Everything is working against the Atlantic Coast Conference right now.
The SEC and Big 12 have arranged to play a shared bowl game ("The Champions Bowl") paralleling the Big 10 and Pac-12 champions' Rose Bowl. It appears the winners of both bowls will play for the national title each year.
Currently, the discussion centers around whether the two bowls will feature the champions of those four conferences or the four highest ranked teams in the country. If the SEC and Big 12 have their way and the top four teams get in, history suggests either a Pac-12 or Big 10 champion will be displaced by a second Big 12 or SEC team on a fairly regular basis. If the Big 10 and Pac-12 get their way, conferences like the ACC and Big East may find themselves at a further competitive disadvantage in terms of retaining their membership. Really, the Big 12 probably wins in either scenario.
Either scenario does not appear to leave much space for the ACC or Notre Dame on the big stage. Both look like big losers in this next step of college football realignment.
Most reporters expect terms to be reached on a four team playoff and an announcement by the end of the month. Should such a playoff be announced, the Big 12 would appear to have a clear path to the football national title game and the ACC might not.
The Big 12 is reportedly targeting ACC school Florida State as team 11 with either Notre Dame or ACC school Clemson to be team 12. Both ACC schools allegedly have some interest as the Big 12 TV deals pays more than their $17 million dollar a year ACC share. Membership in the Big 12 would likely end up netting them in the ballpark of an extra $5 million, or more, per year. More importantly, membership could give them a fixed path to the national title game each year.
In May, TCU's Athletic director was caught on record saying that Miami, FSU, and Clemson all had an interest in joining the Big 12. He later claimed to have misspoken, saying he was stating what was in the “rumor mill, not confirming schools interested in the Big 12.”
Regardless of the spin, it appears time may be running out on the ACC as a top level FBS conference.
While in realignment, conferences are rarely picked apart to a point where they cannot survive. Raided conferences are regularly reduced in stature and media earning potential.
Surviving this intact will probably require the ACC to make a big, bold move.
There are two scenarios I can think of that would preserve the ACC as a high caliber conference.
They amount to working with Notre Dame or working against them.
This editorial will be about the former, as it allows the current ACC membership to control their own destiny.
The ACC's realignment moves over the last 2 years—adding Pitt and Syracuse—appear to have been in part about becoming more attractive to Notre Dame.
It may be time to go from Plan B—quietly recruiting Notre Dame to become an equal member—to Plan Y—pushing all the chips in and publicly begging the Irish and their fan base to ride in and save the ACC.
It is not difficult to envision a scenario where the ACC is hobbled, or even picked apart
We will push Notre Dame to the side for now as it seems fairly likely that Notre Dame will resist Big 12 overtures in the short term.
While it seems pretty apparent that FSU's president Eric Barron is beating the drum for the academics at FSU, who are clearly dead set against a move to the less academically prestigious Big 12, the position of Florida State's Board of Trustees is still up in the air.
In May, Andy Haggard, chairman of the trustees, made national news by saying the trustees should, and would, listen to all offers. The damning parts of his quotes were that in his opinion conference alignment means little to member schools academically, implying that his willingness to listen to offers was a shared attitude on the FSU board.
That triggered a series of media articles questioning the stability of the ACC, and asking what other ACC schools may be wanting out. Two days later, what seems to be a rather stilted letter written by Barron, posed as a fair assessment of pros and cons of the move, was sent to a number of alumni. This was very predictably posted online, making the whole effort look a lot like damage control.
This month a new chairman of the FSU BOT, former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives Allan Bense, was voted in. That may or may not change the prevailing view on the FSU BOT.
Haggard's two year term as chair was up, but he will remain on the BOT until 2015. The press release from FSU about Bense replacing Haggard praised Haggard as "a passionate supporter of the university" among other things.
Today, FSU is looked at as the finger in crack of the ACC's dam.
Will that continue to hold?
Does the position of the FSU BOT change now that the Big 12 has set up their bowl alliance with the SEC?
Of course there is the money, but the path to the title game may be the bottom line.
If Florida State wants to play for football national titles, their boosters would likely want the school to be in a conference with a regular pathway to compete for national titles.
That doesn't appear to be the ACC anymore.
The SEC allegedly has a deadman's pact between Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina to form a voting block to keep out FSU, Georgia Tech, and Clemson and retain their in-state recruiting advantages by remaining the only SEC schools in those states. Given the motivations, it seems likely that Florida would also block Miami, so what options are available to the ACC football trio?
Clemson and Florida State have long been reported to be displeased with the perceived special benefits North Carolina and Duke get in the ACC anyway.
FSU is the ACC's strongest school athletically. They are a dominant program in multiple sports. They are a name brand nationally with a strong following in Florida and it's neighboring states.
Clemson is a strong regional brand with good support from North Carolina to Georgia. (They too are on record as stating they would listen to offers.)
And Miami isn't chopped liver either.
Their NCAA troubles, and lack of recent football dominance, appear to have the Big 12 looking at FSU first, but there are many ways the Big 12 could compromise the ACC. Miami is still the closest thing to a national brand in the conference. In addition to football, Miami has a strong history in baseball. In media terms they are one of the ACC's big guns. They would offer the Big 12 a great recruiting position in talent rich South Florida. Miami also has recruited well in Texas over the last 2-3 decades, so this kind of move could revive their winning ways.
All 3 of these ACC schools are "football schools."
As the Big 12's additions of TCU and West Virginia prove, there probably will again be point where the Big 12 lowers their sights from the Notre Dames and Florida States of the world. When that point arrives, a pair like Clemson and Miami could sound very reasonable to the Big 12.
Losing any two of those schools would amount to a heck of a loss to the ACC's media value.
A movement like this would trigger two likely dominoes.
First the ESPN/ACC deal reportedly has a clause that says if the ACC expands by two schools, the ACC can renegotiate their TV deal, and if the ACC loses two schools ESPN can renegotiate the TV deal.
If the ACC loses two of their best assets, it seems likely ESPN is going to want to pay them less.
(Northern lawyer turned realignment writer, Frank the Tank, looks at what happened with the Big 12, and believes the ACC may be able to talk ESPN into paying the ACC the same TV dollars if a similar raid occurs, as the ACC also has leverage—they provide a ton of ESPN content. I have my doubts. I don't see the two situations as similar. Among other things, ESPN was already in bed with the key player in the Big 12 (Texas) with the Longhorn Network. The collapse of the Big 12 would likely have hurt the profitability of that long term financial commitment.)
Second, The Big 12 will probably get a sizable bump in their payouts—very possibly yielding them more for their first and second tier rights than the SEC receives. This will ruffle some feathers in the SEC and rouse SEC fans to want immediate expansion, but the SEC will likely take action for entirely different reasons.
The SEC's raid of the Big 12 is likely a blueprint of what could, and probably will, happen to the ACC. The SEC waited until the Big 12 looked like it was unstable, and then casually threw out offers to Texas A&M and Missouri.
The SEC does not want to be seen as the conference that destabilizes another conference. They apparently fear some legal action along those lines, but as soon as the ACC is staring at the rocks, look out for the SEC. The SEC appears likely to come for two schools, likely in states that expand their footprint as they want to maximize the value of the SEC network they are developing. Adding new large population states does that.
These points, and the potential of further raids of the ACC, could easily motivate the SEC to preemptively target Virginia Tech and another ACC school, perhaps North Carolina State.
Virginia Tech had to get help from the Virgina state legislature to force their way in, but I am not convinced that would make it impossible for them to leave, especially if the perception is that the ACC has been critically injured and that the commitments of other ACC schools are shaky. I doubt the powers that be in Virginia would want to risk another ACC school taking Virginia Tech's SEC spot.
As far as motivation goes, with the ACC's TV money potentially going down, and the SEC network being developed, the SEC will be paying quite a bit more. Why would a school like Virginia Tech not take the first step and force North Carolina State to make a really tough call (given all the ties between NC State and UNC)? If polls can be trusted, Virginia Tech fans seem to favor of a move to the SEC by a wide margin.
Or the SEC could be really bold and offer UNC and Duke their last two spots. Southern awyer turned SEC Expansion editorialist, Clay Travis, theorized last year that the SEC has that goal for their two open eastern slots. While Duke football is not much of a get, UNC and Duke moving west would erase the last of the poor-academics criticism of the SEC. Still, from my perspective it seems the SEC members schools are over that.
Either way, it seems fairly likely that the SEC will further injure the viability of the ACC if the Big 12 breaks the seal.
This would again rob the ACC of major TV value, and could trigger another ESPN renegotiation.
At that point, as the difference in money between an ACC member's TV revenue and a Big 12 member's revenue might be closer to $10 million. Georgia Tech and Miami could be extremely motivated to pursue a Big 12 invite.
At some point—perhaps right after a FSU and Clemson defection—the Big 10 could get involved.
One of the big score scenarios for the Big 10 is pulling the 4 dominant academic schools from the ACC—Maryland, UNC, Duke, and Virginia. ( Big 10 commissioner Jim Delany was a three year member of the UNC Tar Heel basketball team in college. He of all people would know all of the positives in this kind of addition.)
That would give the Big 10 the beating heart of ACC basketball, and quite a few valuable media markets.
I think if things go down that path, you might see the Big 10 announce they are done with expansion. Unless Notre Dame wants in, then, the Big 10 will offer Notre Dame, and one other school, a spot (possibly Rutgers in order to have a presence in the NYC DMA) in an 18 team conference. After all, why would the Big 10, a conference with their own network needs, pass on a 17th and 18th school if those schools are Notre Dame and Rutgers?
Could the ACC ever be totally consumed? Maybe. I think the greater fear should be that it really would not take many losses to reduce the ACC's media value to a point where it is barely higher than that of the Big East in 2010-2011.
Would a conference at that level be looked at as part of the elite conferences, or just another mid-level conference like the MWC, CUSA, and the Big East?
Is that caliber of conference going to get any playoff access concessions?
It certainly would not be attractive to Notre Dame.
A collapse of the ACC could really force Notre Dame's hand
Do the Golden Domers want to eat crow and admit the Big 10 out maneuvered them, and that the Big 10 would be the best home for Notre Dame in terms of perception and money?
Do they want to eat slightly less crow, but perhaps chew it longer, by joining the Big 12 and admitting Deloss Dodds and UT outmaneuvered them? They at least can continue to flip the bird at the Big 10 leadership, but UT will always be knowingly smiling at the Golden Domers. Can the Golden Domers bear that?
Does Notre Dame do something totally unanticipated and join the Pac-12? While it works on a surprising number of levels, who is their travel partner then? Colorado? It just seems very unlikely.
It has been a long time since Notre Dame was a national title contender. The playoff seems in part designed to freeze out the Golden Domers, and force them into conference affiliation.
The other path: Notre Dame as the hero of the FBS masses
There is one path I see forward that absolutely screws the future plans of Mike Slive, Deloss Dodds, & Jim Delany—the powers that be in the SEC, Big 12 and Big 10 respectively.
Notre Dame temporarily joins the ACC for the length of the current ACC TV deal.
If Notre Dame joins the ACC, I think the network partners will insist the ACC has an equal chance at the playoffs as the big four conferences. The ACC would simply represent too many viewers to be bypassed.
Potentially this positively answers every question for the ACC and Notre Dame.
How it could work
When a school moves from one conference to another it often causes a realignment ripple effect—like throwing a pebble in a pond. The initial movement triggers subsequent realignment in conferences lower in the pecking order.
Notre Dame football is probably the most valuable media asset in college football. Critics who simply look at the TV checks don't understand the value. The Irish's payouts are somewhat low because the Irish are not in a conference, so their viewership cannot be leveraged like UT's, USC's or Michigan's. Notre Dame joining a conference would allow that.
Notre Dame moving would not be a pebble triggering realignment ripples, it would be an iceberg triggering a realignment tidal wave.
Any detailed investigation of Notre Dame potentially moving into a conferences besides the Big 10 will project massive movement, and this editorial is no exception.
It all starts with what would be required to land Notre Dame.
BCS Conferences used to stop their expansion at 12 members. Now the SEC has 14 and is clearly positioned to add two more eastern schools to balance their geography. 16 members seems the standard of the near future. The age of 16 member super conferences appears to be just over the horizon.
I am puzzled by that. Any conference large enough to consider 16 members is going to quickly discover what the membership of the 16 team Super WAC did—that it is hard to setup two divisions that your membership likes.
Frankly, 18 members offers much better scheduling flexibility over a large footprint. Keep in mind, an 18 team conference divides nicely into either two nine team divisions or a trio of six team divisions. Those numbers are pretty ideal for both scheduling and controlling travel costs.
For a number of reasons I think the ACC would have to go to 18 members in a three division format to land Notre Dame. (The championship game match up could feature the two highest ranked divisional champions.)
The ACC going to 18 members would obviously trigger some major realignment at the FBS ranks.
A potentially viable plan for the ACC would be to add Notre Dame, UConn, Rutgers and a fourth school (but specifically not Big East linchpins Temple, UCF, USF, or Louisville) to get to 18 members.
That would give the ACC the most popular brand in the northeast in Notre Dame, and a local toe hold in every big northern media market that cares about Notre Dame—with the exception of Philadelphia (more on the Philadelphia/Big East pass in a second).
The ACC would also have all of the northeast to sell their other high profile brands—Syracuse, Pitt, UConn, UNC and Duke basketball, Miami & Florida State football and baseball.
The problem with the ACC is while they have had some really great markets, their top brands have struggled in the last decade, suppressing the value of the conference. This realignment would finally allow the ACC to extract appropriate media value for their sports.
It would make a lot of sense to offer the last slot to a school in a top four conference. Vanderbilt or West Virginia come to mind. This kind of ACC could be far more appealing to the leadership at academically-minded Vandy than the SEC. Vandy isn't the type of school that would feel anguish over the fact that they would be leaving a conference with a clear path to a football national title for one that may not. Vandy is also likely smart enough to recognize that the SEC starting a lucrative network does not mean other conferences can't do the same. The ACC's markets, plus Notre Dame, would have quite a lot of value. Finally, remember the SEC thinks so highly of their conference value that there is no exit fee to leave the SEC.
West Virginia's TV rights are owned by the Big 12 for the next 13 years, but it is clearly a marriage of convenience. The value the other 17 potential ACC teams bring could very possibly allow the Big East to match what the Big 12 is paying West Virginia, in spite of not having those media rights.
A Notre Dame addition, plus that kind of bold raid, would tell the fans and the broadcasters that the ACC is an equal player in the national title hunt. It would put a lot of pressure on the minds behind the playoffs to include the ACC.
Making it work for Notre Dame
Three points would have to be addressed to make this work for Notre Dame.
1) Notre Dame doesn't want to join a conference.
2) Notre Dame's schedule must be maintained at all costs.
3) Notre Dame's fans have to see it as a deal the school cannot pass up.
Notre Dame likes being independent
The deal would really have to be sold as a temporary one. It would make sense for it to only last for the length of the ACC's current TV deal.
Call Notre Dame an "associate member in all sports" if it helps, but trying to add the Irish stands the best chance of success if sold to Notre Dame fans as a temporary arrangement to weather the current instability in the BCS world.
Say this deal is designed to protect Notre Dame's ability to potentially play as an independent in a football national title game in the future, and it should appear more palatable to Notre Dame fans.
That said, it could be spelled out in writing that in exchange for Notre Dame surrendering their Olympic home in the Big East (for now) in order to engage in this effort, the ACC would guarantee in writing that Notre Dame will have a potential home for their Olympic sports in the ACC (if they want it) when the deal ends.
Notre Dame is content with the status quo. Any deal cannot leave them in a worse position down the road.
Notre Dame's national schedule has to remain in place
Notre Dame's national schedule is non-negotiable. The Irish do not simply cling to the idea of a national schedule to be stubborn—their schedule is what has made them capable of landing their own very lucrative TV deal.
Notre Dame is not the national brand they are because they are a Catholic university. It isn't because they haphazardly play games in any state where a large group of Catholics can see them (as you can see from these numbers from Wikipedia).
Catholicism by state:
1) Rhode Island 63%
2) Pennsylvania 53%
3) Massachusetts 44%
4) New Jersey 44%
5) California 37%
6) New York 36%
7) New Hampshire 35%
8) Connecticut 34%
9) Texas 32%
10) Arizona 31%
11t) Illinois, Louisiana, North Dakota 30%
14) Wisconsin 29%
15) Nebraska 28%
16t) Florida, New Mexico, Vermont 26%
No, they are a true national brand because they play games in big stadiums in the largest population DMAs in the U.S. where large numbers of Catholics live.
ND gives those Catholics in those key DMAs a chance to see the Irish live locally on a semi-regular basis. The national schedule gives fans in those key markets a chance to renew their fandom. Those fans leave the games and continue to watch Notre Dame on TV each week in those key markets.
That is the magic of Notre Dame's national schedule. It has made them THE national brand in college football with significant fan support nationwide.
Their scheduling philosophy is brilliantly suited to sell their brand to the most marketable chunk of the 22 percent of Americans that are Catholic.
Notre Dame's schedule has evolved into a money making equation suited only for them.
(For example the University of Texas may very well be the second most valuable athletic program nationwide in terms of media appeal, but that doesn't make UT a true national brand. UT's support is mostly in Texas and the surrounding states. Why would fans in New York or LA want to watch Longhorn football? There is no grab for sports fans in distant DMAs to tune in to watch Longhorn football. Or Alabama football. Or Michigan football. Or Florida. Notre Dame football is very unique product.)
If you take away Notre Dame's national schedule, you injure the Notre Dame brand.
With that in mind, the most lucrative outcome for Notre Dame and the ACC is to protect Notre Dame's schedule at all costs.
That can be done in the ACC if ACC schools are willing to add a few more schools, and to suspend some minor rivalries for a few years in order to save their conference as a top-level conference.
Who Notre Dame Plays
Here is a list of Notre Dame's most common football opponents:
Rank - School - Football Games Played vs. ND:
1 Navy 85
2t Purdue 83
2t USC 83
4 Michigan St 75
5 Pittsburgh 67
6 Army 50
7 Northwestern 47
8 Michigan 39
9 Georgia Tech 34
10t Air Force 29
10t Indiana 29
12 Stanford 26
13t Iowa 24
13t Miami FL 24
15 Boston College 21
16 Penn St 19
17 North Carolina 18
18t Nebraska 16
18t Wisconsin 16
20 SMU 13
21 Illinois 12
22t LSU 10
22t Texas 10
24 Oklahoma 9
25t Tennessee 8
25t Tulane 8
25t Washington 8
other ACC schools and candidates: Florida St (7), Syracuse (6), Duke, Rutgers, West Virginia (4), Clemson, Maryland, Vanderbilt (2), Cincinnati, Connecticut, North Carolina St., Virginia, Wake Forest (1).
An 18 team, three division ACC formatted this way:
Golden Dome - North - South
Notre Dame UConn Virginia
Boston College Syracuse Duke
Pittsburgh Maryland North Carolina
Rutgers West Virgina/Vanderbilt North Carolina State
Georgia Tech Virginia Tech Clemson
Miami Wake Forest Florida State
Basketball Divisions (organized by possible travel partners):
South - East - North
Miami/FSU WF/Duke BC/UConn
GT/Clemson UNC/NC St. Syracuse/Rutgers
VT/WVU(or Vandy) Virginia/MD ND/Pitt
and playing only six in-conference games in football (five in division and one out of division) could net Notre Dame the following annual schedule:
week - opponent:
2) Purdue (or occasionally local alternatives Indiana and Northwestern)
4) Michigan (the Wolverines just signed up for a long term series)
5) Stanford (or Texas, Army, or Air Force)
6) UNC (out of division ACC school, maybe FSU, Duke, or Syracuse some years)*
7) Boston College*
9) Georgia Tech*
* In-conference games
Besides their home games in the Chicago DMA (the #3 DMA in the US), that would have Notre Dame playing bi-annually in or near NYC (the #1 DMA in the US), Los Angeles (#2), Chicago (#3), San Francisco (#6), Boston (#7), Atlanta (#9), Detroit (#10) and Miami (#16).
Most of those are DMAs with significant Catholic populations.
That schedule resembles a Notre Dame schedule, but honestly may be a bit too tough. Luckily the ACC is down and historic power programs like Michigan, Miami, and USC are a little off while Notre Dame football appears to be on the rise under Brian Kelly. Kelly appears to have an uncommon knack for winning games. Notre Dame may very well be the winningest team on that schedule in the coming years, needing to only fear upsets rather than pull them off.
Ideally, Michigan would agree to let Notre Dame occasionally play UT and Stanford in week four, allowing the weaker academies to play Notre Dame in week five for the length of the ACC agreement. That would make the schedule more tolerable, but it is unclear how much help Notre Dame can expect from Michigan. Any scheduling concessions the Wolverines give makes it easier for the Irish to snub the Big 10 and move into the ACC.
Notre Dame fans have to buy in
For years, Notre Dame's leadership has sold it's fans on the idea that being an independent sets Notre Dame apart.
With the terms of the playoffs still under discussion, the speed of executing a move to the ACC is vitally important today. That said, I believe Irish leadership effectively cannot change directions on their fan base in response to a standard, equal share offer from the ACC.
Notre Dame's leadership appears to be a hostage to their own "Independence is our brand" rhetoric.
I question whether those leaders could join a conference as an equal partner today without angering a number of powerful alumni, and potentially even putting those leaders' jobs at risk.
For Notre Dame's leadership to consider saving the ACC, the Irish leadership needs the ACC to provide wiggle room with Notre Dame fans. And quickly.
To swing Notre Dame's fans, the ACC would have to break their long standing rule about sharing revenue equally and pay Notre Dame a larger share to accept a temporary deal. That is the long and short of it.
The ACC has to wow the rank and file Notre Dame fan.
I think allowing Notre Dame to take a share and a half for the length of the current TV deal would be about right. If a share in this ACC is worth $20 million, Notre Dame should get $30 million. If a share ends up being worth $24 million, Notre Dame should get $36 million. (It could be spelled out in writing privately that should Notre Dame chose to remain in the ACC for the next TV deal, all parties would get equal shares.)
A share and a half would probably give Notre Dame one of the largest TV paychecks in college sports and would go a long way to providing Notre Dame's fans with a reason to bless the temporary marriage.
When you consider Notre Dame is probably the most popular college football team in two of the country's three largest DMAs (NYC & Chicago) and may be one of the 6 most followed college teams in the third (LA), the price seems reasonable. Notre Dame would give the ACC media clout that no other school could deliver.
The resulting ACC schools' normal share would likely be greater than the $20 million per school that Big 12 schools take home, meaning ACC presidents and members of their boards of regents/trustees—academic and athletic supporters—could agree there would be no reason for an ACC school to move to the Big 12.
Additionally, there are other reasons that conceding such a deal would make sense for the ACC.
It appears that the ACC is at a bit of a disadvantage being under contract with ESPN only.
While ESPN has to be sensitive about a school leaving the Big 12 for another conference under contract with ESPN, because FOX also has a TV deal with the Big 12 (potentially Fox could sue ESPN), there are no concerns about movement the other way.
If two or more schools move the other way, Fox is happy and ESPN can reduce their ACC payouts. If ESPN fears lawsuits from ACC schools, they could potentially keep their per team payout to ACC schools at the same rate—that may not be a likely outcome.
Notre Dame has a current TV deal with NBC. Notre Dame makes a reported $15 million a year. On the surface that looks immensely undervalued when everyone in the ACC makes more, but that is the nature of being an independent.
NBC has been a loyal partner to Notre Dame, but that TV payout will likely go up a lot in the next deal. If Notre Dame asked NBC to work with them, ESPN, and the ACC, NBC likely would.
In a conference, Notre Dame's very large fan base would likely watch games featuring the Irish's conference competition, driving up viewership numbers (and advertising revenue) conference wide.
Could NBC pick up some ACC games to help cover the revenue increases? It seems within the realms of possibility.
The elements are there to erase the lack of protection against raids that the ACC's current contract with only ESPN creates.
ESPN, a national network, would likely agree to quite a bit if they came out with a hook to pull in Notre Dame's nationwide fan base.
Notre Dame has the leverage, media savy and clout to force ESPN into concessions that the ACC cannot extract.
Notre Dame may be able to add some kind of escalator clause into the ACC contract that would protect the future valuation of the deal.
Perhaps Notre Dame could force the addition of a clause that states when any other conference's TV deal is renegotiated, the ACC deal can go before an independent arbitrator to confirm their deal still reflects current market value.
There is little reported to exist in the ACC contract today that protects the ACC from being stuck in a bad deal long term. I think after five years they can look at the deal, but that is a far cry from going in front of an arbitrator.
Notre Dame could even help stabilize the ACC by insisting special treatment for UNC and Duke end. This could even lead to a new conference commissioner to launch a new era for the ACC.
And if Notre Dame leaves at the end of the deal, the members of ACC will be stronger having invested the additional money (I would guess $3-5 million) each year into their athletic programs.
And Notre Dame can be the hero for the Big East
Notre Dame has long had an affiliation with the several Catholic universities in the Big East. The Irish leadership is probably loathe to just abandon them due to the fallout and damage that could generate to the Notre Dame brand in the Catholic world.
This plan, starting with Notre Dame's departure, can help put the Big East back on stable ground.
Big East fans may be thinking, "How can you say that? This totally screws the Big East. The Mountain West Conference may be a better football conference. The Big East may even lose Boise State back to the MWC. Frankly, the ACC would be smart to play the MWC."
Notre Dame leaving the Big East could actually be a huge gain for the Big East in tying the conference to the ACC.
It is true that the ACC champion will need to play someone's champion in a bowl game, but what loyalty does the ACC have to the MWC? Remember, the Big East teams have much better attendance and are located much closer to the eastern bowls.
An affiliation with the Big East rather than the MWC is much more attractive to most of the bowls.
Why not play the Big East champion in a strong historic bowl, say the Orange Bowl?
With the old BCS agreement winding down, the Orange Bowl probably doesn't have anything better going on and the geography works for all parties.
Mechanics of a new Orange Bowl
A smart deal would publicly spell out to the press that if either participating Orange Bowl champion is ranked in the top four, they may be excused to play in the Rose or Champions bowl. Language could be in place to state that the departing school could be replaced by a displaced champion from the other top four conferences.
That would put a ton of pressure on the networks and both the Rose and Champions bowls to work with the ACC. There would be a ton of pressure from advertisers thinking about the very populous Northeast to include the Orange Bowl. It seems likely that the playoff's opening round might begin with the three highest ranked champions of the four top conferences, and an at large team taken from the three remaining champions of the top six conferences in the Rose and Champions bowls, with the Orange Bowl getting the last two champions.
This would effectively create a slightly less prestigious third BCS bowl. That would make the ACC and the Big East once more BCS automatic qualifier conferences, which would help both conferences with their TV deals.
Rebuilding the Big East
In this plan, it would make a lot of sense for the ACC and Notre Dame to try to steer the Big East to match the composition of the ACC—18 football members and 18 basketball members.
With Notre Dame's influence and promises of a lot of assistance to the Big East, it should be very possible to steer the Big East in a productive direction.
Why bother? Because it adds value for the ACC and Notre Dame.
I think this would be a sensible setup for the Big East considering their starting point.
Big East 2015?:
Near East - Far East - Not East
USF UCF SMU
ECU UAB Colorado St.
Temple Cincinnati UNM
Villanova Louisville Air Force
Navy Memphis Boise St.
Army Houston SDSU
Basketball (organized by possible travel partners):
South - East - North
UNM/SMU Memphis/Louisville UMass/Rhode Island
Houston/UAB Cinci/Temple St. Johns/Seton Hall
UCF/USF Marquette/DePaul Villanova/Georgetown
A large conference footprint equals bad travel. There is no ignoring the Big East's bad geography.
Having 18 teams allows for three six-team divisions and much cheaper divisional play than the two divisions 12-16 teams dictate.
Additionally, the Big East limiting in conference games to say seven a year opens the door to scheduling one and one out of conference series between some members of the Big East and ACC to fill another two to three games a year. That would again control costs and travel time.
This kind of scheduling opens the door for a lot of potential benefits.
Consider the state of Florida, one of the nation's premiere recruiting territories.
UCF and USF could play FSU and Miami each year.
(If they should also agree that only FSU, with their long standing policy of playing Florida in all sports, would play Florida and that all of the schools in the cabal agree not to play Georgia, Tennessee, Auburn, Alabama or South Carolina in football, they could mostly isolate the SEC. Eventually this would allow the ACC and Big East to begin to control Florida recruiting which would bring the SEC back to the pack competitively. If they used their body-bag games, they could even pull in FIU and FAU into their isolationist cabal.)
This plan would mean a lot of football-only additions to balance out the seven basketball-only members.
The types of slots dictate the types of members. Football-only slots should be earmarked for good draws that would appeal to bowls, or fan bases that would appeal to TV.
Using Notre Dame's Olympic slot to recover the Boston DMA appears sensible. The Big East would be smart to fill that slot with UMass' Olympic sports. A UMass addition would help the Big East's reputation in New England. The Minutemen have a strong statewide following that would help off-set the media appeal losses of UConn and Boston College. The money and exposure a Big East membership would provide could speed up the development of both of UMass' revenue sports into Big East caliber programs.
Losing UConn would be another blow to the gut for Big East basketball. With that in mind, the all sports slots their departures would open should be filled by schools with strong and well supported basketball programs first. Just having potential in football, and the potential to draw large crowds, may suffice as the current membership and the football-only members can carry the weight.
Rutgers and UConn are not great bowl candidates. Replacing them with a football-only member that draws well and is an annual bowl team—like East Carolina—would actually make the Big East a lot more attractive to lucrative southeastern bowls.
Olympic member Villanova has a pending offer to join the football Big East. It may be rough for the Wildcats to transition to the FBS level on the field, and in the stands, but a weak Northern Division may actually be a selling point for the conference in the eyes of Army.
Getting all three military schools on board as football-only members would give the Big East three national fan bases to tie together the Big East's modest and regionally diverse TV offerings. Navy is already in. Air Force balked at the last minute citing loyalty to MWC schools, and Army has been pretty ambivalent to the idea.
If Air Force joins, Army may quickly come around.
How do you get Air Force in the door? Notre Dame could try to encourage Army and Air Force to join, perhaps even by sacrificing the Stanford game to clear week five on their packed schedule for alternating match ups vs. the two academies, but that doesn't trump questions of loyalty.
So who is Air Force loyal to in the MWC? It clearly isn't Fresno State and Nevada-Reno.
Logically Air Force's loyalty/self-interest probably extends to the remaining other members of the "Gang of Five" voting block—Wyoming and Colorado State—and neighboring New Mexico.
While Wyoming would offer little to no value to the Big East, Colorado State and New Mexico are merit worthy candidates.
Like Boise State and San Diego State, Colorado State would likely take a football-only membership to the Big East. CSU is working to build a new, larger, on-campus football stadium that should push up their attendance substantially. CSU is located in the geographic center of the Denver DMA, so they will represent good media value if they resolve their stadium weakness. (I place them a little higher than UT San Antonio and Southern Miss for that reason.)
The University of New Mexico has a great basketball program that would fit in with the Big East. Their football would likely do a lot better in the Big East. Big East TV money, improved conference reputation, and and in-conference games in Texas could really spur a major improvement of Texas recruiting. That could dramatically improve UNM's football records and the support they receive in football. Also, the State of New Mexico not only covers the Albuquerque DMA, but also much of the El Paso DMA, so the media value of UNM is a little better than it appears at a glance.
If both of those schools are in the Big East with Navy, Air Force has a much easier decision.
Air Force and Colorado State could put their Olympic sports in the WAC, a move that would likely encourage Boise State to stay. Air Force has stated that they would prefer to be in a less competitive conference for their Olympic sports. The WAC would fit the bill competitively, academically and geographically.
That could do a lot to save that conference as a I-AAA conference. Both Colorado schools would be in the same conference in all of their sports. Colorado residents cannot ask for more loyalty from Air Force than that.
One would think Army would follow, as the resulting "Near East" division looks fairly light on quality. Playing in that division with a soft out of conference schedule should address the strength of schedule concerns Army may have about playing in the Big East. Army should be able to pocket the Big East TV payouts while continuing to squeak into bowl games on a fairly regular basis.
Tulsa is an excellent school, and is competitive in both revenue sports, but they are a tiny private. Their non-public status, and athletic and academic strength may give them a surprising number of votes, but there is a strong argument that adding the University of Alabama Birmingham would be of more value.
UAB could do a lot to sew together the conference's difficult geography.
UAB may be the strongest basketball school from year to year in the state of Alabama. Their football program has lagged behind due in large part to an inability to secure funding. Like Memphis, UAB has a large, aging stadium in a large city. A Big East offer could supply the funding to hire a good local recruiter like a Terry or Tommy Bowden and to begin facility upgrades. There is every reason to believe UAB may be a slumbering giant which wakes with Big East money.
Notre Dame's choice.
For the ACC, Notre Dame's choice could very well determine the fate of their conference, so they may want to think about making their best offer.
Does the membership of the ACC stay together as a collection of like-minded schools with similar goals, or do they become spare parts for the power conferences?
Do they have a loud, shared voice in matters or do they become silent, powerless pawns in conferences dominated by others?
Realignment raids make winners and losers. Are half of the schools in the ACC ready to become losers (relative to their current position)?
For the members of the ACC, it appears time to make their best offer to Notre Dame, or prepare to live with whatever the power conferences do to the ACC.
Notre Dame has an easier road.
Notre Dame will almost certainly be taken care of in the upcoming playoff announcement, but if the ACC is parted out, it seems fairly likely the big four conferences will probably eventually try to use access to the playoffs to force Notre Dame to chose a conference.
At that point, Notre Dame may not have access to powerful partners like UNC, Virginia, Miami, Virginia Tech, Duke, and Florida State.
The ACC's survival as a top conference is probably Notre Dame's last shot at holding on to independence long term.
It would pay well.
And it could be temporary.
There are all the reasons in the world to consider joining.
Notre Dame has avoided making these kinds of realignment choices. One would think that in most of the moves the Irish have considered, there would be almost as much downside as upside due to angry feelings from fans of the Catholic universities Notre Dame would leave behind.
This plan has very little downside, and in fact could finally extract them from those issues with no hard feelings.
So, do they buy in and make it work? Do both parties make a deal?
Keep your eyes open next week for the second and last editorial in this Bleacher Report series. What if Notre Dame says no? Well then the ACC has to work against the interests of the Irish. Tune in for the ACC's final big option. Plan Z.