Get ready. They’re coming. From one side of the continent to the other.
With the Big XII conference holding a get-together of its athletic directors today and tomorrow, conference expansion/realignment rumors will be back on the menu and they’ll be served up fast and furious all week long.
Big XII commissioner Bob Bowlsby said last week that he was “not convinced based on my conversations with (two other conference commissioners) that the move to 16 is in any way imminent.” Yet he has admitted that the pluses and minuses of expansion will be a main topic at this week’s meeting:
“It is very much an academic and philosophical discussion. We have no plans in the immediate future for any change in composition, but we think it’s wise and prudent to consider all the positive aspects of our current formation as well as whatever negative effects there may be. It also is a good time to talk about the positives of adding a new member or two members of six members.
We don’t have any plans to expand, but on the other hand, we don’t want to be caught off guard either. I think there’s a proactive approach we can undertake and also a reactive and responsive approach. We’re going to flesh out both of those.”
Days earlier, even Texas AD DeLoss Dodds — an anti-expansion hardliner — admitted “there may be some talk of 12″ inside the 10-school Big XII.
Twelve, schmelve seems to be the message of Ohio State president Gordon Gee. He piped up late last week to say that the Big Ten is still talking expansion and that he “believes there is movement towards three or four super-conferences that are made up of 16 to 20 teams.”
We’ve written for a while that we believe the push for a new super-division of the biggest, richest football schools in the country will come to a head soon. Very soon. As in the next three or four years soon. We suspect four or five conferences will survive in the Big Boy Zone and we’ve not been shy about stating that there’s no reason for anyone to believe that we’ll be left with four nice, neat 16-team power conferences. Expansion/realignment is 95% about television revenue and that means content to sell. Some league(s) will realize that having more schools means having more games to sell which in turn will mean more cash. Gee’s “16 to 20″ comment didn’t catch us off guard (and if you read this, this, this, and this it didn’t catch you off guard either).
So what’s all this hubbub mean for the SEC? Here are some best-case scenarios:
1. Everyone takes a deep breath, taps the brakes on the Expansion Express, and waits to see how things play out in the new playoff world.
Uh, yeah, that ain’t happening. It should happen because no one knows how all these rushed decisions will play out long-term, but there’s money on the floor and several league commissioners will be diving on the ground to grab every last nickle of it.
2. Several leagues strike up out-of-conference scheduling deals and delay further expansion.
We wrote months ago that if the SEC wanted to help save the ACC and keep the status quo intact for just a bit longer, Mike Slive and company could line-up an annual “SEC vs. ACC Football Challenge.” That idea still makes sense. In fact, Bowlsby admitted last week that he’s had conversations with the ACC’s John Swofford and two other conference commissioners regarding just such a scheduling arrangement, though he suggested a broader marketing push, a basketball deal, and even a television agreement could be part of those talks. “It’s purely exploratory” he said, adding that a two-league deal “would provide some of the benefits of larger membership without actually adding members.”
If multiple conferences could partner up, reach scheduling agreements, and fend off further expansion that’d be swell. But we don’t see that happening either.
We’d bet good money that the ACC’s Swofford is the one pushing hardest for some type of scheduling deal with someone, anyone. His league has the smallest media contract of the five remaining power conferences and his it just saw a founding member (Maryland) opt for a spot in the Big Ten. But will Bowlsby or Slive be interested in saving the ACC if they want Florida State (Big XII) or North Carolina and Duke (an ACC source told The Sporting News last year that the SEC had been angling for those two schools for several years)? Probably not.
Most feel the Big XII has also talked about a scheduling alliance with the Pac-12 (Larry Scott’s expansion options are limited by geography and time zones) and the Big Ten. We suspect, however, that Bowlsby and Slive might have had some chats. The SEC takes a beating for its nonconference scheduling and when we move from the current BCS system to a playoff selection committee — complete with regional biases — any perceived soft scheduling could hurt the league’s chances of getting multiple teams into a four-team playoff.
Bowlsby and Slive captain the two most successful ships of the BCS era. They’ve just worked out a groundbreaking deal to partner up and split the cash from a new Sugar Bowl that’s basically owned by the leagues and run by the folks in New Orleans. What better way to further consolidate power than to reach a scheduling agreement, especially in football?
We might just have a bit more on this a little later…
3. If the dominoes start to fall, then the SEC can hopefully grab two appealing schools and stop at 16.
If the league’s going to grow — and if fans want to see more than a handful of the SEC’s longtime rivalries sustained — then a jump to 16 should be the hope. There’s no question that the SEC would like to put down roots in Virginia and North Carolina. They’re big states with good recruiting. They open doors to the Raleigh, Charlotte and DC television markets. Landing in those states would also balance out the league’s last two additions (Missouri and Texas A&M). Plus their are the obligatory millions of cable households to benefit the new SEC Network.
We’ve heard — and multiple sources back it up — that Slive would love to get his hands on North Carolina and Duke both for basketball purposes and for academic prestige. Virginia makes sense as well and would certainly please SEC presidents. Virginia Tech is probably the best fit of the bunch in terms of having an SEC-like culture. So pair ‘em up — UNC and Virginia, UNC and Virginia Tech, UNC and Duke — and you have the best hope for an expanded but not completely rejiggered SEC.
4. If everyone else veers off the realignment cliff and the SEC gets grabby, then hopefully the league can pull four schools that meet the presidents’ goals and hold at 18.
If its last-dance time and everyone starts fighting for partners, then here’s hoping the SEC doesn’t wind up as a 20-school behemoth. Granted, such a league would be the equivalent of pairing up a pair of 1980s-sized conferences under one roof (with each league in its own division), but that’s a helluva lot of teams. To reiterate, we think one or more leagues will reach that size just because more content equals more money, but it’s still a helluva lot of teams. There’s what we believe is coming and there’s what we want to see come. In this case, they’re not the same and that needs to be clear.
Supposing this next round of expansion becomes a full-on landgrab, all bets are off in terms of who lands where. Seriously, the politics involved make cat-wrangling easier than figuring our who’d end up where in 20-team conferences. Still, we suspect Virginia will head to Big Ten eventually as we’ve heard tell of UVA-Jim Delany discussion from SEC sources, industry sources, and even an ACC source. So we should probably scratch the Cavaliers.
If the SEC refuses to yield on any unwritten rule it might have preventing league expansion into a current SEC state, then the league’s options will be limited. If Virginia and North Carolina are the key states, that means catching Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Duke and any other school that might make those other three schools look more favorably upon an SEC marriage. Best guess? NC State, as we’ve written previously.
Yes, yes, it makes no sense to take three schools from one state. Why not just add Florida State or Clemson at that point? Good questions. But there’s been no sign of FSU or Clemson entering the SEC. So we’re calling those options dead for now. And if the SEC felt NC State could help it lure UNC, Duke and Virginia Tech (giving the league new television markets, millions of new cable subscribers for its soon-to-launch network, and new recruiting ground), then we think the SEC would move on the Wolfpack. That’s just our little four-school theory. Hopefully the ACC will survive, the SEC and everyone else will be patient, and we’ll never know who would have been schools 15, 16, 17 and 18. But things seem to be moving in the bigger-is-better direction and we believe the league — if faced with a four versus one scenario — would take all four of the above schools including three from one state if it made everyone happier.
In case you haven’t figured it out, we don’t believe there are too many good scenarios for the Southeastern Conference or college sports moving forward. The intelligent plan for one and all would be to calm down and do a little research before getting froggy again. Ribbit, ribbit, that won’t happen. And that means the SEC’s best and most realistic options are schools to the east, sandwiched between West Virginia and South Carolina. North Carolina, Duke, Virginia (if not in the Big Ten), Virginia Tech and NC State are the schools that make the most sense (if the SEC won’t reconsider mega-brand Florida State).
Of course, the more expansion/realignment we see… the less sense it all seems to make.