Take two: ACC title-game format

The ACC spring meetings are this week, and the league’s championship game is again a hot topic of debate.

With the league expanding to 14 teams, there’s a push to reorganize the schedule and the title game, potentially moving to just a single division, with the teams with the two best records playing for a championship.

Of course, that plan first needs NCAA approval, but before the powers that be get their hooks into the debate, David Hale and Matt Fortuna are discussing the merits of a potential change.

Fortuna says change is good: Having the two best teams square off in the ACC title game, regardless of division, would be beneficial for several reasons, the obvious one being that college football fans could get one more marquee game to look forward to every year. But look beyond that for a moment and look at the implications that could come from the ACC having the autonomy to determine how its teams qualify for its title game.

If the Atlantic-Coastal matchup requirement was lifted, this could open the door for much more flexibility within the conference as it relates to schedules, as schools might not then be forced to play everyone in their division every year, the way that they do now. They could, if they wished to, scrap divisions altogether. Regardless, an ease on those NCAA restrictions would give ACC players a much better opportunity to face everyone in their conference before they graduate.

As it stands now, if, say, Boston College wants to get payback for its loss at North Carolina this past fall, it will have to wait until 2020 to face the Tar Heels. And the Eagles will not return to Chapel Hill in the next 11 years. Look at league newcomer Louisville, which won't get its first game against Virginia Tech until 2020. So much for young Cardinals players hoping to face a legend in Hokies coach Frank Beamer.

This might be treading into a whole other conversation entirely, but why does the NCAA even have authority to determine how leagues govern their title games, anyway? As we've seen recently, particularly with the SEC sticking with its eight-game league slate, conferences are free to determine their respective league schedules however they wish. It's only right that they get to choose how to determine their league champion, too.

Of course, the other obvious factor that could come from a new title-game format is league balance. Yes, these things are cyclical -- in every division, in every conference. Still, is newcomer Pitt that much better than newcomer Syracuse, which lost by a single point to the Panthers last year? Probably not, but Pitt is already being touted as a darkhorse ACC title contender next year. The Orange, playing in the same division as Florida State, Clemson and Louisville, might as well be chopped liver. And that's not fair to them, as they are making similar progress in a new league with a young coach but have to navigate a far more difficult path than Pitt to show tangible signs of progress.

The major potential drawback would be a better No. 2 team in the league possibly eliminating the league's regular-season champion from contention for the College Football Playoff. But as Nick Saban said after his third national title at Alabama, you shouldn't back your way into a championship.

As the ACC looks to build off the momentum from Florida State's national title, it would be wise to keep that in mind. Unfortunately, it's not exactly in the league's control.

Hale says the format should stay the same: If you’re making the case for NCAA overreach, I’m on board. I’d love to see the NCAA exert less control over conference decision-making, too. But we’re talking about title-game format, and on that point, the status quo is worth preserving.

Would allowing more flexibility in scheduling improve the regular season? If your idea of improvement is getting that big Boston College-North Carolina rematch, then yes, it might. But look back over the past three years in the ACC and the clear-cut choice for game of the year was Clemson-Florida State. That’s the game that put the ACC in the national spotlight for a week, the game that fans across the country couldn’t wait to see.

The reason Clemson-FSU was appointment viewing, however, was that it essentially determined which highly ranked team would get a shot at an ACC title and which one would spend the rest of the year playing catch-up. But what happens if the top two teams play in the league title game instead? All of a sudden, that Clemson-FSU matchup doesn’t mean nearly as much because there’s a good chance they’ll see each other again in December.

And no, you shouldn’t back into a championship, as the wise Nick Saban said. But after FSU completely dominated Clemson this past season, was there really a need for those two to face off again? And if Clemson managed to sneak by the Seminoles in the title game by a point or two, would that have proven the Tigers deserved the league title instead of FSU? And would it have been worth costing the ACC its shot at a national title?

But beyond the impact that changing the format would have on the league’s marquee regular-season games, the fact is — attendance in Charlotte aside -- the ACC benefits from diversity in its championship game. What Duke was able to do last year was good for both the conference and the Blue Devils’ program, a turning point in the development of a one-time cellar dweller. Competitive balance pushes all programs to up their game. If Clemson and FSU control the league every year, it only dampens enthusiasm everywhere else.

And really, that’s where the real changes need to come. It’s not that we need more of Clemson-FSU (or Louisville, which could certainly throw a monkey wrench into the status quo in the Atlantic). It’s that we need other teams, particularly in the Coastal, to step up their games.

As FSU and Clemson showed last year, what separates the ACC and SEC right now isn’t strength at the top, it’s the depth of quality. While the SEC opens every season with six or seven teams in competition for a conference title, the entire reason we’re having this discussion about the ACC’s championship game is because, too often, the same two teams (in the same division) are the prohibitive favorites.

Sure, Syracuse has a long road to the top this year. But until last year, only Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech had won the Coastal during the championship-game era, then suddenly Duke emerged. (The Atlantic has had four different champs.) In nine years of title games, North Carolina has yet to make an appearance. Miami has yet to make an appearance. In two of Georgia Tech’s three trips, it backed in with mediocre teams.

The solution to the ACC’s problems isn’t jury-rigging its title game. It’s ensuring that its other flagship programs are competing for the title game on an annual basis.