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Evaluating Florida State as an Realignment Candidate

This could end up a conference game before too long.
This could end up a conference game before too long.

Over the weekend, Florida State board of trustees chair Andy Haggard finally gave everyone cover for openly discussing the FSU-to-the-Big 12 rumors by speaking about the matter. In ensuing comment threads, along with some from the past, you can find plenty of SEC fans expressing interest in the having the Seminoles join their league instead of the Big 12.

FSU is a complicated target as far as expansion goes for a variety of reasons. For this post, I'm going to do my best to keep my analyst hat on and rival fan's hat off.

It's a huge national TV draw.

Perhaps the best thing the program has going for it is broad national appeal. That's one of the most important aspects of these conference TV deals. Most all teams do well enough in their home markets, but if you can get people 3,000 miles away to tune in, that's very valuable.

Through the beginning of 2010, four of the top eight highest rated ESPN college football broadcasts involved FSU. Only one of those was in the halcyon days of the 1990s, too. Two of the more recent games were games with Miami (2006, 2009) plus another against Clemson (2007). Those three games were during the down decade for the program (and Miami's down decade too) and a record number of people still tuned in.

Keep in mind that telecasts on CBS and ABC regularly blow away ESPN's best numbers. CBS had 20 million viewers on last November's LSU-Bama game while the best ESPN did on that list was 7.5 million households. In any event, the program gets people from far away from Florida to tune in. Perhaps you could still view the program as redundant for the SEC as UF is also a big national draw and is in the same state, but there's not much reason at this point for the conference to go out and add someone who isn't a big national draw. Any additions beyond 14 have to really pull a lot of weight, and FSU would do that from a TV perspective.

Its fan support appears to be very elastic.

I'm using the term "elastic" here like an economist would. It seems to be very contingent on winning.

Check out the school on the college football attendance tool. Median attendance declined over 9,000 per game from 2007 (two years after the school's last ACC title) to the program's low in 2010. Attendance then bounced back more than 6,000 per game in 2011 after the team won 10 games in 2010.

Furthermore, the athletic program is in a financial hole thanks largely to declining revenue for Seminole Boosters. In its most recently reported year, the organization brought in $32.7 million. That's a decline of $10.1 million from its yearly revenue from four years prior. I expect that winning 19 games over the last two years will help donations perk up a bit, but it's further evidence that the fans and donors are a quite fickle. I don't know how much this factor matters in the grand scheme of realignment, but it is something to be cognizant about.

Geography is a challenge.

If you could create Florida State as we know it today out of thin air and put it anywhere you want to, you wouldn't put it in Tallahassee. It's only a relatively convenient drive from one of the state's major population centers in Jacksonville. Gainesville, by contrast, is roughly two-and-a-half hours or less (depending on traffic) from Jacksonville, Orlando, and the Tampa Bay area.

That's part of the reason why attendance is so variable. A Gator fan in Orlando is likely to drive the two hours up to Gainesville to see the team snack on a cupcake or play a non-rival opponent, but a Seminole fan might think twice about it thanks to the four-and-a-half hour drive. And for South Florida-based fans? Tallahassee is actually about 45 minutes closer to Baton Rouge than Miami according to Google Maps.

The state of Florida is very big, likely bigger than you think it is if you've never lived there. Because of that fact, Seminole fans who would have to fly to hypothetical Big 12 road games would be doing nothing different than what they already do get to many ACC road games. The flight requirement only gets stronger with the additions of Pitt and Syracuse.

The best travel situation for the team, band, cheerleaders, and students is the SEC, with five presumed division opponents (UF, UGA, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vandy) and four opposite division opponents (Auburn, Bama, Mississippi State, LSU) no more than an hour longer of a drive from Tallahassee compared to the second-closest ACC opponent (Miami). For the alumni fans who tend to fly to road games, the ACC is the best travel situation with most member schools being located near large airports.

Its history is a double-edged sword.

FSU only joined the ACC in 1990 and played its first season in the league in 1991. It actually turned down an invitation from the SEC in the process. Can you imagine any legitimate independent power doing such a thing today? It shows how much times have changed.

FSU doesn't wield as much power in the conference as it would like to because it is a relative newcomer. The ACC had been around nearly 40 years when the school joined, and the founding members had shared history in the Southern Conference dating back to the 1920s and '30s. It's not hard to find people asking why FSU would want to leave the ACC to go be under Texas's thumb, but it's kind of under the thumb of the core North Carolina ACC schools as it is. At least in the Big 12 the school would likely get millions of dollars more per season to feel better about it.

The trade off is that if it were to leave the ACC, the school wouldn't be sacrificing any long time rivalries to do so. Or, at least, it wouldn't have to if it didn't want to. The Big 12 would probably go back to an eight game conference schedule if it expands to 12, meaning FSU could still play Florida and Miami annually and maintain seven home games. That would prevent the school from playing very many interesting non-conference games outside the state, but that's not unprecedented in the region. If the school ended up in the SEC, well, it'd be even easier to maintain the two big in-state series.

Big 12 or SEC?

We know the Big 12 is considering expansion. We know the SEC would prefer not to expand seeing as how the league just went to 14. If FSU wants out of the ACC sooner than later, then there's really only one choice.

Overall, the SEC would be a better fit for the school than the Big 12 for geographic and cultural reasons. In fact, I think if Texas A&M waited until this summer to leave the Big 12, more likely than not FSU would be the SEC's 14th team instead of Missouri. FSU wasn't ready to think about leaving the ACC last year, but it certainly is this year.

Ultimately, I think it will take some kind of cataclysm to get FSU in the SEC. I really don't think the SEC will be the first conference to go to 16 teams. The powers that be discovered during the scheduling process just how hard it is to keep everyone happy with the new 14-team league, so they're not going to expand to 16 apropos of nothing. Last year's expansion was a unique opportunity to get the league into Texas, but no similar opportunities exist. It's not that they don't exist right now. They simply do not exist. The SEC would only go to 16 if either the Big Ten or Pac-12 leads the way.

The Pac-12 is stuck at 12 until Texas is ready to go there; we pretty much know this thanks to the conference turning down a package of just Oklahoma and Oklahoma State last year. As long as both the Longhorn Network and Pac-12 Networks exist, Texas will not be going to the Pac-12, period.

The Big Ten only considers AAU schools and Notre Dame as potential expansion candidates (Nebraska was in the AAU prior to losing that status after it joined the Big Ten). Looking over the list of AAU members, the plausible choices for the conference are Rutgers, Iowa State, Kansas, and ACC schools. The idea of Rutgers is better than the reality, Iowa State is redundant given Iowa, and Kansas sucks at football. The Big Ten would have to raid the ACC for at least three of its four additional teams, but I think the leadership up there is too conservative to make that kind of move.

In short, I don't see what will be the spark that sets off the superconference Armageddon. The Pac-12 is boxed in by geography and the Big Ten and SEC tend to be conservative. If and when that time comes, FSU will certainly be a candidate for joining the SEC, but not before.

It may feel somewhat inevitable that FSU leaves the ACC because of how much has gone on the past couple years, but nearly as much hasn't happened compared to what has. The possible Pac-16 and Pac-14 configurations fell through, and consequently the Big East wasn't able to pick up Big 12 refugees. The proposed merger of CUSA and the MW didn't end up happening either. Missouri practically threw itself at the Big Ten before Nebraska became that league's 12th member. Plus, UConn desperately wants in the ACC and Louisville wants in the Big 12, but both are still in the Big East.

FSU's president made a case today for staying in the ACC, and it seems like the leadership there is divided. As long as there is no consensus, there won't be any changes. FSU would be a positive addition for the newly stable Big 12, but it's not as clear cut an upgrade for FSU as when teams left the unstable Big 12 or Big East over the past couple years. That lack of clarity means uncertainty will reign until FSU's power brokers decide what they want to do.