Predicting the Next Moves in College Football Realignment
A decade after realignment shook up college sports, another round is speedily approaching. Multiple reports indicate longtime Big 12 powers Oklahoma and Texas will exit the conference and join the SEC.
The move is not official, but the schools released a joint statement Monday saying neither university will renew its grants of media rights following expiration in 2025.
In short: They're gone.
While the press release noted the universities "intend to honor" the existing media rights agreement, that's not necessarily true. "Intend to honor" is legalese for "We can't announce our plan to break this contract; otherwise, we'd get sued."
No matter when it happens, the fallout of the departure of two marquee programs from the Big 12 will be felt across the sport.
The following predictions are early guesses on potential changes in the next half-decade. Imagining the next wave of realignment is part of the thrill.
The Spark: Texas, Oklahoma Complete Move to SEC
Although this "prediction" is worth zero future points, it's important to highlight a few pieces of the expected move.
For starters, both Oklahoma and Texas are focused on the money. That's OK! But a move to the SEC isn't about a competitive advantage. Leaving the Big 12 for the SEC makes the path to the College Football Playoff more difficult.
The intriguing part, then, is how the SEC handles the addition of two schools.
Would the conference stick with two divisions? If that happens, reshuffling their distribution would be wise. Not only is separating Oklahoma and Texas a poor idea, but the divisions are also geographically unsound with Missouri in the SEC East. It's the right moment to rethink how the league is organized.
The best answer, as ESPN's Bill Connelly has long trumpeted, is moving to a "pod" system. This approach—which may mean playing three teams annually and six others on a rotating basis, for example—would provide a more logical schedule.
Plus, who wouldn't want Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A&M and Arkansas or Missouri in a pod? At least for now, the pod format is our projected outcome for the new-look SEC.
Kansas, Thanks to Basketball, Bolts for Big Ten
One pivotal point to remember is that money, not symmetry, is the engine of these upcoming discussions.
Since the SEC will reach 16 members with Oklahoma and Texas, a common reaction is the 14-team Big Ten will—or at least should—match it. But that's not the case. Two more schools means more financial slices to cut, and the revenue pie might not get bigger.
If the Big Ten is adding a university, it must be financially beneficial. In the relative geographic footprint, only Kansas stands out.
And not because of the football team.
Since 2010, Kansas has totaled 21 wins, and it is mired in a string of compliance issues. Still, the Big Ten might tolerate that poor track record—the league already is with Rutgers—because Kansas is an Association of American Universities member and boasts a top-tier men's basketball program.
Bring in Kansas, and the Big Ten expands to 15. Unless the ever-elusive Notre Dame joins or an incredible Pac-12 poaching happens, that's where it may stay.
Notre Dame Goes Nowhere
For many years, the Big Ten tried to lure Notre Dame from its independent status. The university finally relented and joined a conference in 2013...but it was the ACC, and in everything but football.
As the SEC likely bolsters its membership in the coming years, expect both the ACC and Big Ten to target Notre Dame. It's not simply a high-profile school—Notre Dame is the most attractive option in the realignment market.
Just don't anticipate a change.
"We like our position regardless of how [the OU/Texas situation] plays out," Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said last week, per Ralph D. Russo of the Associated Press.
If Notre Dame remains an independent, neither the ACC nor Big Ten should feel compelled to expand.
Again, symmetry is not the driving force of realignment. If the money that follows Notre Dame stays put, so should the ACC and—outside of Kansas or a Pac-12 robbery—the Big Ten.
Staying Alive, Big 12 Gets Back to 12
In its current construction, the Big 12 has 10 members. Our hypothetical reduces the conference to seven schools once Oklahoma and Texas leave for the SEC and Kansas departs for the Big Ten.
And then, it's a matter of survival.
The American Athletic Conference is a critical piece of what happens next. That should be unsurprising given the Big 12's past flirtation with UCF, Houston and Memphis. But the American has a different perspective. Citing a source, Russo reported the AAC is "working on plans to be proactive and possibly add teams from the Big 12 instead of being poached."
Granted, the trouble with that concept is the Big 12 has both a more substantial media rights deal and the coveted autonomous voting rights. Even though the Big 12 would slip behind the Pac-12 in the conference hierarchy, every remaining Big 12 member would put up a fight to protect its established path to the CFP.
The more likely plan A is the Big 12 widens its footprint.
From the AAC, expansion candidates are Cincinnati, UCF, Houston, Memphis and SMU. Peering west, the conference should call Boise State and BYU.
In terms of location, Texas schools Houston and SMU are obvious choices. BYU brings the most eyeballs, while Boise State has built a strong football program. Ideally, the Big 12 adds those four, along with one of Cincinnati, UCF or Memphis. (And if there was ever a perfect moment for powerhouse North Dakota State to join the Football Bowl Subdivision, it might be now.)
Our earliest prediction is the Big 12 adds Boise State, Cincinnati, UCF, Houston and SMU. But the AAC and Big 12 are the swing conferences—the leagues that might have two options: expand or cease to exist. Get ready for several years of rumors.