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With Florida State's snub still fresh, the ACC plots to get more teams in the College Football Playoff

Andy Staples head shotby:Andy Staples05/14/24


Ira Schoffel Full Interview with Andy Staples | ACC Lawsuit, Florida State Outlook | 05.14.24

AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. — The wound remains raw more than five months later. 

“What happened last year was tragic,” Florida State athletic director Michael Alford said Tuesday at the ACC’s spring meetings. Alford’s football team was excluded from the final four-team College Football Playoff after it went 13-0 and won the ACC title.

But it’s not only raw for the Seminoles, who have taken matters into their own hands by suing the ACC over its grant of rights and exit fee in what certainly appears to be an attempt to leave the conference as soon as possible. Florida State missing the playoff shook everyone in the league, from the schools actively trying to leave (Florida State, Clemson) to the ones that may need the league to stay together if they want to remain at the power conference level. 

Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson, the chair of the ACC football coaches group, said the league’s 17 coaches — remember, Cal, SMU and Stanford begin ACC play this season — spent significant time discussing a two-pronged approach to improving the perception of ACC football as the CFP expands to 12 teams.

  • Every school needs to invest in football — not only the ones who feel they should compete for national titles.
  • The coaches want the conference to market the football product better rather than only focusing on the total offering of sports.

The worry now isn’t about a 13-0 ACC champ getting excluded from the CFP. In the system that begins this season, Florida State would have been one of the top four seeds and earned a bye into the quarterfinals. The concern now is about potential at-large playoff teams being passed over for spots by Big 12, Big Ten or SEC teams. After what happened to Florida State, it’s a legitimate concern.

“It’s a pretty fresh memory,” Clawson said. “What we want to avoid is having a school ranked 13th that should be 10th or 11th.”

There really isn’t any debate that the ACC is considered a weaker football league than the Big Ten or SEC. Not after one-loss SEC champ Alabama was placed at No. 4 ahead of the Seminoles. “It spoke volumes of the perception — I believe — of this league when it comes to football specifically,” Alford said.

Meanwhile, Clawson said it didn’t matter what he and other coaches thought of the quality of the league. It only matters what the public — and by extension, the members of the CFP selection committee — think.

“Whether we think it or not, the fact that an undefeated Florida State got left out of the playoff, that’s a problem,” Clawson said. “Why was an undefeated Florida State perceived to be less worthy of the playoff than two teams that lost games?”

Because of a perception rooted in recent history. ACC coaches acknowledge the league needs to be deeper. There is frustration from schools that have invested heavily in football that some members have taken their ACC revenue distributions but not plowed that money back into improving their football product.

Last year, ACC leaders approved a series of performance incentives that would push more money to programs that win in football and basketball. That diversion would take money away from the schools that don’t win. The incentive program is carrot and stick all at once, but it can’t force, say, Boston College to spend the way Clemson does or to make an outsize investment like Wake Forest has in recent years. 

A deeper league theoretically would lead to more at-large berths. In the 10-season history of the CFP selection committee, the ACC would have placed more than one team in a 12-team bracket (using this season’s selection procedures) only four times. One of those years was 2020, when Notre Dame — which is independent in football — played as an ACC member. The other three came in the second, third and fourth years of the CFP. In five of the past six seasons, the ACC would have had only one team in the tournament.

That’s especially destructive now that the CFP revenue distribution has been made more lopsided in favor of the Big Ten and SEC. The contract contains look-ins that would allow for adjustments if a league is placing multiple teams in the tournament regularly, but making more would require the ACC to place more teams in the tournament regularly.

To do that, the ACC would need to get back to years like 2015 and 2016, when the league was deeper than any other time this century. In 2015, Clemson lost to Alabama in the national title game. The North Carolina team Clemson edged in the ACC title game would have been an at-large. So would a Florida State team that went 10-2 and finished No. 9. 

In 2016, Clemson won the national title. Florida State went 9-3 and would have been the last at-large. Louisville, powered by Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, would have just missed the bracket. (And probably would have been ranked high enough to be included if not for a late-season non-conference loss at Houston). 

But since then, only the year in which the ACC added Notre Dame so the Fighting Irish could play the pandemic-shortened season would have included more than one ACC team in the CFP. Florida State certainly did its part in 2023, but the rest of the league wasn’t helpful. Seminoles fans point to their team’s regular-season bookend wins against LSU and Florida as evidence that their team would have fared fine against the SEC, but a loss such as ACC runner-up Louisville’s 38-31 defeat against Kentucky would have killed the Cardinals’ quest for an at-large bid.

That is the challenge for the teams of the ACC this season. Florida State has reloaded. Coach Dabo Swinney says to buy Clemson stock. Miami has a roster that should be capable of double-digit wins. N.C. State feels as if it’s knocking on the door of a 10-win season. Coach Jeff Brohm hopes to be even better in year two after taking Louisville to the ACC title game in his first year.

But as the coaches pointed out within their meeting room Tuesday, everyone needs to be better. Clawson’s Wake Forest needs to get back to winning. Syracuse’s Fran Brown needs to turn a roster improvement into a record improvement. When the opportunities to show off against non-ACC teams come — Clemson-Georgia in week one, N.C. State-Tennessee in week two, Florida State-Notre Dame in week 11 — the ACC team needs to win those games.

A marketing campaign can only do so much. Those sorts of wins might help change minds, though. 

And they might keep the ACC champ — which definitely will make the CFP this year — from feeling lonely in the bracket.