Meeting Of The Minds: Conference Realignment Endgame

Throughout the week, we at Crystal Ball Run are debating and discussing the biggest stories in college pig in a segment we call the “Meeting of the Minds.”  You can check out yesterday’s roundtable discussion on the top challengers to Ohio State’s throne in the Big Ten here.  Today our discussion chain focuses on the revolving cycle of conference realignment…

Realignment is all the rage once again with Texas A&M’s on-again, off-again, on-again, stalemated move to the SEC.  While A&M sits in an awkward holding pattern, rumors are starting to fly once again over which team might move where and which conference may be the first to reach the mythical super conference status.

This question takes a little foresight (and guesswork).  Where do you see realignment shaking out in five years time?  Will we see four 16 team super conferences dominate the world?  Will the NCAA become a futile paper organization?  Will the Big XII find a way to save themselves once again?  Will the conference system as we know it be hanging by a thread?

What’s the endgame scenario for conference realignment as CBR looks inside our own crystal ball…

Aaron Torres: If you’d asked me last September where I saw the super-conferences heading, I would have held out the tiniest bit of hope that we wouldn’t be there in five years. But if you’re asking me today, I say the answer is “absolutely,” with the conference structure as we know it, hanging by a thread if not abandoned entirely.

The truth is, the more I read and watch, the more that it seems to me that when Mike Slive decides to expand, he isn’t going to screw around and go straight to 16. Who those four additional teams will be, I’m not quite sure (especially if the SEC holds true to their “gentlemen’s agreement not to encroach into their own foot-print). But when you’re Mike Slive, and the most powerful man in college sports, there’s no need for you to get cute and go to 14, knowing that eventually you’ll need to get to 16 anyway. And once the SEC does, expect everyone else to pick up the pieces and follow suit.

It seems like it’s simply a matter of time at this point…

Michael Felder:  I think five years from now the leagues will look exactly how they look in 3 years. The BCS contract expires in 2014 after the BCS games for the 2013 season end. That’s where we’ll get a chance to see the biggest tweaks including re-doing bids for the conferences.

I’m a believer in the 16 team super conference, especially with Jerry Jones’ push to have the Cotton Bowl become the 5th BCS Bowl site. I envision 6 BCS Bowls, 5 games of awesome match ups and 1 BCS Championship Game. That’s 12 teams going to BCS games. Within that construct each Super Conference gets their two automatic bids; 8 teams. You throw in 4 at-large bids and we’re looking at a full slate of games that don’t totally omit the Boise State, Hawaii’s or other guys that get left out in “the big move.”

Tom Perry:  The 16-team super conferences are inevitable. Whether it is Mike Slive or George Bodenheimer at ESPN pulling the strings, the super conferences are about stability and money. If you are currently a member of the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12, life is pretty good and you should feel safe. While the Big East is considered the weakling of the BCS conferences, I would argue it is in a better position than the Big 12 right now. Don’t get me wrong, the Big East is going to get poached by someone, but the conference has a chance right now to build strength (and yes, use basketball to its advantage).

Now the ACC isn’t too bad either, but it’s going to lose some members during this shift just like the Big East. So what happens next? Probably another round of realignment involving the carnage of the Big East, Big 12 and ACC, and what survives may just be one more super conference.

To build on Michael’s point, you can’t overlook the strength of a few independents as well. There will be some and they will work out their own arrangement with the BCS down the road to protect their interests. Texas is gunning for independence, while Notre Dame and BYU may stay the course through rich TV deals, etc.

I think the bigger question is what happens to the remnants… those teams that don’t latch on with a major super conference? Are they still competing at the top level or have we created another level of college athletics?

Matt Yoder: The four super conferences look to be where we’re heading and I think Tom’s right that the SEC, Big 10, and Pac 12 will be three of the four.  But who gets the last conglomeration of schools, and who gets left out?  It’s unlikely the Big XII survives with or without Texas.  A&M’s marriage with the SEC will eventually go through and it would be up to the Oklahoma schools to either go West to the Pac 16 or East to the SEC.  Missouri would love for a Big Ten invite and may get it if we go down this road.  That leaves the Big XII with the Kansas schools, Iowa State, Baylor, and Texas Tech.  That’s not a recipe for survival.

Mega schools with mega bucks like Texas and Notre Dame may join in on the fun or stay independent and latch on with the super conferences and BCS.  What we’re looking at is some sort of merger between the ACC and Big East, picking up the crumbs of whoever is left over.  Playing through this scenario before, it may look a little something like this.  I think the ACC survives on because let’s be honest, realignment and the future of the NCAA is all about football, television, and dollars.

As for the remnants, the Big East basketball schools (G’Town, Marquette, St. John’s…) will be left to come together in their own basketball-centric conference.  The remnants (hello, Baylor) are left in college athletics purgatory.  If the 64 team super conference structure does happen (and it could be a matter of when), I totally envision those universities trying to break away from the NCAA and forming their own Premier League of schools that are finally free of that archaic institution.  It may be the final blow to the myth of amateurism in big time college football.

Allen Kenney:  Man, there’s no subject I find more fascinating and tiresome at the same time than conference realignment.

I rarely agree with Clay Travis, but I thought his article on ESPN as the true powerbroker in all this was dead on. If we’ve seen anything through this process, it’s that ESPN holds the purse strings and that realignment will likely be dictated by how ESPN’s relationships with all the prime movers can be worked out.  So, what does that mean five years from now? Well, Larry Scott seems to be the commissioner willing to say it, but the conferences clearly see more consolidation in the future. The real issue at this point is timing.

I tend to think independence is going to be far more difficult for a school like ND or Texas to manage than people think. Once the dominoes start falling and conferences go to 16, even putting together a schedule as an independent will become a big issue. Either Texas and Notre Dame will team up to form a new conference with a media rights structure similar to what you have now in the Big 12, or the LHN becomes a regional network for the new Pac-16 and ND – kicking and screaming – joins the Big Ten.

Either way, I think that happens within the next five years. People won’t be able to handle many more off-seasons like the last two. You’ll start seeing more pressure from fans, boosters, etc for certain. By 2015, the future will be the now.

Matt Yoder:  Frankly, ESPN’s involvement in not just the eventual rise of the super conferences, but a lot of college athletics is disturbing.  One only has to mention the words “Longhorn Network” to become queasy about how much influence, power, and $$$$ ESPN holds over college football.  How much of ESPN’s continued crusading against Ohio State (while substantially ignoring UNC, GT, Oregon, and now Miami) is due to the creation of the Big Ten Network as a competitor to ESPN?  

Another important point is that the NCAA already sees the writing on the wall.  Mark Emmert, President of the NCAA, reportedly wants to hold a summit on realignment to make it more “collegial” and less “cannibalistic.”  The NCAA surely must know what lies ahead, and more importantly, that they are losing power.  Who is it that seems to be spawning these potentially level-headed talks?  The commissioners of the Big XII, Big East, and ACC.  The ones with the most to potentially lose as this high-stakes chess game plays out.

In the end, Pac 12 commish Larry Scott may have shown us a window into the future of college football when talking about the NCAA’s role in realignment.  

“Those conversations start and stop with that there’s no NCAA authority on these topics.”

Time is ticking on the way things are and the way things used to be…

Matt Yoder

About Matt Yoder

Award winning sportswriter at The Comeback and Awful Announcing. The biggest cat in the whole wide world.