As college football camps open, coaches search for normalcy

North Carolina’s four ACC teams are preparing for a season without a concrete schedule and plenty of uncertainty

Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson, pictured in Death Valley in 2017, and the Demon Deacons are the only Tobacco Road team scheduled to play Clemson this season, hosting the Tigers at Truist Field on a date not yet scheduled. (Rainier Ehrhardt / AP Photo)

North Carolina, NC State, Duke and Wake Forest know who they’re going to play in 2020, assuming that they play at all, after the ACC announced their conference opponents last Wednesday as part of a coronavirus-altered “10‑plus-1” football schedule.

The dates on which those games will be played and when the season will actually begin are still up in the air.

It’s a situation like nothing the Tar Heels’ Mack Brown has ever had to deal with before. And he’s seen just about everything there is to be seen in college athletics over his 31-year Hall of Fame coaching career.

Brown insists that he and his staff “are ready for whatever is thrown at us.”

But that doesn’t make the job of getting their team ready any easier now that preseason practice has officially begun at schools all across the state.

“Coaches are creatures of routine, and we don’t know when we’re going to play.” Brown said during a Zoom conference with local media on Friday. “It drives you nuts that you don’t know when your opener is and you don’t know who you’re playing.

“So all we can do is live in the moment, do what we know we can do and, right now, that means get a scouting report for Syracuse and for Florida State and for Notre Dame (and others).”

Although several scheduling models were considered by the ACC’s Board of Directors, including a radical pod system that had teams playing twice each on a home-and-home basis, the league settled on the “10-plus-1” format as the most logical alternative to a normal season.

Each team will now play 10 games against league opponents and one nonconference game as a way of cutting down on travel and expenses caused by the ongoing pandemic.

The most significant aspect of the plan, other than the fact that the ACC’s divisional structure has been scrapped and that three of the four state teams won’t have to play national championship contender Clemson, is that Notre Dame is included. The Irish will play a full league schedule for the first time in their history and be eligible for the ACC championship.

In return, Notre Dame has agreed to share the revenue it generates from its television contract with NBC with the 14 other conference members — a preview, perhaps, of a permanent arrangement somewhere down the road.

“(This) decision was made after months of thoughtful planning by numerous individuals throughout the conference,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said. “The Board’s decision presents a path, if public health guidance allows, to move forward with competition.

“Our institutions are committed to taking the necessary measures to facilitate the return in a safe and responsible manner. We recognize that we may need to be nimble and make adjustments in the future. We will be as prepared as possible should that need arise.”

Already one adjustment must be made.

In a photo provided by the UNC football team, a football helmet with a built-in shield intended to further protect players during the coronavirus pandemic is shown. (Photo courtesy of UNC football)

Because the SEC decided to adopt a conference-only schedule rather than following the ACC’s lead with a model that includes one conference game, traditional cross-conference rivalry games involving Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Louisville must now be replaced. The same is true for other scheduled ACC-SEC matchups, including the planned Kickoff Game between UNC and Auburn and NC State’s home game against Mississippi State.

Although it will now take more work to fill the nonconference slot on each team’s schedule, a source inside the league office said that the ACC has no plans to scrap the “plus one” concept since the extra game will provide valuable programming for the ACC Network.

UNC’s conference schedule consists of games against State, Wake, Notre Dame, Syracuse and Virginia Tech at home, and road games at Duke, Boston College, Florida State, Miami and Virginia.

The Wolfpack will play Duke, Wake, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Miami at home with road trips to UNC, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Virginia and Virginia Tech.

Duke’s schedule features home games against UNC, Wake, BC, Florida State and Virginia Tech, and road games at State, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Syracuse and Virginia.

Wake got the most difficult draw of the local teams with Clemson, Miami, Notre Dame, Virginia and Virgina Tech coming to Winston-Salem, and the Deacons playing at State, Duke, UNC, Louisville and Syracuse.

At this point, coaches and players around the league don’t seem to care who they’re playing, just that they’re able to get back on the field again. Even if it’s just against one another at practice.

“There are a lot of precautions, but it’s more about pulling them back. They’re so excited to be out there,” NC State’s Dave Doeren said Tuesday after his team’s first practice of the summer, adding that “it’s good to be back out on the grass again.

“As far as fall camp goes, this will be the most different fall camp for any coach, I don’t care what level of football you coach. There is no comparison.”