Thursday, June 10, 2010

Here come the pretzels

It was such a slow, boring offseason just a couple weeks ago (outside of baseless expansion rumors, of course). But all of a sudden:
The Pac-10 conference announced Thursday that the University of Colorado has agreed to leave the Big 12 to join its conference.
And that's just the first in a massive setup of dominoes as we head toward megaconferences:
A source close to the Nebraska program told ESPN's Chris Mortensen that athletic director Tom Osborne informed some staff members within the past 24 hours the Cornhuskers were going to make the move to the Big Ten conference.
Boom goes the dynamite Big 12. With Nebraska and Colorado gone, the Big 12 North is basically done, so the Big 12 South has a big-time decision to make. At this point there are only three possible scenarios:

1. The Pac-10 becomes the Pac-16 as Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State become the newest members of a conference that would go overnight from probably the third or fourth best in the country to rivaling the SEC.
2. Texas (and possibly Texas A&M) joins the Big Ten, which really wants Texas and its gazillion viewers for the Big Ten Network.
3. Texas binds itself to A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor and decides to salvage what it can from the Big 12. If Texas and Oklahoma stick around, there are still the makings of a functional conference in both football and basketball. It won't have anywhere near the monetary pull of the Big Ten or a possible Pac-16, but it could survive.

Assuming Texas and its pals do join up with the Pac-10 (the most likely scenario), it will be a clear statement that Texas has chosen state loyalty over money. That's not to say that the Pac-16 won't get a sweet TV deal that brings in similar revenue to the BTN, but the one thing that's rarely mentioned in all the Big Ten expansion talk is the CIC (an academic consortium that consists of the Big Ten schools and splits $6 BILLION annually for academic research). Any new member of the Big Ten would presumably be included in the CIC and have access to $500 million that's not available anywhere else, which makes $20 million in TV money look like the change in my pocket. Even if the Pac-16 seems like a better fit geographically or competitively, $500 million a year would be a persuasive offer. It probably just won't be persuasive enough since the people making the decisions are the people running the athletic department.

So where does the Big Ten go next? The Big East. Not because it includes any school that's particularly desirable, but because taking two teams from the Big East will destroy that conference and put Notre Dame in a corner. The school's non-revenue sports will need a conference, and any conference willing to take Notre Dame will demand its football program as well. Geography only leaves two options -- the ACC and the Big Ten. The choice between those two is pretty easy. And I'm pretty sure the Big Ten would gladly invite, say, Pitt and Rutgers if it meant ND would come along as well. At that point, depending on exactly how many invitations are required to blow up the Big East, Missouri might also be invited to even out the Big Ten at 16.

Is there any scenario that involves Notre Dame leaving voluntarily without the Big Ten decimating the Big East? Yes -- but it still involves the same basic principle. If ND's administration has any foresight, they'll realize that megaconferences will be the death of the Big East regardless of who's directly responsible. If the Big Ten doesn't come calling, the ACC will (after it loses a few teams to the SEC, which obviously will have to keep up with the Joneses and expand to 16 teams too). Let's say the Big Ten takes Nebraska, Missouri and (just hypothetically) Rutgers. The SEC will then make a play for Florida State and Miami (and maybe some other pair such as Georgia Tech and Clemson), and the ACC will then have to fill those spots in order to keep up. They'll go after Pitt, Syracuse, USF and any other relevant schools left in the Big East. No matter how you slice it, I'll be stunned if the Big East is still in existence in two years. (Yes, I've heard the rumors that the Big East might make a play for Kansas and some of the other Big 12 leftovers, but there's just no way that's geographically feasible. Forget about it.)

I'm not sure Notre Dame can risk letting everything play out and not having a chair in the Big Ten when the music stops. It's the only possible landing spot that allows them to maintain most of their century-old traditions and national appeal. I believe that the Big Ten is, at least for now, waiting to see whether Notre Dame realizes that this is 2010 and that megaconferences are about to happen one way or another. I also believe that the Big Ten has extended an invitation to Texas and would take Texas and Texas A&M regardless of what Notre Dame wants to do. So we're back in wait-and-see mode.

For what it's worth, there's a rumor (that appears to have legs) that Texas, A&M, Notre Dame and Missouri have been invited to the Big Ten, with the offers to Mizzou and A&M contingent upon the other two joining. Texas and Texas A&M officials did have a meeting Thursday, but there was no resolution or indication about a potential conference choice. If this is true, it would definitely help explain Missouri's surprising silence on the issue. The MU administration has made it clear from the beginning that they'd crawl through broken glass to get to the Big Ten, so if they do have an invitation, why haven't they accepted already? And if they don't, why haven't they sought out other possible options? A contingent invitation certainly seems possible (maybe even likely based on the lack of info from Missouri). Landing all four of those teams seems like a pipe dream, but if Jim Delany pulls it off, he'll officially be granted the title of The Most Powerful Man in College Sports.

Personally, I won't be devastated if Texas ends up in the Pac-16 rather than the Big Ten. I'd like to have Texas (along with its cachet and the gobs of money it would bring), but from a competitive standpoint, any conference with Texas in it will be a hell of a lot harder to win. Just look at the proposed Pac-16: Good luck to a school like Arizona State, which would have to beat Texas AND Oklahoma just to get out of its own division and then play, say, USC or Oregon for the conference title. Yikes. I wouldn't be overly upset with a Big Ten combination like Nebraska, Missouri and Notre Dame, all of which provide a lot of fans, money and quality competition without the extreme talent advantage.

There are a ton of questions about exactly what the BCS bids would look like (two for each megaconference?) and whether some portion of the Big 12 might try to hook up with the Mountain West to form a sort of second-tier megaconference, but it's hard to know anything until there are answers from the two schools at top of the money heap: Notre Dame and Texas.

One last note: The big loser today was Baylor. Colorado jumping at the Pac-10's invitation was smart because it means that the Texas Legislature can't attach Baylor to its big brother in Austin and piggyback it into a new conference (a six-team move to the Pac-10 that included Baylor would have left Colorado with nowhere to go). Since Oklahoma won't be jumping ship without Oklahoma State, there's only room for three Texas schools in the Pac-16, meaning any sort of serious realignment would probably leave Baylor relegated (rightfully) to either the Mountain West or Conference USA.

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