Burruss Hall at Virginia Tech. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech.

If you follow college sports, particularly from a Virginia Tech point of view, you’ve had multiple storylines to follow lately:

  • The Virginia Tech softball team advanced into the NCAA Regionals.
  • The Virginia Tech baseball team lost in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and may or may not receive an NCAA tournament bid.
  • Or, the possibility that the ACC might implode and Virginia Tech could go conference-hunting.

Two of those things are transitory events — sometimes teams win, sometimes they lose — but the third is a more existential threat. Or an opportunity, depending on your point of view. The college sports landscape has always been changing but in more recent times it’s gone through some tectonic shifts. The Big Ten Conference, which once really did have 10 teams, all in the Midwest, will soon have 16 and will stretch from coast to coast — or at least from Piscataway, New Jersey, to Los Angeles, California. Some conferences have disappeared (RIP, the Big Eight Conference and the Southwest Conference) and some are thought to be in danger of doing so (the Pac-12 will soon be down to 10 schools and some of those appear to be flirting with, well, that anachronistically named Big Ten).

The driver of all these shifts is — I know this will shock you — money. Specifically, television money. The big news recently, first reported by Sports Illustrated, was that seven schools in the ACC (including Virginia and Virginia Tech) were exploring their options. The ACC is locked into a television contract through 2036 that pays each school roughly $35 million to $38 million. That would seem quite sufficient for what are supposedly amateur sports, but the Big Ten schools and the Southeastern Conference schools get about $50 million apiece. Sports Illustrated reports that, as the years go by, and the television rights get more lucrative, the ACC schools could be $30 million behind their Big Ten and SEC counterparts. 

It may not be possible for the restive ACC schools to wriggle out from their current conference — the exit fee under the current contract is $120 million — and the school presidents this week adopted a plan to revise how it distributes the TV money, so that more athletically successful schools will get more money (and the losers less). While that may appease some schools for now, it also hasn’t stopped people from speculating wildly, endlessly, over which schools might go where if they were free agents. If you’re a Virginia Tech fan, this is a matter of some concern, but you might be old enough to remember when Virginia Tech desperately wanted to get into the ACC but the ACC didn’t want it. Only a lot of deal-making, which involved then-University of Virginia President John Casteen insisting on Tech, made Tech’s entry possible. (So did lobbying by then-Gov. Mark Warner, which I wrote about in a previous column. Republicans have reminded me that then-Attorney General Jerry Kilgore was involved, too, with a lawsuit against the ACC which he believed helped create some negotiating room. Ah, those were the days, when politicians involved in schools were concerned about conference affiliations and not books on the library shelf.)

In any case, the current speculation goes on unabated. The general chatter fits into these categories:

1. Virginia Tech goes into the SEC, and Virginia goes into the Big Ten.

2. Both schools go into the Big Ten.

3. Both schools go into the SEC.

4. Virginia goes into the Big Ten or the SEC but Virginia Tech has to settle for the Big 12, which is definitely seen as a less desirable option all around.

For those among us who are not sports fans, but who, like me, are fascinated by the politics here, this is all you need to know: The Big Ten consists of big schools mostly in the Midwest. The SEC consists of big schools in the South. The Big 12 is a growing collection of schools that couldn’t get in anywhere else. 

Much of this speculation has dealt strictly with sports prowess — Clemson’s a football powerhouse and the SEC is best known for football, so naturally the SEC would want Clemson. Much of it has also dealt with media markets — the SEC already has South Carolina so it doesn’t need another school in the Palmetto State; it would be better off expanding its footprint with schools in North Carolina and/or Virginia. 

Some of it, though, has dealt with which conferences are the best academic fit. That may seem an odd thing when we’re generally talking about how much television networks will pay to show people throwing around bags of air but academics do come into play somewhere. The Big Ten likes its schools to be members of the Association of American Universities, an elite group of 65 research-focused schools, 63 in the United States and two in Canada. All of the Big Ten schools are AAU members except Nebraska, which was a member when the Cornhuskers were admitted. Even some sports sites pay homage to academics. Consider this quote I found on a Purdue-focused sports site as its hosts speculated on the ACC schools the Big Ten should try to pick off: “The ones that make the most sense to me are Virginia and Virginia Tech. Sure, there’s not a huge television market in play here but if I just had to pick two that’s who I’d pick. Culturally they just feel most similar to the Big Ten. Virginia is strong academically and Virginia Tech has a good engineering school.”

I am not the best person to assess how Virginia Tech’s football team would fare in the Big Ten versus the SEC but it strikes me that it is possible to evaluate the proposition that Virginia Tech has more in common with the Big Ten than the SEC. For comparison purposes, I’ll even throw in Virginia. (Would the two schools be a package deal? That’s a question for another day.)

AAU membership

Let’s start with a basic fact: the Big Ten’s desire for AAU members. Five ACC schools are AAU members: Duke, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and the University of Virginia. If that’s a must-have for the Big Ten, then Virginia Tech is on the outside looking in. In that case, hello SEC or, worst case, hello Big 12. The AAU isn’t a group you apply to or even say you want to be a member of. That’s considered poor taste. Tech President Tim Sands has made it clear, though, that he wants the school to rise in the rankings of research schools, so the higher Tech rises, the more likely it is that the AAU will come calling. 

Acceptance rates

How does one measure academic excellence? I’m sure many a Faculty Senate committee has debated this. For our purposes today, I’m looking for something numerical that we can measure all schools against. Not every school publishes the grade point average of their incoming students and I’m not sure how useful those are anyway because grading scales of different high schools might vary. I’m not sure how useful acceptance rates are, either, but they are available, so let’s at least look at those. All these figures, and the ones to follow, come from U.S. News and World Report and its annual college rankings. I’m skittish about the actual rankings but figure the data that goes into them is good. For figuring purposes, I’m also including the new members that the Big Ten and SEC will pick up in 2024 (UCLA and Southern California for the Big Ten and Texas and Oklahoma for the SEC). So here are acceptance rates for the ACC. You’ll see that Virginia is one of the most selective schools in the ACC, Virginia Tech one of the least.

ACC acceptance rates

1. Duke 6%
2. Notre Dame 15%
3. Georgia Tech 18%
4. Boston College, North Carolina (tie)19%
6. Virginia 21%
7. Wake Forest 25%
8. Miami 28%
9. Florida State 37%
10. North Carolina State 47%
11. Clemson 49%
12. Virginia Tech 56%
13. Syracuse 59%
14. Pittsburgh 67%
15. Louisville 74%

Now, what if Virginia and Virginia Tech were in the SEC (which would then have at least 18 members)?

SEC acceptance rates

1. Vanderbilt 7%
2. Virginia 21%
3. Texas 29%
4. Florida 30%
5. Georgia 40%
6. Virginia Tech 56%
7. South Carolina 62%
8. Texas A&M 64%
9. Auburn, Louisana State (tie) 71%
11. Tennessee 75%
12. Mississippi State 76%
13. Missouri 77%
14. Alabama 79%
15. Arkansas 83%
16. Oklahoma 85%
17. Mississippi 90%
18. Kentucky 94%

If the Hokies and Hoos were in the SEC, they’d be among the most selective schools in the conference.

And if they were in the Big Ten (which then also would have at least 18 members)?

Big Ten acceptance rates

1. Northwestern 7%
2. UCLA 11%
3. USC 13%
4. Michigan 20%
5. Virginia 21%
6. Maryland 52%
7. Virginia Tech 56%
8. Ohio State 57%
9. Penn State 58%
10. Illinois, Wisconsin (tie) 60%
12. Rutgers 68%
13. Purdue 69%
14. Minnesota 73%
15. Nebraska 81%
16. Michigan State 83%
17. Indiana 85%
18. Iowa 86%

Both schools would be among the most selective schools in the conference. Iowa ranks last in the Big Ten with an acceptance rate of 86%.

Bottom line: Both schools would seem to be good academic fits for both the SEC and the Big Ten based on acceptance rates.

SAT scores

Now, here’s something I’d consider a better measure than acceptance rates because almost everybody takes the same Scholastic Aptitude Test. Yes, it may have problems of its own, but at least those problems should be consistent across the country. U.S. News and World Report lists SAT scores in a range between the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile of those admitted, not merely accepted. So we’ll look at both the lowest number and the highest number. 

Virginia Tech’s SAT scores range from 1210 to 1410; Virginia’s from 1390 to 1510.

In the ACC, Virginia Tech’s low score of 1210 ranks 13th out of 15 schools. Its high score of 1410 ranks 12th out of 15. Virginia’s low score ranks fourth while its high score is also tied for fourth.

So what happens if those schools moved to other conferences? 

SEC: The highest low SAT scores

  1. Vanderbilt 1480
  2. Virginia 1390
  3. Florida 1300
  4. Georgia 1270
  5. Virginia Tech 1210
  6. Auburn, Tennessee (tie) 1170
  7. Oklahoma, South Carolina (tie) 1150
  8. Texas A&M 1140
  9. Louisiana State, Missouri (tie) 1130
  10. Kentucky 1083
  11. Alabama 1070
  12. Arkansas 1050
  13. Mississippi State 1030
  14. Mississippi 1025

SEC: The highest high SAT scores

  1. Vanderbilt 1570
  2. Virginia 1530
  3. Florida 1470
  4. Georgia 1450
  5. Virginia Tech 1410 
  6. Texas A&M 1380
  7. Alabama 1370
  8. South Carolina 1360
  9. Auburn, Missouri (tie) 1350
  10. Oklahoma, Tennessee (tie) 1340
  11. Kentucky 1330
  12. Louisiana State 1320
  13. Mississippi State 1280
  14. Mississippi 1225
  15. Arkansas 1220

In the SEC, Virginia Tech’s SAT scores would rank it fifth highest, no matter which end of the scale we’re using. Virginia Tech would move from near the bottom of the ACC to one of the academic elites in the SEC, which might be good if you’re trying to win the Academic Bowl but suggests that Virginia Tech may not be in similar academic territory. If Virginia were in the SEC, its SAT scores would be the second highest, behind only Vanderbilt. Now let’s look at the Big Ten:

Big Ten: Highest low SAT scores

  1. Northwestern 1460
  2. Southern California 1410
  3. Virginia 1390 
  4. Michigan 1360
  5. Wisconsin 1340
  6. Maryland, Illinois (tie) 1330
  7. Minnesota 1310
  8. UCLA 1290
  9. Ohio State 1250
  10. Rutgers 1240
  11. Virginia Tech 1210
  12. Penn State 1200
  13. Purdue 1190
  14. Michigan State 1100
  15. Nebraska 1090

Big Ten: Highest high SAT scores

  1. Northwestern 1560
  2. Southern California 1540
  3. Virginia, Illinois (tie) 1530
  4. UCLA 1520
  5. Maryland, Wisconsin (tie) 1510
  6. Minnesota 1490
  7. Rutgers 1470
  8. Ohio State 1440 
  9. Purdue 1430
  10. Virginia Tech 1410
  11. Penn State 1400
  12. Indiana 1380
  13. Iowa 1350
  14. Michigan State 1320

As for the Big Ten, Virginia Tech would be slightly below average but still in good company with schools such as Penn State and Purdue. Virginia would be near the top. (Virginia would be near the top no matter where it is). 

Bottom line: Based on SAT scores, Virginia and Virginia Tech would fit in both the Big Ten and SEC but do seem to better fit the academic profile of the Big Ten.

ACT scores

College teams have rivals; so do standardized tests. The rival to the SAT is the ACT, for American College Testing. 

Virginia Tech’s scores range from 26 to 32; Virginia’s from 32 to 35. (The highest score possible is 36). 

In the ACC, Virginia’s lowest score leaves the school tied for third with Notre Dame, behind Boston College and Duke. In the ACC, Virginia Tech’s lowest score ranks 13th. In the SEC, both schools move up – Virginia Tech would move up the most to become one of the conference’s academic elites.

SEC: Highest low ACT scores

  1. Vanderbilt 34
  2. Virginia 32
  3. Florida, Texas, Georgia 29
  4. Virginia Tech, South Carolina (tie) 26
  5. Texas A&M, Tennessee (tie) 25
  6. Auburn 24
  7. Louisana State, Missouri, Oklahoma (tie) 23
  8. Kentucky 22
  9. Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Mississippi State (tie) 21

SEC: Highest high ACT scores

  1. Virginia (tied with Vanderbilt) 35
  2. Texas 34
  3. Florida, Georgia 33
  4. Virginia Tech 32
  5. Alabama, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Tennessee (tie) 31
  6. Auburn, Mississippi State, Missouri (tie) 30
  7. Kentucky, Louisana State, Mississippi, Oklahoma (tie) 29
  8. Arkansas 28

Now let’s see about the Big Ten:

Big Ten: Highest low ACT scores

  1. Northwestern 33
  2. Virginia, Southern California (tie) 32
  3. Michigan 31
  4. Maryland 30
  5. Illinois 29
  6. Wisconsin 28
  7. Rutgers, Minnesota 27
  8. Virginia Tech, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue (tie) 26
  9. Michigan State 23
  10. Iowa, Nebraska 22

Big Ten: Highest high ACT scores

  1. Virginia, Northwestern, Michigan, Southern California (tie) 35
  2. Illinois, Maryland 34
  3. Purdue, Rutgers 33
  4. Virginia Tech, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin (tie) 32
  5. Iowa, Michigan State 29
  6. Nebraska 28

In the Big Ten, Virginia would be first or second on either scale; Virginia would be further down, but tied with a lot of other “name” schools. That doesn’t seem bad company to keep. In terms of scores, Virginia Tech’s high scores would be closer to the top of the Big Ten than the bottom. (Of note: ACT scores aren’t available for UCLA. If its ACT scores are anything like its SAT scores, UCLA would likely make both lists and push Virginia Tech down a notch.)

Bottom line: If the Big Ten is truly looking for academic credentials, it ought to grab Virginia — and Virginia Tech would be a comfortable fit. 

Research spending

So far, we’ve essentially been comparing student bodies. Here’s a category where we compare faculty — at least those engaged in research. I realize that leaves out a lot of faculty but research is something that many schools compare themselves on. For this, I’m relying on data from the National Science Foundation for 2021.

This is also where we see the clearest separation between schools — and conferences. The Big Ten is far more research-focused than the SEC or the ACC. 

Fifteen of the 16 Big Ten schools rank in top 50 in research (Nebraska is the exception) — three of those are in Top 10 (Michigan, UCLA, Wisconsin), five of those are in the Top 20 (those three plus Ohio State and Maryland).

By contrast, only four of the SEC schools are in the top 50 for research — and none in the top 10, and only one (Texas A&M) in the top 20. 

Three ACC schools make the top 20; five make the Top 50. Virginia is one of those, ranked 48th. Virginia Tech isn’t far behind at 54th. 

ACC: Research spending

  1. Duke, ranked 11th nationally
  2. North Carolina, ranked 13th nationally
  3. Pittsburgh, ranked 18th nationally
  4. Georgia Tech, ranked 20th nationally
  5. Virginia, ranked 48th nationally
  6. North Carolina State, ranked 53rd nationally
  7. Virginia Tech, ranked 54th nationally
  8. Miami, ranked 75th nationally
  9. Florida State, ranked 83rd nationally
  10. Wake Forest, ranked 102nd rnationally
  11. Notre Dame, ranked 106th nationally
  12. Clemson, ranked 107th nationally
  13. Louisville, ranked 124th nationally
  14. Syracuse, ranked 144th nationally
  15. Boston College, ranked 185th nationally

Here’s how Virginia and Virginia Tech would place in the SEC for research:

SEC: Research spending

  1. Texas A&M, ranked 16th nationally
  2. Vanderbilt, ranked 24th nationally
  3. Florida, ranked 27th nationally
  4. Texas, ranked 35th nationally
  5. Virginia, ranked 48th nationally
  6. Virginia Tech, ranked 54th nationally
  7. Georgia, ranked 57th nationally
  8. Kentucky, ranked 64th nationally
  9. Missouri, ranked 71st nationally
  10. Okalahoma, ranked 74th nationally
  11. Tennessee, ranked 85th nationally
  12. Louisana State, ranked 91st nationally
  13. Mississippi State, ranked 97th nationally
  14. Auburn, ranked 100th nationally
  15. South Carolina, ranked 113th nationally
  16. Arkansas, ranked 140th nationally
  17. Alabama, ranked 150th nationally
  18. Mississippi, ranked 158th nationally

If either Virginia or Virginia Tech were in the SEC, they would be among the highest-ranked schools, just as they are in the ACC. Virginia Tech’s No. 54 ranking would far outdistance many of the schools behind it — football powerhouse Alabama is 150th for research. A cynic might say Alabama values Heisman Trophies over Nobel Prizes. Mississippi brings up the rear at 158. Now let’s look at the Big Ten:

Big Ten: Research spending

  1. Michigan, ranked third nationally
  2. UCLA, ranked sixth nationally
  3. Wisconsin, ranked eighth nationally
  4. Ohio State, ranked 12th nationally
  5. Maryland, ranked 17th nationally
  6. Minnesota, ranked 22nd nationally
  7. Penn State, ranked 26th nationally
  8. Southern California, ranked 28th nationally
  9. Northwestern, ranked 30th nationally
  10. Illinois, ranked 37th nationally
  11. Michigan State, ranked 39th nationally
  12. Indiana, ranked 40th nationally
  13. Purdue, ranked 41st nationally
  14. Rutgers, ranked 45th nationally
  15. Virginia, ranked 48th nationally
  16. Iowa, ranked 50th nationally
  17. Virginia Tech, ranked 54th nationally
  18. Nebraska, ranked 87th nationally

If Virginia and Virginia Tech were in the Big Ten, both would rank near the bottom.

In terms of where Virginia Tech is now, its research component better fits the SEC. Aspirationally, though, Virginia Tech’s research goals would seem a better match for the Big Ten. The key to Big Ten gridiron glory for the Hokies runs through its various science departments.

Now, none of this means a thing for television contracts, which are going to look at audience potential, not academic performance. But if academics really do matter in college sports, and if Virginia Tech were ever to fit itself outside the ACC and looking for a new home, the Big Ten would seem a better fit than the Southeastern Conference.

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Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.