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Latest Crazy Conference Realignment Rumors Have ACC Either Growing or Splitting Apart

Disclaimer: these are just rumors, but given that it's the football offseason and we're in a lull before the conference basketball tournament, why not entertain them on a slow Tuesday afternoon?

SBN's Georgia Tech blog is reporting on some rumors from Kelly Quinlan of the GT affiliate. He apparently has some contacts within ESPN, which had a major behind-the-scenes role in the conference realignment episodes of the past two years, and those little birdies are chattering:

There's a rumor being reported by Kelly Quinlan of that comes from a couple contacts he has who work for a certain company with four-letter name (it doesn't start with F, either). This rumor states that the ACC is pushing pretty hard to get Notre Dame and Rutgers to join the conference, which would make the conference round out at 16 after the addition of Pitt and Syracuse. However, they're saying that this scenario does not have as much weight in likelihood as the next rumor: one that involves Tech leaving the ACC.

Before hitting the juicier one, let's process this for a minute. It's well known that Notre Dame wants to hang onto its independence for as long as possible. How long that's possible is an open question when its ratings on NBC are falling and with the big conferences consolidating. Navy's athletic director said during the press conference when his academy joined the Big East that, "Opportunities to exist as an Independent into the future are clearly in jeopardy." Notre Dame's prospects are different than Navy's, of course, but the tide of history turned against football independents years ago.

I, like most folks, expect ND to join the Big Ten if and when it chooses to jump in a conference, but it could be a fit in the ACC. There have been stories about that league courting Notre Dame for a while now too. I still don't understand the appeal of Rutgers, especially when UConn has practically thrown itself at the ACC, but I assume it has to do with the Scarlet Knights' (overblown) appeal in the New York market. Given that the conference would be in danger of losing members if the Big Ten and SEC choose to expand again, adding Notre Dame and some piece of the New York market would be a strong defensive move. The Irish by themselves might make it a stronger defensive move than adding Pitt and Syracuse was last summer. This one sounds very plausible to me.

Speaking of the Big Ten and SEC possibly growing again:

You read that right, there's a rumor with a little more smoke than the other one mentioned that involves said four-letter TV network pushing on the Big Ten (or so) to add Notre Dame, Rutgers, Maryland, and Georgia Tech by the year 2016. Georgia Tech would be offered $25-30 million in TV revenue (from the Big 10 network), meaning travel issues would be nonexistent. The same group expects the SEC to go after NC State and Maryland, also trying to reach 16.

So apparently the SEC will get in a bidding war with the Big Ten over Maryland then?

I don't doubt that the Big Ten will look to expand in the future to add more inventory and viewers for its network. I also expect it to push on Notre Dame hard to join up. Rutgers I guess is there again for the New York connection, and Maryland could make sense. It borders Pennsylvania and, like Rutgers and GT, it is an AAU member.

The big thing that keeps me from believing this is that I don't think the ACC is an unstable conference. The Big East and Big 12 were easier targets because they are younger leagues with less history binding them together. The ACC has undergone a lot of change lately, but its core of charter members (which includes Maryland and NC State) is pretty solid. In particular, I can't see NC State jumping to the SEC because the four North Carolina schools are the main power brokers of the league.

Still though, there are enough kernels of truth here that at the least make this a well put-together rumor.

Most everyone expects Notre Dame to be forced into a conference at some point. Georgia Tech has been a conference hopper before, leaving the SEC to become independent before joining the Metro Conference and then the ACC. Rutgers, like any current Big East member, would be open to leaving its league's instability for the firm foundation of the Big Ten. Maryland is in bad financial shape, and it might be desperate enough for cash to leave its ACC friends for a big payday with the Big Ten or SEC. The Big Ten Network would be adding the large New York, Washington D.C., Atlanta, and Baltimore TV markets. (Update/Note: this plan would give the Big Ten a direct presence in all of the nation's top 10 media markets except those in California and Texas, which are presumably out of reach geographically).

NC State's relationship with Duke and especially UNC is not that dissimilar from Texas A&M's with Texas, so that saga could repeat itself if NCSU wants to get out of a shadow or two and be on its own. The SEC's recent expansion moves were aimed at adding mid- to upper-tier schools from populous states without current SEC members, and you can see Maryland and NC State fitting that profile without too much squinting. You could even guess that the ACC's recent additions of Pitt and Syracuse were made with the knowledge that it could be losing members soon. Tie it all up with an "ESPN's pulling all the strings" ribbon, and it's a nice little package.

Of course the Big Ten doesn't have to listen much to ESPN because it has its own network, and the BTN is a partnership between itself and Fox. The SEC is likely to wait awhile before expanding again, if it even wants to, because it'll take some time to fully integrate Texas A&M and Missouri into the culture of the league. Plus, Mike Slive moves at a slower pace than most other commissioners do. The Big Ten has shown no interest in adding any more new members, and its upcoming scheduling arrangement with the Pac-12 was probably put in place as an alternative to expanding the league.

I don't see this one happening, but for what it's worth, I didn't expect any of the other conference realignment moves of the past two years either.