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If ACC crumbles, which schools are most coveted? Who could be left behind? Ranking resumes

·6 min read
Jared C. Tilton/TNS

College sports’ already cracked foundation shook to its core last week when UCLA and Southern California announced plans to leave the Pac-12 Conference for the Midwest-based Big Ten in 2024.

Last summer, Texas and Oklahoma jolted the landscape by joining the Southeastern Conference effective initially in 2025, but now it’s more likely to be by 2024.

Thus the superconference era is upon us, with the ultra-rich SEC and Big Ten gobbling up schools and markets as they please to only further distance themselves from the rest of the leagues.

That leaves plenty of questions surrounding the Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC who, along with the Big Ten and SEC, have been part of the Power Five group that dominated college athletics.

Clearly, there’s now the power two and the rest struggling to find footing.

So where do the ACC’s 15 schools stand? A grant-of-rights agreement, first signed in 2013 to stave off further departures after Maryland jumped to the Big Ten, protects the ACC’s schools from immediately jumping.

The Big 12 and Pac-12, as seen over the last year, are far more vulnerable to being picked apart these days.

But the ACC’s grant-of-rights agreement that runs through 2036 will only help for so long. The day will come when a school will see the riches available in the Big Ten or SEC and decide it’s worth it to jump and buy itself off its ACC tether or challenge that contract in court.

ACC leadership is working to find a way to make the league stronger, of course, to prevent that from happening.

But if that doesn’t happen and leagues look to poach ACC schools, which will be the most attractive?

Here’s a look, factoring in such things as football success (because that’s where the money is), academic reputation, non-football athletic success, market sizes and booster money.

In its own tier

Notre Dame

Analysis: Notre Dame is the linchpin for what comes next, it appears. ACC members for everything but football and ice hockey, the Irish could shore up many of the ACC’s weaknesses or seal its doom.

The Big Ten has long had its eye on Notre Dame – but only for all sports, unlike the half-pregnant deal that currently exists with the ACC.

Because Notre Dame doesn’t share revenue from its NBC football contract with the ACC, the only grant of rights revenue tied up is the non-football money. Thus, it would be easier for the Irish to buy their way out of that deal if the right offer comes along.

Top tier

Clemson, Florida State, North Carolina, Miami

Analysis: Just as with Notre Dame, all national brands here.

Florida State has the huge Sunshine State market for television eyeballs and recruiting on its side. Clemson’s two recent football national championships show it would line up well in the SEC. Even with the SEC already having members schools in both states, these two would be top choices.

Though a private school, Miami plays in a huge market and has shown it will pay to build a football program capable of winning national championships.

UNC doesn’t have the football pedigree of any of those schools. But it is a national brand in a burgeoning market (North Carolina is the nation’s 10th most populous state and rising). Plus UNC is part of the American Association of Universities (AAU).

Only five ACC schools are in the AAU, a prestigious group of 65 schools (63 in the US, two in Canada) renowned as top research universities.

Why does that matter? Of the Big Ten’s current 14 members, all but Nebraska are AAU schools. UCLA and USC will make that 15 of 16 when they join.

So you can bet that helps UNC when the Big Ten gazes east for more members, just as it helped Maryland and Rutgers a decade ago.

Second tier

Duke, Virginia, Georgia Tech, N.C. State

Analysis: Three more AAU schools here in Duke, Virginia and Georgia Tech, so that makes them Big Ten possibilities.

But there’s far more to discuss with those three.

None of those three have the football histories or recent results to suggest they’d have success in the modern day SEC. They’d all be near or at the bottom of the Big Ten as well.

All four, along with N.C. State, represent strong markets to help the Big Ten or SEC add to their advantages there. Of course, the SEC is already in the Atlanta market and the Big Ten is in the Washington, D.C., market with Maryland.

That’s why 10 years ago, prior to the ACC’s grant of rights agreement, loud whispers around college athletics had the Big Ten eyeing the Yellow Jackets.

Adding Virginia, along with perhaps, UNC would give the already strong Big Ten a boost and help Maryland.

Duke is a national basketball powerhouse and its rivalry with UNC in that sport is a proven winner in the television ratings game. While that’s far less important than it was, say, 15 years ago, it’s still a valuable property other schools can’t touch.

Still, the Blue Devils could also find themselves left out because of their small, private-school enrollment and, thus, alumni base.

N.C. State would provide the SEC a foothold in North Carolina, which neighbors three other SEC states (Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina). A non-AAU school, the Wolfpack would culturally be a better fit for that league than the Big Ten.

While not historically strong by SEC standards, the Wolfpack football is currently on the rise and its passionate fan base supports it.

Third tier

Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Louisville

Analysis: Virginia Tech and Louisville have football programs that have fielded top-level teams at times over the last three decades.

Louisville’s propensity for NCAA issues is a serious black eye, but in the new name, image, likeness world and the uncertain future for NCAA governance, will that matter? Probably not to the SEC but likely to the Big Ten.

Syracuse has its strong basketball reputation but a spotty football program. It would help in the New York market, which can’t be overlooked. But the Orange are in danger of getting left behind.

Pittsburgh is an AAU school that plays in a major television market that loves football. Those are all pluses. But the Big Ten looks like a natural fit for the Panthers. But that league, with Penn State, is already in Pennsylvania.

Bottom tier

Boston College, Wake Forest

Analysis: Both are private schools, neither among the AAU schools. Wake Forest is playing strong football of late. Boston College has, at times, over the years.

Wake Forest and Boston College have small fanbases. Yes they both play in intriguing television markets, with Boston among the nation’s biggest for decades and North Carolina growing rapidly. But neither school, for different reasons, is a major factor in those markets.

Hard to see a path into power conferences for either of these schools if the Big Ten and SEC take total control.