Archive for the ‘Illinois Fighting Illini’ Category

I’ve been getting a lot of requests for comment on some proposed legislation by an Illinois state representative from Naperville to have a feasibility study performed on whether another Illinois public university can be added to the Big Ten. Here is the full text of the proposed bill. Note that I actually live in Naperville, but the applicable representative (Michael Connelly) doesn’t represent the portion of town that I live in.

Most people that have a passing understanding of conference realignment know that the odds of the feasibility of the Big Ten expanding with any school from the state of Illinois is less than zero (but we’ll spell it out here for any first time readers that haven’t been paying attention to this issue for the past several years). First of all, what the Illinois State Legislature wants is completely irrelevant to Big Ten expansion. They might have some control over the University of Illinois specifically, but Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin and every other Big Ten school (even Northwestern) would laugh off any attempt for some type of legislative intervention. Second, a viable Big Ten candidate needs a combination of FBS football credentials, academic prowess (preferably membership in the Association of American Universities, which is an extremely select group of top tier research institutions) and, most importantly of all, additional media value in the form of new TV markets and/or a national brand name (i.e. Notre Dame). Considering that the entire state of Illinois is already receiving the Big Ten Network at the maximum cable carriage rate, any additional school from the state would add exactly $0 in TV revenue for the conference. That would actually mean that all other Big Ten universities would lose money with an Illinois-based expansion by splitting the pie further without making the overall pie larger… and the Big Ten isn’t making moves in order to lose money. Plus, the only other public university that even plays FBS football is Northern Illinois, who isn’t anywhere near AAU status on the academic front (and realistically never will be with its mission). If the State of Illinois wants to spend a single dime on whether it’s feasible for another public university here to join the Big Ten, then the legislature is flushing money down the toilet that it doesn’t have.

That being said, let’s not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater on what ought to be the real intent of this legislation: creating a stronger #2 public university in the State of Illinois behind the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (abbreviated as UIUC for ease of discussion here, although I’ve always thought that was a clumsy abbreviation as an Illinois grad) regardless of any Big Ten prospects (which are non-existent in reality). What I hope is that my fellow Naperville native can’t possibly be this naive and is just using the Big Ten name as a headline grabber in order to shine the light on the very real problem that the academic quality gap between UIUC and the rest of the state’s public universities is so large that Illinois high school grads are heading to out-of-state colleges at a rate that dwarfs almost every other state in the country.

In the typical competitive Chicago suburban high school, the top 5% of the class or so is generally gunning for the Ivy League and Ivy-caliber schools (i.e. Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, etc.). The next 5% is the group that UIUC generally targets (with a little bit of variation depending upon the program – engineering and business require top 5% credentials these days, whereas an applicant might be able to get by with being in the top 15% for liberal arts). Regardless, an Illinois high school grad is pretty well-covered if he or she is in the top 10% of his/her high school class and the 90th percentile in SAT or ACT scores.

The problem is the massive academic reputation gap between UIUC  and the rest of the in-state schools. For the very large group of kids that rank between the top 10% and top 30% of their class (people that still have good-but-not-elite grades and test scores and make up a huge share of the college student population), UIUC is getting too tough to get into while the rest of the in-state schools are way too easy to get into in relation to their credentials. There’s no compelling option in-between that’s a solid fit for that group of students. In the latest US News rankings for undergraduate programs at national universities, UIUC is ranked #41 in the nation, but then there isn’t another Illinois public school until the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) at #128. Farther down the list are Illinois State (#152), Northern Illinois (#177) and Southern Illinois (#177). It just so happens that neighboring schools like Indiana, Purdue, Iowa and Missouri are in the top 100 of the US News rankings and have admissions standards that perfectly align to those top 10%-30% students that can’t get into UIUC, so Illinois kids go to those schools in massive numbers* and are willing to pay out-of-state tuition for them (which is still relatively less expensive compared to a lot of lower-ranked private university options). According to the Chicago Tribune, there was an outflow of 30,000 freshmen students from Illinois to out-of-state schools and an inflow of 17,000 last year, which is a negative outflow of 13,000.** The academic quality gap is exactly why this is occurring.

(* Last year, the Chicago Tribune put together this fascinating database of where Illinois high school students currently go to out-state colleges. Not surprisingly, schools in neighboring states drew the largest numbers, with Iowa and Missouri having more than 1000 Illinois students each in their respective freshmen classes last year, while Indiana, Marquette, Wisconsin, Purdue, St. Louis University and Iowa State all had over 500 Illinois freshmen. Interestingly, Arizona State, Colorado, Kentucky and Kansas all drew more Illinois students than Ohio State, with all of them getting just under 200 Illinois freshmen each. Other popular power conference destinations for Illinois students outside of the Midwest are Arizona, Vanderbilt and Miami, with over 100 Illinois freshmen each. After this hellacious winter, I can’t blame any Chicagoan heading to some place where you can wear shorts in the middle of January. Meanwhile, Alabama and Ole Miss surprisingly draw more Illinois students than Nebraska, while Rutgers only has 10 Illinois freshmen. Maryland and Penn State don’t show up in this data set, which doesn’t mean anything one way or another, as some schools like Harvard that definitely have Illinois students aren’t listed here.)

(** New Jersey is a state with an even larger outflow of college students and has almost the exact same issue as Illinois: a very large drop in the rankings of its public universities after its flagship of Big Ten newcomer Rutgers.)

UIC is probably the only public school in Illinois that has a realistic chance of filling that gap since its faculty quality is already on the higher end compared to its admissions standards, the school is solid in STEM areas since it houses the University of Illinois system’s medical and pharmacy schools, and has what is now considered to be a very desirable location in the West Loop neighborhood of Chicago. (UIC was actually a visiting member of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) that’s considered to be the academic arm of the Big Ten for nearly 30 years, but that status was revoked following the conference’s admission of Nebraska.) The main issue is that UIC’s reputation in professional circles (outside of medicine and pharmacy) actually lags behind its perception in academia, and changes there seem to be glacial. Every Big Ten school has a stronger professional network in Chicago in the finance and tech areas that fuel the influx of new college grads every year in Lincoln Park and Lakeview, and UIC still has to catch up to regional private Catholic schools like Loyola, DePaul and Marquette on that front, too. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy – UIC won’t move up in professional prestige without attracting better students, but such better students won’t go there until UIC moves up in professional prestige.

(* Up until 20 years ago, that location was considered to be a major liability when it was far from gentrified. I know this area well since my parents both graduated from there and my father worked there for 30 years, so I have a lot of affinity for the school. My father used to get his hubcaps stolen quite frequently back in the day and we used to joke that we could buy them back at the old Maxwell Street market adjacent to UIC, which was featured in the John Lee Hooker scene in The Blues Brothers. Needless to say, the old Maxwell Street was moved for UIC’s expansion several years ago and what used to be a seedy neighborhood has turned into a land of high-priced condos and restaurants.)

The other practical problem is that it would take a ton of investment from the state to get UIC up to the level of schools that are strong non-flagships (i.e. Michigan State, Purdue, Miami University of Ohio, etc.), yet the state keeps reducing the money to public universities every single year (and as noted, the state doesn’t have the money to give it to them even if they wanted to). Regardless, I hope that some type of better realistic in-state option exists by the time my 4-year old twins are ready to go to college in 13 years. If Representative Connelly can ensure that the focus is on that particular academic goal (as opposed to Big Ten membership specifically, which is a waste of time and resources because it will never happen), then I’m game.

(Image from PIPBlog)

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Well, I deserve that. I know it’s been a long hiatus here with the new college football and NFL seasons starting, over half of the Breaking Bad final season passing by and lots of twerking since my last post, so let’s get to answering some questions in part 1 of an overflowing mailbag Q&A:

There were a ton of “Division 4″ questions, so here’s a sample:

My overarching thought on the impact of the proposed Division 4* is (going along with the Breaking Bad theme) that there won’t be any “half-measures”. On the conservative end, this could be a straight-forward exercise for the football schools to get more leverage in rule-making (which is what Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has intimated). Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of FBS schools (from the SEC down to the Sun Belt) have been in favor of instituting full cost of attendance payments to athletes, whereas the main opposition has come from non-FBS Division I schools. If the impetus behind creating a Division 4 is to simply get more control over the NCAA governance process, then that suggests that all FBS conferences will end up in that top division. Jeremy Fowler of CBSSports.com has reported that that this is what NCAA faculty representatives are essentially recommending.

(* Is it just me, or does everyone associated with the NCAA have the naming ineptitude of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West? They changed the perfectly logical Division I-A and Division I-AA to FBS and FCS. They messed with the even more logical NCAA Tournament regional names of East, South, Midwest and West for several years before reverting back. Now, we’re talking about a “Division 4″ that’s supposed to be referring to the top level of college sports even though one would think that this would be below Divisions II and III. Nothing about the name “Division 4″ makes sense, which means that the NCAA will probably end up choosing it in the end.)

On the other end of the spectrum, Division 4 could truly be the formal separation of the 5 power conferences plus Notre Dame (no matter what you think of the Irish, you have to always include Notre Dame) so that there could be more radical changes down the road. Maybe there could be payments to players beyond the full cost of attendance. Maybe athletes will be allowed to auction off their autographs on ebay. Probably most intriguing (and what I think is the long-range goal) is that this is all about setting up an 8-team playoff with the 5 power conference champs with auto-bids and 3 at-large bids without having to deal with the “riff raff” of the Group of Five leagues (and protecting the power leagues from any legal challenges to that playoff system on top of that). Imagine a playoff with a traditional Rose Bowl (Big Ten champ vs. Pac-12 champ) plus the Sugar Bowl (SEC champ vs. at-large), Orange Bowl (ACC champ vs. at-large) and Cotton or Fiesta Bowl (Big 12 champ vs. at-large) as quarterfinals. The ratings and money would be through the roof along with supercharging the interest in the regular seasons of all of those power conferences (meaning even more ratings and money) and they get to control all of it without having to share with the revenue takers. That can be done with a totally separate Division 4 in a way that probably can’t occur in the current NCAA structure.

What I don’t see is something in between, where a Division 4 is formed with the 5 power conferences plus, say, the American Athletic Conference and Mountain West Conference. There is very little point in the power conferences going through the exercise of creating a Division 4 when the end result is only relegating the MAC, Conference USA and Sun Belt. The power players aren’t going to deal with a litany of acrimonious lawsuits unless the end game is complete and 100% control with only the conferences that they deem worthy (and judging by the fact that the 5 power conference commissioners keep speaking with each other as a group without the involvement of anyone else, it should be pretty clear who they want to deal with). Either it’s going to be a massive change to the system (separation of the 5 power conferences plus Notre Dame into a new division) or little change outside of NCAA procedural matters (giving all FBS schools more latitude in setting their own rules). The “half-measure” of the AAC and MWC coming along for the ride with the power conferences doesn’t seem very likely to me, which is why individual Group of Five schools need to hope for more conference realignment for guaranteed protection. Speaking of which…

I don’t believe that further conference realignment is necessary for a Division 4 split. As we’ve gone over before on this blog, for all of the moves in conference realignment over the past few years, where we stand today really isn’t that much different than where we stood in 1998 when the BCS system first started (only we’ve consolidated from 6 power conferences into 5). Every school that was in one of the 6 BCS conferences in 1998 is still in one of the 5 current power conferences today with the exception of Temple (who was a football-only member of the Big East that was relegated for reasons completely outside of conference realignment), while a grand total of 3 schools (TCU, Utah and Louisville) have been elevated. This indicates that the power conferences are pretty firm in who they want to associate with and changing perceptions is a glacial process. Now, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t hope for some schools…

I can now answer this question nicely since we had a successful “Hate Cincinnati” weekend in the Frank the Tank household (Illini over Bearcats on Saturday, which frankly shocked the hell out of me, and Bears over Bengals on Sunday). Cincinnati and its AAC/old Big East zombie counterpart UConn are definitely power conference material on paper. The issue is more about whether any of the power conferences will see a need to expand proactively while everyone other than the SEC is at the start of long-term grant of rights agreements that make it difficult (if not impossible) for power schools to move amongst themselves. Overall, the Big 12 is more likely to want to expand at some point because of their small size, poor demographics outside of the state of Texas and the fact that IF a grant of rights agreement were to be broken (a massively large IF), it would be in the context of the Big Ten raiding the Big 12 again (more on that in a moment), which would bode well for Cincinnati. The Bearcats have a solid football program in a good TV market with access to a great recruiting area for athletes of all types (whether football or basketball) while also providing a geographic bridge to West Virginia for the Big 12. As a result, Cincinnati is likely next in line for the Big 12 (alongside BYU) if that league wants to expand. The problem for Cincy fans, of course, is no one knows if or when that expansion would happen in the near future.

The ACC would probably favor UConn over Cincinnati if it had to choose, although that conference did deviate from its traditional criteria in choosing Louisville last year. The main issue for any school with hopes of joining the ACC is that it doesn’t seem plausible that it would expand outside of either (a) backfilling in the event of a raid by the Big Ten and/or SEC or (b) pairing a school with Notre Dame joining as a full member, neither of which seems to be on the horizon in the short-term. There’s at least some argument that the Big 12 would proactively expand regardless of what the other conferences do, so that at least gives Cincinnati some hope.

Some Big Ten conference realignment questions:

Let’s start with my previous post, where I point out how difficult and unlikely it is to break a grant of rights arrangement over the next decade or so. As a result, the likelihood of Big Ten expansion in the near future is extremely low, as I don’t believe that the conference is interested in anyone that isn’t already in one of the 5 power conferences (meaning no one in the AAC or any other Group of 5 conference is compelling enough).

Now, whenever the Big Ten expansion does kick up again, Kansas is certainly high up there on the list. The Jayhawks are to future Big Ten expansion in the way that Pharrell Williams ended up singing on the two largest Billboard hits of the summer (“Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky”) despite not headlining either of them: it’s hard to see KU not involved as a contiguous AAU school with an elite basketball program, but they also can’t be the biggest athletic name in that expansion, either. One thing that I’ve loved about writing this blog is that I hope that I’ve helped to elevate the discussion of conference realignment to take into account factors that many fans didn’t consider previously (i.e. academics, TV markets, branding, etc.), yet we sometimes do need to take a step back and realize that the product on the field (or court) is still what makes all of the off-the-field money possible, so expansion has to serve those needs. Thus, a hypothetical Kansas/Virginia or Kansas/Missouri (not that I think the Big Ten is ever going to poach the SEC and vice versa) expansion combo for the Big Ten might serve some TV market and AAU status purposes, but that doesn’t have the requisite athletic (and more specifically, football) impact that is required for what could conceivably be the last two spots in the Big Ten. (For all of those that would counter, “Rutgers and Maryland weren’t added for sports!”, I would say that (a) there was a football goal achieved since New Jersey and Maryland were the two top non-Sun Belt states for football recruits that weren’t already in the Big Ten footprint and (b) pure TV market additions were acceptable when looking that them in conjunction with the elite football addition of Nebraska.)

Putting aside the obvious no-brainer additions like Texas, I’m firmly in camp of supporting the addition Oklahoma to the Big Ten and I don’t believe that it’s a purely fan-focused football move. The main detraction for Oklahoma that I often see is that it isn’t an AAU member, but its academic metrics aren’t really far off at all from now-non-AAU member Nebraska and its neighboring old Big 8 AAU schools (Missouri, Kansas and Iowa State). There isn’t the wide academic gap between OU and Nebraska that there was in the case of Louisville compared to the rest of the ACC. Some Big Ten observers believe that the non-AAU status of Oklahoma is a non-starter, but I doubt that the conference would have engaged performing due diligence on the Sooners unless there was some legit interest involved. More importantly, the lack of AAU status for other expansion candidates was simply another reason on top of a number of other factors that made the target school undesirable (i.e. geography, lack of a fan base, lack of a football brand name, not a new TV market, etc.). It’s easy for the Big Ten to ignore a merely “good” football program based on academics (i.e. West Virginia or Louisville), but Oklahoma is a top level king school that would bring a ton of national TV dollars. Even Oklahoma’s smaller home state population on paper is mitigated by the fact that its fan base crosses over into North Texas and the Dallas-Fort Worth area (and Kansas, by the same token, can’t just be looked at by its home state population alone since it’s the top college team in the Kansas City market that takes a large chunk of Missouri).

The upshot is that if the Big Ten goes to 16 schools, then the last 2 additions actually need to make markets irrelevant. What are the 2 additions that can truly transform the BTN from a regional network to a legit national network? Sure, if the Big Ten has the choice, they’d want Texas and Notre Dame (or some other unattainable major market prize like North Carolina or Florida). However, if we’re talking about the top brand names that are willing to reciprocate the Big Ten’s overtures, Oklahoma and Kansas are sitting right there to supercharge the conferences’ football and basketball lineups, respectively. Penetrating a diverse market like New York City has as much to do with the national interest in various teams as it does with local interest, which aids the cases of OU and KU.

Frankly, the biggest factor working the Big Ten going after either OU and KU (much more than academic concerns) is the political pressure of those schools’ respective in-state brothers (Oklahoma State and Kansas State). I believe the Big Ten would expand with an OU/KU combo, but the conference won’t be willing to take either Oklahoma State and Kansas State in the process. Those “little brother” schools might be non-negotiable from a political perspective even if Jayhawk and Sooner fans don’t want to believe that to be the case, so that could stop Big Ten expansion regardless of any Big 12 grant of rights concerns. So, that brings me back to my initial point that Big Ten expansion isn’t likely, albeit it’s still fun to talk about after all of this time.

I’ll be back with Part II of the mailbag going over issues such as EA Sports NCAA ’14, Big East expansion and pro sports realignment shortly. Talk to you again soon!

(Image from Zap2It)

The Big Ten continues the march to increase its presence on the East Coast by adding Johns Hopkins men’s lacrosse as the conference’s first-ever affiliate member and the Pinstripe Bowl based at Yankee Stadium in New York City as a bowl tie-in. These moves aren’t necessarily earth-shattering in the way that the expansion with Maryland and Rutgers was back in November, but they show how Jim Delany and the Big Ten’s university presidents are aiming to make the league as much of an East Coast conference as it is a Midwestern conference.

As far as men’s lacrosse programs go, Johns Hopkins is considered to be the gold standard with more national championships than any other school and clung onto independence in the same way that Notre Dame continues to do so for football.* At the same time, the Big Ten has long had the stance that schools with either “all in” or “all out” (hence the hardline resistance to ever offer schools like Notre Dame any non-football membership). So, it was a bit of a surprise when news broke a few months ago that the Big Ten and JHU were exploring an affiliate relationship. Johns Hopkins then formed a Blue Ribbon Committee that ultimately recommended that the men’s lacrosse team should join a conference last month in a fascinating report. Among the requirements that JHU deemed to be important were an initial membership period of 5 years and that the school could maintain its current TV contract with ESPNU. A number of Big Ten observers thought that the latter TV rights item would be an obstacle on paper (since increasing the inventory of desirable non-football/basketball programming has been a primary goal of the Big Ten Network), but that was assuaged by the fact that Johns Hopkins would not receive any conference revenue (which would make any potential complications as to how an affiliate member would partake in the BTN money trough moot).

(* For anyone that remembers the original version of The Official Preppy Handbook, I always recall that lacrosse was listed as a preppy sport simply because people from Baltimore loved it and that the city was “very prep”. That’s quite a jarring characterization these days for people that have seen The Wire.)

Looking back, this was a perfect storm for both parties to get to this position: the Big Ten needed 1 more school to create a men’s lacrosse league after it had added Maryland and Rutgers, Johns Hopkins had been concerned about how conference realignment was changing its ability to remain independent in men’s lacrosse even before it had failed to make it to the NCAA Lacrosse Tournament for the first time since it began in 1971, and JHU would provide the Big Ten an elite academic research powerhouse located in close proximity to the conference’s other Eastern members and the very best program in the history of the sport. Plus, the only sports that Johns Hopkins sponsors at the Division I level are men’s and women’s lacrosse*, while the rest of its athletic department operates under Division III. Finally, if JHU ends up joining the Committee of Institutional Cooperation (CIC), which is the academic research consortium that includes all 14 Big Ten members plus the University of Chicago, then it’s a coup in terms of prestige. (For whatever reason, Penn State’s official press release on the new Big Ten lacrosse league is the only place that I’ve seen that mentions Hopkins contacting the CIC.) All of those factors make this situation quite unique compared to thoughts of adding Notre Dame for various non-football sports or, say, Boston University for hockey. As a result, I don’t see the addition of Johns Hopkins for men’s lacrosse as any indication of a broader intent by the Big Ten to search for affiliate members in other sports. Johns Hopkins was the right program in the right sport with the right academic profile at the right time for the Big Ten.

(* Interestingly enough, the Johns Hopkins women’s lacrosse program is going in the opposite direction of choosing independence after having been a member of the American Lacrosse Conference. The ALC featured three Big Ten programs, including national powerhouse Northwestern. I’m personally not a fan of JHU going in this direction as the school would have technically been “all in” with the Big Ten for all of its Division I sports if women’s lacrosse had joined, but it’s less of an issue since men’s lacrosse is clearly the marquee program there. It’s akin to Notre Dame stating that it would join a conference football but go independent in its other sports, where pretty much any league would say, “That’s kind of weird, but HELL YES, we’ll take that deal!” Also note that Northwestern and Maryland have more women’s lacrosse national championships between them than all of the other schools that sponsor the sport *combined*, so the intense competition level may have also been a factor for JHU. That being said, there still seems to be somewhat of a door open for the women’s program to join the Big Ten down the road, as the powers that be have claimed that they “haven’t discussed it” yet.)

Meanwhile, a little further north, the Big Ten and New York Yankees announced that the conference will have a tie-in with the New Era Pinstripe Bowl for the next 8 years (with the opponent almost certainly coming from the ACC). From the standpoint of increasing the Big Ten’s mindshare on the East Coast, the tie-in makes perfect sense. The long-term goal of Jim Delany is to make the Big Ten into the de facto “home conference” for the New York City market in the same way that it is in Chicago already. To be sure, that’s a monumentally tough task (as the number of Big Ten grads in the Chicago market is massive by comparison), but the hope is that the cumulative effect of the presence of Rutgers, the Pinstripe Bowl tie-in, and the fans and alums from other Big Ten schools that have a large presence in the NYC area (particularly Penn State, Michigan, Ohio State and now Maryland) will gain traction there in a way that none of the other conferences would be able to (which is arguably a risk well worth taking considering the size and power of that market). In an interesting marketing wrinkle, the Big Ten will actually have a fixed sign in Yankee Stadium along the first base line along with being part of the rotating ads behind home plate during regular season Yankees games starting in 2014, which might end up being the best advertising that the conference could get in that market.

Whether the Pinstripe Bowl will actually be a great deal for traveling fans is a different matter. Believe me – I love New York City and enjoy the idea of playing a bowl game there, but most of the Big Ten territory prefers its winter destinations to be escapes from the cold weather of the North*. At the same time, Yankee Stadium isn’t in Manhattan or even in a neighborhood comparable to Wrigleyville in Chicago. (As a White Sox fan, it always amuses me when people complain about the “bad” neighborhood that surrounds U.S. Cellular Field as being a drag on attendance since it makes it clear that they’ve never visited the Bronx.) I could see how Rutgers, Penn State and Maryland could travel up to the Pinstripe Bowl fairly easily, but it remains to be seen how the rest of the conference would travel there.

(* If the speculation is true that the Big Ten bowl rotation will consist of the Rose, Orange, Capital One, Outback and Holiday at the top, a mix of the Kraft Fight Hunger, Pinstripe and Gator/Music City at the next level, and a new Detroit Lions bowl against the ACC and maybe the Heart of Dallas in the old Cotton Bowl at the bottom, then I’ll be pretty happy with that lineup. It would hurt to lose the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl since the Phoenix area is such a large home base for Big Ten transplants, but the Kraft Fight Hunger is going to turn into a top notch game when it moves to the new 49ers stadium in Santa Clara and I will always quickly find any excuse to head out to San Diego. I’ll have a more in-depth analysis of the entire Big Ten bowl lineup once it’s officially confirmed.)

The overall message from the Big Ten today is that it’s going full steam ahead in heading to the East Coast. I’ve long been confident that the strategy will work around leveraging Maryland to get into the Washington, DC and Baltimore markets (which will only be further aided by adding Johns Hopkins as an affiliate member), yet the New York City portion of this cycle of expansion and bowl contracts will determine whether Big Ten is going to end up being the second most powerful sports entity in America after the NFL in 10 years or we’ll be sitting around wondering why the conference had chased after cable network fool’s gold. There’s a better chance for the former to occur than what a lot of conference realignment skeptics believe, but the latter could certainly still happen.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Image from Baltimore Sun)

I’m finally back from a spring break vacation in Arizona (80 degrees for the White Sox spring training game that I attended last Wednesday compared to 30 degrees for Opening Day in Chicago yesterday), so let’s get a few updates since I haven’t posted in awhile:

(1) Big Ten Divisions – It appears that the Big Ten office is heeding the calls for the “Keep It Simple Stupid” approach of dividing the soon-to-be 14-team conference into East and West divisions, with Michigan State heading East with Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers and Maryland, the West having Illinois, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota and the only debate being where Indiana and Purdue will be placed.  IU-PU will then be the only protected cross-division rivalry.  Assuming that this comes true, my message to the Big Ten office is the following: THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU!  While I initially advocated Michigan State being placed in the West with both Indiana-based schools in the East, the newly rumored setup was the next best alignment from my perspective.  The Pac-12 was smart in not trying to force any protect cross-division games outside of the California-based schools playing each other annually, so it’s great that the Big Ten reportedly will only keep the Old Oaken Bucket as protected while the West can continue to rotate through Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State more often in this KISS alignment.  (Note that it’s a heck of a lot less heartburn for the West schools to see Indiana or Purdue falling off the schedule more often compared to Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, which was likely a large driver for Sparty getting placed in the East.) It still makes a lot more sense in my mind for Indiana to head to the East since it’s (1) actually further East than Purdue, (2) a school with a disproportionately large East Coast student population and (3) better for competitive balance purposes.  The only reason that I can think of for IU pushing back on an Eastern placement is that it knows that it will never break its Rose Bowl drought competing in a division with resurgent Michigan and Ohio State programs.  Regardless, the Big Ten seems to finally be making the right choices on its divisional alignment.  Let’s just hope those right choices also extend to burying the Legends and Leaders division names next to Jimmy Hoffa*.

(* The Meadowlands aren’t that far from Rutgers, so it would still be in the Big Ten footprint.)

(2) Sweet Missouri Valley Conference Expansion – The “new” Big East consisting of the old Catholic 7 schools poached Butler and Xavier from the Atlantic 10 and Creighton from the Missouri Valley Conference right before the start of the NCAA Tournament, which is likely going to trigger a massive realignment of the midmajor non-FBS conferences.  While the MVC is celebrating Wichita State’s Final Four run, it is also the league most openly pursuing expansion/replacement options as of now (Missouri State’s president actually Tweeted that he’s out visiting interested expansion candidates)*.  Various reports so far indicate that the MVC has had some conversations with Oral Roberts, UMKC, Loyola (Chicago), UIC** and Valparaiso.  The latter three Chicago area schools don’t surprise me at all: I Tweeted a few weeks ago that my gut feeling was that those programs plus Belmont would be at the top of the MVC list if Denver wasn’t going to be considered.  (Reading between the lines in this interview by MileHighMids of Denver’s athletic director, it appears that the MVC would have been interested in Denver if the school were to add more sports, but the AD isn’t willing to commit to that right now.)

(* For a great analysis of potential MVC candidates using Google Maps, check out this anonymous posting.)

(** For disclosure purposes, my parents met at and graduated from UIC, with my father then spending over 3 decades working at that campus. I don’t have any real rooting interest in the UIC Flames sports teams, but I’ll admit to having an affinity for the institution overall with my family connection.)

Perusing some MVC message boards and blogs, I’ve generally seen fans vomit over these choices with calls that they could either (1) do better or (2) stand pat at 9 schools.  It reminds me of the recent UCLA basketball coaching search*, where much of the fan base seemed to be incredulous that they couldn’t lure the likes of Brad Stevens or Shaka Smart and had to settle for the protector of a rapist… er… Steve Alford.**  The MVC fans seemed to have hopes for the likes of SLU and/or Dayton (the former of which is definitely going to be in the Big East, where it’s just a matter of when, while the latter likely will be there but has to sweat it out a bit with Richmond as a competitor for spot #12) and are now facing the reality that the realistic candidates aren’t nearly as desirable.

(* For what it’s worth, I believe that UCLA is an elite program with only Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Indiana and those rat bastards from Duke being in the same class. However, the Bruins’ lack of a sexy hire was the result of an elitist approach to job security by the school and fan base. That is, they just fired a guy in Ben Howland who went to three Final Fours, pulled in a top-ranked recruiting class last year and won the Pac-12 regular season championship this year.  At most schools, that record warrants a lifetime contract – Shaka Smart is going to be able to parlay a single Final Four run into perpetuity at VCU.  I fully understand how many UCLA fans believed the trajectory of the program was going in the wrong direction with Howland and a change might have been needed simply for the sake of a change, but they might have failed to understand how top level coaches in stable positions aren’t exactly enthralled with the prospect of taking a job where a 3-time Final Four coach got canned right after winning a conference championship. Hence, the pool of interested parties was much more shallow than anticipated.)

(** I highly recommend Black Heart Gold Pants blogger Patrick Vint’s message to UCLA fans about Alford on Bruins Nation.)

From my perspective, the MVC isn’t going to be able to add any real home run additions on-the-court. Belmont has the best performance over the past few seasons of the potential candidates, but geographic fit seems to be an issue in that case and their attendance figures have been subpar.  As a result, the MVC likely needs to concentrate on attacking its worst weaknesses as opposed to attempting to replace the irreplaceable Creighton in terms of basketball performance.  To me, that worst weakness is that fact that Wichita is the MVC’s largest TV market at #69 overall in the US.  Those of you that read me regularly know that I’m not in favor of expansion only for the sake of additional markets, but in the case of the MVC, having Wichita as your largest market is Charles Barkley turrible. Even if some of the candidates in large markets aren’t necessarily great TV draws, the MVC is eventually going to need them for recruiting purposes for long-term survival.  (This is why even if SLU and Dayton end up leaving the Atlantic 10 on top of Butler and Xavier, that league is still in much better position going forward with its footprint.) That means that a school like Murray State, which has had solid attendance and on-the-court performance, might appear to be desirable for MVC fans but not so much for the conference’s university presidents.

As a lifelong Chicagoan, I have a particular interest in how the MVC is going to proceed since I firmly believe that it should have a better presence in the Chicago market than it does today. Illinois State, Southern Illinois and Bradley all predominantly draw students from and send alumni to the Chicagoland area (with Northern Iowa and Drake also sending large contingents to the region, too).  However, the MVC doesn’t draw the coverage that it ought to considering the in-place fan base since it lacks a direct Chicago presence (which is critical unless you’re the University of Illinois or Notre Dame).  Therefore, it’s not a shocker that two city schools (UIC and Loyola) and a university on the periphery of the metro region in Northwest Indiana (Valpo) are being visited by the MVC powers that be. The MVC leadership likely recognizes what I see in that Chicago is a large market that can be legitimately leveraged by the conference.  It’s not so much that the MVC thinks that UIC or Loyola can “deliver” Chicago in a way that Illinois, Northwestern, DePaul or Notre Dame are able to, but rather that the critical mass of MVC students from and alums living in the area can give the league a solid presence akin to what the A-10 has in Philadelphia or Washington, DC. The MVC doesn’t have any type of major market anchor right now and that’s increasingly going to be a negative risk factor if it’s not rectified.

I haven’t forgotten that ORU’s crosstown neighbor of Tulsa just got invited to the “Old” Big East (or Conference TBD) today. I’ll have more thoughts on that the status of that league in a separate post. Until then, enjoy the Final Four!

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Image from mgoblog)

It figures that a conference that has lost 5 all-sports members, 8 non-football schools and 3 schools that accept invites to join but then backed out before playing a down of football within the past 18 months would ultimately end up losing its own name.  Both Brett McMurphy of ESPN.com and Mark Blaudschun are reporting that the Big East presidents are expected to approve a plan to allow for the “Catholic 7″ defectors from the conference (Georgetown, Villanova, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Providence, DePaul and Marquette) to keep the Big East name and leave the league for the 2013-14 season.  Pete Thamel of SI.com notes that Fox is pushing for the early exit and is expected to announce a contract with the Catholic 7/Big East when it unveils its plans for its new pair of sports networks of Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2.  He also reports that the Catholic 7′s keeping of the Big East name and early exit are effectively being paid for by leaving the exit fees and NCAA Tournament credits of the other Big East schools that have defected or will be defecting (West Virginia, Syracuse, Pitt, Louisville, Rutgers and Notre Dame).  Meanwhile, a consensus has formed that Xavier and Butler will be added immediately to the new league with the old name for next season with a chance that a 10th, such as Creighton, comes in at that time.  The Catholic 7/Big East would then likely move up to 12 with St. Louis and Dayton (or possibly Richmond) in 2014-15.

The fight over the Big East was interesting since it’s a brand name that has been dragged through the mud lately yet still had a lot of value to both the Catholic 7 and Conference Formerly Known as the Big East football schools for different reasons.  From my vantage point, the Big East name is more valuable with the Catholic 7, but was more valuable to the football schools.  That is, the Catholic 7 are more able to fully realize the value of the Big East name since it had the bulk of the remaining historical members that weren’t in other power conferences and there wouldn’t be a cognitive dissonance if they held their conference tournament at Madison Square Garden.  On the other hand, the football schools have little association with each other besides being new members of the league that was known as the Big East specifically.  The Catholic 7 could have more easily re-branded themselves under a different name since the average sports fan could already largely recognize that group as a cohesive unit, while the football members will need to sell a new untested name on top of educating the public about who is in their conference.  As a result, I’m a little surprised that the football schools didn’t pull out a rant like Marlo did on The Wire about how “My name is my name!”

Of course, the exit fees and NCAA Tournament credits of the other Big East defectors that the Catholic 7 are leaving behind aren’t small amounts.  Some back-of-the-napkin calculations would put that at least on the order of $20 million just for the NCAA credits.  (Edit: Jeremy Fowler of CBSSports.com reported earlier this month that the Big East actually has a “Realignment Reserve Fund” that is projected to be worth $68.8 million by 2020.)  Significantly, it’s likely that none of that is going to the incoming members of the league as part of their entrance agreements since it is standard operating procedure that new schools do not receive any of the revenue earned before they joined.  This means that UConn, Cincinnati and USF, which are currently the only all-sports members in the Big East with voting rights (Temple still isn’t a full member yet), are probably ending up with all of that money that the Catholic 7 are leaving behind, which would certainly make it more palatable for them to let go of the Big East name in return.  It’s at least some financial consideration for literally the only three schools in all of FBS that will end up earning less conference-level money outright in the new college football playoff system that starts in 2014 than they are in the current BCS regime.

Maybe it is all for the best for the football schools that thought that they were going to be in a conference called the Big East.  Andersen Consulting had to go through an acrimonious split with its parent Arthur Andersen back in the late-1990s, including losing an arbitration proceeding where it was forced to give up any reference to the then-extremely valuable Andersen name*.  The new name “Accenture” was chosen and literally hundreds of millions of dollars needed to be spent on re-branding efforts.  What seemed like a huge branding blow in 2000 ended up becoming one of the most fortuitous name changes in history just a year later when the Enron scandal hit and took Andersen down entirely as an accounting firm.  Sometimes, a fresh name with a new start can end up being better in the long run even if the benefits aren’t obvious today.

(* I was a finance major at the University of Illinois in the late-1990s and, without question, the most prestigious of the then-Big Five accounting firms was Arthur Andersen.  The sad irony of Andersen getting taken down in the Enron scandal partly for enabling poor audit decisions in order to preserve other types of tax services fees was that its main reputation, at least in Chicago, was that it was actually the least sales-oriented and most client-focused of the large accounting firms.)

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Image from Glide Hoyas)

 

As the college football season has come to an end with Alabama and the SEC triumphant once again and basketball season in full swing, let’s take stock of the conference realignment landscape:

(1) Is the Big Ten expanding to 16 or 18 (or more) and if so, when? – Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune recently noted that there are some within the Big Ten that believe that the conference won’t stop expanding until it gets to 18 schools.  That being said, I’m not someone that believes that further Big Ten expansion is imminent.  Sure, there are schools that the Big Ten seem to be more than willing to add to create a legit superconference (e.g. Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and, of course, Notre Dame), but I continue to believe that there isn’t going to be some type of impending exodus from the ACC.  Look back at how much of a sales job the Big Ten needed to procure Maryland, which is a school in a state contiguous to the current Big Ten footprint, has relatively weak conference rivalries (Terps fans may care about Duke and UNC, but it’s not reciprocated), has turned into a Northern school from a cultural perspective and clearly needed more athletic department money.  From my vantage point, the members of the ACC still like the league even if they’re wary about the TV contract (whereas the Big 12 is the opposite where everyone outside of Texas really isn’t a huge fan of the league per se but are happy about the latest TV deal).  Are the Big Ten and SEC stronger than the ACC?  Absolutely.  However, that doesn’t automatically mean that the ACC is a sitting duck that’s about to get picked apart.

Let’s put it this way: if the Big Ten really thought that it could obtain all of the ACC schools that I’ve seen rumored that the conference wants to add in such a quick manner (e.g. within the next year), then I highly doubt that Jim Delany would have granted an invite to Rutgers.  That’s not a knock on Rutgers and what it can bring to the table in the new Big Ten setup (the school makes sense as an addition for various reasons, not the least of which is a presence in the New York City metro area), but UVA, UNC, Georgia Tech and probably Duke (yes, Duke, and yes, I need to take a shower after saying that) would have all been ahead of the Scarlet Knights on the pecking order.  Convincing Maryland to head to the Big Ten was tough enough and that’s nothing compared to persuading truly Southern schools such as UVA and UNC to come along (and by the same token, the SEC isn’t going to be as attractive to those same schools as it was to Texas A&M and Missouri).

As a Big Ten guy, I personally see a ton of benefits for the conference if it raids the ACC further.  From an objective standpoint, though, I don’t see that happening soon.  The threat of the Big Ten being on the prowl probably gives the conference more power than it does in terms of actually striking.  I know this much: the Big Ten will wait for who it really wants at this point.  They’re not going to force anything other than a 100% fit and to me, that would likely need to be some combo of UVA, UNC, Georgia Tech and/or Notre Dame (although I’d personally want to see Florida State become a prime target).  That could take awhile to come to fruition, so I believe we can put the Superconference Armageddon scenarios away for the time being as realistic (even though they’re so much fun to talk about as hypotheticals).

(2) What are the Big Ten divisions going to look like? - Greenstein’s report also intimated that the Big Ten was looking at an East/West split for divisions with the possibility of putting Northwestern in the East due to its alumni contingents in the New York and Washington, DC regions.  However, the word out of Northwestern is that they would prefer to stay in the West with its closer rivals such as Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin along with enjoying a massive influx of Nebraska fans buying up tickets in Evanston every other year.

From what I’ve seen, the divisional alignment that I had proposed a couple of weeks ago with Michigan State in the West and both Indiana and Purdue in the East and every school having a protected cross division rival won’t come to fruition.  If Northwestern is in the West (and I’ll be honest as an Illinois fan that I’d personally be pretty pissed if Northwestern ends up in the East on top of Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State), then it would seem that Indiana would make more sense as the Hoosier State rep in the East (look at this Wall Street Journal article from a few years ago about how many East Coast students have been invading Bloomington lately) while Purdue would head to the West.  That would mean the East would have Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers, Maryland, Michigan State and Indiana, while the West would have Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue.  In that event, I would hope that the Big Ten assigns Indiana-Purdue as the only protected cross division rivalry while everyone else goes on a regular rotation.  This would allow the West schools to continue playing Michigan and Ohio State more often, especially if the Big Ten increases its conference schedule to 9 games.  The Pac-12 did the right thing by only making the games between the various California-based members into annual cross division games and not trying to force any unnatural pairings.  Hopefully, the Big Ten has the good sense to do the same.

(3) What’s going on with the Big East/Mountain West skirmish? – As of now, the conference realignment action is really happening outside of the scope of the five power conferences (Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, ACC and Big 12).  The latest cog in the Gang of Five wheel is San Diego State, which is faced with a decision of whether to “go back” to the Mountain West Conference (which they are still a member of until July 1st) or “stay” with the Big East as football-only member (which they have committed to join on that date) and the Big West for basketball and Olympic sports.  I don’t envy the decision that has to be made by the Aztecs since neither option is exactly optimal – it’s either being in the MWC, which has a new TV deal structure that will largely benefit Boise State, or the Big East whose membership is in flux and SDSU will almost certainly be the lone extreme geographic outlier.

Even though there’s a case to be made that San Diego State would make more football TV money in the Big East and actually reduce their Olympics sports travel costs in the Big West, I believe that the Aztecs will ultimately stick with the MWC.  It comes down to a simple question: would San Diego State have chosen to join the Big East one year ago if it knew how the league would look today?  In my opinion, it would be an emphatic “No”, as evidenced by schools in smaller markets such as UNLV and Fresno State having since rejected overtures from the Big East.  It would have been one thing if the Big East still had AQ status (or the equivalent of it in the new postseason system) or could reasonably procure an outsized TV contract compared to the MWC (which is what Big East commissioner Mike Aresco has been trying to convince people will be coming down the pike even though no one outside of Big East partisans believes him), but being the sole West Coast team in a league that isn’t receiving favored treatment anymore and looks like it won’t be adding anyone else within 1500 miles of your school (which we’ll get to in a moment) is a rough thing for any university president or athletic director to sign up for.

Now, that doesn’t mean that the Big East is a bad choice for everyone.  Houston and SMU, who have been rumored to be targets of the MWC, still make a lot more sense in the Big East.  At worst, those schools will be in a better version of the Conference USA that they will be leaving, so the MWC doesn’t provide much upside comparatively.  As much as some observers seem to want to watch conferences just pack it in and completely die off, the Big East (or whatever it will be called in the future, which is a separate issue) can still survive as an entity with the pieces that it still has left.  Tulsa appears to be a Big East expansion target, which would be a solid addition for its Southwestern flank.  UMass is also out there as a classic “university presidents might love it and fans will hate it” option – they have a nascent and struggling FBS program yet offer a public flagship university in the Northeast that plays football at that level (which otherwise don’t exist at all outside of the 5 power conferences plus UConn).  Several other schools from Conference USA (e.g. Southern Mississippi) and the MAC (e.g. Northern Illinois) might also get a look, but my feeling  is that Tulsa and UMass are the frontrunners to get the Big East up to 12 football members (assuming that San Diego State stays in the MWC) as soon as possible.  The league would then do everything it can to keep Navy on board as an addition for 2015 and, if Mike Aresco is successful in doing so, would target one more school on top of that to get to 14 schools for that season.

(4) What is the TV Contract and Expansion Status for the “Catholic 7″? – The Catholic 7 defectors from the Big East (DePaul, St. John’s, Marquette, Georgetown, Seton Hall, Villanova and Providence) have upended the “football means everything and basketball means nothing” axiom of conference realignment.  According to Darren Rovell of ESPN. com, Fox has offered $500 million over 12 years for the Catholic 7, with the assumption that the group adds 5 more schools to get up to 12 members.  That figure will likely be larger than what the football playing schools in the Big East will receive for both football and basketball.  I’ve said many times on this blog that football in and of itself isn’t what’s valuable, but rather quality content.  In this case, the Catholic 7 are offering quality content in their sphere of non-FBS basketball schools with traditional schools in large urban markets.  The problem with so many conferences is that they’re trying to apply the way that the Big Ten and SEC make money via football when they don’t have the assets to do it properly.  It would be akin to a mom-and-pop corner store trying to run a business like Wal-Mart or Target without the requisite supply chain.  Not every conference can be all things to all people in the manner of the Big Ten and SEC, so the Catholic 7 was smart enough to realize (or at least make the right decision when backed into a corner) that they can exploit a lucrative niche.  They became the Trader Joe’s of college conferences as opposed to Wal-Mart, if you will.  Instead of being subject to the whims of raids from the 5 more powerful football conferences as members of the hybrid Big East, the Catholic 7 have positioned themselves as arguably the most powerful non-FBS sports conference out there.  The non-FBS market might be much smaller than the FBS market as a whole, but there’s something to be said to being #1 in the former with complete control of your destiny as opposed to #6 (or even #7) in the latter without any buying power.

With the Fox offer apparently contingent upon the Catholic 7 adding 5 schools, that brings into question who would be the expansion candidates.  Xavier and Butler have been continuously named by several separate outlets as locks, so that takes up the first two spots.  The next 2 most likely targets appear to be Dayton (great fan base) and Creighton (ditto with a top notch on-the-court program right now on top of that).  All 4 of those schools should feel fairly comfortable about getting into the new league with the Catholic 7 (which may very well still end up with the Big East brand name when all is said and done) with this news about Fox wanting a 12-team league.  That leaves the last spot that appears to be a battle between St. Louis and Virginia Commonwealth.

If I were running the Catholic 7, I’d definitely recommend SLU as school #12.  From my vantage point, this is an opportunity for this group of schools to create a conference with branding that goes beyond athletics with like-minded institutions.  Essentially, the new league can be to urban undergraduate-focused private schools in the Midwest and East Coast what the Big Ten is to large research institutions in the same region.  In that regard, SLU is a perfect institutional fit with the Catholic 7 and the 4 other schools mentioned.  SLU also has excellent basketball facilities and a solid history in the sport, so it’s not as if though this would be a poor on-the-court move.

VCU, on the other hand, would purely be a basketball resume addition.  Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that approach, as this new league is going to need top notch hoops teams on-the-court to gain the requisite NCAA Tournament credits to pay the bills.  At the same time, VCU would be an Eastern-based addition to balance out all of the other probable expansion candidates that are located in the Midwest.  However, I’m wary about VCU being an addition based on short-term results as opposed to long-term institutional fit.  What surprises me is that there has been zero buzz about the Catholic 7 looking at Richmond, which has a solid basketball resume itself and is a better institutional fit as a private liberal arts school located in the same market as VCU.

It’s not an accident that SLU was added by the Atlantic 10 immediately after Conference USA stopped its hybrid model after the Big East raids of 2003, while VCU and Butler were only invited this year.  SLU would be a long-term move in a solid TV market that’s a great institutional fit and makes geographic sense assuming that the Catholic 7 wants to add Creighton.  I have all of the respect in the world for VCU as a basketball program, but SLU would be best for the new Catholic 7 league for the long run.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Image from CBS Sports)

Big Ten Map

I have been meaning to post my responses to the Big Ten Network’s conference expansion survey, but so much realignment news (such as the 7 Catholic schools in the Big East deciding to split off) has intervened that I’m only getting a chance to fill it out now.  Here are my thoughts:

1. My favorite school is _____.

The University of Illinois, the ultimate drinking school with a football problem.

2. My favorite school is in the _______ Division.

The Leaders Division… I think.  Let me Google this.

3. As the conference expands beyond 12 teams, should the new teams be added to an existing division or should new divisions be drawn from scratch?

These need to be blown up like the 2 versions of the Death Star.

4. What do you think of “Legends” and “Leaders” as division names?  (Strongly Like to Strongly Dislike.)

Please see the answer to Question #3.

5. Should the B1G change or keep the current division names?

Please see the answer to Question #3.

6. If you think the division names should be changed, what should they be changed to?

Assuming that logic prevails and the Big Ten has something close to a geographical alignment (a very large assumption when dealing with university presidents and athletic directors that have managed to turn what ought to be a simple exercise into a massive internal political debate), it should be East-West or North-South.  If an obsessive Big Ten sports fan like me still needs to stop and think about which school is in which division after two years, then the conference made a mistake.  The theme, as I argued over and over again back when the Big Ten added Nebraska, should be K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple Stupid.

7. If divisions were to be changed, what criteria should be used to determine them? (Rank by importance Competitive balance, geography, protect traditional rivalries.)

The #1 consideration by far should be to protect traditional rivalries, as those are at the heart of what makes college sports great.  Close behind that should be geography, as that is a factor that will never change, whether it’s one year from now or two decades down the road.  Competitive balance is honestly a minor factor for me.  All programs inevitable go up and down on-the-field over time, so attempting to gerrymander divisions based on historical records virtually always ends up backfiring (see the Leaders Division this past season and numerous occasions with the ACC divisions).  The Big Ten made a massive mistake in overweighting what it believed to be competitive balance in constructing the current divisions and I hope that they see the light this time around.

8. How important is it for IN-STATE rivals to be in the same division? (Very important to not important.)

It’s important, but there can be exceptions provided that those rivals are still playing each other annually.

9. How important is it for TRADITIONAL rivals to be in the same division? (Very important to not important.)

As with the answer to Question #8, it’s important, yet workarounds can be accommodated as long as the rivals continue to play each other on an annual basis.  The main problem with the way that the Big Ten constructed the Leaders and Legends Divisions is that most of the Big Ten schools have multiple traditional rivals, which means that many of them inherently need to be in the same division in order for the maintenance of those rivalries to work.  Wisconsin is getting completely screwed by not getting to play traditional rival Iowa and the Badgers are a natural school to help further integrate Nebraska into the conference.  In my opinion, the Wisconsin/Iowa/Minnesota trifecta should have never been split up and Nebraska fits in there as the fourth wheel of that western flank perfectly.

10. Currently, the number of conference games the B1G plays is 8. Should this increase?

Yes, the number of conference games absolutely needs to increase to 9.  This is even more important if the Big Ten continues to designate cross-division annual rivalries, where schools would only play their counterparts in the opposite division (excluding designated cross-division rivals) only 2 times in a 12 year period without a 9th conference game.  That extra conference game at least turns it into a more tolerable 2 times in a 6 year period cycle (which still isn’t exactly optimal).  While every school in the conference wants to maximize home game revenue by playing more MACrifice games, the Big Ten isn’t like the SEC, which has a history of having conference members going very long periods of time without playing each other and doesn’t think much of it.  That won’t (or at least shouldn’t) fly in the Big Ten.  The fact that the Big Ten had agreed to go to 9 conference games in a 12 school alignment prior to the now-defunct Big Ten/Pac-12 alliance gives me optimism that they’ll do so when it’s even more critical.

11. What is your preference on a B1G Basketball Tourney? (Every team qualifies, or 12 of 14 teams qualify.)

I’m a very large believer that every conference should have all teams qualify for its basketball tournament.  Unlike the football conference championship game that only involves 2 teams, the basketball tournament is the one major conference event where the teams, fans and alums from all of the schools can gather together as a shared experience.  For those that say that the conference tournament should be about merit, I would reply that leagues should eliminate conferences tournaments all together if people want to be truly merit-based (as the performance over the course of 3 months of regular season games should trump what occurs in 3 days of a conference tournament).  Basketball tournaments are purely money-making machines for the power conferences, so you might as well let everyone participate.  Plus, there’s the romantic idea that every single school still has one last shot to make it into the NCAA Tournament, which is inherently a more interesting aspect of watching conference tournaments compared to how they’re really just seeding exercises for the teams that already know that they’re going to make it to the Dance.

12. Currently, the B1G has no divisions for basketball. Should this be changed?

I don’t believe that basketball divisions are necessary as long as each school has at least 2 or 3 locked-in annual rivals (e.g. Indiana-Purdue, Michigan-Ohio State, etc.).

13. If yes, why should there be divisions for basketball?

Please see answer to Question #12.

14. If no, why shouldn’t there be divisions for basketball?

Please see answer to Question #12.

15. When people reference “B1G”, do you recognize that to be the Big Ten Conference?

Yes, I do.  At first, I wasn’t a large fan of the new Big Ten logo, but that has grown on me (unlike the division names).  In the social media context, being able to refer to #B1G on Twitter and have people generally know what that means is extremely useful.  That’s not a minor point in today’s world.

16. With 14 teams currently, should the B1G remain the “Big Ten”, or should its name be changed?

It should ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS be the Big Ten, even if it ends up with 16 schools or more.  If the Big Ten didn’t change its name back when it added Penn State over two decades ago, it certainly shouldn’t do it now.  There’s way too much name recognition and brand value with the conference name.

17. Do you have any further thoughts on B1G expansion?

Well, I’ve provided my thoughts on Florida State here.  Otherwise, I don’t have a preternatural desire to see the Big Ten expand further.  The 14 schools that the conference will have going forward fit together well academically and institutionally with geographic continuity across the Northern half of the United States.  If there’s a legit football power in a top market such as Florida State available, then I think the Big Ten ought to be aggressive.  However, there isn’t an overall need for the conference to expand for the sake of expanding.  I’d be perfectly happy with staying at 14 members.

As for how the divisions should actually look, as I’ve stated before, I favor the K.I.S.S. approach.  Realistically, I believe that the Big Ten will need the following requirements in any divisional structure at a minimum:

(a) Ohio State and Michigan must play annually – This is pretty obvious.

(b) Ohio State and Penn State must play annually – This might be less obvious to people outside the Big Ten (or even with some fans within the Big Ten), but trust me, this is a non-negotiable game.

(c) Penn State, Rutgers and Maryland must be in the same division – The entire crux of the Big Ten expansion to 14 is to solidify the league’s presence on the East Coast, which effectively mandates that they have to be together.

What’s evident here is that Ohio State and Penn State are really the keys to the new Big Ten divisional alignment.  For instance, these parameters mean that there is no way that Ohio State can be in a division opposite of both Michigan and Penn State – the Buckeyes have to be in a division with at least one of those schools.  The East Coast bloc of Penn State/Rutgers/Maryland also limits the league’s options.  We also have to consider whether the divisions need to split up the four traditional powers (Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Nebraska) evenly or if 3 of them can be in one division.  I personally believe that 3 of them can be in one division provided that the other side has more depth of non-bottom feeders top-to-bottom, but know that others (particularly athletic directors) may disagree with that.

Ultimately, I’m most in favor of going with an East/West split with Michigan going to the East and Michigan State in the West.  It would look like the following (with cross-division rivals next to each other and rationale in parentheses):

EAST – WEST
Michigan – Michigan State (in-state rivalry)
Ohio State – Wisconsin (continuation of current Leaders divisional game)
Penn State – Nebraska (continuation of current cross-division king program game)
Indiana – Illinois (two schools in bordering states passing time until basketball season starts)
Purdue – Iowa (continuation of nonsensical cross-division game)
Rutgers – Northwestern (New York City vs. Chicago angle)
Maryland – Minnesota (they pulled the last two straws)

Even though three “King” programs are in the East, I believe that there is still a solid balance of schools with top notch fan bases in the West (Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa) to compensate for it.  Most other ways of attempting to put two Kings in each division end up with wacky geography or one extremely strong division and the other being very weak.  (Yes, I know that I’ve said that I don’t think that competitive balance should matter, but I’m realistic in believing that others believe it’s important.)  Now, it’s understandable that the older members of the Big Ten West likely would not be happy only seeing Michigan and Ohio State 2 times every 6 years, so that could be a deal-killer.

The “Inner-Outer” setup that the BTN provided as a choice here is an interesting concept, as it groups the 4 western schools (Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota) with the 3 Eastern schools (Penn State, Rutgers, Maryland) in one division while the 7 other schools in the middle are in the opposite division.  It’s terrible in terms of geography and the casual sports fan would look at it and say, “WTF?!”, but it does achieve the goal of preserving every single traditional rivalry as an intra-divisional game with the exception of Ohio State-Penn State.  I’m not a fan of the Inner-Outer alignment personally (and most people that I know don’t like it either), yet I certainly wouldn’t put it past the Big Ten presidents and ADs to head down this road.

Classic Music Video of the Week – “12 Days of Christmas” by John Denver and The Muppets

The events of the past week really put back into focus what’s most important in life: friends and family.  This video always brings back fond memories of my family popping in a VHS tape of the John Denver Christmas Special with The Muppets every year and my own kids now find The Muppets to be just as hilarious as I did.  I hope that all of you and your loved ones have a wonderful holiday.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Image from DigNittanyVolleyball)

The irony of writing a blog that’s largely known for being focused upon conference realignment and Big Ten expansion is that I’m personally not someone that has a preternatural need to see the kingdom of Jim Delany get larger and larger.  Back when I originally starting writing about the topic three years ago, I only really saw a necessity for the Big Ten to add 1 more school to create a conference championship game and wasn’t a large proponent of expanding to 14, 16 or beyond.  All of the superconference ideas with an emphasis on pods and market shares interest me greatly from a business perspective, but the number of potential expansion candidates out there that make me perk up as fan is pretty small.  If the Big Ten needed to go up to 16 to get marquee schools such as Texas or Notre Dame, then that would have been one thing, but expanding simply for the sake of market share can backfire in the long run.  Nebraska certainly qualified as a school that I’d go out of my way to actually watch play football, so I was content with the thought of the Big Ten staying at 12.  I completely understand the latest moves by Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany to add Maryland and Rutgers to move the league up to 14 members as a way to stay ahead of the ever-changing demographics of this country, yet that’s largely the business side of my brain coming to that conclusion.

Of course, Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis did nothing to temper the expectations that the Big Ten continues to be on the prowl by calling 14 members “clumsy” and how the conference doesn’t “want to get outflanked”. Delany has stated that the Big Ten is “inactive but alert” regarding future expansion.  In my last post, I went through the Big Ten’s various expansion options (almost entirely focused upon ACC schools).  For Florida State, I stated the following:

Personally, I’d take a hard look at Florida State because they are so extremely valuable in a key state (especially if the Big Ten is seriously considering Georgia Tech and don’t want them to be a lone outpost), yet the tea leaves are saying otherwise.

On the same night that I put up that post, Chip Brown from Orangebloods.com had this interesting tidbit (via Warchant.com):

But it should be getting more and more clear after Maryland’s departure from the ACC, Florida State is not sitting around playing solitaire.

According to Warchant.com, the Florida State site on the Yahoo!/Rivals network, FSU officials are now exploring conference options and have put out feelers to the Big Ten.

That small line about Florida State putting out feelers to the Big Ten (even though the article overall has a Big 12 slant) has stuck out at me as much as anything that I’ve seen regarding conference realignment over the past three years.  As we have seen time and time again with the kabuki dance of switching leagues, the proper order is that a school contacts the conference that it wants to switch to first as opposed to the other way around. To say the least, my line of thinking is really starting to shift here.

Remember back in 2010 how Missouri was repeatedly the most oft-mentioned expansion target for the Big Ten, but then the true intentions of the league were to really go after Texas and then Nebraska?  Missouri was effectively used as a stalking horse by Jim Delany to cause instability (or create the perception of instability) in the Big 12 to shake loose one of the most valuable brand names in college football.  Now look at the most oft-mentioned targets of the Big Ten in this current phase of realignment: Georgia Tech and Virginia.  Both are fantastic academic institutions in fast-growing states, but they aren’t exactly power punches on the football front.  They’re really extensions of the pure demographics plus academics strategy that drove the Maryland and Rutgers additions.  With the Big Ten at 14 members, we’re possibly looking at the last 2 open spots that the league will ever have to get up to 16.  Are Georgia Tech and Virginia who the Big Ten wants to grant those last precious spots to?  The academic side of the league would obviously love it, yet there’s something missing on the athletic front (which in turn impacts the financial front).

What we now have is the perception of instability in the ACC just like there was a perception of instability in the Big 12 in 2010 through 2011.  If the Big Ten is seriously considering further raids of the ACC, then why wouldn’t it go after the biggest whale possible?  Why wouldn’t it make the move that would both the bean counters and the fans would love?

Is getting Florida State the true intended end game for the Big Ten?

Outside of geography, the only real reason that has been given by numerous people, including me, as to why the Big Ten would conceivably pass on Florida State is academics (and specifically the lack of membership in the AAU).  That assumption might be faulty, though, especially if Florida State were to come in together with an elite academic school such as Georgia Tech or Virginia. Besides, Florida State is ranked #97 in the U.S. News rankings compared to Nebraska at #101, so it’s nowhere near the academic stretch for the Big Ten in the way that Louisville was clearly outside of the ACC’s prior academic standards.  Beyond academics, out of all of the schools in the ACC, Florida State provides (1) the best on-the-field football program, (2) the largest state by population, (3) the highest national TV value, (4) the most regional TV value for the Big Ten Network, (5) the best football recruiting grounds and (6) arguably the best football fan base (neck-and-neck with Clemson).  Basically, FSU hits every non-academic metric that you could possibly want in an expansion candidate.  Tallahassee and the rest of the Florida Panhandle are definitely Southern in culture (which could clash with the Northern Big Ten culture), but much of the rest of the state of Florida where FSU alums and fans reside has one of the largest concentrations (if not the largest concentration) of Big Ten alums outside of the Midwest.  It’s not an accident that after the Rose Bowl, the Big Ten has its top bowl tie-ins with the Capital One Bowl (Orlando), Outback Bowl (Tampa) and Gator Bowl (Jacksonville) and just signed up for a partial Orange Bowl (Miami) tie-in once the new playoff system starts.  Much like New York City and Washington, DC, there are potential synergies for the Big Ten in the state of Florida that really go beyond the applicable school that’s being added.

In the same way that Texas A&M fans started complaining so much about the Big 12 that it eventually pushed the school’s administration to approach the SEC, Florida State fans have been rumbling about moving out of the ACC for months.  So, if Florida State is truly an unhappy camper that’s ready to move (and to be clear, it needs to start coming from the university president level instead of the fans or even trustee members on a power trip), it would be foolish for the Big Ten to automatically pass on the Seminoles on the basis of academics.  AAU membership is obviously highly desired, but the Big Ten would let in non-AAU school Notre Dame in a heartbeat.  The Big Ten also admitted Nebraska even though the existing members knew full well that NU’s AAU status was in jeopardy (as the school was kicked out of the organization only months after joining the conference with both Michigan and Wisconsin voting against them).  In other words, the Big Ten has demonstrated a willingness to look past the AAU issue for the right school, and Florida State may indeed be the right school in this situation.

Now, as with anything in conference realignment, it takes two to tango.  The Big Ten could want Florida State all day long, but it means very little unless the interest is reciprocated.  That’s what makes Florida State “putting out feelers to the Big Ten” so intriguing.  At the very least, that indicates some interest on the part of FSU.

I’m not going to insult the intelligence of Florida State fans and alums that might be reading this, so I’ll be objective here: even though I’m a huge Illinois fan and Big Ten guy, my personal opinion is that the SEC would be the best conference for FSU if it were to move from the ACC (and I’m sure that would be the choice of most Seminoles fans).  The SEC fits Florida State geographically and culturally while also providing a juggernaut football league.  If FSU has offers on the table from the Big Ten and SEC at the same time, then I’d be hard pressed to advise the school to turn down the SEC when taking my Big Ten goggles off.  However, Mr. SEC (probably the closest thing to my SEC counterpart regarding conference realignment) has noted that the SEC is on the precipice of creating a new TV network with ESPN and would prevent any consideration of newly doubling up in existing SEC states for financial reasons.  In the case of Florida State, the value of in-state rival Florida is so great that a potential SEC network could easily get basic carriage in the state of Florida based on the strength of the Gators alone, which means that FSU is worth much less to the SEC than it would to the Big Ten or Big 12.  (The Big Ten saw this on a smaller scale when looking at Pitt as an expansion candidate.  In terms of academics and institutional fit, Pitt was and still is a great match on paper for the Big Ten, but it’s a school that wouldn’t bring in a single cent of additional BTN revenue since Penn State already delivers the entire state of Pennsylvania by itself.)  Now, the SEC certainly might see value in adding Florida State simply to prevent the Big Ten or Big 12 from encroaching on the most important TV market and football recruiting territory in its footprint as a defensive measure, but let’s assume for the purposes of this discussion that the SEC isn’t a viable option for FSU.

So, if the SEC is out of the picture, why would the Big Ten possibly let the Big 12 walk off with possibly the most valuable school that has been willing to move in conference realignment over the past three years?  That would create two power conferences (the SEC and Big 12) that combine the recruiting bases and TV households of both Florida and Texas, which would be dangerous for the Big Ten to allow to occur in the long-term.   While I could understand how the SEC would be more attractive to FSU than the Big Ten, I don’t see how Jim Delany would lose in a head-to-head battle with the Big 12 over the school if it came down to that.  The only real advantage that the Big 12 provides over the Big Ten is access to the state of Texas.  That’s not insignificant, but it’s not outcome determinative in my eyes (as evidenced by Nebraska and Colorado willingly giving up their ties to that state).  On the fronts that university presidents care the most about, the Big Ten has all of the trump cards.  The Big Ten was projecting over $43 million per year in conference revenue in 2017 when it was talking to Maryland.   Now think about what that figure would look like when you add the households in the state of Florida to the Big Ten Network (which has over 5 million more people than the states of Maryland and New Jersey combined with a population base that is a lot more attuned to college sports, to boot).  Those are figures that the Big 12 can’t match, even if FSU could procure a lucrative third tier rights deal that the conference allows.   The Big Ten also has a clear academic prestige advantage over the Big 12.  In terms of geography, the Big Ten is even slightly less inconvenient than the Big 12, where Columbus, Bloomington, West Lafayette and Champaign are actually all slightly shorter distances to Tallahassee than both Morgantown and Austin among the closest existing members of those leagues.  I would assume that both the Big Ten and Big 12 would add 1 other Southern ACC member (likely Georgia Tech or maybe Miami for the Big Ten or Clemson for the Big 12) to pair up with FSU, so the Seminoles wouldn’t be a lone geographic outlier in either case.  (To be sure, I’m not going to sugarcoat the geography issue for FSU with respect to either the Big Ten or Big 12 – it’s definitely not optimal in either case.  That being said, the ACC stuck Florida State in a division with Boston College and Syracuse while not having the Noles play its closest conference counterpart of Georgia Tech annually, so that conference hasn’t exactly mitigated FSU’s travel distances even with a large contingent of Southern schools.)  All in all, the Big Ten can offer more money and better academics compared to the Big 12 with similar geographic challenges, so this shouldn’t be a matter of Florida State actually preferring the Big 12 over the Big Ten.

I don’t know whether Florida State is truly serious about wanting to leave the ACC.  As I’ve said in other posts, I’m not a believer in the impending destruction of that conference like many others that follow conference realignment.  There are still a host of academic and geographic advantages that the ACC provides to its member schools and if it was tough for Maryland to leave at an emotional level (where that school was a completely natural and contiguous expansion for the Big Ten and they didn’t have any true blood reciprocal blood rivals), one can imagine the potential disconnect with a school like FSU.  However, Florida State fans might be at the point where they have an “Anywhere but the ACC!” attitude, which is a tough train to stop for a school’s administration.  As I’ve been thinking more and more about the Seminoles looking around as a free agent (which is how an FSU official described the process in the event that the Maryland exit fee from the ACC gets reduced or thrown out), it’s the first time since I began following conference realignment that I have actually wanted the Big Ten to create a superconference in a scenario that didn’t include the game changing choices of Texas and/or Notre Dame.  The Seminoles provide the best combination of an off-the-field financial windfall off-the-field and increased on-the-field competitiveness and fan interest of any school that the Big Ten could plausibly add at this time. As a result, Florida State is a school that would make a 16-team league worth having and I hope that Jim Delany and the Big Ten university presidents are feeling the same way.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Image from Posseup Sports)

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The echo chamber of conference realignment rumors continues on Twitter, blogs and message boards everywhere continues with thoughts of the destruction of the ACC by the Big Ten, SEC, Big 12 and MEAC and superconferences going up to 20 teams or more (16 is for chumps).  Let’s try to separate the wheat from the chaff by addressing some frequently asked questions regarding Big Ten expansion:

(1) Is the Big Ten done expanding? – From the standpoint of the Big Ten initiating another expansion, yes, I believe that they’re done for the time being.  In my opinion, it would take another move from the SEC and/or Big 12 for the Big Ten to act again since the most likely targets for Jim Delany won’t want to move unless they are absolutely forced to do so.  (We’ll get to those schools in just a moment.)  Ultimately, the Big Ten’s expansion with Maryland and Rutgers needs to be looked at in conjunction with the decision to add Nebraska in 2010.  When Delany first announced that the Big Ten was looking to expand three years ago (and kick-started a conference realignment process that continues to this day), addressing long-term demographic concerns was right alongside improving athletics (AKA improving football) as the top goal.  The Big Ten’s home population base of the Midwest has been slowing in growth for many years (although too many people on the coasts tend to overstate this since their image of Rust Belt tends to focus upon Detroit, whereas places such as Chicago, Minneapolis, Indianapolis and Columbus have been growing at a perfectly fine clip), which meant that it was imperative for the conference to address that issue while it was still in a position of strength. For all of the talk about how conference realignment has largely been about TV dollars, the Big Ten’s addition of Nebraska was probably the purest football move that any conference made in this round of realignment with the Cornhuskers bringing along one of the most tradition-rich football programs and a rabid fan base.  Nebraska, though, didn’t do anything to address the need to expand the conference’s footprint, hence the latest moves with Rutgers and Maryland.  Getting into the New York City/New Jersey and Washington, DC/Baltimore regions addressed the overall demographic concerns for the Big Ten, so there isn’t any urgency to do more.  Outside of adding Texas, the conference can’t really add more households with two schools than the #1 (New York) and #4 (DC/Baltimore) combined statistical areas on top of the #3 (Chicago) CSA that it already has.  As a result, I don’t see the Big Ten on the proactive prowl unless moves by other conferences (or threatened moves by other conferences) shake some of the schools that I’m about to mention loose.

(2) If you’re wrong, Frank, who would the Big Ten go after? – Let’s assume that the SEC and Pac-12 aren’t going to be poached and the Big 12, with each school having assigned its TV rights for the next 13 years to the league (called a “grant of rights”), probably won’t lose anyone else, either*.  The amount of a buyout of a grant of rights would likely need to be equal to the present value of the applicable school’s home TV rights for football and basketball games for the rest of the grant of rights period.  For example, any conference that wants Texas needs to pay the Big 12 the equivalent of the rights to all Longhorn home games for the next 13 years, which could easily run into the hundreds of millions of dollars considering what ESPN is willing to pay for not-very-desirable third tier games.  This is what makes a grant of rights (which the Big Ten and Pac-12 have in addition to the Big 12) such a powerful deterrent to schools leaving.  As a result, that basically means that the “realistic” (and I use that term very loosely) targets for the Big Ten would come from the ACC or, much less likely, Big East.

(* Besides the obvious value of adding Texas, if the Big 12 were poachable, Kansas would be the most attractive target for the Big Ten out of the Big 12.  One thing to remember is that basketball actually matters quite a bit for the purposes of the Big Ten Network, where the sheer volume of hoops content drives the need for cable companies to carry that channel.  As a result, the normal “football means everything” mantra that normally applies to conference realignment and TV rights doesn’t necessarily hold for the BTN.  Kansas actually made the most revenue off of third tier TV rights in the Big 12 prior to the formation of the Longhorn Network due to the strength of Jayhawks basketball.  On a related note, that also means that the value of Maryland basketball is as important to the Big Ten as Maryland football in terms of being able to monetize that school.)

Rumors over the weekend indicated that the Big Ten was poised to invite Virginia and Georgia Tech (which have since been dismissed by Georgia Tech’s president).  Certainly, those two schools would fit the Big Ten in terms of institutions, but the question is more about whether they would add enough athletic revenue and can integrate into the league culturally.  For all of the consternation about the Big Ten supposedly leaving its Midwestern roots by adding Rutgers and Maryland, those were fairly mild changes geographically and culturally in the context of conference realignment over the past three years (both for the Big Ten and the new schools themselves).  Those two institutions are in states that are geographically contiguous with the existing Big Ten footprint and there is much more of cultural difference between the the North and South (like oil and water) compared to the East and Midwest (distinct but complementary with each other).  I’m fairly certain that Virginia would be in the long-term plans for the Big Ten as an elite academic institution that’s the flagship in what will now be another contiguous state with the addition of Maryland.  However, UVA still very much considers itself to be a Southern school (whereas Maryland has really turned into a Northern school for all practical purposes over the past couple of decades) and that’s going to be a cultural barrier for it to joining the Big Ten no matter how much Jim Delany can offer Thomas Jefferson’s creation.  While the influx of transplants to Northern Virginia just south of Washington, DC have been “Northernizing” the Commonwealth, that process isn’t anywhere complete yet.

Georgia Tech is an interesting case to me.  There has been quite a bit of smoke about the Yellow Jackets contemplating Big Ten membership, but this is one move that I have a hard time seeing happening.  On paper, Georgia Tech seems to fit what the Big Ten is looking for as a top academic institution in the middle of a fast-growing Atlanta market that also happens to be rich with football recruits.  The problem, though, is that even if the Big Ten were to add UVA at the same time, Georgia Tech makes little sense as a lone outpost in the Peach State.  Atlanta is SEC territory to the core and the Big Ten attempting to challenge Mike Slive there with only Georgia Tech alone would be a complete lost cause.  It would be akin to the SEC taking Northwestern and then trying to claim the Chicago market – it simply wouldn’t work.  Rutgers and Maryland can combine with the presence of Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan alums in the NYC and DC regions to create positive network effects that are greater than the fan bases of those two schools.  While a large number of Big Ten grads are moving to Atlanta, there are so many more SEC grads and fans (along with fans of other Southern ACC schools such as Clemson and Florida State) that it’s one of the few markets that I believe Jim Delany has no chance of ever breaking through in.  To be clear, I really like Georgia Tech as a school, but in terms of Big Ten expansion, I actually believe that its location is going to work against it.

Some thoughts on other ACC schools:

  • North Carolina – UNC is essentially in the same boat as UVA: likely a very top long-term target for the Big Ten, but probably a generation away from becoming “Northernized” enough for the school to consider a move.  Plus, UNC effectively has the same status in the ACC as Texas has in the Big 12: the ACC is their conference.  As we’ve seen with Texas, having control can often be more of an allure than having money.  Therefore, as much as both the Big Ten and SEC would love to add UNC, the Tar Heels aren’t going anywhere until the ACC is completely on its deathbed.  UNC certainly wouldn’t start the exodus.
  • Miami - The Hurricanes have long been a sleeper pick for me if the Big Ten were serious about raiding the ACC further.  While Miami isn’t an AAU member, it has research levels that would justify its inclusion in the group and would the 4th highest ranked Big Ten school in the US News undergraduate university rankings (behind only Northwestern, Michigan and Wisconsin).  The school continues to be a top national TV draw even in its down years and is located in arguably the best pound-for-pound football recruiting territory in the country.  Most importantly for me, it’s the only real power conference school that’s located in the Sun Belt but is really a Northern school culturally.  Last week, the Chicago Tribune actually posted data of the most popular out-of-state colleges that Illinois residents attend.  While bordering flagship schools such as Iowa, Missouri, Indiana and Wisconsin draw tons of students of Illinois, there were only a handful of power conference schools outside of the Midwest and Kentucky (which borders southern Illinois) that were able to draw more than 100 freshmen from Illinois this past year: Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, Vanderbilt and… Miami.  In fact, Miami draws about 5% of its students from Illinois, which is a higher percentage than any out-of-state Big Ten school other than Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, Purdue and Michigan.  The thing is that Miami draws even more students from the New York/New Jersey corridor that the Big Ten is now trying to lock down.  This is only one piece of data, but it’s indicative of the fact that if there’s one school in the South that won’t give a crap about being in a Northern conference, it’s Miami.  People can note that they’re about to be sanctioned (my retort is to look at UNC) or they have a fairweather fan base with poor attendance (my response is that we just added Maryland), but they actually have a legit football history and the home recruiting base to maintain it regardless of possible NCAA actions down the road.  Much like USC, the location of Miami itself means that they will always be in position to win with the right coach.  In my opinion, Miami is a potential candidate that works regarding academics, demographics, TV market, football recruiting and football history.  The fact that it’s a private school shouldn’t eliminate them from consideration.
  • Virginia Tech – Another sleeper pick for me for the Big Ten.  The assumption of many followers of conference realignment is that the SEC would want Virginia Tech, which is exactly why the Big Ten shouldn’t let Mike Slive walk away with them.  With the addition of Maryland, the Big Ten is now committed to owning the DC market.  Jim Delany should be able to withstand preexisting ACC ties there, but letting the SEC in with arguably the most popular football school in that area would be particularly damaging.  Remember that Virginia Tech doesn’t pose the same academic issues that, say, Texas Tech did when the Big Ten was looking at Texas a couple of years ago.  Much like Miami, VT is a school that has AAU-worthy metrics despite not being currently a member and, in the US News undergrad rankings, is tied with Iowa and Michigan State and ahead of Indiana and Nebraska.  Similar to Miami, it’s a school that addresses several needs regarding demographics, TV market (locking up DC) and the strength of the actual football program.  If the Big Ten wants UVA and they’re say that they’re required to bring VT along with them, it’s a pretty easy decision to say yes if I were running the conference.
  • Duke – Full disclaimer here: I hate Duke.  I REALLLLLLY HATE DUKE.  Even as a massive Bears fan, Duke ranks ahead of the Packers as the team that I hate the most (whether college or pro) on the basis that a Green Bay win could conceivably help the Bears in a playoff race depending upon the records, whereas there is absolutely nothing positive that could come out of Duke winning a game.  The thing is that there are many people that feel the same way even though (like me) they aren’t even a rival of my alma mater (Illinois), which is why they can’t be discounted as a potential Big Ten candidate or thought of as powerless in the football-focused game of conference realignment.  The academics at Duke are obviously impeccable and the basketball program draws attention and ire like no one else in college sports outside of Notre Dame football.  In 99.9% of the cases, basketball is truly irrelevant in conference realignment, but Duke is that 0.1%.  Even though few conference realignment stories would give me greater personal joy than seeing Duke getting relegated to the Southern Conference, it won’t be happening.  Much like Virginia Tech with UVA, it’s a pretty easy “yes” decision for the Big Ten if the league has a chance with UNC with Duke being part of the package.
  • Syracuse, Boston College – It’s not inconceivable that the Big Ten could go after either or both of these schools as part of a Northeastern-centric expansion, but Jim Delany seemed to emphasize expansion into the “Mid-Atlantic” (which would intimate more of focus on Virginia and North Carolina in the future) much more than the Northeast and New England per se.  That makes sense since the Mid-Atlantic region is where the long-term demographic shifts are very favorable (not to mention much stronger football recruiting territories, whereas Upstate New York and New England are growing as slowly as the Midwest.  I was someone that always like Syracuse as a Big Ten candidate since its basketball program could actually help get BTN subscribers in the NYC market as much as any other school and it might even make more sense to pair them up with Rutgers, but the feedback that I’ve always received from Big Ten circles was that the conference has been lukewarm on the Orange.  Boston College has the presence in a major market, yet it might be even tougher for the Big Ten to crack that area than even NYC.  New England doesn’t have the same critical mass of Big Ten alums that the New York/Jersey area has.  That being said, I think the value of BC is often underrated by fans as to how much it is overrated by conference commissioners and university presidents (if that makes sense), so I wouldn’t ever discount them.
  • Florida State, Clemson, NC State, Louisville – Pure athletics focused expansion candidates with good-to-great recruiting territories and markets, but the academics likely wouldn’t be good enough for the Big Ten.  Personally, I’d take a hard look at Florida State because they are so extremely valuable in a key state (especially if the Big Ten is seriously considering Georgia Tech and don’t want them to be a lone outpost), yet the tea leaves are saying otherwise.
  • Pitt – As I’ve stated in previous posts, it’s a great academic school with a solid athletic department, but it is one of the few schools out there that wouldn’t add any BTN revenue at all since Penn State already delivers that market.  This is too bad since the Panthers fit into the Big Ten extremely well on almost all other levels.
  • Wake Forest – I personally like Wake Forest at some levels, but it’s a small private school without the research capabilities of Duke or the market of BC.

As for the Big East, the only school that would even have a chance at the Big Ten is UConn, and I’d put the odds of that merger occurring as extremely low.  Connecticut is in a similar position as Syracuse and Boston College – Upstate New York and New England have large populations as of today just like the Midwest, but the demographic shifts favor the Big Ten waiting to get into Virginia and North Carolina.  Also, I had previously stated how an ACC invite was UConn’s to lose and I stand by that with Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich saying, “UConn wasn’t penciled in [for the ACC].  It was penned in.”  However, I underestimated how much the relative youth of UConn playing football at the FBS level could really affect perceptions of the school negatively.  For better or for worse, the Big Ten wants to be able to show grainy footage of schools from the 1960s and 1970s on BTN and claim them as conference successes.  (Those 5 Nebraska championship teams were among the greatest Big Ten squads of all-time!)  I’m only half-joking there.  The fact that Rutgers has a really long history of playing college football as the first school to participate in a game seems to trump the fact that such history hasn’t exactly been illustrious.  The Big Ten is ultimately an old school league, and while UConn was at the Division I-AA level for many years prior to moving up to the top level in 2003, that history (whether fair or not) doesn’t seem to count with the power conferences.

So, this is a really long post with a ton of interesting hypotheticals, but I don’t believe that the Big Ten itself will pull the trigger on any of them unless UVA and/or UNC is ready to bolt.  My feeling is that those schools aren’t anywhere close to being ready to leave the ACC, so my money would be on the Big Ten waiting for awhile as other leagues decide about whether to react.  I’ll be taking a look at the realistic options of those other conferences over the coming days.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Image from ChiCitySports)

The sports world has been throwing me some curve balls over the past week, with my Bears and Illini combining for only 3 fields goals worth of offense, the Lakers trying to tell the public with a straight face that Mike D’Antoni is a “better fit” as a coach for their team than Phil Jackson, and the Marlins just handing over half of their team to the Blue Jays after fleecing Florida’s citizens out of public funds to build a brand new ballpark.  Let’s try to digest what has actually occurred with the new college football playoff system by answering some frequently asked questions:

(1) What exactly is the new playoff and top tier bowl format? – For someone like me that constantly dives into the minutiae of these details, this seems like a basic question, but it’s apparent to me after reading a lot of questions from people out there that the powers that be haven’t really done a good job of explaining how the new postseason format is going to work very clearly to the public.

What we know is that there will be 6 top tier bowls, with 3 of them being “contract bowls” with contractual tie-ins (Rose Bowl with the Big Ten and Pac-12, Sugar Bowl with the SEC and Big 12, and Orange Bowl with the ACC and SEC/Big Ten/Notre Dame) and the other 3 being “host bowls” (likely the Cotton Bowl, Fiesta Bowl and Chick-Fil-A Bowl) that provide “access” slots (the equivalent of at-large bids in today’s BCS system).  The major new news is that the FBS conferences just announced that one of those access slots will be allocated to the highest ranked champion of the conferences that do not have a tie-in with a contract bowl (the Big East, Mountain West, Conference USA, Sun Belt and MAC, who are generally referred to in the media as the “Gang of Five” and I call the “G5″ here).  Over the past month, the powers that be had considered adding a 7th bowl that would match up the top G5 champ against a team from the Big 12 or Pac-12, but the feedback from the marketplace was that such game would not be worth very much.  Thus, the compromise was to incorporate that G5 access into the 6-bowl rotation.

A 4-team playoff will be played within the confines of those 6 bowls, meaning that 2 bowls will be designated as semifinal sites each year and the other 4 bowls are “normal” bowl games.  In a year when a contract bowl is designated as a semifinal, the champions from each conference that it has tie-ins with are guaranteed a spot in one of the host bowls if such conference champ is not a semifinalist.  For example, if the playoff were in effect last year and the Rose Bowl was a semifinal site, Wisconsin, as the Big Ten champion that did not make it to the semifinal, would have an automatic slot in one of the host bowls.  On the flip side, when a contract bowl is not a semifinal, it is guaranteed to have teams from its tie-in conferences no matter where they are ranked.  So, in another example, if the playoff were in effect this year where the Rose Bowl is not a semifinal site and Oregon is the Pac-12 champion and finishes in the top 4, the Rose Bowl would take another Pac-12 team to replace Oregon whether such team is ranked #5 or #50.

The 4-team playoff field will be determined by a selection committee, presumably with at least one representative from each FBS conference.  That selection committee will also determine who receives the at-large host bowl slots and which G5 conference champ is the highest ranked.

(2) How will the revenue be split? – Some of it is very clear while other parts of it is up in the air.  While every conference expects an increase in revenue on an absolute basis, a chosen few are going to receive the lion’s share of the gains.  The contract conferences (Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, Big 12 and ACC) will retain the media revenue from their respective contract bowls in the years that such bowls are not hosting semifinals.  The Rose Bowl signed a TV contract with ESPN worth $80 million per year.  The Sugar Bowl is believed to be making the same $80 million figure under an ESPN deal finalized today while the Orange Bowl is estimated to be worth $60 million per year.  This means that all of the contract conferences are expected to make $40 million each in the years that their respective contract bowls are “normal” non-semifinal bowl games.  The G5 doesn’t touch this money.

A separate pot that includes the national championship game, semifinals and host bowls has a tentative deal on the table from ESPN worth approximately $475 million to $500 million per year.  This is where the revenue distribution issue gets a bit murkier.  The FBS commissioners have said that a portion of that pot will distributed in the form of fixed annual payments to the various FBS conferences and independents, while another portion will be allocated based upon who actually attains bids to the semifinals and host bowls.  It is unclear how those portions will be split up.  The current understanding regarding the fixed annual payments is that the contract conferences will take the bulk of that money on top of their contract bowl revenue in equal shares among those 5 leagues, with a CBSSports.com report that it would be an overall 80%/20% split with G5 conferences compared to the current 85%/15% split in the current BCS system (although that “give” by the contract conferences is a quite misleading since that doesn’t include contract bowl revenue that the power leagues keep 100% of in the new system yet was shared in the current BCS system, so the net effect is essentially nothing in terms of overall percentage splits).

(3) Is the Big East a winner or loser in all of this? – I’ll give the lawyerly answer here: it depends.  The new G5 access slot to a host bowl has been positioned by a lot of people in the media as a “win” for the Big East*, but whether it’s truly a win is different for each of the members of that conference.

(* Regardless of what anyone thinks about how much the Big East will be worth in the TV and bowl marketplaces going forward, a massive amount of credit has to be given to the league’s new commissioner Mike Aresco for completely managing the media in all aspects on this playoff issue along with the recent Notre Dame defection.  If this announcement were made during John Marinatto’s tenure as Big East commissioner, the news stories would be talking about how the Big East is dead with the loss of an auto-bid as opposed to being anything close to a winner.)

The Big East is really the entity that is most affected by the changes in the postseason system since it went from being an AQ league where its champion was guaranteed a spot in a BCS bowl (the equivalent of a contract conference in the new format) to one where its champ is pooled in with the champs from the other G5 leagues to fight for one spot (the equivalent of a non-AQ conference in the current format).  From that vantage point, it’s very difficult to call the old members of the Big East (Louisville, UConn, Rutgers, Cincinnati and South Florida) as “winners” since this is a clear downgrade.  Even if they make more money in absolute dollars in the new system, they will be behind the power conference teams that they were once grouped with on a relative basis in terms of revenue and access.  The old members of the Big East in the negotiations with the powers that be in the playoff negotiations were basically in the position of Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back, where Darth Vader told him, “I am altering the deal.  Pray that I don’t alter it any further.”  As a result, the best that you could say for the old members of the Big East was that it could have been worse, where the power conferences might not have provided any dedicated bowl slot to the G5 at all.

On the other hand, the new Big East members (Temple, Central Florida, Houston, SMU, Memphis, San Diego State and Navy) are definitely winners.  They have received an upgrade in top bowl access (albeit not a great of an upgrade as they might have originally anticipated) and will take home multitudes more revenue compared to the current BCS system.  There’s really very little downside for any of them, if only because they could only go up from where they are in the BCS landscape.

In theory, the Big East is in the best position to win this G5 bowl access slot year-to-year since it is the strongest conference of that group from top to bottom.  That being said, I believe that theory only holds true where the Big East champ has the same record as any of the other G5 champs.  The danger for the Big East is not necessarily other conferences passing them by, but simply when another team from one of those conferences has a hot year.  For example, a 1-loss Louisiana Tech team is 1 spot ahead of 1-losss Rutgers and only 1 spot behind 1-loss Louisville in this week’s BCS rankings… and that’s while playing in a WAC league that will no longer be in existence when the new playoff starts in 2014.  That seems to indicate that a 1-loss Louisiana Tech team would definitely jump 2-loss Louisville and Rutgers teams if the new system were in place today (and it’s already virtually dead even with all of them having the same records).  At the same time, even though the Big East conference games will provide its league members with stronger strength of schedule rankings compared to the conferences games in the other G5 leagues, that can be mitigated by the fact that other G5 teams are more willing to take one-and-done guarantee games on the road with power conference teams.  Using Louisiana Tech as an example again, they have stronger BCS computer numbers than both Louisville and Rutgers this year based on playing one excellent SEC team (Texas A&M) and two craptacular Big Ten (Illinois – ugh) and ACC (Virginia) teams in road one-and-done games.  As a result, Big East teams can’t get very comfortable at all about thinking that this G5 slot is always going to go to their league.  That might be true when all records are equal, but if the Big East champ has a worse record than one of the other G5 champs, then it’s a major risk.

(4) What other winners and losers are there? – The other G5 conferences are overall winners since they have managed to obtain better access and revenue compared to the current system despite generally having weaker leagues on the field due to defections with conference realignment.  Of course, lest that you believe that the power conferences have been charitable, the Big Ten and SEC are definitely large winners, as well.  In part of the announcements this week, the champions from the SEC and Big Ten will always play in one of the host bowls if they are not semifinalists instead of the Orange Bowl (which those leagues have a secondary tie-in with shared with Notre Dame).  So, instead of, say, a #5-ranked SEC champ heading to the Orange Bowl when the Sugar Bowl is hosting a semifinal (thereby freeing up a host bowl slot for someone else), that SEC champ will go to one of the host bowls and the Orange Bowl can take another SEC team on top of that.  Jim Delany and Mike Slive definitely pulled a fast one there, particularly when the media seems to intimate that this was some type of concession.

(5) What happens to independents, particularly Notre Dame and BYU? – Independents (excluding Navy who will be joining the Big East in 2015, these currently consist of Notre Dame, BYU and Army and will include conference-less Idaho and New Mexico State next year) do not have any prescribed access to the semifinals and host bowls outside of ranking high enough for the selection committee to choose them for those slots.  However, Notre Dame has a contractual tie-in with the Orange Bowl, so host bowl access would have been gravy to them, anyway.

Most speculation about the impact on independents has centered around whether the new G5 bowl slot will spur BYU to join the Big East.  As I’ve stated in other blog posts, I don’t believe that BYU will end up in the Big East because its interests are much more about providing maximum TV exposure for the football program and the LDS church as a whole, which is exactly what they get now as an independent with an ESPN contract, as opposed to making the most TV money possible.  Now, I do believe that the bowl access situation will give BYU and LDS leaders (never forget that they are intertwined here) something else to chew on, but if you take a step back, you’ll realize that nothing has actually changed for the school in terms of top tier bowl access.  As of today, the only way that BYU can get automatic access to any BCS bowl is to qualify for the national championship game itself, which is practically no different than BYU only gaining automatic access if it qualifies for a semifinal in the new system.  Since BYU chose independence under the current BCS circumstances with virtually no prescribed access at all, no one should assume that the new G5 bowl spot will seriously alter their thinking.  At the end of the day, I continue to believe that Air Force will end up as football school #14 in the Big East while BYU will maintain its independence.

(6)  Any other unusual details? – Well, Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan has some loose lips, where he provided some quirky information from the BCS meetings to the Baton Rouge Advocate (h/t to Alan from Baton Rouge):

While the nonplayoff Sugar Bowls will be exclusively between SEC and Big 12 teams, much as the Rose Bowl is exclusively between Big Ten and Pac-12 teams, the semifinals can feature teams from any conference, although if an SEC or Big 12 team is seeded first or second, its game will be in the Sugar Bowl.

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The rotation for the semifinals is yet to be set. Hoolahan said he did not know which year would be the first for New Orleans to host a playoff game but understood the Sugar Bowl would be paired with the Rose Bowl.

“That way, we’ll have an uninterrupted afternoon and evening of playoff games,” he said. “That’s going to be exciting.”

The first portion of Hoolahan’s info doesn’t surprise me, where the contract bowls would get preferences to host their respective conference partners when they are semifinal games.  It makes complete sense that a #1 or #2-ranked Big Ten or Pac-12 team ought to go to the Rose Bowl if that game happens to be a semifinal site for that particular season.  However, the second portion about how the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl would always be semifinal games in the same year is completely perplexing to me.  I understand Hoolahan’s point that the years when both of them are hosting semifinals would make for an exciting New Year’s Day, but the flip side is that there would now be no New Year’s Day semifinals at all in 1 out of every 3 years.  A clear and logical annual setup of 1 host bowl being a semifinal on New Year’s Eve and 1 contract bowl being a semifinal on New Year’s Day seems to be thrown up in the air with this information.  Usually, I’m able to understand the intent and reasoning behind various actions by the powers that be (even if I don’t personally agree with them), but I’m at a loss as to why the commissioners believe that this is a good idea.

All-in-all, there has been a flurry of progress over the past couple of weeks on the playoff front after a long pause in deliberations.  Hopefully, we’ll get some final information about how the semifinal rotation will be set up, confirmation that ESPN will be the television partner, and where the national championship game itself will be played sooner rather than later.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Image from Sports Illustrated)