War-Gaming the Next Round of Major Conference Expansion

Submitted by oakapple on August 13th, 2011 at 1:06 PM

With the move of Texas A&M to the SEC now looking like a reality, it is worthwhile to discuss the likely consequences for the Big 12 and the other major conferences. Big Ten fans tend to jump immediately to the question of what our own league will do, but the question is premature. The dominoes are destined to fall in a particular order, with each leading to predictable consequences.

I. Will Texas politicians really let the Aggies move?

For those who wanted the Big 12 to survive, this was always their ace in the hole: Texas politicians wouldn’t allow Texas and Texas A&M to split up, mainly to protect Texas Tech and Baylor, and to keep SEC recruiters out of their state.

But Texas A&M has Gov. Rick Perry in their corner. Perry is well liked in the state, and he is as passionate an Aggie as they come. If he thinks the move is best for the Aggies, it is doubtful that any other Texas politician will cross him. It is also doubtful that the A&M Board of Regents would have the issue on the agenda of their Monday meeting, if they weren’t positive that they have the political cover to make it happen.

After flirting with the SEC two years in a row, if A&M doesn’t move now, it will be an emasculating show of weakness that they won’t live down for many years to come.

II. What Does Oklahoma Do?

After the Texas A&M move is announced, Oklahoma will be on the clock. Publicly, the Sooners remain committed to the Big 12. Privately, that simply cannot be true. Even now, the Big 12 has only the fourth-best TV contract of the major conferences. The conferences ahead of it are continuing to add value, while the Big 12 withers.

It can’t sit well with Oklahoma that Nebraska, Colorado, and now Texas A&M have bolted to greener pastures, while they are stuck in what will quickly become a second-tier league. There are institutions that would welcome an invitation to the Big 12 — commissioner Dan Beebe has mentioned Houston. But no one except Beebe could possibly think that the Cougars are as good a draw as the Aggies.

Oklahoma also faces the same pressures that have led Texas A&M to the point of seceding, namely, that the Longhorn Network gives the University of Texas a permanent structural advantage. And they cannot be pleased when Beebe says publicly that “Texas is the school that holds the key to the Big 12's future.” It reinforces the perception that the conference is just Texas and everybody else. Iowa State may tolerate that, but Oklahoma won’t.

Oklahoma has two very realistic options that are better than staying in the Big 12: the SEC and the Pac-12. Both conferences coveted the Sooners last year, and still do. Both would allow Oklahoma State to come along for the ride, an obvious requirement whatever the Sooners may do.

The SEC is a better geographic fit for Oklahoma, but the SEC has five of the fifteen winningest FBS programs in history (Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, LSU, Auburn), to say nothing of perennial power Florida. In the SEC, Oklahoma’s path to the conference championship would be a very difficult one. Of course, it will be difficult for Texas A&M too, but the Aggies need the SEC; Oklahoma doesn’t.

The Pac-12, on the other hand, has only one storied program, USC. The rest of the conference isn’t chopped liver, but it has no other program with comparable, decades-long success. In the Pac-12, the Sooners could hope to win the conference title half-a-dozen times per decade, an unlikely prospect in the talent-laden SEC. I strongly suspect, therefore, that the Pac-12 is the future home for Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

There are, of course, arguments against the Pac-12, including much longer road trips and night games that start at 10:00 p.m. Central Time. And the SEC’s “red” states are a much closer cultural fit for Oklahoma than the Pac-12’s mostly “blue” states.

There is no realistic chance that Oklahoma would get an invitation to the Big Ten. They are not academically on par with any Big Ten program, and even if the conference were willing to consider the Sooners alone, they certainly wouldn’t sniff at Oklahoma State.

Oklahoma, then, most likely moves to the Pac-12 and takes Oklahoma State with them.

III. What Does Texas Do?

Texas would love nothing more than to save the Big 12. Indeed, DeLoss Dodds, the Texas athletic director, says that he is looking at 20 schools as potential replacements for A&M, including the likes of Brigham Young and Air Force. But if Dodds thinks he can get Notre Dame, he is kidding himself. If the Irish were going to join a football conference, why would they choose the world’s most unstable one? It tells you everything you need to know about the Big 12, that it’s Dodds, and not commissioner Dan Beebe, who is looking at expansion candidates.

Texas was top dog in the conference even before Nebraska and Colorado left. Now, they are sitting pretty with their own $300 million dollar network and a league in which only one other team, Oklahoma, poses a threat to regularly win the championship.

But if I am correct that Oklahoma won’t stand for this, then the Big 12 as we have known it is doomed. Without Nebraska, Colorado, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State, the Big 12 is not a credible BCS league. Sure, DeLoss Dodds could find five teams from the mid-majors to replace those he has lost (or is about to lose), but it wouldn’t be a power conference, even with Texas as its anchor.

Texas would have the same two options as Oklahoma (the SEC and the Pac-12), plus two others the Sooners don’t realistically have, the Big Ten or independence. Let’s stipulate that any conference would be delighted to have Texas, the most valuable athletic department in America, in the nation’s second most populous state.

It is already well known that Texas President Bill Powers and Ohio State President Gordon Gee had at least discussed the idea of the Longhorns coming to the Big Ten. That became moot when the Big 12 got an eleventh-hour reprieve last summer. But as Gee wrote in an e-mail to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, Powers has a “Tech problem,” i.e., that Texas politicos don’t want Texas Tech to be the odd man out in conference re-alignment. The Big Ten won’t take Texas Tech, and unless Powers has found a way out of that problem, the Big Ten isn’t an option.

Of course, there is also the question whether the Big Ten is a cultural fit, to say nothing of a geographic fit. Texas always dominated the Big 12, and before that the old Southwest Conference. The Big Ten won’t be bullied, and it’s not clear the Longhorns are prepared to be team players. The Big Ten has the most democratic revenue-sharing arrangement of any major conference, and it is not clear how the Longhorn Network would fit in. The Longhorns have detonated two conferences in less than twenty years. Anyone would be understandably wary of them.

The Longhorns probably don’t want to be independent, either. Scheduling seasons for every other sport (besides football) is an enormous hassle when you don’t have a conference to fall back on, and they would lose their BCS auto-qualifying status. Of course, Texas would never need to worry seriously about getting a bowl invitation when they have a good season, but there is no assurance they would get the same sweetheart deal that Notre Dame got.

For Texas, the argument against the SEC, and in favor of the Pac-12, is much the same as it is for Oklahoma: the Pac-12 is a conference the Longhorns can much more easily dominate. And of course, if Oklahoma is already there, as I believe they will be, it makes sense to preserve their long-standing rivalry.

The Pac-12’s new TV network is tailor-made for Texas. In essence, Commissioner Larry Scott has created an umbrella channel, plus six regional cable channels for each pair of teams (the Washington schools, the Arizona schools, etc.). The Pac-12 won’t mind if Texas has their own network, because their new structure is already set up that way. As the Pac-12 expands in Noah’s Ark fashion, two by two, they would accept Texas Tech, thus bringing the Pac-12 to sixteen teams, precisely the scenario that Scott nearly pulled off a year ago.

IV. What Does the SEC Do?

No conference wants to be stuck at 13 teams. If the SEC adds Texas A&M, it will move quickly to add at least one more. The SEC would be happy to invite Oklahoma or Texas, but for the reasons I have noted, the Sooners and the Longhorns would be better off both financially and competitively in the Pac-12 (although they would be better off culturally and geographically in the SEC).

It is less clear where the SEC goes for its 14th team. Florida State is the rumor du jour, but FSU president Eric Barron says there is “no conversation.” As the dominant football conference, the SEC can afford to be choosy. Florida is likely to resist extending an invitation to their in-state rival, because it would eliminate one of the main recruiting advantages they have over the Seminoles, i.e., that they are in the SEC and FSU is not. South Carolina would probably object to Clemson, Georgia to Georgia Tech, and Kentucky to Louisville, for the same reason.

Of course, there is also the question of how the SEC benefits financially if they add a school that is within their current geographic footprint. How much more will ESPN/CBS be willing to pay for SEC games, if those games don’t bring in many more viewers than the SEC gets already?

If the SEC goes outside of its current footprint, what are the options? Three SEC schools are in states that share a border with Missouri, but Missouri is a “meh” add for the SEC, for the same reason it was a “meh” add for the Big Ten last year.

Virginia and the Washington, D.C., market bring obvious benefits. Virginia Tech has a better football team than UVA and has less of an historical connection with the ACC, to which it has belonged only since 2004. But in the ACC it has won the conference championship or a division title in five out of seven years. The Hokies are highly unlikely to duplicate that feat in the SEC, and they also have strong academic ties to the elite ACC schools.

So, other than the obvious fact that the SEC will add a 14th team, it is not clear how they will, assuming they don’t get Oklahoma or Texas.

V. What Does the ACC Do?

Most of the rumored options for the SEC’s 14th team are ACC schools. As the fifth-ranking auto-qualifying league (measured any way you want: prestige, competitiveness, TV revenue), the ACC cannot afford to lose members. As the Big 12 has shown, losing one member often leads to losing several. And without twelve teams, the ACC would not be able to stage a championship game.

But the ACC would not need to look far to replace Florida State, or any other member. Louisville, West Virginia, and South Florida are either in or adjoining the ACC footprint and would likely welcome an invitation. And if not a Big East school, there are several Conference USA teams that would not be out of place in the ACC, such as Memphis or East Carolina.

VI. What Do The Remaining Big 12 Teams Do?

To review the bidding thus far, if Texas A&M joins the SEC, it seems apparent that Oklahoma will abandon the Big 12 as well (with Oklahoma State), leaving Texas (likely with Texas Tech) no choice but to do the same. That will leave five Big 12 teams without a home: Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, and Missouri.

Iowa State, perennially the weakest of the Big 12 teams, is the least likely to find a home in an auto-qualifying league. Missouri has at least a geographic argument for joining either the SEC or the Big Ten, but it doesn’t bring enough to the table, either competitively or financially. Kansas has its storied basketball program, and would probably bring Kansas State along wherever it goes. Baylor needs to hope for a rescue, as it did when the Southwest Conference broke up.

The most logical answer—financially, although not geographically—is the Big East. The conference is an odd duck, with sixteen full members, but only eight that play football. It is the weakest of the auto-qualifying BCS leagues, and the only one that has never had a championship game.

Given that the Big East has never much cared about geographic contiguity or compactness, the obvious solution is to invite the remaining Big 12 teams to their party and add a championship game. Doing so would also give their newest member, TCU, a few rivals closer to home. How they would manage a twenty-team basketball conference is a question we leave for another day.

VII. What Does the Big Ten Do?

The short answer, at least for now, is: probably nothing. The Big Ten is already in a position of strength. It has no particular need to expand. There are only two institutions that could improve the Big Ten’s current product: Texas and Notre Dame. The Irish have chosen repeatedly to remain independent, and for reasons noted above, the Longhorns are more likely to choose the Pac-12.

The Big Ten is not going to add Missouri or Pitt, merely because it can. The conference already took a serious look at expanding eastward, but it ran up against an intractable problem. There simply is no Eastern school that can “deliver” the New York market. New Yorkers aren’t going to rush to buy the Big Ten Network because Rutgers or Syracuse is on it.

Adding Nebraska was an obvious win for the Big Ten, as the conference got one of the storied programs in football and was able to add an annual championship game. The next team Delany adds, if any, needs to bring in more than 1/12th of the current Big Ten shared revenue (from TV rights, bowl games, etc.), or else that institution would just drag the average down. There just aren’t many schools that can do that, because the Big Ten is so strong already.

Jack Swarbrick, the Notre Dame athletic director, said last year that he could imagine, theoretically, seismic shifts so profound that it would no longer be viable to remain independent in football. Perhaps those shifts are now upon us, and if they are the Big Ten will always be there to welcome the Irish with open arms. Perhaps Bill Powers will solve his “Tech problem.”

But for now, I expect the Big Ten to stand pat. It has the least reason of anyone to rush into an arranged marriage with a new partner.



August 13th, 2011 at 4:15 PM ^

...Greg Doyle is a major league douche, he does have this to add to the convo:

I hear Oklahoma, OK State and 2 other B12 schools approached Big Ten as package and were told no. Academic reasons.


August 13th, 2011 at 4:55 PM ^

I think the ultimate solution is for whatever is left of the Big 12 to combine itself with whatever is left of the ACC.  That will eventually help to create the five "superconferences" that so many don't want to see.  There are too many teams to do four, though that can change.  

They will eventually play for their own championship in a de facto 10-game playoff, with five conference championship games counting as the first round, and one play-in game the next week between the lowest-seeded conference champions for the semifinals during bowl week.  To keep wannabes from suing them, they will not be able to call it the "NCAA Championship game," and will keep the "BCS Championship" label.  

As for BCS-buster wannabes, they will have two choices: join one of the conferences or continue to bitch.  Geographically, it would make sense to see BSU and BYU in the Pac 16, and Notre Dame in the Big 16.  

As for the SEC, they are currently in football's best "sweet spot."  They are tough enough that their conference winner is almost always automatically seeded into the BCS title game, but they have enough tomato cans that it is still possible to escape undefeated or with one loss.  If they add too many more good teams, they may make their conference so difficult that almost nobody makes it out with one loss.

That would actually be pretty funny.


August 13th, 2011 at 4:55 PM ^

The Pac-12 prides itself on having excellent research universities. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State wouldn't really fit there. Part of the appeal of adding Colorado and Utah was that both are very good research universities. The Pac-10 (at the time) turned away BYU because it wasn't a major research university.


August 13th, 2011 at 5:23 PM ^

The long and short of it, to the B10, remains ND. Otherwise, expansion makes no sense; it's not, as they say, "additive." You only expand in order to heighten the league's profile and/or add a ton of TV viewers. The league would only accomplish this via ND, Texas, or Oklahoma.

Texas is out because it won't share TV revenues (and also because Texas doesn't really make sense in a midwestern conference). Oklahoma is out due to its academics. So that's it. No ND, no expansion. 


August 13th, 2011 at 6:22 PM ^

Really well done. This is all really speculation at this point, but this is well-ordered, logical speculation while so many people out there are shooting off at the hip.

I really think that you're #2 point is crucial. What does Oklahoma want to do? As you point out, Texas is very interested in keeping the Big XII together, but I don't know how possible that would really be should Oklahoma choose to bolt. I for one hope that they don't, because I really don't want to see 4 super conferences just yet. Although, I do see a scenario where that could be exciting for football at least.

MI Expat NY

August 13th, 2011 at 7:20 PM ^

I don't really see Oklahoma with any options, mainly because I disagree with the OP.  I don't believe that Oklahoma brings enough to the table to cover for Ok.St. for either the SEC or the Pac-12.  Oklahoma and Texax bring enough to make it worth it, but the LHN kills any possible move for Texas.


August 13th, 2011 at 6:53 PM ^

I really think that if the Big Ten expands again, if it doesn't include Notre Dame, it will be a move to take on the northeast markets.  I could see a move to 16 teams that takesBoston College, Rutgers, Maryland, and Virginia.  Those are all fine schools academically that help secure some large television markets. 

From an athletic standpoint it's less convincing. 

In football the 4 combined to go 2 games under .500 last season and in basketball they went 12 games over .500.

Tough to make an argument for them there, though the teams have had success in the past.

But the money in Virginia, Washington DC, Boston, and New York would be tough for the Big Ten to turn down - and some of those schools just seem to fit the mold quite well.

My runner-up list of schools that fit the academic mold and bring better athlethic competition but not necessarily as much untapped market is, in order:

Syracuse, Virginia Tech, UConn, and Pitt

Zone Left

August 13th, 2011 at 6:55 PM ^

Expansion has two goals: new televisions with BTN in the standard package and national football appeal. Those schools really meet the first one, but really fall flat in terms of getting people to actually watch BTN. If Virginia can turn things around on the football field, they'd be a great choice, but the others seem really meh to me.

That's why a Texas that is willing to revenue share is the dream school for every conference. 35 million TVs, Texas recruiting, really good academics and great football are tough to pass up.


August 13th, 2011 at 7:52 PM ^

Can someone help me out?  I recall reading somewhere that UT's TV deal mandates that they be in the Big XII or become an independent.  If true, that changes the analysis.


August 13th, 2011 at 8:02 PM ^

ND will probably want to joint the B!G.  I thought it would be 3 to 4 years away but now it could be rather swift, by the end of the year.  If ND joins us, we will have to find that 14th team. I would lean towards Pitt. Though it would probably be something strange like Iowa State, they are a good academic school but have overall poor sport teams. I guess Syracuse and Rutgers would be outside shots for the 14th team?  So it will all depend on ND if we stay at 12 or expand to 14.

The Mighty Quinn

August 13th, 2011 at 8:48 PM ^

It seems like a lot of people are undervaluing the ACC. Academically, with BC, Duke, UVA, UNC, GT, and Wake Forest they are the strongest conference in the FBS (sorry, B1G), they are consistently good at basketball, and they have a couple solid football teams in Clemson, FSU, Miami, and VT. The notion that the SEC can just come in and cherry pick whichever teams they would like from the conference speaks to the immense influence the SEC exerts within college football. In a perfect world, we get ND, UT, and OU just so we maintain some semblance of balance of power. Obviously no chance of this though.    


August 14th, 2011 at 10:23 AM ^

Eh. It depends what you value academically. While wake's a nice school, it doesn't have anything approaching the reseach profile that even the weakest Big Ten school (hi nebraska!) does. Same thing with BC. Those schools may do a better job educating their undergrads, depending on how you feel about the merits of the industrial university vs the smaller liberal arts model, but major research is what the big ten is fundamentally about, and it does it better than any other consortium, other than the Ivy League.

FSU, Clemson, Miami, NC state, VA Tech are all decent research institutions, but they're at about Nebraska's level. The ACC's research rep rests mostly with UNC, Duke, UVA, and Maryland, and GA Tech for engineering. I'll somewhat generously call that a push with the elite research tier of UM, Northwestern, U of Chicago, and Wisconsin and Purdue for engineering. The next tier of the big ten (PSu, Illinois, Indiana, OSU, Iowa, Minny) far outpaces their ACC counterparts.


August 13th, 2011 at 9:06 PM ^

I'll say it again. The teleos of college football is 4 16-league teams. That gives a natural 4 or 8 game playoff. The 16th team in the Big 10 will be Notre Dame. It's too much money and control otherwise.

Wolverine Devotee

August 13th, 2011 at 9:24 PM ^

B1G needs to change their name when they get to 16. Midwest Conference works well. It's time to move on from the that name as it seems we are entering the new landscape of CFB. There will be 4 superconferences (ACC,B1G,SEC,PAC-16). The MAC expands to 16, Big 12 adds a bunch of mid-majors to get 16 teams and rechristen the New Southwest Conference. Big East,C-USA crumble. WAC and Sun Belt drop to D1-FCS where they belong.


August 13th, 2011 at 10:53 PM ^

Pigs get fat, but hogs get slaughtered. And Jim Delany knows this. Thus, the B10 will use the current chaos primarily to make another run at ND. UT would be great, but it comes with too much risk of destroying the B10 over time, just like it did the B12.

The B10 will have talks with UT and ND, but in the end will reject any deal that allows UT to keep LHN. That will kill the deal and push UT to the P12, SEC or ACC. Hopefully, by the time talks with UT break down, the B10 will have made enough progress with ND that ND will understand it cannot survive at an elite level as an independent in a superconference world and that joining the B10 makes the most sense. The only question remaining is who the B10 will invite to become its 14th member. MD? VaTech? BC? MO? Miami? Syracuse? Pitt? My money is on MD or BC, but that is a secondary concern. The big fish, as far as the B10 is concerned, is (and always has been) ND.


August 13th, 2011 at 10:53 PM ^

If there really were 4 superconferences with 16 teams each, I can't help but think the B1G might get the worst influx of the 4 conferences. 

I could see the ACC losing FSU and raiding the Big East for Louisville, WVU, UConn, Rutgers, and Syracuse.  They would certainly remain a basketball superpower.

The PAC-16 could end up having to take on Kansas, K State, and Texas Tech (or Baylor) in order to snag UT.

SEC could end up stealing FSU along with A & M, OU, and Okla St.

Meanwhile the B1G would end up with ND as their prize, along with scraps of Missouri, Pitt, and probably Cinci.

I guess that wouldn't be so bad after all.  Have divisions of North and South.

North = Minn, Wisc, NW, Illinois, ND, MSU, UM, PSU

South = Neb, Iowa, Mizzou, IU, Purdue, Cinci, OSU, Pitt


Ok, yeah, that's not actually going to happen.

Cock D

August 13th, 2011 at 11:04 PM ^

I think you have it pretty much right.  My thoughts are, however, that ND and Pitt go hand-in-hand.

ND, likely, has an offer in hand to the Big 10 that says, name who comes in with you.  Pitt's resarch and graduate education already suit them well to the conference.  Pitt is a BB plus while being generally non-threatening at football.  Add in natural rivalries with PSU, OSU and ND - and recent series with MSU and Iowa, they seem to be a decent fit.

Moreover, considering ND's long standing relationship with Pitt, the fit seems good.  Think of it this way - ND wants to preserve it's long term football rivalries.  In a Big 10 schedule that includes UM, MSU, Purdue and Pitt plus a non-conference schedule of USC, Army and Navy, they play 7 of the 8 teams they consider rivals (sorry BC) and could eschew total independence for relevance (good call, see, e.g. Yale, Harvard, Princeton).

Whether ACC or Big 10, I think ND and Pitt are practically a package deal at this point.


August 14th, 2011 at 4:09 AM ^

It doesn't matter how big or rich they are. They're a horrible cultural fit, the transportation costs for the various sports would be huge, and they know Texas has absolutely no desire to ever compromise on any issue, especially revenue-sharing. All the noises you hear to the contrary from Big Ten officials are nothing more than window-dressing and meaningless make-nice blather from ADs who don't want to criticize Texas in public.

It will never happen.


August 14th, 2011 at 1:33 PM ^

loses Nebraska and Colorado, and TCU goes to...wait for it......the Big East! Way to go Big 12! lol. The (again) Big 8/neo-Southwest Conference desperately needs to reinforce it's strength of schedule and gain enough members for a conference championship. Air Force, TCU, BYU, Utah, Tulsa, Boise State, Nevada, or any of the Great Basin schools could be added and might jump at the chance for automatic qualifier status.