In realignment, the unexpected loss of a core team can easily breed panic, which makes for more losses.
The Big Ten, in taking Maryland, a seemingly loyal member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, appears to have shaken the ACC membership. The leaderships at several member schools have publicly expressed concern for the future of the conference.
The ACC had been riding high with the admission of Notre Dame. As just under one-fourth of the American public identify themselves as Catholic, including significant populations in Chicago, New York, and a number of very large and valuable Northeastern Designated Market Areas, the ACC membership was looking forward to their TV deal eventually reflecting that value change.
Now the ACC membership (and the rest of the college football world) have to look at the likely end results of the Big Ten's addition of Rutgers and Maryland—TV payouts from the Big Ten network that may be in the $30-40 million range per team annually—and wonder how they can retain their members.
The Southeastern Conference lurks
The SEC is a conference headed by extremely proud people. They will probably be looking at per team annual payouts in the $24-28 million range once the value of Texas A&M and Missouri are reflected in their TV deal. It seems very unlikely the SEC will be content to see the Big Ten schools making up to $16 million more than their schools make.
There was a thought at one point that the SEC might view adding North Carolina and Duke as optimal expansions as it would eliminate the spectre of poor academics in the SEC and add new territory in North Carolina, among other concerns.
The thought was the SEC might be willing to wait for UNC and Duke to tire of running their own conference against strong realignment headwinds.
Now that seems to no longer represent enough TV value. The SEC is looking hungrily at the states of Virginia and North Carolina.
And that should be a major concern for the ACC and it's core—The University of Virginia and the North Carolina schools.
An ACC school looking favorably on a Big Ten invite does not reflect dissatisfaction with the ACC
It should be understood that if the Big Ten waves upwards of $35 million annually in front of almost any school, that school is probably gone.
The Big Ten is the premiere FBS conference in terms of academics, research budgets, and TV athletic payouts. It really isn't close.
Given those attributes, they could probably land any school they want, except for the most valuable schools by far on their want list—Notre Dame and the University of Texas—who have their own goals and enough leverage to resist.
Despite the fact that Rutgers and Maryland represent a great financial move for the Big Ten and likely do not represent anything beyond a financial decision, the standoff between the Irish and the Big Ten leadership appears beyond personal.
The Big Ten schools may be perfectly willing to wait in order to land Notre Dame on the their terms. No one really knows.
While the reports that the Big Ten was talking to Georgia Tech are probably true, it may be unlikely they would try to add Georgia Tech and Florida State today as that would get their membership to 16 schools.
Thoughts of the Big Ten adding Virginia and North Carolina may also be valid rumors of potential plans for the Big Ten, but it may also be unlikely the Big Ten membership wants to consider those moves before they add Notre Dame. There is also the reality that it will would be very hard to convince Virginia and UNC to leave Duke behind.
The Big Ten membership may hope to land Notre Dame in a 16 team setup to maximize profits.
The Big Ten probably hopes the addition of Maryland destabilizes the ACC enough to allow the SEC to pull some schools, weakening the conference further. From there, maybe the Big Ten could add Notre Dame and say Virginia or Georgia Tech.
It is unlikely the Big Ten adds Georgia Tech to get to 15 prior to securing Notre Dame as that could create a situation where they are stuck with 15 members indefinitely.
It seems likely that the Big Ten is hoping for a raid perpetrated by the SEC or Big 12.
When you are thinking about "flight risks"—schools that may be unhappy with aspects of the ACC—I think it is sound to limit one's thinking to schools that would take a relatively minor financial upgrade to get into a much lesser academic conference (the SEC or Big 12).
The ACC appears to have 3 notable flight risks.
Florida State has sought SEC inclusion on and off for decades. Earlier this year, a member of the Florida State Board of Regents publicly stated he was eager to hear what the Big 12 had to offer.
In response to that media storm, FSU's president spelled out the much greater academic prestige of the ACC in a seemingly stilted, allegedly "leaked" public letter, putting the idea of a conference change on the back burner for now. While FSU is a football first school, they have developed into quite a good academic school. Now there is also an academic faction pulling to stay in the ACC.
If FSU would go with them, Clemson would probably leave for the Big 12 today—if an offer came. Clemson does not seem to offer enough added value to merit serious consideration by the SEC.
Also there is rumored to be an alliance between Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina to work together to block the admission of their in-state rivals Florida State, Georgia Tech, and Clemson.
Virginia Tech's administrators have winked at the SEC (and denied it) since almost the moment they finagled their way into the ACC. There was a tweet recently saying that the AD at Virginia Tech would entertain an SEC offer...He quickly denied saying that.
Put bluntly, these schools are cultural oddballs in the ACC. Unlike their fellow members, they appear to value football as much or more than they value the academic prestige of the ACC. It means more to significant groups among their fans and leadership to be in a better football conference than a better academic conference. This is unusual in the ACC.
Should Virginia Tech jump, adding a state of 10 million to the SEC footprint, some suspect it could potentially push SEC payouts to almost $30 million per school. Should the ACC still be at $17 million annual TV payouts at that point, it might be pretty tough to prevent a second very valuable ACC school from going with the Hokies.
The Big Ten can add a school from the ACC at will. It doesn't mean they will.
The Big 12 and SEC are not as nearly as compelling because their academic reputations are lacking. Their appeal to an ACC school (outside of Clemson) appears to be reliant on having a significant edge in TV payouts over ACC payouts.
Given that no one has jumped to the Big 12, $3 million plus a couple million in recouped third-tier rights does not seem sufficient to entice an ACC school to jump.
Putting a number to the cost required for an ACC school to endure a lesser academic conference may be something north of $5 million a year. Keep in mind that the ACC should also have a significant edge in basketball payouts now that will level some of the playing field from their TV shortfalls.
To keep the current ACC schools, the ACC has to buy time until probably around 2017 or so when the first instance of the escalator clause in their ESPN contract is due to hit. This clause is designed to ensure the ACC contract is reflecting market value.
The ACC clearly has a great TV footprint—it's actually quite good compared to most of the other contract conferences (and it might get even better soon).
Their basketball conference looks to be the undisputed best in the US for the foreseeable future as soon as the new teams begin play.
Florida State football appears to be once more be becoming a program capable of putting together another run of top 10 seasons. Virginia, North Carolina, NC State, and Virginia Tech, with their assets, are all capable of suddenly emerging as consistent top 15 programs. (Plus Miami can't be on probation forever can they?)
The ACC just needs to keep their membership together for a few years.
So what steps could the ACC take to stave off a raid by the SEC and buy time?
I have seven things the ACC could do that would help protect them from predator conferences. Some are admittedly fairly radical and far-fetched, but I hope you find them all enjoyable.