Every conference realignment discussion has included a doomsday scenario—a set of circumstances so rapidly evolving, widely affecting, and utterly surprising that the entire college football world is shaken to its core. Even the most stable memories.
Well ladies and gentlemen, brush off your doomsday scenarios, because we are staring down a college football landscape that could be very different in a couple years.
Texas A&M was just a warning shot of the potential shakeup to come. When the Aggies finally broke free of the bigger, cooler kid next door it left the rest of college football waiting for the reaction. Would the Big 12 work to stabilize itself at ten teams? Would Oklahoma and the rest of the desirable Big 12 teams look for greener pastures and leave Texas alone to admire itself 24/7 in the warm glow of the Longhorn Network? Would the Big East die a quick, painful, and much deserved* death? Who would be the first to make the jump to "superconference"?
*(You're telling me you don't want the three hours of your life back you spent watching UConn get destroyed in the Fiesta Bowl?)
The answer to all of those is: yes, not exactly, yes, and....the ACC?
In a move that surprised almost no one, Oklahoma began looking around once it realized that Texas was getting paid regardless, and the rest of the band hasn't been relevant in years. However, the Longhorns look to be following suit by flirting with the Pac-12. Counting on the obvious move of Oklahoma State anywhere Oklahoma goes, that makes an uneven 15. Enjoy fighting for that last spot members of the Big 12's "Left Behind" club.
Funny thing is, this isn't even the most shocking move of the last week. Sensing that trouble was brewing in the most unstable BCS conferences, the ACC was faced with two options: 1. hold tight and hope the SEC or Big Ten wouldnt't decide to make a current ACC school an offer it couldn't refuse, or, 2. build its own future and make sure that in doing so it threw its main competition, the Big East, to the wolves.
With Saturday's announcement that Pitt and Syracuse will join the ACC in 2014—the earliest date allowed by the bitter Big East—the conference has solidified its place in the future. Now a membership of at least 12 (necessary for a conference championship game) is almost virtually guaranteed*, and the conference has extricated itself from all those rumors of implosion that are all the rage in the plain states and the northeast**.
*(On the logic that the SEC needs only one school, and can only drop the ACC's membership to 13 if it talks FSU or VT into a switch, and also that 13 is more than enough to assure member schools of the viability of the league if the Big Ten comes calling and whispering sweet nothings about how the ACC is, like, totally done man, and we'll take care of you up here in the Midwest baby. Have you ever snuggled up to Wisconsin next to a fire while the jolly old girl fed you bratwurst and beer? It is heavenly.)
**(Disclaimer: all implosion talk in the northeast is focused specifically on baseball. They know nothing of this "College Foot-Ball" thing you speak of, and, quite frankly, are happy in their continued ignorance of your savage games.)
And so, we must look to the future again. While the Big East and Big 12 speak of the unholiest of unholy unions, and Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott sips martinis next to a pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean*, the Big Ten must now look out on the rapidly changing landscape and think back to what Jack Swarbrick said last year about "something something changes forcing Notre Dames' hand".
With the tenability of the Big East seriously in question, the Irish are a well placed coup de grace to the Big East from being out of a conference for its non-revenue sports. While this was the development the Big Ten has been looking for, unfortunately, it looks like the Big Ten's crush on the pretty girl from South Bend might still be unrequited.
*(The Pacific Ocean is the Pac 12's next target in expansion, because what is more powerful than an ocean. Let's see who is superior when the SEC rolls into town with the puny, oil soaked Gulf of Mexico, and the Big Ten blabbers on about "largest mass of freshwater in the world". "Bow before the Pacific," Scott cackles while motioning for Mike Bohn to freshen his drink, because owing Larry Scott a favor is the least desirable position to be in unless you can mix a mean martini.)
There have been a couple rumors floating around that Notre Dame only has eyes for the ACC. While the conference has nothing geographically or culturally in common with the Irish, there are a few important factors to consider.
- The ACC is an East Coast entity. Call it "East Coast bias" if you will, but things just seem to get more ink when they happen near the Atlantic. By joining the ACC, the Irish would be thrust even further into the eyes of the nation. Unfortunately for us, this probably means even more incoherent babbling from Lou Holtz about Notre Dame's imminent return to glory. You've been warned.
- The ACC doesn't have a network. Notre Dame likes its current TV deal with NBC and will do nothing to change that. While a merger with the Big Ten would be tricky, considering the media behemoth that is the Big Ten network, the ACC offers a now smaller media deal that is almost certainly in line to be renegotiated soon. The Irish are a big enough catch for the ACC—and nationally televised Notre Dame home games are a big enough gain for the conference—that the two sides could work out an agreement to keep Notre Dame home games under the watchful eye of NBC.
- The Midwest is dying. Recent census numbers show*that the Midwest is slowly losing population, while the Southeast and East Coast are doing as well as ever. By aligning itself with a booming area of the country, the Irish could easily avoid anchoring itself to a dwindling talent base that already has a few heavy hitters at the front of the buffet line.
Despite years of talk about how well Notre Dame fits with the Big Ten, the rivalries that are preserved, and the history that the football power shares with the Big Ten, the realities of the modern world look to be conspiring against the Big Ten in the short term. If Notre Dame joins a conference in the near future, it looks increasingly likely that the conference will be the ACC.
Notre Dame will quite possibly need a home very soon, and as much as it hurts this old Big Ten slappy to say it: while the Big Ten seems like a great fit because of the shared past, the ACC seems like the best fit for the future.
Your move, Jack.
*(For the record, when I cited "recent census numbers" I should have provided the actual data. Here it is: Between 2000 and 2010, Michigan lost .6% of its population, Ohio grew just 1.6%, Wisconsin grew 6%, Illinois grew 3.3%, Indiana grew 6.6%, Minnesota grew 7.8%, Iowa grew 4.1%, Nebraska grew 6.7% and Pennsylvania grew 3.4%. Compare the Midwest's growth numbers to the national growth average of 9.7% over the same ten years, Virginia's growth of 13%, North Carolina's growth of 18.5%, South Carolina's growth of 15.3%, Georgia's growth of 18.3%, and Florida's growth of 17.6%. While this is not technically a population loss because the population numbers are still going up, the fact that the Big Ten states I cited are all growing well below the national average, compared to the ACC member states growth at in most cases 1.5 to 2 times the national growth average, it is safe to conclude that the demographic shift is unfavorable to the Midwest and Big Ten conference --- no matter how poorly I word it or how little data I provided in the first published draft of this story. The Midwest's share of the overall population is shrinking compared to other regions, not literally shrinking. In the future I will back my assertions with numbers when necessary. This was one of those times, I originally failed to do so, and I am sorry.)