Clay Travis: ACC Schools All Want Out of the ACC

While most college football media and fans have been chasing Big 12 and Pac-12 expansion and realignment rumors, the truth of the matter is this: the future battles in college football expansion aren’t going to be fought in the Big 12 or the Pac-12, they’re going to be fought in the ACC. Because pretty much every ACC school wants to leave the ACC for the SEC or the Big Ten and unlike the Big 12 and the Pac 12, many ACC schools have substantial expansion value to both the SEC and the Big Ten. And there are two schools in particular, the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina, who will help to drive the next generation of college football expansion. I’ll discuss that below in a moment, but first let’s begin here: top ACC schools recognize that the future of college football is the SEC and the Big Ten and they want out of the ACC.

Ever since the Big Ten poached USC and UCLA from the Pac-12, the phones have been ringing off the hook at the SEC and Big Ten offices. Yes, many of those schools calling seeking to join the SEC and the Big Ten are in the Pac-12 and the Big 12, but it’s not a surprise those schools would be scrambling for new homes. What may come as a surprise to many is how aggressively the ACC schools are all attempting to join up with the SEC and the Big Ten.

Which is why the big story percolating beneath college football’s surface is this: how long is the ACC going to still exist as a major conference? And when will the raid on the ACC officially get underway? Because the ACC’s demise feels inevitable at this point, it’s just a question of when it happens, not if it happens.

In the short term the school with the most power to alter the conference realignment calculus is Notre Dame. If the Irish decide to join the Big Ten then it’s likely the Big Ten would expand further. If the Irish decide to stay independent then there may be a realignment pause for several years. How long could that pause last? A couple of years or maybe even a decade, no one knows for sure. The tectonic plates shifting underneath college football conferences can be difficult to predict. But much like we know earthquakes are inevitable, so too is the ACC’s demise. We just don’t know when it’s going to happen.

And when the ACC officially enters the realignment phase something unique will finally happen, the SEC and the Big Ten, who thus far have respected each others’ geographic territories, will finally square off, head to head. Yes, the SEC took Missouri, a long rumored Big Ten target. And yes, the Big Ten took Maryland, but so far that’s nibbling at the geographic edges of each conference. The SEC and Big Ten’s territorial integrity has remained intact to this point.

But the ACC will change all that because the Big Ten wants to come down the southern coast and gobble up schools in North Carolina and Virginia and the SEC wants to prevent that incursion and preserve its geographical ownership of the South. So what comes next? Welp, there’s chum in the water and the SEC and Big Ten sharks are going to eventually start feasting and once that happens the ACC as a major conference will cease to exist.

And here’s a tasty morsel to digest. Yes, the ACC is protected by a grant of rights agreement that extends into the 2030’s — a grant of rights agreement theoretically restricts a school from selling television rights to its sporting events to others and thereby undercuts the primary financial rationale for changing conferences, TV money — but if a majority of the ACC schools vote to end the grant of rights then in theory the ACC’s grant of rights disappears. So all those rumored tens of millions of dollars keeping the ACC from splitting up? It’s dangling over a precarious foundation, as soon as seven or eight schools have better options the ACC as we know it vanishes.

So what does that mean for the SEC and the Big Ten? Well, let’s start with major decisions that will have to be made by the University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia. Where do UNC and UVA see themselves in the years ahead? If the answer is the SEC, I think there’s a strong case to be made that the SEC would expand and take UNC and UVa. Maybe also adding NC State and Virginia Tech to the mix. That way a twenty school SEC maintains its territorial integrity and the SEC Network would lock in the valuable states of Virginia and North Carolina. This is something I’ve been writing about on Outkick since all the way back in 2012. The math hasn’t changed that much since then.

But if UNC and UVA picked the Big Ten, then I think the SEC would act quickly to add N.C. State and Virginia Tech and probably then move down the coast and add Clemson and Florida State too. The SEC might even be willing to take UNC, NC State, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech to keep the Big Ten out of its top markets and states. Yes, that’s half the ACC in one bite. But at that point the only top college football school remaining in an “SEC state” is Miami and there’s a belief that Miami, which lacks a large fan base, is a private school, and ranks behind Florida and Florida State in the state pecking order, isn’t a must have in the conference. Georgia Tech, Clemson, Florida State and schools in North Carolina and Virginia would provide territorial integrity to the SEC going forward, effectively locking down the South for generations to come. (Yes, Louisville is still there too, but the state of Kentucky is basketball focused and a small population state and the Cardinals aren’t worth doubling down in the Bluegrass for the SEC.)

What then would happen to ACC schools like Louisville, Miami, Wake Forest, Duke, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Boston College? They’d all be desperate to get in the Big Ten. But the wrinkle with the Big Ten is the conference hasn’t taken lower level academic schools before. (AAU membership, which is restricted to 63 universities in the country right now, has been incredibly important to the Big Ten. Right now the ACC’s UVA, UNC, Georgia Tech, Pitt, and Duke are all members). But the majority of the seven remaining schools are private schools without substantial football fan bases. So how does all of this play out? How many of these schools are elite enough academically that the Big Ten would accept them?

My guess in this scenario is that the Big Ten would take Syracuse, Duke, Pittsburgh and, either, Boston College or Miami, to get to twenty schools (less if Notre Dame joined). And the remaining ACC schools would be left floating in the realignment cosmos, eventually latching on with the Big 12. (Which is why I’d keep my powder dry if I was the Big 12.)

Remember that a huge detail here is that the SEC, unlike the Big Ten at least so far, has a provision in its new TV deal with ESPN that guarantees all new “top” expansion candidates will receive the same pro rata payment in the event of expansion as the current schools receive. So the finances for the SEC when it comes to expansion, at least right now, are less complicated than the Big Ten. That’s how Oklahoma and Texas, whenever they join the SEC, will end up making the same payout as the existing 14 schools in the SEC. And it’s why, at least so far, the Big Ten didn’t expand and add Washington and Oregon alongside USC and UCLA, because the TV dollars don’t work for those schools (The number one lesson of college football expansion is no one takes less money to expand, you have to at least break even).

So the big question that’s hanging out there, ultimately, is this: Where do UNC and UVA see their long range futures? Do they want to align with the Southern schools or do they want to join the Big Ten? It’s a cultural, academic and business decision for both institutions. Do they want road trips to Texas, Alabama and Tennessee or do they want to be playing yearly games in Michigan, Wisconsin and, potentially, Los Angeles? Remember, the Big Ten took Maryland several years ago with the idea that taking Maryland was going to lead to Virginia and North Carolina too. That didn’t happen.

So while everyone is looking at the Pac-12 and the Big 12, the two biggest state battlegrounds to come aren’t states located in either of those conferences: they’re Virginia and North Carolina. At some point, if they aren’t already, those schools and states will officially be in play for the SEC and the Big Ten. And when that happens, look out – the ACC will cease to exist.

Which is why if I were the commissioners of the Big 12 or the Pac-12, I’d be inclined to keep my powder dry. The conference under the biggest long term threat in college sports isn’t the Big 12 or the Pac-12, it’s the ACC, which is set to become the first true battle for college football supremacy between the SEC and the Big Ten, the two 800 pound gorillas of college football.

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.

11 Comments

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  1. I’m at Ground Zero of “The ACC” … I can be on NCSU, UNC, Duke campuses in 20 minutes … Yes, there is A LOT of TALK about Who / Where / When …. Everybody and his Uncle Fred has a “reliable inside source who says” … at last count there are 142 “inside sources” claiming 86 different scenarios. Pick the one you like.
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    Space doesn’t permit me to challenge Clay here but my website does … http://www.bobleesays.com …. much of Clay’s guesses are solid … a few not so much. … Look for the ACC “left-overs” – Wake, Duke, et al to combine with ECU, AppSt, Coastal Carolina, maybe GaTech to form a new Group of 5 conference. … If UNCCH and UVA want to join Vandy and MIZZOU as SEC “doormats” and sell out for the Big Bucks … let them. UNCCH will dominate the SEC in Field Hockey, WoSoccer, and WoLacrosse for sure. ……..
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    Can ACC members bust the GOR ?… Absolutely … UNC spent $25,000,000 in legal fees to buy their way out of The Worst Eligibility Scandal In NCAA History. Busting the GOR won’t be that expensive. FWIW… I’m a UNCCH alum … YIKES!
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      • (1) I’m not in favor of all this realignment crap for many reasons … breaking up traditional rivalries being a primary one …. That Said ..
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        (2) UNC v DUKE Basketball Rivalry does NOT have to be lost regardless of which conference either ends up in. Louisville & Kentucky manage to play each season as OOC …. UNC v Duke are still just 8 miles apart down 15-501. Both schools will want to keep the rivalry alive and can do so easily as annual OOC games. … Without a conference title at stake it will simply be for Bragging Rights but thats enough.
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  2. While much of this is very insightful, I can’t help but feel like any of these potential moves are just a precursor to some much, much larger shift in the sport. Eventually, the schools/conferences/ADs/Presidents/etc will realize that conference realignment for the entire athletics program makes little sense when the driving factor is only football (money). This is just laying the groundwork for college football to break away from the NCAA altogether and let the rest of the sports resume their typical NCAA and conference (re: regional) alignment. The writing for this has been on the wall for years – we’re just finally seeing it start to happen.

  3. FSU & Clemson need to be in the SEC. Tallahassee is a lot closer to Auburn, AL than it is to Madison, WI, both culturally and geographically. And no, not really all that interested in making road trips to Iowa City or Bloomington. Both schools have solid fan bases and make geographic sense.

    Agree w/ Clay on Miami. They do add some value and have had amazing teams in the past but it’s a weird fit. Commuter school that plays in a pro stadium. They have fans but they don’t at the same time.

    Makes total sense to snag at least one team from both NC & VA. Any combo would work but I think VT would be a better fit than UVA. UNC/NCST is kind of a toss up.

    • Miami w/ Cristobal (and $$$ Ruiz) is one high profile W over a name opponent from rekindle national interest…. they were “a private commuter school in a pro stadium” 25 years ago when they dominated College FB. Not that THAT could happen again but they could be a legitimate semi-superpower with what they are building now. … They certainly have no bizness in a regional ACC without FSU and Clem…
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      The idea of “just for FB” is solid GOLD. Keep all other sports even MBB in the regional conferences. The “olympic sports” are the true “student athletes” so why penalize them with cross-country rivals ???
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      • Yeah, “just for football”, there’s a lot of moving parts. Football is gonna have to eventually break away from the NCAA so the other sports can play a more reasonable schedule. I can’t see funding for women’s field hockey for UCLA to travel to Rutgers. Same applies to all the other fringe sports that don’t generate revenue.

        As for Miami, I’m biased against them but being totally objective, when was the last time they were good? I get taking a team w/ a limited fan base if the team is good. Miami has yet to win an ACC title in the ~20 years they’ve been in the conference. When they were winning 25 years ago they played at the Orange Bowl. Although not technically on campus, that stadium was a college football vibe. Not totally opposed to including Miami but I still see it as a strange fit and have no idea how they could win the SEC if they’ve never won the ACC.

  4. I wouldn’t discount the possibility ESPN actually ends up helping the ACC Grant of Rights to go away instead of enforcing it. If the marquee ACC schools start flirting with ways to escape the deal and go to the Big 10 which is with FOX suddenly the best option for ESPN is to at least keep those schools on your networks by allowing an escape as long as it’s to the SEC so they remain within the Mothership family.

  5. It still surprises me that UNC/Duke wouldn’t be seen as a package. I get that Duke football sucks, but Duke/UNC 2x/year in men’s basketball? Would the Four Letter Nitwits or FOX pass that up?

    And I also get that football “drives the bus” in college sports, but in the big picture, college basketball definitely brings in the revenue. And there are few natural rivalries in college basketball that are virtual moneymakers like UNC/Duke.

    • And they can still play as OOC games … just like Louisville & Kentucky do. Only Bragging Rights will be at stake but thats enough.
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      IMO… Duke will not go to either SEC r B1G but will form a Group of 5 conference with other ACC left-outs and several local schools.

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