It's the football offseason. 2010 recruiting efforts are winding down, and 2011 recruiting efforts are still pretty much in preliminary mode. Basketball doesn't play til Saturday. Baseball and lacrosse seasons are a month away. So it's a good time to go off the reservation just a tad and play a little what-if.
The ACC shook the earth about five years by pirating three of the Big East's best football teams in a move designed to do one thing and one thing only: divert more of that sweet sweet football moolah to the ACC. The merits of this move are debatable and depend almost entirely on how much value you place on said football moolah, because one of the unintended consequences was to create a monster that gave the ACC a rival in basketball supremacy where previously there was none.
We're not here to discuss that, though. The question on the docket today is: What if Syracuse had come to the ACC in that expansion as originally intended, instead of Virginia Poly?
It's no secret that the original invitees were Boston College, Miami, and then Syracuse instead of VT. This was so serious that the other five Big East schools, VT being one of them, filed a lawsuit and didn't include Cuse only because they felt Cuse was the one they had the least grounds to force to stay. It's also no secret that the conference's hopes for a quick smash-and-grab were derailed when the powers that be in Richmond pressured Casteen to push for Virginia Tech's inclusion, and Casteen dutifully complied. Duke and UNC, not wanting to lose the basketball hegemony they had going, were totally not in favor of this stuff, so Casteen's vote was needed as it took seven of nine in favor to approve the expansion. A 13-team league was considered, but scrapped, and with Miami being the whole point of the expansion in the first place and Boston College being in a huge TV market, Cuse was the odd team out.
But what if Mark Warner had never shoved his nose into the process? Or if Casteen had told him to go piss up a rope and leave the governing of the university to him? Or if Duke and UNC hadn't been Nay votes? Let's take a hypothetical look at what the ACC's, and UVA's, fortunes might have been with Syracuse and without Virginia Tech.
Syracuse was chosen for three main reasons: 1, they're academically sound; 2, they didn't suck at football; 3, they were pretty damn good at basketball. Reason #2 ceased very rapidly to be the case in 2004, the first year of the expansion and when they would otherwise themselves have been in the ACC. They cratered spectacularly to a 1-10 record in 2005 under the disastrous tenure of Greg Robinson, a fall that would have been horribly exacerbated and bumped forward a year in the ACC. A 6-5 regular season record was good enough to make them Big East co-champs in 2004: yay Big East football. Their bowl game was a miserable 51-14 loss to Georgia Tech and they didn't fare much better against UVA that season either - we beat them 31-10. Had they been forced to play an ACC schedule and not the crapitude that was the Big East - which still included Temple and Bad Rutgers instead of Good Rutgers, it would have gone very poorly for them. Which it eventually did anyway.
As for the ACC, it's reasonable to guess they'd have been slotted right here in the Coastal instead of VT, and had BC as their permanent cross-division rival the way VT does. Our own schedule obviously would still have had VT on it, assuming the acrimony from being left behind didn't carry over and cause VT to cancel the series in a hissy fit. Very unlikely, but you never know. Anyway, VT would just have continued to be a non-conference opponent and Syracuse would have been a second Duke in the division for basically all this time. The impact would be one fewer non-conference, non-VT opponent on the schedule, except for 2004-2005 when the Syracuse series would have been absorbed into the conference schedule and we'd have had to find some other patsy so there actually would have been one extra, not one fewer.
But in 2006....well. That year all our OOC games were one end of a home-and-home - we began a Pittsburgh series as well as one with Wyoming and East Carolina, and finished up one with Western Michigan. Let's assume WMU would have been on the schedule anyway, since we were at the end, not the beginning, of that one. But one other of those - two of which were losses - wouldn't have been scheduled, and they'd have been replaced with a likely win over Cuse. We were 5-7 that year. Might have been nice to switch out a loss to Pitt or ECU with a likely win over Cuse, yes? And go to a bowl, yes?
2008 is a similar story. Replace one of our OOC opponents (against which we were 2-2 with wins over Richmond and ECU and losses to USC and UConn) with 3-9 Syracuse, and there you have a coin flip as to whether we go to a bowl or not.
But if you didn't like that, you'll hate 2007. Remember how the game against VT was for all the division marbles? What if it wasn't? What if by that time, we already had the division wrapped up because we'd smoked 2-10 Syracuse? Even assuming we still lose to VT and the MTSU game is off the schedule, you replace a conference loss with a conference win and wrap up a trip to the ACCCG, where we'd have played the same BC team that VT smoked in that game. Could very well have been an ACC championship year.
In 2009, you can't swap out any one game and make that a redeemable year, but you certainly could also imagine that the improved recruiting we'd have been able to do all this time might have prevented that year from happening the way it did in the first place.
The verdict here: Big boon for the ACC, which got the marquee powerhouse that Miami failed to be upon joining. Hate to say it, but Poly might just be keeping the ACC in its BCS berth - Syracuse would've been a major drag. Not exactly a reason for us UVA fans to celebrate, though. It's not a stretch to say the switch deprived of us of two extra bowl trips and an ACC championship, as well as any number of better recruits we may or may not have lost out on. See, it's not all Al Groh's fault - thanks a lot, Mark Warner.
A little while I ago I posited that expansion had been good for ACC basketball and good for UVA. We've won more games against expansion teams than the teams they replaced on the schedule. Since the expansion, we're 5-5 against Tech, which is.....shameful, especially by the standards of the pre-expansion days. But a hell of a lot better than we'd have done against Syracuse, against whom we are 0-2 since 2004 because we blow halftime leads against that team like it's our job. Playing them twice a year, when they've gone to three NCAA tournaments since then and we've been losing to Bradley in the CBI, would very likely have cost us some games and even some postseasons.
Verdict: The ACC sure would have loved it. Duke, UNC, Syracuse in the same conference? Syracuse is not only a good team every year but they have cachet. Panache. The move to the ACC has improved VT's fortunes in basketball but they have zero history and zero cachet whatsoever. But a big part of the reason the expansion has helped us in hoops is because even in our down years, VT's usually good for a win. Cuse, twice a year? Do not want.
No story here. Syracuse is a northern school in a snowy environment and doesn't even play. Poly plays, but badly. The only impact to the ACC here is that with VT, we get a full 12. Sort of: Tech has never even been to the damn conference tournament, except for 2005 when the format was different and they lost the play-in.
Not much impact here either. Both teams are horrible lately, particularly Cuse. VT made a little bit of a nice NCAA tournament run a couple years ago but has totally fallen off the map since. Big East soccer is no joke, but it's no ACC either, and Syracuse doesn't do all that well there - they'd be chewed up and spit out in the ACC. Tech, at best, holds their own. This is a sport where the ACC is a bit stronger for the selection of VT, but not emphatically. Tech's just depth, not a flag-carrier. And it really makes no difference to us - Tech has occasionally been a thorn in our side but we do our thing for the most part.
Oh sweet mother of mercy in heaven. Lacrosse is basically a revenue sport at Syracuse. Poly doesn't even bother. The ACC only has four men's lacrosse teams and therefore no autobid to the tournament, but they all go anyway. That certainly wouldn't change by adding Syracuse. Neither would our schedule, we play them every year anyway.
No, the real missed opportunity, besides having a super-awesome five-team league instead of a super-awesome four-team league, is the tempting possibility of expanding to six and therefore securing an autobid. Tell me the teams in the ACC wouldn't start banging for that. And - totally just speaking hypothetically here - if Syracuse had joined the ACC to make it five, wouldn't you think there'd have been a big clamor, at least from the fans, to reach out to Hopkins? Someone would have brought this up, I guarantee it. That'd have put every NCAA lacrosse champion of all-time but the two Ivies, Cornell and Princeton, in the same conference. Even without Hopkins it'd have been cooler than cool, but still. Not having Syracuse in the ACC is a huge missed chance as far as lacrosse is concerned. Like I said, for UVA it'd have made no difference because we always play them anyway, but for the ACC, it's a blown opportunity to cement the conference's unchallenged elite status in this sport.
There's plenty of evidence for the theory that we screwed our football team over by caving to the demands of the legislature and the governor to include Virginia Tech in the expansion. The ripples of time and fickleness of fortune and whatnot mean that the simplified approach I took up there probably isn't the end-all, be-all of the process. But it still doesn't take a lot of philosophizing to get the idea that Syracuse really sucks at football right now, Tech is really good, and because of that, our own ACC fortunes took a major hit. One that's not outweighed by the benefit of not having to play Cuse all the time in basketball.
Academically, Syracuse would clearly have been the better fit; geographically, Tech makes much more sense. (And I sort of like to think geographically. I want to smack the Big East, for example, for inviting South Florida.) And the plain fact of the matter is, we have a choice: we can bellyache all we want about giving up our major recruiting advantage over VT, or we can do something about it and kick their ass in stuff. Which we do, for the most part, because we have this crazy idea that an athletics department should support all its athletics and not treat them like football's red-headed stepchild. We just need to get the football team right, and Tech is not an immovable obstacle if we take care of our own house.