Prepare yourself for the four-conference 16 team super era of major college athletics. It’s coming, probably sooner than you think. This fact is the actual long-range motivation for the SEC’s raid upon Texas. The SEC doesn’t want to be left gobbling up lesser-tier teams, to the first mover goes the spoils. It’s also why the Pac 10 has already expanded to 12 — after attempting to expand to 16. We can be fairly certain that three conferences will survive and enter this mega-conference era in good shape. Those are the SEC, the Big Ten, and the Pac 12. We can also be fairly certain that the Big 12 will not survive. Who does that leave us in a death battle for the fourth mega-conference slot?
The Big East and the ACC.
Conventional wisdom has always held that this was the ACC’s battle to win. That is, once the ACC raided the Big East and added Boston College, Virginia Tech, and Miami many wrote off the long-range future of the Big East. But is that conventional wisdom correct? I’m not so sure. Let’s dive in and see who will win this battle to the death to be the fourth super conference in college sports.
1. Eliminate basketball from your calculus.
I don’t want to get these emails. I love college basketball. So do lots of y’all. But football drives everything in the race to 16. It’s the race to 16 football teams. Now basketball can help with the cultural fit components of these decisions, but the money at stake is all rooted in football.
So don’t send these basketball emails. It’s irrelevant to this discussion.
2. Is the Big East already planning a raid on Maryland and Boston College?
I’ve been told there have been discussions about both of these teams leaping to the Big East. I even wrote about it earlier this week. Partly the reason is cultural, the Boston College integration into the ACC has never really worked. The longed for footprint into the Northeast hasn’t redounded to incredible benefit for the ACC either.
Put simply, Boston College to the ACC hasn’t worked and both sides know it.
Meanwhile, everyone who has ever lived in the D.C. area knows that Maryland looks North and not South for its compatriots. Maryland is not a Southern school.
Remember where you read it first, but Maryland and Boston College are both in play to be counter-raided back by the Big East. Especially as this new Big East television deal hangs tantalizingly close out there. Being able to sell 11 viable football teams — which would rapidly become 12 shortly thereafter for a title game — is a powerful television package.
If Maryland and BC were to jump to the Big East then suddenly the Big East is sitting at 11 teams — assuming TCU still joins — and the ACC falls back to 10. Meanwhile the Big East snags a 12th team somewhere — maybe Memphis or East Carolina — to get to 12 and set up a title game.
3. Don’t underestimate the impact that losing two teams in this raid would have on the ACC.
Suddenly the ACC would have to scramble to add two teams and keep the ACC championship game afloat. (Although, let’s be honest. Would you really notice if the ACC title game didn’t get played one year?) But which two schools could it add? No SEC teams are leaving.
As I told you earlier this week, if the ACC couldn’t counter-raid the Big East — a move that would turn conference realignment into nuclear war — then the expansion options are negligible. Memphis, East Carolina — which probably wouldn’t sit well with the four Carolina schools at present — or Central Florida — who Miami and Florida State would probably fight. Seriously, the pickings are incredibly slim for the ACC.
All it would take for the Big East to reassume control of the race for the fourth final spot is snagging away Maryland and Boston College.
4. Will the SEC take teams from the ACC en route to 16?
Be it Virginia Tech, Virginia, North Carolina, Duke, or N.C. State, some of these schools are eventually going to end up in the SEC. (Again, the SEC is not taking teams in its existing footprint so Georgia Tech, Clemson, Florida State, and Miami are off the table).
This is a definite, incontrovertible fact. On the path to 16 the SEC is going to poach the ACC. It’s a question of how many teams — as many as three as few as two — not whether or not it will happen. What’s more, ACC schools know this.
So if Maryland and Boston College jumped to the Big East, I believe multiple ACC teams would contact the SEC to gauge expansion interest. The SEC would have its pick from a sinking ACC. This is why I wrote that the SEC could end up with Duke and North Carolina.
Sitting at ten teams, the ACC would fall to either 7 or 8 teams once the SEC plucked away two or three star teams. (I truly believe the SEC would simply have its picks among North Carolina, Duke, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and N.C. State).
The Big East could stand back, view the carnage from the SEC snagging away teams, and then cherry pick the remaining four or five schools to fill out its climb to sixteen. That means three or four ACC schools could be left out of the major conference mix.
Which ACC schools could end up in the cold? I’ll give you some guesses — Clemson, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, and N.C. State would be my most likely teams left behind. .
Now, that’s the sketched out plan for how the Big East could become the last major conference.
Now let’s consider a couple of other questions.
5. Will the Big Ten snag teams from the Big East?
The ACC’s best ally in the race to 16 teams is the Big Ten. Because the Big Ten is probably the only one of the three major conference survivors — the SEC, the Pac 12, and the Big Ten — that would consider adding teams from the Big East.
So let’s consider the options for the Big Ten to get to 16. Presently sitting at 12, which markets or teams make the most sense for the Big Ten?
First, Notre Dame will be chased. Will Notre Dame finally join the Big Ten? Who the hell knows. But Notre Dame would remain atop the wish list. After Notre Dame you have to look to the Big 12 schools that are imploding. Missouri has already engaged in heavy flirtation with the Big Ten. It would be a natural fit if the Big Ten wanted to go to 16. The Big Ten would also look at Oklahoma and Oklahoma State — chief obstacle being that they aren’t very good schools — and Texas, assuming the Longhorns truly elected not to go independent.
There are ways for the Big Ten to get to 16, as you can see, just by feeding off the leftovers from the Big 12.
But if the Big Ten opted to go east, that would be the best possible move for the ACC because then the Big East’s teams in major media markets would become much sought after. Think Rutgers and UConn. If the Big Ten decided to snag Rutgers, UConn — maybe Pittsburgh or Syracuse too? — the Big East would be a dead conference walking.
So, and this has to be terrifying to the Big East, its entire future rests with the Big Ten deciding not to expand into its territory. If the Big Ten couldn’t resist these television markets — even though the athletic programs are pedestrian at best — then the ACC would step in and fill up four more teams from the Big East to get to 16 while the Big East conference would die.
Who would the ACC add assuming the Big Ten took Rutgers and UConn only?
You’d have to pick four from this group of seven: Pittsburgh, Louisville, TCU, South Florida, West Virginia, Cincinnati, and Syracuse.
Reasonable minds would differ as to which of these four were the best to pick up.
So who is left standing outside the power conferences when musical chairs cease? Two or three Big East teams at least. And I have no idea which ones will be left.
But if I was a fan of any of the seven schools listed above, I’d be nervous as hell.
6. But would the Big Ten rather raid the ACC?
I think so. Maryland, Boston College, UVa, North Carolina, Duke, all of these schools would be extremely attractive to the Big Ten too. Could the Big Ten pluck a couple of ACC schools? Definitely. In fact, would the ACC schools be more attractive than many of the Big East schools? I think so. Meaning you could end up with Rutgers, Maryland, Boston College, Georgia Tech, or Virginia in the Big Ten. All of these schools are great academic fits with the Big Ten.
Then what happens to the ACC with these lost members?
The more I think about the future, the more endangered the ACC schools look. That’s primarily because the ACC schools, as a whole, are more attractive than the Big East schools to the Big Ten and the SEC.
Yep, the Big East might become the fourth super conference because its teams are actually less attractive to the bigger conferences than the ACC’s.
7. Could either conference reform as a “major” conference?
Even though the Big East has said it won’t be constrained by geography in expansion, who could a Big East left dangling with three or four teams cobble together to make a major conference? Put simply, no one.
The same is true of the ACC, as we discussed above, there just aren’t major teams left out there begging for inclusion.
Nope, the Big East and the ACC are going to battle. And one of these conferences is going to die. Which one? Your guess is as a good as mine, but if I was an ACC fan I wouldn’t be so confident about beating out the Big East in this conference death match.