The irony of writing a blog that’s largely known for being focused upon conference realignment and Big Ten expansion is that I’m personally not someone that has a preternatural need to see the kingdom of Jim Delany get larger and larger. Back when I originally starting writing about the topic three years ago, I only really saw a necessity for the Big Ten to add 1 more school to create a conference championship game and wasn’t a large proponent of expanding to 14, 16 or beyond. All of the superconference ideas with an emphasis on pods and market shares interest me greatly from a business perspective, but the number of potential expansion candidates out there that make me perk up as fan is pretty small. If the Big Ten needed to go up to 16 to get marquee schools such as Texas or Notre Dame, then that would have been one thing, but expanding simply for the sake of market share can backfire in the long run. Nebraska certainly qualified as a school that I’d go out of my way to actually watch play football, so I was content with the thought of the Big Ten staying at 12. I completely understand the latest moves by Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany to add Maryland and Rutgers to move the league up to 14 members as a way to stay ahead of the ever-changing demographics of this country, yet that’s largely the business side of my brain coming to that conclusion.
Of course, Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis did nothing to temper the expectations that the Big Ten continues to be on the prowl by calling 14 members “clumsy” and how the conference doesn’t “want to get outflanked”. Delany has stated that the Big Ten is “inactive but alert” regarding future expansion. In my last post, I went through the Big Ten’s various expansion options (almost entirely focused upon ACC schools). For Florida State, I stated the following:
Personally, I’d take a hard look at Florida State because they are so extremely valuable in a key state (especially if the Big Ten is seriously considering Georgia Tech and don’t want them to be a lone outpost), yet the tea leaves are saying otherwise.
On the same night that I put up that post, Chip Brown from Orangebloods.com had this interesting tidbit (via Warchant.com):
But it should be getting more and more clear after Maryland’s departure from the ACC, Florida State is not sitting around playing solitaire.
According to Warchant.com, the Florida State site on the Yahoo!/Rivals network, FSU officials are now exploring conference options and have put out feelers to the Big Ten.
That small line about Florida State putting out feelers to the Big Ten (even though the article overall has a Big 12 slant) has stuck out at me as much as anything that I’ve seen regarding conference realignment over the past three years. As we have seen time and time again with the kabuki dance of switching leagues, the proper order is that a school contacts the conference that it wants to switch to first as opposed to the other way around. To say the least, my line of thinking is really starting to shift here.
Remember back in 2010 how Missouri was repeatedly the most oft-mentioned expansion target for the Big Ten, but then the true intentions of the league were to really go after Texas and then Nebraska? Missouri was effectively used as a stalking horse by Jim Delany to cause instability (or create the perception of instability) in the Big 12 to shake loose one of the most valuable brand names in college football. Now look at the most oft-mentioned targets of the Big Ten in this current phase of realignment: Georgia Tech and Virginia. Both are fantastic academic institutions in fast-growing states, but they aren’t exactly power punches on the football front. They’re really extensions of the pure demographics plus academics strategy that drove the Maryland and Rutgers additions. With the Big Ten at 14 members, we’re possibly looking at the last 2 open spots that the league will ever have to get up to 16. Are Georgia Tech and Virginia who the Big Ten wants to grant those last precious spots to? The academic side of the league would obviously love it, yet there’s something missing on the athletic front (which in turn impacts the financial front).
What we now have is the perception of instability in the ACC just like there was a perception of instability in the Big 12 in 2010 through 2011. If the Big Ten is seriously considering further raids of the ACC, then why wouldn’t it go after the biggest whale possible? Why wouldn’t it make the move that would both the bean counters and the fans would love?
Is getting Florida State the true intended end game for the Big Ten?
Outside of geography, the only real reason that has been given by numerous people, including me, as to why the Big Ten would conceivably pass on Florida State is academics (and specifically the lack of membership in the AAU). That assumption might be faulty, though, especially if Florida State were to come in together with an elite academic school such as Georgia Tech or Virginia. Besides, Florida State is ranked #97 in the U.S. News rankings compared to Nebraska at #101, so it’s nowhere near the academic stretch for the Big Ten in the way that Louisville was clearly outside of the ACC’s prior academic standards. Beyond academics, out of all of the schools in the ACC, Florida State provides (1) the best on-the-field football program, (2) the largest state by population, (3) the highest national TV value, (4) the most regional TV value for the Big Ten Network, (5) the best football recruiting grounds and (6) arguably the best football fan base (neck-and-neck with Clemson). Basically, FSU hits every non-academic metric that you could possibly want in an expansion candidate. Tallahassee and the rest of the Florida Panhandle are definitely Southern in culture (which could clash with the Northern Big Ten culture), but much of the rest of the state of Florida where FSU alums and fans reside has one of the largest concentrations (if not the largest concentration) of Big Ten alums outside of the Midwest. It’s not an accident that after the Rose Bowl, the Big Ten has its top bowl tie-ins with the Capital One Bowl (Orlando), Outback Bowl (Tampa) and Gator Bowl (Jacksonville) and just signed up for a partial Orange Bowl (Miami) tie-in once the new playoff system starts. Much like New York City and Washington, DC, there are potential synergies for the Big Ten in the state of Florida that really go beyond the applicable school that’s being added.
In the same way that Texas A&M fans started complaining so much about the Big 12 that it eventually pushed the school’s administration to approach the SEC, Florida State fans have been rumbling about moving out of the ACC for months. So, if Florida State is truly an unhappy camper that’s ready to move (and to be clear, it needs to start coming from the university president level instead of the fans or even trustee members on a power trip), it would be foolish for the Big Ten to automatically pass on the Seminoles on the basis of academics. AAU membership is obviously highly desired, but the Big Ten would let in non-AAU school Notre Dame in a heartbeat. The Big Ten also admitted Nebraska even though the existing members knew full well that NU’s AAU status was in jeopardy (as the school was kicked out of the organization only months after joining the conference with both Michigan and Wisconsin voting against them). In other words, the Big Ten has demonstrated a willingness to look past the AAU issue for the right school, and Florida State may indeed be the right school in this situation.
Now, as with anything in conference realignment, it takes two to tango. The Big Ten could want Florida State all day long, but it means very little unless the interest is reciprocated. That’s what makes Florida State “putting out feelers to the Big Ten” so intriguing. At the very least, that indicates some interest on the part of FSU.
I’m not going to insult the intelligence of Florida State fans and alums that might be reading this, so I’ll be objective here: even though I’m a huge Illinois fan and Big Ten guy, my personal opinion is that the SEC would be the best conference for FSU if it were to move from the ACC (and I’m sure that would be the choice of most Seminoles fans). The SEC fits Florida State geographically and culturally while also providing a juggernaut football league. If FSU has offers on the table from the Big Ten and SEC at the same time, then I’d be hard pressed to advise the school to turn down the SEC when taking my Big Ten goggles off. However, Mr. SEC (probably the closest thing to my SEC counterpart regarding conference realignment) has noted that the SEC is on the precipice of creating a new TV network with ESPN and would prevent any consideration of newly doubling up in existing SEC states for financial reasons. In the case of Florida State, the value of in-state rival Florida is so great that a potential SEC network could easily get basic carriage in the state of Florida based on the strength of the Gators alone, which means that FSU is worth much less to the SEC than it would to the Big Ten or Big 12. (The Big Ten saw this on a smaller scale when looking at Pitt as an expansion candidate. In terms of academics and institutional fit, Pitt was and still is a great match on paper for the Big Ten, but it’s a school that wouldn’t bring in a single cent of additional BTN revenue since Penn State already delivers the entire state of Pennsylvania by itself.) Now, the SEC certainly might see value in adding Florida State simply to prevent the Big Ten or Big 12 from encroaching on the most important TV market and football recruiting territory in its footprint as a defensive measure, but let’s assume for the purposes of this discussion that the SEC isn’t a viable option for FSU.
So, if the SEC is out of the picture, why would the Big Ten possibly let the Big 12 walk off with possibly the most valuable school that has been willing to move in conference realignment over the past three years? That would create two power conferences (the SEC and Big 12) that combine the recruiting bases and TV households of both Florida and Texas, which would be dangerous for the Big Ten to allow to occur in the long-term. While I could understand how the SEC would be more attractive to FSU than the Big Ten, I don’t see how Jim Delany would lose in a head-to-head battle with the Big 12 over the school if it came down to that. The only real advantage that the Big 12 provides over the Big Ten is access to the state of Texas. That’s not insignificant, but it’s not outcome determinative in my eyes (as evidenced by Nebraska and Colorado willingly giving up their ties to that state). On the fronts that university presidents care the most about, the Big Ten has all of the trump cards. The Big Ten was projecting over $43 million per year in conference revenue in 2017 when it was talking to Maryland. Now think about what that figure would look like when you add the households in the state of Florida to the Big Ten Network (which has over 5 million more people than the states of Maryland and New Jersey combined with a population base that is a lot more attuned to college sports, to boot). Those are figures that the Big 12 can’t match, even if FSU could procure a lucrative third tier rights deal that the conference allows. The Big Ten also has a clear academic prestige advantage over the Big 12. In terms of geography, the Big Ten is even slightly less inconvenient than the Big 12, where Columbus, Bloomington, West Lafayette and Champaign are actually all slightly shorter distances to Tallahassee than both Morgantown and Austin among the closest existing members of those leagues. I would assume that both the Big Ten and Big 12 would add 1 other Southern ACC member (likely Georgia Tech or maybe Miami for the Big Ten or Clemson for the Big 12) to pair up with FSU, so the Seminoles wouldn’t be a lone geographic outlier in either case. (To be sure, I’m not going to sugarcoat the geography issue for FSU with respect to either the Big Ten or Big 12 – it’s definitely not optimal in either case. That being said, the ACC stuck Florida State in a division with Boston College and Syracuse while not having the Noles play its closest conference counterpart of Georgia Tech annually, so that conference hasn’t exactly mitigated FSU’s travel distances even with a large contingent of Southern schools.) All in all, the Big Ten can offer more money and better academics compared to the Big 12 with similar geographic challenges, so this shouldn’t be a matter of Florida State actually preferring the Big 12 over the Big Ten.
I don’t know whether Florida State is truly serious about wanting to leave the ACC. As I’ve said in other posts, I’m not a believer in the impending destruction of that conference like many others that follow conference realignment. There are still a host of academic and geographic advantages that the ACC provides to its member schools and if it was tough for Maryland to leave at an emotional level (where that school was a completely natural and contiguous expansion for the Big Ten and they didn’t have any true blood reciprocal blood rivals), one can imagine the potential disconnect with a school like FSU. However, Florida State fans might be at the point where they have an “Anywhere but the ACC!” attitude, which is a tough train to stop for a school’s administration. As I’ve been thinking more and more about the Seminoles looking around as a free agent (which is how an FSU official described the process in the event that the Maryland exit fee from the ACC gets reduced or thrown out), it’s the first time since I began following conference realignment that I have actually wanted the Big Ten to create a superconference in a scenario that didn’t include the game changing choices of Texas and/or Notre Dame. The Seminoles provide the best combination of an off-the-field financial windfall off-the-field and increased on-the-field competitiveness and fan interest of any school that the Big Ten could plausibly add at this time. As a result, Florida State is a school that would make a 16-team league worth having and I hope that Jim Delany and the Big Ten university presidents are feeling the same way.
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(Image from Posseup Sports)