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A New Look ACC: Potential Ideas for the Conference’s Divisions in Football

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Rivalry games? Geographically-based divisions? How a football division restructure could change the ACC.

Wake Forest v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

It’s certainly been an active week of ACC Football news with the 2018 ACC Kickoff happening in Charlotte over the last two days. Dave Clawson, Willie Yarbary, Phil Haynes and representatives of the other 13 ACC programs took a variety of questions from the media this week as the start of the 2018 season gradually becomes more visible in the distance.

Throughout the week’s Q&A sessions, one thing that wasn’t discussed was the potential for ACC realignment going forward, particularly related to the imbalanced, and somewhat arbitrarily created football divisions. I’m not remotely surprised; I’m just curious and have had a decent amount of discussions with ACC fans over the years stating the current system should change. However, rarely do those conversations ever elevate to “how”. Until today.

There’s the classic saying of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Whether or not you think the current setup is broken is one thing, but there’s always going to be pros and cons for any sort of league format. Of course, this whole article is about getting a little creative with ACC Football Divisions, but it would be foolish of me to not even mention the basic concepts of the current setup beforehand. Here they are:

  • Pros: Historical consistency, 8-game ACC schedule, 1 Cross-Division Rival

For one thing, I feel like most fans have gotten used to the current format at this point, and while many may not absolutely love it, the reality is change in any tournament/league is rarely met with unanimous open arms. It’s a lot easier to keep things the way they are then to embrace a new alignment if there isn’t a serious, gaping issue (which there is not).

  • Cons: Rivals in Different Divisions, Division Imbalance, Awkward ND-partnership

The “Rivals in Different Divisions” flaw mainly applies to the Big 4 and Miami/FSU, the former of which have planned “Non-Conference” games simply to appear on each other’s schedule, and the latter of which could benefit from having to compete for division titles (because meeting in the ACC Title Game as planned is harder than it looks). And while I do think “Division Imbalance” tends to sort itself out over time, the “half-in, half-out” ND partnership while gifting the Irish a slot in the ACC bowl selection process can be frustrating.

But you already knew all of that, right? Time for the fun stuff. Here are 3 potential ACC Football Division Proposals that I think could help elevate the league’s rivalries, overall fan engagement, and accommodate league expansion when that day inevitably comes.

Proposal #1: Legacy vs New Era

In the midst of all the recent ACC expansion, it seems as though a lot of the historical aspects that made the conference great have been pushed aside to focus on growth in new markets. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and expansion simply had to happen to keep the league alive earlier in the decade, but many legacy ACC fans don’t necessarily look at the newcomers as fondly as some of the traditional foes, for better or worse.

Rather than mixing everybody together and acting like the schools are all on the same page, why don’t you simply call it like it is. There’s a group of Legacy ACC programs and New Era programs, and dividing the conference accordingly can lead to the refueling of rivalries in both the “Old ACC” and “Old Big East” sectors. Every team in this version of the Atlantic was either an Original or joined prior to 1980, while 6 of the 7 teams in the Coastal were in the Big East as recently as 2004.

Pros: Familiar format in terms Division Games/Conference Championship, Traditional ACC and Big East Rivalries emphasized within divisions

Cons: Creates an “Originals vs New Guys” storyline within the conference that goes against a sense of unity that the league is likely trying to push

Proposal #2: North vs South

Here’s a wild idea: Let’s take a note from other Power 5 Conferences’ playbook and simply create divisions based off of geographical region. The 3 other P5 conferences that have divisions (SEC, Big Ten, Pac 12) have a split like this, with the ACC being the only league to not. It doesn’t always work perfectly (I still don’t get why Utah and Colorado are in the Pac 12 South and not the North), but it is a pretty easy way to emphasize local rivalries and minimize league travel.

For the ACC, it also helps install the “Legacy vs New Era” idea from Proposal #1, while being slightly more discrete this time around. With just 14 ACC teams, the South would be more stacked from a talent perspective, but add in Notre Dame and another potential expansion side (West Virginia? Cincinnati?) and things could even out over time.

Pros: Emphasizes regional rivalries (Yay Big 4 and FSU/Miami!), Alignment with other Power 5 Conferences

Cons: Likely imbalance unless ND and another solid expansion team arrives, in which case the ACC schedule could expand to 9 games. The “Originals vs New Guys” stigma from Proposal #1 remains here as well, though is hidden by the geographical excuse

Proposal #3: One Conference, Rivalry Pods

This proposal is likely the one to be the most polarizing on the surface, simply because it is so dramatically different than the current setup and virtually every other conference in college football. Its best use case would also come under the scenario of Notre Dame finally joining the ACC as an official member, and the league A) Not wanting unbalanced divisions and B) Not looking to add a 16th member yet because all schools are still locked into their respective TV revenue contracts. I present to you: The ACC Football Pod System. Here’s how it would work:

With Notre Dame officially in the fold and the league being 15-schools deep, a split into 3 “Pods” of 5 seems fairly logical. These pods would serve a similar purpose to traditional divisions in that you play everyone in your respective group once a year, with “crossover” games to other pods to fill out the ACC schedule. In terms of deciding which schools go where, things unfold easily with a “Carolinas/Originals Pod”, an “Old Big East/North Pod” and a “Florida/Virginia/and... Georgia Tech Pod.” Rivalries emphasized? Check. Scheduling makes sense? Check. Championship Game? Okay, here’s where things would have to be worked out.

With 3 separate “Divisions” on the table, the real question is “Who the hell goes to the Championship Game when there are 3 individual winners?” It’s a valid question. Is it the top 2 overall ACC records? Top 2 nationally ranked teams? Some sort of ACC-committee voting system that picks 23 and deals with the wrath of the 3rd fanbase for years to come? The most sensible answer would be to pick the Top 2 teams with the best ACC records, and if there is a tie, have some sort of “Head-to-Head or Record vs Common Opponents” type solution to decide it.

I proposed this to a buddy of mine just last month and the first thing he said was “What if the two best teams in the league are in the same pod?” Well, if they both go 7-1, and those are the best records, then they both make it, which seems infinitely more fair than the current setup where arguably the best two teams in the league for the last half-decade have been in the 1-bid Atlantic Division. At least in this Pod System, you have 4 locked-in games every year and 4 flex games, meaning there’s a little more variability to ACC teams’ in-conference strength of schedule on a yearly basis than what we currently have.

Pros: Works well with 15 teams, More variability in annual schedule for each school, Emphasizes local rivalries

Cons: No real case study on the structure’s effectiveness going in, 3 Division Champions Dilemma

So what do you think? For what it’s worth, I asked the Blogger So Dear crew last night which of these four options, including the current structure, they were most fond of and every answer I got back was Proposal #1 (Legacy vs New Era). It would be interesting to hear how that adjustment would be received from a Syracuse or Pittsburgh fan, who might appreciate the fact that the divisions are entirely mixed at the moment.

Comment below with your preferred ACC Football Division alignment and let’s keep the discussion going.

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You can follow Ned Harwood on Twitter @DeacFan3 for the latest Wake Forest Sports statistics and recruiting news.