Does Paul Johnson’s complaint have merit?

September 10, 2016 Atlanta - Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets head coach Paul Johnson watches their practice before their season home opener against the Mercer on Saturday, September 10, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

September 10, 2016 Atlanta – Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets head coach Paul Johnson watches their practice before their season home opener against the Mercer on Saturday, September 10, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Paul Johnson, as you may have read, was not happy with the ACC schedule released on Tuesday, particularly that Georgia Tech will play three games against teams coming off of an open date while six teams won’t have any such games.

It will be the second year in a row that the Yellow Jackets will face more teams after their open dates than any team in the league. (They had three in 2016 also.) Other teams have taken their turns with that extra challenge – Virginia Tech and Wake Forest had three each in 2015, Florida State had four in 2014 and Clemson, Duke and FSU all had three in 2013. Consider this, though – since his first season, in 2008, only one team has had at least one game every season in which it faced a team coming off a bye.

Guess who?

As reported Tuesday, Johnson’s assertion is that teams can request to play certain teams after their open dates, and that the league is complying.

“It has to be it,” Johnson said. “It happens every year. It has to be intentional. There’s no other explanation for it.”

The ACC flatly denies that this is happening, that teams cannot make such requests in their scheduling. I’m not sure I’m ready to co-sign on Johnson’s allegation, though I understand why he’s convinced. But I do think the league would do well to be more mindful of such inequities, because I don’t get the impression that it is. I think part of the reason is that, as I understand it, who plays whom after an open date is not a scheduling principle.
That is to say, the models view teams that played the previous Saturday and teams that had the week off the same. There is a principle that ensures that a team playing a Thursday night game won’t play a team coming off an open date, but I believe that’s as far as it goes. As such, the computer models that assemble the schedule do not try to prevent or limit teams from playing multiple opponents after open dates.

That seems problematic to me. I recognize that assembling a schedule for 14 teams that also incorporates five games with Notre Dame, the desires of ESPN, exposure for the league, requests from teams, non-conference games and presumably other factors is not easy. But if competitive equity is a goal – it was the first stated objective in the statement given to me last fall – then being wary of open dates and in particular unequal rest ought to be a principle.

In 2016, in ACC games where one team was coming off an open date and the other was not, the team with the extra rest was 5-4. In 2015, they were 5-2. In 2014, they were 10-4. Those who would claim it’s not a factor will be happy to latch on to 2013, when teams with extra rest were 6-11.

I’d note that Florida State was the team with less rest three of those times, and the Seminoles, on their way to the national championship, were probably not going to lose to Boston College (7-6), N.C State (3-9) or Syracuse (7-6) if you’d given those teams a month of rest. Florida State did get extra rest before going to Clemson and destroying the Tigers 51-14.

Also that season, two other teams that won with less rest were Clemson (which finished 11-2) against Syracuse and Miami against Virginia (2-10).

And even if the numbers didn’t bear it out, the idea that a team with an extra week to rest and prepare for an opponent has an advantage just seems incontrovertible on its face. If it wasn’t an advantage, that would mean you could take a survey of coaches and ask them which situation would they rather be in – playing after an open date against a team that played the previous Saturday, or the opposite – and the results would be 50/50. I don’t think an actual survey is necessary to know the answer.

Further, given that the league doesn’t factor extra rest into the model, it most likely isn’t wary of such patterns over time. The fact that North Carolina has played Tech five times in Johnson’s nine years with extra rest while the favor has never been returned is, at the very least, an anomaly.

So is the fact that the last time that Boston College played a team coming off an open date was 2011 (and the Eagles won’t do so again this fall). Louisville has had one such game (including 2017) since joining the league in 2014. Of the 25 games in 2016 and 2017 in which teams face opponents coming off open dates (some of which are games in which both teams are in that situation), Tech has six, almost a quarter.

I suspect this is a rabbit hole that the ACC doesn’t particularly want to dive into. Adding a safeguard to ensure that teams don’t play opponents with extra rest – or even just ensuring that teams are evenly saddled with that burden – might be more complexity than the conference wants to take on. And if Johnson wants the conference to spread out post-open date games, perhaps other coaches will have their own competitive equity complaints that they want addressed.

That said, it’s difficult for me to accept that extra rest isn’t a competitive equity matter. The first step, if it hasn’t been taken already, might be the league’s athletic directors and coaches lobbying or taking a vote to make it part of the model.

I know someone who might be willing to speak on it.


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