’ve played NC State 105 years in a row, and if you go to that model and they’re not one of your [annual rivals]that could change.”
Maximizing more appealing matchups across the league is another area where the ACC sees room for growth without divisions, so there have been extensive discussions with ESPN about what that could mean for television and, in particular, prime-time matchups.
In addition to changing its own scheduling model, Phillips said the time was now to “take a look” at alternative models for the governance of all of college football. The sport that is the largest revenue driver on every campus has been hugely affected by all the recent changes to college athletics — from name, image and likeness rights to the transfer portal.
Just last week, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith proposed the 10 FBS conferences and Notre Dame operate under the College Football Playoff, while all other sports stay under the NCAA model.
Phillips was open to hearing more about that idea, in addition to exploring others.
“If we’re ever going to do something, this is the time to do it,” Phillips said. “When you’re reorganizing a structure like the NCAA, what are you doing with football? Does it need to be managed separately? Do you need to have a governance structure? Those are questions we should be asking ourselves.
“You either continue to go down the road that you’ve been on, or you try to do something different. What’s most sustainable? What has the opportunity to help football moving forward? There’s been a slow creep already with football — has its own championship, has all the things necessary to run the second-most watched sporting event in the United States.
“So is there an opportunity to potentially look at what that may be, if you’re going to redo the NCAA and all that the NCAA cares for. Maybe there’s something parallel that can have some interaction, but has some standalone ability to it. “
Phillips also seemed to indicate an openness to discussing a potential for paying football players directly as school employees.
In 2014, Phillips was the athletic director at Northwestern when a group of football players, led by quarterback Kain Colter, attempted to unionize. At the time, Phillips opposed the effort, which was ultimately defeated when the National Labor Relations Board determined athletes were not employees.
On Wednesday, Phillips sounded far less certain about that designation.
“We all have a responsibility to move in the direction college football is going,” Phillips said, noting there was some feeling that current compensation already crosses a line into pay for play.
“The experience is tethered in education and degree completion and academics. What the benefits are is what we’re struggling with — to find some common ground about what we feel would be appropriate and what would put us in a different category than collegiate sports .”