Catching Our Breath: Conference Realignment Scenarios as of Tuesday MorningPosted by rtmsf on September 20th, 2011
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences and a frequent contributor.
With this weekend’s out-of-the-blue bombshell that Pittsburgh and Syracuse were leaving the Big East behind in order to accept membership in the ACC, the wave of conference realignment that is sweeping the nation has reached critical mass. Even with last year’s moves turning the Pac-10 into the Pac-12, adding a twelfth team to the Big Ten (among other things), and this summer’s talk of Texas A&M bolting for the SEC, there was still a chance that all of this would settle down and we’d be looking at a conference landscape that mostly looked pretty similar. No more. While the Big 12 has been on a death watch for weeks now, all of a sudden the Big East has jumped its place in line and the conference is scrambling to maintain some sense of order while its member institutions look for soft landing spots. And with A&M to the SEC seemingly an inevitability, and with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State at least (if not Texas and Texas Tech as well) likely headed to the Pac-(fill-in-your-choice-of-numbers-here), the era of superconferences appears to be upon us. So, before things change again, let’s take a quick look around the nation at the conferences as they stand today, how they could change tomorrow and how that will effectively alter the college basketball landscape.
Today: TCU joins the conference next season (although apparently TCU and the Mountain West have had a conversation or two in recent days about how good they had things before the Big East got in the way), with Pittsburgh and Syracuse as of now bound to the conference for this year and the next two (with buyout negotiations likely still to be considered), putting the league at 17 basketball teams (nine in football) for 2012-13 and 2013-14, then down to 15 (seven in football) starting in 2014-15.
Tomorrow: Those numbers above are assuming that the ACC doesn’t snap up Connecticut and Rutgers (the two most mentioned names) and West Virginia isn’t able to find safe refuge as the 14th member of the SEC. In short, football in the Big East is in severe trouble, as are some of the historic rivalries in one of the nation’s premier college basketball conferences. If the ACC picks off a couple more Big East football programs, the conference has to start over more or less from scratch, with Louisville, South Florida and Cincinnati left scrambling for a home. If there is a way for the Big East to stave off football extinction, it is likely at the hands of the death of the Big 12. If Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas Tech take up with the Pacific Coast, maybe the Big East snaps up Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Missouri, and can carry on as a (hopefully) rebranded league.
Basketball: Nevertheless, there could still be a strong basketball conference here, regardless of what happens to Big East football. If Georgetown, Villanova, St. John’s, Marquette, Seton Hall, Providence, DePaul, and Notre Dame want, they could maintain a pretty solid eight-team conference among themselves, (provided ND isn’t somehow pressured into joining the Big Ten), or even snap up a handful of teams from the Atlantic 10 (Xavier, Dayton, St. Joseph’s, etc.) and carry on that way. Still, while hoops fans can console themselves with the prospect of North Carolina, Syracuse, Duke and Pittsburgh matching up with each other on Semifinal Saturday of the ACC Tournament, the sad fact is that the spectacle that is the Big East Tournament at the Garden is about to take a major hit.
Today: For now, it appears the ACC will be going to (at least) 14 teams beginning in 2014-15, the first major conference to formally expand beyond 12. There is a chance that Pitt and Syracuse could negotiate earlier exits from the Big East and come perhaps a year earlier. Meanwhile, the ACC has increased the buyout fee for its current members to $20 million in an attempt to protect itself from poaching. In this game of conference realignment poker, John Swofford was quiet for a long time, getting a bead on his opponents before pulling off a major coup in both swiping a couple big targets from a rival and protecting his own institutions from others.
Tomorrow: The other shoe will likely drop. While 14 is a fine number for a conference, the perception is that 16 teams is better. According to Swofford, at least ten other schools have submitted applications to the ACC and it looks like the conference can pick and choose the choicest of those. The most commonly heard rumor has UConn and Rutgers winding up in the conference, giving the ACC a string of powerful schools on the right coast from South Beach to New England. If somehow one or more found a way to pony up the cash to bolt for the SEC, it appears the conference could absorb as many of the remaining Big East football schools as it wanted to. But, assuming UConn and Rutgers wind up as ACC members, there is a pretty easy North/South divisional split lined up with the four new schools joining Boston College, Maryland and the two Virginia schools in the North, with the four North Carolina schools being joined by Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Miami (FL) in the South.
Basketball: As mentioned above, what was once a very good basketball conference has turned into the monster league almost overnight. In the past several years, the ACC has been a very good conference, but the sheer number of Big East teams combined with the success that so many of them have had has given it the basketball edge on the national scene. If UConn joins Pitt and Syracuse in the ACC, Swofford’s league will be without question the best conference in the land.
Today: The Big 12 still officially sits at ten teams, with the threat of a lawsuit the only thing currently keeping Texas A&M from becoming an SEC school. Meanwhile Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are taking baby steps towards joining the Pac-12, as regents at Oklahoma gave the school president the ability to act on conference alignment Monday. The Texas regents did the same thing, but the Longhorns have a bigger obstacle in the way in the form of their Longhorn Network. For Texas to be accepted into what would be the Pac-16, they would need to square the Longhorn Network with the regional network setup that the Pac-12 currently uses, meaning Texas would have to share profits from said network with the other 15 teams in the conference. Texas is not particularly interested in doing that, and the other schools in the conference want nothing to do with Texas without that concession. All the while, the remaining Big 12 schools twist in the wind without other really good options should it collapse in the wake of the Pac-16.
Tomorrow: And yet, it looks more and more like that is what is going to happen. A&M will eventually find a way out of the conference, although it may be the OU/OSU/UT/TTU quartet that precipitates that split. If over the next week or two the Oklahoma and Texas schools split, A&M will be right behind them out the door, leaving Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri without homes. Maybe those schools can pair up with the jilted Big East football schools, making a conference with teams like Cincinnati, Louisville and West Virginia (perhaps add Memphis and make it the Metro Conference for the new millennium), with maybe some additional teams from either the Mountain West or Conference USA. Or maybe Baylor finds a home in the MW, Missouri gets its long-awaited invite to the Big Ten, and C-USA scraps and the other schools are left to fight amongst themselves for whatever is left over. Or maybe none of those things happens. Or all of them. Who knows? It could be exciting though. Well, as exciting as the machinations of old rich men can be.
Basketball: Here’s what we do know. The 2011-12 season in the Big 12 should be exciting as hell. Baylor is loaded, Texas A&M thinks they’ve got the pieces there for a big run, Missouri has a ton of talent for new head coach Frank Haith to play with, and Kansas is Kansas, while teams like Iowa State and Kansas State wait in the wings. All that without even mentioning the Longhorns. But, after this year, who knows? I’d hope that depending on when all the legal wranglings allow A&M and the Pacific-bound foursome to leave, somehow somebody could scrape together a league with some pretty good basketball teams. Can you picture a league with Kansas, Kansas State, Louisville, Cincinnati, West Virginia, Missouri and Iowa State, amongst others?
Today: College sports fans on the West Coast are still getting used to calling the conference by its current name and accustomed to tailgating with their new brethren from the Mountain Time Zone. Texas? Oklahoma? Those may as well be foreign countries. And yet university presidents at places like Stanford, Berkeley and UCLA are going to be asked to invite them into the fold? Out of all the strange stuff that is going on around the college sports world, the concept of that happening could be the strangest. And yet, if that midwestern (southwestern?) quartet is ready to sign up, they’ll be accepted, if only because of the flashing dollar signs. And even if Texas decides it has better options elsewhere, if the Oklahoma schools want to make it the Pac-14, they’ll be accepted without the Texas twosome. But for now, this deal is moving forward slowly, especially the Texas part of the equation, and we may be weeks away from any real resolution here.
Tomorrow: There are hurdles and hoops to be jumped over and through, but all signs point to the Pac-16 getting done. The obvious way to split up those 16 teams into two divisions would be east and west, with the original Pac-8 teams (UCLA, USC, Stanford, California, the Oregon schools and the Washington schools) in the West and the nouveau Pacifique forming the East division. The problem with that is that Utah, Colorado and the Arizona schools, in particular, really dislike the idea of having their access to California’s fertile recruiting grounds limited. Jon Wilner describes one possible solution to that problem, where the conference would be split into four pods of four, giving all the teams more equal access to the Golden State.
Basketball: To be honest, for the Pac-12 to get excited about basketball again, it is more about bringing in better talent than it is about bringing in new teams. And with Arizona and UCLA, in particular, making major inroads in the 2012 recruiting class, things are looking up. But, hoops fans around the conference should not ignore the excitement that road games at Gallagher-Iba Arena (not to mention the Erwin Special Events Center) could bring.
Today: Ho-hum. Just sitting over here at 12 teams. Nothing going on here. Mike Slive? No comment. University presidents? No comment. Obviously there is interest in Texas A&M, should they clear up any legal problems they may have with some of their current conference mates, but you get the feeling that if A&M can’t make it easy on the SEC, the conference has nothing against carrying on without them.
Tomorrow: But, let’s get real. A&M is going to the SEC sooner or later. Wild horses couldn’t keep the Aggies in a conference with the Longhorns at this point. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, maybe next month, maybe even next year, A&M will be a member of the SEC. What remains a complete guessing game at this point is who else will be. If and when the SEC adds, there will at least be a 14th team coming along. Given the $20 million buyout that ACC presidents unanimously agreed on, teams like Clemson, Florida State and Virginia Tech are at best longshots at this point. Teams like West Virginia, Louisville and even Cincinnati would love to catch a life raft, but each of those schools has significant drawbacks. That leaves the Big 12 cast-offs, since that conference would likely be in serious trouble by the time A&M is officially accepted into the SEC, making Missouri the favorite to be the SEC’s 14th team with Kansas a distant second. The problem with adding Missouri and A&M is that it shifts the geographical balance of the conference west, meaning that logically Alabama should go to the SEC West and Auburn sent East, a backyard split that is never going to happen. Ideally, if the conference goes to 14 teams, they would add A&M in the West and another team in the East, but really something as minor as that will not hold up SEC expansion when the time comes.
Basketball: Too many questions remain to definitely say what will happen, but if A&M and Mizzou are new SEC members, the SEC will be a better basketball conference as a result. But it won’t change the fact that it is Kentucky and everybody else down south.
Today: Jim Delaney has said it pretty definitively that he is comfortable with his conference at 12 teams, and I have no reason to doubt him. Simply adding Nebraska last season was a major boon for a conference that is already flush with TV cash after blazing the cable television trail with the Big Ten Network. There are very few programs that the Big Ten could add that would add value to the conference. That being said, I can think of two that are very much available right now: Notre Dame and Texas. Now, saying Notre Dame is “available” may be stretching it, because although they aren’t married to a conference in football, they are an avowed bachelor and seemingly happy as such. Unless they get spooked by all the movement and worry that they will wind up alone forever, the Irish are going nowhere. Texas, however, though still technically in a relationship with the Big 12, has a wandering eye and plenty of suitors. Of course Texas and the Longhorn Network are a package deal, so arrangements would need to be made somehow, but at this point Texas could wind up in just about any BCS conference in the nation (excluding the Big East and likely not the SEC). If Delaney does somehow land Texas, you’d think he want to add at least another team south of its midwestern footprint, so maybe Kansas lands in the Big Ten, and maybe Missouri finally gets its wish.
Tomorrow: More likely, the Big Ten stays at 12 teams, Notre Dame stays independent and despite skipping round two of conference expansion, the Big Ten remains in a very strong position financially.
Basketball: With no further expansion, the Big Ten remains what it is right now: a very good basketball conference.
Beyond the big six conferences, there will be all sorts of fallout. Teams like Iowa State, Cincinnati and South Florida have no obvious landing spots right now, unless new conferences are formed. Leagues like Conference USA and the Mountain West stand a good chance of improving their membership. The MW, for instance, has had preliminary talks with TCU about possibly rejoining the conference even though they haven’t even moved to the Big East yet. And the MW and C-USA have talked about potentially joining forces in football in the hopes that the combination of the two conferences could yield a coveted BCS bid. More likely, however, is the MW and C-USA scheming behind each others backs in the hopes of landing a school or two from the other conference, all while attempting to woo the schools left behind in the disintegration of the Big East and Big 12.
There are a lot of ifs, ands and buts still to be hashed out, but one thing is for certain: there are still plenty more surprises to come before this thing is done.