We are approaching another conference upheaval.
Schools in the richer conferences recruit members from poorer conferences. Those poorer conferences raid the next conference down the pecking order until you have nuclear winter at the bottom of the FBS ranks, and conferences like the Sun Belt are forced to take anyone they can get from the FCS ranks to stay alive.
There are all kinds of scenarios that could play out and everyone has a different player who will be the key actor to start the domino drop of conference realignment. Before we talk about what a wild card SMU appears likely to be, we have to know where the weak spots are in the conference techtonics today.
Who Could Be the First Domino?
Rightly, most takes begin at the highest tier conference that displays instability or a desire to expand as it projects to affect conferences below it.
The Big Ten has been oozing rumors of an imminent expansion to 12. That could be the first domino.
Will they continue to pine for Notre Dame, or is that era over and we are looking at the era of a Missouri or Rutgers in the Big Ten?
The Pac-10 has in the past stated that they would seek to maintain parity with the Big Ten if they went to 12. Today would they take Utah and Colorado ...or Utah and BYU?
If Missouri joins the Big Ten or Colorado joins the Pac-10, who would the Big 12 add to the Big 12 north? Would it be TCU in an attempt to block the MWC from ascension into the BCS or Colorado State to provide a replacement presence in the lucrative Denver DMA? If Missou and Colorado are both taken, do OU and OSU join the Big 12 North and two Texas schools (TCU and Houston?) get added to the Big 12 (potentially shrinking the media pie) or does the Big 12 go west and add CSU and BYU to the Big 12 North?
It is abundantly clear that if the Big Ten and Pac-10 go to 12 teams, the big three of the Mountain West could be raided and the more and more likely scenario of an ascension of the Mountain West Conference into the ranks of the BCS conferences could be blocked.
The MWC Will Almost Certainly Ascend to BCS Conference Status in 2013 Unless it is Raided
Consider the criteria for conference inclusion in the Bowl Championship series.
We know there are fixed guidelines that are in place to evaluate conferences for the admission of conferences for the 2012 season, and we know in general the factors being weighed . The following is pulled directly from the BCS site.
"The champions of the Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, and Southeastern Conferences will have annual automatic qualification for a BCS game through the 2013 regular season, based on mathematical standards of performance during the 2004-2007 regular seasons.
The 2008-2011 regular seasons will be evaluated under the same standards to determine if other conferences will have annual automatic qualification for the games after the 2012 and 2013 regular seasons. The champions of no more than seven conferences will have annual automatic berths.
If the BCS continues under the same or similar format, conferences will be evaluated on their performances during the 2010-2013 regular seasons to determine which conferences will have automatic qualification for the bowls that will conclude the 2014-2017 regular seasons."
"Each conference will be evaluated over a four-year period based on the three elements: the average rank of the highest ranked team, the average rank of all conference teams, and the number of teams in the top 25. Bowls' contractual agreements with host conferences will remain in place."
We know the BCS has stated in writing that they are going to use the exact same criteria that allowed a rebuilt lesser football Big East to qualify last time around. We don't know any of the specifics though.
We don't know for a fact how wins are weighed and whatnot. That said, it hasn't stopped people from speculating on that criteria and how conferences are faring in meeting it.
Bleacher Report scribe Crayton is doing a series on the the math. In an article last year he speculated among other things that the MWC is not likely to get in as constructed as 2008's strong finish appeared to be something of a high water mark.
At this point he may have changed his tune as the MWC has had another very good year in 2009, which suggests their recent run of top play may be maintainable long term (2008-2011).
All numbers used in this report are pulled from his articles.
At a year and a half through the current four year evaluation period, his math suggested the following.
Big 12 (0.668)
Big Ten (0.582)
Big East (0.486)
with .500 being the assumed cutoff for a conference to move up to BCS membership.
He theorized that the addition of one reasonable MWC expansion candidates with a top 25 record—Boise or possibly Houston—might push the MWC over the .500 threshold.
I think his conclusions are very possible if not likely, but I consider the math more theoretical than conclusive as (as I understand it) assumptions are being made on how the three criteria are being weighed.
Let's say the MWC adds Boise as it's 10th member or adds Boise and forces out one of it's lowest scoring members, be it either UNLV, San Diego State, UNM, or "gang of 5" member Wyoming to stay at nine schools. That would almost certainly clear the threshold for BCS inclusion and the see the MWC receiving the full automatic qualifier BCS Conference payouts in 2012 and 2013.
That works in BCS terms, but could potentially really hurt the conference in TV terms. Dropping SDSU would drop one of the conference's best media markets, would cripple the conference in recruiting California, and would make it irrelevant to viewers in the pacific timezone as SDSU would like rejoin the WAC—making them the undisputed No. 2 in the pacific time zone.
Dropping UNLV would hurt the conference in basketball and further isolate SDSU, hurting California and pacific timezone viewership.
UNM is another strong basketball program and a decent market, albeit one where residents have little buying power. An important school like TCU might have big problems with their closest competitor UNM being taken out.
Wyoming is almost certain not to be dropped as they are a member of the "gang of 5" effectively a conference within the MWC devoted to getting their five members into the BCS.
Cutting schools would be tough to agree upon if it is even allowed for in their conference rules. Now the eight schools could bail on the ninth member as the MWC's founding eight members did to the other eight members of the WAC, so it is possible.
That said there is still TV revenue to consider. The MWC would do better to stay at a scheduling awkward 10 members (adding Boise and not dropping anyone) than to cut into their established TV revenue.
In that regard, looking to expand to 12 members to allow divisional play (reducing travel costs via a split schedule for football and adding a revenue generating championship game) rather than going with 10 or adding and dropping to stay at nine may make more sense.
There have been reports that the MWC is going this direction. KBOI reported on Nov. 11 that the MWC invited Boise to join. That has been denied by the administration at Boise.
The following day a San Diego radio personality, Lee Hamilton, reported that Boise, Nevada, and Fresno State would all be added to bring the MWC to 12 members.
The problem with that second report to me is that if the MWC added schools, the schools added would all have to be strong programs athletically and/or academically to satisfy the BCS and would need to make sense for the MWC in terms of TV viewership, academics, and travel. I would be surprised to see this particular assortment of schools join as they make little sense collectively.
Which schools would be travel partners? Fresno has long been considered objectionable by the MWC over academics and general questionable behavior in that athletic department. Have those perceived weak areas been fixed? What exactly does Nevada bring to the table? How would the conference be divided up?
Recall the Gang of 5's original gripe with the 16 team WAC was the disruption of their rivalry games. I find it difficult to believe the gang of 5 who own the vote in the MWC would champion an expansion that would likely disrupt their competition and put Utah OR BYU in a western division.
Additionally, a move like this could very well doom the WAC to fail. In the years that I have tracked the movement of teams, it seems like conferences take the minimum number of schools to achieve their goals and they are generally quite cautious about leaving the conferences they raid an avenue to survive—after all, the worm turns.
They never know when administrators at those schools might be hired into a position of power at a university in a higher level conference. Tomorrow they may need that administrator's vote.
Finally will the already regionally isolated TCU be content with western MWC expansion to appease weaker western outliers UNLV and SDSU? I think they would have a problem with this and the threat of TCU leaving the MWC to form a new SWC with the Western CUSA schools is enough of a threat to have the Gang of 5 making the decisions with TCU in the loop.
It actually makes a lot more sense in term of exposure to bring in the University of Houston in media terms and to keep TCU happy. That helps TCU recruit Houston. That makes the MWC a Mountain and Central time-zones conference which gives their schools greater TV exposure with earlier games.
The problem is that gives you 11 schools and an even larger footprint.
Houston could potentially be an add or a replacement. Houston would add another major market allowing the MWC to let San Diego St. (and maybe UNLV) go and still have a good collection of markets. UH has an improving academic reputation. With their large research budget they are in the lead to become the third tier 1 school in Texas behind UT and TAMU.
In terms of getting to 12 with Houston, Tulsa made the most sense.
Tulsa appears on the verge of putting up good numbers for the entire evaluation period and is a good academic school and basketball school. There would be little resistance to their admission from BCS schools. The trouble is Tulsa is probably too small of a market and too far away to make sense.
With no good 12th school, Houston would likely be out.
That means nine or 10 would likely be the number for the MWC in the their stab for becoming a full BCS member conference and the MWC would add the last two at some later time.
That would create very minimal movement in the WAC and downstream.
The Big 10 could lead the BCS conferences in gutting the MWC, but they could also not interfere with the MWC's evolution into a BCS conference
The Big Ten were the main players behind the BCS. The BCS has a provision that specifically allows for a seventh member conference that seems tailor made for the MWC.
What if Big Ten expansion has nothing to do with the MWC at all? What if the Big 10 successfully adds Notre Dame and the Pac-10 stands pat? Where is the inital tumbler then?
Some have pointed to the Big East adding a ninth member. Their basketball revenue becomes more "portable" after 2010, so potentially a split could occur then, but that seems unlikely.
It might make sense for the football Big East to add a football only, junior, non-voting member (ECU?) for scheduling purposes. But the eight football team, eight non-football team setup of the Big East has been stable and a financial gold rush for that conference's membership.
It seems likely that the only force that could change the current setup that allows that voting balance would be if the BCS forced all member conferences to have 12 football playing schools. That could lead to a BE split.
(This likely won't occur by 2013 or so when the next shift will be well underway, but should happen eventually. Recall all full member conferences of the BCS receive an $18 million share for their champion participating in a BCS bowl. With the SEC, ACC, Big 12 all having 12 members and the Big Ten and possibly Pac-10 considering expansion to 12, it certainly seems dubious that those schools would allow the Big East to continue to split their money eight ways for too much longer.)
If the Big Ten took Rutgers, the Big East might take East Carolina or Central Florida over Memphis based on ECU's strong football program or more relevance in the recruiting hotbed of Florida.
Memphis lost John Calipari and is likely to fall back to the pack in basketball. Their basketball program was their likely ticket into the Big East.
(Still one cannot totally discount Memphis which hired the architect of the new Big East—former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese—to act as a consultant in making their program more attractive to a better conference. )
Still that is the loss of a single school. That would not likely cause a huge upheaval downstream in CUSA. The CUSA would likely add former member Charlotte (they are adding football) and be done with it.
But what of the rumors of instability in CUSA?
Since the last big shift brought Tulsa, Rice, SMU, and UTEP into CUSA, there has been a growing discontent with the perceived "Texas block." These eastern schools and western schools don't share the same worldview. The eastern schools see a coherent and powerful voting block of the central privates—Tulane, Tulsa, SMU, Rice—and the Texas publics—UTEP and Houston that dominates the direction of the conference and there is some concern and in some areas resentment over that.
Each half of the conference sees itself as the more important and BCS worthy half. The Eastern schools draw much better than the western schools and as such consider themselves to be much more attractive to the Bowl executives who form the bowl half of the BCS.
The Western privates are prestigious academic schools with large endowments. They feel they are more likely to be seen as BCS caliber schools by the elite academic schools who make up the most of the membership of the university side of the BCS. They note the general disdain the BCS schools felt for the Big East in adding schools like Louisville and USF and take pride in the fact that there would not be that kind of disdain with the admission of the privates.
Houston and UTEP realize they are in a good situation allied with the privates and don't want to rock the boat.
Many of these schools were former members of the SWC and like being together again in general. Tulane, in fact, was a target of the SWC privates as a replacement for Arkansas in their final attempt to keep that conference together.
CUSA has an enormous footprint that really hurt ECU and small budget outlier Marshall when oil prices were astronomical a while back. There has to be concerns on their part about the current financial crises and the talk of getting rid of the dollar peg.
Neither school is thrilled about their outlier status and it is rumored to be a source of friction with the Texas schools.
UCF is also an outlier, but can manage to wash the costs via their enormous student enrollment.
The "middle schools," Memphis, Southern Miss, and to a degree UAB and Tulane (at least the fans) are the glue holding the two factions together. These four like playing each other and most of the other schools in the conference.
(That said, as mentioned earlier, Memphis would kill for a BE berth.)
When the idea of a Big East split lost favor as being the highest point of conference instability, speculators pointed at the possibility of a CUSA east/west split as being the tumbler that started conference movement.
The idea was that the Western schools would get tired of the venom from the eastern outliers (ECU specifically) and broker a split.
To understand how this might work one has to understand the rules for acquiring an automatic bid to the NCAA basketball tournament.
Getting an Automatic Bid for March Madness
The bottleneck in NCAA rules that prevents new conferences from forming all the time is a rule known informally as the "5/6/7 rule" that determines whether a conference qualifies for an automatic bid for the NCAA tournament (and a guaranteed share of the BCS tourney money).
The NCAA tourney money is divided into 65 shares. When you make the tourney you get a share. When you make the next round you get a share.
Without a basketball tourney automatic bid, conferences are at a pronounced disadvantage to competing conferences in attracting new members who don't want to give up a guaranteed part of their conference share, therefore the rule stifles the creation of new conferences.
The 5/6/7 rule dictates that to get that bid a conference has to have six "core" DI member schools who have played together for five years plus a seventh core member of DI.
(The core member designation comes from the amount of time a school has been a member of DI. 95% or more of the universities who play DI basketball are "Core" members of DI.)
The hard part obviously is having six members who have played together for 5 years. Most conferences have fewer than 12 members, so a 6/6 split creating the basis of two conference that could qualify for a tournament bid is usually not possible.
To have this scenario, one would need to have the elements present in CUSA: 12 members, at least one block of six members with similar goals and history, plenty of available and sensible members awaiting admission, and inherent problems with the existing 12 team setup.
A Potential CUSA Split
The easiest way to envision a potential CUSA split is a simple split along divisional lines. (Other variations have USM and/or Memphis joining the western schools for financial and recruiting reasons, but Tulane and USM continuing in CUSA as basketball only schools until CUSA east can satisfy the 5/6 part of the rule.)
If it was a 6/6 split, I think the western schools might try to add TCU in an effort to bypass the MWC. I don't think they could pull it off as Utah and BYU have done better than Houston and Tulsa.
Adding UNT and La Tech (and possibly UTSA with high profile Larry Coker) might be their best realistic play.
For the east, it would likely be Charlotte, Troy, and maybe Temple or if they won't join as a full sports member, possibly MTSU or one of the Sun Belt Florida teams (FIU or FAU).
If 8 schools formed the new western conference, CUSA west could add UNT to get to nine football schools, helping SMU deliver good ratings in DFW in a very similar way to the way Houston and Rice work together.
CUSA east would likely begin by adding former member Charlotte.
Temple is resurgent in football, but is a bad regional fit for the MAC. They could be a good fit for CUSA East, possibly even becoming an all sports member down the road.
Army and Navy might join as football only members and would raise the conference's esteem level and average fan support numbers with their strong fan support at home and on the road.
Troy dominates the Sun Belt in recruiting and seems ready for a larger stage. That would give CUSA East 9 football members.
How SMU Could Be the Wild Card That Screws up Many of These Scenarios
After years of watching SMU struggle in spite of top notch facilities and academics, their boosters had enough.
Two years ago a group of SMU boosters pledged to pay $100,000 each annually to put together a large pool of money ($2 million annually) to buy a top BCS level coach.
If their facilities could not land a top coach to lead their hopeless program, they'd bribe a top coach to take the job. They landed Hawaii's June Jones.
The high profile Jones has turned around recruiting—they key to building long term success at the FBS level.
This year that investment started to pay off with SMU reaching a bowl game and winning it.
The timing had a number of consequences that may have or may not have been intentional.
SMU was lousy in 2008, a bowl team in 2009, and is recruiting well enough to be a bowl team in 2010 and 2011. They could have a couple top 25 finishes in a somewhat weak CUSA. This could make them as viable of a team as Tulsa—on the field—for inclusion in the MWC.
Suddenly expansion to 12 looks possible and viable for the MWC. Adding Boise, Houston, and SMU works for TCU and the Gang of 5. It adds Houston, gives better travel partners, gives the MWC relevance in most of DFW rather than just the eastern third, and it allows for very convenient north/south divisions. The gang of 5 and Boise would play together as the Northern Division with very convenient travel and TCU would get Houston and SMU in the Southern Division to offset the cost of trips to Las Vegas and San Diego.
Huge Implications up and down in Terms of Conference Movement
Suddenly it becomes questionable if movements at the top of the BCS ranks could really kill the MWC moving up. Could the Big Ten and the other BCS conferences stop a MWC upgrade by starting a conference membership domino drop that takes away Utah, BYU and TCU, if the remain MWC schools could just add Boise, Houston, SMU, and Tulsa and be in about the same position?
Without a potential top 25 team in SMU, the answer is probably yes. With one, the answer may be no.
SMU's resurgence gives the MWC an impressive pool of potential replacements and makes the MWC ascension look unstoppable (...well, as long as they keep winning).
If the BCS schools can't be certain that their moves might blunt a MWC ascension, the BCS schools would be in better shape not to try, lest they dilute their own shares and allow in a much lesser MWC (in the terms that matter to the BCS—attendance and academics).
Now in TV terms, a 12 team MWC with Boise, SMU, and Houston fattens the MWC schools' coffers much more than just adding Boise.
It potentially wreaks utter havoc on the the FBS world.
With the Texas block reduced to four, could and would distant outlier UTEP be forced out in some way in favor of an eastern team like Troy to cut everyone's travel costs? Could UTEP be forced to suppliment in-conference guests' travel like the WAC once required Hawaii to do?
CUSA would probably add North Texas to save the Dallas market, but would likely add former member Charlotte instead of La Tech for a number of reasons to get to 12.
If CUSA wanted, they could go to 14 and bump up their TV power by taking in Temple and Troy, FIU, FAU, or La Tech and still not be deemed to have killed the Sun Belt or WAC.
With Boise out, the WAC is a much lesser conference with a bare minimum eight football members and no FBS candidates left in the region that powers Hawaii and Fresno State would accept beyond UNT (which already turned down the WAC once, but might accept this time around due to changing conditions - if CUSA doesn't offer them a slot) or UTEP (if they are given the boot by CUSA).
Barring that, the WAC would have issues. Is La Tech willing to remain a distant outlier in a lesser WAC without the possibility of a fairly regular BCS check? Or would they use the threat of leaving to be a football independent to force UH and Fresno to add say ULL and FCS upgrades Lamar, UTSA, and Texas State to form a central division to cut La Tech's travel costs?
The Sun Belt could be in trouble. If the Sun Belt lost only two teams (UNT and Troy) they would have eight teams and be where they were in 2004 or so in terms of esteem.
If they lost 3 teams (UNT, Troy, and ULL) they would have only 7 football schools. They would be forced once more to accept an FCS upgrade university (likely either Jacksonville State or Georgia Southern or maybe both to get to 9 football schools) to maintain their status. While it would help shrink their footprint and would be good for them in the long term, in the short term they would once more be firmly seen as the undisputed worst FBS conference.
Would Arkansas State want to be in the Sun Belt if it came to that or would they take Lamar's slot in an expanded WAC - dropping the sunbelt to 6 football playing members - and make Lamar a candidate for the Sun Belt? Arkansas State, ULL, La Tech, and UNT tried to create a conference before (oddly enough with Lamar)... They do have history.
The Sun Belt could be looking at 6 football playing members looking for FCS replacements when this all shakes out.
The ramification of SMU hiring June Jones appear likely to echo in ways probably unsuspected by the SMU boosters who simply wanted to have a team that broke .500 occasionally for a change.
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