Last year, we stood on the brink of conference Armageddon, with Texas having bags packed and ready to take themselves and five other teams to the Pac-10. Such a move would have dramatically reshaped the landscape of college football.
The Longhorns' threat to leave was an attempt to extract a loyalty oath from Nebraska and Missouri to stay in the Big XII, and when that failed, Texas eventually decided to stay put and open up its own television network.
But now, that network is causing all kinds of troubles with Texas' conference-mates, to the point where discussions have started again about teams leaving the Big XII. It seems like major conference realignment is still right below the surface. So let's take a look at at least one scenario of what starts it, how it shakes out and what college football looks like when all the dust settles.
All of the recent drama about the Big XII collapsing started because ESPN was having difficulty selling the Longhorn Network. Remember, while it’s called the “Longhorn Network,” it’s an ESPN product. ESPN has already committed $300 million over 20 years to Texas for the rights to broadcast their athletics.
So it’s up to ESPN as much as Texas to figure out how to make money on their Longhorn investment. Initial reports had them asking for 40 cents per household to get the Longhorn Network onto cable lineups throughout the state. In order to help with that, ESPN and Texas wanted to add a conference game to the lineup of the Longhorn Network, and to add high school games in an attempt to make the channel more marketable and get it onto cable networks.
Both Texas and ESPN have said that they want to find a way to make their conference-mates happy and will not use the Longhorn Network as a means to gain an unfair advantage. But it may be that the sacrifices that would have to be made to keep the rest of the Big XII happy mean that the Longhorn Network get itself onto enough cable providers to recoup ESPN’s investment. Something will have to change, and that something is …
Most scenarios for future conference realignment involve a disgruntled Texas A&M heading to the SEC, starting the dominoes falling once again. But Texas A&M has some disincentives to leaving the Big XII, not the least of which would be the hefty departure fees agreed to by all the parties after Nebraska and Colorado abandoned ship. Joining the SEC would not be an immediate financial windfall for Texas A&M (or Oklahoma), so it would make their departure less likely.
Texas, on the other hand, could have a significant financial incentive to go independent. They have already established a network with ESPN with a significant financial payout, even with the limitations of what games could appear on the network. If, all of a sudden, ESPN acquired the rights to all of Texas’ games, not just the non-conference ones, it’s likely that investment could be worth a lot more money. Texas could negotiate further payments from ESPN to more than cover the departure fees if the Longhorns left the Big XII.
And it’s not like Texas hasn’t considered its options. Last summer, an ultimatum was presented to Nebraska and Missouri to pledge allegiance to the Big XII, or Texas would lead a six-team convoy out of the Big XII and into the Pac-10.
So if ESPN can’t make the Longhorn Network a financial success with Texas as a member of the Big XII, both Texas and ESPN have a financial incentive for Texas to declare independence.
The departure of Texas from the now-nine-team Big XII strikes a mortal wound to the conference. The two most attractive schools remaining are Oklahoma and Texas A&M, and both would be attractive targets for the SEC. Texas A&M would give the conference a foothold in Texas, which would be a huge recruiting boon for the entire conference. Oklahoma’s history and nationwide fanbase would be similarly attractive, although less so than Texas A&M.
In that scenario, the legislatures of both Texas and Oklahoma could very well get involved, ensuring that the remaining two state schools (Texas Tech and Oklahoma State) have a home in a BCS conference. While not optimal, the chance to form a 16-team super conference would drive the SEC to allow all four teams in.
Once the SEC expanded to a 16-team conference, the Big Ten would feel a like need to expand. Notre Dame would be the first target, and the conference would push hard to get the Irish into the Big Ten. But the new national landscape makes it more attractive, not less, for a school like Notre Dame to remain independent. Therefore, the Big Ten would have to look elsewhere for their expansion.
The Big Ten would have a number of targets, but would likely winnow them down to Rutgers and Missouri. Both decisions would be based on access to television markets (New York and Kansas City/St. Louis respectively) for the Big Ten Network, as well as the desire to keep up with the SEC’s expansion without overly diluting the division of the total revenue pie.
With super-conferences abounding, the Pac-12 would feel the need to respond in kind. The problem is that there are no obvious targets for the Pac-12 that would expand their viewership base. Boise State is the closest thing to an attractive target, primarily for the increased attention in football the Broncos would bring. But there's not enough television networks in Idaho to make Boise State an attractive member to add to the Pac-12, certainly not enough to justify dividing up the conference revenues into smaller slices.
In this scenario, the Pac-12 would more likely stand pat and remain at 12 teams rather than dilute their revenue shares with another conference member that didn’t add enough value to the conference.
The departure of Rutgers leaves a hole in the Big East’s roster. The Big East still is a BCS automatic qualifying conference, so membership in the conference is still a valuable commodity. In admitting TCU, the Big East has shown it is not afraid of geography in adding members to their rosters. However, adding Central Florida would be a natural fit both geographically (given the presence of South Florida in the conference already) and in terms of marketability to increase the conference’s presence in the recruiting hotbed that is Florida.
The teams left out from the Big XII meltdown, after all the other pieces moved, would be Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Baylor. The Mountain West, a 10-team league starting in 2012, would strike first, adding Kansas and Kansas State. While basketball isn’t a significant driving force in conference expansion, having a team with a basketball pedigree of the Jayhawks would significantly increase the prestige of a conference like the Mountain West. Plus, by going back to 12 teams, the Mountain West would be able to break into divisions and add a championship game.
Iowa State would get the invitation from Conference USA to fill Central Florida’s spot, bringing the conference roster back to 12 and preserving the divisional structure. Baylor, needing a conference home and finding no other takers, would bring the WAC up to eight football-playing programs along other Texas schools like Texas State and UT-San Antonio.
That political hot potato might be the most interesting part of the post-shakeup negotiation. A revamped Mountain West, adding Kansas and Kansas State, would push hard to replace the Big XII as an automatic-qualifying conference. The SEC has already made noises about adding a second BCS bid, and with a 16-team league might be able to make a stronger argument.
But, particularly given the national strength of both Texas and Notre Dame (and the big-dollar network contracts behind them), the extra bid would likely be held as another at-large bid that independent schools could qualify for if they met certain criteria. Such a move would have the appearance of even-handedness, while leaving the BCS doors open for both Texas and Notre Dame.
So, what do all the conferences look like once everything is done? Let’s take a look at how the conferences shake out after all this repositioning. The teams that are new to the conference or in a new division are marked in italics. Leagues that made no changes, such as the Pac-12 and the ACC, are not listed.
BIG TEN (LEGENDS)
BIG TEN (LEADERS)
CONFERENCE USA (EAST)
CONFERENCE USA (WEST)
MOUNTAIN WEST (ROCKY)
MOUNTAIN WEST (SIERRA)
San Diego State
New Mexico State
San Jose State
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