Conference expansion amongst the BCS schools has reached a lull — unless you count Johns Hopkins lacrosse joining the Big Ten — as the various megaconferences have begun to digest their recent acquisitions. The ACC took the next step into their brave new world by releasing the schedule for interdivisional play in football today. The twelve year rotating schedule pairs each Coastal Division team with an Atlantic counterpart they'll play yearly; teams will face one of the other six teams in the opposing division each season, playing once at home and once away in a twelve-year period.
This generated a fair amount of disappointment among ACC fans, despite being a foregone conclusion once the member schools decided to stick with an eight-game conference schedule. I was bummed because my job currently has be living in upstate New York, and my best chance to see Carolina play is to travel to Syracuse. UNC won't be making the trip until 2018, so I don't think I'll need to start camping out for tickets any time soon. Florida State fans are annoyed at losing regular games against their nearest conference opponent Georgia Tech, and no one's really happy we'll be subjected to a Wake Forest-Duke game every season. Considering the entire permanent division counterpart system basically exists to preserve two games, Florida State-Miami and UNC-N.C. State, and you can see why the annoyance is running high at some schools.
It's interesting to contrast this announcement with the other football scheduling news that's popped up over the last few weeks. The ACC has expressed considerable interest in giving every team a season-ending rivalry game like the other big conferences have; meanwhile, West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck is musing to anyone who will listen about how he wants more rivalries and tougher schedules for his Mountaineers, and how the arc of college football is bending in that direction. Having destroyed more than a few college football traditions in the great conference consolidations, athletic directors and conference commissioners are suddenly realizing how much money a good rivalry is worth.
The problem is a good rivalry is grown, not dictated from on high, and even the ones that still exist are in danger of being crushed by the superconferences. Take UNC-N.C.State, which is probably running the hottest it has since 1980. The game was never traditionally been and end-of-season matchup, with the conference first trying it there in 1995, with a two-game series in Charlotte following in 1998 and 1999. The league tried again in 2008 and 2009, but this time the scheduling was problematic, as the Wolfpack and UNC now resided in separate divisions, leading to the potential for the two teams to meet in consecutive weeks, ending the regular season and then facing off in the conference championship.
I'll give you a moment to laugh at the concept of either team making the conference championship those years.
So when ACC sources mused publicly about potential season-ending rivalries, the names that joined the old standards of FSU-Florida, Georgia-Georgia Tech, Clemson-South Carolina and Virginia-Virginia Tech generated some consternation. Personally, I was amused that Wake Forest-Vanderbilt had ascended to the ranks of "rivalry." The two teams have met 15 times in the 120+ years they've fielded football teams, and have ended the season against one another only since 2007. But both teams are small, lonely, and somewhat religiously founded, so why not call it a rivalry? The bigger complaints from around the conference dealt with UNC and N.C. State.
Although the most vocal opponent to ending the season with a Wolfpack-Tar Heel game, Tom O'Brien, lost his job at the end of the season, numerous other people stepped into the fray to take up his cause. They argued that a season where UNC and N.C. State played one another and then immediately met again for the conference championship would be a ratings disaster, leaving the conference a laughingstock. (O'Brien's replacement, Dave Doeren, claims to ask himself every day "Have I beaten North Carolina today?" so I think he's cool with the game. Also, the world needs www.hasdavedoerenbeatennorthcarolinatoday.com)
Personally, I prefer the Duke-UNC Victory Bell game to close out the season, but the handwringing going on here is ridiculous. The Big Ten and SEC both tempt fate with cross-divisional season enders (Indiana-Purdue and Texas A&M-Missouri, respectively) and no one minds. The fear of an N.C. State-UNC championship is based in the fact that the Tar Heels and Wolfpack are traditionally average teams. Were the two teams to meet in October and then again in the championship with 8-4 records it would still be a ratings debacle. Were they to play two consecutive weeks while jockeying in the Top 5 and prepping for BCS Championship runs, the ratings would skyrocket. Say what you will about Florida-FSU both ending the season and playing for the national championship in 1996, or Michigan and Ohio State almost doing the same ten years later, but poor ratings were not a concern. Or just look how often UNC and Duke play each other on consecutive weekends in March. Good games get good ratings, bad ones don't.
Bringing this around to yesterday's announcement, should UNC and N.C. State become a season-ending rivalry, six teams will still have to be paired off, three in each division. The choice of permanent division partners means there's only one way things could fall in that case. Duke will find themselves rivals with Miami, Boston College with Louisville, and Syracuse and Pittsburgh will be the latest instance of the real new tradition in college football — the slapped together defector rivalry.
Every conference has one. The Big Ten is setting up Maryland and Rutgers to be rivals (number of previous meetings, 9). The SEC has Texas A&M and Missouri (13 meetings, despite sharing a conference for 15 years). The Pac-12 has paired Colorado and Utah (an admirable 59 meetings). The Big 12 seems to have abandoned the season-ending rivalry altogether after having two of their best uprooted by defections to the SEC, but I wouldn't be surprised to see them coming back around in a year or two. ESPN likes a hook, after all.
Needless to say, I doubt we'll be seeing any true hatred between Maryland and Rutgers fans, or Boston College and Louisville (6 meetings) or Miami and Duke (10 meetings) anytime soon. And college football will be the worse for it. The smart play, of course, would be to sit the heads of the ACC, Big 12, and SEC down and put egos aside (Hah!) for the sake of good football. Texas A&M vs. Missouri interests no one, so let them join the four other SEC schools who end the season with nonconference games by ressurecting Texas-Texas A&M and Missouri-Kansas. Bring the Backyard Brawl back with Pitt vs. West Virginia. Pair Boston College with Syracuse (the Orange have only played Holy Cross more often) and set Louisville free to continue playing Cincinnati for the Keg of Nails. Duke and Miami will remain the odd teams out, but that's a small price to pay, as neither has a traditional rival that isn't already booked up that weekend. College fans will get the games they've loved for over a century, while schools and television networks will get their money. Everyone wins.
Oh, and in case your curious, here's what the Atlantic has in store for the Tar Heels through 2024. Or at least what they will if the conferences don't chance radically in the interim.
2014: at Clemson
2015: vs. Wake Forest
2016: at Florida State
2017: vs. Louisville
2018: at Syracuse
2019: vs. Clemson
2020: at Boston College
2021: vs. Florida State
2022: at Wake Forest
2023: vs. Syracuse
2024: at Louisville
2025: vs. Boston College.