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The conference shuffle

June 10, 2010 - Steve Murch
Be forewarned, this is very long. My first entry in three months and I'm making it worth the wait (if you like sports and money). So grab a beverage and a snack. Forgive me for it being college football, but that is my passion.

The sports world, specifically collegiate sports, is waiting for the chips to fall with conference realignment. Who's going where, who's left out and who's staying put. ESPN, the worldwide leader in hyperbole, has thrown out words like seismic and tectonic to describe what would/could/should happen. Again, the network loves to add drama where none – or very little – exists. Disney, which owns ESPN, built an empire on self-promotion so it stands to reason that hype would follow because ESPN has an enormous amount of money (and that is a recurring theme) invested in college athletics and more to the point college football.

All the talk centers around football because football is the great revenue producer for the biggest schools in the country. The smaller schools, the ones that don't play Division I football, or more specifically FBS, have more of a reliance of basketball. The big boys really on both, but football is the real breadwinner. So the discussions about what will and won't happen generally begin with football.

The discussions began to heat up when the Big Ten announced it was going to consider expansion. The conference, which has 11 teams, saw that a conference football championship game generated big money for the SEC, Big 12 and ACC. Since it doesn't have enough schools to do that (conferences must have at least 12 schools), the expansion became an issue.

The Big Ten has a love – unrequited love – for Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish has spurned the Big Ten's advances before, and barely admits it is being ogled, so the conference is looking elsewhere. The SEC, being the self-proclaimed biggest, baddest conference in all the land (remember, football drives revenue so that's where the chest thumping comes from) said it would consider expansion if the Big Ten expands. Hey, never let the chance to grow stand in the way of a good thing. The SEC just signed a huge TV deal with ESPN last year so maybe renegotiations could take place if it adds more schools and more TV markets, which could lead to more money because more eyes are on the product so more advertisers will want in on the actions, so ... (can some turn up a little Pink Floyd's “Money” right now?).

So the soon-to-be Really Big Ten (depending on how many teams there are) considers Nebraska, Missouri and Rutgers, though it hasn't made an offer (wink, wink). When that happened, someone with ties to the SEC (forgive me for not remembering because it was 2-3 weeks ago and the landscape has changed) said it would go after Clemson, Florida State, Texas and Texas A&M – raiding two other conferences.

Apparently 2-3 weeks is an eternity because the Pac-10 is now interested in six Big 12 schools (of which Nebraska and Missouri are members). That would be eight Big 12 schools gone if it all happens, so that conference is all but dead. The thing is with the Big 12 is some of the teams didn't exactly come together in wedded bliss. Right from the start there were issues, so maybe being dissolved is a good thing.

The way I see it, and I'm clearly just a fan who has an opinion, when the dust settles there might be two fewer original BCS conferences and may be a new one. There may be a new one because the biggest of the big boys really like their money and might not want to share if they find a way to get a larger chunk of the pie.

See, it all comes down to money.

Where does it all end? It might not. It might just take a short respite until the cold hard reality that some of the changes that took place were should have been considered. Who might win from all the changes and who might lose? The problem with trying to pick winners and losers is that nothing, not one single school, has changed (until tomorrow when it's expected that Nebraska will announce its intentions to move to the Big Ten).

However, what sports fan with an opinion has waited for everything to play out?

When the dust settles, and the newlyweds have had their grace period, the only really winner in the whole conference two-step might be the Mountain West Conference. The others will either remain neutral or be losers.

Let's start with the Big Ten. The conference has entertained the thought of adding Nebraska, Missouri and Rutgers. If the SEC and Pac-10 go to 16 teams, 14 teams still will be considered small and, hence, less of a conference – in the eyes of the schools in the other two conferences. Remember, there are 120 schools in D-I FBS, and those two conferences would have 32 between them. A mighty hefty chunk to be able to boast with.

The Big Ten has had googly eyes for Notre Dame forever. It could be holding out hope that Notre Dame would become team 13, 14, 15 or 16, making it Numero Uno in the eyes of college football fans. But would it?

One of the things about Notre Dame that appeals to the Big Ten is Notre Dame's appeal across the country. But wouldn't some, if not most, of it be lost? Suddenly Notre Dame becomes very regional because it is tied to the Big Ten. Can you imagine the outcry by the Notre Dame faithful if the Fighting Irish lost a game to USC and coach Brian Kelly said “while it's a loss, our focus is on winning the conference so we can get that automatic BCS bid”? They'd be calling for his head. And then there are three rivalry games with Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue. Suddenly those games are just another game in conference, and maybe not every year – though truth be told, the best part of some rivalries is when there is a year or two break so the revenge factor grows.

The Fighting Irish pride themselves on playing a national schedule and doing things others don't. Joining a conference would mean no games in Yankee Stadium, no games in Dublin, no games in San Antonio. The conference games are precious and you can't risk losing them so you can be America's college football team. Since Notre Dame doesn't want the Big Ten, the conference should eye others.

So who? Well, if the Big 12 goes down, then Kansas becomes an option. Or there is the possibility of raiding more of the Big East since Rutgers could be coming. Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Syracuse all offer something. Syracuse has been awful in football lately, but has one of the best basketball programs in the country. There are four to choose from right there

The fly in the ointment is the Big Ten schools are all members of the American Association of Universities and the conference wants those schools that are affiliated with the AAU. As irony would have it, there are exceptions to every rule and Notre Dame would have to be an exception since it isn't a member. The only school of the previous four that is a member of the AAU is Pittsburgh.

The AAU has very few Division I football programs that are members. So if you want to include those that have been linked to Big Ten expansion in the past, Texas and Texas A&M are, but the Pac-10 covets them. Iowa State is, but that school is never listed by anyone in expansion. Maryland and Virginia are, but they are long-time members of the ACC so it's unlikely. However, Maryland especially would be appealing because it brings the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., markets. Remember, viewers equal money. The rest are either too far away or don't have the facilities and size (Buffalo) to compete.

The Pac-10 is interesting with its talks of adding six schools. Here's the big problem: too many schools means you don't play each other all the time. The Pac-10 currently plays nine conference games; the only conference that plays everyone. If you keep the nine game conference format (and here comes the money again) that means teams have three games to pursue easier teams for home payouts, or big opponents that TV loves. Now, if you are playing nine conference games, that means you play all seven in your division and then two from the other division. That means you would only see a regular season matchup of Texas and USC every four years. They'd play each other at home every eight years. How long before the alumni cry foul on that one?

The SEC's expansion would face similar issues. The ACC might see itself get raided by schools and have to hunt for schools to be relevant in football. The Big East could an easy target. If too much raiding happens to the Big East, it could become a basketball-only conference again. Would that appeal enough to Notre Dame to stay, since it is a Big East member in everything but football? If not, what happens if the Big Ten is full. The Fighting Irish could be left out in the cold.

The non-BCS conferences could see membership change too. Which brings us to the Mountain West Conference, the only conference that might really be deemed a winner in a game of conference dominoes.

The Mountain West might gain a BCS bid if the Big East disappears as a football conference. It could pick up the pieces of the Big 12, or at least some of them, and add Boise State. The conference has nine schools, so if it added Boise and the two Kansas schools, it would have 12 members and have some decent football programs. Basketball in the MWC would be the biggest winner if it added Kansas.

And Notre Dame could be a winner if it stays independent because when all the fans who are disgruntled because they conference changes didn't live up to all the hype more changes could be in the offing. Then the Fighting Irish can look around and say “see, we knew what we were doing and are the standard bearers for college football.”

The biggest losers would be Iowa State, Baylor and college football fans. The two schools would be caught in the shuffle because neither offers the one thing the conferences want most – enough fans to turn on the television. But the real losers could be the fans because with some much emphasis on big bad tough conferences, the schools may wind up scheduling plenty of non-conference games against really weak teams so they can focus on the conference.

Ultimately change is good, but too much change could wreak havoc. When one conference and one independent stand to be the real winners, it's time for everyone else to take a breath and get a grip.

The grass might be greener, but how much mowing is going to be involved.


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