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ACC's conference title game deregulation fails: Causes and implications

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Why did this happen, and what does it say about the future?

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

In May of 2014, the ACC and Big 12 submitted a proposal to the NCAA to deregulate the staging of conference championship games. The existing rules required conferences that wished to stage championship games to have at least 12 members aligned in two divisions, with each side playing a round-robin divisional schedule and the divisional winners meeting in a championship game.

Most of the focus of efforts to deregulate championship games has focused on the Big 12, which was left with only ten teams after realignment, leaving it with a full conference round-robin schedule and without a lucrative and high-profile conference title game. But the ACC also expressed interest in having the additional options deregulation might provide, and had been quietly examining the possibility for some time. The Big 12 and ACC desired a revision that let the conferences decide how to fill their own conference championship games, outside the NCAA's rulebook, a proposal that seemed wholly aligned with the spirit of "autonomy" which was the buzzword of the 2015 offseason.

For more than a year, title game deregulation appeared a fait accompli. In April, ACC commissioner John Swofford told ESPN: "My impression is that there is support for it. I would guess if that support is there, that it could be implemented as early as the '16 football season."

And as recently as June, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby chimed in: "It's officially in the system," Bowlsby said. "We haven't encountered any resistance to it at all. It's really deregulation, is allowing conferences to do what they want to determine their champion. In the end, I expect that it will be approved."

But somewhere along the way, it fell apart. In December of this year, the Big 10 came out against deregulation in a not completely unexpected move, but the proposal for full deregulation unofficially died last week when the SEC's commissioner Greg Sankey spoke against full deregulation. That failure became official on Wednesday, although an exception was instituted that would allow the Big 12 to theoretically stage a title game if it maintained a round-robin schedule.

The motive for the Big 12 to seek deregulation was clear to all, especially after the 2014 playoff committee snubbed the Big 12 champions in favor of conference title game winners. But what prompted the ACC's support, and what are the repercussions of the failure?

There are two main drivers behind the ACC's desire to have more options in filling the championship game. The first consideration was strengthening the playoff resume of the ACC champion. The ideal circumstance for any conference is what the Big 10 had this year in its title game, a "win and you're in" scenario for both teams. Barring that, if the favorite is a playoff contender and wins, that victory should be at least a resume enhancer for the playoffs, or else it's an all risk/no reward game. In the first eight years of the ACC's title game, both teams had been ranked in the top-20 only twice, and in half of the title games, neither team was in the top ten. The result was usually an afterthought game that bore little impact on the national race and held scant potential to provide a necessary boost to the champion's playoff claims.

Deregulation would have allowed the option for the ACC to put the best two teams in the conference championship, which doesn't happen that frequently with divisions, increasing appeal and better positioning the victor.

The second consideration is to create a scheduling model that allows opposite division teams to see each other more often than they currently do. FSU fans are most sensitive to the fact that they get to visit Georgia Tech, their closest geographic rival, less than once a decade.  But most programs have similar gripes. UNC and Wake recently scheduled and out of conference game against each other. Pitt and BC rarely meet. Louisville doesn't often get to visit Miami, which has been a key recruiting ground for its program.

Additionally, for a conference that has been short on football brand power, the conference is ill served by the infrequency of potentially more attractive matchups like Clemson-Miami, FSU-VT, and FSU-GT. Meanwhile, pedestrian games like Syracuse-FSU, Pitt-UNC, etc. are annual affairs. With the ACC loathe to emulate the geographical divisions of other conferences due to competitive balance and recruiting grounds, and the football schools like FSU, GT and Clemson blocking the 9-game schedule, there is no attractive solution to the scheduling quandary.

Deregulation could have allowed the ACC to realign into three divisions, sending the two highest ranked to the title game. It might have allowed teams to skip one or two divisional opponents each season, rather than being bound to a round robin. Most intriguingly, the ACC could have dropped divisions altogether, creating a schedule of three set annual opponents and five rotating opponents, sending the two highest ranked to the conference championship game.

But all that it moot now. The ACC is stuck with round-robin divisions. So what are the consequences?

Probably not that great in a practical sense. As for boosting the ACC's playoff resume, the ACC champion's position just doesn't look as tenuous as it did a few years ago. The national media hasn't really caught on, but the ACC has taken a substantial step forward in football. They've made the playoffs/title game three straight years. In the past four years, the ACC has placed 10 teams in the final top-15 of the polls, equaling what they placed in the top-15 in the previous eleven years prior.  More significantly, the ACC has had five teams finish in the top-8 since 2012, a feat it accomplished only once (VT #7 in 2005) from 2001 to 2011. After only two top-20 matchups in the first eight ACC title games, it's now happened in three consecutive years.

ACC football is solidly in the middle of the pack now, rather than a distant fifth, and most years the ACC champion is going to have its opportunity based on what it did on the field, and not be crippled by the conference. With two ACC teams likely to start next season in the top-5, and the impressive coaching hires in the conference, there's reason to believe the ACC can hold that position and build on it. And without resorting to a radical, some would say desperate, title game scheme.

When it comes to the schedule...that looks here to stay, at least as long as the ACC is at 14 teams. Some conference brethren will go on being more like distant cousins you occasionally see at a wedding. That's not going to change, but what can change is the strength and attractiveness of more teams in the conference. You can't make up for geographic/rivalry disappointments like FSU missing Georgia Tech, but the ascension of additional schools (looking at you VT, UNC, Miami, and Louisville) would certainly mitigate the current dearth of big time ACC matchups. You can make the case that rigging the schedule to wring more ratings juice out of FSU and Clemson (by more frequent matchups with VT, Miami, UNC, etc) would be penny-wise, pound-foolish anyway. The healthier (though slower and more difficult) solution is to build more high profile matchups out of tilts that exist already. After all, games like Arkansas-Mississippi State and Oregon-Stanford didn't command a whole lot of attention ten or fifteen years ago.

Finally, there was little indication that the ACC would have acted on any radical new title game strategy anyway. Every proposed option has significant problems of its own. And the coaches and athletic directors are unlikely to give up the divisional format, which allows them to claim division crowns (and the associated bonuses) and potentially provides a much lower bar to a title game. Despite fan agitation, there was definitely no reported momentum toward any change from the halls of ACC power, just the desire to have the option in the pocket.

So from a practical standpoint, the ACC isn't really any worse off than it was. But why did complete deregulation, which was expected to pass so easily, crash and burn for the ACC, while the Big 12 got what it wanted?

It's easy to see why the Big 12 got its wish: the other conferences would love to see the Big 12 add a title game. Despite the fact that the Big 12 being shut out of the 2014 playoffs has sent many fans into a pro-title game frenzy, the other conferences understand that the Big 12 avoiding that 13th game, and a rematch, at that, gives the 10-team conference an advantage. Schedule strength, eye test, and everything else aside, the number one most important factor on the playoff resume is still posting an undefeated or one-loss season. And foregoing a conference title game does nothing but increase that likelihood. It looks like the Big 12 is being walked right into that trap.

But why, in an era of autonomy, was more sweeping deregulation rejected? The B1G's Jim Delaney said of his opposition:

I agree a conference should not have to expand in order to have a championship game. That wouldn't be right. That's tail wagging dog. On the other hand, I want to have some familiarity -- some knowledge as to how these things are going to play out. I don't want unintended consequences. I don't want to wake up one morning and see some odd structure that's unfamiliar.

The SEC's Sankey was even less specific than that, simply expressing his lack of support. In essence, the other power conferences were willing to grant the Big 12 the power to take a very specific, identified action (stage a championship game). But they were unwilling to give the ACC total freedom to come up with some innovative plan that might give the ACC a perceived advantage.

It's fundamentally unfair to just say we're going to prohibit this because an alternative might work better for you than it would for us, but the B1G and SEC carry big hammers. But why would they have any concern about what the ACC might do all of a sudden?

There's a couple different ways to read this.  On one hand, it's hard to imagine, had ACC football still been in its moribund 2001-2011 state, that this wouldn't have had a greater chance to pass. I don't think there would be that much concern about whether #21 Virginia Tech was matched with #25 North Carolina or an unranked Boston College. While ACC football today doesn't have the big two conferences shaking in their boots by any means, clearly ACC football can't just be ignored any more. It would appear that there's some fear that a mere administrative change could bridge a meaningful part of the gap between the ACC and the more powerful conferences, which would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

A more cynical reading is quite the opposite. Rather than the ACC's newfound competitiveness dooming any hope for concessions, it's possible that the B1G and SEC still believe that the ACC is weak and near ripe for poaching. If that's the case, why allow anything that might forestall the ACC's fall into desperation? They may believe that by granting a Big 12 title game, and refusing to grant the ACC its requests, they weaken the prospects of each conference.

Personally, the latter seems more far-fetched, with the ACC in the midst of unprecedented success (by ACC standards), and most programs making stronger commitments to improved performance. I think it's more likely a matter of the Big 10 and SEC simply knowing that the ACC was comfortably slotted behind them in the pecking order as things stand now, and being unwilling to open a door without knowing what might walk through. It's quite possible that had the ACC proposed a specific framework (such as removing the round-robin requirements within divisions), they might have won approval.

In the end, when you're sitting at the top, you tend to embrace the status quo, and the Big 10 and SEC killed the ACC's request because it potentially threatened status quo, and because they could.