Earlier this week, we had a flurry of concrete conference realignment news crammed into a 48-hour period, and then we went cold turkey (no pun intended) over the Thanksgiving holiday. That has left Twitter rumors to fill the void and potentially affected fan bases on edge (culminating in Cincinnati fans chanting, “ACC!” when they saw the school’s president walk through the stands). For what it’s worth, I take extra care to not pass along Tweets with every single realignment rumor that comes my way (and believe me, I pretty much get them all ). (For those that aren’t following as of yet, my Twitter handle is @frankthetank111.) My personal filter is to make sure that the original Tweeter has some real reason or connection to know what he/she claims to know and/or apply my own view of plausibility. As most of my regular readers know, I’m not a believer that a world of 4 16-team superconferences are inevitable (at least not in the short term) or that the ACC and/or Big East are one or two losses from complete destruction. I certainly don’t see a rush by the Big Ten or SEC to get to 16 members in this round of conference realignment. These are interesting Armageddon scenarios, but I tend to believe in a more logical downward pressure in the conference ranks, or as people say colloquially, “S**t rolls downhill.” Maybe the ACC will lose some more schools, but that league will backfill from the Big East, who in turn will backfill from Conference USA and/or the Mountain West, and so on and so forth.
Without any concrete news, we’re basically left with trying to parse out what is legitimately plausible and whether the proverbial smoke around certain topics indicates either a real fire or just some dude in his basement toking. From my vantage point, there are two themes coming together that have relevance:
(1) ACC Mindset Change and a Surge of Support for Louisville – In my last couple of posts, I stated that I would bet on Connecticut getting an invite to the ACC. If the ACC follows its prior actions and academic and TV market criteria for expansion candidates, UConn would be near a 100% lock. As a result, the mere fact that there is even a debate about Louisville going to the ACC at all (much less Louisville being ahead in the race, which a number of observers are claiming) indicates that there’s a major mindset change in the conference brewing (or at least some schools outside of the Duke/UNC old-line faction that are throwing their weight around, particularly Florida State).
Whether it’s right or wrong, the widespread perception is that Louisville would be the “football smart” move for the ACC and anything other than that could lead to Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech and/or others bolting to the warm arms of Texas and the Big 12. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I don’t believe that Florida State would leave for the Big 12 all, but the ACC obviously can’t take any chances with its most important football member.
One interesting example of Twitter having fans on edge was a Tweet from Brian Miller, a Tallahassee Democrat reporter that said that the ACC wouldn’t even make a choice between Louisville and UConn, but rather add both of them along with Cincinnati* to create a 16-team conference. By the time that Tweet spread like wildfire, Miller had removed it from his timeline. Time will tell whether that was removed because it couldn’t be backed up or the information was too sensitive for the reporter’s source to put it out there for public consumption immediately. The ACC may very well have the most incentive to grow to 16 first to create a perception of strength in numbers (even if it might not look like the most financially lucrative move).
(* Much like the athletic departments at Louisville and UConn, I have a ton of respect for what Cincinnati has been able to do on-the-field during its time in the Big East. The Bearcats have arguably been the most consistent football program in the circa 2005 version of the conference, so it would be sweet justice to see them land softly. We’ll see if that soft landing actually happens, though.)
Regardless, Louisville and the school’s surrogates are getting the message out that they are the best football move for the ACC (despite being a basketball school by any other measure). The wants and needs of fans rarely matter to commissioners and university presidents in conference realignment, but if enough Florida State fans are out for blood (similar to how Texas A&M fans pounded their administration to push for a move to the SEC), this might be one instance where the fans win out if Louisville ends up getting the ACC invite.
(2) Prospect of Big East Catholic Schools Splitting Off – For many, many, many years, one of the easiest reflex responses that I’ve had in conference realignment discussions was that the Big East football schools and non-football Catholic members wouldn’t split into a separate leagues. Up to this point, it made zero financial sense for either side – the value of the Catholic schools were enhanced by the presence of Louisville, UConn and Notre Dame (even without Syracuse, Pitt and West Virginia) while the football members needed the traditional brand names and major media markets of the non-football schools. While the two sides might not have liked each other, they were worth more together than they were worth apart.
Notre Dame has left the Big East for the ACC as a non-football member, though, and at least one of Louisville or UConn is heading out the door possibly as soon as next week. Heck, even Cincinnati might be heading out with them. Going forward, it may no longer be truism that the Catholic schools would make more TV money staying with the football members, in which case Georgetown and company are likely wondering whether it’s worth it to deal with constant football-related defections in a hybrid league when they could have a league all to themselves and be considered power players in the non-football marketplace that they inhabit.
Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated indicated that there have been informal discussions of a nationwide basketball conference (“think Georgetown to Gonzaga”). At the same time, the Kevin McNamara of the Providence Journal has brought up the possibility of the Catholic schools voting to dissolve the Big East entirely and go off on their own, which would be possible when Louisville and/or UConn leave since they’ll have the voting majority in place to do it (as the new members such as UCF and Houston don’t have voting rights yet and any defecting members won’t have votes, either).
I could spend hours dreaming up national basketball conference scenarios (all of which would include Pepperdine because visiting that school is like visiting a beach resort), but my semi-educated guess is that in the event of a Big East split, the Catholic schools would team up with the top handful of Atlantic 10 members to form a new league. For discussion purposes only, it would look something along the lines of the following:
It’s not unfathomable that ESPN could step in and pay that type of league the same amount that the Big East Catholics would have received in a new Big East hybrid TV contract or more if only to keep top college basketball brand names such as Georgetown and Villanova under the Worldwide Leader’s control. From my vantage point, I see a lot more Big Monday-worthy matchups coming out of that league compared to a new Big East without Louisville and/or UConn.
Once again, I have never been a Big East split believer or proponent, but the latest conference realignment moves could be upending the conventional wisdom.
In any event, there’s a full slate of spectacular college football games to be played on-the-field on Saturday. Even as a conference realignment aficionado, here’s to hoping that we all can concentrate on the games themselves for a day.
(Image from Restricted Data)