Dealing with realignment: Where the ACC stands, Notre Dame football, WVU and more

While nothing is set in stone just yet, a move to the SEC for Texas and Oklahoma — in some form or fashion — is increasingly likely to happen. As expected, the two universities plan to not renew the contractual agreement that binds conference member institutions until 2025.

This type of shakeup is an existential crisis for the Big 12. Texas and Oklahoma are the conference’s premier football programs. As they prepare to join SEC (it seems all but certain they’ll be unanimously voted in by SEC member institutions, although Texas A&M could alter the math slightly), others Big 12 teams will look to exit for other conferences, too.

Football, and the ungodly amounts of money it generates, are what drive decisions in major college athletics. It’s far from an equitable system; those at the top grab more, while others deal with the consequences and fallout.

With the SEC adding two mega-powers, other Power Five leagues will look to consolidate as much power as possible. The Pac-12 and Big 10 (Kansas and Iowa State) are ready and willing, it seems. The AAC will aggressively look to add Big 12 programs, too.

This, however, leaves the ACC and new commissioner Jim Phillips in a precarious position. As with everything, this comes down to money. For the 2020 fiscal year, the SEC and Big Ten raked in far more money than the other Power Five programs, according to documents obtained by USA Today.

1. Big Ten: $768.9 million
2. SEC: $728.9 million
3. Pac-12: $533.8 million
4. ACC: $496.7 million
5. Big 12: $409.2 million

On a per-school payout basis, the ACC lags behind; the league distributed around $33 million to its full-time members in 2020.

1. Big Ten: $54.3 million
2. SEC: $45.5 million
3. Big 12: $38 million
4. Pac-12: $33.6 million
5. ACC: $33 million

For now, though, the league remains steadfast in its direction. That public-facing belief is buttressed by a Grant of Rights deal that extends through the 2035-2036 academic year — a powerful leverage point for the league. That’s great, but Phillips and the league must find ways to keep up with an SEC that is on the precipice of adding Texas and Oklahoma. ESPN will feature heavily into these discussions and hypotheticals as well.

At 2016 ACC Football Kickoff, former ACC Commissioner John Swofford announced the 20-year deal between the league and ESPN. In theory, this brave new media rights package would it make financially untenable for a member institution to leave.

The deal was also a catalyst for the creation of the ACC Network, which launched three years later in 2019, another possible source of financial optimism for the league. However, with a new round of expansion on the horizon, it’s imperative for the ACC to create new revenue streams and add new full-time members.

According to a report from The Athletic, the ACC is the preferred destination for West Virginia — if WVU leaves the Big 12. The ACC could also look in the direction of the AAC; Cincinnati has long loomed as a possibility.

The logical starting point, however, centers on the apple of the ACC’s eye: Notre Dame football.

Notre Dame and the ACC have been in business together for some time. Starting with the 2013-14 academic year, the Irish joined the league in all non-football sports. Non-football is doing a lot of work in that last sentence, though.

It is Notre Dame’s prerogative to remain independent as a football power. However, when Notre Dame needed help prior to the start of a 2020 college football season threatened by COVID-19, the ACC was there.

With the Power Five conferences shifting to schedules that allowed for very few — if any — non-conference matchups, Notre Dame risked losing its entire 2020 season. That’s where the ACC came in.

Notre Dame football joined the conference in an interesting one-off. For the most part, it worked for every party involved. The Irish started the season 10-0 and made it to the ACC Championship game in Charlotte. Notre Dame lost the ACC title game to Clemson, but still earned a spot in the College Football Playoff, a tremendous financial boon.

Simply put: that 2020 run isn’t possible without help from the ACC. Now, as the ACC stares down another existential path, Notre Dame’s silence is impossible to ignore.

As Joe Giglio from WRAL Sports points out, Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick was a part of the four-person CFP working group that pushed for postseason expansion. Swarbrick teamed up with Greg Sankey, commissioner of the SEC, while on this committee.

Unsurprisingly, the SEC and Notre Dame stand to benefit the most from this expanded playoff format.

(This development seems rather unpopular with the actually players who will play in the games, but the college football’s power-brokers almost certainly don’t care. As usual, there’s too much money to be made.)