So the end of March brought a hot rumor that makes a ton of sense given the players involved. The Big Ten is actively looking at expansion.
This rumor originated from a twitter-resident named Bluevod. Bluevod is described as a poster with some very good insight into the University of Michigan. (He is credited with being all over the Jim Harbaugh signing long before the rest of the world acknowledged it was feasible.)
This is a guy who has predicted stuff before claiming sources and been proven right.
He claims to have a well-connected primary source (reading between the lines this is his UM guy) and has confirmed the effort with high up sources at Fox and ESPN.
There is enough there to listen.
The reason I am reporting it is because every one of his ideas fits the general methodology of the Big Ten in expansion efforts and the areas targeted fit the needs of the conference.
They like to plot everything out quietly and move quickly to take advantage of sudden changes in the status quo. They are the ninjas of conference realignment.
What he is saying all makes sense to me as a 28 year tracker of college football realignment.
So what is going on?
First a little background.
Some will deny it, but logic strongly implies that ESPN got at least Florida State, if not the entire ACC, to buy into their latest contract by telling the membership of the ACC that ESPN would launch an ACC network.
It appears times have changed. Disney wants ESPN to tighten it's belt. ESPN is apparently looking at comparatively low ratings for ACC content and has decided that they do not want to help the ACC negotiate carriage fees and all the other heavy lifting required to start a network. ESPN already owns most of the ACC's tier 3 content ---unusual for most power conferences --- and they do not appear all that willing to take something they own (and can put on their own channels) and put it on another channel they would half own --- and have to pay to start.
....Leaving the ACC rudderless and dead in the water.
There is a perception that the ACC grant of rights deal is dead.
This impending situation is why the Big 12 has been looking at converting the Longhorn Network into a Big 12 Network.
The thought widely circulating is that ESPN is willing to see the Big Ten take the AAU core of the ACC ---Virginia, Duke, UNC, and Georgia Tech, ESPN "holdings" the SEC will add long coveted targets VA Tech and NC State, and half "owned" Big 12 will take Miami, FSU, Clemson, and probably Louisville.
ESPN looks at that and does the math and sees themselves slightly ahead of the status quo and very much ahead of where they would be if they made good on what they promised the ACC, with some of the ACC content drifting down into the AAC's incredibly cheap contract.
But all this ESPN plotting is based on the Big Ten not getting greedy.
Big Ten plotting
[This section has been edited. Bluevod started talking about this Big Ten effort on January 5th and explained the Texas situation then. I initially missed that.]
On January 5th, Bluevod reported that the Big Ten was looking at Texas, Florida, Atlanta, and the DC markets and was talking to Texas and OU. The long and short of it, OU was receptive, Texas was not. No UT, no OU offer? (OU is not an AAU school and for this conference, that matters.)
(This ---come to think of it --- makes sense of that rather random article this spring where OU President David Boren is asked a seemingly very random question about whether OU has a standing offer to join the Big Ten.)
On March 25th, Bluevod wrote if their targeted market pursuit didn't work, they might even consider the California Markets. That's the Big Ten being greedy. Also known as being the Big Ten.
That characterization is pretty straightforward and makes a ton of sense. You look for your homerun first.
This has Bluevod reporting the Big Ten looking at option #2 : AAU schools Virginia, UNC, Duke, Georgia Tech, plus football powerhouses Notre Dame and Florida State.
This is again a believable scenario. Let's break it down.
The Big Ten fully realizes they are playing with house money today. Cable cutting is real. This next interval is the Big Ten's big chance to protect their long term standing.
The Harbaugh training camp issue was about one huge factor facing the Big Ten --- their states produce grade A offensive linemen and little else. To keep the golden goose laying, the conference has to leverage their short term dominance into better recruiting territories.
It is highly likely that the Big Ten is thinking to rip out the heart of the ACC in order to secure a permanent hold on Florida and Georgia recruiting. Those two states produce the second and fourth most FBS recruits and both always have annual surpluses --- quite unusual. Adding the large and talent rich states of Virginia and North Carolina (#12 and #10 respectively) as a bridge doesn't hurt either.
Would they take FSU --- a single non-AAU caliber school --- in the package to hit that goal? I think in this situation where FSU's inclusion would have resonance in Georgia as well, where the GA Tech brand is considered somewhat soft, the answer is "yes".
(Some might note that Notre Dame is not AAU as well. Notre Dame is consistently ranked among the top 20 National Universities by UN News, with schools like Rice and Northwestern rated as peers. Some have said if Notre Dame allowed some types of research which they consider religiously unacceptable they would be in. I can't speak to that. I can only note that the Big Ten ---a conference that really values AAU status --- has had Notre Dame at the top of their want list for decades.)
Should this go down, the Big Ten would have what they need long term.
What about the PAC talk?
That part of it really suck out to me. Bluevod peppered in California mentions that were a huge red flag to me. I asked about them and he clarified. He said they are talking about different scenarios --- from the sounds of it, mergers, partnerships, associations... Nothing concrete but there is a lot of talk.
Based on my knowledge I am going to try to fill a lot of this in.
Contrary to the beliefs of many, The Big Ten moves to protect itself. It likes it's identity. It likes its long term association with the PAC-12. All of this has been perceived to be at risk since the fall of the College Football Association.
Why were Maryland and New Jersey added? In part, because they generate a lot of students for the Big Ten, but the conference commissioner admitted it was done to protect Penn State. Geographic outliers are susceptible to poaching. The Big Ten likely saw the ACC as a potential poacher down the road. The ACC has some good brands and their collections of markets were second to none.
If the Big Ten rips the beating heart out of the ACC, there are no poachers for the Big Ten. Now the question becomes, how does the Big Ten encourage the rest of the FBS world to rally around the PAC?
I would think it would not take long for UT to realize that they are in the worst P5 conference by a wide margin. With the Big Ten slots filled UT would either have to go west or follow little brother A&M to the SEC. The latter will never, ever happen.
But that is a decade+ long process. It isn't just waiting on the GOR expiration. It is also showing a better financial situation before all the Big 12 schools get comfortable...So how do you speed that up?
Logic says the Big Ten could offer to get in bed with the PAC for TV. Imagine a two networks in unison. If you live in the Big Ten footprint and subscribe, you get the Big Ten Network plus the Big Ten/Pac-12 network. If you live in the PAC-12 footprint you get the Pac-12 Network, plus the Big Ten Network.
That can only profit the Big Ten. I would guess these talks are ongoing and probably very serious.
Another option that is (apparently) on the table is the Big Ten merging?/poaching? the PAC.
In terms of a straight merger, adding 14 Big Ten schools to 12 PAC schools yields 26 total members. Given that three of the PAC schools are not AAU, this might be a tough sale to the Big Ten schools --- although I imagine they are still politely discussing the matter when brought up.
I can totally see the California schools privately asking the Big Ten to consider poaching them as a fallback plan. There have been rumors floating that the Arizona schools are unhappy. How deep does this discontent go in the PAC?
The big problem for the PAC is that the mountain timezone is sparsely populated and that the PAC schools are not located in wastelands where football is the only entertainment. In order for the PAC to reach the kinds of numbers they need to keep up with the Big Ten and SEC, the PAC needs big markets and popular brands added in the center of the US.
Fans always take this to mean Texas. But it could also mean Chicago.
If the Big Ten were to poach say AAU members Cal, USC, UCLA, Stanford, Washington, and football power Oregon (my how the world changes...) for 20, they could add the best of the PAC to their network and go to two 10 team divisions.
Slide Wisconsin, Nebraska, Illinois and Iowa over to the PAC division and you have fixed the PAC TV problem.
Now the PAC has a GOR deal, so an actual raid would be unlikely, but not impossible.
Now obviously, I think the Big Ten and PAC-12 are likely to work out a mutually beneficial TV alliance and that will be that, but at least we have addressed the question, "What if the ACC somehow holds on?"
The Notre Dame endgame
Notre Dame is the favorite school of Catholics nation-wide in large numbers. Notre Dame joining the Big Ten would strongly reinforce the Big Ten's media hold in the valuable Northeastern TV markets. Adding Notre Dame ensures the money will be there long-term. This is why they have always been at the top of the conference short-list.
Notre Dame signed a deal with the ACC that more or less says that if they are going to join a conference it will be the ACC.
The Big Ten is going to look to raid the ACC first because ESPN has figuratively gutted the conference and left it out for the raptors.
But I think maybe that was in part because ESPN always knew the Big Ten would come for the ACC.
An interesting thought is that if the Big Ten were to raid the California schools, the Big Ten might be able to actually finally address the Irish's biggest objection to the Big Ten --- the cost of their National schedule that allows the Irish to tap catholic fans nationwide.
With their network, the Big Ten can do things other conferences wouldn't dare, like conceive a 24 team 4 division conference.
You might have Notre Dame playing Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Indiana, and Northwestern in division with Stanford, USC, and a rotating opponent (or Washington?) out of division. Add the academies out of conference and Notre Dame would be pretty happy with that.
I guess tag that as another PAC idea for the Big Ten to ponder as they consider eating the ACC.