They stressed unity. They had Zoom calls together for weeks, months. They were all in this together, the commissioners of college football’s power conferences, trying to navigate a challenge the likes of which they’d never seen before.
Yeah, good talk.
That was in the spring, when both camaraderie and the football season were easy to envision in the abstract. Here in the heat of July, with time ticking toward a maybe kickoff, they all have reverted to form. Now and forever, it’s every rich conference for itself in college football.
This is part of the deal in a patchwork of 130 schools with no legitimate unifying element. It was that way a decade ago, when realignment turned into a brazen series of land grabs purely designed to maximize individual league revenue. It was that way earlier this month, when the Big Ten and Pac-12 were the first to break ranks and declare a scheduling model that eliminated non-conference games.
And then came the intrigue of Wednesday, July 29. A day that looked like it might pass quietly in the ongoing football schedule vigil erupted with drama late in the afternoon. With Southeastern Conference chess pieces moving behind the scenes, the Atlantic Coast Conference launched a surprise checkmate.
As Sports Illustrated reported Wednesday, the SEC’s athletic directors arrived at a consensus (though not unanimously) regarding a football schedule: like the Big Ten and Pac-12, it would only play conference games in 2020. SI reporters began hearing about the SEC decision around 3:30 p.m. ET. There was no plan by the league to announce anything, since the presidents haven’t yet approved it (and may still not approve it).
With word of that SEC decision starting to circulate, there was a sudden spasm of movement from the ACC. Coincidence? You decide.
ACC presidents had met Wednesday to discuss the football schedule, but multiple sources told SI after that meeting (which started at 11 a.m. ET) that there would be no announcement. From Tuesday night through Wednesday mid-afternoon, word about a public schedule reveal alternated thusly from sources within the league: on-off-on-off. The final consensus was that the news would wait at least a day, probably several days.
Then David Teel of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, who has been tightly wired to the ACC office, tweeted at 4:23, “Expecting ACC news very shortly. Presidents discussed schedule options today.” Five minutes later, the league tweeted out its 2020 football schedule — 10 conference games, up from the usual eight, with a very special guest star. There also would be one undeclared non-conference game, and that came with some delicious caveats.
It is a Grand Master maneuver in more ways than one by ACC commissioner John Swofford. He’s announced his retirement at the end of the 2020-21 athletic season, and this would be quite a final flourish.
The first genius maneuver: The ACC has forced the ultimate bachelor into a full season (at least) of a committed relationship. Notre Dame, a righteously proud independent since it started playing football in 1887, is going to play a full season of conference football and compete for a conference championship. It’s a win-win arrangement: the ACC getting a share of Notre Dame’s prodigious NBC TV revenue and all the accompanying eyeballs on its teams; the Irish getting a full schedule after losing games against USC, Stanford and Wisconsin, while presumably reverting back to normal independence in 2021.
The second genius maneuver: Swofford & Co., beating the SEC on the scheduling news and simultaneously putting the onus of canceling the traditional ACC-SEC rivalry games on that league. By announcing a desire to play one non-conference game but not identifying the opponent beyond saying it had to be played in their home state, the ACC basically threw 100 gallons of paint around the corner and made the SEC stand in it.
We want to play those games. We left open the date on the schedule. If you don’t, that’s your decision. But you’re the ones who have to own up to canceling them.
If Florida State doesn’t play Florida? Blame the SEC. If Georgia Tech doesn’t play Georgia? Blame the SEC. If Clemson doesn’t play South Carolina? Blame the SEC. If Louisville doesn’t play Kentucky? Blame the SEC.
Behind-the-scenes reaction from folks in the SEC later Wednesday? Not pleased. Not pleased at all.
Now, could the league presidents decide against the proposed conference-only schedule and back a plan that includes those games against ACC opponents? Yes, they could. That would also revive hopes for some games against Big 12 opponents, most prominently LSU-Texas and Tennessee-Oklahoma.
Such a plan would be met with approval by some SEC athletic directors. But not with the majority, at least as of Wednesday. Most of the league’s 14 ADs were in favor of 10 league games and nothing else.
The final genius maneuver from Swofford & Co., was leaving that 11th game open-ended. It could be canceled easily — with blood on the hands of the SEC, of course. Or schools have the option of an 11th game with another opponent on ground rules of the ACC's choosing. Among previously scheduled games that could still work out, if the SEC chooses not to play ball: Clemson-Citadel; Louisville-Western Kentucky; Wake Forest-Appalachian State; Virginia Tech-Liberty; Virginia-VMI; Duke-Charlotte (or Duke-Elon).
Of course, all of this played out Wednesday within this forbidding context: we don’t know if there will be a college football season. The pandemic continues to cause havoc across the nation — and in the South (where most of the ACC and SEC schools are located) more than anywhere. This might have simply been an exercise in wishful thinking and administrative busywork that is wiped off the books in a week or two or four.
But the intention is clearly to start the college football season, and to start it we must have schedules. This was the latest spasm of college football one-upmanship in a time of COVID-19, when for weeks at a time nobody was willing to make any declarations.
In the power conferences, general stall ball continues to be interrupted by opportunistic bursts of news. Unity was so last spring. The closer we get to a maybe kickoff, the more the sport reverts to what comes naturally: every league for itself.