The Future of College Football: Expansion & Realignment

Before we get into the next phase of the college football’s new era, I wanted to add a quick update on the post-season proceedings.  Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott and current Big 12 commissioner Chuck Neinas have publicly supported the Big Ten’s four-team non-bowl playoff system and also expressed interest in a conference-champions-only rule.  Opponents of that rule argue that it would keep the four “best” teams from playing in the playoff, but I happen to like it.  I have said a number of times that I don’t believe in the concept of “best” in college football, especially when the idea is to use that concept to place teams in the post-season.  Conferences and schedules are too widely varied to be able to accurately determine the strength of a team.  Champions-only guarantees that perceptions of conference quality won’t have undue influence on playoff participants the way they do now.  That said, I do think there should be at-large berths available, but that’s not really an option in a four-team system.

Okay, moving on…

Expansion and realignment is easily the most complex and volatile element of the New Era.  It’s impossible to guess what attributes make schools appealing to some conferences and not to others (the Big Ten seemed to have no real interest in Pitt, but the ACC couldn’t wait to snatch them up).  There have already been several major shifts and even more are in the works.  I believe that within five years, each of the current major conferences will either have at least 14 members or no longer exist.  What will be fascinating to see is how the pieces are moved around and specifically whether or not Notre Dame can reasonably maintain their beloved independence.

Here then is a look at each of the six major conferences, what they’ve done so far in expansion and what they may do in the near future.

SEC – 14 teams

Added: Texas A&M, Missouri     Lost: No one

Eventually I think the SEC will want to go to 16 teams, but they probably aren’t going to start that ball rolling unless they can entice Texas or Oklahoma to join.  Texas has rejected the idea once, and A&M probably wouldn’t be too keen on the Longhorns hanging around again.  Oklahoma is a possibility, but for now I think both of those schools want to focus on stabilizing the Big 12.

If someone else moves to 16, the SEC will almost certainly follow.  At that point, you can add pretty much anybody from the ACC that’s had some success in the past five years to the target list.  There is supposedly an agreement to not add anyone from a current SEC state, but I think the push to 16 (and beyond?) will be about consolidation, with a conference or two folding along the way.  Such agreements will need to go out the window when that happens.

ACC – 14 teams

Added: Pittsburgh, Syracuse    Lost: No one

The ACC is likely to be the first out of the gate in the race to 16, and I think that will come sooner than later.  It’s no secret that UConn would like to join Pitt and ‘Cuse and would be a comparable add to a conference that seems to be the only expanding with basketball in mind.  The ACC will take a shot at Notre Dame before settling on someone like Rutgers or even Cincinnati.

Should the SEC (or someone else) snatch an ACC team or two, expect the Big East to continue to absorb the shock.  Yeah, they’ve taken steps to ensure less ship-jumping, but if enough teams are targeted, there won’t be anyone left to answer to.  Things are probably going to get ugly for the Big East pretty soon.

Big Ten – 12 teams

Added: Nebraska     Lost: No one

Currently, the Big Ten is not looking to add more teams but like the SEC, they will make a move if others do or if the right program is in play.  That program in this case is–no surprise–Notre Dame, still desperately clinging to independence in a landscape that is actively trying to make that a relative impossibility.  What else does it mean when a four-team, conference-champions-only playoff is picking up steam?

Judging from their last two expansion adds (Nebraska and Penn State), I don’t think the Big Ten is going to be happy with Big East teams.  While it sounds crazy, I think they may take a shot at the SEC’s Tennessee.  The Volunteers would be a good cultural and geographical fit for the conference.  Expect Nebraska’s old rival Oklahoma to be on the short list if the Irish don’t budge or if the move is to 16.  That last spot could be filled by Kentucky, Maryland or Oklahoma State (if that turns out to be a condition for the Sooners).

All of that said, I’d be surprised if the Big Ten went to 16 unless the Big 12 collapses entirely.

Pac-12 – 12 teams

Added: Utah, Colorado     Lost: No one

As I’m sure you remember, the Pac tried to jump-start the whole 16-team thing a couple of years ago with the attempted annexation of the Big 12’s Oklahoma teams and most of the Texas teams along with Colorado.  Ultimately, politics and an Austin-sized ego kept that deal from going through, but don’t think the league isn’t open to further growth.

Logically, the Big 12 will continue to be a target for Pac-12 expansion, which could possibly lead to some battles with the Big Ten over target programs.  The Pac-12 would love to have Oklahoma, but probably only if they brought Texas with them.  Notre Dame is an attractive option as well with some built-in rivalries.  I was a little surprised that the conference didn’t make a play for Boise State and/or BYU, both natural geographical fits and more relevant football-wise than either Utah or Colorado.

Big 12 – 10 teams

Added: West Virginia, TCU     Lost: Nebraska, Texas A&M, Missouri, Colorado

The Big 12 definitely took a hit during the last two rounds of expansion, first losing Nebraska (the only thing the North division had going for them) and Colorado–and therefore the conference championship game; then watching Texas A&M and Missouri immediately start peddling themselves, both ultimately landing in the SEC.  Replacements West Virginia and TCU are decent, but the conference is quickly becoming the new Big East.

Although they deny it, there’s no way the Big 12 doesn’t want to get back to 12 teams (at least) and regain their conference championship game.  One could argue that their lack of such a high-profile contest cost Oklahoma State a shot at the national title last season.  Current rumored targets include the Big East’s Louisville and newly-independent BYU.  Notre Dame would be a welcome addition of course, but I don’t see that happening.  Cincinnati is a name that is tossed around as a candidate, but that move reeks of so much last-ditchness.

There’s a reason the SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 were covered first here and that’s because if the shift is truly going to be toward four superconferences, those are the four.  Texas and Oklahoma will survive the Big 12’s collapse while Texas Tech and Oklahoma State will do their best to hang tight to their coattails.  The other six teams are in danger of being left out, with Iowa State and Baylor especially endangered.  Kansas can try to leverage their hoops dominance into an invite while West Virginia can probably get into the ACC if the timing is right.  TCU probably deserves a look, but it’s far from a done deal.

Big East – any number of teams at any given time

Added: Boise State, San Diego State, Houston, SMU, UCF, Memphis, Navy, Temple (?)     Lost: West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, TCU before they even joined

If you believe you have a firm grasp on the state of the Big East, then you are probably a crazy person.  For example, all the talk recently has been about the probable return of Temple, who left the Big East in 2004.  Here’s what I do know: they’ve lost every member who was any good at football in the past decade and added Boise State.  Even if the Big East continues to exist, they will not be considered alongside the likes of the SEC and the Big Ten as a “top” conference.

The aforementioned Boise and maybe San Diego State could eventually be targets for the Pac-12.  The ACC will probably go after UConn and maybe Louisville (who could be in the Big 12 by then), Rutgers, Cincy or South Florida.  Everyone else is getting tossed aside unless the Big Four start cannibalizing each other and need to patch holes.

The role of the Big East in the future (if it has one) will likely be similar to that of the new Mountain West/Conference USA merged behemoth–a giant 24-team mid-major frat house whose champion will be looking for a spot in an expanded National Championship Tourney.  Either that or as a power conference in the FCS, where most of these teams belong.


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