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ACC Football Kickoff Preview

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ACC Football Kickoff commences today in Charlotte. Commissioner Jim Phillips will take the stage to high anticipation regarding his speech. He faces pressures, both internal and external. Internally, Phillips must address a staggering revenue deficit. Externally, pressure is growing daily to speak to the hazing scandal swallowing the Northwestern athletic department he oversaw for 13 years.

While Phillips would undoubtedly prefer to highlight the league’s multiple national titles in other sports, what he fails to mention may be a more telling sign of his stance than what he does say.

The league as a football conference peaked in 2016. Since then, the ACC has yet to approach that level of success: a national champion, an Orange Bowl winner, and a Heisman Trophy winner, all from different schools. Is there any reason to expect a bounce back or a return to respectability in 2023? What will life look like for the conference in its first year without Atlantic and Coastal divisions? 

Grilling Jim Phillips 

In a tradition as old and established as any in this league, the Commissioner will take to the stage in Charlotte and not answer a single question about the financial present or future of the conference. As when former Commissioner John Swofford would vaguely attempt to reassure everyone that ESPN would eventually launch the ACC Network, Phillips will no doubt pledge tireless effort and boundless creativity to help the conference expand its revenue pie. What the Commissioner has in soaring rhetoric, he will need more plans and details. That’s how these addresses go at media days.

The desire to explore all options in light of the league’s revenue disparity created the “magnificent seven,” a group of seven schools researching the feasibility of leaving the conference before the Grant of Rights runs out in 2036. Its existence might Will Phillips try to pu,t on a brave face and, like George Kliavkoff last week, tell everyone the league is united?

If Phillips’ answers are terse, wait until you (don’t) hear what he will have to say about the hazing scandal enveloping his athletic legacy at Northwestern. Phillips is now named in at least one lawsuit by a former Northwestern football player. More lawsuits are sure to follow. But lawsuits only guarantee that Phillips will be more tight-lipped about the matter, not less. How long he can avoid answering questions publicly out of fear of commenting on “ongoing legal matters” remains to be seen. The questions about his viability as the conference’s Commissioner will stay until he does. 

Is Anyone Back?

Among the few football-related traditions the ACC possesses is an annual prediction that one of the league’s chronically underachieving programs will finally get its act together.` This year promises to be no different.

After a successful 2022 season and the return of Jordan Travis at quarterback, the buzz around the Seminoles is more palpable than we’ve seen since 2014. Travis is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, and the Seminoles’ schedule is robust enough to make them a playoff contender even with a loss. Like last year, we’ll quickly know what to make of the Seminoles. In September, the ‘Noles open against LSU in Orlando. Three weeks later, they head to Clemson for the league’s game of the year. A 4-0 start will send expectations through the roof.

It’s hard to imagine Mario Cristobal and Miami not being better in year two. Then again, it was hard to imagine a bowl team that returned Tyler Van Dyke at quarterback, going 5-7 and ending the season with three blowout losses in its final four games. Still, there is optimism that coordinator changes on both sides of the ball and Cristobal improving the Hurricanes’ recruiting will catapult the Hurricanes to a better 2023. The ACC sorely needs one of its most identifiable and marketable football brands to finally deliver on that value as a member of the ACC.

In one sense, it’s ridiculous to talk about Clemson needing to get “back.” Consider this an acknowledgment of Clemson’s success that I would even consider saying a team that went 11-3 last year has work to do to be back. Dabo Swinney made a quarterback change to Cade Klubnik mid-season and, in a rare move for Swinney, went outside his staff by bringing in TCU’s Garrett Riley to overhaul a completely stagnant offense. For the first time in years, Clemson might be refreshed by the challenge of seeing someone else getting publicity as the preseason favorite.

Life Without Divisions

You had almost 20 years to learn which teams were in the Atlantic and the Coastal. After 20 years of divisions primarily designed to create an ACC Championship Game rematch that never materialized even once, they are no more. The best thing to emerge from the 2020 COVID season for the ACC was the realization that not burying Louisville, NC State, and the rest of the former Atlantic Division under Florida State and Clemson made the season far more exciting.

Nobody stands to benefit more from the new format in 2023 than Louisville. After annually facing Clemson and Florida State, the Cardinals and new head coach Jeff Brohm drew the league’s friendliest schedule. They’re the only school in the league that doesn’t face any of the three favorites in Clemson, Florida State, and North Carolina. No team can avoid its way to Charlotte, but it doesn’t hurt.

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