2010 may get us one step closer to a playoff system; I'll explain towards the end of my article. I have tried to explain here the what and whys of conference expansion and give the most likely candidates of the two major plans that are unraveling. We can call it "Confrence Expansion for Dummies".
With the exception of the mid major conferences, the Big Six conferences have been pretty steady since the Big East's raiding of Conference USA in 2005, which resulted from the ACC stealing Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami in their expansion plan...which stemmed from the expansion of the SEC back in the 1990’s which caused the dissolution of the Southwest Conference that spurred the creation of the Big 12. Now the Big Ten and PAC 10 are both looking at expansion, but why would two of the "most storied conferences" want to sully their pristine reputations by adding less than exceptional teams that aren’t already a part of their exclusive cliques. The easy answer is....MONEY, and the secondary answer is exposure.
The Big Twen? (So stupid I know but the Big 12 has already been taken)
Let's begin with the Big Ten which has been toying with the idea of expansion since the addition of Penn State back in 1990. After a few failed attempts, and a very public rejection from Notre Dame; the Big Ten ventured into the realm of broadcasting giving us the Big Ten Network. This has been a windfall for the conference; I will not go into the specific dollar amounts they received off the network but let's just saying they won big and here's why. Similar to most other networks, service providers don't typically just offer the Big Ten network alone. They typically offer it either in a sports package or in a channel lineup package. Therefore, not only is the Big Ten Network pulling in money from the football fans who request it but also dopes like me who signed up for a cable package not realizing it was included. I got the AT&T U300 package because it came with Showtime, only to find the Iowa/Michigan State game (thank God) on the Big Ten Network a few months later. But I digress, so now on to my point, due to people like me the Big Ten Network rakes in the dough like no other college football TV deal. Add that to the CBS, ESPN and the ABC Rose Bowl contract, you can easily see why the money is flowing in the Midwest; which is why the Big Ten can poach nearly any school it wants in its expansion plans. Money is the driving force for the Big Ten to expand and for many other schools to join.
OK now even a moderate college football connoisseur knows, like JoPa says, that the Big Ten is irreverent after the Ohio St/Michigan game. While other school have conference championship games that grant them more hype going into bowl selection the Big Ten falls flat. Some people believe the fact that there is no conference champion decided by a sanctioned game diminishes their elite status. The SEC & Big 12 both had record number watching the 2009 games and have proven to be a great model of success. The MAC and CUSA's conference championship games drew decent numbers this year too, and the Big East also got lucky with a defacto conference championship game between Pitt and Cinncy. The only failure in conference championships games so far has been the ACC, whether or not it can recover is another story (however I think it looks promising as long as Miami, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Clemson and Georgia Tech never leave).
Now to tie it all together, by adding a 12th school the Big Ten can have a sanctioned conference championship game (obviously). This game will (eventually) bring in a projected 15K annually and give the conference some much needed life in December. Some people say that adding a team would give each school a smaller piece of their very lucrative pie however the added funds from a conference championship game would surely make up for adding even a team that can’t pull its own weight. In fact the Big Ten has hired a research group that has confirmed that it will definitely be profitable to expand. Now just imagine if the Ohio State/Iowa game was able to be postponed until December, the ratings would have been much higher and the game would have had way more hype going into it. Yes by now we all know it was a defacto championship game but by moving that game to December and allowing it to be an actual conference championship game it would have definitely gained some more how do you say…mystique. In addition, poaching another team from an existing AQ conference would add more viewers and extend the conference's footprint into the region. This in turn adds more exposure for the Big Ten since some Big East or Big 12 game may have been on the new area’s TVs pre-expansion, however the networks would also mirror the expansion by changing the game that was on the major network to a Big Ten game. More regional cable companies would also pick up the Big Ten Network thus increasing the pockets of the Big Ten while growing their exposure. The only exception would be if Notre Dame (already in the footprint of the Big Ten) joins however their large national following may have a similar effect.
The 12 Pac
Similar to the Big, Ten the Pac 10 is wanting to expand for money and exposure too. They will make more money through their upcoming contract negotiation with Fox Sports and ESPN, which will help their exposure which has been lacking due to their issue with the west coast time zone. Their secondary motivations are to keep up with what their Rose Bowl partners are doing in the Big Ten and also to stop the Mountain West Conference from gaining an automatic qualification to a BCS game.
Expansion in the Pac 10 is slightly more urgent due to the renewing of the TV contracts in 2012. So exposure and money are definitely at the forefront, with the ultimate goal being to create a network similar to the Big Ten Network but most likely partnered with the ACC or Big 12 so they can offer more bang for your buck by adding 2 conferences for the price of one which should almost guarantees them a channel like the Big Ten’s. The Big 12 would be the best fit geographically so they would cover the entire area from the West coast to the gulf coast as well as they both have great football and baseball programs which the ACC lacks (but may make up for it with their excellent basketball programs). Also the Big 12/Pac 10 fans have interest in each other’s conference which may not translate to an ACC/Pac 10 network. On a side note, if the Pac 10 is interested in a Pac 10/Big 12 network, trying to lure Colorado away would only hurt relations between the conferences and may hamper any future deals. The Pac 10 is also renegotiating a TV deal with ESPN and Fox Sports in 2012 and a new market in a new state (or states) would help them greatly, but a conference championship game would help them even more (see reasons I mentioned for the Big Ten).
I live in Texas (Big 12 country) and I have a hard time finding Pac 10 games on TV with the exceptions of USC or Oregon. Sometimes I think my day of football watching is over after my prime time Big 12 game comes to an end when I find a UCLA/Washington game in the 2nd Quarter. The WAC and Mountain West also have this stigma to but to a lesser extent. The west coast time is a killer for 2/3 of the country which has directly affected the Pac 10 in the polls. Let me explain; Instead of Mr. 50 year old sportscaster staying up to watch USC play Washington they call it quits a go to bed only to wake up to the upset. Now odds are that Mr. Sportcasterman will never watch that game so he makes up his mind based on other people's accounts, and since the team who was upset typically has the bigger following, the report is often written to make the upset seam mundane and gives the impression that the underdog isn't really a high quality team but that they just got lucky. This kills anyone not named USC or Oregon. The time difference also causes people to be less likely to watch the less hyped games and some people think it may be the reason the Toby Gerhart didn't win the Heisman this year was due to a lack of national exposure. This in turn also reduces the Pac 10's ability to negotiate a decent TV deal.
The Mountain West Conference and the Pac 10 are not exactly on best relations. The MWC wants an automatic BCS bid and the Pac 10 want to retain West coast dominance on the field and TV. Their theory is that by adding more major football schools in the West/Mountain area would directly impact their recruiting and may also affect any future TV contracts due the sharing of the west coast time slots with another major conference. The MWC is going to be officially reviewed for an AQ after the 2011 season, and if the Pac 10 steals Utah and/or BYU or Colorado (which may cause the Big 12 to take BYU or TCU) then the MWC cannot count their wins towards an AQ. This would effectively kill any possible AQ bid.
Finally the Pac 10 will also want to keep up with the Big 10 and not play catch up similar to how the ACC expanded to catch up with the SEC. The Big10/Pac 10 both boast the best academics and a strong tradition especially in athletics, so the threat of being the last major conference without a championship game has got to scare them a little (and yes I am not counting the Big East as a major conference).
Constants: The SEC and Big 12 South are not going anywhere…and yes that includes Texas.
Now here's how I see it going down.
Big Ten takes either Pitt or Mizzou, both are in the conference's footprint and both have natural rivalries Penn St and Illinois respectively. However the Kansas/Missouri Border war is more important to the alumni who will not allow Mizzou to leave Kansas behind due to the possibility that it may one day disappear and/or lessen the importance of the games, while the Pitt alumni would love to rekindle the Pitt/Penn St rivalry. In my opinion the Big Ten is more worried about being rejected again and therefore will offer to Pitt unless they are certain Missouri will say yes. Missouri’s major attraction that the Big Ten can expand into an entire state that includes the St. Louis market, proving to be a better acquisition than adding another team already in one of the states in the conference. Both would possibility defect from their current conferences for the money and to join a conference of higher academics. The governor of Missouri has stated that "when you compare Oklahoma State to Northwestern, when you compare Texas Tech to Wisconsin, I mean, you begin looking at educational possibilities that are worth looking at." Mizzou (this also works for Colorado too) also has a grudge against the Big 12 South (especially Texas) because they receive more of the profits due to the uneven revenue sharing system within the Big 12 that is distributed based off of how often each school is on TV, o yeah and the fact that the South also has total dominance in football as well. Missouri may jump to the Big Ten for the money and or academics but seriously, if they can't compete against Texas and Oklahoma what makes them think they can compete against Ohio State and Penn State? Also moving their associations from Texas to Ohio/Michigan will also hurt their recruiting base because undoubtedly there are more quality recruits in Texas for them to pull from than in the Midwest. As for Pitt goes, the only down side is leaving the best basketball conference in the nation. However, they would be moving to an extremely better football conference and I believe that their basketball team will still be good enough to make the NCAA tournament regardless of what conference they are in, so the football upgrade plus the extra income seems to more than make up for it the slight downgrade in basketball.
Some people are suggesting that expanding to a 14 or 16 team conference by stealing more Big 12 (Nebraska, Kansas, Kansas St & Missouri) or Big East (Pitt, Rutgers, UConn & Syracuse) teams may be the way to go. However if history has taught us anything it’s that the super conferences are doomed from the start. The WAC was the first to try the 16 team structure and they didn't even receive an AQ for their troubles when the BCS began; and now the Big East has 16 teams in basketball, which has worked out alright so far, but has consequently ruined their football program's status in the process. So I think that 12 has become the magic number for expansion (as far as football is concerned).
The Pac 10 will take Utah (and the Salt Lake City market) no doubt but it’s a tossup on either Colorado or BYU. BYU has a large (Mormon) national following similar to Notre Dame (Catholics); however they may not get the invite due to the conference's liberal biases and the fact that they are also in Utah. But if the Pac 10 does want to effectively kill the MWC's AQ bid they would need to take BYU off the table because the MWC could just pick up Boise St and still have a shot. Some would say that by picking up Colorado, from the Big 12, BYU(or TCU) would be the surefire replacement for them which would also accomplish the same goal but also expand the Pac 10's market into Denver; however Colorado has to give two years notice before leaving the conference and has stated that unless the Pac 10 offers before the 2010 football season begins then they wouldn't be able to join before they renegotiate their TV contract in 2012 which defeats a major purpose for expansion (also see my additional arguments against Colorado in the paragraphs above). I would also like to remind people that Colorado has been approached by the Pac 10 previously and had turned them down, in addition BYU and TCU were both considered for admission into the Big 12 however Baylor took their place. All things considered, I believe Utah and BYU are the best bet for the Pac 10's expansion, which also keep the in state rivalries set up the same (i.e. Washington/Washington St or USC/UCLA etc…).
So.....what happens to the Big East and Mountain West?
The Mountain West, now down to 7 teams should take this opportunity to also expand to 12 teams by adding Boise State, Nevada, Fresno State, Idaho, and either New Mexico State or Utah State (both for basketball reasons only).
The Big East, now down to 7 should take back its old member Temple from the MAC/A10, and also add Central Florida (or Memphis) from the CUSA. They should also require Notre Dame to join since they play them in all other sports anyways. In addition Army and Navy should join as football members only (remaining in the Patriot league for all other sports). This would bring their conference to 12, allowing a championship game and rescuing their AQ status.
See how this is a domino effect?
If, as I predicted, the Conference USA loses UCF (or Memphis) they should just pick up Louisiana Tech from the WAC (they never fit in that conference’s footprint anyways) keeping them at 12.
Finally the rest of the old WAC: Hawaii, San Jose State, and Utah State (or New Mexico State) would join the Sun Belt giving them 12 (have you caught on to my master plan yet?).
AND NOW FOR MY PLAYOFF SCENARIO.....
The obvious model is the NFL’s playoff system with all ten conference champions giving the top ranked teams a bye, but here is a little something I cooked up. All the existing AQ conferences get a playoff bid which is given to their conference champion. The 4 mid major conferences (MWC, SB, MAC, CUSA) play an in to win game verses one another for the final 2 spots in the playoff (similar to the 64/65 game in basketball but there would be 2 games) the 2nd weekend in December. Now we have 8 teams who will play the 4th weekend in December (4 games), New Years (2 games), and the next weekend after (one game). Drop 2 nonconference games off the schedule and typically no one will play more than 14 games (15 if a mid major makes it to the National Championship Game) which is the current amount played by most conference champs and runner ups anyways. These games would take place over Christmas break and do not ruin the current bowl system since only 8-10 teams would be taken out of bowl bids (which is the current number playing in the BCS games anyways). So the arguments that it would be too many games or take too much time away from school are bull, in fact most players would gain more school time since we subtracted 2 games from the schedule. Play the games at home or at the bowls but keep the fan’s cost in mind. No matter what happens, the most important thing is that everyone would have a shot at REAL NC (not just a MNC).
Now I know my conference mix-mash sounds a little complex but truly think about it, with the Pac 10 and Big Ten already stirring the pot, it is much more likely now more than ever to get a playoff. The basic rule it to eliminate Independents by excluding them from eligibility in the playoff system, that would force Notre Dame to join and possibly spur Army/Navy to join also; and eliminate 1 conference (I did the WAC others have suggested the Sun Belt). Basically it boils down to: 120 teams in FBS=10 conferences of 12 teams each with 10 conference champs in a playoff system. Decide for yourself who should go where or how they should be divided but remember it’s easier to alter a conference by expansion than just throwing the current system out the window.