On College Football Realignment

A clear and concise look at possible conference realignment by POV reader Joe Lawrence.

Last week’s news about Texas and Oklahoma giving the bum’s rush to their Big 12 (B12) college football conference partners in search of the almighty dollar in the SEC was a bit surprising… and at the same time, not at all. The Longhorns have flirted with other conferences in the past – both the Pacific-12 (PAC-12) and Big Ten (B10) were suitors. And the pairing with the PAC-12 was given a long look by both parties.

To be honest, I thought that Texas A&M’s move to the South Eastern Conference (SEC) gave the conference the TV footprint it needed in Texas and it might not need another school. Silly me! The Longhorns are one program that any conference would take in a heartbeat. As for Oklahoma, anywhere the Longhorns go, so goes the Red River Rivalry.

Obvious questions following this news are: what happens to the remaining B12 schools? Specifically, what do the Hoopies do in a heavily diluted conference? And will other Power Five (P5) conferences make expansion moves in response?

Today, Jay Bilas of ESPN indicated that ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips should call the SEC and propose a merger. Jay doesn’t always get it right and I believe this is one of those times. But his remarks did get me thinking about the future of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and upon reflection, I think he has it half right.

In a merger of businesses (and college football is a business), the end game is to unlock accretive value. Sometimes it comes through back-office consolidation; other partners bring complementary products/services which when paired unlock higher sales. Often, a merger will give the combined concern greater geographical reach.

I’m not sure overall that the ACC offers any of those things. It’s a second tier P5 conference whose TV network has not been able to get a cable deal in the geographic markets where it has a different footprint than the SEC – namely the Xfinity markets of the mid-Atlantic. The SEC has a significantly better TV deal than anyone other than the Big Ten. Adding Texas and Oklahoma though makes perfect sense from a financial standpoint. The two bring accretive value.

Rather than call the SEC, Jim Phillips may want to call an investment banking firm that specializes in large, complicated transactions. I say this because I believe the ACC’s break-up value may be actually greater than its total. An argument can be made that a split of the ACC between the SEC and B10 could create more TV revenue than otherwise.

If one goes down this path, who goes where there is the biggest challenge? Some current ACC schools such as Clemson and North Carolina State feel like SEC programs. Others like Syracuse and Boston College feel like logical fits in the B10. Here is a table with some rough thoughts about who might go where in such a deal:

ACC SchoolAAU MemberBigTen FitSEC FitBest Non-Conf geographic rival
Boston College          YY Notre Dame
Clemson  YSouth Carolina
Florida State    YFlorida
Louisville         YKentucky
NC State          Y?
Syracuse        Y Rutgers
Wake Forest     ?
Duke  YY ?
Georgia TechYY Georgia
Miami   YFlorida
North CarolinaYY ?
Pitt     Y  Penn State
Virginia          YY Maryland
Virginia Tech    YWest Virginia

Notice that the first column in the table notes membership in the Association of American Universities (the AAU for short). This is important to B10 school Presidents – the folks who actually decide on membership invitations. AAU schools share non-athletic resources such as libraries and research – something many sports fans overlook when considering a school’s fit in a conference. Thirteen of its schools are members and adding other AAU schools might be attractive. Only four SEC schools enjoy AAU status (and we all could have guessed that).

Something else to think about is a vague idea of “fit”. This can include geography, historic rivalries of fanbases, location of alumni, etc. I’m sure many of you might come up with something similar to what I’ve noted in the table, give or take a few changes. Taking a look at the last column of the table, many of those moves would bring some existing natural rivalries in-house.

Based purely on the table above, the two “buying” conference might each take six ACC schools, putting the SEC at 22 schools and the B10 at 20. Wake and Pitt still need homes. In return for the B10 taking both schools (despite the non-accretive value each would bring), Vanderbilt agrees to a “trade” to the B10 and the SEC “picks up” Nebraska in the deal. B10 Presidents are pleased with the shrewd deal-making, adding six AAU schools to their ranks.

Those folks aren’t wired like the average sports fans after all and have other agendas, such as being associated with other like-minded universities. The SEC then snatches up WVU and OkSt to round out to 24 schools and creating a reasonable geographic footprint. The B10, needing four schools of good academic caliber, picks up AAU affiliates Iowa, Kansas and Iowa State from the B12 trash heap.

It is at that moment that the investment bankers call Notre Dame President, the Reverand John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. and throw the Irish a life raft. As the mega conferences now can each hold their own playoff systems, talk of expanding the CFP quiets down. With Irish no longer guaranteed a spot at the CFP table, the Irish grab the lifeline.

In short, Pitt is a pawn in this transaction. Is anyone surprised?

There is of course a more realistic scenario where no trade occurs and the B10 does not pick up Pitt due to its TV market overlap with the Penn State Nits. Pitt – standing in a corner of the gym while all of the prettier programs dance together – plotting the chance to rekindle their relationships with Temple. If only we had an experienced, savvy AD who could leverage Pitt’s considerable position of strength…sigh…