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Conference Expansion: Analyzing Which Schools Could End Up Joining the ACC?

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ECU? UConn? West Virginia? Who are some of the top candidates for future league expansion.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Operation Basketball Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

I saw a familiar conversation recently that sparked my interest in revisiting the elusive, complicated topic that is modern conference expansion. The news was that Wichita State, for fear of being left on the outside looking in when the last domino inevitably drops, was officially accepting an invite to the desperate to be relevant AAC as of last week. After all, how can you blame them? Despite finishing the regular season 30-4 and #8 in Kenpom this season, the MVC champion was dealt a 10 seed and brutal 2nd round matchup with Kentucky in the West region of the 2017 NCAA Tournament. They were promptly knocked out and saw a chance to elevate themselves up a tier of conferences like so many mid-majors in recent years have done before them (Hi, Davidson, Creighton, Xavier, VCU, etc). That’s just smart business by the Shockers.

But while Wichita might be improving its current stature by jumping to the AAC, the odds that their new league becomes a future power conference is far less likely than what they’d hope. That’s because when the next round of “Conference Imperialism” finally comes into full swing, the American Athletic Conference will be the prime poaching ground for P5 conferences to hastily fill up their slots. And trust me, there are going to be a lot, a lot of slots.

So who might the ACC look at when it is all said and done to reach the often-quoted Super Conference of 16 schools?

Before we dive into the long list of suitors that will be knocking on the ACC’s door as soon as the search process begins, let’s get one thing out of the way: Notre Dame will be a full-member of the conference eventually. Thanks to the new grant of rights announced after the ACC Network became official last summer, ND will be a member of the ACC in all sports (minus football) until at least 2036. It also stated that if the Irish were to cease their gridiron independency, they would be contractually bound to the ACC until that year as well.

The new revenue from the ACC Network won’t be enough to have Notre Dame bail on its freedom and NBC contract by itself, but as Stewart Mandel said last July “as the years go by in college football’s rapidly changing structure — one where a four-team playoff and a selection committee have supplanted polls and bowls in importance — Notre Dame may eventually conclude that independence is no longer a viable route. Especially given one of the committee’s primary points of emphasis is … winning your conference.”

Notre Dame’s relative mediocrity over the last couple of years hasn’t caused this to be a problem just yet, but the moment ND goes 10-2/11-1 and is left out of the CFP in favor of a Pac-12 conference champ, everything is going to hit the fan. I’d put it at a fairly high chance that happens before 2025 (The NBC contract ends that year) and the conversations will advance pretty quickly from there. That being said, Notre Dame will eventually be a member of the ACC in football, it’s just a matter of who else joins them and when.

So here is where the fun part comes in: Who becomes member #16? I’ve taken the time to break down potential candidates into three tiers of 3, with athletic reputation, school size, market potential, and many more factors all in consideration. I’ll then look at how the next-gen ACC might change structurally and promote any discussion to roll into the comments. If that sounds good to you, let the scrolling begin...

Here are some basic facts about these nine potential ACC candidates to get you familiar with each of them:

Notes:

-“Rivalry?” Refers to if the school has a preexisting long-standing rivalry with another ACC school.

-Student body populations include undergrad and post-grad figures

-BBall Recruiting rankings are based on 247sports’ system, FBall Recruiting rankings are based on Rivals’ system

-Academic Rank is based on the latest version of the US News’ List of Best Colleges

-All population and attendance numbers are rounded to the nearest thousand

-Market Size is based on population of the local metropolitan area

-National Titles include all team sport national champions in men’s and women’s athletics

Let’s start with the Tier 3 schools and work our way up the list of candidate resumes from there.

Tier 3

East Carolina University

Pros: First and foremost, East Carolina is in the heart of old ACC territory and would be more of an addition by tradition rather than novelty. The Pirates have longstanding rivalries against NC State and UNC, and own one of the best college gameday experiences of any program outside the P5. Their average of 44,000+ in the seats on Saturdays ranks only behind BYU in Group of 5 attendances. For a conference that is often jabbed for its support of football, bringing in a passionate southern fanbase that sells out 90% of its games and has a historically good program would be a nice pickup.

Cons: Apart from the bonuses of ECU’s relatively strong football history, there’s not much else to be offered in terms of sports, academics, or overall money potential. The Greenville, NC metro area ranks 236th in the nation, which isn’t exactly the best look in the modern age where media money runs all. Apart from football, baseball, and swimming & diving, the school has had relatively little success in its other 16 D1 varsity programs. You also have the problem that it would add a 5th North Carolina based ACC program to the mix, which might upset the Tobacco Road bunch in terms of recruiting territory.

The Verdict: If the goal of the ACC is to expand, why pick a small market in a territory where it likely will always be dominated by 4 of the original members? It just doesn’t align with what the league is trying to do, which is expand its brand nationally and geographically, not deeper internally.

UNC Charlotte

Pros: The location here is probably far and away the top selling point of the 49ers. Charlotte is a growing city filled with Fortune 500 headquarters and a community that has shown it is passionate about sports. If UNCC did make the jump up from C-USA, maybe a fair amount of the area would get behind the local school and turn it into a well-supported, albeit underdog ACC team.

Cons: Football has been the driving factor behind almost all P5 expansion since this turmoil began about 7 years ago. The sport makes up about 80% of all revenue for the conference at the end of each year and the next expansion school will need to be able to at least carry its weight in terms of financial value to the networks. UNCC living without a varsity football program for 65 years up until 2013 isn’t just a hard sell, it’s a downright deal-breaker.

The Verdict: You can’t expect a school that plays in a 15,000 person stadium and is 6-18 all-time in the FBS to be considered for more than 30 seconds in these expansion discussions. If ECU was located in Charlotte, it might be a different story, but the Niners just don’t have the financial weight to be a serious contender.

Temple

Pros: Coming off back-to-back 10-4 seasons and an AAC conference title, Temple Football is in about as good a place as it has ever been. The Owls have gone 58-43 since 2009, which is far better than their all-time 42% win percentage dating back to 1894. The 32 NCAA basketball appearances also would go along well the ACC’s recent theme of adding schools with strong histories in the sport. The 32 tourny bids would rank 6th in the ACC behind just UNC, UL, Duke, Syracuse, and Notre Dame. Philadelphia’s media market is also one of the 10th biggest in the US and that never hurts when it comes to expansion resumes.

Cons: Despite being one of the larger schools on this list and located in one of the best sports towns in the country, Temple’s national brand is fairly weak overall. The school is heavily overshadowed in its own city by Villanova and in the state in general by Penn State and Pitt. It struggled mightily to make its strong 2016 football season count on the recruiting trail, finishing outside the Top 100 on Rivals and dead last in the AAC. That along with head coach Matt Rhule departing for Baylor likely means this glory period of Temple football will be over soon, if it’s not already.

The Verdict: The school has the size and hometown of a Power 5 program, but leaves a lot to be desired in almost everything except basketball tradition. Athletic revenues of sub $40 million for a university this size is a major red flag, and ultimately I think Temple might be one of the biggest losers at the end of this next wave of expansion.

Tier 2

Memphis

Pros: UM has been one of the more recognizable non-P5 brands in collegiate sports over the last decade and its bid will be backed heavily by Memphis’ own FedEx. The school itself also doesn’t have to compete with professional sports teams other than the Grizzlies and is located heavily in SEC territory, which would help in the ACC’s geographic expansion. Even during the recent regression on the court, the basketball program is still drawing 12,000+ per game; which is the 5th most of any team outside of the Power 5 and Big East.

Cons: Of course, conference expansion is heavily weighted towards sports performance and geographic location, but academic reputation would have to be a factor here. In the most recent US News Best Colleges Rankings, Memphis wasn’t even listed as one of the top 310 schools in the country. It has an endowment that is 1/3 the size of the lowest in the ACC ($200m) and a sports budget smaller than Old Dominion. These are some of the main reasons why in September the school didn’t even make the list of the Top 11 Expansion Candidates for the Big XII while long shots Tulane and Rice did.

The Verdict: On paper, Memphis has a fair amount to offer a Power 5 conference in terms of its basketball tradition and recent football success. Yet the school’s financial assets, average non-revenue sports, and academic reputation may hold it back from being a future member of the ACC.

South Florida

Pros: USF is a school that has a ton of potential due to its recruiting location, media market, and the sheer size of its student body. There’s a reason why USF has been brought up in almost every expansion conversation of the last 4 years despite not excelling at any major sports. With Charlie Strong now in Tampa, there’s hope that the football program could be headed in the right direction. After joining USF in January, he added five 3* recruits rated 5.6 or higher to their 2017 class. For perspective, Wake only had four of that type of caliber commit with the whole recruiting cycle to work with. The student body is certainly big enough to support a strong P5 program in the future, but will they actually show out?

Cons: Which brings me to my first con: USF has a tough history with attendance and overall fan support over the years. USF basketball hasn’t averaged more than 4000 fans per game since the 2014 season and there have been multiple articles recently mentioning USF’s poor attendance figures. In October, the Bulls drew 16585 fans to its homecoming game, much to the disappointment of recruits and players. This article here by fellow SB Nation blog The Daily Stampede went on a rant about USF’s student culture and how it wasn’t focused around sports at all. The attendance on the year ended up recovering with a huge figure against FSU (of which it was heavyyy Crimson and Gold), but the point remains.

The Verdict: USF sports don’t seem particularly big to Tampa or the school itself, and that may be an issue when the ACC is looking to add its next school. Plus are FSU and Miami going to be chill with adding another huge school in the area that could potentially steal commits in their most coveted recruiting ground? I don’t see it happening.

UCF

Pros: You may have assumed I would just copy and paste almost all the points I made above, switched a letter in the school name and called it a day. After all, UCF and USF offer very similar packages in regards to academics, sports history, and potential media markets. UCF’s student body is in fact 22% bigger than its Florida AAC twin, and has been a little more consistent in football the last decade (7 bowl games in 9 seasons). Orlando is also the fastest growing top 30 metro area in the US and that means more TV sets, fans, and economic growth in the region. It was recently stated that Orlando’s population grew by 2.6% between March 2015 and March 2016.

Cons: There simply isn’t much of an “It” factor when considering adding UCF to a Power 5 conference. The athletic programs seem to be middle of the road in almost every sport, the athletic budget is tiny for a school its size, and the university in general doesn’t really have the “sex appeal” that others do. The school’s academic rank of 176 would also make it the lowest in the conference. Unless you’re carrying multiple Top 25 programs with that type of reputation *cough Louisville cough*, then it’s going to be tough to be seriously considered after the first round of talks.

The Verdict: UCF has been stone hopping from one league to the next for the last 15 years hoping to put itself in the position to someday get a P5 bid. Given the amount of open spots that will be available and the sheer scale of the school, that bid will likely come, but it won’t be from a conference like the ACC.

Tier 1

Cincinnati

Pros: Cincinnati offers a really interesting combination of a large student body, top 30 market, and extremely strong revenue sports. At 33,000 undergraduates, UC is one of the biggest universities in the midwest and is located in a region that is untapped by the current ACC. The school has also been to the NCAA Tournament 7 straight years under the leadership of Mick Cronin and reached a bowl game 9 out of the last 11. The school was one of the few casualties of the Big East’s demise, but that means it has a history with a number of current ACC teams. Its biggest rivalry is the Keg of Nails against Louisville, which was played 53 times between 1929 and the Cards’ Big East departure in 2014. Cincy leads the series 30-22 all-time.

Cons: There’s a few cons to Cincinnati, but they aren’t nearly as devastating as some of the drawbacks other schools mentioned above had. Despite posting a relatively strong decade in both revenue sports, Cincinnati’s national brand still leaves a little to be desired. The school also received under $5 million in athletic related contributions last year from fans, corporations, and donors. That was 2nd to last in the conference only above USF.

The Verdict: On the map, the ACC has already expanded to Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky. That leaves a glaring whole in the state of Ohio for the conference to try and expand its northern presence into a fairly large media market. The Bearcats won’t be out of the P5 for long, and will certainly be one of the top schools on watch.

West Virginia

Pros: The Mountaineers are virtually a “Louisville twin” in its expansion candidacy if it ever decides to pursue options outside of the Big XII (Note: Likely). Its football and basketball programs are consistently in the Top 25 and carry a national brand with them wherever they go. Its fan support is one of the best in the country, and its 58000 per game would rank 1st vs fellow expansion candidates and 5th in the ACC behind Clemson, FSU, VT, and Miami. The school also brought in $90 million in revenue last year, $26 million of which was in contributions (which is 6 million more than UNC and Clemson and 9 million more than VT).

Cons: If West Virginia were in the AAC and actively looking for a new conference, this would be a whole lot easier of a transaction. The problem is it isn’t, and pretty much every Power 5 league from ocean to ocean will be looking to add WVU if the Big XII eventually falls apart. Leaving anytime before the Big XII’s Grant of Rights ends in 2025 would lead to forfeiture of conference revenue (Est: $43 million by end of contract). This is especially important when considering West Virginia finally just received its 1st full year of Big XII revenue after having to wait 3 years in the conference as part of the on-boarding process. The main threat here is that both the Big Ten and SEC gave back $32.7 and $32.4 million to their league members last year in revenue, which is a gap of about $6 million more than what the ACC offers currently. Considering West Virginia could be forfeiting Big XII money and has not received its full conference share for the past 3 years, the biggest payday to compensate the losses will surely not come from the ACC.

The Verdict: If the SEC is also looking to expand at the same time the ACC does, they’ll be able to offer a far more enticing financial package to WVU simply based on projected revenues. The timing would have to be just right for the Mountaineers to be ACC bound, but anything can happen in the Wild, Wild West of expansion season.

UConn

Pros: When it comes to a great fit for the ACC, UConn passes the eye test in multiple ways. First and foremost, it would help the conference secure a foothold in the NYC market, something it clearly has been trying to do over the last couple of years. Moves like the addition of Syracuse and relocation of the ACC tournament this past year to Brooklyn were small steps in a larger plan to make the whole east coast officially ACC territory. The Big Ten tried to do something similar a few years ago when it took a shot in the dark at Rutgers with minimal success, but UConn’s brand in the city carries a whole lot more weight than its scarlet neighbor to the south. The reintroduction of UConn would also revive the brilliant Big East rivalries with Syracuse, Pitt, Notre Dame, and more. Want to get the Northeast to actually care about the ACC? Home-and-Home regular season series in basketball plus potential ACC Tournament matchups between these programs should do the trick. The basketball prestige is there, the academic reputation is there, and the athletic revenues are there (#1 in Non Power Conference schools by $20 million). 22 Team National Championships ain’t nothing to sneeze at either. That’s a whole lot of positives.

Cons: If you’re going to knock UConn on something, the football program is where your argument is going to point to. A lot of that has to do with the fact that the team has only been a full FBS program since 2002 after transitioning the previous two seasons from D1-AA. After a four year stretch of bowls from 2007-2010 under Randy Edsall, the Huskies haven’t recorded a winning season since and attendance has hovered around the 67% capacity mark. Recruiting has also been an issue, slotting in at 96th in Rivals rankings in 2017, sub-100 in 2016 and 2014, and 91st in 2015. These numbers would’ve placed it dead last in the ACC rankings each year.

The Verdict: Even with the recent struggles of the football program, the pros far outweigh the cons when talking about a potential bid for UConn. The addition of the NYC/Connecticut market alone makes it a home run for a conference looking to add a school capable of increasing its monetary value to media and sponsorship partners over the long term. Simply put, UConn checks all the boxes, and if it’s willing to wait for ND to make up its mind, it should eventually get the call.

Restructuring the New ACC

So let’s say the ACC adds UConn to the conference along with Notre Dame when they finally realize their “half-in half-out” deal isn’t cutting it. What happens next? Instantly we should begin to resolve the makeshift, seemingly random divisional issues the conference continues to turn a blind eye to despite requests from ACC fans. Seriously, it makes absolutely no sense why Wake should have to schedule an out-of-conference matchup with UNC simply because they don’t play each other enough in the ACC. Keeping the names of the divisions the same, let’s see how we could rearrange the teams to adjust to the recent additions.

Atlantic:

Boston College

Louisville

Notre Dame

Pittsburgh

Syracuse

UConn

UVA

Virginia Tech

Coastal:

Clemson

Duke

FSU

Georgia Tech

Miami

NC State

UNC

Wake Forest

Putting all of Tobacco Road together gives North Carolina the consistent rivalry matchups it needs/wants on a year-to-year basis. These games can be further used for bragging rights and attempted domination on the recruiting trail in the state. This also intensifies the Miami-FSU matchup by putting them in the same division, while allowing the nationally relevant FSU-Clemson fixture to remain a common occurrence. As for the Atlantic, UVA and Virginia Tech stay attached at the hip while the rest of the Old Big East joins them. Both divisions also have 3 teams each that are historically competitive on the national level; The Atlantic with Louisville, ND, and VT and The Coastal with Clemson, FSU, and Miami.

Right now the divisional power would sway slightly to the Coastal side, but the successes of the other 10 teams tend to rotate on their own 3-5 year cycles. One would assume that over the course of 20 years the divisions would probably look relatively equal in retrospect. The all-time winning percentage of this new Atlantic and new Coastal are 58% and 56% respectively, and that difference is basically due to the fact Notre Dame destroyed teams for about five decades before the rest of the country started paying attention.

What about changes to the ACC basketball schedule? With an extra team in the mix, the typical conference season would include 12 single-game series against ACC opponents, and then 3 home-and-homes to keep the overall slate at 18 games. There’s a lot of potential to help develop rivalries by keeping the 3 H&H series for each team consistent from year to year, particularly with all of the recent additions from the Big East. If each school has a “Rivalry Trio,” or 3 teams it always plays 2x, overall scheduling would be easier and fans could get used to playing familiar schools every year.

To make it easy to fully organize and visualize, the new system of 3 annual rivals is basically set up into four distinct groups of 4-team “Rivalry Groups”. These groups wouldn’t actually be their own separate divisions or count for anything, I just named all of them for the graphic and labeling purposes. The most natural one would be to slate the North Carolina schools together and have them play each other at their respective arenas twice a year. The schools already have an established 2-game series every year with two of the fellow schools anyway, the only change being Wake would always pick up an extra game vs UNC and Duke an extra vs State.

The second pod of four teams would be a throwback to the early 2000’s Big East days (Big East 2.0), letting Cuse, UConn, Pitt, and Notre Dame all battle it out twice a year for old bragging rights. If you’re going to make the Huskies play against a couple opponents 2x a season, you might as well go with the teams it already has established rivalries with in the conference.

The third pod of four teams (Southern Coast) might seem slightly more random at first, but it basically already is a group the way the ACC is set up right now.

The Current Annual Home-and-Homes are :

FSU: Miami and Clemson

Miami: FSU and VT

Clemson: Georgia Tech and FSU

Georgia Tech: Clemson and Notre Dame

All of the teams already play at least one of the other programs 2x on a yearly basis, while both Clemson and FSU have 2 of the 3 schools on their schedules right now. This group would feature the four most southern teams in the conference to keep things relatively easy travel wise and carry over some of the bigger conference rivalries in football.

The last pod is a mixture of the Commonwealth colleges and the remaining programs with no rivals left: BC and Louisville. There’s not much else to say about it other than that it simply rounds out the rest of the schedule. Congrats to UVA, VT, and UL on getting the prize of BC twice a year. Try your best to remember they are a part of this whole new ACC thing too.

And congrats to you as well if you’re still reading this. Nothing says “Happy Tuesday” like reading 4400 words on a potential conference expansion that might be a half-decade away. If you got anything out of this article I hope it’s that sometimes reading about future hypotheticals is worth it to remind you that changes are always on the horizon. The ACC is in a better place now than it has ever been in the history of the conference. Imagining how the conference, and Wake Forest with it, might evolve over the years is an exercise that keeps us ready for anything while forever guessing about the possibilities. Your own guesses about what happens next are now encouraged in the comments below. Thanks for reading!