New ACC schedule eases Cards' path to league title game

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- First, Louisville's football coaching staff should pop the cork on a bottle of champagne. Then the coaches should immediately send a thank you note to the Atlantic Coast Conference officials. A basket of fruit would be nice too.


With Wednesday's announcement by the ACC of a new schedule for the 2020 football season, the Cardinals have several reasons to be grateful to the league and more optimistic about their chances of advancing to their first conference championship game.


Foremost, the ACC eliminated UofL's biggest hurdle -- a Sept. 12 trip to Clemson, a heavy favorite to win the Atlantic Division title again and one of the teams expected to be in the hunt for a BCS playoff spot. The Cards were already considered a darkhorse contender in the Atlantic and were picked no worse than third -- behind the Tigers and Florida State -- in most preseason magazines. Canceling Clemson wipes out what was virtually a sure loss.


And the ACC's magnanimity toward UofL didn't end with the banishment of the Tigers. The Cards also got a couple other schedule breaks. They don't have to face the solid Coastal Division favorite, North Carolina, either. And of the four conference divisional teams that figure to be their toughest assignments, they get three of them in Cardinal Stadium -- Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech. The fourth, Pittsburgh, is a road trip.


The ACC's new pandemic-induced format eliminates its traditional division setup, calls for each team to play 10 league games plus one non-conference contest and incorporates Notre Dame, which is giving up its independent status for one year and will be eligible to qualify for the ACC championship game in Charlotte, N.C., on either Dec. 12 or 19 at Bank of America Stadium. The title game will feature the top two teams based upon highest winning percentage in conference games.


(The Cards will travel to Notre Dame, just as they were scheduled to do anyway, but maybe not on the same date, Nov. 21).


 The 11 games will be played over at least 13 weeks, giving each team two bye weeks. Opening games will be played the week of Sept. 7-12.


"It feels like this moves us more into a known environment vs. an unknown environment," UofL Athletics Director Vince Tyra said during a media teleconference Thursday. "We were probably naive to believe that the schedules we had laid out for the fall could be executed as planned with the virus overshadowing those competitions with teams across the country. Obviously, football is an animal in itself on how to manage the health and safety as much as the schedule, and now we have something to move forward with."


Here is how Louisville's new schedule breaks down, with dates and times still to be determined:


Home: Florida State, Miami, Syracuse, Virginia, Wake Forest.


Away: Boston College, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Virginia.


Louisville was originally supposed to open its season on Sept. 2 at home against NC State, which has disappeared from the schedule.


UofL head coach Scott Satterfield, whose team will begin preseason practice next Tuesday as planned, wasn't made available to the media Thursday, but issued this statement:


"I'm thrilled with the positive news coming from the Atlantic Coast Conference about moving forward with a new scheduling model for the 2020 season. The proposed home and away schedule is extremely challenging, but very exciting at the same time. We now have a clear direction about the upcoming football season, and our program is just looking forward to beginning those preparations next week."


While UofL and other ACC teams have some answers now that a scheduling model has been approved, questions still remain, the two biggest of which revolve around the fate of the annual Governor's Cup showdown against Kentucky and how many fans will be allowed to attend games.


Whether the UofL-UK game is played -- it was originally scheduled for Nov. 28 in Cardinal Stadium -- depends in large part on what scheduling model the SEC adopts. If it follows the ACC's lead and allows for one non-conference game, that would leave room for the rivalry, which has been played since 1994. Satterfield has said he wants to play the game. There has been no comment from UK coach Mark Stoops or AD Mitch Barnhart.


The SEC has some incentive to go the one non-conference game route since the original 2020 schedules also included ACC-SEC games between Georgia Tech and Georgia, Florida State-Florida and Clemson-South Carolina.


Besides UK, UofL's other non-conference games were to be against Murray State, Western Kentucky and Notre Dame, while the Wildcats were set to play Eastern Michigan, Kent State and Eastern Illinois.


"The SEC may dictate whether we get to play Kentucky or not," Tyra said. "But if not, if (Murray and WKU) can fit us into their schedule and fit the medical guidelines, they're candidates to be played. If they can't, then we'll look for another school to fill that role."


As for the fan parameters, Tyra said he hopes to have an answer in about two weeks. He noted that the Louisville City FC pro soccer team is allowed under state guidelines to have the stadium 50 percent full, but has used only 30 percent of capacity. Tyra said his department is working on multiple scenarios for attendance.


Tyra said he has been pleased with how UofL has handled the coronavirus so far. He said the school has administered approximately 700 tests, with 13 student athletes and three staff members testing positive and none became seriously ill. Two sports, men's basketball and swimming, were paused for two weeks due to athletes' positive tests


"We hope to enjoy the same success the next four months that we've had in the last four months in terms of what we've developed and what we've adhered to," Tyra said.

Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at 0926.russ.brown@gmail.com.

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