The already-cracked foundation of college sports shook to the core last week when UCLA and Southern California announced plans to leave the Pac-12 conference for the Midwestern-based Big Ten in 2024.
Last summer, Texas and Oklahoma shocked the landscape by initially participating in the Southeastern Conference in 2025, but now it’s more likely that it will be in 2024.
So the era of super conferences has arrived, with the ultra-rich SEC and Big Ten swallowing schools and markets if they want to just further distance themselves from the rest of the leagues.
That leaves a lot of questions about the Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC who, along with the Big Ten and SEC, have been part of the Power Five group that dominated college athletics.
It is clear that there is now power two and the rest are struggling to find a foothold.
So where are the ACC’s 15 schools? A rights grant agreement, first signed in 2013 to prevent further departures after Maryland jumped to the Big Ten, protects ACC schools from immediate jumping.
The Big 12 and Pac-12, as we’ve seen over the past year, are much more vulnerable to being taken apart these days.
But the ACC’s concession deal, which runs through 2036, will only help so long. The day will come when a school will see the riches available in the Big Ten or SEC and decide it is worth jumping and buying itself off its ACC chain or challenging that contract in court.
ACC leadership is working to find a way to make the competition stronger, of course to prevent this from happening.
But if that doesn’t happen and leagues try to poach ACC schools, what’s the most attractive?
Here’s a look, considering things like football success (because that’s where the money is), academic reputation, non-football athletic success, market size, and booster money.
On its own level
Analysis: Notre Dame is the hub for what comes next, it seems. ACC members for everything but football and ice hockey, the Irish could amplify or seal its demise many of the ACC’s weaknesses.
The Big Ten has been eyeing Notre Dame for a long time — but only for all sports, unlike the half-pregnant deal currently in place with the ACC.
Because Notre Dame does not share the revenues from its NBC football contract with the ACC, the only attribution of rights revenue is the non-football money. So it would be easier for the Irish to buy out of that deal if the right offer comes along.
Clemson, Florida State, North Carolina, Miami
Analysis: As with Notre Dame, all national brands here.
Florida State has the huge Sunshine State television viewership and recruiting market on its side. Clemson’s two recent national football championships show it would be a good fit for the SEC. Even if the SEC already has member schools in both states, these two would be top picks.
Although a private school, Miami plays in a huge market and has shown that it pays to build a football program capable of winning national championships.
UNC does not have the football pedigree of those schools. But it’s a national brand in a booming market (North Carolina is the 10th most populous state in the country and still rising). Plus UNC is part of the American Association of Universities (AAU).
There are only five ACC schools in the AAU, a prestigious group of 65 schools (63 in the US, two in Canada) known as top research universities.
Why is that important? Of the current 14 members of the Big Ten, all but Nebraska are AAU schools. UCLA and USC make it 15 out of 16 when they join.
So you can bet the UNC helps when the Big Ten looks east for more members, just like it helped Maryland and Rutgers a decade ago.
Duke, Virginia, Georgia Tech, NC State
Analysis: Three more AAU schools here in Duke, Virginia and Georgia Tech, so that makes them Big Ten opportunities.
But there is much more to discuss with those three.
None of these three have any football history or recent results to suggest they would succeed in the modern SEC. They would also all be near or at the bottom of the Big Ten.
All four, along with NC State, represent strong markets to help the Big Ten or SEC increase their advantages there. Of course, the SEC is already in the Atlanta market and the Big Ten is in the Washington, DC market with Maryland.
That’s why 10 years ago, prior to the ACC’s granting of rights, loud whispers around college athletics kept the Big Ten eyeing for the Yellow Jackets.
Adding Virginia, along with maybe, would boost the already strong Big Ten and help Maryland.
Duke is a national basketball powerhouse and his rivalry with UNC in that sport is a proven winner in the ratings game. Although that is much less important than it was 15 years ago, it is still a valuable asset that other schools can’t match.
Still, the Blue Devils can also be left out because of their small enrollment in private schools and thus alumni.
NC State would give the SEC a foothold in North Carolina, which borders three other SEC states (Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina). A non-AAU school, the Wolfpack would be a better fit for that league culturally than the Big Ten.
While not historically strong by SEC standards, Wolfpack football is currently on the rise and its passionate fans support it.
Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Louisville
Analysis: Virginia Tech and Louisville have football programs that have drafted some top-tier teams over the past three decades.
Louisville’s propensity for NCAA issues is a serious black eye, but in the new name, image, likeness world and uncertain future for the NCAA board, will that matter? Probably not for the SEC, but probably for the Big Ten.
Syracuse has a strong basketball reputation, but a spotty football schedule. It would help the New York market, which cannot be overlooked. But Orange is in danger of falling behind.
Pittsburgh is an AAU school that plays in a large television market that loves football. Those are all pluses. But the Big Ten looks like a natural fit for the Panthers. But that competition, with Penn State, is already in Pennsylvania.
Boston College, Wake Forest
Analysis: Both are private schools, neither among AAU schools. Wake Forest has been playing strong football lately. Boston College has, at times, over the years.
Wake Forest and Boston College have small fan bases. Yes, they both play in intriguing television markets, with Boston being one of the largest in the country for decades and North Carolina growing rapidly. But neither school is, for various reasons, a major factor in those markets.
It’s hard to find a way into power conferences for any of these schools when the Big Ten and SEC take total control.