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Conference realignment nuts and bolts

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Pete Fiutak

Pete Fiutak writes previews, predictions and prognostications for CollegeFootballNews.com.

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So you’re confused by all the expansion talk that’s dominating the headlines during a time when the NBA Finals, the Stanley Cup chase, the LeBron watch, and the Washington Nationals’ call-up of the next Roger Clemens should be owning every inch of the sports pages.

Join the club.

From the most dialed-in insiders to the heads of the college conferences, no one, absolutely no one, has a rock-solid handle on what’s exactly about to happen with the realignment changes expected to shake the college sports world to its core. Based on nothing but rumors, speculation, a whole bunch of posturing, and very, very quiet negotiations, the conferences have gone into crisis, red-alert, doomsday scenario mode as collegiate athletics creeps closer and closer to the most radical and important realignment in American sports since the NFL and AFL merged in 1970.

It's become a Reservoir Dogs-like standoff, as each conference is waiting for one of the others to make the first major move ... and everyone has their plan ready to go into action once the shooting starts. How important is this? Not only are jobs on the line at the highest level of college athletics, but the reputations of universities, academically as well as athletically, are at stake. If you don’t think football has anything to do with the life of a college, try getting the University of Kansas out of its panic room (more on that in a moment).

The weaker conferences don’t want to make a move until they know who’s left standing to go after (example: the Mountain West declared it’s not doing anything about expansion right now as it waits to see who’s left over from the Big 12), while the bigger conferences are being forced to play out scenarios A, B, and C before as they attempt to put their respective puzzles together.

It’s all extremely confusing, very corporate, and wildly entertaining. Keeping in mind the bazillion different scenarios and even more egos involved (with all of them changing by the hour depending on the latest rumor), here are the basics with all the main players, what’s really happening, and what it means.

1.) What will realignment mean for college sports fans (both casual and die-hards)?

Unless you’re a die-hard Big 12 supporter, the changes might not matter all that much. However, the product should be even sharper as the schools that accept the invite to move on will end up making more money, which will all go to better facilities, better coaches, and a better ability to attract the top recruits. Lip service will be paid to the idea of the extra dough going into a university for academic purposes, but in reality, the upgrade will only end up making each top sports program even stronger (and then, it could be argued, will upgrade the profile of the school as a whole). On the flip side, if a school doesn’t become a part of one of the new super-power conferences, the TV and bowl money will shrivel up and the budgets will make it even harder for the sports teams to keep up with the big boys.

2.) Why are the conferences doing this now?

To quote Jerry Jones’ three rules for being a successful salesman: ask for the money, ask for the money, and ask for the money.

ESPN and the SEC hooked up for a billion-dollar deal and CBS just renegotiated a new deal for the men’s NCAA basketball tournament worth close to $11 billion. There’s a ton of TV money out there to be made, and the conferences and the schools want it. Remember, this has little to do with sports and has everything to do with big business, TV markets and potential revenue.

It all started several months ago with talk from the Big Ten about moving up the timetable on expansion discussion, with the initial idea being going after Rutgers to expand the Big Ten Network into the New York area. Next came the Big Ten’s back channel leak about the idea of asking Texas to join, and boom went the dynamite.

The Pac-10, realizing that expanding with Boise State, Utah, and BYU wasn’t going to cut it, quickly came up with a plan of its own involving six Big 12 teams. The Big Ten then realized it had to have its plan solidified, and the Big 12 had to circle the wagons.

Once the first deal is officially made, this could all happen as quickly as next year, but with a little bit of a trickle. In the most likely scenarios, the Big Ten will take on Nebraska, Missouri, and Rutgers within the next two years, possibly for 2011, to expand to 14 schools while leaving the door open for Notre Dame to eventually come in as part of a 16-team conference. The Pac-10 will also likely expand to 14 schools right away (again, this is an educated guess considering the Texas politics involved) with Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and Colorado moving over while Texas and Texas A&M hang tight trying to decide where the best fit might be.

As far as figuring out who’s going where in the initial phase, expect most of the pieces to be in place by the end of the summer. The Big 12 has already issued an ultimatum to Nebraska and Missouri to declare their intentions sometime within the next week, so the dominoes could start to fall by early July.

3.) Who are the biggest players?

At the moment, the key piece of the puzzle is Texas. Notre Dame is the big prize that everyone wants, and if athletic director Jack Swarbrick wakes up tomorrow and decides the time is right to join the Big Ten (or the SEC, or the Pac-10), it’s a done deal. But Notre Dame is a stand-alone, and no matter what the configurations of the conferences are, room will be made. Texas, on the other hand, is a political baggage nightmare that will require a lot of lobbying and a ton of negotiating.

If Texas decides that the Pac-10 is the right fit, then it’s cut and dry; the Pac-10 will take on Colorado, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, and Texas. However, because of the bigger reach, the better TV markets, and the time zone advantage, the Big Ten is stronger than the Pac-10. If the Big Ten believes the Pac-10 is in play for Texas, then there will be recruiting battle of all recruiting battles. However, the Big Ten will then have to decide if it wants to take on Texas A&M, because there’s no way Texas will be going anywhere without the alma mater of Rick Perry, the Texas governor, riding shotgun. If Texas decides it wants to stay in the Big 12 and make a go of it, then there’s a great chance the rest of the Big 12 South schools stick around, too. It might make financial sense for Oklahoma to go to the Pac-10, but it would be a tough sell to the alumni and the fan base to blow off Texas and ruin the current ties.

And that’s where Nebraska and Missouri come in. If they decide to go to the Big Ten, Texas might not want to stick around in a weakened conference that already has a mediocre TV deal that would only get worse. That means the SEC could be interested in taking on Texas and Texas A&M if the Pac-10 and Big Ten don’t seem as attractive.

4.) Who are going to be the biggest winners (and losers)?

If things go according to plan, the biggest winners early on will be Nebraska and Missouri. Missouri hasn’t been shy about wanting to join the Big Ten to become more prestigious academically while getting a much higher national profile. With the Big Ten TV markets and the reach to the Atlantic Ocean if Rutgers comes aboard, Mizzou would grow by leaps and bounds. The same will go for Nebraska, who would go from being known as a powerhouse football school to being in the big boy club academically as well as advancing the brand name even more athletically.

Of course, the biggest winners overall will be the Big Ten and the Pac-10, who’ll make money hand over fist with the expanded leagues, the better product, and the stronger TV deals. The Pac-10 needs to expand more than the Big Ten does, but the Big Ten wants to keep its dominance as the biggest conference in America by trying to control most of the top markets.

However, if Missouri and Nebraska choose to stick around, then the Big 12 will be one of the biggest winners simply for weathering the first part of the storm, while the Big Ten would be a huge loser with egg on its face after getting spurned. Rounding out to just 12 teams by bringing aboard Rutgers would be an embarrassment of epic proportions.

As bad as things will be for the Big 12 if there’s a mass exodus, life will be even worse for Kansas if it’s the biggest-name school left standing when all the music stops. KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little has made phone calls lobbying to Nebraska and preaching solidarity (although the Jayhawks would LOVE to get an invite from the Big Ten or the Pac-10). Gray-Little has expressed well-founded concerns that the university’s status and prestige would take a major hit if everyone else of note leaves. The same goes for Baylor, which has influential alumni all across the Texas government. It’s a slap to not get an invite from the Pac-10, like the other five members of the Big 12 South, but there isn’t a lot that school president Kenneth Starr can do.

5.) What’s going to happen to the Big 12?

HOUSE SHOPPING?

Take a look at the scenarios facing Big 12 teams.

There’s a lot of huffing and puffing from those not involved in the Big Ten and Pac-10 expansion talk, but there isn’t much that Kansas, Baylor, or Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe can really do if the six courted schools want to go.

It’ll be a total and complete shock if Nebraska and Missouri’s move to the Big Ten isn’t an unannounced done deal. There’s no way Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, one of the sharpest knives in the drawer, would’ve let the media speculation get this far without there being some truth behind the rumors. If this wasn’t a done deal (or really, really close), the Big Ten would’ve spun this about 10 different directions about how it really didn’t want Nebraska or Missouri in the first place.

A wounded Big 12, if it loses six schools, could end up trying to merge with the Mountain West in some way while also bringing aboard a few select Conference USA schools like Houston and/or SMU.

6.) In the Big Ten’s perfect world, what does it want?

At this point, the most realistic scenario has Nebraska, Missouri, and Rutgers joining the Big Ten as soon as possible to create a 14-team league for now, with Notre Dame signing on in either in 2015 after the NBC deal is up, or earlier if there’s a buyout either from NBC (the ratings haven’t been stellar) or from the Big Ten (who’ll pay ANY sort of a fine if it means getting the Irish). The dream would be to bring in Texas as the 16th team, but that’s not going to happen without Texas A&M coming along. More realistically, the Big Ten will get hit with a major lobbying effort from Kansas, or it’ll end up continuing the expansion east by bringing in Pitt.

7.) In the Pac-10’s perfect world, what does it want?

Texas. The Pac-10 doesn’t care what other five schools round things out as long as it gets the Longhorns. Colorado has been all but putting the Pac-10 logo on its letterheads since the expansion talk started, and Oklahoma has been a surprisingly underrated and undervalued part of the puzzle. If the Pac-10 gets Colorado, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech, everything will have gone according to the Pac-10’s biggest pie-in-the-sky plans.

8.) Does this mean the end of the BCS (and does this make a playoff more likely)?

POLL

  • Where will Notre Dame be in 2015?
    • ACC
    • Big Ten
    • SEC
    • Other conference
    • Still an independent

No, and it probably means the BCS will become more firmly entrenched than ever. Schools will be making so much money that the presidents and administrators will never want to get out of the treasure bath. Because of all the dough coming in from TV deals and expanded bowl payouts for the biggest postseason games, the lure of making more money from a playoff, while radically changing the college football world even further, will be lessened.

9.) How will Notre Dame fit into the picture?

If the Irish aren’t going to the Big Ten right away, they’ll likely sit back and wait until the smoke clears. There’s no real hurry or urgency to join a league. Money isn’t a problem, the football team is in no position to contend for a title in the Big Ten, SEC, or Pac-10, and everyone around there loves the independent status. Again, assume the Big Ten expands to 14 now and leaves the door open for Notre Dame to come join the party in a few years. However, Notre Dame’s biggest issue could be scheduling, considering it books games and matchups several years in advance; it’ll have to break several contracts to join a league. Notre Dame will almost certainly be in a conference at some point in the next five years, but don’t assume it’s going to be the Big Ten. The SEC will have its say in the debate before all is said and done.

10.) Is expansion a good thing or a bad thing?

If things go according to form, this isn’t going to be a bad thing in any way for the fans other than the Big 12 die-hards. The games will take on an even bigger feel, no Michigan-Ohio State-like rivalries will be split up, and new monster matchups will form. Imagine Oklahoma and USC in the same division, or Nebraska and Iowa facing off in a regional battle that would instantly become one of college football’s fiercest rivalries.

Remember, the world kept spinning after the Big 8 and Southwest Conference combined forces to create the Big 12, the Big Ten was more than fine after bringing in Penn State, and the ACC has grown into a far more interesting conference after raiding the Big East (even though no one’s watching). And to those of you about to whine about college football looking more professional in the presentation and coverage, that ship sailed long ago. (Remember, college football was more professional looking than professional football back in the first 50 years of the last century.) There’s always D-III and the Ivy League to give you the amateur feel you’re longing for.

The bigger TV packages will mean more coverage, better online access to every team, and more choices (like a Pac-10 network and an expanded Big Ten Network) to provide as much access to as much entertainment and as much information as a fan could want. More access to games is a good and necessary thing, especially considering the voters in the college football polls need to be as informed as possible.

There’s a chance this could end up being as big a deal for the academic side of the equation as it will be for the sports teams. The Big Ten and Pac-10 have a far better academic reputation than the other conferences, especially the Big 12, and to join means a major upgrade in how a degree will look. From a research and prestige standpoint, changing conference alignments would be a really, really big step forward for several schools currently in the Big 12.

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