With West Virginia finally getting invited to the Big 12 after some political haggling, we are one step closer to the settling the composition of all six BCS automatic qualifier conferences for a few years. This has brought up a whole slew of questions from Slant readers, which I’ll address here:
1. Is Missouri really leaving for the SEC? – I’m not sure why this keeps getting asked between the accidental “we f**ked up” web posting on the SEC website announcing the addition of Mizzou and the conspicuous absence of any mention of the Tigers in the Big 12′s press release regarding West Virginia, but there are still constant lingering questions about whether the Columbia-based school is going to stay in the Big 12 or receive a last-second Big Ten invite. As I’ve stated previously, the SEC has turned the normal expansion process for most conferences on its head by making its candidates go through a public kabuki dance, which elongates the time frame for getting a deal completed. Make no mistake about it: Missouri is heading to the SEC. It would be the dumbest conference choice in college sports history if Mizzou were to stay in the Big 12.
2. What did the Big 12 see in West Virginia over Louisville? – For quite awhile, I thought Louisville was the top non-BYU expansion choice for the Big 12. My impression is that most of the Big 12 presidents agreed with me from a cultural fit standpoint (along with slightly better geography), which is why so much of the chatter over the past month seemed to be centered on the Cardinals. However, let’s not forget that there’s one big-time reason why the Big 12 is still alive and kicking today: Fox and ESPN have decided to pay the same amount for a 10-school conference without a championship game as it would have for a 12-school conference with a championship game. Without those TV deals, the Big 12 would have been executed last summer. As a result, the Big 12 had to listen to its TV partners or else risk getting a reduction in its rights fees. When the media people came down strongly in favor of West Virginia, that was enough to get most of the Big 12 presidents to change their tune.
Despite the geographic issues, I see where the TV networks are coming from. If you’re Average Joe Sports Fan in Any Town, USA, West Virginia versus Texas or Oklahoma is probably going to be a much more attractive TV matchup in an average season than Louisville versus those same schools. (If you need a reminder, we’re solely talking football here. Basketball is, unfortunately for this hoops fan, pretty much irrelevant.) The irony is that the main knock against West Virginia as an expansion candidate for various leagues was its tiny home TV market, yet the school ended up getting into the Big 12 because of the TV networks wanted the Mountaineers.
3. Is the Big 12 really going to stay at 10? – As long as the Big 12 is unable to get a deal done with BYU, I see the conference staying at 10. While Louisville has solid athletic assets, it’s simply not a single expansion candidate school that the Big 12 would be willing to go up to 11 for and then split the league’s TV money different ways. The Big Ten stayed at 11 for many years, but that was because (a) Penn State was school #11 and (b) they had always been waiting for a legit football king (initially Notre Dame and eventually Nebraska) as school #12. The schools involved for the Big Ten were more than worth going up to an uneven numbered alignment and waiting for in such alignment. That’s not quite the case for the Big 12. At the same time, schools like Cincinnati won’t really provide enough revenue to be taken instead of BYU in a 12-school alignment. Now, I still have a hard time believing that BYU won’t end up in the Big 12 at some point. If/when that happens, I’d fully expect Louisville to make the move to the Big 12, too.
4. Would Notre Dame join the Big 12 as a non-football member? – I think the Irish will stay in a wounded Big East (more on that later), but I’d give it a 30% chance of them heading to the Big 12 for non-football sports, with approximately a 0% chance of joining the ACC or Big Ten for all-sports. It doesn’t matter that the geographic and institutional fit would be horrendous for Notre Dame in the Big 12. As long as the Irish have a strong non-football option that allows them to maintain independence, they will ALWAYS choose such option. It might not be rational to anyone that isn’t a Domer, but independence in and of itself will always be the top priority for that school. Now, I can’t see any reason why Notre Dame would agree to play 6 Big 12 opponents per year (as Chip Brown of Orangebloods reported), as that just sounds like the opening bargaining position of Chuck Neimas/DeLoss Dodds. The Irish playing 3 Big 12 opponents annually (2 of which are Texas and Oklahoma), though, is certainly doable if that’s what it takes to preserve independence overall. The overarching point: Notre Dame going to the Big 12 for non-football sports is NOT crazy.
(To be sure, all of the Notre Dame-to-the-Big 12 reports so far have originated from Texas. This is important because I find it hard to believe that any Big 12 member outside of Texas would grant Notre Dame partial membership when it would provide the Longhorns a direct precedent to do the exact same thing in a few years. The Texas “commitment” to the Big 12 is what’s keeping the league from splitting apart, so it would be a disaster to watch them use Notre Dame as leverage to get their own independence in football/member in non-football sports deal. If I were running any Big 12 school that wasn’t located in Austin, I would stay far away from granting Notre Dame a partial membership. That’s just me, though.)
5. Why don’t the other AQ conferences just kill the Big East? – This is near the top of frequently asked questions during this conference realignment cycle. Putting aside the potential litigation issues, there’s a pretty basic and easy answer to this: the other AQ conferences don’t want the remaining Big East schools alone. Maybe those schools would be fine as complementary pieces (Rutgers or UConn heading to the Big Ten or ACC in conjunction with Notre Dame or the aforementioned Louisville and BYU to the Big 12 scenario), but not as sole additions. While the other AQ conferences might be annoyed that the Big East has AQ status, they aren’t going to take other Big East schools simply as a mechanism to get rid of that league. It’s a whole lot cheaper for the AQ conferences to allow the Big East to keep its AQ status than to expand with schools that don’t bring in enough revenue.
6. Will the Big East football schools finally split from the Catholic schools? – I’ll point back to my comparison of the Big East to Netflix and Qwikster as to why I don’t believe the Big East will split. If anything, the defections of Syracuse, Pitt and West Virginia make the Big East’s basketball TV and NCAA Tournament credit revenue even more important for the remaining schools. Also, don’t disregard the Notre Dame factor. The Irish hold a ton of sway with both the football and Catholic sides of the Big East – the former because Notre Dame alone can prevent further expansion by the Big Ten and ACC (which in turn protects the Big East from further raids) and the latter as a result of all major Catholic institutions wanting a direct link with the South Bend school. The Big 12 non-football option mentioned earlier is definitely a viable one for Notre Dame, yet when it comes to having a presence in the markets the Domers actually care about and live in (New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, New England), the Big East still fits them best. It’s just that a split Catholic-only league wouldn’t provide a strong enough non-football home for Notre Dame’s sports outside of men’s basketball. So, the Irish are going to do everything that they can to keep the Big East hybrid together. If I’m wrong and the Big East splits, I’d expect that Notre Dame will take up the Big 12 on a partial membership offer if it exists.
7. Why wouldn’t Boise State stay in the Mountain West Conference/Conference USA Alliance instead of joining the Big East? Won’t the Big East lose its AQ status, meaning that Boise State would be taking a huge gamble? – I keep seeing comments that the Big East is unstable. This is obviously very true. However, every single conference besides the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12 and maybe the ACC could be considered to be completely unstable. The one thing that the Big East has is AQ status in-hand. This fact cannot be emphasized enough and provides the conference with a ton more leverage than many fans give it credit for. It would be one thing if the Alliance were some type of bastion of stability itself with some type of assurance of AQ status in the future. However, doesn’t anyone remember what happened to the Mountain West within weeks of Boise State joining that league? It lost its three most valuable members: Utah, BYU and TCU. So, how the heck is the Mountain West stable? On the C-USA side of the Alliance, are Houston, SMU and UCF going turn down Big East invites? Their departures would deplete the depth of the Alliance even further. At the same time, there isn’t a single non-AQ school besides Boise State that has the recent resume of current Big East member Cincinnati (which finished #3 in the final BCS rankings in 2009). The Bearcats alone give more numerical credence to the Big East retaining its AQ status in the future than any amalgamation of the MWC/C-USA Alliance.
At the same time, we saw Senator Mitch McConnell get involved last week with Louisville’s talks with the Big 12, so how likely are the other AQ conferences going to be willing to strip away the Big East’s AQ status with at least one powerful Louisville backer along with 2 service academies? I just don’t see the Big Ten, SEC and others risking killing their control over the college football world by inviting a political firestorm just to get back one BCS bowl bid per year. Dealing with the Big East is the political cost of doing business for the power conferences.
Everyone knows the saying that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Well, for any potential Alliance member (including Boise State), there isn’t even one bird in the bush to worry about. The only chance that they have for long-term AQ status is to be in a rebuilt Big East that effectively annexes the top non-AQ schools and leaves behind the deadweight that have been dragging down the BCS criteria numbers for MWC and C-USA. For those that think that Boise State has a lot of leverage, remember that this was a top 10 school last season that because of a single loss, ended up at the Las Vegas Bowl instead of a BCS game. Even the most powerful programs go through down periods (see Notre Dame), so it would behoove Boise State to avoid becoming the football version of UNLV basketball (which was a 1990s powerhouse that quickly receded back into the midmajor masses as soon as it started losing more games). Boise State and others might publicly posture over the coming days and weeks to make it seem like they have lots of options (similar to Missouri and the SEC or the Big 12 insisting that they were considering going up to an 11-school alignment), but ultimately, the only real choice is to take AQ status now because you never know when it might come around again.
(Even without the AQ status, the TV contract for a proposed rebuilt Big East that adds Boise State, Air Force, Navy, SMU, Houston and Central Florida is going to be significantly better on a per-school basis than whatever the Alliance could come up with. So, there’s a financial incentive beyond AQ status to think about, too.)
8. How is this all going to turn out? – Personally, I think “less is more”. There has been and will continue to be a lot of school movement by historical standards, but not in a way where there’s an Armageddon scenario of 16-school superconferences forming. Barring a choice by Notre Dame to give up independence, the Big Ten and ACC are settled. The Pac-12 appears to have made Texas their equivalent of Notre Dame to the Big Ten and ACC, where no further expansion is happening for them without the Longhorns involved. Once the anticipated move of Missouri going to the SEC is finalized, the SEC and Big 12 are going to be done with membership changes for the time being.
This means the action is going to be in the Big East. As a form of AQ status triage, I actually like the Big East’s proposed plan of adding Houston, SMU and UCF as all-sports members along with Boise State, Air Force and Navy as football-only schools. My guess is that Temple will be considered as a football-only member to replace West Virginia and get the Big East a football presence in Pennsylvania again, which would provide the Big East with 8 football members, 8 non-football members and 4 football-only members. The MWC/C-USA Alliance may actually end up being a single all-sports league when all is said and done after any defections to the Big East.
As pretty much everyone knowledgeable about conference realignment likes to say, the situation is still fluid. We just need Missouri and the SEC to get things going.
(Image from Wikipedia)