Things are moving quickly now in the steady advancement of college athletics to superconferences. This weekend, the ACC accelerated the process of realignment by picking off Syracuse and Pittsburgh from the Big East. Texas A&M already has one foot in the SEC, and now the news is out that four teams from the Big 12 are on the verge of joining the PAC 12. Things are picking up steam, and the ACC is right in the middle of it.
Like it or not, the age of four superconferences is nearly upon us. It started with the ACC gutting the Big East in 2003, taking Virginia Tech, Miami and (later) Boston College. Up till then, the ACC and Big East were more or less on equal footing, and both had a chance to be the Eastern superconference, but the ACC’s move put them clearly in the driver’s seat and started the clock ticking on the Big East.
That clock had been ticking for a long time, due to the Big East’s status as a hodgepodge of members playing a mix of sports, all while not sharing the money equally. It was inevitable that the ACC was the stronger of the two conferences and would have the longer life span. The ACC’s expansion of 2003 put that matter to rest.
The Big 12 Conference is a house of cards similar to the Big East, though not exactly for the same reasons. Unlike the Big East, the Big 12 is homogenous, with all schools playing all sports. But like the Big East, the revenue sharing is not equal. Unequal money always leads to resentment and instability, and the Big 12 started showing cracks when Nebraska and Colorado bolted for greener pastures last summer, to the Big Ten and PAC 10 (now 12) respectively.
The Big 12 is also hampered by Texas being the big bully of their small playground. With their outsized revenue share and the advent of the Longhorn Network, Texas turbocharged the slow-bleed disintegration of the Big 12, and now the collapse of the conference is picking up steam. Texas A&M is on the way out (if everyone promises not to sue them as they walk out the door), and if the Austin-American Statesman is to be believed, four other Big 12 schools might follow: Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State.
The picking of the Big East and Big 12 carcasses has begun in earnest, and until yesterday, the ACC was viewed as a spectator, waiting on the sidelines while the strong boys did the heavy lifting. Poaching Syracuse and Pittsburgh doesn’t exactly change that perception, because it’s not as if the SEC and Big Ten were beating down Pitt and SU’s doors, but you do have to give the ACC points for getting in there and landing some early punches.
More important, the ACC, which was once viewed as a vulnerable expansion target for the SEC or even Big Ten, appears to have closed ranks and linked arm in arm. In addition to picking up SU and Pitt, the ACC raised its exit fee to $20 million, in a show of solidarity meant to indicate that no members have any intentions of leaving. That perception matches what we’ve been hearing through our admittedly sparse sources: namely, that FSU doesn’t want to bolt to the SEC, nor does Clemson, and Virginia Tech certainly doesn’t want to. That much about the Hokies has become very clear in the last few weeks, as rumors circulated that VT was an SEC target.
Big East defectors Pitt and SU said one of the reasons they’re leaving is to seek stability in their conference membership, something that is lacking in the Big East. (It has been, for a long time.) What’s implied is that the ACC is stable, which is something we’ve been saying all along here at TSL: in the push towards superconferences, the ACC will have a seat at the table.
So the ACC is a player in this landscape, appears solid, and will be one of the big boys. That’s great, but unfortunately, adding Syracuse and Pittsburgh — with UConn and Rutgers possibly hot on their heels — doesn’t make anyone’s skirt fly up.
The Panthers and Orange will give a boost to ACC hoops, no question. ACC basketball has been flagging since expansion, and the prospect of Syracuse vs. UNC or Pitt vs. Duke makes this expansion a slam-dunk (pardon the expression) for hoops.
But for football? Blech. If you watched Syracuse-Wake Forest in week one this season — yes, I did — you were treated to typical Syracuse football fare: poorly played football in front of a sparse crowd of 40,000 people that did a remarkable impression of 25,000 people. And that was before the crowd cleared out in the third quarter.
That’s going to be a conference game now. TV execs and crooked bowl reps aren’t lining up to sign on the dotted line.
Pittsburgh-Duke might be awesome for hoops, but the downside is that attendance for the basketball game will outstrip attendance for its football counterpart. Get ready to catch that titanic pigskin clash at noon on ACC Network affiliates.
But really, what was the ACC to do? No one’s going to leave the SEC or Big Ten to enhance the ACC’s football product, West Virginia is a non-starter, and Notre Dame’s a pipe dream, so the league is left to do what it did: grab the Big East’s best basketball teams and grin and bear it. Syracuse and Pitt fit the profile of most ACC members: good hoops, good academics. Football? Meh.
Hokie fans need to accept that SEC membership is not going to happen for Tech, nor, in my opinion, is an ACC defection going to happen that triggers multiple ACC teams, including VT, joining the SEC. The ACC is going to do exactly what it’s doing, pick off teams from the Big East and live on as one of the superconferences. That’s not a bad thing.
But there is no doubt that the ACC is going to be the least valuable and least compelling football conference among the big four (or five) that will comprise the future. What Virginia Tech fans should fear is a back-to-the-future scenario in which the Hokies are playing in an ACC division that resembles the old Big East. Lacing it up and playing Syracuse, Pitt, Rutgers, and UConn makes me want to run screaming into the hills. Didn’t we leave this behind, for the better?
Enter the pod structure.
Instead of being aligned into two divisions, the structure that superconferences appear to be converging towards for football is a four-pod structure of four teams each. Each team plays the other three teams in their pod every season, and rotates through two teams from each of the other three pods each season. That’s a total of nine conference games, for those of you with advanced math skills.
For example, it’s hypothesized that if Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and OK State join the PAC 12, they will do so as a pod that plays each other every season.
See where I’m headed with this? Root, root, root for Syracuse, Rutgers, UConn and Boston College to wind up in an ACC pod, playing amongst themselves. This would help the Hokies avoid the dreaded “ACC North” scenario of being stuck in one of two eight-team divisions consisting of old Big East teams.
In that scenario, the Hokies might wind up in a pod with Virginia (count on it), Maryland, and maybe Pittsburgh, NC State, or Clemson. That’s a lot more palatable than the ACC North, though it bears no resemblance to the SEC East.
So what’s the path to the conference championship game? Simple: all 16 teams go into the standings, and the top two, regardless of pod, play for the championship. Or maybe not so simple. The tiebreaker scenarios will be dizzying, trying to sort out 16 teams that only play nine games.
The ACC’s midnight robbery of Syracuse and Pitt from the Big East has added clarity to the continuing conference shakeout. Texas A&M is almost SEC-bound, and though the defection of four Big 12 teams to the PAC 12 is fraught with complications, it could happen. At that point, we’ll have major conferences of 12 teams (Big Ten), 13 teams (SEC), 14 teams (ACC), and 16 teams (PAC 16).
The Big 12 will be dead, freeing up some teams for the Big Ten and SEC to round out their conferences, the Big East will be on life support, and Notre Dame will still be in play. (Oh, please-please-please come to the ACC, Irish! I know … pipe dream.)
Maybe that will all happen, maybe not. But one thing is sure, the ACC will have 14 schools some time soon. Expansion happened so fast this time that the conference isn’t sure exactly when the new schools will be on board, but bet the under. For better or for worse, the ACC took a big step towards superconferences, and in case this little nugget hasn’t hit you yet, here it is: as of this moment, with current commitments, the ACC is the biggest conference. In a way, they’re out front, leading. Who saw that coming?