As the athletic directors of the Atlantic Coast Conference meet this week, one subject on the table, according to numerous reports, is whether to add a game to its eight-game conference schedule in football.
The issue might seem dry to the average fan. In terms of intrigue, it certainly pales in comparison with the decision made last month to move all neutral-site championship events this season out of North Carolina in response to a state law that curbed anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. (The football championship game, to be held on Dec. 3, was moved from Charlotte, N.C., to Orlando, Fla.)
The primary motive for the discussion about the schedule is finances, not football. ESPN, which has formed a partnership with the A.C.C. to create a dedicated cable network for the conference by 2019, wants more high-quality matchups: less Clemson versus South Carolina State (which resulted in a 59-0 shellacking) and more Clemson versus Louisville. In their prime-time clash on Saturday, then-No. 5 Clemson gutted out a 42-36 victory over Louisville, which entered the game ranked No. 3.
But there are also compelling reasons related to equity and fairness for the A.C.C. to make the change.
Of the five so-called power conferences, only the A.C.C. and the SEC play eight conference games rather than nine. That leaves teams in those conferences with one extra slot to schedule against whomever they wish. For teams in the other three — the Pacific-12, the Big 12 and the Big Ten — having to schedule one more conference game can be the difference between a bought-and-paid-for “guarantee game” against an easy opponent and an excruciating matchup against a cross-division rival at a hostile stadium.
That puts teams with nine-game conference schedules at a disadvantage, according to Tom Osborne, the former Nebraska coach who sat on the College Football Playoff selection committee in its first two years.
“I think it would be good if we more or less standardized,” Osborne said, “because this business of having one conference with eight conference games and two or three other conferences having to play nine games makes things a little bit easier to pad your schedule.”
While Osborne noted that the committee considered teams’ strength of schedule to account for those scheduling discrepancies, he was acknowledging the potential for a leg up.
Indeed, it is probably not a coincidence that a conference with nine conference games has missed out on the four-team playoff in each of its two years of existence. In both years, the only teams to go undefeated in the regular season were from the A.C.C., the least deep of the conferences that play eight-game schedules.
Last weekend offered three examples of games that, come season’s end, may help dictate the four playoff spots. All three were affected in their own way by the differences in conferences’ scheduling.
On Friday night, Stanford lost to No. 5 Washington (5-0), dropping to 3-1, and from No. 7 to No. 15. The Cardinal’s problems at quarterback, as well as the 44-6 final score, suggest that it had little chance to win the game under any circumstances.
But the team’s slate of games did not help. Stanford may have the most challenging schedule structure in college football (along with Southern California, which essentially has the same one): nine games in the typically deep Pac-12, plus one against Notre Dame. Its game at Washington came just six days after the Cardinal eked out a victory on the road over U.C.L.A. — a team that, as part of the South Division, is not automatically on the schedule for Stanford, which is in the North.
Wisconsin faced a similar problem Saturday, when it dropped to 4-1, and from No. 8 to No. 11, after losing at No. 4 Michigan (5-0), 14-7.
This is the first season that Big Ten teams are playing nine-game conference schedules. In a past season, the Badgers, of the West Division, might have skipped Michigan, an East team. It certainly would have avoided one of its games at Michigan State, at Michigan and versus Ohio State — arguably the conference’s three major powers.
By contrast, Clemson’s tough matchup against Louisville was sandwiched between games at Georgia Tech, where the Tigers won by 26-7, and this Friday at Boston College, a team that has not won a conference game since 2014.
ESPN has reportedly asked the A.C.C. either to move to a nine-game schedule or to require its teams to play two games against opponents in other power conferences if it stays at eight conference games.
Oddly, if the league already required the two power conference games, Louisville might be locked out of playoff contention. It cannot win the conference title if Clemson wins the rest of its games, and the selection committee would probably be unimpressed with wins over lesser power conference teams, like its annual rival Kentucky (currently 2-3) and maybe a middling team from the Big Ten or Big 12.
But this season, on Nov. 17, Louisville travels to Houston to play the No. 6 Cougars (5-0) of the American Athletic Conference. The opportunity to win there, against a midmajor team ranked in the top 10, is helping to keep Louisville’s playoff hopes alive.