Now that Notre Dame’s in the fold, a coup of staggering proportions for the ACC and comissioner John Swofford, assuring the relevance of the conference long into the future, if it was ever really in doubt, the only question left is who’s No. 16?
With 14 teams for football and 15 overall once Notre Dame joins -- and NBC’s football megadeal with the Fighting Irish expires in 2015, so mark that date on the calendar -- the ACC is going to need one more team to balance out the conference at some point down the road.
Connecticut was mentioned back when Syracuse and Pittsburgh were invited aboard, but there are two schools that fit the ACC far better, both athletically and academically. One would be easy: Rutgers. Another would require some behind-the-scenes maneuvering on the par of the Notre Dame move: Vanderbilt.
First, Rutgers. That’s an easy one. It’s a research university with a solid reputation (68th in the U.S. News & World Report rankings), it offers entrée to the New York/New Jersey market, and it bridges the geographic gap between Maryland/Pittsburgh and Boston College/Syracuse. The Scarlet Knights are weak on the basketball front, but they’ve put their days of dismal football behind them and, with the proper prodding and a new arena, shouldn’t have any trouble being competitive.
Rutgers and Connecticut are comparable on academics (68th and 63rd in the U.S. News rankings), but Rutgers is in the heart of the Tri-State area as opposed to on the perimeter and is way ahead in football. Basketball, obviously, is Connecticut’s strong point, but the Huskies also carry the baggage of the recent NCAA violations, something the ACC is particularly sensitive about at the moment.
Rutgers is easy.
But if Swofford is really ambitious, there’s another route to take. Vanderbilt has billions of reasons to stay in the SEC, but the Commodores have always been more aligned with the ACC’s values -- Vanderbilt is 17th in the U.S. News rankings -- a commitment to academics, the preeminence of basketball over football, an outsider looking in toward SEC fanaticism.
Despite the reported lack of an SEC exit fee, it would take some slick maneuvering and first-class salesmanship to pry Vanderbilt away from the SEC, but it would give the ACC a kindred spirit, and put Vanderbilt in a conference of its peers -- not to mention one where it would be competitive in football in a way it could never be in the SEC.
That’s the big play, the swing-for-the-fences, no-holds-barred play. The 16th ACC team is going to be the last one, period. It’s worth putting in the extra effort to get it right.
Based on Swofford’s successful back-room maneuvering to get Notre Dame aboard, he’s clearly capable of getting that deal done. Nothing wrong with Rutgers, or UConn for that matter. But Vanderbilt would join Notre Dame as the crown jewel of Swofford’s expansion legacy -- first he lands the Irish, then he raids the SEC.