It’s no secret that the power brokers at Florida State want out of the ACC because they’re afraid of being left behind financially. At the beginning of the month, members of its board of trustees said as much out loud. In public. You may have already heard about this, but as it happened just before the Pac-12 exploded, the comments didn’t get as much run as they might have.
Regardless, they couldn’t have been more clear. FSU President Richard McCullough said, “I believe that FSU will have to at some point very seriously consider leaving the ACC unless there were a radical change ot the revenue distribution.” Former QB Drew Weatherford, who is a trustee for some reason, said, “It’s not a matter of if we leave, in my opinion, it’s a matter of how and when we leave.” And then another trustee named Justin Roth said, “Our goal as a university would be to figure out how we leave this TV deal in the next 12 months.” Here, the TV deal in question is the ACC’s grant of rights that goes through 2036.
My only question to these folks is this: after you leave the ACC, then what?
FSU doesn’t control its own destiny here. If it wants to move up in the conference pecking order, someone has to take them. We all know that two conferences tower above the rest. Let’s take them in alphabetical order.
The Big Ten is way more cutthroat than it likes to market itself as, having done the first round of damage to the Big 12 when it took Nebraska and the Pac-12 when it took USC and UCLA. The B1G pulling Maryland out of the ACC was the thing that scared the remaining members enough to sign up for that ridiculously long grant of rights.
But one thing it has yet to give up on is its institutional haughtiness. A large component of that is positioning itself as a bastion of high caliber academics.
To that end, the Big Ten’s membership is almost entirely made of members of the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU). It’s a consortium of the leading research universities, both public and private, in the US plus two more in Canada. The membership roll has a lot of the institutions you’d expect, including UF.
All pre-2010 Big Ten schools are members, and everyone they’ve invited have been members. Nebraska promptly lost its AAU membership after joining the B1G for fairly uninteresting reasons, but it was indeed a member when it got the golden ticket.
FSU is not an AAU member. It’s been trying to get in for years and years, but the knock-on effects of administrative dysfunction in recent years are the top reason they can’t quite get there. USF managed to get in this year, giving the state two public members finally.
There are no signs that the Big Ten is interested in adding non-AAU schools. Its press release on this month’s expansion calls out Oregon’s AAU membership, though not Washington’s, and Indiana’s president name-checked the AAU in his welcome statement.
If the Big Ten sticks to making AAU membership a de facto requirement to join the league, then FSU has only one potential place to go: the SEC.
Does the SEC want to expand again? Right now, it certainly doesn’t look that way. Commissioner Greg Sankey took public shots at the Big Ten’s latest moves, for instance, saying the league didn’t have to be in all four time zones to generate interest in them. Wanting to keep a coherent geographic footprint doesn’t rule out taking FSU or fellow non-AAU school Clemson, but it does show that expanding at all costs is not the game here.
Also, consider how slowly it’s going to incorporate Oklahoma and Texas. It’ll be three years between their application/acceptance and actually joining the league. The conference had all that time to work on a schedule format, but it ended up punting on a long-term format.
The Big Ten caught a few chuckles when it added the Ducks and Huskies because it had just announced a new rotation for its 16-team configuration back in June. At least it had a rotation.
The 2024 SEC schedule is a bespoke one-off arrangement because some members have seriously dug in their heels about keeping an eight-game conference slate despite the ballooning membership size. Don’t be surprised if they leave the opponent list as-is but reverse the home and away sites for 2025 because they still can’t herd all the cats.
If FSU and Clemson want to be the USC and UCLA of the ACC, bolting first and leaving behind a Mexican standoff among the remaining attractive programs, they likely have only one option. The fate of the ACC, therefore, rests entirely in the hands of the SEC.
FSU loudly, and Clemson a bit more subtly, have made it known they want out to pursue riches elsewhere. The AAU schools the B1G might actually consider are headlined by UNC, Duke, Miami, and Virginia, but the former two are part of the Tobacco Road mafia that have run the league since its inception. They’re not going to make the first move.
The latter two are survivable if the midwest comes calling because it’s been 20 years since the Hurricanes were consistently good and the Cavaliers generate little general interest. Those are also the same reasons why Fox Sports, which at this point is directing the B1G’s realignment moves, wouldn’t tell commissioner Tony Pettiti to grab UM and UVa if no one else was coming along too. Virginia especially is like an east coast Cal or Stanford, two programs the conference is pointedly not inviting.
Sankey doesn’t have clean hands given that he oversaw the additions of OU and Texas, but they came to him and not the other way around. He also helped design the 12-team playoff in such a way as to make further realignment unnecessary. It didn’t work, but that was the goal. And really, Oregon and Washington would’ve had better access to the 12-team format from the Pac-12 than from the Big Ten. It took a tremendous amount of leadership arrogance and incompetence, including from university presidents and not just Larry Scott, over the last dozen years to get the league to break apart.
If FSU finally gets in the AAU next year, then they’ll at least have options. Or, if the Big Ten decides it wants to massage its message about academics, that could get them in too. Money has a way of helping people find a way to make rationalizations.
Barring those two factors which are out of FSU’s control, the SEC is the landing spot that has the fewest barriers to it. The league just takes members when it wants to without a lot of fuss.
But the SEC isn’t on the hunt, and its commissioner is a college athletics lifer. He’s not a TV business guy like Pettiti, or an entertainment and pro sports industry hand like the Big 12’s Brett Yormark or former B1G commissioner Kevin Warren, or a wannabe media mogul like Scott. He cares more about the thing that college sports is transitioning away from than anyone else on the major stage, and I don’t see him being the one who drives the final nail in that coffin.