With the start of every new college football season you can't help but feel the building tremors of a final seismic shift that will define the college athletic landscape for its second century.
Football rules the day. Sorry basketball schools like Kansas, it's the truth. College football programs exist almost as entities independent of their respective universities and yet they pull every school and every other athletic program of their school along with them in their grandiose conglomerate endeavors. Nationally, football formed conferences make up threads in a web of an association of semi-professional leagues, whether the NCAA wants to admit it or not. As such, there is a growing need for collaborative consolidation at the top of this association in order to strengthen its national brand. Meaning, there is a lot of money to be made from further conference expansion. Even more so now that a national playoff has finally taken shape.
The wild spasm of conference jumping in 2011, which saw the crippling of the Big 12 and the dealing of a death blow to the Big East, wasn't the start. It was just the most brazen step in 25 years of FBS money programs tiptoeing ever closer to super conference realities.
For the first 80+ years of college football, eight to 10 team conferences were seen as the solid norm. They made regional and academically comparable sense. That all changed in 1989 when college football independent giant, Penn State, agreed to join the Big 10, making it the first conference to break the 8/10 mold.
Back then, the Big 10 was what the SEC is now. Most powerful. The television darlings fawned over by pundits. The addition of the Nittany Lions only added to their cachet. Conventional wisdom of the time believed that if the Big 10 was on their way to becoming the first 12 team, two division conference, and Penn State's desire to jettison its successful independence to join them, it was only a matter of time before Notre Dame did the same. The Irish made regional and academic sense for the Big 10. The prospect of the Big 10 expanding its power and sway over television markets made the rest of the big conferences panic. In an effort to beat the Big 10 to the 12 team punch, the SEC convinced Arkansas to bolt from the Southwest Conference and brought in independent South Carolina in 1991. They became the first dual division conference in the history of college football.
It was also in 1991 that Notre Dame signed a huge deal with NBC Sports in giving exclusive rights for the network to air every Irish home game. The move reaffirmed Irish football's independence in perpetuity, and allowed the SEC to benefit from the extra $5 million in profits each year as the only conference with a championship game. Slowly, the power of the college football landscape began to shift from the upper midwest to the old south. And everyone else has been chasing the SEC's expansion model ever since.
The biggest schools in the once powerful Southwest Conference allied with the Big 8 in 1996 to become the second 12 team power conference. Between '96 and 2010, 11 of the 15 national champions came from the Big 12 or SEC Conference. All other power conferences clinging to the smaller format were being left in the dust.
The ACC - who improved their football brand in 1992 by landing the third of the three coveted independents in Florida State - rounded their numbers out to 12 in 2004 & '05 with their raiding of the Big East to grab Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College.
The Big 10, desperate to reclaim some of its lost national weight, finally gave up their dream of landing Notre Dame and convinced a discontented Nebraska to leave the heavily Texified Big 12 in 2011. Which then led the Big 10's west coast sister conference, the Pac 10, to snatch up Colorado and Utah to become the last of the power conferences to go to 12 schools.
Since then, the SEC, ACC and Big 10 have been adding teams: Big 10 and SEC currently at 14 members; and the ACC currently at the disjointed number of 15.
The rich historical tradition of the Big 10, SEC, ACC and Pac-12 safeguards them every time the football driven issue of conference manipulation winds up. With the Big East (1991) and the Big 12 (1996) as fresh faced children of the 90s, they were always susceptible to the disective raiding of the more prestigious conferences looking to expand. The Big East was gutted into non existence as a football conference in 2013. The Big 12 is well on its way. As the only power five conference without dual divisions, the Big 12 finds itself flirting with the same mid-major quality level that plagued Big East football in its last days. And Just like the Big East, the Big 12 has started talking expansion of their own. At this point though, their only options threaten to water down their brand even more.
It is conceivable that by 2020 the Big 12 will be left to history. With the four slot college football playoff, I get the feeling that we are headed to four 20 team super conferences made up of four divisions of five teams. It's a way to expand post season participation without expanding the current four team national playoff. Each conference would have four division winners playing in conference semi-finals for the right to play in conference championship games.
If this becomes a reality, it could end up looking something like this:
The Big 20 - Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Kansas State, and Iowa State leave the Big 12. One more team - ideally for the Big 10 Notre Dame, but more realistically Cincinnati - joins the conference to round its number to 20. The Big 10 would not only add some quality football programs, but basketball as well. Kansas basketball fans, can you imagine being in a conference with Izzo's Spartans, Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Purdue and Illinois? While at the same time the Jyahwks could theoretically play in a much more regionally appropriate division of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Nebraska.
The SEC - The Texas schools of Texas, Baylor, Texas Tech and TCU leave the Big 12 to swell the SEC's numbers to 18. The SEC, ever mindful of securing large television markets, could bring in Dallas by adding SMU, and Houston by adding the Cougars. Or just as realistically, Memphis, if they stay competitive. Any two of those three would make market and regional sense for the SEC. And as great as a football conference the SEC is, they do have a basketball problem with Kentucky - just like Kansas in the Big 12 - owning it due to a lack of competition for the crown. Texas, Baylor and TCU are football juggernauts fitting of SEC inclusion. Basketball wise, the addition of Texas, Baylor, Larry Brown's Mustangs and the Memphis Tigers instantly make the conference more likely to land more NCAA tournament seeds.
The ACC - The lone remnant of the Big 12, West Virginia, finally returns to a sense of regional sanity by joining. Already the best basketball conference in the land could then become stronger with the addition of the Mountaineers, and possibly UCONN and Temple - all three with decent enough football programs as to benefit inclusion in that regard. In order to round out their number to 20 teams, the ACC could then add South Florida and Central Florida to their ranks.
The PAC 20 - This one would be trickier to assemble, because the number of western competitive teams is limited, but there are enough to make a 20 team western super conference believable. The obvious addition would be BYU. Along with the Cougars the PAC could scoop up Wyoming, Colorado State, New Mexico, Boise State, Nevada, UNLV and San Diego State. Most of which are consistently competitive enough in football, and even more of them are very solid basketball programs.
This is all highly speculative of course. To me though, college football slowly, yet still deliberately, stuttering toward super conferences has left all of college athletics in a state of weird purgatory. If football wants to go for it, then they should get on with it already so that the 21st century of college sports can finally take on a coherent and lasting shape.
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