The ACC is in a tough spot.

If the SEC’s additions of Oklahoma and Texas put the ACC on notice, then the Big Ten’s prying of USC and UCLA should put it on red alert.

It would make sense if programs like Clemson, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina and Virginia Tech started to get antsy. The SEC (or even the Big Ten) could come calling soon, if they haven’t already. While sticking around in the ACC would have its benefits, those universities will not want to be left in the dust (financially speaking) if the SEC and Big Ten grow into 20+ team super conferences.

The ACC does have a seemingly-big advantage: its grant of rights agreement, which runs through 2036. Breaking that contract to leave the conference early would mean an enormously-expensive exit fee that’s believed to be north of $100 million. But with the SEC or Big Ten’s ballooning TV deals, it’s possible that the financial hit might not be so severe in the long run.

So what can the rest of the ACC do in an effort to keep its core programs in the fold? Here’s the pathway:

Bring Notre Dame in as a full-time member

This is almost a non-negotiable for the ACC to maintain power conference status. From an optics perspective, bringing on Notre Dame as a full-time member would help to alleviate a lot of the proverbial heartburn the ACC’s members have surely been feeling since USC and UCLA jumped ship.

There just aren’t any other (regional) impactful universities the ACC could target. It’s virtually impossible to imagine any current SEC members deciding to take a pay cut and join the ACC. The same goes for the Big Ten. That leaves programs like West Virginia and Memphis — and neither of those programs would likely move the needle from a revenue perspective.

The question becomes whether or not Notre Dame is willing to play ball. The Fighting Irish have famously (or infamously) valued their independence to the point of leaving money on the table in order to maintain it. Their existing partial membership to the ACC is just that — partial. Five football games per year, not 8. And the Irish are not bound to the same Grant of Rights agreement the ACC’s 14 full-time members are, which means a potential exit fee would be far less punitive.

Notre Dame has 3 options: join the ACC, join the Big Ten or maintain its independence. From the ACC’s perspective, Notre Dame choosing the Big Ten would be a potential death knell. Any other outcome is potentially palatable.

Unbalanced revenue sharing

According to The Athletic, the ACC dispersed $36.1 million to each of its programs for the 2020-21 fiscal year. That figure, which is lagging behind the SEC and Big Ten even before their high-profile additions, is the same for every program. In other words, Clemson and Wake Forest (and every other ACC program) each make an equal amount of money from their ACC affiliation.

But what if they didn’t?

Of course, programs like Florida State and Clemson are more profitable for the ACC than, say, Boston College and Wake Forest. It stands to reason that they should earn a more representative portion of the revenue pie.

This is perhaps the only way the ACC could financially entice its top programs to stay in the fold. Choosing to stay in the ACC would mean top programs would potentially be making half of what other national title contenders make from its media rights package. Sooner or later, that disparity in resources would show up on the gridiron (if it hasn’t already).

A structure where the conference’s highest-performing universities make a bigger chunk of money could work for everyone. Clemson, for example, could still bring in enough media rights revenue in order to keep competing with programs like Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State. And while a program like Syracuse would take a revenue hit in this scenario, it’s still likely better than what the Orange could negotiate in a conference without any major brands attached.

There is precedent for this at the FBS level. In 2012, the Mountain West struck a deal with Boise State that allowed the Broncos to sell its home games in a separate media rights deal and not be apart of the MWC’s overall TV package. That agreement kept Boise State from joining the Big East. The result was Boise State made an additional $1.8 million per year on top of the $1.1 million that was equally distributed to every MWC member institution.

Allowing Clemson, Florida State, Miami and perhaps even Virginia Tech to do something similar could make it financially palatable for the ACC to stick together.

Florida State and Miami need to get back on track

Pittsburgh and Wake Forest meeting in the 2021 ACC Championship Game was a nice story, but it’s not good for the conference’s bottom line. If not for Clemson, the ACC would have been essentially irrelevant in the National Championship picture over the last 5 years.

But Clemson is far from the ACC’s only tier 1 program. Less than a decade ago, Florida State was consistently competing for — and winning — National Championships. It’s been 2+ decades since Miami was at that level, but the Hurricanes still have a potential to get back to that point.

Florida State and Miami reaching their respective ceilings is absolutely imperative for the ACC to maintain its credibility. Clemson — as we saw last season — is vulnerable at times. The Tigers could be in for another challenging 2022 season after losing several longtime assistants and its athletic director over the offseason.

Miami appears closer to breaking through than Florida State does. The Hurricanes appear to be more committed to investing in football than they have been in decades. They hired Mario Cristobal away from Oregon, Josh Gattis from Michigan and Dan Radakovich from Clemson. Billionaire John Ruiz is making sure Miami is at the forefront of the NIL game. For the first time in a while, things are trending up at Miami. But the results need to show up this fall.

In Tallahassee, things are a bit more complicated. The Seminoles haven’t won 10+ games since 2016 and it doesn’t appear that streak of mediocrity will end in 2022. Mike Norvell has done a decent job rebuilding what he inherited, but Florida State is still a long ways off from being a national powerhouse again. That’s a borderline untenable situation for the ACC, who needs FSU to be a pillar program for them on a consistent basis. This is Florida State’s first extended swoon in decades, so perhaps it deserves a bit of grace. But for the ACC, it couldn’t be happening at a worse time.

Another way of putting it: the ACC’s top football programs need to start producing like its top basketball programs (North Carolina and Duke) have been in recent years. And it needs to happen quickly — before it’s too late.