If the ACC implodes…: Big Ten Expansion Scenarios

The latest expansion rumors have been swirling around Clemson and Florida State being interested in Big 12 membership. After a week of little to no substantiation of the rumors, a Board of Trustees member for Florida State made a bold statement of displeasure with the ACC and interest in the financial windfalls of the Big 12’s big football money.

The rule of thumb when it comes to expansion rumors is that when there is smoke, there eventually will be fire. The only exception to that rule over the past two years—from Nebraska’s move to the Big Ten, to the near-move of Texas and Oklahoma to the Pac-16, to the most recent Missouri and Texas A&M move to the SEC—has been Louisville and BYU’s non-invitation to the Big 12. And even that event might still be ahead of us.

While the Big 12 might continue their migration into eastern and southern markets, this all could be a threat by Clemson and FSU aimed at the SEC: take us now or we’ll open up your TV markets and recruiting soil to Texas and Oklahoma and their ilk. The SEC has two open spots, and although many assume that they would want to open up new TV markets geographically, Clemson and Florida State are emphatically the best football programs inside their current footprint.

I’m less interested in what the Big 12 or SEC ends up doing and more interested in what this might mean for the ACC. When it comes to academics and sports, the ACC is on par with the Big Ten and the Pac-12. What it lacks in football might, it makes up for in other Olympic sports, primarily basketball.

Is the ACC doomed?

The ACC has been a pillar of college athletics. For it to fall apart, it would take more than just the defection of two members. Heck, they’d still have a cool twelve members, since Pittsburgh and Syracuse are slated to join in 2013.

But as The Fixx sang, “One thing leads to another.” Ask the Big 12. Nebraska and Colorado left in 2010, and then Texas A&M and Missouri moved on 2011. Ask the Big East. Virginia Tech, Miami, and Boston College left in 2004, and then Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and West Virginia moved on in 2011. The first wave of defections might not doom the league, but a second or third wave might.

If enough of the football assets bolt (like Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and Miami leaving, for example, on the heels of Clemson and Florida State), that could threaten the very viability of the ACC. In a world defined by football money, a basketball-first league is only as stable as its nearest neighbor’s passivity.

Which begs the question: who on the ACC’s rolls would entice the Big Ten?

Primary Assets

Maryland caused some expansion chatter last summer, and they’re certainly a candidate. Good academics, good location, decent football. But they were previously mentioned as a vulnerable member of a strong ACC. If the league is collapsing, there are more valuable targets, and the Big Ten should aim big.

The Virginia Cavaliers have a top-notch academic reputation and a location every bit as enticing as Maryland’s. The Cavs football and basketball aren’t any better than Maryland’s, but they aren’t any worse either. Sometimes academics (especially in such close proximity to the nation’s capital) do matter in college sports.

But the heart and soul of the ACC is on Tobacco Road—North Carolina and Duke. If the league were truly faltering, even the Tar Heels and the Blue Devils would be looking for a safe landing. Football has never been the calling card of this rivalry, but the basketball history of the two programs make it a financial asset for the Big Ten. (Oh, and did I mention that the Big Ten’s commissioner is a North Carolina graduate?)

The northern ACC schools aren’t options. The Big Ten already had its shot at Syracuse, Boston College, and Pittsburgh during the last round of expansion; they opted for Nebraska. You can also cross out Virginia Tech (academics) and Wake Forest/N.C. State (weak football).

Down south are two intriguing possibilities though—Miami and Georgia Tech. Rumors actually bubbled about the Yellow Jackets last summer, as they fit the Big Ten’s academic requirements and have a solid football tradition. The sparkling gold tooth of Georgia Tech though is its home city—Atlanta, a hotbed of college football fandom. The Big Ten could explode into SEC country by annexing the Yellow Jackets. Miami is deeper still into the south (despite sharing northern sensibilities with its large contingent of New England alumni) but is a less perfect fit overall. Few schools have the national reputation of the Hurricanes over the past forty years though, and that matters to the Big Ten (see Nebraska’s invitation in 2010).

Do we have to talk about Notre Dame?

No discussion of Big Ten expansion would be complete without mentioning Notre Dame. This debate is really quite simple. Notre Dame wants independence. The Big Ten wants valuable assets (of which Notre Dame is probably the nation’s  greatest). Notre Dame will remain independent as long as it’s financially viable to do so. No playoff situation, bowl configuration, or conference realignment will change that. Period.

Is the day coming when Notre Dame won’t be able to keep up financially? Maybe. In-state schools Indiana and Purdue already make more money per year from their Big Ten affiliation than the mighty Fighting Irish do. Yes, college football powerhouses Indiana and Purdue. That number is likely to inflate even greater (maybe double?) when the Big Ten’s next deal comes due (2015). Notre Dame surely can secure itself a great deal in the exorbitant market, but can it equal its lowly Indiana brethren’s income? It’s doubtful.

Beyond the aforementioned schools, I don’t see anyone tempting the Big Ten except maybe Rutgers. Their football tradition is meager, but they fit the culture of the Big Ten very well and the extra market exposure they could get in New Jersey and New York City might be a draw.

If the Big Ten truly wants to go to 16, would they be willing predators of a collapsing ACC? Absolutely. I think three schools would be perfect fits for the Big Ten.

North Carolina.
Duke.

Virginia.

Unfortunately for Maryland, I think Virginia is more appealing academically and athletically and would help the Big Ten impact the D.C/Baltimore market. UNC/Duke is an elite college sports entity and would give the league a huge boost in name recognition, if not football strength.

Why stop at 3? Well, the Big Ten could give Notre Dame one final shot, the sixteenth spot in a landscape that dictates that 16 is the number of completion. If they balk for the umpteenth time, then Georgia Tech or Rutgers would be prime candidates.

16-team Big Ten Pod Scenarios

For the sake of curiosity, this is what the four pods would look like for the new Big Ten. Assuming the Big Ten sticks with the planned 9-game schedule, the three protected, cross-pod rivals are in parentheses. (Or the league could simply stay at 8 games as a concession to Notre Dame, which would create a different scheduling scenario.)

Coastal

Virginia (Illinois, Michigan, Iowa)

Duke (Northwestern, Notre Dame, Minnesota)

North Carolina (Indiana, Michigan State, Wisconsin)

Penn State (Ohio State, Purdue, Nebraska)

Lakes

Ohio State (Penn State, Michigan, Iowa)

Indiana (North Carolina, Michigan State, Wisconsin)

Illinois (Virginia, Purdue, Nebraska)

Northwestern (Duke, Notre Dame, Minnesota)

Heartland

Michigan (Virginia, Ohio State, Minnesota)

Notre Dame (Duke, Northwestern, Wisconsin)

Purdue (Penn State, Illinois, Iowa)

Michigan State (North Carolina, Indiana, Nebraska)

Plains

Wisconsin (North Carolina, Indiana, Notre Dame)

Nebraska (Penn State, Illinois, Michigan State)

Iowa (Virginia, Ohio State, Purdue)

Minnesota (Duke, Northwestern, Michigan)

Pods would rotate every two years to create a division (with a home-and-home series for each team) which produces a representative to play in the conference championship game. For example, in year 1 and 2, the Coastal and Lakes division would play each other round-robin style (7 games), in addition to the extra protected cross-pod games (2 games). In year 3 and 4, the Coastal pod would play the Heartland pod (7 games), in addition to the protected cross-pod games (2 games).

With the protected cross-pod rivals, you’d not only keep all of the essential rivalries in the Big Ten, but you’d also help teams to travel across a wider variety of geography each season. The power teams (Michigan, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Penn State, and Ohio State) are spread out evenly across the pods, and the cross-pod opponents are fairly divided out (nobody has more than 2 protected cross-pod games against powerhouses; most have just one). This ensures that schedules aren’t too difficult to keep coaches from being fired every year or too weak to draw fans to the stadiums or viewers to the TVs.

As for Notre Dame, who is always rather persnickety about their schedule, they’d keep their current rivals in their pod but would get to travel from the plains to the coast yearly. They’d keep USC as a yearly opponent (this fits nicely into the Pac-12/Big Ten scheduling agreement) and Navy as well. Stanford, who isn’t currently a yearly foe of the Irish, could be scheduled additionally, or another diverse foe (like a Big 12 or Big East team) could also be picked up. Again, if they want the paycheck, they’ll have to make minor concessions.

Could this send Dick Vitale to his grave?

I doubt the ACC will implode, now or ever. The Big East is still stumbling forward, and unlike the ACC, it’s always had a shaky foundation. The ACC has an almost 60 year history together.

But if it does, I can’t imagine the Big Ten not expanding its membership to include the three blue bloods of the league—Virginia, North Carolina, and Duke. And with a league of 15, it’s hard not to imagine Notre Dame finally accepting the Big Ten’s gargantuan dowry and tying the knot.

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