And if so, what does that mean for UNC?
What a difference a year makes. This time last year, the Big 12 was in a death gurgle, the ACC raided the Big East for two of its peaches, and any talk of four superconferences included an eastern branch anchored by an ACC/Big East hybrid of some sort. Fast forward 12 months, and with college football actually moving towards a playoff, the scenario has changed significantly. The ACC has a new TV deal, but one that has left some members unhappy. The college football playoff model being proposed has a real chance of leaving the ACC on the outside looking in, and the Big 12 has re-emerged as some sort of zombie looking to eat brains, er, snap up some football schools to work its way back into national relevance. There was some significant saber-rattling by Florida State about a possible move to the Big 12 earlier this month, and now there are some unsubstantiated rumblings that Clemson wants to be the latest to grab the football-based realignment tiger by the tail (pun intended).
How did the ACC go from being ahead of the realignment curve to possibly being consigned the scrap heap of irrelevancy? Two words: football and money.
It is viciously ironic that chasing football success has put the conference in a potential predicament. Over the past 20 years, Florida State, Miami, and Virginia Tech were added for their football prowess, and some argue those additions came at the expense of the basketball brand for which the ACC was known. The unfortunate part for the league is that, with the exception of Virginia Tech (who was grudgingly accepted only after the Virginia legislature pulled a parent move and told UVa they couldn't go outside and play unless they took their little brother with them), the football-based expansion has fallen flat. Florida State and Miami have been irrelevant on the national stage for a decade now, and Clemson, who formerly held the title of the ACC's football-first school, has been irrelevant on the national stage for even longer. Now, with some improvement in football looming for FSU and Clemson and the potential for football cash from a desperate Big 12, the football schools appear to want to listen to what the Big 12 has to say.
If FSU and/or Clemson were to follow the money and leave the ACC, what would that mean for the league and for UNC?
First, the ACC isn't going anywhere. Its brand is too well-known and its footprint is too big to simply disappear. And despite the protestations of FSU fans and WuffLoons, commissioner John Swofford is a powerful guy on the national front. He will ensure the ACC has a seat at the table, even if it not as prime of a seat as some fans and the football schools would like.
Still, the ACC is known as a basketball-first league despite some varied success in football over the years. The Big East isn't going anywhere either for that matter, although the new Big East will probably be very much like the original Big East, with its primary focus on basketball despite a desperate grab to maintain relevance in football. The ACC's power to leverage basketball will also ensure it has a seat at the football table because the TV networks need quality programming in the winter as well.
FSU's interest in the Big 12 or any other similarly moneyed suitor is based in the fact their athletic department is buried in red ink. Yes, even a weakened Big 12 is potentially getting a few million dollars more than the initial years of the new ACC deal, but how much of that money will be eaten up in getting the women's softball team to Ames, Iowa for games or for flying the men's swimming team to Lubbock for a meet? Clemson is in more of a "keeping up with the SEC Joneses" situation, with South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee all relatively nearby. FSU has a similar problem with Florida but that is probably not the primary motivator. And while Clemson is not as cash-strapped as FSU, moving leagues is not as simple as what you're going to do in football and men's basketball. There is the program as a whole to consider, including attendance and non-revenue sports.
And of course there is the golden-domed elephant in the room, Notre Dame. The changing football financial landscape as well as the playoff situation may finally force the Irish to fish or cut bait when it comes to conference affiliation and the ACC has as good of a chance as anyone to land the golden goose. If that happens, the ACC suddenly becomes far more valuable on the football market.
With all those factors in play, the chances of Clemson and FSU leaving are slim, but it does represent a sea change that the prospect is even being openly discussed. Likewise, the ACC will remain a player in the national discussion, even if its voice is small.
But for the sake of the THB hypothetical, let's assume there is a move to four superconferences: Pac-12, SEC, Big 12, and Big 10. Where would UNC fall on that continuum in the new college football universe?
Option 1 would be to remain in a basketball-centric ACC. If Clemson and FSU leave, there would still be 12 schools with a reputation built on basketball. Football would be like that of the Mountain West or Big East and would have good competitive games and bowl tie-ins. Many UNC fans would not even notice a significant change in their daily experiences if that were to happen. The biggest difference, however, would be money.
With that in mind, Option 2 would be to join one of the superconferences, but which one? While some of the football-first people at UNC would immediately think of the SEC for its competitiveness and geographic location, the culture of the SEC may not be compatible with that of Carolina, particularly in the wake of the football unpleasantness. The Big 12 would offer neither, and since they appear to be making their bones on football, the interest on both sides would be tepid at best.
That would leave the Big 10 as a potential destination for UNC. From a culture standpoint, Carolina is much more compatible with the large state universities in that league, as well as the academic credentials of those schools. Plus, the Big 10's moves have been far more strategic than just football. With a lucrative Big 10 Network programming entity, the B1G is also looking to TV markets. That's why there was some interest in Maryland at one point, with the ability to tap into the Baltimore/Washington market. With two top-30 markets in Raleigh and Charlotte, UNC would be attractive from a revenue standpoint. If for some reason the ACC were to no longer be viable, the B1G would probably be a ripe destination for the Tar Heels, and with 4 spots to fill for a superconference, the league would probably jump on UNC and Maryland both.
Of course these things do not exist in a vacuum and the entanglements that exist for UNC are many. Politically and economically, UNC is tied to NCSU, and culturally and academically, Carolina is tied to Duke. It is hard to imagine UNC leaving the ACC without one or both of its Research Triangle brethren in tow, and while Carolina's total athletic package is a plum, Duke and State don't have quite the same overall appeal. It's one thing for a superconference to hold one spot for Carolina, but it's quite another to hold 2 or even 3 spots. This is yet another reason why the ACC more than likely isn't going anywhere.
The economics in play beyond football are probably going to keep FSU and Clemson in the ACC fold , despite the grumblings of football fans and loud-mouthed trustees who accuse the league of being too North Carolina-focused when it is the football schools that have left the league at the kids table in all this realignment brouhaha. The ACC will probably survive this trip on the merry-go-round intact, but check back this time next year, when things are likely to have changed again.