Dear Andy: Is Clemson, Florida State (others?) set up to run ACC without divisions?

The ACC is heading for a great change without divisions. Wisconsin is heading for a big change with their new offense. You had questions about this and more.

Note: The submitted questions have been slightly edited for length and clarity.

Will eliminating the Atlantic and Coastal divisions within the ACC increase the likelihood of a new champion, or will traditional powerhouses like Clemson and Florida State continue to rise to the top? -Malory

Eliminating divisions will increase the likelihood of more than one ACC team making it into the college football playoffs when it expands in 2024. That’s why almost every conference is eliminating divisions, but the ACC has been so lopsided that it looks like the impact will be even greater there. Clemson was clearly the best team in the conference, but Florida State is on the rise. Wake Forest has always been good. And after finally bringing in Jeff Brohm, Louisville could be on the verge of returning to the conference high crust.

And now all of these programs have a real shot at the title. That hasn’t been the case since the conference split into divisions in 2005. They all played in the Atlantic, so only one of them could have qualified for the conference title.

Let’s look back to 2016, which could be the strongest year the ACC has had since its expansion. Clemson ended up winning the national title, but Florida State was a 10-win team and Louisville was capable of beating just about anyone on the right day during Lamar Jackson’s Heisman Trophy season.

Coastal Division champion Virginia Tech lost by seven to Atlantic Division champion Clemson in the ACC title game, but the Hokies might have been the league’s fourth-best team that year. Louisville’s only conference loss was a 42-36 loss at Clemson. Losses to Houston and Kentucky would have hampered a possible CFP run that year, but in a 12-team format, Louisville might have moved up a berth by winning the conference title.

Under the old format, Florida State’s visit this year to Clemson on Sept. 23 could have been a playoff game in terms of the conference title. Maybe Florida State could still make CFP a non-divisional champion by beating LSU in the season opener and winning everything else except the Clemson game, but now the Seminoles or the Tigers know that losing that game will not eliminate them from the ACC title. race. Chances are if these teams are as good as we think they will be playing again on December 2 in Charlotte.

It’s probably Clemson and Florida State this year, but it could be Louisville and one of those teams in 2025. Or maybe Wake Forest go on to win and crack the title game. That doesn’t mean North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Miami don’t stand a chance. It just means that former non-Clemson Atlantic Division teams aren’t stuck if the hiring of Garrett Riley as offensive coordinator makes the Tigers national title contenders again.

Georgia’s rise has meant that the SEC’s top two teams will usually play in the title game again, but this league will also have no splits in 2024. Its top two will play in the game for the title, and we won’t have to rack our brains around Missouri in the Eastern Division.

The Big Ten will likely see a similar shift to the ACC when they drop Divisions in 2024. The East has been so dominant that it typically produces the top two teams. Is it possible the league will return to Michigan-Ohio State a week later? Of course. But Penn State could end up in one of those places. So could USC.

What will be interesting to watch is how former Big Ten West teams handle the change. Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota are built to conquer the West. We’ll see exactly what coach Matt Rhule has planned for Nebraska when the Cornhuskers start play, but appearances in the Big Ten title game are the least of Rhule’s concerns right now. Nebraska must first be good enough to bowl.

The most interesting situation is in Wisconsin, where new coach Luke Fickell’s hiring of Phil Longo as offensive coordinator suggests the Badgers are worried about competing for the Big Ten title and not the Big Ten West title. Read on to learn more about Fickell and Longo.

Phil Longo was hired as Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator after four seasons in North Carolina. (Mark Hoffman/USA Today)

What impact do you think a successful Wisconsin happy passing would have on the rest of the B1G West teams? Would that potentially change the way they work their offenses, or Illinois, Iowa, etc. would they just stick to the race? -Sat

Sam’s question is emblematic of many fans’ thoughts now. They did not prepare for a world without division. There won’t be a Big Ten West after this season, so Wisconsin wouldn’t be the agent of change that could get Iowa, Minnesota or Illinois to alter their preferred offensive scheme. The configuration of the conference would prompt this change.

I don’t know if that will change anything. Running the ball and playing great defense might still be the best way for these teams to win consistently, even in the new world. Will they compete for the Big Ten title or CFP spots every year? No. But when they’re at their best, they could make the conference or CFP title game. The Big Ten should frequently put three teams in the CFP, and a fourth will be possible in a few years.

Wisconsin is clearly trying to move into the Michigan-Ohio State-Penn State group, and the fact that Fickell took the job suggests the Badgers may have an infrastructure in place to do so. Fickell was extremely difficult to leave Cincinnati. He wasn’t going to accept just any job. He looked at Wisconsin’s level of commitment and its name, image and likeness plans and decided it was a place where he might be able to build a program that can rival this trio every year.

Hiring Longo means the offense will change, but don’t assume that means the Badgers will throw the ball 75% of the time. When Mack Brown hired Longo to lead North Carolina’s offense, he did so because Longo had Air Raid roots mixed with a will to run. Longo was working for Matt Luke at Ole Miss at the time, and Brown knew former (and future) offensive line coach Luke wanted to run the ball.

Longo’s best offense in North Carolina was the 2020 group. That unit had Sam Howell at quarterback and Michael Carter and Javonte Williams in the backfield. The Tar Heels averaged 7.6 yards per play while running the ball 58% of the time. Longo once told me that he got his call-to-play philosophy from Bruce Lee, who said, “Be water.” In other words, find the path of least resistance and flow into it.

If the teams stack the box against Longo, he will pitch. But if his team moves the ball on the ground, he will run until the opponent can stop him. In 2020, that led North Carolina to average 9.3 yards on 43 carries in a 56-45 win over Virginia Tech and 10.1 yards on 55 carries in a 62-26 annihilation of Miami.

Make no mistake, Wisconsin still plans to kick the ball. In fact, don’t be surprised if this remains the Badgers’ offensive calling card.

Once the 12-team playoffs begin, do you think a “Gonzaga” will emerge at some point from a small conference? Obviously there’s still a big financial difference between major conferences and minor conferences, but now that there’s a path to the championship for every program, can a current group of 5 program gain enough steam to recruiting nationally from the top 25 and being a borderline powerhouse most years? Or is the financial difference still too great? — Jared

that’s a great question. Conference changes might leave programs like Oregon with an easier path to CFP, but what about schools in the leagues we used to call the Group of 5 (but don’t do it more because there is a Power 2 and eight other FBS leagues)?

Boise State would have been the obvious choice 10 years ago, and I’m not sure Boise State isn’t the best option now. The quality of Mountain West is not going to change drastically, and Boise State still cares deeply about quality. San Diego State, a recent frequent competitor to Mountain West, may be leaving soon. That leaves a lot of lead for the Broncos.

The Sun Belt will likely be the deepest of these leagues thanks to an inspired recent expansion that has seen the league target schools that care deeply about football. But this depth could be an obstacle to the development of the CFP. Going through a gauntlet that could include Louisiana, Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, James Madison and Troy could make it difficult for a team to have the record it would take to be one of the best six conference champions classified.

Tulane, SMU and Memphis, playing in a weakened American, might have an easier path to an undefeated season or a loss. So if I had to guess, I’d say Gonzaga football would be Boise State or one of that trio.

A random ranking

Reader Tom would like me to classify hot dog toppings. So drop a franc in a bun, and remember, they shouldn’t all go on the same hot dog.

1. Mustard

2. Chilli

3. Planter

4. Bacon (just wrap it)

5. Jalapenos

6. Dill relish (never bread and butter)

7. Guacamole

8. Ketchup (yes, it’s okay)

9. Mac and Cheese

10. Pesto

(Photo: Chris Leduc/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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