May 15, 2013
Bold non-conference schedules will serve Virginia Tech, Virginia and the ACC well as college football drives toward the playoff era. The challenge is in balancing that ambition with business and competitive concerns.
Strength-of-schedule has long been a key component for the NCAA basketball tournament selection committee. With major college football's playoff set to debut in January 2015, and with a to-be-determined panel charged with choosing the four teams, scheduling will become crucial.
And while Virginia Tech and Virginia might not yet be poised to make the tournament, their schedules could well affect how playoff contenders from the ACC are viewed.
"It increases our national brand and (complements) what the ACC is trying to do," Mike London, the Cavaliers fourth-year coach, said Tuesday from the conference's annual spring meetings in Florida.
Virginia is 16-21 under London, and this season the Cavaliers begin a six-year stretch that includes home-and-home series with Brigham Young, Oregon, UCLA, Stanford and Boise State. Moreover, those dates overlap, creating particularly difficult schedules in 2013 (BYU and Oregon at home) and '15 (Boise State and ACC football partner Notre Dame at home, plus a roadie at UCLA).
The latter season approaches Virginia's most glamorous non-conference schedule of the past 30 years, 1995, when the Cavaliers played Michigan, Texas and Virginia Tech, all nationally ranked at kickoff and only the Hokies at home.
But those were halcyon days, with Virginia winning at least seven games for 13 straight seasons under George Welsh. Pragmatists, including me, question the timing of these games.
"Sometimes it's just being downright competitive," London said. "Some people are saying, 'Why?' I'm saying, 'Why not?'"
London believes the trips could expand the program's recruiting footprint — he said prospects from California called recently — but absent considerable free time and a NASCAR-caliber RV, driving to non-conference road games will be untenable for Virginia fans.
The series are a product of executive associate athletic director Jon Oliver's western ties — he worked in the Pacific 12 at Washington State and earned his undergraduate degree at Boise State. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech announced last week a home-and-home against Michigan for 2020 and '21, continuing athletic director Jim Weaver's Big Ten outreach.
The Hokies have never played a Big Ten opponent during the regular season, but in addition to the Wolverines, Tech has series contracted with Ohio State (2014 and '15) and Wisconsin (2016 and '17).
Weaver said his ideal non-conference schedule includes a marquee game such as Michigan and the 2013 opener versus Alabama in Atlanta, an accessible regional matchup such as East Carolina and a Championship Subdivision team like William and Mary.
That leaves a fourth slot, to be filled once every three years, on average, by Notre Dame — the Fighting Irish play five ACC opponents annually. In seasons Tech does not draw Notre Dame, Weaver must find another Bowl Subdivision opponent — Conference USA-bound Old Dominion fits the bill from 2017-19.
Weaver remains "very disappointed" that the ACC reversed a plan to expand the league schedule from eight to nine games.
"It's just hard as heck to get people to come play you," he said. "It costs money, and I think it serves you better to play an extra conference game."
Indeed, a one-time visit from a FCS school can cost $250,000, a similar arrangement with a FBS program three times as much.
But the worst consequence of an eight-game ACC schedule is facing teams from the opposite division, the permanent crossover partner excepted, only twice every 12 years. So a player at Virginia or Virginia Tech might never compete against Florida State or Clemson.
An extra conference game would double that ratio to twice every six years.
The ACC approved nine games when it added Syracuse and Pittsburgh, bringing membership to 14. But the Notre Dame partnership left too little flexibility for some tastes, particularly Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech, which have annual state rivals from the Southeastern Conference.
With yearly games set through 2020, East Carolina has become Virginia Tech's most common outside opponent, and with good reason. The Pirates are not top-25 staples, but they are a quality program, and the games in Greenville, N.C., are an easy drive (less than two hours) for the considerable Hokies fan base in Hampton Roads.
A 2018 date at ODU is even more convenient for area Tech faithful, and even some of the Big Ten junkets are doable from the Roanoke area. Ohio State is a reasonable six-hour drive from the New River Valley, Michigan a distant 10, Wisconsin a no-thanks 14.
Virginia Tech and Virginia are not the only ACC programs elevating their schedules. For example, Florida State plays Oklahoma State in Arlington, Texas, in 2014, plus Notre Dame and Florida at home.
But the Seminoles remain nationally prominent with 31 consecutive bowl appearances. The Hokies' streak is at 20.
The question is, will the Cavaliers' future schedules help or hinder their rebuilding project?
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