LOUISVILLE, Ky. - There have been a myriad of moving pieces in the collegiate athletics landscape over the last 12 months.
The wheels of conference realignment first started spinning again last summer, when Texas and Oklahoma announced that they would be leaving the Big 12 for the SEC starting in 2025. The Big 12 would respond by poaching Cincinnati, UCF and Houston from the AAC, as well as adding independent BYU. These moves also had repercussions in the Sun Belt, Conference USA and several others.
After a brief down period, conference realignment was thrust back into hyperdrive earlier this week. USC and UCLA, the two cornerstones of the Pac-12, will be heading for the Big Ten starting in 2024.
Don't expect that to be the last move, either. Sports Illustrated's Ross Dellenger reported that several schools had "contacted the Big Ten about joining the conference" in the wake of USC and UCLA's decision, and that "most of them" were from the Pac-12. The SEC is also considering pursuing additional schools, according to Action Network's Brett McMurphy.
The writing has been on the wall for a while that we are careening towards super conferences, but you might as well write that with a permanent marker now. The Pac-12 is trending towards a collapse, and the Big 12 - even after adding four new members - is still at risk of getting poached again.
The ACC is in a little bit of a better situation in terms of warding off potential poachers, and very well could be the third super conference alongside the SEC and Big Ten. The league's Grant of Rights last through 2036, and the exit fee is roughly $52 million. This could allow the ACC themselves could also go on the offensive and add new members in an effort compete against the SEC and Big Ten's arms race.
That being said, there's still a chance the ACC could wind up collapsing themselves. The league is tied to arguably the worst media rights contract in the Power Five, and, along with the Grant of Rights, it doesn't expire until 2036. This can be renegotiated should the conference add schools, but for some current members, the benefit of leaving for the much more lucrative SEC and Big Ten could outweigh the cost of the exorbitant exit fee.
Because of the potential for an ACC collapse due to conference realignment, it also creates added pressure on the Louisville football program to perform at a high level for the upcoming 2022 season.
While the Cardinals boast one of the most storied men's basketball programs in Division I athletics, hoops isn't the straw that stirs the drink here. Conference realignment always has been, and always will be, powered by football first and foremost.
Even though there have been times during the 21st century where they have dominated the gridiron, historically speaking, Louisville's isn't close to being the biggest football brand in the ACC. Those titles belong to Clemson, Florida State and Miami, and as a result, they are the three most likely schools in the conference to get poached by either the SEC or Big Ten.
Louisville is also not the most attractive option when it comes to the academic side of things. It plays a bigger role for the Big Ten than the SEC, but it's a much more important factor than people realize.
According to the most recent university rankings by U.S. News, UofL is tied for the 187th spot on the list. Not only is that far behind the next-best ACC school (N.C. State at T-79th), but the only current SEC or Big Ten school that Louisville surpasses is Mississippi State at T-196. They would easily be the worst academic team in the Big Ten, with Nebraska placing the lowest at T-136.
While Clemson, Florida State and Miami are the most likely to jump ship due to football reasons, North Carolina and Virginia are just as likely to do so for academic reasons. The Tar Heels and Hokies are the only two ACC members who are part of the Association of American Universities, which would make them very attractive options.
In summary up to this point: If the ACC does find themselves trending towards an imminent doom, Louisville has neither the football history nor the academics that would currently make them an attractive option to either the SEC or Big Ten.
This is why conference realignment could possibly create added pressure on the Cardinals to have a fantastic year in football this upcoming season.
In order for Louisville to seem like a viable option for either the SEC or Big Ten, they have to show that football is trending towards being nationally relevant again. Head coach Scott Satterfield is already facing a fair amount of pressure from the fan base after going 6-7 last season for his second-straight losing campaign. After going 8-5 his first year in 2019, Satterfield is now 18-19 in his three years as the head man of the Cardinals.
Heading into year four, he and the rest of his staff need to flip some of last season’s one-score games in their favor, get back to their winning ways, and potentially flirt with a nine- or ten-win season. They also need to lock down their elite 2023 recruiting class on signing day, which has bought him more time from the court of public opinion.
I'm not saying that Louisville is guaranteed to leave the ACC. The league could finally get Notre Dame to join the fold, as well as nab a few stragglers from the Pac-12 to position themselves as the third super-conference, and this whole discussion becomes a moot point.
But should it become apparent that Louisville's future is no longer in the ACC, it would make it much easier for UofL athletic director Josh Heird to potentially sell the Cardinals to either the SEC or Big Ten if everything finally comes together on the football field this season. If not, the Cardinals could find themselves back in conference realignment purgatory.
Most of the current schools taking part in conference realignment have built up their brands over the course of decades, and Louisville doesn't have that in football. What UofL could do is sell their long-term potential in the sport, like how Cincinnati did with the Big 12.
In order for that to even be talking to point to SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey or Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren, Louisville has to have a successful 2022 season, and maybe even beyond that. Their best hope is that the ACC can stay afloat, but since that's not guaranteed, Heird needs to be proactive and Satterfield needs to win.
(Photo of Scott Satterfield: Michael Clevenger - Courier Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK)
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