There was applause from almost everywhere late in the summer of 2011 when Pitt, along with Syracuse, abruptly began divorce proceeding with the Big East and started a trek to the Atlantic Coast Conference that will reach completion with the upcoming football season.
The Panthers, for too long at the whim of the weak Big East, at last had found a safe home in a conference more than half a century old with established members, many of whom had prestigious academic resumes. Pitt’s future was secure.
Or maybe not.
In the dollars-top-everything world of college football only a few conferences qualify as fully safe havens and it’s starting to look like the ACC might not be one of them. The ACC has not taken on the look of a conference in peril. But future events could push it in that direction.
If the epidemic of conference expansion and desertion has proven anything in the past decade, it is that football is king. Basketball is nice, but football rules. And the ACC is not a good football league.
It is commonly believed that the desertion/expansion phase will not end until there are four 16-team conferences. There’s no guarantee when these super-conferences will fully evolve, but eventually -- within the next five to 10 years, at the most -- they figure to be set.
If that be so, three of those four conferences are set nearly in stone. The conferences currently known as the Pac-12, the Big 10 and the SEC will survive. That leaves either the Big 12 or the ACC as the fourth super-conference.
In many ways, the ACC is the superior league of the two. It has major television markets -- Boston (ranked seven), Atlanta (nine), Miami (16), Pittsburgh (23) and Raleigh-Durham (24). It has prestigious academic institutions -- Duke, Wake Forest, Virginia, North Carolina, Boston College.
The Big 12 cannot match the ACC in those categories. After Dallas-Fort Worth (fifth), its next biggest market is Austin (45). Most of its markets are Morgantown-west. Academically, Texas stands as a giant among midgets.
Standing against those ACC advantages are the superior football programs -- both recently and historically -- of the Big 12. Over the past three years, the ACC has had one top 10 finish. In the same span, the Big 12 has had three. The ACC has had three top-15 finishes (all this year). The Big 12 has had eight.
What could be decisive in resolving this issue is which conference panics first and breaks rank. The Big 12 already has suffered serious defections -- Nebraska, Texas A&M, Missouri, Colorado. More recently, the ACC lost Maryland.
There’s not been a whisper of a Big 12 team moving to join the ACC, although, other than Texas, the ACC would not have great interest in a Big 12 member. But there has been talk of Clemson and/or Florida State considering the Big 12. The conference has a $50 million exit fee, but that failed to stop Maryland, which has taken the matter to the courts.
In the chance that the ACC would collapse in the face of a Big 12 raid, Pitt would not necessarily be left out. It would be a viable candidate for a final opening in the Big Ten or as a partner with West Virginia in the Big 12.
Just as no one could have predicted what has transpired over the college athletic landscape in the past decade, no one can guess how all this will play out. But this much appears certain: The ACC is no safe haven -- for Pitt or any team.
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