The recent announcement that North Carolina and Wake Forest will play a non-conference home-and-home series in 2019 and 2021 is more than an oddity that calls into question ACC scheduling practices.
It is a step towards the era of a super-division in college football.
Think about it this way, if two power-conference teams from the same league can play each other and call it a “non-conference” game, what’s the use of having an FBS with 10 leagues?
Since it’s a sure thing that teams from the American, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt won’t ever play in the CFB Playoff, the real upside of retaining a tie with the Power-Fives is to create non-league scheduling opportunities.
But, if Power-Five programs can fill their non-league schedules with teams from their own conference, why continue pretending like the FBS is 128 teams all playing for the same prize?
Is it any coincidence that the first-ever, Power-Five non-conference game between two teams from the same league is slated between North Carolina—a team that has been to a bowl game five of the last six years—and Wake Forest, a program that has been to one postseason game in the same time frame?
Sure, the Tar Heels and Demon Deacons have been playing each other since 1888, and met almost consecutively until 2007, but is this really about protecting a rivalry?
While they are long-time, in-state opponents, the upside for North Carolina is its 68-35-2 all-time advantage over Wake.
It’s like allowing USC to schedule Washington State as a non-Pac-12 game. The Trojans have beaten the Cougars nine of the last ten times and are 58-9-4 all-time vs. Washington State.
On the flip side, would Florida State schedule Virginia Tech as a non-ACC opponent? Or would Nebraska ring up Michigan State for a non-Big Ten date?
What will likely precede a super-division is the era of the super-conference, when the five present Power-Fives meld into four bigger conferences with multiple divisions.
This may start with the Big 12, the now validated fifth wheel in a four-team Playoff bracket, being sold off, piece-by-piece, to the highest bidder from the four remaining power conferences.
Again, the concept of a super-conference is easier to sell if members can play each other and call it a “non-conference” game. This will be especially true at the beginning, when teams need to fulfill the quota of one Power-Five, non-conference game each season.
If there are only three other power conferences, the pickings get quite slim, and programs like Kansas, Indiana and Kentucky will have their dance cards filled out for years to come.
So, why not call up one of the weaker links in your own conference, especially one from another division that is rarely played because of the scheduling challenges inherent to a league with 16-plus members?
Regardless of how ridiculous it sounds, it would be counted as a Power-Five, non-conference game.
It’s why the North Carolina-Wake Forest non-ACC is game is so important: It sets the precedent for the technique and it validates the practice.
Eventually the era of the super-conference, along with the growing call for paying the full cost of attendance, will highlight the dividing line between the haves and the have-nots in the FBS. Not only are the 128 teams not playing for the same championship, they can’t afford to play by the same rules.
This leads to the split of the FBS: The super conferences break away and form Division IV and what’s left of the American, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt stay in the new-look Division I-A (FBS) and begin playing for their own true title.
The new world of Division IV includes a scheduling requirement that dictates that each team can play only one non-conference game (that counts) against a lower-level program. This gets filled by a Division I-A (new-look FBS) team and means the end of the Power-Five-FCS matchups.
Again, the result is the same: The remainder of the non-league slate (which has been slashed by cutting league membership in half) has to be filled with something.
And since UNC-Wake Forest established the practice of scheduling fellow-league members as non-conference opponents—Voilà! It’s done, just fill the open slots with teams from your own conference.
Though the Tar Heels-Demon Deacons, non-ACC series may not do anything more than raise a few eye brows in 2015, by 2025 it may have been a significant underlying factor in the new-look of major college football.