What are the Best Programs the Big Ten and the SEC Could Still Pursue During Conference Realignment?

Best programs remaining in conference realignment

College football will look very different by 2025. The College Football Playoff will likely be expanded, new guidelines surrounding Name, Image, and Likeness will likely be implemented, and on-field rules and transfer portal guidelines could be different.

However, the biggest change will be in conference membership. The Big Ten and SEC have already expanded in an effort to ensure they are the premier conferences in the sport in the future, and it is likely they will have grown even further before playoff expansion.

The teams which join these new conferences will have a huge impact on how the sport takes shape. Here is a look at some of the best remaining programs the Big Ten and SEC could look to add, and the factors affecting their realignment strategies.

Notre Dame

Arguably the biggest factor remaining in how realignment unfolds is the decision Notre Dame will make. The program has a national fanbase and has its own television contract for football due to its status as an independent, but the changing landscape of college football, and increasing television revenue, could lead to Notre Dame joining a conference in every sport.

For the last several years Notre Dame has had a contractual agreement with the ACC, where it is a member in every sport but football, to play a certain amount of games with ACC opponents every year. This has led to marquee games against Clemson, Miami, and Florida State in the past.

However, it is unlikely Notre Dame would join the ACC if they do join a conference. The ACC’s television deal lasts until 2036 and will bring less revenue to each school over the course of the contract than the SEC’s agreement with ESPN/ABC and the Big Ten’s new media rights agreement which is currently being negotiated.

Notre Dame may also pursue a new media rights agreement of its own in order to remain independent. The program’s current contract with NBC ends in 2025, but a new contract would have to bring significantly increased revenue in order for it to be financially viable if Notre Dame expects to remain one of the premier programs in college football.

With Notre Dame unlikely to join the ACC, the conference that makes the most sense for the university is the Big Ten. Geographically, Notre Dame is the most logical team for the Big Ten to turn to as it continues to analyze expansion options, and the conference’s next media rights deal could be the most lucrative in college football.

Before Notre Dame joins a conference, the university will have to consider how much it values its status as an independent, and how it will be positioned in new playoff formats, especially if automatic bids for conference champions become a part of playoff expansion. It is also unclear how any agreement will affect Notre Dame’s other sports considering their ACC membership and the conference’s grant of rights agreement.

When the next major steps of realignment are taken, Notre Dame and the conference they join will likely be the first organizations to announce their plans moving forward.

Clemson

Along with Notre Dame, Clemson is the program with the most recent success that could join a new conference. The Tigers won the National Championship in 2016 and 2018, and have been a perennial participant in the College Football Playoff under Dabo Swinney.

During that time, Clemson has been one of the most stable programs in the sport, has invested in new facilities, and recruits at a consistently good level, while developing into one of the biggest brands in the sport currently.

The SEC likely makes the most sense for the program. One of the Tigers’ main rivals, South Carolina, plays in the conference, and geographically Clemson fits the SEC perfectly.

The main question for Clemson, and whatever conference they want to join, during the realignment process is the ACC’s Grant of Rights agreement. ACC programs face severe consequences for leaving the agreement and the conference before the deal expires in 2036.

Eventually, or even possibly already, it may make sense to leave the ACC despite the grant of rights agreement due to the financial factors at play. This would become even more true if Clemson, and likely another program or multiple programs, negotiate a departure agreement with the ACC.

Clemson would almost certainly have to negotiate with the ACC about any potential departure from the conference and would have to join with other schools who want to leave to do so. However, joining the SEC could secure the future of the program and ensure its status as one of the best programs in the sport.

Miami

Miami has been one of the most successful programs in college football in the past, but hasn’t won a national title since 2001, and has only appeared in one New Year’s Six bowl game, the 2017 Orange Bowl, in the last decade.

The hiring of Mario Cristobal and the reinvestment into football by the school’s administration may have come at the best possible time for Miami. The program already has a strong brand and often benefits from very good television viewership when it is successful on the field.

As a result, Miami could be a candidate to join either the Big Ten or the SEC. Geographically, the SEC is the more logical conference to join, and the SEC would have two of the three major programs in Florida as conference members if they were to add Miami.

The Big Ten also makes sense as a potential destination for Miami. If Miami did join the Big Ten, the conference would have programs on both coasts. It could organize matchups such as Miami vs USC, a historic rivalry in Miami vs Nebraska, and more games between Miami and Ohio State or Penn State, two programs the Hurricanes have faced in multiple important games. If Notre Dame also joined the conference, the Miami and Notre Dame rivalry could be played every year and become a major part of the conference schedule each season.

However, Miami faces the same questions as Clemson regarding the ACC’s Grant of Rights agreement. In addition, the program would benefit from a successful first season under Cristobal to show that it has taken a definitive step back towards national title contention. How realignment impacts the university’s baseball and basketball programs would also have to be considered, especially in the case of the baseball program, an important factor at Miami, if the program joined the Big Ten.

Florida State

Like their rivals Miami, FSU is one of the most recognizable programs in college football. Florida State has won a national title as recently as 2013, but has finished the last four seasons below .500 and hasn’t reached a bowl game since 2019.

Despite their recent troubles, Florida State could play a major role in conference realignment. The program is nationally recognized and would make sense as a member of both the Big Ten and the SEC.

If Clemson joins the SEC Florida State would be a logical team to pursue as a partner in ACC Grant of Rights negotiations and discussions with the SEC. The two programs have developed a rivalry over the last decade that has determined the ACC in multiple seasons. The positioning of both Clemson and Florida State could be strengthened if Miami joins the schools in negotiations if the Hurricanes chose to join the Big Ten.

In addition, the SEC would add one of college football’s biggest rivalry games, Florida State vs Florida, to its annual conference schedule. Just like if Miami joined the conference, it would have two of the three biggest football programs in the state as conference members, a benefit for recruiting and television negotiations.

Florida State, Clemson, Miami, and another ACC member, likely North Carolina, negotiating with the ACC together to exit the conference is likely how any steps towards realignment would advance for any of those schools. It would likely result in two programs joining the Big Ten, with the other two joining the SEC, but would be an extremely complex process.

Oregon

As soon as USC and UCLA formally announced they were joining the Big Ten attention shifted to how Oregon and Washington would react. Oregon has become one of college football’s most important programs and has arguably been the Pac-12’s most successful overall program over the last 15 years.

The Ducks reached the national title game in 2010 and 2014. In addition, the program won the Pac-12 in both 2020 and 2019. Oregon is well positioned to remain a contender in the Pac-12 and for the national title in the future due to investment in facilities and increased success in recruiting.

The Big Ten would be the most logical destination for Oregon but did not add the program when it announced that USC and UCLA would become members of the conference. As a result, Oregon will likely be involved in the next stage of realignment negotiations as the future of the Pac-12 remains unclear.

Oregon benefits from not having to consider issues surrounding media rights agreements, in contrast to the ACC programs that could join new conferences. That flexibility could be key as Oregon and the rest of college football enters the next phase of conference realignment.

Washington

Washington, like Oregon, became one of the most interesting programs to watch in the realignment process after UCLA and USC’s departure from the Pac-12 was announced. Washington has had recent success, appearing in the College Football Playoff in 2016.

Along with Oregon, Washington will have to identify a path forward during the realignment process. The future of the Pac-12 is uncertain, with expansion, mergers, and other strategies all potential options for the conference moving forward.

If Washington did join the Big Ten or the SEC, the Big Ten would be the program’s most likely destination. If Oregon and Washington joined the conference, the Big Ten would ease geographical issues surrounding UCLA and USC and would have four of the West Coast’s most important programs all in one conference.

Moving forward, Oregon and Washington will play a significant role in the decisions made by the Big Ten, and possibly the SEC. The potential for the Big Ten to establish themselves on the entirety of the West Coast could play a significant factor in future television negotiations, but Notre Dame’s decision to remain an independent or join the conference will likely be the first step taken in any potential future expansion.