(Photo Courtesy of North Carolina Athletics)
Conference realignment isn’t new. It has been happening, practically, since the dawn of college athletics. And in the era of NIL where more power is gravitating to the players, conference realignment might just become more prevalent over the next few years.
With the recent news of Texas and Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, it looks as if we could see a massive wave of conference realignment at the FBS level (especially among the power 5) sooner rather than later. And while neither Texas or Oklahoma have college lacrosse programs, nor do the Big 12 or SEC sponsor the sport, it is very likely that the sport could be impacted by this next wave of conference realignment that appears to be on the horizon.
During the mid-2010s, the original Big East folded and sparked the biggest wave of conference realignment in recent history. Syracuse and Notre Dame were added to the ACC while Rutgers eventually joined the Big Ten. Maryland made the same move, jumping to the Big Ten from the ACC. While nothing is definitive, we could very well see some similar moves over the next few years that significantly impact college lacrosse.
Texas and Oklahoma jumping over to the SEC is the earthquake that will create a tsunami across the college athletics landscape. With those two marquee programs making moves, what will be left of the Big 12? Will other schools leave the conference? Will schools in other conferences see the opportunity of joining a super league and make a move?
As far as lacrosse goes, the ACC and Big Ten are the only two power five conferences that sponsor both men’s and women’s lacrosse. The Pac-12 sponsors women’s lacrosse only with Utah as the conference’s only men’s lacrosse-playing member. So any conference realignment impact on lacrosse will be within those conferences, and based on reports and hypotheticals that have been thrown around over the past week it appears that the ACC and Big Ten is the two lacrosse fans should be keeping their eyes on the most.
If Texas and Oklahoma do go through with their move to the SEC, that will create a super conference in college football. And if the SEC does it, who’s not to say that the ACC or Big Ten won’t try to do something similar. The biggest school in play for both of those conferences would be Notre Dame. Now, the Irish are members of the ACC in everything (including lacrosse) except football where they are an independent, and Hockey where they are a member of the Big Ten.
Notre Dame is as national of a brand as you’ll find in college athletics, but they are a geographical fit in the Big Ten. So if the Big Ten does make a similar move to create super conference in football, Notre Dame would likely be their first call. Now would the Irish give up their independence? That’s hard to see, but certainly possible if the money is right. That move would also bolster Big Ten lacrosse, adding Notre Dame alongside Johns Hopkins, Maryland, Michigan, Northwestern (women’s only), Ohio State, Penn State, and Rutgers.
In addition to their athletic excellence, the Big Ten likes to tout how great some of their universities which would only make the Big Ten potentially courting Notre Dame even more likely. That fact also makes a potential ACC raid by the Big Ten more likely. Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia are all high academic schools that have lacrosse programs and would be good football and/or basketball additions – especially if the Big Ten isn’t afraid to try and expand their footprint in the South.
Similarly, the ACC could try and go the same direction. Trying to get Maryland back or add Rutgers may fit the ACC’s geographic footprint better, but those moves don’t seem very likely as they give the ACC next to nothing in football in the immediate future. However, as always, things can change over two to three years and any move is certainly possible. The ACC trying to pull and Ohio State, Michigan, or Penn State seems way more likely. Any of those schools coming to the ACC would provide an immediate impact in football and give the ACC the sixth team they need to get their NCAA lacrosse AQ bid back.
Another thing to consider with both the ACC and Big Ten is the SEC trying to raid both conferences. Yes, North Carolina, Duke, and Virginia would fit in the SEC footprint more than any other schools in either conference. But it looks like geography won’t matter much in the future of college sports, so the SEC going after Ohio State or Michigan is in the realm of possibility. Lacrosse-wise, what would happen if such a move were to take place? Would those schools go independent? Would we see these kinds of moves made just for football and basketball, thus leaving non-revenue sports as is? Anything is possible.
The next wave of major conference realignment in college athletics is here and lacrosse will be impacted one way of another over the next few years. Right now, there is certainly more talk than action, so don’t expect any changes for 2022 but this time next year we could be knee deep in a whole new era.