The music starts, the group walks in a circle. Then the music stops, and everyone dives for a seat. Welcome to the current state of college football.
Pittsburgh and Syracuse rocked the college football world by declaring an intention to apply for membership in the ACC. With the move imminent in the next year or two, it unleashes a domino effect on the rest of college football, and on conference allegiances across collegiate athletics. Every move influences another move, which causes three more moves, which indirectly leads to the escalation and obliteration of college conferences. It is a very confusing situation, but let’s dive right into it.
Now that Pittsburgh and Syracuse are moving to the ACC, Rutgers and Connecticut may soon follow. There have been rumors and talks that these four Big East programs may leave together for the ACC, which will become a 16 team conference. The timetable would be for the 2013 season, as the Big East requires a 27 month notice for conference departure. This could be retroactive to the spring through negotiation with Big East Commissioner John Marinatto. However, the buyout fee to leave the Big East is only $5 million, so the move makes financial sense for the four programs, especially in a time of instability in the Big East.
The ACC will make every effort to ensure that none of its current teams bolt for the SEC. With the impending move of Texas A&M from the Big XII to the SEC (discussed later), the SEC would most likely look to add another team to create a 14 team conference with 7 teams in each division. Popular options were thought to be Clemson and Virginia Tech, but if either leaves, the ACC would be left with only 15 teams. To counter that possibility, the ACC just increased its buyout fee to $20 million, which will essentially prevent any programs from bolting to the SEC.
So which program will the SEC pull to complete the 14 team conference? West Virginia is a logical choice. There has been slight interest in the past between the program and the SEC, and with the impending implosion of the Big East (or so is the belief), the Mountaineers are looking for a suitable landing spot. With the rest of the East Coast locked up by the ACC, the SEC has considerable interest in West Virginia as well. Another option is Louisville. Louisville is much closer than West Virginia to “SEC Country” and already has a true rival in Kentucky. Louisville also is a talented and historic basketball program, in addition to its growing football program under Head Coach Charlie Strong.
After the 5 programs move out of the Big East, the conference will be left with 3 football programs (4 when TCU joins next year) and 11 basketball programs (12 when TCU joins). Therefore, the Big East will be looking for a minimum of 4 football programs to join the conference. But where will these schools come from once the East Coast is completely locked into conference affiliations? This is where the Big XII enters the discussion.
Texas A&M is set to move to the SEC. But one may ask, “Won’t the Big XII schools sue Texas A&M, as was the plan as early as 120 hours ago?” While that would have been the case last week, the tables have turned significantly. Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma State have reportedly engaged in serious negotiations with the Pac 12, and are almost ready to move forward. Texas and Oklahoma have already given the school presidents the authority to make the decision to change conference affiliations. This will create a Pac 16 super-conference (much like the new ACC) and will leave the remaining Big XII schools out to dry. The five remaining programs will then have no leverage over Texas A&M, and as a result the Aggies will walk without baggage from the Big XII to the SEC.
This leaves 5 teams in the Big XII looking for homes (Iowa State, Baylor, Kansas, Missouri, Kansas State). The Big East needs 4 football programs, and still has 12 teams in its basketball conference. One of the conferences will survive, and one will disappear. There have been reported discussions between the Big East and Big XII about a merger, but the Big East has more leverage than the Big XII, and is too strong to lose the battle of survival. Therefore, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Iowa State, and Baylor are intriguing options for the Big East. The Big East will most likely absorb three of these five programs, with Kansas being the guaranteed transfer because of its basketball history. The fourth and final Big East addition will come from Conference USA, as Houston, Memphis, East Carolina, and UCF are compelling options for that 8th football spot.
Even if, for whatever reason, the Big East can not pick up four new football programs, the ace in the hole is Villanova. Villanova has been analyzing the possibility of moving from the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). However, Pittsburgh has led the charge against Villanova, and in effect has prevented the Big East from extending a football invitation to Villanova. Once Pittsburgh leaves the conference, it is likely that the invitation to Villanova may be put back on the table. As a result, the administration at Villanova is still potentially interested in moving to the FBS, and if needed Villanova could fill another football spot within the conference.
Clear the air and let the dust settle. After all these moves, what do the new conferences look like? The ACC will add four schools (UConn, Pitt, Syracuse, Rutgers), the SEC will add two schools (West Virginia, Texas A&M), and the Pac 12 will add four schools (Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State). The initial losers will be the Big East and the Big XII, which will both lose 5 schools. However, the Big East will be primed to pick up Kansas, Baylor, and Missouri from the Big XII market, along with a Conference USA team such as Houston.
These changes will leave Iowa State and Kansas State alone and without a new home, and without the Big XII conference as a safety outlet. Where will these schools land? The two programs seem destined to enter the Mountain West, which is already losing TCU to the Big East next year. This option seems much more likely and more feasible than a rebuilding of the Big XII with teams like SMU and Air Force. In addition, the BCS automatic bid system will need to be completely changed with the new conference alignment, and the Mountain West will receive its long-awaited auto bid.
The one conference that has not been discussed is the Big Ten. The Big Ten added Nebraska last year, and appears to be content to stay at 12 teams. However, if Notre Dame decided to give up its independence, the Big Ten will heavily pursue the Irish, and will seek a program like Missouri to keep the conference at an even number of schools (14).
Therefore, while the process may be confusing, and the trickle down effect impacts so many aspects of college athletics, the simple fact is that the college athletics landscape is changing, and it is changing quickly. The ACC will have 16 teams, the SEC will have 14 teams, the Pac 12 will have 16 teams, the Big Ten will still have 12 teams, and the Big East will have 8 football members and 16 total members. The Big XII will be pillaged of its members and will subsequently disappear. The new era of conference realignment has arrived, and it isn’t going away. In this game of musical chairs, rather than protecting conference rivalries and traditions, college athletics programs are simply trying to find a seat.