Christmas 2012 came and went without Santa delivering any new schools to new conferences. But with talk growing that Boise State might just stay put in the MWC rather than jump to the Big East as it had planned, the expansion/realignment conversation continues.
For the past couple of weeks we’ve been looking at what we believe to be the final countdown to a Big Bang. The kind of Big Bang that leaves us with just four or five power conferences playing in their own super-division at the top of the current Football Bowl Subdivision. The schools making up those leagues and that super-division will be the ones best able to provide full-cost-of-tuition scholarships for their athletes (or at least for their football players).
How this will all work out is anyone’s guess, but we don’t foresee a nice, neat, orderly endgame. Look at the college landscape today. Do the conferences all have an equal number of schools? Do all leagues have the same type of divisional breakdowns or scheduling plans? The answer, of course, is no and we don’t see why separate business entities all trying to grab as much cash as possible will someday agree that there should be four leagues of 16 teams each just because that’s what many fans want.
There’s an idea that each league — in such a four-league, 16-team scenario — could put two or four teams into a playoff and then we’d all have a mini-NFL to watch each December and January. But the NFL is one business. The FBS conferences are separate businesses. And if the four-team playoff that kicks off in 2014 does expand at some point, it’s quite likely each conference will be angling to get as many teams into the mix as possible, not just a limited number of two or four.
In Part 1 of our Big Bang series, we looked at which schools we believe would be willing to move if a better offer came along from a new conference (based on athletic revenue and current conference stability). In our view, there are only about 25 schools that would have any hope of drawing the interest of one of the power leagues.
In Part 2 of our Big Bang series, we broke down those 25 schools according to what they would add to a conference’s stash of cable households as well as a league’s academic reputation (which still matters to some conferences).
In Part 3, we now look at the options available for each of the current five power conferences — ACC, Big Ten, Big XII, Pac-12, and SEC. How can they survive? How can they grow and make more money? Which schools might interest them?
In putting this piece together, we reached out to administrators and athletic department personnel inside the SEC. We spoke with people in the college sports industry who are familiar with media contracts all across the nation (as well as scuttlebutt regarding which leagues are talking to which schools). We even chatted with a contact inside a major athletic equipment supplier who speaks with coaches and ADs on a regular basis, picking up plenty of gossip in the process.
The theories below are our own, but they’ve been shaped by the input of these people who were willing to talk off the record about what they’re hearing and what they believe to be happening. We appreciate their help.
And without further ado, here’s what we see as each conference’s realistic options:
Atlantic Coast Conference
Current Status: Maryland is leaving for the Big Ten while Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville are scheduled to enter the ACC in all sports. Notre Dame is currently scheduled to enter the league as a member in all sports but football. The Irish will schedule five ACC schools per year on the gridiron, but those games will not count in the ACC standings. The league will be a 15-school league — 14 teams in football — if things don’t change. Big if.
Outlook/Goal: The ACC’s outlook is shaky. The Big Ten, Big XII and SEC are all rumored to have interest in multiple ACC members. Example: An ACC source told The Sporting News last month that the SEC has been chasing Duke and North Carolina for “the last three years.” John Swofford’s first goal has to be survival at this point. The league’s schools aren’t believed to have much interest in signing a grant or rights agreement, so the best hope for avoiding the Big East’s fate is to shore up the football foundation of the league. Unfortunately, there aren’t many ways for Swofford’s league to do that. The ACC is the weakest of the five remaining power conferences. Those schools willing to come aboard are most likely in smaller leagues now, meaning they likely won’t meet the demands of the ACC’s biggest football schools.
Possible Moves/Rumored Interests:
* The best bet for the ACC would be for Notre Dame to join the league as an all-sports member including football. Notre Dame is the brand in college football. Love ‘em, hate ‘em, everyone watches ‘em. The problem is Notre Dame’s football contract with NBC. The Irish don’t want to give that away and the ACC is a revenue-sharing league. If it meant adding a brand name like Notre Dame, would schools like Florida State and Clemson give a thumbs-up to allowing the Irish to forge their own unique deal with the league? Doubtful. As for Notre Dame’s desire to maintain its football independence, the breakup of the Big East could give the ACC a tiny bit of leverage. “Sure, we’ll let you in early in all your other sports, but you have to sign on as a full-fledged football member, too.” Sounds good, but a league like the Big XII might be able to offer up a “special” deal to Notre Dame and scuttle any ACC attempts to woo the Irish into a true marriage. More on that in a minute.
* Barring an every-sport deal with Notre Dame, the two schools most often rumored to be potential ACC targets are Cincinnati and Connecticut. Cincinnati would provide a mid-America rival for new member Louisville. UConn would give the ACC more pull in New England and in the New York City area, but current member Boston College has worked against the Huskies joining their league in the past. Indeed, Louisville was given an invitation before Connecticut. While Cincinnati and UConn have both been to BCS bowls in recent years, those schools are better known for their basketball than their football. Would an FSU or Clemson be excited to add either school? Probably not. Would schools like Virginia or Georgia Tech be happy to further water down the league’s academic brand? Probably not. And if a school like Cincinnati got an offer from another conference, it’s likely the UC administration would choose to join the strongest league… which would not be the ACC.
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