A year ago, the ACC was left to play a schedule that included no games against Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and Kentucky. (Example No. 759 of the SEC showing how little it cares about anyone or anything else.) This time the ACC is moving toward some manner of affiliation with the Big Ten and Pac-12, which doesn’t make geographic sense — who among us can wait for to see Virginia Tech take on Washington State? — but college football failed Geography 101 a while ago.
The other Power 5 conferences have long looked with scorn on the SEC, of which four current members belong to the academically prestigious Association of American Universities, an AAU not to be confused with the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) that serves as a feeder program for college basketball. The four: Florida and Vanderbilt, plus relative newbies Missouri and Texas A&M. Texas will make a fifth. The ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 constitute a rounded-up 40 percent of the AAU’s 66-school membership.
The ACC’s move toward the Big Ten and Pac-12 was a process of elimination. The ACC surely saw no point in an alliance with the sinking Big 12. With Texas and OU, the SEC needs no more allies. We’re not sure exactly how, or even if, the three leagues will present themselves as an entity, but the belief is that they’ll become a single voting bloc — not to be confused with a single 41-team conference — for the sake of, you guessed it, TV.
Let’s say those leagues agree to adopt an eight-team in-conference schedule. Each could also agree to playing three games per season against teams from the other two leagues. Clemson playing Ohio State seems a no-brainer, although no network figures to be salivating over the notion of Rutgers teeing it up against Washington State.
As for the high-minded bit of AAU schools clustering into a Mensa super-conference: TV doesn’t give a hoot about that. (Smart folks already have a daily Super Bowl. It’s called “Jeopardy!”) TV is concerned, first and last and always, with ratings, which mean money. The bigger and presumably better SEC will have seven schools — Alabama, Auburn, Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas — that have taken national titles since the BCS came into being in 1998. The ACC/Big Ten/Pac-12 will have five: Clemson, Florida State, Miami, Ohio State and USC.
The SEC’s annexation of Texas/OU was done so quietly that some of the league’s higher-ups didn’t know it was coming. A year ago, commissioner Greg Sankey all but willed the 2020 football season into being. Had his league folded in the wake of the Big Ten’s and Pac-12′s pullouts, toe wouldn’t have met leather last fall. Forget the NCAA, which has washed its hands of college football at the highest level. Sankey and his SEC call the tune for every program with a set of goalposts. Put it this way: The SEC, which has its own ESPN-affiliated network, is adding Texas, which has its own ESPN-affiliated channel.
Without Texas and Oklahoma, the SEC might have sought to align itself with the ACC, although those neighboring leagues don’t much like one another. With Texas and OU, the SEC has all it needs, maybe all it will ever need. The issue became which way the ACC, which is working under a new commissioner, would jump. (The Big Ten and Pac-12 also have newish commissioners.) Even the giants lost money in the shortened COVID season of 2020, money that’s gone forever. Anything to enhance a conference’s revenue stream is fair game.
Thus did the SEC poach Texas and Oklahoma, leaving the Big-12 in ruins. Thus has the ACC found solidarity with the Big Ten and Pac-12. In the realm of college athletics, the greatest fear is in not having a seat at the table when network contracts are being negotiated.
With money being available for NIL rights and a new collegiate home only a transfer portal away, the players have more leverage than they’ve ever known. The greatest power, though, remains with the bigger conferences. They’re the ones who can give TV what it wants, be it marquee regular-season games or a 12-team playoff.
Not so long ago, there were five big conferences. Now there are essentially two. There’s the SEC, and there’s the ACC/Big Ten/Pac-12 grouping, and then there’s everybody else. In college football, everybody else means nobody else.