Let’s be clear: The ACC has work to do. But that’s not nearly the same as being doomed, which is how some have characterized the conference after the double hit of Florida State’s (apparently overstated) flirtation with the Big 12 and the announcement of the SEC/Big 12 New Year’s Day bowl. As a public service, we attempt to distinguish flaming hyperbole from colder reality.
The ACC needs to tie itself to a big new bowl. This part is true. Indeed, this is essential. The chance of the champions from the SEC and the Big 12 being omitted from the presumptive four-team BCS playoff is small; the chance of an ACC titlist not making the final cut is rather larger. (No ACC team has played for the BCS title since Florida State in 2000, which was so long ago that Mark Richt was the Seminoles’ offensive coordinator.)
To be considered viable, the ACC cannot have its champ landing in, say, the Champs Sports Bowl. Nobody knows how the postseason matrix will look two years down the road — will existing bowls become part of the BCS tournament? — but the ACC can’t wait. It must find itself a worthy partner. That partner need not be the Big East, the least of the Big Six football leagues. Better for the ACC to forge an alliance with the runner-up from the Big Ten or the Pac-12 or even the SEC than to be doomed to a decade of playing Cincinnati. (Pie-in-the-sky scenario: The ACC aligns itself, bowl-wise, with Notre Dame.)
Florida State is already gone. Not true. Not even close. This whole kerfuffle resulted from Andy Haggard telling Warchant.com that the Board of Trustees “would be in favor of seeing what the Big 12 has to offer.” But ESPN obtained a memo written by FSU president Eric Barron that outlined the pros and cons of such a move, and the cons outnumbered the pros 7-4. Not least: “The faculty are adamantly opposed to joining a league that is academically weaker.”
The Big 12 needs Florida State more than FSU needs the Big 12. Even after adding West Virginia and TCU, the Big 12 is up to only 10 members. Any school considering Big 12 relocation must grasp that the Big 12 exists to prop up Texas. From Barron’s memo: “Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska and Texas A&M left the Big 12 at least in part because the Big 12 is not an equal-share conference. Texas has considerably more resource avenues and gains a larger share (and I say this as a former dean of the University of Texas at Austin).”
Florida State joined the ACC in 1991 for two reasons: Better academics and a clearer path to the football national championship. All that has changed is that Florida State hasn’t lately held up its football end. Were the Seminoles still going 12-0 or 11-1, they’d be in the BCS title mix. Rightly or wrongly, the Seminoles are still seen as the ACC’s football factory. In the Big 12, they’d stand third behind Texas and Oklahoma. Would that be an upgrade?
ACC commissioner John Swofford should again don his poacher’s hat. As unseemly as this sounds, it’s a pragmatic truth. The league will expand to 14 teams when Syracuse and Pittsburgh arrive, and it needs to grow more — and only in part because of football.
Swofford’s theft of Syracuse and Pittsburgh from the Big East changed the balance of basketball power. The ACC reclaimed first place in that derby, and for as much money as football generates we cannot forget that basketball is itself an attractive commodity. Simple math: The football season lasts roughly four months; the basketball season runs from mid-November to early April, which is closer to five months. And basketball teams play 30-some games, as opposed to 12 or 13, making for many more programming opportunities.
Swofford should go hard at UConn and Louisville, schools that graced the past two Final Fours and play competitive football. (Kansas would be a target if it hadn’t pledged to forfeit Big 12 TV money if it leaves.) Those two would stretch the ACC map and would make this the basketball league to end all basketball leagues. Marketing slogan: “You might not want to coach here, but you’ll darn sure watch our games!”
Such a course might seem counter-intuitive, but better for the ACC to play to its strength than a perceived weakness. Realistically, what available schools would burnish the ACC’s football image? (Notre Dame, maybe?) That doesn’t mean the league can’t survive: Not if its champ is given a chance to play for the BCS title when a chance is warranted; not if its champ is assured a profitable bowl home if it doesn’t make the four-team playoff, and not if good football is paired with great basketball.
One thing more: This isn’t the first time we’ve wondered if the ACC is bound for oblivion. But a check of history shows that the conference hasn’t lost a member since 1971, when Frank McGuire tired of his South Carolina Gamecocks getting beat in the ACC tournament. This league isn’t as bold and brassy as the SEC, but in its understated way it hangs tough. It’s not going away just yet.
By Mark Bradley