Why FSU is biggest realignment winner 25 years after joining ACC

BY Stewart Mandel • June 17, 2015

Editor's note: Send questions for future Mailbags to stewart.mandel@fox.com.

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Last week I wrote a column taking a trip down realignment memory lane, and I only wish I'd taken it a few steps further. Given the amount of interest it generated, and given my readers' never-ending interest in the topic in general, I probably should have turned the winners and losers piece into a five-part series.

Thanks to the Mailbag, though, we can at least extend this nascent round of realignment nostalgia by another week. 

Stewart: You recently evaluated the winners and losers from the 2010 conference realignment frenzy. What about over the last 25 years? I use that number since this month marks 25 years since Penn State joined the Big Ten. Jim Delany recently said, "With all the other expansions around the country, I'm not sure there was one that benefitted both institution and conference as much as this did." Do you agree?

-- Foster, Wilmington, N.C.

Really, the entirety of modern realignment can be traced to when Penn State joined the Big Ten. As natural a fit as the two seem now, the move seemed outrageous at the time. After all, Pennsylvania's not in the Midwest, and the Big Ten was supposed to have ... um, 10 teams. Penn State's addition, coming at a time when Joe Paterno's program was an unquestioned power, bolstered the conference's brand and made it college sports' most desired TV property. And Penn State no longer had to subsist largely in the football wasteland of the Northeast. Wisconsin may be far away, but Penn State has more in common with Wisconsin than Temple.

The only reason I'd question whether this has indeed been the most mutually beneficial conference-university marriage is because Penn State football peaked shortly upon joining. Its undefeated 1994 campaign came in its second season in the league. Save for a couple high points since then (the 2005 Orange and 2008 Rose Bowl teams) the Nittany Lions have not significantly bolstered the actual on-field product. They've won the same number of Big Ten championships (three) as Northwestern during the same span. And of course the Jerry Sandusky scandal and ensuing sanctions hurt the entire league.

Instead, I would take Delany's quote and apply it to Florida State and the ACC, a move announced 25 years ago this September as part of the TV consolidation wave ushered in by the Big Ten/Penn State union. The ACC to that point had almost no football visibility. FSU was quickly emerging as a behemoth. This quote at the time from then-ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan is telling: "Their football team had more national television exposure last year than all our teams had together."

Bobby Bowden has said many times that he steered the 'Noles to the ACC instead of the SEC because he felt he'd have a better chance of winning a national championship. And he was right. His teams won crowns in 1993 and '99, all the while running roughshod over the rest of the conference. Eventually the 'Noles' dominance motivated other programs like Clemson to raise their game. It also paved the way for the ACC's second expansion a decade later.

Both schools' moves were the beginning of the end for independents. In 1990 there were 26. Today there are three. Here's a random nugget: Of those 26, 15 subsequently joined two or more conferences. Louisville alone has competed in four (Conference USA, the Big East, the American and the ACC).

God bless realignment -- but solely for Mailbag purposes.

So five years after realignment hell broke loose, and after five years of Texas being the picture of mediocrity, what do you think? Did Texas make the right move by staying in the Big 12, a conference that seems to be an afterthought of the Power 5? Or do you think it would have been better off moving to the Pac-10 or SEC?

-- Gerard, New Milford, Conn.

Sometimes it's hard to see the bigger picture midstream. Yes, Texas has sunk into mediocrity since that decision to remain in the Big 12 -- but there's almost no causation between the two (unless you think the 'Horns should have moved west to escape Baylor's offense.) Case McCoy and Tyrone Swoopes would have struggled whether they were facing Oklahoma State or Oregon State. In that winners and losers column I tried to avoid rendering judgments based on a few seasons of football performances and rather based on likely long-term potential.

Selfishly, I would have loved to see Texas and Oklahoma come west, but realistically, Texas made the right move staying put. It gets to continue being the big bully ... er, fish, in its small pond rather than one of many voices in a 16-team conference. It's one of two legacy programs in a conference rather than being one of many in the SEC (which gladly would have taken the 'Horns). And those other leagues likely wouldn't have allowed the Longhorn Network, which is putting $300 million in Texas' coffers. I also don't buy the Big 12 as an afterthought. It may seem that way after last year's playoff snub and/or because Baylor and TCU are the current darlings. If Charlie Strong ever gets the 'Horns in order, their conference affiliation won't prevent them from contending nationally.

What scenario would it take for BYU to get into the Pac-12, as crazy as it may seem? If there is no scenario, what's the hang-up? BYU trying to go to the Big 12 just doesn't make sense when the obvious geographic and competitive choice (that already added their long-time rival) is the cute girl next door. Yes, BYU has its scheduling quirks and (unfairly placed, if you ask some) negative academic baggage, but wouldn't their huge fan base overcome that?

-- Bryan, Gilbert, Ariz.

Chalk that one up to a lack of "cultural fit." Simply put, BYU is a conservative, religious university; the Pac-12 mostly consists of large state schools (save for Stanford and USC) and includes some of the most liberal enclaves in the country (Berkeley, Palo Alto, L.A., Seattle and the state of Oregon). Normally I scoff whenever any commissioner or president claims a realignment move is driven by anything other than athletics and TV households, but in this case it's very real. Ultimately the presidents and chancellors, not Larry Scott, approve any new members, and it's hard to imagine the leaders of Cal or Stanford signing off on BYU. Whether that's fair, or possibly discriminatory, is a whole other matter.

Furthermore, BYU, like Texas, brings its own television network to the table. Granted, BYUtv serves a much different purpose than the Longhorn Network, but the channel does air 125 Cougars sporting events, according to its Web site. That would not fly with the Pac-12 Network model, for which the schools hand over all their Tier 3 rights. I doubt the league would make an exception for BYU. (It wouldn't for Texas when the two parties flirted the second time in 2011.) All of which makes the Big 12 a more sensible fit for BYU, especially given that league has a better chance (albeit still a small one) of expanding any time soon.

Stewart, like the TV show "Lost", the college football world flashes to an alternate existence where massive realignment does not occur but the four-team playoff does. The 2014 season might have looked like this: Baylor earns a playoff spot with its Big 12 championship win over Missouri. Ohio State makes the playoff by beating B1G West champ Notre Dame (who joins a conference and makes the B1G an even 12 members) and TCU earns a New Year's Six bowl berth by being the best Group of 5 school. Oregon, Alabama and Big East champ West Virginia sweat it out on Selection Sunday for the final two playoff spots.

-- Scott Saxton, Windsor, Ontario

I just love that the alternate scenario where "massive realignment does not occur" still involves Notre Dame joining a conference -- the one domino that did not happen. I'm also confused why Baylor wound up a surer playoff bet than Oregon and Alabama, how the 8-5 Irish won their division and why West Virginia, not Cincinnati or Louisville, won the Big East.

So all in all, this flash-sideways concept, like "Lost's", seemed fun at first but was mostly unsatisfying. A better challenge would be to devise a fantasy realignment scenario that ends in as equally absurd yet technically possible fashion as the recent "VEEP" season finale.

Hi Stewart, Your Mailbag gets me through the work week, especially in the offseason. This year's College Football Playoff schedule has come out and ... it stinks. Just like your book predicted (which I just finished), the ratings and fan attendance for the New Years Eve bowls will be way down this year. I'll have to somehow stream them from the office at 10:00 a.m. (Peach Bowl) and 2 p.m. (first semifinal) Mountain time. Maybe I should just hope Arizona makes the Rose Bowl instead of the playoff (I would happily take either).

-- David Grubin, Phoenix

Well first of all, thanks for reading the book. Perhaps if more people had then the Dec. 31 semifinals would not have come as such a shock when much of the public finally noticed them for the first time right after last year's games. And I'm seeing the same doom-and-gloom predictions you are about what a nightmare it will be. Even ESPN (which didn't devise the rotation) knows ratings will be down for the semifinals from last year's Jan. 1 doubleheader. I believe it will be particularly bad on the West Coast, where college football is not as intrinsic to the culture as the South or Midwest. In Silicon Valley, in particular, most businesses will be oblivious to the football game taking place, as they're oblivious to anything besides developer conferences and iPhone launches.

But after this one rough year, my guess is Dec. 31 playoff games will soon seem normal. The event is so popular -- 28 million people watched last year's semifinals -- that it can't help but drive behavioral changes. Case in point: I watched last year's USA-Belgium World Cup game -- which started at 1 p.m. PT on a Tuesday -- at an overflowing sports bar in Manhattan Beach. I'm guessing those people had jobs. Overall, a staggering 16.5 million viewers tuned in. And that's for the other kind of football, which, while rapidly gaining popularity in this country, still lags far behind the sport featured in this column.

My guess is that come Dec. 31, 2016, when the Peach and Fiesta bowls host the semis, ratings will be back up to what they were this past year.

Hey Stewart: You recently wrote that with the playoff, teams on the cusp of being super-elite, like Oregon, would have a more difficult time winning a national championship. How do you view Michigan State?

-- Will, Denver

I view the Spartans much the same way. They've now won at least 11 games four of the past five seasons, beating both a 12-0 Ohio State team and Pac-12 champion Stanford in 2013 as well as a top-five Baylor team in last year's Cotton Bowl. But Mark Dantonio is doing it for the most part by developing underrated recruits. I recently noticed that Michigan State currently has a top-six recruiting class for 2016, which I assumed at first to mean that all its recent success is garnering more coveted prospects. Take a closer look, though, and two-thirds of its 18 commits are three-stars. Those are their guys, a few of which will inevitably blossom into the next Tony Lippett and Shilique Calhoun.

There's nothing wrong with that formula, as the Spartans have clearly shown they're capable of beating some of the best teams in the country on a given day. And Michigan State could well reach the playoff this season, as I discussed last week. But like Oregon, I wouldn't like their chances of winning consecutive playoff games against opponents likely to be more talented than them. That won't be the case if they draw a TCU or Baylor in the semifinal, but it will if, say, it's Auburn in the semis and USC in the championship game.

Who would win in a five-minute rib eating contest between Pat Forde, Bruce Feldman, Andy Staples and yourself?

-- Vomo Vomacka, West Des Moines, Iowa

Clearly Andy would win, and even stop to take pictures of it, but Pat would come close. Bruce would finish whatever gets put in front of him then immediately regret it. I'd idiotically fill up on sides.

Hi Stewart, Do you have as big of a problem as I do with Brian Kelly's recent comments? He feels his athletes are at a disadvantage because of the academic requirements at Notre Dame. I feel it's unfair that these athletes are even accepted to Notre Dame. If a regular student can't get into a school because of the academic standards, I don't feel it's fair for someone to get in just because they play a sport well, let alone go for free.

-- Kyle Zartman, St. Louis 

Well first of all, I hope you realize this is hardly unique to Notre Dame. Nearly every football-playing school in the country admits athletes that would not be accepted solely on their academic credentials. I would not categorize it as unfair, because universities set their own respective parameters for who they want to comprise their student body. But it's certainly ripe for abuse, as Notre Dame has experienced recently. And in Notre Dame's case, its fans expect national titles. That's not going to happen if they recruit only players who could get in on their own.

I actually found Kelly's surprisingly candid comments to be refreshing. Usually coaches and administrators tiptoe around this widespread practice, and in fact some of Kelly's predecessors at Notre Dame would have you believe they were trotting out a roster full of valedictorians. Or they would use the school's academic requirements as an excuse for the Irish's on-field struggles, as if they weren't recruiting much the same pool of blue-chippers as Alabama or Ohio State.

To be clear, Kelly's program has no shortage of sharp, academically serious students. I made two visits there last season and enjoyed my conversations with several players. Which shows that while there's a risk to accepting athletes who don't meet the school's typical admissions threshold, most of those athletes take advantage of the opportunity afforded them.

Stewart, I read your article about the realignment winners and losers. I agree with most of your opinions, with one exception. USF was a member of the Big East for as long as UC and UConn. Did they lose any less than those two schools when their BCS status was taken away?

-- James R. Syers, location unknown

This has got to be the first time anyone's ever e-mailed me complaining that this school wasn't listed as a loser.

Now don't go and try to start a rivalry with UConn next.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.


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