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Senior Associate Commissioner of Football Operations Michael Strickland discusses the challenges of building the Atlantic Coast Conference’s 2015 slate of games and what fans can expect as they look ahead to next fall.
Q. This year you dealt with a 13-week scheduling window, as opposed to 14 weeks last season. Did you find that eliminated a lot of scheduling options?
Losing the second bye week this season was certainly impactful. Most notably, having only one bye limits our ability to avoid short-rest games. However, a 14-week schedule is not necessarily a cure-all to that dynamic, as last season one of our Thursday games – North Carolina at Duke – was a short-rest game.
This season, of our 22 potential specialty game slots, only four ACC teams will play Thursdays on short rest and five would play Thursdays with extra rest. While nine will play Fridays on short rest, those games will kick only 16 hours earlier than the earliest possible kick time for a Saturday, full rest game.
There is initial discussion ongoing within our league, and with the other Power 5 conferences, about potentially re-visiting the national college football schedule calendar to allow for “14 weeks to play 12” in every season, not just when the calendar falls a certain way. Additionally, losing a week –which represents 7% of the season – from last year to this year limits our ability to avoid back-to-back road games within the conference rotation. This season, 10 of our 14 teams were assigned at least one set of back-to-back road games by the Conference. Additional challenges include the effort to accommodate a sizeable number of requests from each institution, maximize our television exposure goals, and navigate the existing slate of nonconference games (which sometimes requires a nonconference game be moved in order to accommodate a better Conference schedule), all while protecting on-the-field competitive equity.
Q. What are the biggest challenges in building a schedule, and what are your objectives as you put it together?
Our biggest challenge is meeting as many of the various requests we receive while protecting on-the-field competitive equity. We want to use the schedule to the Conference’s and each program’s strategic advantage, putting each program in the best possible situation that given season for on-the-field success. Certainly, no one has the ability to forecast precisely which teams will win more games than others, but we do the best that we can for all 14 to be treated fairly and their schedules, on paper, to be reasonable and equitable. We also have quite a bit of research compiled from the 16-season BCS era in terms of analyzing the schedules of successful teams – Top 4, Top 12 and Top 25 finishers – and we try to implement as many of those findings as possible.
Q. How many scheduling models do you typically produce before you select the one that fits best?
This year, we produced 298 various schedule models. Of those, 170 attempts worked out to be invalid in that the total games to be played could not be accommodated in the manner we attempted, and 128 were viable. Each new model evolves from the preceding model, and each model has a give and take of inputs and requests accommodated, Thursday, Friday and prime Saturday game dates, matchups, etc. We ultimately selected the 294th total schedule attempted – the 124th out of the 128 that were viable.
Q. Some believe that ESPN simply tells the conference what games to play and when – is that an accurate perception?
ESPN is a fantastic partner of the ACC, we are proud to be their only “all-in partner”, and we have a tremendous working relationship with their college football programming team, which is led by Ilan Ben-Hanan. It’s a treat to develop the schedule with them and each of our institutions’ scheduling point persons. But no, it is not an accurate perception that ESPN dictates to the ACC its football schedule. We try to deliver on as many of ESPN’s requests for Thursday, Friday, and prime Saturday dates as we can, just as we do for our member institutions’ requests, while protecting foremost the on-the-field competitive equity of the schedule. It is fair to say we deliver on about the same percentage of TV’s requests as we do with those that come from our institutions.
Q. Why does the ACC seem to release its football schedule so late every year?
We view the timing of our schedule release, as an annual effort, as a strategic advantage. It is no accident that the ACC has enjoyed a nice number of “ABC Saturday Night College Football” primetime appearances in which one of our games was “the” game nationally that given week. We strategically pull from a broad roster of matchups each season and distribute those games across key weeks that are most likely to be available to us from a primetime perspective. Another benefit of producing our schedule each January is that we have a better handle on the competitive balance of our league, and therefore we can attempt to build the schedule as fairly as possible with as current information as possible.
Q. There are a significant number of Thursday and Friday night games scheduled this season. How do you select which teams play in these games and the host school for each?
We also have a Labor Day Monday night game and certain key, prime Saturday slots available to us. We identify, and secure ESPN’s mutual agreement to, a broad roster of games from which we both feel comfortable selecting to fill these specialty game slots, and then develop the schedule using whichever games work best within the flow of the overall schedule.
This season, 12 of our 14 schools will appear in our specialty game slots, and only five play more than one. We are also leveraging these games with nonconference opponents now more than ever, as three of slots will be filled by South Carolina, Ohio State, and Boise State, and one more could be filled by Cincinnati. We also work hard to protect the balance of games we move off Saturdays – not moving too many of our “best” games involving teams with high win totals – and this season we’ve done yet again a very good job of that. The average win total from the 2014 regular season for those 18 ACC teams appearing in Monday, Thursday and Friday games is 6.9.
Q. Virginia Tech does not have a home Thursday night game this year. Did they not request one?
Virginia Tech did request a Thursday night home game, but unfortunately, we were not able to meet that request. All told, we met 18 of 23 school requests league-wide, and nine of 10 schools had their number one request met – including Virginia Tech’s first request to be home in Week 5 after consecutive road nonconference games.
Specifically related to Virginia Tech and a home Thursday, we had seven separate Thursdays available from a programming perspective in which we could place our five Thursday games. This year, a majority of those Thursdays were in the early portion of the schedule, a time when Virginia Tech was fully booked with nonconference games that could not be moved. In reality, the Thursdays available for Virginia Tech to host a Thursday night game were Week 5, Week 8, and Week 12. In each of those three weeks, with their opponents being Pittsburgh, Duke and North Carolina, respectively, there would have been unequal rest for one of the participating teams – Pittsburgh and Duke both having a bye the week preceding their game at Virginia Tech, and Virginia Tech having two days of extra rest before hosting North Carolina. Our scheduling parameters do not allow for that type of unequal rest.
Q. There have been a handful of Friday night games in recent years involving ACC teams, and a couple more have been added this season. Is that something we can expect to continue moving forward?
In this and future seasons, we will play five Friday games, an increase from three in previous seasons. Playing in a limited inventory of specialty games on Monday, Thursday and Friday affords our programs an exclusive platform before a guaranteed primetime national audience to showcase their football and athletic programs, as well as the broader institution. They are highly valuable for a number of reasons, and certainly among them is the financial value those games create for the ACC and its member institutions to continue to meet the needs of our student-athletes.
Q. With the 13-week schedule limiting each team to one bye week, how do you manage the short rest period prior to the Thursday and Friday games?
We make best efforts for both schools to have at least seven days’ rest between games prior to a Thursday or Friday night. If both schools do not, then both schools must have the same amount of rest. For short rest games, we make best efforts for both teams to be at home the previous week. If that is not possible, the team that is the visitor in the Thursday or Friday night game will be at home the week before.
Q. Glancing at the 2015 schedule, several teams have notable back-to-back road games – Boston College at Clemson and Louisville, Syracuse at Florida State and Louisville, Wake Forest at Notre Dame and Clemson … What factors came into play there?
Welcome to the new order of ACC Football. These “on paper” tough back-to-back situations are foremost a result and credit to each of our football programs for the improvements they have made over the recent past in terms of their competitiveness. There truly is nowhere to hide within the ACC. As mentioned in an earlier answer, the fact that we have just 13 weeks to play 12 this season is another factor that resulted in 10 of our 14 programs being scheduled to play at least one set of back-to-back road Conference-assigned games.
Q. Last year, the ACC became one of just two conferences to raise its overall attendance while at the same time posting some of its highest television ratings ever. Do you see that becoming a trend with the caliber of football currently being played in the conference and the platforms available to showcase the marquee games?
When you layer on top of the challenging conference slate of games addressed above with what is traditionally the nation’s toughest nonconference schedule from a Conference perspective, the matchups provided by ACC Football are quite compelling for student-athletes and coaches who want to compete at the highest level and for fans who want to watch games of the highest caliber. Given our programs’ across-the-board on the field improvements, annual recruiting success, and a consistent, proven track record of developing football student-athletes into impactful professional football players, I am confident this trend will only continue.
Q. The past two years have seen ACC teams participate in 22 bowl games, including four that were part of the BCS and CFP system (a BCS National Championship Game, a College Football Playoff semifinal and two additional BCS/CFP games). Do you feel that the league is in as good a place as it has ever been in terms of its bowl game partnerships, particularly some of the newer ones?
There is no doubt the ACC’s bowl game partnerships are stronger than ever before, by any measure. The level of our opponents is vastly improved, the destinations are attractive and serve as strategic fits, and certainly bowl revenues have increased dramatically, which help our athletic programs continue to grow and compete at the nationally elite caliber at which they do.