ACC Played Its Cards Correctly, but SEC Still Looms

I don't often compliment the ACC about much other than basketball. It's fun to look down on the conference as the SEC's little brother and relentlessly tease fans of its teams for the conference's perpetual football mediocrity.

However, I have nothing but compliments for the way that the ACC handled its expansion business this past weekend. John Swofford knows what his conference is, and he didn't go pretending it's something it's not. It's never going to be one of the top two football conferences, so after doing his due diligence in listening to Texas, he chose to move forward by grabbing Big East schools with decent football and good basketball. After all, he (like everyone else, it seems) probably thinks four 16-team superconferences are coming. If so, he had to act to make it crystal clear that his conference, and not the Big East or a zombie Big 12, would be one of them. 

He identified a couple of schools that fit the description above and then worked quickly and quietly. News broke of Pitt and Syracuse potentially moving on Friday night, and they were officially in the conference on Sunday morning. There was no adding one school and then waiting on another, causing instability and making people speculate on 13-team schedules. It's even in his favor that the Big East doesn't have any schools like Baylor, willing to sue because it knows it's going to be left out of a major conference. All of the remaining Big East schools have to play nice in order to potentially get an ACC invite in the future. To top it all off, the conference raised the exit fee to $20 million to give it an extra air of stability.

All in all, the ACC did everything right. That said, the 14-team configuration the ACC is moving to is not likely to be its final form.

The SEC will add Texas A&M; it's only a matter of time. A 13-team configuration is not pleasant, so a 14th school will come eventually. If the Big 12 falls apart, Missouri will likely be that school from everything I've read. West Virginia is apparently a candidate as well. I wouldn't be surprised if the Big Ten went after Missouri though, as it's an AAU school. Every member of the B10 except Nebraska is a member, though Nebraska was one when it joined the league last summer. Of the AAU members that make any kind of athletic and geographic sense for the Big Ten (Iowa State, Kansas, Maryland, Mizzou, Pitt, and Rutgers), Missouri is one of the most attractive.

If the SEC chooses to go to 16 members, it will need to poach anywhere from one to three ACC schools to get there. West Virginia is the only Big East school likely to be a candidate. That includes TCU, by the way, as it is redundant TV-wise given A&M and doesn't fit with the conference as a whole as a small private college (one Vanderbilt is enough). Missouri is there but might go to the Big Ten. Figure out those two and you know how many ACC schools are necessary.

A "high-ranking SEC official" told the Sporting News' Matt Hayes that "every option is on the table now". Presumably that means any kind of gentleman's agreement about not taking schools from current SEC states is off. It also probably means that the conference will move forward without any concerns of stepping on others' toes. The ACC broke the realignment seal by actively taking schools from another conference, so the SEC and Pac-12 can now act without having to feel like they started this. They can point to the ACC and say they're just reacting to current events. It also means ACC schools are fair game for the SEC and Big Ten, as them taking ACC members is no different from what that conference just did to the Big East.

As for the $20 million ACC exit fee, it's a not a huge deterrent. Imagine the SEC ends up with either Missouri or West Virginia and must go get two ACC schools to get to 16. It's tough for a school to come up with an extra $20 million in one year, so let's imagine that the other 14 SEC members decide to front them some of the fee to be repaid with reduced shares of the TV money over time.

If you split the $40 million 16 ways, it costs everyone just $2.5 million each. If the ACC schools pay half of their fees and the rest is shared among the other 14, it's just $1.43 million per school. The league office might have a rainy day fund to help kick in some change too, and the new SEC-16 TV contracts, which would be richer on a per-year basis than the existing SEC deals, would far exceed the ACC's current contracts. If the ACC schools run their first SEC year's budget as though they're on the old ACC deal ($13 million from TV annually), then however much above $13 million it ends up being is money they can use towards the exit fee. It's totally doable.

With the gentleman's agreement, if it ever existed, likely dead, an SEC headed to 16 teams would likely target Florida State above all other ACC schools. It has the largest national profile and would essentially claim the entirety of Florida's large TV markets for the SEC (not even people in Miami really care about Miami). From there, a quest for completely new TV markets would probably lead the league to explore adding Virginia Tech and/or NC State.

Of course, we don't know if the conference is even going to go to 16 teams. For as inevitable as everyone seems to think four 16-team superconferences are, university presidents are in charge and can do whatever they want. If they want to stop at 14, they'll stop at 14. Other than Missouri, no one who might join then SEC is a threat to move to the Big Ten or Pac-12. The SEC won't be able to take teams from them, and vice versa. The conference has the luxury of time for that reason.

Of course, anything I've written here is liable to be out-of-date by tomorrow. I've checked my Twitter feed periodically while composing this post to make sure I don't miss any pertinent details. That's how this realignment game is being played, and until the dust all settles, the very fluid nature of the story is something we'll all have to deal with.

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