The ACC will hold its ACC Football Kickoff — the conference’s annual media day event — on Wednesday and Thursday in Charlotte, North Carolina, as the 2022 season approaches. The two-day event will feature commissioner Jim Phillips setting the stage before the Atlantic Division teams meet the media on Wednesday followed by the Coastal Division teams headlining on Thursday.
While there are a couple of notable on-field headlines, the current college football landscape is going to demand some answers — or at least comments and analysis — regarding off-field matters when all of these players and coaches are gathered under one roof. Conference realignment, College Football Playoff expansion, even larger NIL-related issues or proposals are going to be a topic of conversation. None of that is going to have an immediate impact on the wins and losses for ACC teams in 2022, but they will draw plenty of interest from fans who are equally invested in the future of the sport.
Still, there are a lot of great on-field stories to track from across the ACC. The league is loaded at the quarterback position, giving more than half of the conference a real buzz based on the ability for their team to compete thanks to having a difference-maker under center. There’s also a great balance of the expectations for Clemson while being just one season removed from Pitt winning its first-ever ACC Championship against Wake Forest; it was the first season neither Clemson nor Florida State won the Atlantic Division since 2008. Last year was a total disruption of ACC norms, so what’s in store for the encore?
With an eyes on the field, on the sidelines and on college sports as a whole, here are some of the topics we should expect to be discussed at the ACC Football Kickoff.
Grant of Rights and the revenue gap
There are far more college football fans and analysts who have referenced the ACC’s grant of rights than there are legal experts who can properly analyze the grant of rights. That’s not surprising, or even a huge problem, as the same thing happens in politics with policy and any other area of life where the demand for conversation exceeds the limits of people who can speak on the issue with expertise. The problem is that the ACC’s grant of rights is a hot-button talking point, particularly whether the agreement is “ironclad” or “bulletproof” or whatever other defensive-minded phrase is being used to drive the conversation.
With the Big Ten adding USC and UCLA, it has matched the SEC’s high-profile additions of Texas and Oklahoma to create two 16-team mega-conferences poised to draw record revenues from their media rights deals. Those per-school, per-year payouts were already ahead of the ACC, but the five-year and 10-year projections have the Big Ten and SEC pulling far away from the rest of college sports. Some projections are nearly doubling the per-school, per-year payouts if the ACC continues with its current ESPN deal that runs through 2036.
That revenue gap is a cause for concern for football programs that are trying to compete at the highest level with the likes of Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State setting the pace for what it takes to contend for national championships. It’s led fans, and maybe even university legal teams, to wonder exactly what’s in this grant of rights and how costly it might be to challenge or break in order to leave for another conference. The fact that so many around the ACC are discussing the grant of rights is concerning because the motivations are either looking for a way to jump ship or clinging to the hope that it can save the league.
Phillips will undoubtedly be asked about the grant of rights — which, by the way, ties the media rights revenues of all ACC members to each other and the league until the conclusion of the current media rights deal in 2036 — but the document itself is not the key discussion point. The revenue gap is the issue at hand, and Phillips must have answers to satisfy the concerns of schools who see the revenue gap widening and wonder how the ACC fits into the future of big-time college football.
Notre Dame’s relationship to the ACC
Notre Dame and first-year coach Marcus Freeman won’t have official representation at the ACC Football Kickoff, but the Fighting Irish will have a presence at the event. Currently, Notre Dame has its Olympic sports as full ACC members while maintaining their independence in football thanks to an agreement with the league that allows for a handful of games against ACC opponents every season. Additionally, Notre Dame gets access into postseason games through the ACC’s ties and gets to benefit from other ACC-related exposure, like last year’s Labor Day Monday night showdown at Florida State, a 41-38 overtime win for the Irish.
There is part of the conference realignment conversation which brings most potential moves to a halt as multiple parties are “waiting to see what Notre Dame does.” Contractually, the ACC has some advantages due to its current relationship should the Fighting Irish want to join a conference as a full member. Financially, the ACC does not have advantages over the Big Ten or SEC in terms of being an attractive landing spot and the Big Ten, particularly now with the addition of USC, would allow for the preservation of several historical rivalries as the program gives up its independence.
Last year at the ACC Football Kickoff, we heard Phillips acknowledge that the league’s interest in Notre Dame was “less than bashful” after allowing the Fighting Irish to compete as a full member during the COVID-impacted 2020 season. One year has passed, and it’s clear that Notre Dame is not only comfortable with its independence but potentially being pursued by other conferences as the last big piece on the conference realignment chess board.
Clemson looking to reclaim top spot
The 2021 season was the first time since 2014 that Clemson was not the ACC Atlantic Division winner, the ACC champion or selected for the College Football Playoff. That six-year run that included four top-two finishes and two national championships forever changed Clemson football, so there was some drama when the seemingly unstoppable force had a hiccup in its path to dominance.
Of course, Clemson’s “down year” was an 11th straight 10-win season, and after starting the year 4-3, the Tigers ran off six straight victories to close the season with dozens of players missing time to injury along the way. After defensive coordinator Brent Venables was hired by Oklahoma and offensive coordinator Tony Elliott took the head coaching job at Virginia, it allowed Dabo Swinney to use the break to start a new chapter for the program. The “torch has been passed,” according to Swinney, and it’s up to the 2022 Tigers to use the success of the last decade as the building blocks of what they can accomplish in pursuit of championships.
After fielding one of the best defenses in the country last season, and with the expectation of doing so again this fall, all of the focus for how Clemson reclaims the top spot in the ACC starts with the quarterback position. D.J. Uiagalelei will be one of Clemson’s representatives on Wednesday at the ACC Football Kickoff, where he’ll be ready to discuss what’s in store after an offseason of looking to improve on last season’s subpar results. DJU’s readiness to recapture some of the potential he flashed in two starts as Trevor Lawrence’s backup in 2020 is particularly noteworthy, as he shares a quarterback room with another former five-star prospect in freshman Cade Klubnik. Does Uiagalelei give Clemson its best chance to win the ACC? Does he give Clemson its best chance to win a national championship? Don’t expect those questions to be asked explicitly, but they will linger over the discussion of how Clemson can return to the top of college football.
Mario Cristobal’s return to Miami
Mario Cristobal won two national championships as a standout offensive lineman for Miami, and his return comes with plenty of passion for a return to those days of seeing the Hurricanes in the mix for the top spots in the sport. Cristobal left a good situation at Oregon because there’s been a renewed — and potentially unprecedented — investment in helping Miami stabilize its football program and truly chase a return to those days of championship contention. It’s notable that Cristobal left a good situation in part because it speaks to the influence of the area and his history with the program. But it does not stand in contrast to what he’s inheriting at Miami.
Quarterback Tyler Van Dyke was the ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year, and the defense saw young stars James Williams and Leonard Taylor flash as freshman late in the 2021 campaign. Cristobal and his staff did work in the transfer portal to bring some experience to the depth chart, and the result is a team that’s probably going to be favored to win the ACC Coastal Division and compete for an ACC championship. The preseason ACC awards, honors and predicted order of finish won’t be released until the following week after all ballots are collected, but it would not be a surprise if Miami ends up as the preseason favorite in the ACC Coastal Division.
Coaches talk playoff, realignment, future of the sport
There’s a very short list of active coaches with a national championship, but Mack Brown and Dabo Swinney are on it, and both have welcomed the opportunity to offer comment on the general health and status of college football. These are coaches that create headlines with their comments on the sport’s biggest issues, so with a plethora of noteworthy conversations going on around the sport, it will be interesting to hear what kind of thoughts, positions or predictions we’ll hear from the coaches.
Brown and Swinney are not the only ones we’re looking for, either. Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson is a voice for coaches as one of the Board of Trustees for the American Football Coaches Association, Miami’s activation of the NIL opportunities gives Cristobal perspective that will be of interest and Pat Narduzzi just saw firsthand the realities of free agency in college football as star wide receiver Jordan Addison finished spring practice with the Panthers and then transferred to USC in May.
This seems like an obvious thing to alert heading into any media days event, but with conference realignment, super conferences, College Football Playoff expansion, the transfer portal, NIL and more all on the top of mind, there will be quotes to note from the more tenured coaches.
First-time, first-year coaches
Speaking of tenured coaches, the league has a few new additions that come from the other end of spectrum with three schools boasting first-time FBS head coaches. Virginia coach Elliott will be no stranger to the ACC media as the former Clemson offensive coordinator, and Duke coach Mike Elko spent three seasons at Wake Forest as Clawson’s defensive coordinator. Virginia Tech coach Brent Pry spent a couple of seasons as a Hokies grad assistant under Bud Foster, but that was long before VT’s ACC era and recent stops with James Franklin (Vanderbilt, Penn State) will make him the most new of these three rookie hires. These coaches won’t be looked at for hype or big-picture commentary like Cristobal, the fourth new hire for the ACC’s roster of coaches, but they will bring their own intrigue as they enter the head coaching ranks at the same time in the same conference.
End of the division era
Either Clemson (2011, 2015-20) or Florida State (2012-14) won every ACC championship for nearly a decade, and one of the biggest pieces of those conference title runs, particularly in the earlier years, was who won the head-to-head matchup. As Atlantic Division rivals, only one of the two proud programs could make it to the conference championship game, even if the polls — and sometimes the conference standings, also — suggested they were the two best teams in the league.
That situation is no longer a factor starting in 2023, as the two best teams in the overall conference standings (based on winning percentage) will earn bids to the ACC Championship Game. It’s not a totally foreign concept after going to a 15-team, one-division model for the COVID-impacted 2020 season, and the accompanied change to a new 3-5-5 scheduling rotation that allows more crossover between opponents has been mostly welcomed by fans. This does not come without a cost, though, as we now have just one more year for Coastal Chaos, rooting for uncertainty into November from a division that produced seven different champions across seven years. Watching that side of the standings hit for the cycle between Duke in 2013 and Virginia in 2019 was truly incredible, so we hope there’s something equally intriguing about the way things unfold in 2022.