As the Realignment Turns

I’ve stayed out of the ongoing talk of conference realignment in college football, in part because there wasn’t really anything concrete to talk about and anything could happen, and in part because of what I’ve had to deal with in my own life. But there is something concrete now, with Colorado joining the Pac-10, Nebraska joining the Big 10, Boise State joining the Mountain West, and apparently, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State all jumping ship to the Pac-10.

I have to say, I was surprised when I heard this last rumor. The Pac-10 seemed to be the most likely candidate not to expand at all; it’s quite possibly the most tight-knit group in college sports, any expansion would require a unanimous vote (so if one school had a problem with a potential addition it could scuttle the whole deal), and right now it’s neatly organized into five natural geographic rivalries. (This proposed expansion actually comes pretty close to preserving those geographic rivalries; the only inconsistency is in the Texas schools and Colorado, and even that can be divided into Texas/Texas A&M and Texas Tech/Colorado.) 16 teams is an unwieldy size for a conference, as the non-football Big East has shown, and as demonstrated by the convoluted “pod” systems proposed for a 16-team Big 10. And taking a whole bunch of teams from a single conference can result in those schools forming cliques. I could easily see the “original” 10 becoming the equivalent of the old Big 8 schools vis-a-vis the newcomers from the Southwest Conference, er, Big 12.

I knew the Pac-10 had interest in Texas – any conference would, and Texas had come calling when the old Southwest Conference broke up – but I didn’t anticipate them gobbling up basically the entire Big 12 South. This tells me one of two things:

  • The Pac-10 is deliberately destroying the Big 12 to erase competition when the TV contracts come up for renewal next year.
  • The Pac-10 wanted Texas, but was told they needed to bring along Texas A&M and Texas Tech as well. (Recall that when Texas finally joined the Big 12, Texas politicians forced the Big 12 to take Texas Tech and Baylor over the objections of basically everyone else.) They then added Oklahoma and Oklahoma State for the hell of it and/or to preserve the Red River Rivalry.

If the latter of these is true, that suggests the price for adding Texas may have been too much for the Big 10 to take – they were willing to add Texas, but not Texas A&M and Texas Tech as well (and Oklahoma and Oklahoma State would have been a non-starter, especially if the Big Ten still wanted to add Notre Dame). Otherwise, for Texas to pass up the Big Ten would seem to suggest that the proposed Texas Longhorns Sports Network would make so much money it’s a better bet than having to split the gerbonkers money from the Big Ten Network. Nebraska would probably be the Big Ten’s third choice for expansion behind Notre Dame and Texas in some order, bringing a fantastic football program, a great volleyball program, but not much else and a small immediate market (though it will help the BTN in other areas); certainly the Big Ten won’t take kindly to the Pac-10 stealing their thunder, and they won’t just sit idly by and let the Pac-10 steal their 16-team idea.

Regardless, if all this happens as planned, the remaining pieces fall into place rather easily. Start with the “orphaned” members of the Big 12: Iowa State, the Kansas schools, Missouri, and Baylor. They would like to think the Big 10 would swoop in and save four of them, but Iowa State and Baylor in particular are weak links (despite Baylor’s basketball program and the potential of Iowa State-Iowa being an intraconference rivalry), and the Big 10 isn’t particularly interested in grabbing a bunch of schools just because they’re available. The Big 10 is primarily concerned with the New York City market and Notre Dame. The Big 10 could take Missouri just to have a lockdown on the St. Louis market, but after that they’re more likely to take Syracuse and Rutgers (possibly Pitt instead of Syracuse) and stop, and wait for that selection to cause the Big East to implode. At which point Notre Dame will come calling, the non-football schools will form their own conference, and six more schools end up orphaned.

Baylor I see going to Conference USA, the Kansas schools could bolt to the Mountain West and give that conference a championship game, and Iowa State could be stuck with the MAC. As for the Big East orphans, I see them getting split by the SEC and ACC. That would leave those two conferences with 15 schools each, one short of the Pac-16 and Big 16. I could see the SEC taking TCU and Memphis, giving it Memphis’ superlative basketball program and an inroad into the lucrative Texas market. The Mountain West could then replace TCU with (say) Nevada. The WAC then nabs a Conference USA team to keep the band together and give Louisiana Tech something resembling a playing partner, offsetting the addition of Baylor (or alternately, just nabs North Texas while C-USA nabs Troy). The former Big East non-football schools probably raid schools like Xavier from the A-10.

One thing to note is that the SEC could come out the big loser in this scenario. Last year the SEC signed contracts with CBS and ESPN that netted them billions of dollars and all sorts of concessions from ESPN – “SEC on ESPN” branding, an “SEC Weekly” show on ESPNU, and so forth – that the SEC thought made forming their own network unnecessary. Now, however, the Pac-10 is positioning itself to maximize value for its own new network, meaning if the ACC doesn’t do the same (and with its contract up right now, it’s entirely possible it won’t), the SEC will be committed to 15 years without its own network. The Big 10 isn’t lacking for games on ESPN, and the BTN’s distribution problems, part of the reason the SEC went to ESPN, have started to fade, so for the money sports the SEC may be at a significant exposure disadvantage, even with its syndicated games being beamed far and wide. I doubt most people in the SEC would prefer to add TCU, Memphis, and (say) Louisville and South Florida to wind up potentially losing much of its football advantage.

However, I do not see this becoming the new status quo in college football into perpetuity, for two reasons:

  • In theory, this creates four superconferences of 16 teams each, so organizing a playoff should be simple: just take the champions of each conference. You could even preserve the Rose Bowl as a semifinal, with an ACC-SEC Sugar or Orange bowl in the other semifinal. Easy, right? Well… except you still have a very strong Mountain West with Utah, BYU, arguably Air Force, Boise State, and most tellingly, the sometimes-good Kansas schools. That’s a coalition strong enough to mount a serious antitrust challenge to any playoff that exclusive, even if it becomes the only relevant non-BCS conference. We’d probably still end up stuck with some sort of imperfect BCS compromise as a result.
  • As mentioned, 16 is an unwieldy size for a college football conference, and could easily result in the formation of cliques. I’ve already mentioned how the Pac-10 will become the “old” Pac-10 and six Big 12 “interlopers” with only the Arizona schools and Colorado forming a narrow bridge between them. The ACC could have it even worse by taking on four Big East schools, which could join with the schools the ACC raided from the Big East a decade ago, especially Boston College, to butt heads with the conference’s Tobacco Road base. As these new TV contracts come up for renewal, people’s TV watching habits may change again, with the Internet becoming the new means for most people to watch sports. The result could be another conference shake-up in a decade’s time that could even result in some conference shrinking, including the ACC splitting in two and some of the Big 12 renegades seceding from the Pac-10 to join some of the better Mountain West teams in a pseudo-Big 12 revival.

However… there are now rumors swirling that Texas A&M is more interested in joining the SEC than the Pac-10. Certainly the SEC would prefer to add A&M, the second-most storied program in the state despite its recent hard times, than TCU, but I’m not buying this story because I’m thinking wherever Texas goes, A&M will follow (from what I’ve read there is no love lost between Texas and the SEC, so that’s out), though if they can maintain their rivalry as a nonconference game more power to them. If A&M does go to the SEC, the Pac-10 could add Utah; I’ve never been a fan of the Colorado-Utah route to the Pac-12, mostly because it doesn’t preserve those natural geographic rivalries, but in this case adding one fewer Big 12 team could help prevent the forming of cliques and Utah is geographically situated to help bolster the bridge between the two parts of the conference. However, there’s also a chance that the defection of A&M could completely undermine the package deal bringing the Big 12 South to the Pac-10, rendering everything unpredictable yet again. Texas to the Big 10 might not be dead yet; the Big East may be offering Notre Dame as a¬†sacrificial¬†lamb to salvage the rest of the conference (“just take Missouri and/or Texas rather than Syracuse or Rutgers!”). Stay tuned.

(If that blog post comes to fruition – and given how conveniently it matches its author’s opinions and hopes I’m skeptical, and even its author only gives it a 24% chance of happening – the Big 12 probably isn’t dead but instead raids the Mountain West of BYU, TCU, Air Force, and maybe New Mexico, leaving Boise State really wishing it hadn’t committed to the Mountain West so soon…)