College Football Realignment: Predicting the Next Moves

David KenyonFeatured Columnist IVJuly 27, 2022

College Football Realignment: Predicting the Next Moves

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    INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - DECEMBER 04: A detail view of the Big Ten Championship logo on an end zone pylon during the Big Ten Championship between the Michigan Wolverines and the Iowa Hawkeyes game at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 04, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    Realignment is one of several college football topics that will not go away anytime soon.

    Few people correctly guessed that Oklahoma and Texas would leave for the SEC and both USC and UCLA would head to the Big Ten—all within a 12-month span! Those decisions, though, along with subsequent moves in the Big 12, American, Conference USA and Sun Belt, are set to reshape the Football Bowl Subdivision landscape.

    And those changes are merely the early stages of a long process.

    The predictions for what may happen in the near future feel remotely educated. So, naturally, expect them to look foolish in about a year.

    Let's have some fun.

Conference USA Gets Stung Again

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    BIRMINGHAM, AL - AUGUST 30:   The Conference USA (C-USA) logo is on display during the game between the Savannah State Tigers and the UAB Blazers on August 30, 2018, at Legion Field in Birmingham, AL.  (Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    In 2021, Conference USA sustained a massive hit.

    Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA all bolted for the American Athletic Conference. This year, Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Miss headed to the Sun Belt. Suddenly, the 14-team conference dropped to five programs.

    In the aftermath, C-USA invited Liberty and New Mexico State along with soon-to-be FBS programs Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State.

    But the movement likely isn't finished.

    Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky flirted with the MAC before MTSU ultimately decided to stay and WKU remained after the MAC shut down expansion. Those conversations can be quickly reignited, though, and a healthy Sun Belt has geographical reason to target Louisiana Tech.

    Among all FBS leagues, C-USA needs to find the most creative solutions. Its football existence hinges on that.

Notre Dame Still Does Nothing

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    SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 20: A Notre Dame Fighting Irish cheerleader runs onto the field with a Notre Dame Fighting Irish flag after a touchdown play during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on November 20, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium, in South Bend, IN.  (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Until or unless something changes, Notre Dame will be college football's white whale.

    The combination of resources, fan support, financial impact, tradition, revenue potential and—you get the picture—is relentlessly appealing. While the South Bend, Indiana, university sits in the Big Ten's geographical footprint, the Irish are a member of the ACC in everything but football and hockey.

    As USC and UCLA showed, money can change things. Notre Dame certainly isn't rushing into anything, though.

    Rather than leaping into the Big Ten or SEC before the realignment dust settles, the Irish will focus on their own interests first. According to Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports, Notre Dame is targeting "$75 million annually in media rights revenue from current broadcast partner NBC." The standing agreement is worth $15 million annually and ends in 2025.

    The most likely outcome is Notre Dame—an independent for every year in program history, save for 2020—will go nowhere. For now.

    And in the meantime, the Big Ten will look elsewhere.

Big Ten Pivots to Kansas

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    LAWRENCE, KS - SEPTEMBER 03: A view of a football with the KU logo before a college football game between the South Dakota Coyotes and Kansas Jayhawks on Sep 3, 2021 at Memorial Stadium in Lawrence, KS. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Notre Dame remains the No. 1 option. If the Fighting Irish stay put, the Big Ten will quickly shift.

    Oregon and Washington have emerged as popular early candidates, but Pac-12 reporter Jon Wilner noted a "growing reality" is their options are sticking in the league or moving to the Big 12. Wilner added California and Stanford lack the brand value to attract the Big Ten too.

    Although the Big Ten could raid the ACC, the earlier step may be slightly westward: Kansas.

    Other than Nebraska, all members of the Big Ten—including USC and UCLA—are part of the Association of American Universities. Nebraska held that distinction when joining the Big Ten, and Kansas does today.

    Most importantly, Kansas would be a net positive for the Big Ten's revenue. That's the most valuable piece of any realignment discussions. Any new addition won't be for the sake of increasing the number of teams, since the conference already has plenty.

    Throw in a slight geographic advantage of being closer than nearly all Big Ten schools to USC and UCLA, and Kansas makes both dollars and sense.

SMU Makes the Power-Conference Jump

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    FORT WORTH, TX - SEPTEMBER 25: Southern Methodist Mustangs wide receiver Reggie Roberson Jr. (21) celebrates a touchdown during the game between SMU and TCU on September 25, 2021 at Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, TX. (Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Following the latest shuffle, SMU is arguably the premier non-power program available. Boise State, Memphis and San Diego State have a case, but Dallas-area SMU easily has the largest market.

    Although the Big 12 has twice passed on SMU in recent years, a potential Kansas departure may change the conversation. And if the Big 12 cannot attract Pac-12 programs, the Mustangs are an obvious fit.

    Conversely, the Pac-12 could expand into Big 12 territory. While the politics of the situation may be a factor—look, it's fair to say California and Texas are generally different, right?—the athletic side is appealing. Beyond the local market size, the state is a recruiting hotbed. SMU also has a solid academic reputation.

    The Mustangs are well-positioned to benefit from future realignment.