College Football: Conference Expansion Is More Likely Than You Think
Written by James Brown, Co-Founder of Gatorsfirst.com.
The college football world, this week, has been focusing on rumblings that could reshape the entire sport. The rumor is very plausible—Nebraska, Missouri, and Rutgers are desirable schools for the Big Ten to add for academic and economic reasons.
Missouri and Rutgers are thought to be in situations where they would definitely accept any offer to significantly increase their revenue.
Also, don't buy into the recent denials by people associated with these universities. It's just like coaching moves, etc.: Something could be in the works, but "nothing official" has happened. I don't really expect athletic directors, conference administrators, or university presidents to be any less slimy than head coaches. And neither should you.
Finally, don't buy into heavy buyouts as a reason a team doesn't jump ship. Sure, if a school were moving to a conference where they can expect roughly the same amount of revenue as their current conference and the change was being made for competitive or conference prestige reasons, you could argue realignment won't happen due to a heavy buyout. But Missouri, for instance, has so much to gain revenue-wise, from a switch to the Big Ten, that it would more than make up for the buyout, in less than a year's time.
Tools we'll need for our discussion are this list of AAU member institutions, this 2007-08 and this 2008-09 athletic department revenue list , and this search tool to determine a university's academic reputation. Also, I'll be referring to many other reports on this subject, some of which are here , here , here , here , here , here , and here . Stewart Mandel has a list of conference TV deals here . Finally, here is a map of every FBS football program.
So what are the central stories behind a possible reorganization of college football?
1. Nebraska is the key
As I previously stated, Missouri and Rutgers are likely gone immediately after being "officially" invited to the Big Ten. Missouri is worth more to the Big Ten than they are to the Big XII because of the Big Ten Network and has never been happy with the Big XII's conference revenue distribution .
Although I live in Big XII country, I sought help from friend of G1, Blatant Homerism , a known Sooners fan, for his thoughts on the matter and to give my wild ideas a sanity check. Even though he is sick of expansion talk (and worried OU gets left out in the cold), we agreed that for massive realignment to take place, Nebraska is the key.
Nebraska AND Missouri leaving the Big XII North would make Colorado think of accepting any possible overtures from the Pac-10. The Big XII could possibly absorb losing the two teams to the Big Ten by bringing in Utah and TCU, who would jump at the chance. They could also bring in BYU if they lost Colorado, though the Utah schools (we'll get to them) would be candidates to join Colorado in the Pac-10.
This sort of shake-up might cause enough instability to make Texas, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma (the meat of the conference, revenue, and national following-wise) reconsider their position. And it all starts with Nebraska, because they are by far the traditional leader of the Big XII North and a much better conference mate than any potential replacement Texas and OU could recruit to join them.
The departure of Nebraska would force Texas to decide whether they want to be in a conference arrangement where their conference mates bring something to the table, or to play big fish in a small pond (call all the shots for the conference, much like they do now, but possibly to a greater extent). And if Texas starts to look around, watch out .
Oklahoma and Texas would be the biggest pieces of the Big XII, but would they be interested in carrying 9-11 teams of dead weight? Thinking through the scenarios, the complete destruction of the Big XII does a lot of things for the other conferences to expand.
The Big XII is also a fairly dysfunctional mix of the former Big Eight and members of the former SWC. They are the conference with the most to lose in a potential "college football revolution" scenario, possibly even more so than the Big East. Because they have members that would be attractive to the three conferences most likely to expand (the Big Ten first, and then the Pac-10 and SEC in a reactionary manner).
2. If Notre Dame joins... who is 16th team?
First of all, Andy Staples, as a guest on the Solid Verbal podcast , and in his own column , thinks Notre Dame would still prefer to remain independent and would not bail on the Big East unless it really gets dismantled as a conference. This would definitely take more than the departure of Rutgers to qualify. Though it's worth noting the Big East has only been a football conference for a relatively short time period.
However, were Notre Dame to accept, what then for the Big Ten? Assuming all three other rumored candidates accept, the Big Ten would be up to a Big 15. They would probably then add a 16th school. If you buy the Staples scenario (I lean that way, he's certainly smarter than me about these things), they could be convinced to come in after the move to 14 by enticing another Big East school to come along.
From the Big East, Pitt and Syracuse would fit the AAU mold which is important to the presidents of Big Ten universities.
However, Pitt doesn't add anything in potential television markets that Penn State hasn't brought to the Big Ten already. Syracuse is sort of doubling-down on the New York TV market (with Rutgers), and otherwise has some historical sway over the Northeast. It also can't hurt that half of the people that work for ESPN seem to be a Syracuse alum.
What about other teams?
Don't rule out Texas. This would be a huge get for the conference, and as an AAU school they might be a good fit for each other. The geography may not be as big of a deal in future conference alignment—we do have 21st century transportation technology, after all.
Kansas also fits the AAU mold, and we've already established the Big XII is the conference most likely to be dismantled by any drastic conference realignment scenario. Kansas has high athletic department revenue but does not add that much in the way of desirable TV markets. They also haven't been discussed as much as the other schools by the national stories.
Still, I think the fact they are around the top 25 in athletic department revenue, despite the Big XII's shitty TV contract and unbalanced revenue sharing, boosts their profile for a conference to grab them.
From the ACC, Maryland and Virginia also fit AAU mold and could bring the Big Ten the D.C. TV market. They also have the whole geography thing working for them over, say, Texas. Maryland is a founding member of the ACC, however, and Virginia has been a member since 1953.
I think this makes them less likely to move, but the ACC expansion went awful enough (do you know ANYONE who has watched that conference title game the last two years? Anyone? Bueller?) to make me think it's at least a little likely they'd listen. Especially when you're talking about as much money as the Big Ten (or the SEC, we'll get there) brings to the table.
3. How does the SEC react?
It would be a battle with the Pac-10 for Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas A&M. The SEC has the cash and the TV deal. The Pac-10 has easier competition and more AAU schools—Texas and TAMU are AAU, I don't know if they'd negatively weigh the fact that only Florida and Vanderbilt are AAU schools in the SEC.
The idea I like best is for the SEC to take Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State and put them in the SEC West, while shifting Alabama and Auburn to the SEC East. Depending on how the Texas dominoes fall, there are also possibilities of reaching out to some other schools in the East.
The only ACC candidates that make sense to me are ones that would bring new states under the SEC footprint (Maryland, Virginia). While Clemson may seem like a good geographic and cultural fit, they probably represent some "expanding for the sake of expansion" scenario, which doesn't make cents (see what I did there? It's a pun! I used a homonym which has a clever meaning beyond the correct spelling of the word! OK, I'm ready to move on, too).
4. What about the Pac-10?
Most thinking has the Pac-10 following the Big Ten with any expansion. For a lot of reasons, I am not sure this is a conference that needs to add a conference title game. It's easily the most spread out, geographically, of the AQ conferences, and the passion for college football isn't the same as in the South and Midwest, where you might see more fans travel long distances.
Additionally, the current nine game (round robin) conference schedule eliminates the need for a conference game from a competition standpoint. I just don't see where the Pac-10 would have motivation for expanding, other than to follow the Big Ten (and the other three AQ conferences who have added a championship game in the last couple decades).
However, the Pac-10 and the Big Ten seem to be eager to follow each other's lead in this kind of thing, so it's a scenario worth discussing. This is a league which sorely needs a better television deal, as fans of teams in this conference, who live on the West Coast, often can't even watch their own team's games.
The absolute best case scenario for the Pac-10 (and really, for any conference) is to grab Texas and Texas A&M. If they got those two, they could end up with 12, 14, or 16 teams and have some pull with the television executives, not to mention additional college football tradition to beef up the reputation of the on-field product.
Assuming they miss out on Texas and Texas A&M, where else would they look? Do they add to get to 12, 14, or 16 teams? Do they do anything at all?
The first step most people make when following the expansion of the Big Ten is to move Colorado to the Pac-10. They are an AAU school (sorry to keep emphasizing this, but this matters to university presidents and they need to be talked into these moves, not just we football fans), and they are the best geographic fit among other AQ-level colleges.
Kansas, if not headed to the Big Ten, is another AAU school. Concerned about the distance? Lawrence, KS is around 1800 miles from Seattle, WA—or about 300 miles further than Tucson, AZ. I think I've already covered them enough.
Utah is not an AAU school, but is rated 'very highly' by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education —something the current, non-AAU Pac-10 schools have in common. Geography is also a plus, though being 80th in athletic department revenue on this list can't help.
Kansas State also fits the "very highly" rated criteria, and is 47th on the list. Though I can't say that adding two Kansas schools is exactly what the Pac-10 has in mind to generate national interest.
Baylor, BYU, and Texas Tech are rated "highly" by the same commission and are 56th, 64th, and 58th on the revenue list, respectively. BYU represents a geographic fit, and a nice rival with Utah if they were included, while Baylor and Texas Tech are a couple Big 12 remnants which could serve as entry into the Texas markets the Pac-10 might miss out on if they whiff on Texas and Texas A&M.
Oklahoma and Oklahoma State could be consolation prizes for the conference—in terms of football prowess in the disintegration of the Big XII and also fall into this academic category. Note in this Dennis Dodd column , he quotes an anonymous Pac-10 source who dismisses BYU as a possibility solely because of this rating.
TCU does not rate as highly as the other previously mentioned schools, but they are 57th on this revenue list (despite awful conference revenues) and—while they don't attract a large local following—they are at least located in a top five metropolitan area.
Boise State has nothing to offer outside of football and geography and aren't a realistic candidate to anyone halfway informed on these matters. The previous sentence was just to make sure all of the comments below don't ask me why I didn't mention them.
If they really stick to their academic guns and want to expand after grabbing the Texas duo or, in spite of striking out on the Texas duo and Kansas is on the table, then Colorado, Kansas, Kansas State, and Utah make the most sense. If the expansion is only to 12 teams, without any Texas schools, then I'd rank them 1. Colorado, 2. Utah, 3. Kansas, 4. Kansas State, mostly due to geography.
So what is the Pac-10 to do? Whether they are adding two, four, or six teams, they don't have many options if they don't attract the two biggest Big XII names. If I were making the decisions for the Pac-10 I'd be inclined to sit still if I couldn't get the Texas twosome on board. If they were to expand, I'd say they need to grab Colorado and another of the schools that are a geographic fit with their existing members.
Colorado and Utah are among the most rapidly growing areas of the country, and they could be well positioned for the future (growing television markets and recruiting bases).
If they're able to grab Texas (and don't rule it out, they may just be desperate enough for football/television contract improvement to let Texas come in and call a lot of the shots, plus their academic rep doesn't take any sort of hit with Texas and Texas A&M), then I'd encourage them to go all out to 16 teams, bringing in Colorado, Kansas, Texas, Texas A&M, Utah, and Kansas State.
All 6 of these teams fit the academic profile and are either in the top 50 of the athletic department revenue lists or among the fastest growing media markets in the US.
5. Did the ACC learn it's lesson?
If the most extensive scenarios play out, and the Big East as a football conference ceases to be viable, the ACC could grab four or more of the Big East teams (depending on which, if any, ACC teams jump to greener Big Ten/ACC pastures). East Carolina, Memphis, and UCF would appear to be the most likely non-AQ teams to be ACC candidates.
I highly doubt the ACC would take a lot of chances in expanding further but could grab some of those teams that have the most fan support (West Virginia being the best example), to prop up its currently dying conference championship game.
UConn, Syracuse, and Rutgers seem to have the best blend of overall athletic department strength and media market impact.
Anyway, the ACC is likely the detritivore of these scenarios, and would not expand unless/until a major shakeup happens.
6. What does expansion do to the BCS?
Hopefully, reform it further.
In the largest expansion scenario, 30-32 of the top college football teams would be under the Big Ten and SEC umbrella. I find it hard to believe this would mean that the "two team per conference rule" would hold, at a minimum. If a couple member conferences are dissolved (Big XII, Big East) and the MWC is weakened (no longer a candidate for AQ status), things could get very interesting.
Bowl tie-ins would be shaken and a playoff could be around the corner. It is worth noting that this scenario, like so many others above, is a reaction to a reaction to a reaction. But also remember that after the Big Ten's addition of Penn State, the dissolution of the SWC, SEC expansion and Big XII expansion, we got the Bowl Alliance and then the BCS.
To think the system wouldn't change, somewhat, by any sort of realignment is folly. However, these changes always come much later than the conference moves, which also may happen over several years. Don't print 2012 playoff brackets, yet. But 2020 tickets...
7. What is most likely to occur?
Well, probably nothing. The rumor could be a way of testing the waters, to see how different schools, conferences, and other college football entities react. However, I don't think the status quo (which, other than the ACC's expansion gaffe, has been in place for 15-20 years, conference-wise, is going to hold forever). So we'll say "nothing happens" is the most likely 2010-2011 story, but maybe only like 60 percent likely.
There is a lot of smoke here, so I'm not going to dismiss the possibility of fire.
I think Big Ten expansion is very likely. I think Notre Dame forgoing independent status is much less likely. This means, according to the recent speculation, that the Big Ten would likely sit at 14 teams. Is this enough to cause the Big XII to collapse on itself, force the Pac-10 to pursue it's own championship game, and encourage the SEC (in its Cold War Arms Race with the Big Ten) to react? Probably not.
I don't think the Pac-10 gains as much with expansion as the Big Ten would, and I think the Big XII could replace the one or two lost teams with TCU and/or Utah and continue with minimal impact (strength of the respective divisions, however, is another story). So let's put this small ripple of expansion (Big Ten going to 12 teams, putting a championship game in, say, Indianapolis, and the Big XII and Big East filling their respective holes with MWC/C-USA teams) at a likelihood of 25 percent.
A destabilized Big XII leading to SEC expansion?
This is my favorite scenario. I also think the Big XII dismantling is more likely than the Big East folding at this point. I've been dreaming about every fall weekend filled with conference games between the SEC, Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State this week. I have had minor cardiac problems since posting this in our forums.
Adding these huge athletic departments is a no-brainer, and by adding UT and TAMU the number of AAU schools in the SEC would double (from two—Vandy, Florida—to four). The SEC would seem to only care about expanding its geographic footprint, bringing in additional revenue, and further monopolizing the world of college football.
This move accomplishes those things. I set this scenario as 10 percent likely, which is probably a little bit inflated because of my own hopes and dreams.
The remaining 5 percent includes Pac-10 and ACC expansion, Big East destruction, and probably a fifth, weaker super-conference made up of Big XII, C-USA, MWC, and Big East leftovers which would have to begin lobbying for an automatic bid to whatever becomes of college football's postseason. Of this 5 percent, consider like 1 percent or 2 percent to a playoff coming to college football.
But, we can all dream, can't we?
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