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October 7, 2012

Scheduling notes: ACC, Notre Dame, and more

The news that Notre Dame would play five football games against ACC opponents per year was inevitably going to affect the scheduling practices for teams in the conference, and last week the league announced what that impact would be.

With Notre Dame locked in to face a rotating slate of ACC teams over a four-year cycle beginning in 2014, the conference decided that it would institute an eight-game league schedule. With the additions of Pitt and Syracuse, which brought the league to 14 teams, the ACC planned to play a nine-game conference schedule each year.

According to Pitt Athletic Director Steve Pederson, the change had to be made for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was a competitive balance with the national approach to scheduling.

"Everybody was pretty much set on the nine games as we started out, but then the Notre Dame dynamic really changed things," Pederson said Friday night prior to Pitt's game at Syracuse. "And it changed things in this way: now we're going to be cycling through, and everybody will have Notre Dame at least four times in the next 14-year period. That means, particularly for people how have a consistent opponent, let's just say Clemson playing South Carolina, 11 of your 12 games would be major BCS kinds of games. That's not typical of what the SEC is doing, that's not typical of what the Big Ten is doing, so it seemed like it made more sense to adjust the schedule and go back to eight."

With a nine-game conference schedule, Pitt planned to structure its non-conference slate of games with one BCS-level opponent, one FBS team from outside the current BCS conferences, and one FCS team. Given the option, Pitt probably would have preferred to maintain that schedule approach, rather than revert to the eight-and-four slate that will be the norm in the ACC.

Now that there is an extra non-conference game, Pederson said that he will endeavor to add another quality opponent to the schedule. Penn State is Pitt's highest priority, and the Nittany Lions and Panthers are currently locked in to face each other in 2016 and 2017. But Pederson would like to extend that series long-term and add another BCS-level opponent to complement an annual game against Penn State.

"Obviously we're excited about the Penn State games that are coming up; I hope we can continue to increase those. And it will give us an opportunity to play some other games. We like playing Big Ten teams, if we can do it. I think it will give us some other options to look at playing maybe two of the non-conference games against BCS kind of opponents."

Changing the conference schedule

The change from a nine-game schedule to an eight-game slate also affects the conference scheduling. With a nine-game schedule, the ACC planned to have every team face the other six teams in its division, one primary crossover opponent from the other division, and a rotation of two teams from the other division each year. Now, the conference will drop one of the two rotating teams from the other division.

For Pitt, that means the annual conference schedule will feature Coastal Division opponents Virginia Tech, Miami, Georgia Tech, Virginia, North Carolina and Duke; Syracuse, which is Pitt's primary crossover opponent from the Atlantic Division; and one of the remaining Atlantic Division teams (Florida State, Clemson, Boston College, Maryland, North Carolina State, and Wake Forest).

That's something of a disappointment for Pitt, which was hoping to host marquee conference opponents like Florida State and Clemson once in every six-year cycle, as would have been the case with an eight-game schedule. Instead, those teams will come to Heinz Field once in every 12-year cycle.

"Sometimes that's the way it works out," Pederson said. "When you have 14 teams in a league, it's pretty hard to cycle them through. Hopefully there will be opportunities to see each other as often as possible."

One option that was considered was dropping the primary crossover opponent in favor of two rotating teams from the other division. For Pitt, that would mean eliminating Syracuse as an annual opponent and rotating through the Atlantic Division two teams at a time.

"We've had that discussion from time to time, but the problem is, you have some games that [almost] have to be played," Pederson said. "Miami-Florida State, for instance. People have tried to say, let's just eliminate that. But there's some consistency in what you're doing, too."

The West Virginia question

Any time there is a discussion of Pitt's non-conference football schedule, West Virginia is inevitably brought up. In fact, since Pitt's move to the ACC was announced last September, Pederson has been asked about the Mountaineers in every press conference regarding conference affiliation and scheduling. That's understandable, since Pitt and West Virginia have been facing each other in football for more than a century.

But Pederson has been non-committal every time he has been asked about scheduling West Virginia, and it is clear that the Mountaineers are not a priority as Pederson considers non-conference opponents.

"I think that now this maybe gives us some room to have that discussion," he said Friday night. "I mentioned that [West Virginia Athletic Director Oliver Luck] and I had kind of talked about it, but until we had some more definitive planning on our part, it was hard to do that. To some extent it's going to be sorting out when we play Notre Dame, for instance, and how you do this. But I think we're going to find ourselves in good shape."

Pitt's priority in non-conference scheduling is a long-term series with Penn State, and Pederson would prefer to fill the other BCS-level spot with a rotating group of teams rather than one annual opponent.

Notre Dame and Pitt

Pitt has a current agreement with Notre Dame for games through 2016, but that will be reconsidered in light of the Notre Dame-ACC agreement. Notre Dame's obligation is to face five ACC teams per year, meaning each conference team will get at least one game with the Irish every four years.

As such, the agreement will negate Pitt's contract for Notre Dame. Pitt's game against Notre Dame in 2013 won't be affected since the ACC-Notre Dame games don't begin until 2014, and as long as the ACC pairs Notre Dame and Pitt in the first three years of the agreement (2014, 2015, or 2016), Pitt will only have two games to replace. Pederson said he is hopeful the conference will work to accommodate.

"We'll go into the cycle with everybody else," he said. "I think that's part of conference membership. But the conference has been really good about wanting to work with us to make it work the best they can for us. They understand where we are, in terms of the games and so forth. They've already said they'll help us cycle through it in the right way to make the rest of our schedule work out. Because us and [Boston College] had long-term deals with them, and that's why I think they've been great about trying to work through that."

Non-Notre Dame years

In the years when Pitt doesn't have Notre Dame on the schedule, Pederson said Pitt will do what it can schedule two BCS-level opponents.

"That's our plan. It will create that option for us to get…in some cases, it could be that we're looking for two, depending on how this works out. I keep remaining hopeful that we can eventually get to consistency with Penn State. We'll see if that's the case."

Pederson said he did not anticipate scheduling three BCS-level non-conference opponents in any one year.

"I think that's tough. The way we look at this is, we want to do what everybody else is doing. We want to be fair with our coach and our team. If everybody else is playing 12, we'd play 12. But if everybody's not doing that, you have to be realistic about that. And sometimes it's just working out scheduling. Everybody says they want to play, but sometimes when you get down to try to schedule the games, they don't really want to play. We've been through that before. I'm appreciative of Gardner-Webb playing us, because I don't think there's a school in Division I that we didn't call."

Next year

For 2013, Pitt currently has three non-conference games lined up. The Panthers will host Notre Dame and Villanova and travel to face Navy.

Competitive scheduling

Pederson is correct that the current trend in college football is to not overload the non-conference schedule, but that trend may be changing. Ohio State and TCU announced this week a home-and-home series beginning in 2018, and Buckeyes athletic director Gene Smith told Yahoo! Sports that he intended to keep working to find BCS-level opponents.

The thinking behind that change in approach is that the new playoff format that will begin in 2014. The four teams that make the playoffs will be determined by a selection committee, which should place a new premium on strength of schedule.

Pederson anticipates that the shift in scheduling philosophy becoming more and more prevalent as the strength-of-schedule implications become more apparent.

"Some of this is going to be a work-in-progress as people look at it and say, maybe we need to schedule this game because you don't want to get to the end of the year and have enough wins but not get there because of strength of schedule or something like that. And I think strength of schedule is going to be a component, a big component, in all of this. So you're going to have to be smart in how you schedule, too. I don't think just wins are going to be good enough. I think you're going to have to have quality wins."

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