October 22, 2014

Atlantic Coast Conference football has enjoyed a long run in the starring role on Thursday Night Lights.

The league has been playing football on Thursday nights since 1991.

Sure, the short week presents challenges when it comes to game preparations, but ACC coaches say the benefits of being center stage on national television are too great to pass up.

''Thursday night has, in the past five or six years, become a college football night and been really big,'' North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. ''You can't quantify the exposure. It's tremendous.''

Said Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst: ''It's kind of the Monday night of college football.''

And it presents a great opportunity for a league that recently has constantly struggled to gain respect - the ACC has just two schools in the Top 25 (No. 2 Florida State and No. 21 Clemson). By season's end, nine ACC schools will have played in five Thursday night conference matchups - including this week's Miami-Virginia Tech matchup.

The game will be the 90th Thursday night contest between ACC schools televised by ESPN in the past 23 seasons.

''We value it for a number of reasons,'' said Michael Strickland, the ACC's senior associate commissioner for football. ''One, it's the only college football game on that night.

''It guarantees us a prime-time appearance before a national audience, which is certainly fantastic.''

For the schools, who can reap a recruiting advantage from being on the main stage, the challenges range from traffic concerns on a normal work day for students and professors to wear and tear on players.

The league ensures neither team has a preparation advantage, Strickland said. If one team has at least a week to get ready, the ACC makes sure the other does, too.

Fedora prefers a longer preparation rather than a Saturday-to-Thursday night turnaround, but won't have that luxury when his team travels to Duke for a Thursday night showdown on Nov. 20. Both teams will have played five days earlier.

''If I've got an open week before, I don't worry about it as much. But when I've got a short week like that, it definitely concerns me,'' Fedora said. ''It concerns the way you have to practice, too. You're not going to have a lot of contact. You're just going to get them mentally ready. That's all you can do.''

Sometimes the stage can help teams get mentally ready.

Pittsburgh had lost three straight when it hosted Virginia Tech last week. The Panthers won, 21-16, putting themselves into a three-way tie with Duke and Virginia for first in the Coastal Division.

In a city where the NFL commands attention, the Panthers made the most of the midweek stage. They drew 43,125 fans, their second-largest crowd of the season.

''I don't care what day we play, but I like `em,'' Chryst said of Thursday night games. ''I thought there was good energy and I like it when we had the bye before so you had a normal week. There are Thursday games where you're playing the Saturday night before that I don't like so much.''

The league determines which five conference matchups it will showcase on Thursday nights in discussions with ESPN, which televises the games, and those from many other leagues during the season.

In the ACC, some schools have been afforded more opportunities in the spotlight than others.

Wake Forest opened this season on a Thursday night against Louisiana-Monroe, but will make just its sixth appearance as part of the ESPN package on Nov. 6 when it hosts Clemson. Duke will be making just its third appearance - and first at Wallace Wade Stadium in 20 years - in the showcase when it hosts North Carolina.

Thursday's game in Blacksburg, Virginia, meantime, will be the Hokies' ACC-high 29th appearance. It will be the 21st for Miami, which is 17-3 for a league best .850 winning percentage.

Georgia Tech has been a staple, too, ranking second in the conference with 27 Thursday night games.

Florida State would seem a likely regular, too, as one of the league's marquee programs, but the second-ranked Seminoles' visit to Louisville on Oct. 30 will be just their 14th Thursday night appearance.

Part of the issue for Florida State, Strickland said, is that Doak Campbell Stadium, where the Seminoles play their home games, also contains classrooms, making having a game at the same time a logistical and academic issue.

North Carolina and Virginia face similar challenges.

North Carolina's hospital's proximity to Kenan Memorial Stadium presents a traffic problem that mandates Thursday games hosted by the Tar Heels be held during fall break.

Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage said the Cavaliers are only interested in hosting a game every other year because of a heavy schedule of evening classes.

But the advantages seem to outweigh the obstacles.

Said Strickland: ''It's helped a lot of programs either grow or sustain themselves from an exposure standpoint.''

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AP Sports Writers Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this story.

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