Friday, May 27, 2022

Inside the ACC’s rejection of College Football Playoff expansion amid concerns about larger issues

When ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said last week that his coaches were unanimously against College Football Playoff expansion “at this time”, he may have been understating the conference’s position.

ACC sources portrayed for CBS Sports the depth of the league’s concerns about tripling the field from four to 12 teams — at least within the current 12-year contract that expires after the 2025 season. Because of that consternation, CFP expansion is likely dead for at least the next four years.

ACC coaches and officials believe college athletics — football in particular — must work its way through numerous other complications as it tries to reform and deregulate before it sets its sights on expanding the postseason.

Amid COVID-19 issues and roster limitations, the ACC last fall asked the NCAA Football Oversight Committee for relief on the rule that preserves eligibility for any player who participates in less than five games during the regular season. In the postseason, ACC coaches said they were were told to apply for a waiver on individual cases for players whose eligibility would be impacted.

None of those waivers were granted, according to Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson, current chairman of the league’s head football coaches.

Clawson said some ACC schools are “not sure they are going to be able to practice in the spring” because of rosters diminished by the combination of COVID-19, injuries, graduation, opt outs and transfer portal departures.

The average ACC program has lost 10.4 players to the portal since the beginning of last the 2020 season, according to 247Sports’ tracker. It is not known how that compares to other leagues.

ACC coaches are concerned that level of churn is unsustainable with the annual limits of 25 signees in recruiting and 85 total players on scholarship. In 2020, rostered athletes were granted an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19. As such, coaches do not have to strictly adhere to the 85-man limit in 2022; however, they must find a way to pare their rosters back down to 85 ahead of the 2023 season.

“How the hell are we going to get to 85?” said Clawson, who has been named to the American Football Coaches Association board of trustees. “Our rosters are getting thinner and thinner. We have less control over them, and the NCAA isn’t giving us any relief.

“What they’ve done is done a great job of opening up the outflow valve. And they haven’t helped us at all with the inflow valve.”

Expanding the playoff to 12 teams creates the possibility of at least one team playing 17 games in a single season. That remains a non-starter with ACC coaches because of health and safety concerns.  Clemson’s Dabo Swinney — and some of his players — have been on record since at least last summer as being against expansion of the bracket.

“To be honest with you, I don’t think there’s 12 teams good enough [to compete for the national championship each year],” Swinney said in July 2021.

ACC champion Pittsburgh and runner-up Wake Forest each won 11 games, posting their best seasons in years. If a 12-team bracket was in existence, both programs would have at least been in the conversation. Instead, the ACC did not have a representative in the CFP.

Still …

“We all went to our teams, and you’d would think kids at Wake Forest would want it to be expanded,” Clawson said. “They were like, ‘Coach, how many games do we have to play?'”

All of it adds up to the ACC having an issue with prioritization.

Pittsburgh’s Pat Narduzzi was among those ACC coaches frustrated at the lack of relief addressing depleted rosters. The NCAA website states the 15 voting members of the oversight committee “will prioritize enhancement of the student-athlete educational experience [academically and athletically], and in doing so, promote student-athletes’ personal growth and leadership development.”

“Nobody sees the injury reports we see,” Narduzzi told CBS Sports. “Nobody knows how these kids walk onto a field for a 13th or 14th game of the season and how their bodies truly feel. If we’re going to do this, go to 12 teams, how about we go from 85 scholarships to 90?”

Coaches have no vote in expansion, but their opinions were gauged by each conference as the leagues evaluated expansion beginning last summer.

The Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC are seemingly on board for CFP expansion beginning with the 2024 season. However, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has publicly stated that his conference would also be fine standing pat given the league’s success getting multiple bids into the four-team field.

The latest CFP meetings held earlier this month with conference commissioners and university presidents identified the ACC and Big Ten as the conferences that were most against expansion before the current TV contract expires following the 2025 season.

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said a Jan. 10 vote on expansion showed support but not unanimity from his peers. Meeting in executive session that day, the CFP Board of Managers (school presidents) took no action to approve expansion based on the commissioners’ vote.

Now we know why, at least as far as the ACC is concerned.

“The ACC coaches, we all sat on a Zoom call together,” said Narduzzi, who is entering his eighth season with the Panthers in 2022. “We’re all unanimous in this decision. We all want to do it, but we want to do it at the right time. We hope it’s sooner than later.

“It’s not that we want to be the bad guys, but until we until we make this game better and get it back to where there is some control, [we can’t support expansion].”

Playoff expansion continues to highlight the chasm between the for-profit business of college football and whatever is left of the educational mission of big-time college sports. By voting against expansion within the current 12-year CFP contract with ESPN, the ACC would be effectively turning down a reported $450 million increase in rights fees from ESPN in the last years of the deal.

But waiting four years and having the contract go to the open market could reap even more revenue for the conferences. The commissioners have all but decided, if the CFP contract goes to the market after the 2025 season, multiple carriers would televise the games, duplicating the postseason TV rights deals held by most major professional sports and college basketball.

“That’s the appropriate time [to expand],” Pittsburgh AD Heather Lyke said. “If you do it earlier, it’s about money. After four years, you need to reevaluate it.”

Every conference follows the money. In times of financial crisis, that’s what college sports does, whether that means adding a conference championship game (1992), a 12th regular-season game (2002) or more teams to the NCAA Tournament (2011).

The ACC is in the middle of its own TV rights deal with ESPN that is locked in until 2036. Unless it adds Notre Dame as a member, its payout in that deal — reported at $17 million annually per school — remains static.

Fold all of that into the educational component, particularly at some ACC schools. Two days after Wake Forest played that ACC Championship Game, finals began on the bucolic Winston-Salem, North Carolina, campus.

“Do you think our kids were pulling all-nighters to finish papers that week?” Clawson asked. 

The issue of playoff intrusion into December finals was dealt with when the CFP was introduced eight years ago. Basically, those in power changed their tune, allowing preparations for the CFP to intrude. In a 12-team playoff, an extra layer of first-round games means the CFP would begin the second or third week in December.

For some, waiting for the NCAA to clean up its act delays the inevitable.

“You either want to expand or you don’t,” said one FBS commissioner in favor of expansion.

For the first time in the expansion discussion, the bracket staying the same four years from now has become a legitimate possibility. That’s how wide the differences are between the conferences.

“If we can’t make decisions because of uncertainty, we will never make decisions because every day is uncertain,” said Sankey, one of four persons on the CFP subcommittee that proposed expansion.

Clawson said the ACC’s concerns can be cleared up in time for expansion four years from now.

If an incredibly complicated collegiate model can be streamlined, it begins this week with the NCAA Convention in Indianapolis. A new, rewritten constitution that gives more power to the individual divisions and schools is expected to be ratified.

In the end, an already-diminished NCAA will cede to deregulation of its complicated structure and give more power to its members.

“Let’s come up with a model that the student-athletes feel that their health and welfare and safety has been considered,” Clawson said. “Give us a way to manage a roster. You look at the historical limitations on scholarships. We have less scholarships and more games and now more ways that kids can leave.

“To portray this that we’re completely against expansion isn’t accurate. There are so many other issues right now in college football.”

Phillips conducted a conference call with media last Friday to explain his league’s stance. The commissioner cited athlete welfare, the turbulent NCAA landscape and even the number of teams that would be in FBS. He called for a “365-day review” of the sport that would take precedence over expanding the bracket at this time. 

The fact his coaches were in lockstep against playoff expansion in two years was surprising. The ACC had played in the first seven CFPs with Clemson winning national championships in 2016 and 2018. ACC champion Pittsburgh is coming off its winningest season in 40 years and first conference title in 11 years. As proposed by the commissioners in June, a 12-team playoff would have assured the Panthers a berth as one of the top-six ranked conference champions.

Still …

“Any coach that says they are in favor of the 12[-team expansion] in college football … doesn’t care about college football, in my opinion,” Narduzzi said.

Narduzzi is among a group of coaches all over the country exasperated that name, image and likeness rights and the transfer portal have not only transformed the game but their jobs. The three-year-old portal has pretty much morphed into full-on free agency. Coaches aren’t the only ones concerned that NIL has devolved into inducements and buying players.

“Every coach I talk to from Pat Fitzgerald in the Big Ten to the SEC, they all have the same thoughts,” Narduzzi said. “‘This is screwed up. What are we doing? We are we doing to our profession? What are we doing to college football?’

“We’d all like to be in the playoff, but until we get answers to these other problems … it keeps making the game worse.”

In a 12-team bracket, the average team would be playing an average of less than one extra game per season. For example, the four first-round losers would be playing the same number of games as if they played in a bowl.

“It’s not like I have any regrets,” Narduzzi said. “We know, at Pittsburgh, we’re going to have an opportunity to be in the playoff. We want that, but it’s not about what’s good for Pittsburgh or Pat Narduzzi. It’s about what’s good for football.”

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