Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby came out of a meeting with his conference’s athletic directors on Monday with some standard general non-news about any possible expansion plans. However, he reinforced some reports that the Big 12 was evaluating alliances with different conferences, including the ACC. Why would the Big 12 openly suggest an alliance with a conference that many believe would be the primary target for a raid?
People that relish in ACC Armageddon rumors point out that proposed alliances have led to raids in the past, such as the old Big 8 and Southwest Conference discussing that scenario (and the Big 8 subsequently taking Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor from the SWC) and the Big East and ACC exploring the same (leading to the ACC in a decade-long bludgeoning of the Big East). The ACC Armageddonistas surmise that the Big 12 is following the same playbook of luring Jim Swofford to hand over sensitive conference information in “alliance talks” and then stab them in the back in a few months with a raid. Of course, that assumes that ACC schools want to join the Big 12.
Certainly, there’s a chance that the leadership of the Big 12 is leveraging the prospect of an alliance publicly while engaging on a reconnaissance mission behind closed doors to poach the likes of Florida State or Clemson. More likely, though, is that the Big 12 can’t expand with anyone that they deem worth having (according to Bowlsby, schools that would be worth in excess of $26.2 million per year each in additional revenue) on their own. The Big 12 is in a position where it can’t be “proactive” – a school such as Florida State isn’t going to be open to the Big 12’s overtures without the Big Ten and SEC first (a) confirming that neither wants to invite the Seminoles themselves and (b) raiding other ACC members to the point where staying in the league would be unpalatable.
As a result, the Big 12 can’t be the first mover here no matter how much their fans may want them to be. That’s why the news out of that conference over the past month has been about alliances with the ACC and finding ways to change NCAA rules so that they can hold a conference championship game with only 10 teams. The University of Texas might have leverage with other conferences as an individual school, but the Big 12 as an overall entity has much less leverage than what many conference realignment observers seem to believe.
The dilemma is that the ACC schools that the Big Ten and SEC most likely want in expansion happen to be the ones that are least likely to move. I’m often accused of having Big Ten bias as an Illinois alum (by the way, the least 3 weeks of the basketball season have been excruciating), but I’ve been pretty consistent over the past couple of years in stating that Jim Delany doesn’t have complete poaching power over everyone in the ACC. Virginia and North Carolina are the real potential prizes for the Big Ten and it’s probably the same for the SEC. (Football-focused fans often see Virginia Tech and North Carolina State as the most likely targets for the SEC out of the current ACC membership, but make no mistake that UNC and UVA are ultimately the most valuable additions as old money academically elite flagship institutions.) The problem is that neither UNC nor UVA really fit well in either the Big Ten or SEC – they are too Southern to be really desire being in the Northern-based Big Ten and too wine-and-cheese to enjoy being in the SEC. There is also a large split between the academically-minded leaders of these institutions that would prefer the Big Ten while T-shirt fans would want the SEC. The ACC provides the balance of being Southern and the perception of having an academically-oriented league (never mind the fake grades for athletes in Chapel Hill) that schools can’t find anywhere else, which will make it very hard for either UNC or UVA to leave. (Count Georgia Tech and even Florida State in that equation, too.) In essence, UNC and UVA are to the ACC what Texas and Oklahoma are to the Big 12: the league lives as long as both of those are schools are still there (and those schools know it).
So, that’s where I see the threats of the ACC becoming completely coming apart end up failing. UNC, in particular, has Texas-esque influence (even if it’s more perceived than real) in the ACC, and the actions of Deloss Dodds and the Longhorns have shown that power and big dog status can be even more important as making the most TV money from a conference. (Notre Dame feels the same way.) As a result, the thought that UNC and UVA are going to bolt because they are scared that the ACC will collapse doesn’t hold water with me. Those 2 schools can keep the ACC together alone and they have enough powerful alums with massive pocketbooks and politicians backing them where getting more TV revenue isn’t going to carry the same weight with them as it did with Maryland.
Now, once again, I can never say never in conference realignment. Maybe Jim Delany’s projected revenue figures for a Big 16 or Big 18 are so outrageous that he can put the smackdown on the ACC more than I’m giving the Big Ten credit for. Maybe Mike Slive is freaked out enough about the thought of either the Big Ten or Big 12 getting into the state of Florida by adding Florida State that the SEC would take the Noles in an act of self-defense. In either event, it’s really up to the Big Ten or SEC to make a move. The Big 12 would then have to hope that some other valuable pieces would fall their way. I don’t see that happening anytime soon, but the speculation will continue.
(Image from Atlantic Coast Conversation)