Tuesday, September 20, 2011

what do you bring to the table?

Alright, n00bs.  Now that you're here, or officially will be soon, it's time to find out what a 14-team ACC will look like.  What do Syracuse and Pittsburgh bring to the conference, and how will their presence change our ever-so-traditional (and by traditional I mean six years old) ways?

Let's start with academics, albeit only briefly.  The USNWR rankings, as usual, seem to be the best (or at least, the quickest) way to gauge a school's academic prowess, so here are the ACC schools from top to bottom, with the newcomers italicized:

#10 Duke
#25 Virginia
#25 Wake Forest
#29 North Carolina
#31 Boston College
#36 Georgia Tech
#38 Miami
#55 Maryland
#58 Pittsburgh
#62 Syracuse
#68 Clemson
#71 Virginia Tech
#101 Florida State
#101 NC State

As you can see, they fit in reasonably well.  Truthfully, they're about as highly ranked as we could reasonably expect a new addition to be ranked; we're not adding Michigan and we're not adding Princeton, so there you go.  FWIW, if the ACC took the next step of adding UConn and Rutgers, the former is tied with Pitt and the latter with Clemson.  The new schools aren't so hot that they can make Maryland look like a coloring-book school, but they're not academic anchors, either.

This is not a blog that follows the exploits of chemistry professors and med schools, however.  We are all about footbaw and lax brahs and jock stuff.  Specifically, around here, we care mostly about football, basketball, baseball, and lacrosse, and the other stuff when there's time.  So let's see how the newcomers change the conference, and what their effect is on UVA, and maybe a little primer on the history of each while we're at it.


OK, let's start with the question on which everyone has a special idea to share: divisional realignment.  Well, everyone but the major players.  Frankly, I'm quite sure they've basically punted this issue and will leave it to some future discussion between ADs and such.

The simplest thing is to stick with the current alignment and split the newcomers.  Pittsburgh has the better recent history of football than Syracuse, and the Coastal is generally (but not universally) considered the stronger division, so the easy thing is to stick Pitt in the Atlantic and Cuse in the Coastal and be done with it.  Still, it might be two years before the newbies show up, and the balance of power is a swinging pendulum rather than a stuck balance scale, so who knows?

The ACC may take the opportunity to realign, and if they do I'm not even going to bother guessing how that might go, if it stays at 14.  At 16, the basic ideas might be these:

-- Realign again based on current strengths, the way they did originally.

-- Just drop newcomers into existing divisions as they join.

-- North-South.

-- Old ACC and New ACC.  (The Big Easters plus FSU, and the rest of us traditional members.)

-- A pod system of four groups of four, which, there are so many myriad ways this could be split up that I have no interest in trying to guess without knowing the motivations of the various schools.

The appeal of the Old/New division is that old rivalries could be easily maintained.  FSU could play Miami, BC and Cuse and UConn could all play each other, the old ACC schools would get to feel like we're back in the ACC of the '80s again.  This is a tempting thought.

But the leadership might not want to risk the perception that this conference is really two conferences mashed into one.  North-South would be an easy geographical split, with one caveat: UVA fans would hate this.  (Probably Maryland fans too.)  We'd be robbed of the vast majority of our traditional games except for on a semi-regular basis.  Set it up that way and we'd feel like we might as well have split from the ACC and joined the Big East in 2005 instead of the Big East joining us.  Plus we'd lose access to a lot of happy hunting grounds when we try and recruit the South.

Competition-wise, though, there might be a silver lining to this idea: the northern wing of the hypothetical 16-team ACC kind of sucks ass at football.  Rutgers is backsliding back to their horrendous ways, BC is taking big steps back under Spaziani, Cuse is still recovering from the Greg Robinson era, UConn's never been real hot shit, etc.  I submit to you the path to the ACCCG would be much easier in the Northern Division of a hypothetical 16-team conference.

But that is for another day, because now we're dealing with a 14-teamer and no UConn and no Rutgers.  So: Pittsburgh.  They are better at football than Syracuse.  Pitt is 38-25 in the last five years; Syracuse is 21-40, though that includes most of the laughable Greg Robinson era.  Going forward, Doug Marrone will have them playing more competitively; still, this season's early results do not lend much confidence to the prospects of either team.

What we basically have, then, are two teams that neither embarrass the conference nor threaten it.  Both have fine traditions: Pitt is the school of Dan Marino and Tony Dorsett, Syracuse gave us Jim Brown.  Both have stadium situations that piss me off.  College football should never be played in a dome (Syracuse) and never be played in an NFL stadium (Pittsburgh) unless it is a bowl game.  Neither will have natural rivals in the conference; Pitt plays the Backyard Brawl against West Virginia, and Syracuse, if they have a natural rival at all, it is probably Connecticut.  (There's a reason that one UConn alum was so all-fired pissed off about hiring Paul Pasqualoni.)  Their biggest ACC rivalry will basically be each other.  This is partly why it makes so much sense just to drop them into the existing divisions without shaking things up; they can just be each other's protected rival.

Speaking of which, the ACC will have to shake up the schedule rotation, of course.  Having 14 teams in the conference is just one more good reason to play nine conference games.  I've never liked waiting four years (three season) between games against old traditional opponents, but that'll now only get worse if the ACC decides to keep the eight game schedule.  Much worse, as we'll play six against the division, one protected rivalry, and only one game against anyone else.  Yeah, six years between games.  Ironically, 16 teams in the conference would actually really alleviate this problem, if the pod system was used.

As for the effect on UVA, well, we already have a sizable overlap with Pittsburgh's recruiting territory.  Anyone who remembers Cam Saddler is shaking their head sadly right about now.  Anyone who remembers James Robinson (c'mon, it wasn't that long ago) is shaking their fist.  Most recruits we offer in Pennsylvania and New Jersey also have a Pittsburgh offer.  Pitt doesn't hardly venture into Virginia much, preferring Ohio, but you can probably assume that any new entry into the conference will want to slip a foot in the door in the Commonwealth.  The flip side of course is that we will be playing the occasional game in Pennsylvania, which is a place we like to recruit.  There's less overlap with Syracuse, which is situated in the exact opposite of fertile football recruiting grounds and thus basically spreads their efforts around in just about every state east of the Mississippi.

Bottom line for football is that the casual fan won't notice much difference except for fewer games against the teams the casual fan is used to seeing.  You remember where on the academic pecking order the newcomers fell; the same is basically true for football, just rearrange the schools.  If UVA is going to become a conference power under Mike London, Cuse and Pitt won't stop us.  If not, well, it's not more teams to beat us, just different ones.


The Big East has a lot of basketball powerhouses; the ACC just pirated two of them.  Fans complained that the mid-2000s expansion watered down basketball in the ACC.  If they mean that we don't get to play our traditional opponents as much, well, they're not gonna be happy about this, either.  If they mean that the ACC only had football in mind and added crap hoops schools, then this oughta fix things a little.

Granted, it is something of a shame that we can't go back to the double-round-robin we enjoyed before the ACC started gobbling up the Big East.  It's all water under the bridge now, though, and having two more schools takes us closer to a single round robin instead, which is what the 16-team Big East was almost doing.  (If you ask me, the way to go, if we end up at 16, is to play a single round robin with one protected rivalry.  That way the ACC can still have their double dose of Duke/UNC, we can play Maryland twice, and the schedule stays simple and equitable.  But I digress.)

Anyway.  These two schools play some quality basketball, and their addition tilts the balance back toward the ACC after the Big East had been usurping it somewhat with their 16-team hugeness.  Pittsburgh missed out on the '70s and '90s, but hasn't missed the tourney since 2002.  And in this 10-year run, seven of those years have seen them at a 3 seed or better, and two 1 seeds in the last three years.  They haven't played up to expectations in the tournament, though: only once in those ten years have they advanced past the Sweet 16, and haven't played in the Final Four since 1941 when the tourney was only eight teams.  Jamie Dixon's squad is gaining a reputation as regular season warriors and tournament folders.  Still, they're formidable for three and a half months, and recruiting against them is gonna be a pain; witness James Robinson.

Cuse, of course, has that national title in 2003 and much steadier success through their history, though they've dropped to the NIT a few times in the past decade too.  Doesn't matter.  Both bring huge names to the conference and a ton of competition.

This sounds bad for UVA (or any individual team not named Duke or UNC) but consider it this way: The ACC has always been the kind of conference where if you can simply manage 8-8 and take care of business in the OOC (against decent competition, Seth) then you will go to the tournament.  Will it be harder to get to 8-8?  Sure, maybe, but maybe not if a game with Duke is replaced by a game with Syracuse.  Not much difference.  Yes, it will be harder to finish at the top of the conference, but the threshold for a tournament berth probably doesn't change much.

As for the conference tournament, expect it to also expand.  The 3 and 4 seeds can say goodbye to their first-round byes, but they'll get the 13th and 14th teams so whatever.  But everyone plays, and that won't change now.  If we go to 16 I'd like to copy the Big East model, which is not a straight bracket but offers the top four teams two byes.  And John Swofford has been talking about putting it in Madison Square Garden, which may or may not be a great thing.  I don't think the Tobacco Roadies will like that very much, but then again most of the rest of the conference wants less Tobacco Road influence, so that'd be a step in that direction.


If you need me to explain to you about Syracuse lacrosse, first I must tell you this: Lacrosse is a game played between two teams of nine players each, plus a goalie.  The players carry the ball around in nets on the end of their sticks and try to score goals such as in hockey.

Adding Syracuse to the ACC, obviously, makes the ACC ridiculous.  It was already a conference that contained half of the NCAA's lacrosse royalty; this would be like if there was a basketball conference with Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, and UCLA, and that conference added Duke.  I'd almost like to break with ACC tradition (the one about no sport-specific membership) and see if Johns Hopkins wants to give up its independence to turn a super-conference into a super-super-conference.

Never mind that, though.  I'll tell you why adding Syracuse to the ACC is absolutely delightful for Virginia.  It's because we already play Syracuse every year, so our schedule won't change one bit, and better yet, we're the only ACC team that does.  Maryland, Duke, and UNC are going to have to start playing the Cuse themselves, which can do nothing but hinder them.  (Partly why I'd also like to add Hopkins; we also play them on the regular, and Duke doesn't.)  Plus, obviously, Syracuse will have to play the ACC schedule, and will have to make some tough decisions about who to keep playing (Cornell) and who to stop playing.

The ACC tourney will be a new experience.  One option might be to play a play-in a week before the tournament between the #4 and #5 teams, but the realities of scheduling will make that tough.  Most likely, someone gets left out and the tourney stays at four, which makes the regular season incredibly important instead of a mere prelude.  The 5th-place team likely won't make the NCAAs, because they won't get the boost of playing in the RPI-fest that is the ACC tournament, and they'll have a lot of losses besides.  The plus side is that it eliminates those silly situations where three teams are 2-1 and one is 0-3, or one is 3-0 and three are 1-2.

Pittsburgh has no lax team.


Very little to talk about here.  Syracuse disbanded their team in 1972, and Pitt finished third in the Big East this past year behind UConn and St. John's.  This makes them no threat to upset the balance of power in the ACC.  The top of the conference - UVA, FSU, UNC, GT, etc. - will continue on as before.  Pitt's presence will be another obstacle for the really low-level teams like Maryland and Duke, but all in all they're probably going to be a losing team in the ACC.  Their RPI ranking was one notch above 17-33 Boston College in 2011, FWIW.

The big question is really going to be the scheduling implications of having 13 teams in the conference.  Folks are gonna have to get awfully creative.

Other Stuff Because There's Time

-- Both teams suck at soccer pretty heftily. Men's and women's.

-- Syracuse is actually pretty good at field hockey, if not all the way up to the level of the best ACC teams.  Pitt doesn't play.

-- Women's lax is obviously a thing at Syracuse, but unlike the men's sport, they are good, not great.  Pitt doesn't play.

-- Pitt's women's hoops team is kinda crappy; they got their first NCAA bid in 2007 and went to the Sweet Sixteen twice since then, but didn't get to the postseason last year.  Cuse's is WNIT-level, mainly.

-- Pitt's swim teams aren't going to give UVA a tough time at the ACC championships; Syracuse doesn't have any.

And lastly, Director's Cup-wise, both Syracuse and Pitt would've been bottom of the barrel in the ACC this past season; of the current ACC teams, only BC and Wake finished below Syracuse (and just barely), and Pitt was way down the list, tied with Albany and Illinois State for 123rd.  The revenue boost in going from Big East to ACC should help with that, though.