Rumors continue to abound that Florida State and Clemson are looking to leave the ACC for the Big 12. In the myopic world of conference realignment, a quote from Big 12 interim commissioner Chuck Neinas that his conference has tabled expansion for now is met with rolling eyes (and considering the track record of half-hearted denials and misleading statements on this topic over the past couple of years, it’s not surprising). I had been thinking for the past week about putting together a 5-step plan to save the ACC (to the extent that it needs saving). Tony Barnhart of CBS Sports actually beat me to it with the same concept here, but while he has a couple of good ideas under steps 4 (scheduling arrangement with the SEC) and 5 (top tier bowl game) that I had been also thinking about, the first step (the old Al Davis motto of “Just Win, Baby”) isn’t possible this summer, while his third step (talk to Notre Dame) is praying for a miracle as opposed to a plan. Most importantly, Barnhart’s second step (getting Florida State to stay) is what the ACC specifically needs a plan for in the first place (not just a step in an overall plan). With all of that in mind, here’s my own 5-step plan to strengthen the ACC this summer:
(1) Change the Football Divisional Alignment to North/South – As much as people have talked about national conferences and TV markets with respect to realignment, the only expansion among the five power conferences into a non-contiguous state was the Big 12 with West Virginia. (The Big East, of course, expanded into a couple of different continents.) Geography is still a powerful factor for both conferences and schools as isolated members tend to end up being unhappy members over the long-term. That factor ought to weigh heavily on Florida State and Clemson in terms of staying in the ACC as they would largely be isolated members of the Big 12 outside of being in the same time zone as West Virginia. However, the ACC’s football non-geographic divisional alignment largely takes that geographical argument off the table. Currently, Florida State and Clemson only have Wake Forest and North Carolina State as fellow southeastern members in the Atlantic Division. Here’s how I would re-align the ACC:
Florida State-Miami and UNC-UVA would be protected cross-division rivalries, for sure. It’s probably not necessary for the other schools to have cross-division rivals, but the schools can set them up that way if they want to. Miami is placed in the North Division despite being the southernmost school because it’s really a Northeastern school in terms of culture and character, which was why the Hurricanes insisted on bringing along Boston College and (originally) Syracuse in the ACC raid of the Big East in 2003.
Does a change in the divisional alignment alone cause Florida State or Clemson to stay if they really want to go? Probably not. However, geography can be extremely important as part of the overall package of factors to persuade those schools to stay.
(2) Lobby the Faculty Members at Florida State and Clemson – There’s a continuous debate as to whether academics ought to matter in terms of formulating athletic conferences. This has played out at Florida State at the highest levels, where the school’s chair of the Board of Trustees took an almost anti-intellectual viewpoint of stating that “[c]onference affiliation has no impact on academics”, while the university’s president took the opposite view that “the faculty are adamantly opposed to joining a league that is academically weaker.” My take is pretty simple: conferences would rather have better academic schools than not, while schools would rather have a better academic conference than not. That’s not to say academics are completely outcome determinative – the Big Ten chose Nebraska not because it was the best academic school available, but rather it was the best football program with acceptable academics available. However, the point is that the Big Ten actually does have an academic threshold that potential expansion candidates need to meet. The only other FBS conferences that have a legitimate academic threshold are the ACC and Pac-12. It’s a strong calling card for those three conferences, whether football fans want to admit it or believe that it should even be a factor.
It’s one thing if you’re an academic heavyweight such as Vanderbilt or Texas where conference affiliation isn’t going to impact academic perception. However, are Florida State and Clemson in that same category? Do the faculty members at those two schools want to go from a conference where academic prestige is a clear value-added to one where it’s net neutral? (Please note that I’m not saying that the Big 12 doesn’t care about academics or is made up of poor academic institutions. However, the ACC, much like the Big Ten and Pac-12, have made a conscious decision in targeting highly-ranked academic schools in a way that other conference haven’t.) This is new territory in the modern world of conference realignment where two schools would leave a conference that’s higher on the academic pecking order, which is a reason why I’ve stated previously that this isn’t anywhere near the no-brainer decision that Nebraska had in moving to the Big Ten, Colorado and Utah had in moving to the Pac-12, Missouri and Texas A&M had in moving to the SEC, Pitt and Syracuse had in moving to the ACC and West Virginia and TCU had in moving to the Big 12.
Much like the geography factor, the outcry of faculty may not overshadow the wishes of blood-thirsty fan and donor bases. However, academics are certainly critical (let’s not forget that’s why colleges exist in the first place) and it’s an asset that the ACC needs to pound publicly and privately over and over and over and over again if it wants to avoid defections.
(3) Change the Football Scheduling to Appease Florida State and Clemson – The supposed ACC bias in having Florida State and Clemson play tough conference opponents (if not each other) right before their in-state rivalry games with SEC schools Florida and South Carolina, respectively, seems to be a popular complaint among Seminole and Tiger fans. From an outside view, this seems to be more of a piling on conference leadership when fan bases are simply convinced that everything is being controlled by Tobacco Road (similar to how Big 12 schools view Texas and Big East members look at Providence). Still, scheduling concessions are an easy give from the ACC’s leaders that takes a red meat on-the-field issue that has been firing up the Big 12 supporting crowd off the table.
(4) Sign an Orange Bowl Tie-in with Notre Dame as the Opponent – This suggestion was the subject of some unsubstantiated message board rumors, but the concept itself makes sense. Now the Big 12 and SEC champions are locked-in with each other in a bowl and the Big Ten and Pac-12 are obviously bound to the Rose Bowl, the feeling is that the ACC is left standing in the proverbial game of bowl musical chairs. Should the ACC be sending its champion to play, say, the #2 selection from the Big Ten or SEC? If I were running the ACC, that might ultimately be acceptable and there are plenty of bowls that would take that matchup in a heartbeat, but that would also be a tough pill to swallow psychologically and in terms of the perception of the league in the college football power structure. As an alternative, does the ACC really want to play the Big East champ? That would likely be even less desirable to the powers that be within the ACC and to the bowls themselves.
There’s one power player without a bowl dance partner, though: Notre Dame. I’ve never been one to believe that the Irish have anything to worry about in terms of qualifying for the new college football playoff (even in a conference champs only format, the TV networks at the very least will insist that an exception will be made for a top 4 independent). However, the new bowl world outside of the semifinals might be a different story. In the current system, Notre Dame had access to potential at-large spots in the Fiesta, Sugar and Orange Bowls. It’s very unclear whether the concept of at-large bids will exist in the future – the Fiesta Bowl, for instance, could decide to sign with the Big Ten and Big 12 for their second selections. The Irish might not have the bowl flexibility that they have had up to this point. On the flip side, though, is that the new system may present an opportunity for Notre Dame to sign directly with a top tier bowl that would always rather take a 4-loss Notre Dame team as opposed to, say, a 1-loss Conference USA school.
Note that despite the perception that the ACC is toxic horse manure to the top tier bowls, somehow (1) the ACC championship game loser ended up getting a Sugar Bowl at-large bid last year instead of an almighty Big 12 school ranked at #8, (2) the highest paid bowl tie-in outside of the BCS and the Big Ten #2 and SEC #2 slots in the Capital One Bowl is actually the ACC #2 tie-in to the Chick-fil-A Hallelujah That They’re in Chicagoland Now Bowl (NOT the almighty Big 12 #2 tie-in to the supposedly endless flow of cash from the Jerry Jones Cotton Bowl) and (3) a quick look at the top-to-bottom bowl tie-ins indicates that the ACC is, at the very least, has more leverage than the Pac-12 (whose overall bowl depth weakness is masked by the Rose Bowl tie-in at the very top). All of those facts indicate that the ACC champion isn’t going to have a problem getting a top bowl slot. The only question is who the ACC champ will end up facing. The ACC and Notre Dame are the two most powerful players and brand names left that aren’t paired up, so it’s natural and logical that they could end up with each other in a bowl. It’s the best value proposition that’s available to both entities with the Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC and Big12 off the table.
(5) Push ESPN to Maintain Value of TV Contract if There are Defections – There might be a point where the fan bases at Florida State and Clemson are putting such overwhelming pressure in favor of a move to the Big 12 (similar to Texas A&M fans wanting the SEC last year) that the schools end up defecting to the ACC. At that point, the ACC’s goal shifts to preventing a complete unraveling of the league. Personally, I don’t buy that Armageddon situation at all (as we saw the Big 12 and Big East suffer even more crippling defections with dire predictions of those leagues dying, yet they’re still kicking), but the ACC still has to be proactive to ensure that it doesn’t happen.
This is pretty simple: agree with ESPN that even if Florida State and Clemson leave, ESPN won’t reduce the value of the recently signed ACC TV contract (which averages a bit over $17 million per school per year). There’s pretty clear precedent for this scenario with ESPN agreeing to do the same with the Big 12 in 2010 and then coming to an understanding with the Big 12 again in 2011 to have a new contract extension. As I’ve noted in a previous post, the ACC is actually the single largest content provider to ESPN of any sports entity (whether college or pro), so there’s even less incentive for ESPN to see the ACC break apart compared to the Big 12 (with whom ESPN has a much more limited package) the last couple of years. Contrary to what many fans seem to believe, ESPN has a significant interest in not seeing the formation of superconferences because they do not want to deal with concentrated power entities that have NFL-type negotiating leverage. Dispersal of power is how ESPN is able to keep college sports rights fees somewhat in check. (To put rights fees in perspective, the Big Ten, which is the wealthiest conference, currently receives about $100 million per year from ESPN/ABC for first tier rights. By comparison, ESPN pays over $100 million per game to the NFL for Monday Night Football.)
The irony of this scenario is that would kick in over $2 million in TV money per year extra to each of the remaining 12 ACC schools, which would raise their total annual per school payouts to close to the $20 million level that the Big 12 is reportedly negotiating with ESPN and Fox. So, Florida State and Clemson could end up leaving for more TV money in the Big 12, which would actually result in an increase in TV money for the rest of the ACC that would match what the Big 12 schools receive. That would certainly be enough to take TV rights fees off the table as an issue for the remaining ACC members.
These are 5 realistic steps that the ACC can take without having to compromise on their core principles (such as equal sharing of TV revenue). I’ve said before that I believe that the ACC is stronger than what many football fans give it credit for. That statement is certainly being put to the test right now.