YOU MIGHT WONDER why Clemson would open its season in Atlanta on Saturday against such a formidable opponent as Auburn. It has much to do with the Atlantic Coast Conference attempting to gain a higher profile in the college football arena.
Any venture like this brings equal amounts reward and risk. The rewards mostly involve Clemson gaining national exposure through a marquee matchup before an ESPN prime-time audience. The risk is a loss that sends the Tigers reeling in what otherwise appears to be a promising season.
For ACC teams these days, the reward far outweighs the risk.
For at least the past decade, the ACC has been fighting a losing battle against college football’s super-power conferences — the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12. Not only has the ACC not produced a national-championship contending team in what seems like eons, but the league also suffers from being forever known as a “basketball league.”
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So, what better way to make a name for itself than to play some of the nation’s higher-profile teams? If the ACC loses these kinds of games, little is lost. If it wins, the league begins to establish itself as more of a football power.
What the Chick-fil-A Bowl essentially has done is expand its brand from the postseason to the early season. The annual postseason bowl game is one of the best and most-respected of its kind. The early season matchup amounts to brilliant marketing.
This year, Chick-fil-A expanded the games to a double-header format. Tennessee of the SEC will play N.C. State of the ACC on Friday night at the Georgia Dome on ESPN. Then Clemson and Auburn will take the same stage on Saturday.
You might ask if the SEC is attempting to extend its reputation by playing in these games as well. But that is not entirely true, at least not to the extent that the ACC is reaching out for more exposure.
Understand that when college football expanded its schedule to 12 regular-season games beginning in 2002, the programs from the super-power conferences quickly adopted an unwritten policy for lining up non-conference games.
Most SEC teams went immediately to playing one non-conference game against a Football Championship Subdivison opponent. In USC’s case, it alternates playing games from year-to-year against instate opponents Wofford, Furman, The Citadel and S.C. State. This season, USC plays Wofford.
SEC teams also schedule two non-conference games against lightweight opponents from the less-potent Football Bowl Subdivision leagues. This season, USC plays East Carolina and UAB. Finally, SEC teams line up one non-conference game against a formidable opponent, or rival. USC concludes every regular season against Clemson.
This season, for instance, SEC teams have games scheduled against the likes of Michigan, Rutgers, Louisville, Washington, Texas, Arizona State and Northwestern. But seldom does an SEC team schedule more than one of these type of opponents. Mississippi State decided not to schedule a single difficult non-conference opponent this season.
For the past couple of years, the ACC has upped the ante a little in what appears to be a clear case of attempting to gain more national attention and perhaps put the league more on the national football map.
In addition to playing USC, Clemson will play Auburn for a third consecutive season. Boston College of the ACC plays Northwestern and Notre Dame. Georgia Tech plays BYU and Georgia. Miami plays Kansas State and Notre Dame. Virginia plays Penn State and TCU, and Virginia Tech plays Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
When Clemson’s Dabo Swinney was asked Tuesday about scheduling such games, particularly to open the season, he squirmed. He made it clear that he has little or no say in non-conference scheduling. That is left to the athletics director, who no doubt sees benefits both financially and from additional exposure for the program.
“I would say that probably most every coach out there, if they were really honest, that it sure would be nice to have one or two games to kind of feel your way through,” Swinney said of opening against Auburn. “But that’s just not the case. ... I think it’s exciting for college football, but it’s a tough game for everybody involved. It’s a tough one to get ready for. You are playing a very, very talented opponent.”
Swinney was an assistant coach at Clemson in 2008 and saw first-hand how an opening-game loss against a top-level opponent can adversely affect a team’s season. No. 24 Alabama hammered ninth-ranked Clemson 34-10 in Atlanta that year, and the Tigers never recovered. By season’s end, Tommy Bowden was out and Swinney was the interim head coach.
This time, Clemson enters the game ranked 14th nationally. Auburn is unranked. It seems high-risk for the Tigers, once again. But, apparently, the reward for Clemson and for the ACC is worth it.
“I think it’s great exposure,” Swinney said. “It’s an opportunity to put your brand out there on national TV. ... Now, it’s a national stage. It’s a bowl kind of environment. A 50-50 split with tickets. It’s a unique opportunity for our program to be a part of. ... You have a chance to have a national stage. ... It’s really an honor.”
More important, it is a way for the ACC to enhance its reputation in football ... but only if Clemson wins.