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June 27, 2012

Swofford, the ACC, and Playoffs

Tuesday was a long-awaited day for millions of college football fans eager to see the sport's national championship decided on the field of play, as the Presidents of NCAA Division I institutions approved a measure to create a four-team playoff---effectively dissolving the Bowl Championship Series starting in 2014.

Much has been discussed and debated about how the Atlantic Coast Conference would be affected by a four-team national playoff in recent weeks.

And now that something is actually in place, that discussion will almost certainly intensify.

In an interview with ESPN moments after the announcement, ACC Commissioner John Swofford expressed satisfaction with the new playoff format.

"I think the first thing it does for the ACC is what it does for every team out there in our division (Division I), it gives four teams rather than two the opportunity to play on the field for the national championship. So that access is there for all of us if you have a team that is good enough," Swofford said.

"Number Two, we will be a contract bowl participant, meaning our champion will be playing in a contract bowl in all likelihood on New Year's Day against a quality opponent, if it's not in the semifinal game. So I think those two things combined together are extremely positive for the Atlantic Coast Conference."

Swofford admitted surprise at the speed of which the measure was passed.

"I was surprised (at how quickly it passed), but I think in hindsight, they (the member institution Presidents) were kept very much in the loop along the way, so when they came into the room, they were very well-versed. It's a smart group of people, and they're very, very quick learners, as you would expect them to be. But I think we were all prepared to maybe be in that room debating and trying to come to a consensus into the late hours of the night if necessary."

The ACC hasn't had a team since 2000 that would have been guaranteed a spot in the national semifinal, egging on debate that the league will be left out in the cold when the time comes to determine teams in the national playoff.

The moves made recently by the SEC and Big 12 to unify for a 'Champions Bowl' has added gasoline to the fiery debate over whether the ACC stands to lose its place as a prominent major college football conference---and perhaps even lose some of its key football members along the way.

With the Big 10 and Pac 10 aligned at the hip in the Rose Bowl, and now the SEC and Big 12 set up in a similar way, it's easy to justify why a lot of people think the ACC's days as a power football conference are coming to an end.

It's not set in stone that the Rose Bowl and Champions Bowl will become the national semifinals, but it sure seems to be pointing in that direction to a lot of folks.

It has been determined that the NCAA championship game itself will be awarded to the highest bidder, so it figures that the Rose Bowl and other prominent Bowls will throw their hat into the ring for the multi-billion dollar windfall the title game is expected to produce.

Swofford spoke briefly about the proposed Committee that will be put into place to determine the four teams in the national playoff, and hinted that typical parameters such as strength of schedule and winning a conference title will be weighed heavily.

"There's more discussion to be had with that, particularly in terms of the makeup of the committee, how many there will be, where those members will come from. But we did have some excellent discussion about criteria that will be at the top of the committees' list in terms of determining who the four teams will be," Swofford said.

"One will be conference championship---not a requirement, but a strong criteria, leaning towards champions. And number two, strength of schedule. And I think both of those are appropriate in terms of the committee's work. And certainly there will be other criteria and parameters given to the committee."

Swofford indicated that there were conflicting interests with some NCAA Presidents who wished to select the playoff teams based strictly on a national poll, versus others who considered winning a conference championship to be a mandatory requirement for entering the playoffs.

One can guess with some level of accuracy that SEC presidents don't want to have just its conference champion eligible for the playoff.

In that scenario of course, this past year's national champion, Alabama, wouldn't have even been eligible to play in an NCAA playoff.

Many of the same debates currently in place will remain with a four-team playoff, but at least once the four teams are set, the play on the field will take care of itself.

It's not a perfect solution, but it's way better than the BCS in the eyes of most followers of the sport.

"That (figuring out the teams in the playoff), like a lot of this, became a compromise between those who wanted just simply a poll and one, two, three, four, and wanting a conference championship as a requirement. I think it's a compromise, and it's indicative of compromise throughout the model itself. And I think the ability to come to some of those compromises is a credit to the people in the room."

Swofford dismisses the notion that the ACC will lose relevance in the new playoff setup.

And given Swofford's clout in these boardroom meetings, one has to figure the longtime Commish will fight tooth and nail to make sure that any ACC school that runs the table and wins the league will have a chance to play for the national championship.

After all, he was able to pull off getting an above-average Virginia Tech team into the Sugar Bowl this past January---a move that effectively bumped his alma mater North Carolina to the dreadful Advocare 100 Independence Bowl in Shreveport the day after Christmas.

So much for Swofford pandering to the in-state schools in the ACC.

"I've been confident in the stability of the league, and I still am. Absolutely. I think this decision being made and what will come along with it in terms of access and playing for the national championship, if you're good enough," he added.

Note the Commissioners' use of the term 'good enough' on more than one occasion in Tuesday's interview with Heather Dinich.

It hints at a mission directed towards making sure the best teams are represented in the playoffs, and not just the best teams in certain conferences.

"You'll have the Rose Bowl as a contract game. You'll have the Champions Bowl, wherever that game is played, as a contract game. And you'll have the ACC champion playing in a contract game as well---all on New Year's Day," Swofford said.

Following those rounds of games, the NCAA title game will be played approximately a week to 10 days later.

No matter how fans of certain ACC schools want to spin it, the bottom line is that the league has in so many ways lost its relevance as a national football conference, and no team in recent memory should have been given consideration for the national playoff.

That is ultimately where things must change for the ACC if they're to remain relevant on the highest stages of the sport.

Considering that the ACC boasted four national championships from three different schools and six national championship game appearances over a 20-year period from 1981 to 2000, and in the ensuing decade hasn't had even one team finish ranked in the top five of the final AP poll, it's easy for many to make the claim that ACC football is a shell of its former self.

But it's also true that with a bunch of good, but not great, teams within the ACC, the league spends its autumns beating up on each other, thereby not allowing a single team to emerge as the cream of the crop.

But even with that said, the simple truth of the matter is that the ACC hasn't had a team good enough to play for the national championship in quite some time.

And before people go off the deep end with falling-off-the-cliff theories of the league's demise in relevance in football, it would be more prudent for each of the league's members to take a serious look at what they're doing to ensure the league does stay significant on the national scene.

Nobody arguably is more to blame for the precipitous fall in the ACC's national prominence in football than the two Florida schools, Florida State and Miami, who were expected to carry the banner of gridiron dominance that each enjoyed throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s.

It hasn't happened of course, as Miami hasn't even won a Coastal Division title in its eight years in the ACC---much less a league title---while Florida State has won only one ACC title in the post-expansion era (the very first ACC championship game of 2005), and has only appeared in the ACC title game once since (in 2010).

The quick passage of the new four-team playoff won't automatically make things better for the Hurricanes and Seminoles of course. They've got considerable work to do to even be hinted as comparable to those glorious Miami and FSU teams of one and two-plus decades ago.

And before FSU considers bolting the ACC for so-called greener pastures such as the Big 12, perhaps they should improve their 2-4 record over Wake Forest over the past six seasons.

It's easy to blame schools like Wake Forest, Duke, and UNC for its problems, but Florida State has only to look itself in the mirror and the way it has handled numerous things in recent years, such as the letting-go of legend Bobby Bowden and the negative financial ramifications that came with it, and the fact that it can't sell out its stadium anymore except for select games.

While the uncertainty surrounding the future of the ACC remains palpable in the minds of many, there doesn't seem to be any doubt that billions that will be made through a national four-team playoff.

And plenty of that money will find its way to the coffers of the ACC's 14 member institutions once the playoff gets going in a couple years.

"In terms of the financial implications, which will be very, very positive going forward for the ACC and everybody else. I think all of that adds up to bringing more stability in college athletics, and that's a good thing," Swofford said.

Now it's simply up to the ACC to field a team good enough to get back into the national championship conversation.






 

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