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A football game that should never have been played — but it’s great that it is

Mack Brown following the win over Miami: ‘We kept our composure’

North Carolina coach Mack Brown breaks down the Tar Heels' victory over Miami
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North Carolina coach Mack Brown breaks down the Tar Heels' victory over Miami

This is a game that never should have been scheduled and never should be played, but it’s a great thing that it was and will be.

All credit goes to North Carolina and Wake Forest for finding a bypass around the ACC’s ridiculous football scheduling and agreeing to play each other out of conference Friday night in Winston-Salem, but it never should have come to this.

As for it being on a Friday night? That shouldn’t happen either, but get used to it. And more of it.

This nonconference game between two teams that have been a part of the same conference since 1953 more than anything represents the new landscape of the ACC. This isn’t how they drew it up at Sedgefield way back when.

The ACC’s refusal to examine other football scheduling formats — and this isn’t on the league office in Greensboro, but the league collectively, all of its schools together — has led to Friday’s travesty, an ACC game in everything but name, one that will mean more to both teams than a good chunk of their official conference games but counts for nothing as far as the ACC is concerned.

This is the same schedule format — one annual rivalry opponent and one random other from the opposite division — that will see N.C. State and Duke, separated by 22 miles, both charter ACC members, go six seasons without playing. The two schools talked about doing what North Carolina and Wake Forest have done, but were never able to make the dates work. It shouldn’t be on them to schedule each other anyway. That’s the point of being in the same conference.

The league has voted down adding a ninth conference game while refusing to abandon the divisions or explore more innovative scheduling models, both alternatives complicated by Notre Dame’s half-pregnant football arrangement with the ACC. That leaves us with the current unsatisfying system and schools that can go the length of a player’s career — even the length of a coach’s tenure — without playing.

Basketball was headed the same way during one round of ACC expansion. At one point, in the initial 14-team schedule, the ACC announced N.C. State and North Carolina would play only once a season, if such a thing can even be imagined now. Sanity quickly prevailed by the addition of a second permanent partner in the process. That was, long before the conference decided to go from 18 to 20 league games starting this season.

This newest and biggest basketball schedule, which is scheduled to be released Thursday night, will have all the right rivalry games, but it figures to echo one aspect of this football game. North Carolina and Wake Forest are filling the Friday night ESPN college football time slot, one the ACC avoided for many years. If that feels odd, there are going to be a lot of slots at odder times and days to fill on the ACC Network during basketball season.

This game being played on a Friday is a product of TV calling the shots, in a way that we just take for granted these days. Originally scheduled for Saturday, it was first moved to Thursday for TV and then to Friday to avoid a short week after Wake’s game last week at Rice was moved to Friday, again for TV. So Friday it is. For the Demon Deacons, it’s their third consecutive Friday game to open the season.

From a pure football perspective, it makes almost no sense — the lone benefit the recruiting exposure of being a national broadcast in an exclusive window — because it puts the college game in direct competition with high school football. College coaches would rather play an important game like this on a day or night when they can host recruits and still have a chance to go watch potential recruits on a Friday night, not to mention the attention drawn away from Friday’s high school games in the region when two in-state teams are on TV.

No one wants this, but everyone accepts it.

It’s great that North Carolina and Wake Forest found a way to play. (The return game in Chapel Hill is in 2021; they will play an actual ACC game at Wake Forest in 2022.) The circumstances that forced them to take this circuitous route to get there aren’t going to change anytime soon.

UNC at Wake Forest

When: 6 p.m., Friday

Where: BB&T Field, Winston-Salem

Watch: ESPN

Listen: WTKK-106.1 Raleigh; WCHL-97.9, WCHL-1360 Chapel Hill; WBT-99.3, WBT-1110 Charlotte

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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