ACC mailbag: Ramifications of potential Clemson, FSU departure plus North Carolina politics (2024)

ACC mailbag: Ramifications of potential Clemson, FSU departure plus North Carolina politics (1)

By The Athletic College Football Staff

May 6, 2024

Welcome to Part 2 of our ACC mailbag with Brendan Marks, Grace Raynor and Manny Navarro.

Thanks for all of the great questions. We tried to stick to actual football in Part 1, which ran Friday. Today, we focused mostly on the off-the-field issues dominating the conversation.

What happens to the ACC if both FSU and Clemson announce this summer they’re leaving the conference, effective June 30, 2025? — Todd K.

Before we dive into all of these questions regarding departures and realignment, let’s declare Chris Vannini’s ACC vs. FSU and Clemson story required reading as background.

I believe the official date for Clemson and FSU to inform the ACC of their intended departures for the 2025 season would be this Aug. 15. So, that would mean we’d either have some form of resolution in court regarding the grant of rights by then (not likely considering it potentially affects conferences across college football and not just the ACC) or the schools and league settle out of court on exit fees (more likely). If it’s the latter, and FSU and Clemson part ways, ESPN will smartly decide in February not to pick up its ACC TV package through 2036. That would send the ACC into Pac-12 territory, forcing it to sign a cheaper TV deal beyond 2027 (without its two megastars) or a straight-up league breakup in which some could end up fleeing to the Big 12 or forming a new league.

GO DEEPERThe ACC vs. Florida State and Clemson: Untangling a realignment clash in court

My guess is there will be a group of ACC schools not getting into the SEC or Big Ten (or Big 12, which could end up being the winner here if it grabs some of the more desirable ACC teams) that will want to stick together in some form and take a cheaper TV deal to remain “mid-majors.” We can sit here and debate which schools those are — and get some feelings hurt — or you can simply look at TV ratings and TV markets for the past few years and put two and two together. Either way, not everyone is getting an invite to the Big 2 or a Super League. If FSU or Clemson has to spend a few years in purgatory (the Big 12) to get to the SEC or Big Ten, they’ll do it to get out of having to stick around in the ACC through 2036.

I just don’t think we’re going to see a 24-team Big Ten or a 24-team SEC down the road. Remember, the SEC’s TV deal runs with ESPN through 2033-34 and the Big Ten’s deal runs with CBS, NBC and Fox through 2029-30. There’s no incentive for the schools in those leagues to add any more schools when they’ve got such a huge financial advantage in college football — unless they’re competing to sign top “free agent” schools such as FSU and Clemson or another school (like North Carolina) they value. That essentially leaves the other ACC programs behind to come up with a solution to remain relevant and fund their athletic programs in some capacity. That’s why the ACC will not completely fold. It had to have learned something through the Pac-12’s mistakes. — Navarro

How does North Carolina politics play a part in conference realignment with UNC and NC State? And does this prevent both of these schools from being separated or do they both just need to have a landing spot if one or both schools decide to leave the ACC? — Isaiah N.

The short answer: It’s complicated. Basically, North Carolina’s state legislature saw what happened in California two summers ago — when UCLA abruptly left the Pac-12 for the Big Ten and seemingly blindsided state leaders — and said, “We’re not letting something similar transpire.”

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So in April, the UNC Board of Governors — which oversees the North Carolina system that includes NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill — passed a policy change; state universities must now notify the system president of any desire to change conferences before doing so, including presenting a financial plan for the move. The system president can either approve or veto the plan. If the president rejects it, then the chancellor of the proposing university has to come up with a new plan. And even if the system president approves it, then the plan moves to the larger BoG for a vote … and if the plan falls short of necessary approval there, it gets kicked back all the same.

In effect, the new policy makes it more difficult for any school in the UNC system to change conferences. But, importantly, it does not state anything outright about the Wolfpack and Tar Heels remaining in the same conference.

That doesn’t mean that idea is out of mind, though. Last year, North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) told reporters that, “Carolina and State ought to be in the same conference … I think you’d have a lot of resistance to seeing them split off in different conferences.” (Moore is a 1992 graduate of North Carolina.) The issue is that in realignment terms, North Carolina — with its national brand, men’s basketball prowess and lofty academic reputation — is widely seen as a more valuable addition than NC State. In fact, some industry experts believe North Carolina is the only remaining ACC brand with additive value to the SEC or Big Ten since it (unlike Florida State and Clemson) resides in a state where neither league currently has membership. So, if North Carolina were to get poached by either of the Big 2 leagues, where would that leave NC State? Where would that leave the rivalry between those two schools? And on a larger level, where would that leave the ACC?

All of this is a long way of saying that plenty of influential people in the state don’t want to see UNC and NC State split up. Case in point: This week, another bill was introduced in the state legislature that would require UNC and NC State to:

1. Play at least one of East Carolina, Charlotte and Appalachian State every year and play all three both home and away in a six-year period.
2. Play each other home or away every year.

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It’s too early to know now what, if any, support that bill has. But it’s clear from the legislature’s overall moves to this point that keeping the two rivals together is a priority in any way possible. — Marks

If you were appointed as the ACC president today and also given a time machine, what would you go back and change to improve where the conference stands in 2024? How would the ACC stack up against other conferences after you were done? — Ethan D.

Aside from forcing Notre Dame to join the ACC — which we all know would’ve never happened because the ACC needs Notre Dame far more than the Irish need the ACC — I think I would have done everything in my power to convince the conference to change its tune and accept that its future had to be in football.

The ACC is an incredible basketball conference, as we all know. But football is the money maker. Starting in, say, 2005, I’d hold in-person meetings with every ACC coach, president and athletic director and convince them that football recruiting would become the most important area they should invest in over the next decade-plus. I’d tell them that the word on the street was that the pesky SEC down the block has gone all in on recruiting, to the point that the bells and whistles were a bit ridiculous, but that ACC teams would have to do the same. They’d need to invest more in their football staffs. Hire more people. Build out their recruiting and evaluation departments. Beef up their facilities. Put a slide and a barber shop in the building. Learn the teenage lingo better than ever, so 16-year-olds could relate to them.

Clemson and Florida State would listen, and it’d pay off for them in the 2010s. But I’d beg the rest of the league to do the same and make it the mission to prove the ACC wasn’t just a one-dimensional league. I’d beg them to care about the SEC’s every step. — Raynor

Which ACC teams will be part of the Super League? We will only have 32 teams within three years. — Ursula D.

Clemson, the league’s best football power of the last decade, has to be in. Same for Florida State, with its historic and recent football success. Then there’s North Carolina, which has the most attractive national brand in the ACC and — maybe more importantly — would give this hypothetical Super League a footing in a state in which it currently does not.

And I’m just gonna say those three. Controversial? Maybe. But if FSU and Florida are already both in, what incentive does the Super League have to add a third (private) program from the same state? One that hasn’t in any way matched the level of success of the other two in the last two decades? You’ve also got to figure that the SEC and Big Ten are contributing anywhere from 20 to 30 of those teams, so there’s only so much room. — Marks

How many ACC teams make the CFP this year? And how excited are you for the new playoffs format? — Brett W.

I initially needed a little convincing that the College Football Playoff was worth expanding, but after Florida State got robbed last season, I’m pumped to see more teams have a chance — even if I think the same few will continue to win it. As for who in the ACC could make this year’s field, I’m going with the two teams most likely to contend for the league title: Clemson and Florida State. We could be in for a treat if Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik and former Clemson and now FSU quarterback DJ Uiagalelei hit their stride.

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Manny, on the other hand, had a spicier answer when I polled our group.

“It’s gonna be Miami and FSU,” he said. “In the last year of the ACC as we know it. Book it. Finally.” — Raynor

Is there a competitive advantage to Clemson’s approach to the portal? I compare the Tigers to Colorado. The latter is a revolving door where guys are always on the hot seat. Clemson can pitch, “Come here and we’ll develop you. You don’t have to look over your shoulder. Put in the reps and you’ll earn your snaps.” I have to imagine that appeals to lots of kids and especially to the types of kids Clemson recruits. — Hunter W.

Excellent points, Hunter. It has to help Clemson’s recruiting efforts to tell high school football players, “We want you and not transfers. Come here, and you won’t lose your spot to an older player.” But it’s completely unsustainable for Clemson to remain a non-player in the transfer portal and still contend for national championships. It’s like an NBA, NFL or MLB team declaring, “We’re only going to use the draft to supplement our rosters and allow players once they reach their fourth or fifth season to walk in free agency.”

Every championship team needs veterans, and in college football, if you’re a special player, you’re usually gone after Year 3 anyway. Dabo Swinney’s approach worked in the pre-portal era when free agency wasn’t rampant. Not anymore. You can’t replace a talented third- or fourth-year player with a freshman and expect the freshman to play like a junior or senior. Especially when you’re still losing guys to the portal and draft. There are just too many holes to fill. — Navarro

In the next few years, assuming FSU and Clemson find a way to depart, how likely is an ACC Western Division with Cal, Stanford, Oregon State, Washington State, and maybe a Texas school like Rice or UTSA? — Michael H.

Wait, I love this idea. I don’t know how likely it is, but I’m not sure anything in college football could surprise me anymore. Oregon State and Washington State need somewhere to land anyway, and if Clemson and Florida State bounce, the ACC should just lean into being totally unhinged. Give me Pac-12 after-dark vibes, but every hour of every day. — Raynor

(Photos of North Carolina vs. NC State and Clemson vs. Florida State:Lance King, John Byrum / Icon Sportswire / Getty Images)

ACC mailbag: Ramifications of potential Clemson, FSU departure plus North Carolina politics (2024)
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