Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The New ACC/Big Ten Challenge

By Corrie Trouw

This week, the ACC and Big Ten announced the slate for this fall's 16th (!) ACC/Big Ten Challenge to something aspiring to lukewarm excitement. While the series was once innovative and noteworthy, the erosion of conference structure has left it mostly obsolete.

No two conferences have been more prolific in expanding in recent years, and the 2014 slate of games is an excellent reminder. Of the 14 matchups (and really, the concept of the Big Ten filling 14 games carries its own absurdity), only four would have actually met the pesky "ACC vs. Big Ten" requirement when the series started.

Given that grizzly tidbit, the source of the series' decline in relevance seems obvious. In 1999, the founders cleverly leveraged the ACC's superiority in basketball with the Big Ten's superiority in perceived superiority to create a series of games that mattered to several fan bases. While the ACC won the first ten challenges, three of the first four were 5-4 decisions that made Florida State/Northwestern and NC State/Penn State games somehow relevant.

(Crazy side note: Ohio State and Indiana did not play in either of the first two challenges in 1999 and 2000. Both were ranked in 1999, and Ohio State was coming off of a Final Four appearance. It's hard to believe a tradition-rich program like IU and one with recent success like OSU missed the first two go-arounds.)

But even with the one-sidedness, conference pride carried interest in the series through its first six years. The specter of the Big Ten possibly winning became a story line, and each year saw at least a couple of matchups between ranked teams.

In 2005, the first conference diaspora resulted in Virginia Tech and Miami making their debuts for the ACC side. Boston College joined the challenge in 2006. While each of these three programs has played at high levels within the last 10 years, the dilution had already begun. With new faces carrying the ACC banner, the stakes changed. After all, if the Big Ten now won the series, ACC traditionalists had three fresh faces to blame.

It's hard to rally around a flag when a third of the rallyers just showed up.

Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also often sires respect. Northwestern's NCAA Tournament virginity; UNC's home winning streak against Clemson; secretly tough road trips to Iowa City or Raleigh: these are the little details that decorate college sports. For people who cared about these conferences, the familiar minutiae filled the spaces within seasons with context.

And now, in 2014, the series has become theater of the absurd. Rutgers traveling to Clemson and Nebraska heading to Florida State are supposed to whet the appetite of a conference headquartered in Chicago. Syracuse could leave campus during a snowstorm or land in one in Ann Arbor, but it will spend most of its conference road slate south of the Mason-Dixon line. When Michigan State and Notre Dame play their feisty football rivalry, nobody in the ACC cares. But this November, Duke and Carolina fans are supposed to wake up the echoes?

The most absurd "ACC-Big Ten" matchup, however, is far more familiar. Maryland and Virginia have played basketball 181 times against each other. But for their 182nd meeting this fall, Big Ten pride will be on the line. Or something like that.

Look, conference realignment is not only a reality but a necessity. The shifting economic models of college sports make consolidation the most efficient means of operation for schools, especially those like Maryland or Virginia Tech, who can't afford the table stakes of top-level sports without association to a healthy league.

But there are consequences for this model. Rivalries and traditions have been discarded with an alarming lack of regret. Winning a conference used to have an understood value because the programs remained constant. When Virginia won the ACC regular season championship outright for the first time in 33 years this season, it came with a qualifier: this is a much different ACC.

For years, college football leaders insisted a playoff was logistically unworkable. Faced with the mounting pressure of a changing landscape, they found a way to make it work with relatively little lead time. They were lying all along.

For years, college basketball leaders preached the value of tradition and familiar competition within their leagues. Faced with the mounting pressure of a changing landscape, they played musical chairs with conference affiliation over a few tumultuous years to sure up their financial future. They were lying all along.

So this fall, enjoy the non-conference matchups. Syracuse/Michigan will be full of highlights from Final Fours past, and Duke/Wisconsin should be a great game. But let's stop pretending anything bigger is on the line.

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