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Conference Realignment is Done: Some Lessons
The tidal wave of major conference expansion and re-alignment is complete. The “Big Five” conferences – the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, and Pac-12 – have reached equilibrium. None are likely to grow within the next ten years.
The have nots will continue to jockey for position. The so-called mid-major conferences (the Big East, Sun Belt, C-USA, MAC, and Mountain West) are on the outside looking in. They are destined to remain there for many years to come. You will see additional shifts into or between these conferences, as each hopes to gate-crash the forthcoming playoff.
Every mid-major school hopes that it can be the next Utah or TCU, both of which punched their ticket up to the Big Five in the last round of realignment. It isn’t going to be easy. For crucial structural reasons, it will be extremely difficult for any of the have nots to make a persuasive case for admission to the Big Five.
Many fans make the glib assumption that the conferences that are still at 10 or 12 teams (the Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12) will need to get up to 14 or 15 teams, as the ACC and SEC have done. This is not so. These conferences are all in a position of strength. Any change needs to be extremely compelling, and it is difficult to come up with plausible scenarios where that would be the case.
The Four Axioms of Conference Re-alignment
To understand this, you need to know the four axioms of Conference Re-Alignment
They work in the following ways:
- Money. No school willingly changes conferences to make less money. No conference accepts a school if its existing members will lose money.
- Football. No school moves willingly to a weaker football conference. No conference accepts a school that is below the league average in football.
- Academics. No school moves willingly to an academically weaker conference. No conference accepts a school that is drastically weaker academically than the rest of the league.
- Geography. The less sense a move makes geographically, the weaker the contracting parties.
There is no wiggle room in the first two rules. No one makes moves that lose money, and no one makes moves unless they are good for football. To those two axioms I cannot think of any modern exceptions.
The third rule has a bit of wiggle room. The Big Ten added Nebraska, which is slightly weaker academically than any other Big Ten school, but not drastically weaker. Nebraska is still a better “worst” school than the bottom of any other Big Five league, even the relatively strong Pac-12 and ACC. But there are limits to how low the Big Ten will go. On academic grounds alone, if for no other reason, you’ll never see a Cincinnati or a Louisville in the Big Ten.
Conferences occasionally accept schools with academics below the league average, but schools never voluntarily take an academic step down. In every modern move, the destination conference was better academically than the conference the school came from. This is a factor seldom considered by fans, who are only thinking about the football field. Conference moves are approved by school presidents, who are professors first and sports fans second.
The geography axiom has the most wiggle room of all, and it’s correlated with weakness. When the contracting parties are weak, they’re more likely to accept moves that make little or no geographic sense, if the other three axioms are satisfied. The Big 12, as the only net loser in the re-alignment derby, needed to find a tenth member, and with its options dwindling, took West Virginia, the best football school available. They rejected Louisville, which is geographically closer to the Big 12 footprint, but worse at football. West Virginia wanted to escape the collapsing Big East, and was willing to accept worse geography in order to do so.
The ACC accepted Notre Dame, their first member not on or near the Atlantic coast. But as the weakest of the Big Five leagues, the ACC needed to improve its football product, and Notre Dame needed access to the post-season. Here too, it was only because the parties were weak that they accepted a geographically nonsensical arrangement. (Notre Dame, it must be noted, was already in a geographically odd conference, the Big East; for them, the ACC has all upside. For many other reasons, the ACC was a better fit for Notre Dame than the Big Ten.)
Of course, the Gang of Five (i.e., mid-major) leagues have long ignored geography. The Big East is now the Big Everywhere. Conference USA wisely took a name attached to no fixed domicile. That they’re two of the weakest parties in FBS football hardly needs further explanation.
Applying the Axioms to the Big Five Leagues
With these axioms in mind, it is clear that the Big Five are done expanding. Let’s consider the three relevant cases:
- Teams moving up from “mid-major” status to the Big Five
- Continued exodus from the Big East
- Re-alignment within the Big Five
Teams moving up to the Big Five. In the previous round of re-alignment, only two schools managed to do this, and both were special cases. TCU joined the Big 12, but TCU was a former member of the Big 12’s predecessor, the Southwest Conference. Furthermore, the Big 12 had an urgent need to get back to ten teams, after losing Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC, and before that Colorado to the Pac-12 and Nebraska to the Big Ten.
After accepting Colorado, the Pac-12 needed a twelfth school, so that it could add a conference championship game. Plans to absorb several Big 12 schools fell through, leaving Utah as the only logical twelfth team available. Now that the Pac-12 has a conference championship game, the hurdle for any 13th or 14th school will be much harder to clear. The only Big Five leagues that have gone to 14 football schools had very compelling reasons for doing so—the ACC to bolster a weak football product, the SEC to get access to the Texas recruiting market.
No remaining “mid-major” is even remotely suitable for admission to the Big Five. All are academically weak (by Big Five standards), lack significant football traditions, or come from small markets that would not bring much TV revenue with them. Most are more than one of the above.
Continued Exodus from the Big East. The Big East was considered a peer league of the Big Five for many years, before the mass exodus that saw Boston College, Miami, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Pitt, and Notre Dame, all leaving for the ACC, and West Virginia for the Big 12.
Of the Big East’s original football-playing members, only Rutgers remains. Everyone in the country knows that Rutgers would leave the Big East in a heartbeat. Therefore, the lack of an invitation from the major conferences is telling. No conference commissioner believes that Rutgers can deliver the New York/New Jersey television market. (I live in that area, and I can assure you that no one talks about Rutgers football.) Without a television audience or a large football fan base, there is simply no reason for any conference to take Rutgers.
All of the Big East’s remaining football members are arrivistes—former mid-majors who hoped the Big East was their ticket to the Big Time, only to realize that as they arrived, the league was taking a hard fall. None of them have the combination of a large market, a strong football tradition, and strong academics that the Big Five are looking for.
Realignment within the Big Five.This is the most complex case to consider. Let’s begin with some background. Except for the Big 12 and its predecessor, the Southwest Conference, no Big Five league has lost a member since South Carolina left the ACC in 1971. These leagues are incredibly stable.
The Big 12 was the one unstable major conference, due to fundamental mistakes when it was assembled in 1996 and poor management afterward. As now constituted, the Big 12 is what the Big Ten used to be, and to an even greater degree: a Big Two (Texas and Oklahoma), and a Little Eight. None of the Little Eight are useful to the remaining Big Five leagues, and the Big Two like having a sandbox they can dominate. Nothing will happen in the Big 12 unless Texas and Oklahoma want it. Both schools know that there is no other league where they would have that kind of power. Any potential new member would know that the rest of the league plays second fiddle to those two schools.
Among the Big Five leagues, only the Big 12 is leaving money on the table by remaining at ten teams, and depriving themselves of a conference championship game. As such, the Big 12 is the only Big Five league with an obvious reason to expand. Any other league, such as the Big Ten, would need a school, or more likely a pair of schools, which that brings sufficient revenue on their own, a condition that is hard to satisfy.
Texas and Oklahoma (the Big Two) strongly prefer the Big 12 to remain at 10 teams. The original Big 12 had a divisional split, but the South Division (in which both Big Two teams resided) was usually much stronger than the north, which had only Nebraska as a perennial power. In the 15 years that a championship game was played, Texas or Oklahoma represented the South 13 times, and the only other representative, Texas A&M, is no longer in the league. The South team won the game 11 out of 15 times, including the last seven times, and often by lopsided margins. Kansas State is the only team in the current Big 12, other than the Big Two, that ever won the game.
Because the Big 12 is so competitively lopsided, Texas and Oklahoma prefer to have the conference championship decided by a regular-season round robin, which they figure to dominate 75 to 80 percent of the time. Neither one is comfortable with putting a regular-season crown on the line in a conference championship game, where an upset could knock them out of the top-tier bowls. No doubt there are teams in other leagues that feel the same way, but no other league is dominated by two schools to anywhere near that extent.
Of course, the Big 12 has an additional problem. It is highly unlikely that the league would attract two powerhouse teams comparable to Texas and Oklahoma, which means that almost any conceivable divisional split would be competitively unbalanced unless the Big Two were split up. The Big Two want no part of this, as their annual rivalry is the conference’s biggest game, and they don’t want to dilute it by (potentially) playing it twice.
(I realize that the Big Ten put its two marquee teams, Michigan and Ohio State into separate divisions, a decision that many fans still regret. But Michigan and Ohio State do not dominate the Big Ten the way Texas and Oklahoma dominate the Big 12. Until the recent scandal decimated Penn State, the Big Ten had four premier programs and several others that are frequently strong, a situation the Big 12 cannot replicate.)
A while back, sources from Florida State and Clemson hinted—I stress, hinted—that they might be open to exploring a move to another conference. The FSU president quickly poured cold water on that idea, and that was before the ACC added Notre Dame and instituted a $50 million-per-school exit fee. The newly constituted ACC will probably have a TV package approaching the Big 12’s package in value, thus negating whatever merit some Florida State fans might have seen in moving.
FSU partisans might salivate over annual games against Oklahoma and Texas, but in most years they’d face only one of those teams, along with a steady diet of less desirable opponents like Iowa State, the two Kansas schools, and Baylor. Take another look at Florida State’s ACC schedule, especially with Notre Dame now in the mix, and the Big 12 does not look so good, monetarily or competitively. On top of that, the Big 12 would be a significant step down academically from the ACC, and once again I refer you to the four axioms: in the modern era, no school has moved to an academically less-prestigious conference.
If the Big Ten wanted to expand to 14 teams, he ACC is home to the only schools that might plausibly be available someday, and that might contribute enough television revenue to be considered worthy expansion candidates. But only three current ACC schools have been national powers in the last fifty years: Clemson, Florida State and Miami. Even if the Big Ten wanted them (a dubious proposition in itself), those schools are far more likely to see a path to the national championship through the weaker ACC, than to be playing November football games in places like Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
In addition to Texas—which is clearly not available—you can be sure that the Big Ten looked at every remotely possible school that met its criteria. That the Big Ten has chosen to remain at 12 teams is a pretty good indication that no team is available that the Big Ten wants.
Fans toss out realignment scenarios as if they were trading players in a fantasy football game. The conference commissioners and university presidents who make these decisions are far more ruthless. Any move has to be consistent with the four axioms: money, football, academics, and geography. It’s hard to find moves that meet those criteria, because the Big Five leagues are already very strong and stable, and have no burning need to grow.
Notre Dame was the last big prize remaining unclaimed. The Irish have now made their decision, one that suited their priorities better than any other available option, including the Big Ten. Now that all of the major programs have what they want, look for them to sit tight for a long, long time.