The Quiet Storm of Conference Realignment
What if I'd told you in May of 2010 that by October of 2011 Nebraska, Colorado, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Texas A&M, Missouri, Utah and TCU -- twice -- would all be in new BCS conferences? You'd have thought that was a pretty big deal, right? Especially if I told you that every major conference in America -- the Big Ten, the Pac 10, the ACC, the Big 12, and the SEC would all have new members. Yet, because this realignment been gradual -- I'm calling it the quiet storm -- I think the underpinnings of a seismic reconfiguration have, if anything, been underplayed as a collective whole.
In other words, every single one of these moves, pretty much, has been individualized and represented a small portion of what we thought might occur. As a result we college football fans haven't really stepped back and considered the entire picture. We've been so focused on what didn't happen, that we haven't really thought much about what has happened.
Think about it:
June of 2010: "The Big 12 is going to die!"
Except it doesn't.
ESPN: "The Pac 16 is here!"
Except it isn't, twice.
The nation: "Every major conference will have 16 teams!"
Except none have so far.
All of these pronouncements may well end up being true, but what we're learning is that realignment is a more haphazard and, potentially, illogical process than we might have expected. Everyone is acting in his or her own best interest without a real strategic sense for the entire landscape of college athletics. Indeed, some of the people I've been talking to in positions of power are remarkably unprepared for what's happening beneath their feet. As much as you and I are, they're often following the news on Twitter.
But I do think we've reached a point now where inertia has been overcome. Now that every conference in America has changed in the past year, expansion has reached the dangling participle era, the time to complete the sentence is nearing. The evolution of college athletics is 'nigh.
With that in mind here are eight predictions about what's to come in the next few months. I've put these in descending order of confidence. That is, I'm most confident about number one and increasingly less confident as we move further down the list:
1. The Big 12 will not expand beyond ten teams.
Because I don't see any real way that more TV money is coming for a conference that will have lost four of its top TV draws in the space of a year. Colorado, Nebraska, Texas A&M, and Missouri were four of the top six draws in the Big 12 before it was raided the first time. (The other top two teams are, clearly, Texas and Oklahoma).
In order to go above ten teams, the Big 12 would have to go back to Fox and ESPN and argue for more TV money. That would be incredibly ballsy since the TV product will be vastly inferior. As is, the TV money is not going to change, but I think that's the best the Big 12 can hope for.
TCU is the 9th team right now. Assuming Missouri leaves for the SEC -- which I've believed would happen for a month now and still do -- a tenth team will be needed.
I'd expect that team to be Louisville, West Virginia or BYU. Louisville and West Virginia would kill one another to get that final Big 12 invite, whereas BYU is fairly ambivalent.
My guess as to which team will be the Big 12's tenth? West Virginia.
Say one of those three is the tenth team, that way the payouts remain the same and everyone preserves their expected TV money.
But, if you go beyond ten then everyone's share of the TV pie decreases. No one wants less money. So the Big 12 is going to stay at ten.
Probability that the Big 12 stays at 10: 99%.
2. Baylor's Ken Starr will not be suing anyone.
Ken Starr has proven himself to be, as if we needed any proof, the biggest hyprocrite on earth. All we need now is for him to be in the midst of an affair with an undergraduate student as conference realignment unfurls. Starr, you'll recall, was outraged at the death of the Big 12 when it appeared the Big 12's death was going to hurt his school. Now that the Big 12 is safe, Starr and crew merrily plucked TCU from the Big East, a move that unlike Texas A&M to the SEC, will probably represent the final death blow to the Big East as a BCS conference.
Et tu, Starr?
I told y'all a month ago that Ken Starr's legal threats were crap, but now we have even more certainty that Starr is a hypocrite.
Not only will the Big 12 survive, but it might well destroy the Big East.
Probability that Ken Starr and Baylor don't sue anyone: 98.9% (Bill Clinton is, after all, still alive).
3. The Pac 12 is not adding any teams.
Who would the Pac 10 add if it didn't raid the Big 12?
The Pac 12 had its chance to make a move to 14 with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State before rejecting both schools. Put simply, the Pac 12 is not expanding for the foreseeable future. The conference that set the realignment world spinning back in May of 2010 is, interestingly, now the most settled conference in America.
Probability that the Pac 12 is not adding teams: 98%.
4. The SEC will take Missouri and sit still for a year or two while it sets up the SEC Network with ESPN.
I know, I know, there are all sorts of stories out there about Missouri not having the votes, or the SEC being a second choice, or...you name it. Ultimately ths is going to get done. I think the posturing -- for instance Alabama going public about wanting to keep the UT-Alabama rivalry game -- is about what division Missouri will end up in until the SEC goes to 16 and puts Missouri, Texas A&M, Arkansas, and LSU in the same four-team division.
Again, as I told you on Tuesday, Missouri's addition is like the selection of a vice-presidential candidate. It's time-consuming, filled with leaks, and guaranteed to eventually end in agreement.
Same with Missouri to the SEC.
Probability of Missouri to the SEC: 85% (This is probably low. In reality it means there's a 5% chance of the SEC taking someone else as 14 and a 10% chance that the Big Ten gets involved in expansion and mucks up the whole process. If the Big Ten isn't involved at all, this moves up to 95%).
5. The Big Ten is happy at 12 members.
The Big Ten Network is kicking ass and taking names.
If you've already got a network that is kicking ass and taking names, you have no need to make a move. Especially when any move would require the addition of at least two schools. If Notre Dame became available that could all change, but right now?
Probability the Big Ten is happy at 12: 90%
6. The ACC will stick at 14.
It's important to remember that the ACC expanded out of fear. The conference was afraid that the SEC or the Big Ten would raid its membership.
Fourteen isn't an ideal number, but it prevents the ACC having to expand if the SEC comes in and takes out two teams: Virginia Tech and N.C. State, for instance, which I still think is going to happen at some point.
The only real question here is: does the ACC bring in UConn and Rutgers, who both make the most sense for the conference? I think the answer is no, at least for the moment.
Probability the ACC sticks at 14: 80%
7. The Big East is truly dead as a BCS football conference.
There are two things to keep in mind: the NCAA requires you to have eight teams to be considered a conference -- although there is a two-year waiver -- and the Big East desperately needs to keep its BCS bid -- which it probably won't be able to do absent legal challenge. (There's a really interesting question about the Big East's BCS bid which I'll write about next week. There are all sorts of anti-trust details that could come in to play if the Big East becomes the first conference to lose its automatic bid).
But this is where the moving parts get more complicated. There are several ways things can play out in the Big East so I'm going to lay them all out:
a. The Big 12 takes a team from outside the Big East as its tenth member.
If this happens then West Virginia, Louisville, South Florida, Cincinnati, UConn, and Rutgers probably have nowhere else to go for the moment.
Then the conference tries to add two football teams from this group: Memphis, East Carolina, Central Florida, Tulane, Navy, and, maybe, Air Force
b. The Big 12 takes West Virginia or Louisville.
This is like hopping on the last life boat off the Titanic. The five left behind members will now have to add three other teams from the above list.
c. The ACC takes one or more teams en route to 16.
Presumably these teams would be Connecticut and Rutgers.
If this happens then the Big East has to add four teams.
Let's go to literature to put the Big East position out there. Remember when Santiago caught the fish in "The Old Man and the Sea?" Then the fish came and ate the old man's fish so that by the time he returned to the harbor all that was left was the skeleton of the fish?
Yeah, that fish is the Big East.
Probability of the Big East surviving and retaining its BCS bid absent lawsuit: 5%.
8. Notre Dame...
Will the collapse of the Big East lead Notre Dame into the arms of a conference? I don't think so.
I'm writing about this next week, but I think we're close to the Big East basketball schools breaking away from the conference and forming their own basketball-centric conference. Notre Dame would be able to play in that conference in all sports but football.
I think that's much more likely than Notre Dame joining either the ACC or the Big Ten. But if Notre Dame did join a conference? Well, then all expansion bets would be off.
Probability that Notre Dame ends its football independence: 2%
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