When is a conference game not a conference game?

It’s a question that’s bound to be asked a lot moving forward in a post-expansion world in which traditional ACC rivals within a bus ride of each other are scheduled to play teams from California more frequently than each other.

North Carolina and Wake Forest gave us a glimpse of that reality in 2019 and 2021 when they became the first ACC schools to play a home-and-home football series outside of the league schedule.

Now NC State and Virginia are getting into the act.

The Wolfpack and Cavaliers have played 60 times since their inaugural meeting in 1904, including last season. But they aren’t set to play again until 2027 because of a scheduling model made necessary by the ACC’s newly expanded 17-team membership.

Instead of waiting that long, the schools decided to go play anyway. They mutually announced on Wednesday that they’ll meet in Raleigh on Sept. 6, 2025 and Charlottesville on a yet-to-be-determined date the following year.

“It’s a great rivalry,” UVa athletic director Carla Williams told David Teel of the Richmond Times-Dispacth. “We want to play ACC games whenever we can.”

The games will look and feel like traditional ACC games. Only they won’t be ACC games.

At least in the league standings.

Welcome to the new reality of college sports. One in which money, greed and ESPN hold more significance than common sense or tradition.

Let alone the sanctity of contracts.

While UVa had open dates to fill in each of the 2 years involved, NC State already had 4 nonconference scheduled, including a Sept. 6 date at Appalachian State. That means it will have to buy its way out of at least 1 game each year.

So why do it?

Here’s what Wake Forest Dave Clawson had to say when asked the same question about his team’s nonconference series with UNC:

“I think some people are criticizing us for playing this game. But we don’t care,” he said. “This is a game that we want, our fans want, our alumni want, their fans, their alumni. Games like this are good for college football.”

That’s why it would be a mistake to dismiss nonconference conference series’ such as Wake-UNC and State-UVa as one-offs.

They’re a sign of the times others will almost certainly copy. And it might only be the tip of the iceberg.

The more schools that follow the lead of the Wolfpack and Cavaliers, the more likely the inevitably that the ACC finally gives in and expands its conference schedule to 9 games.

Doing so would provide the ACC Network with added inventory and presumably, more revenue. It would also make it easier for league teams to adhere to commissioner Jim Phillips’ edict against playing road games against non-power conference opponents while allowing teams to cut down on travel expenses by playing rivals in closer proximity than Cal, Stanford and SMU.

Of course, all this is contingent on the ACC still being around beyond the next year or 2.

As hopeful as Phillips was in his closing remarks at the league meetings on Wednesday, the league’s long-term future is anything but guaranteed. It could ultimately be determined by the outcome of ongoing lawsuits filed in Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Regardless of how those cases turn out or even if any ever see the inside of a courtroom, a proliferation of nonconference games between members of the same league could turn out to be another step in the direction of a super conference model for college football.

The journey has already begun with the demise of the Pac-12, the introduction of expanded Playoff and an impending antitrust settlement could lead to revenue sharing with the “student-athletes.”

With the lines that once delineated the power conferences having been blurred beyond recognition after the latest round of realignment, it seems only a matter of time before the SEC and Big Ten finish the job by gobbling up everything left in their sights. Or more likely, the 40-64 most marketable programs breaking off from the NCAA and starting an NFL-style entity of their own.

If conference teams start playing games against conference rivals that don’t count in the conference standings, there’s really no point in having conferences anymore.

Is there?

One super league divided into 2 conferences with geographically sensible divisions and a defined playoff bracket would help preserve or restore at least some traditional rivalries. It would eliminate the revenue disparity that has sent Florida State and Clemson scurrying for legal representation. And it would end the madness of further realignment.

Those left out in the cold might not like such an arrangement. But you can’t always make everybody happy.

Besides, you can always factor in a non-league date or 2 into the schedule every season. That would allow teams to have at least some say in who they schedule and give long-time conference rivals an opportunity to continue playing.

Even if their games are no longer conference games.