As we adjust to a world where Eli Manning has twice as many Super Bowl rings and MVP trophies as his brother Peyton, conference expansion and realignment talk has picked up again along with a major update from the Big Ten on the college football playoff front. (Note: I love that Peyton Manning is taking a public stance that he supposedly would be open to an incentive-based contract. You know that his agent is just baiting Daniel Snyder to offer up a $35 million guaranteed signing bonus behind the scenes. I have a hunch that the NFL’s 2012 season opener is going to be a Manning Bowl between the Giants and Redskins.) Let’s take a look at these developments in order:
1. Big 12 Expansion Rumors I: The Unrealistic ACC Raid Scenario – The hot rumor going around conference realignment circles right now is that the Big 12 is supposedly targeting Florida State and Clemson from the ACC, with the source being “The Dude” from West Virginia blog Eerinsider*. Is this really possible? I guess there’s a smidgen of a chance of this occurring when taking into account the possible TV rights at stake in a new Big 12 deal. The fact that Clemson has just formed an Athletic Advisory Committee that is going to review a whole range of issues has added some fuel to the fire. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me at all that the Big 12 has attempted to lure FSU and Clemson over the past few months.
[* If your life depended upon it, which of the following cartoonish caricatures would you trust the most with expansion news?
(a) The Dude
(b) Frank the Tank
(c) The Wolf
(d) Teen Wolf
(e) Craig James
For me, it’s The Wolf all the way.]
However, I’ll repeat what I’ve stated many times before on this blog: the ACC is much much much stronger than football-focused fans give them credit for. Believe me – it pains me to say that as someone that would love nothing more than to see Duke get sent to the Southern Conference. The problem with all of the rumors that we’ve seen over the years about the ACC being vulnerable is that they fall into the trap of thinking like a fan or even an athletic director or coach (who might actually care about losing BCS bowls all of the time) instead of a university president (where the ACC slaps the SEC and Big 12 around in terms of academic prestige even worse than how the SEC and Big 12 beat up on the ACC on the football field). As much as people are obsessed with football TV dollars, the difference between what the ACC receives compared to the average Big Ten or SEC school really isn’t that massive of a gap, especially in relation to the overall institutional revenue that schools like North Carolina, Duke and Virginia bring in. The ACC schools are firmly in the “haves” category. If you don’t believe me, take from Oklahoma and Big 12 partisan Barry Tramel from The Oklahoman, who had the following response to a question about the rumor at the 11:00 mark in this online chat:
No. I haven’t heard it. And I’m sure the Big 12 has talked to a lot of people. I’m sure the Big 12 called Clemson and said, “Hey, we’ve got a great idea. How about you, Florida State and” “No thanks.” “But wait,” the Big 12 responded, “you didn’t let us finish. We’re talking about you, and” “Not interested.” The ACC is solid. Academically and financially and athletically. Let me promise you, while fans get all worked about how Orange Bowls in a row the ACC has lost, the presidents do not.
Let’s put it another way: once you get past Texas and Oklahoma, is there any other current Big 12 school that is more valuable than Virginia Tech,Virginia, Florida State, Clemson, North Carolina, Miami, Maryland, Georgia Tech or N.C. State? Heck, is there any other non-UT/OU Big 12 school that would be picked by the Big Ten or SEC (who have more poaching power than anyone) over any ACC school besides maybe Wake Forest? Kansas is probably the only other Big 12 school in that discussion as a marquee basketball program with solid academics, but even the Jayhawks are one-upped in hoops TV value and ivory tower appeal by UNC and those rat bastards at Duke. The ACC is significantly deeper than the Big 12 when it comes to the academic, name brand and market values of the institutions from top-to-bottom. Football fans are focused on the lack of BCS bowl wins by the ACC, while university presidents are focused on the great markets and high academic standards of the conference. It’s the latter group that makes conference realignment decisions. So, while the ACC continues to receive potshots from the fan-based blog and message board crowd, I’ll bet heavily that they’re coming out of this unscathed on the heels of their newly renegotiated ESPN deal.
2. Big 12 Expansion Rumors II: The More Realistic Louisville/BYU (or TBD) Scenario – I don’t claim Dude-like sources, but for what it’s worth, I’ve heard from two separate places that validate what The Chronicle of Higher Education reported a couple of weeks ago: the Big 12 wants Louisville as school number 11 with BYU as the preferred choice for school number 12. Louisville is the easy part of the equation – both parties want each other and if the addition of the Cardinals alone wouldn’t result in an odd number of schools, they would have been in the Big 12 a long time ago. The issue, of course, is that BYU has been far from easy to work with for any conference. We actually have to twist the mantra here of “Think like a university president and not like fan” and apply the standard of “Think like a church leader and not like a university president” for the purposes of BYU. From standpoint of the vast majority of universities, it would have made perfect sense for BYU to have joined either the Big 12 or Big East months ago. However, the decisions at BYU are being ultimately driven by LDS leadership and it appears that they are enamored of their independent ESPN exposure along with the opportunity to build up a greater audience for BYUtv. Essentially, they’ve caught Notre Dame-itis.
The problem for the Big 12 is that there isn’t any realistic alternative for school number 12 besides BYU (assuming that, like me, you don’t buy the rumor that the Big 12 will raid the ACC). Floaters about the Big 12 adding other Big East schools, such as Rutgers or Cincinnati, appear to be red herrings and not serious. (Note that I personally thought that the Big 12 could try a Northeastern expansion with Rutgers and UConn to integrate West Virginia further. This should be used as a “The More You Know” public service announcement warning of the evils of drinking while blogging.) So, the Big 12 seems like they would be willing to pull the trigger on adding Louisville at any moment, but the open question is whether that the league would be fine with adding them as #11 without knowing that there’s a satisfactory #12. That’s where the two people that I’ve talked to diverge: one says yes while the other says no. My inclination is that the answer is “no”. The Big Ten was willing to live with 11 schools for almost two decades, but that’s because (1) school #11 was Penn State that was a clear national football power with a huge market (arguably the entire East Coast) and massive fan base and (2) the league legitimately believed that it would add Notre Dame as school #12 in relatively short order. As a result, the Big Ten was willing to wait for another football power to shake loose from the realignment tree (which ended up being Nebraska) instead of going immediately up to 12.
In contrast, there’s little reason for the Big 12 to go up to 11 without going all the way to 12. Louisville is a fairly strong revenue generator (especially on the basketball side), but not at a Penn State/Notre Dame-level where it’s enough to justify passing up on conference championship game revenue with a 12th school. Now, I could see Louisville being added alone as school #11 if the Big 12 gets to a point where it reasonably believes that BYU (or some other school deemed revenue accretive enough) will join as school #12 within a short period of time (no more than one season). As I noted in my last post, the opening of the negotiations between ABC/ESPN and the Big 12 regarding an extension of their current contract will be a key date. Once that starts, the chances of the Big 12 expanding in the near-term drop precipitously since the league needs to have (if it knows what it’s doing) a 12-team setup for a conference championship game to offer by that time if that’s truly their end goal. That means that further Big 12 expansion, if it’s going to occur, will need to happen fairly quickly (e.g. prior to this summer).
3. Big East Walking in Memphis: More Than a Rumor – In more concrete news, Brett McMurphy of CBSSports.com has reported that the Big East is in the late stages of negotiations with Memphis to add the school for the 2013 season, with other reports noting that an announcement will be made tomorrow (Wednesday). This follows up an initial Kevin McNamara Tweet from last week stating the same. The irony is that the probable elimination of the concept of automatic-qualifier status from the BCS system was the best thing that could have happened to Memphis even though attaining such AQ status was such an important goal for the school for a long time. Memphis, on paper, is an excellent fit for the Big East as an institution: large urban school with a good-sized market and a great basketball program. The problem was that adding Memphis, which has been football-inept for several years now, would have destroyed the Big East’s AQ criteria figures. Without those figures to worry about anymore, the Big East could add Memphis in good conscience, which it otherwise liked overall.
Now, this brings up the question as to whether the Big East believes that it will have to backfill for a potential departure of Louisville to the Big 12 (as described above), so it moved on Memphis before that occurred. I’m a little surprised that the Big East hasn’t ended up adding another western football-only school to fill out that far flung division (while keeping the all-sports membership at 16), although that could very well be the next move on the table, especially if there are further defections. For now, though, it looks like Memphis is finally going to get its long-time wish of a Big East invite.
4. B1G Playoff Plan – Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune had a story that was extremely significant on the ongoing discussion of changes to the postseason: several Big Ten athletic directors have proactively and openly set forth a plan for a seeded 4-team playoff on campus sites with the higher seeds as hosts. The national championship game would then be bid out separately to neutral sites, similar to the Super Bowl. Just as Jim Delany stating that he was open to at least a discussion about a plus-one system last month was a large indicator of a future paradigm shift, the fact that a number of Big Ten ADs are willing to go on-record with supporting a seeded playoff is pretty massive. Not so long ago (AKA December 2011), a Big Ten AD caught supporting any type of playoff would have been immediately summoned to the Big Ten headquarters in Park Ridge and then his lifeless body would be found floating down the Des Plaines River the next day.
To be sure, the caveat to all of this is that, as with conference realignment, any decision regarding the college football postseason will be made by the university presidents as opposed to the commissioners and athletic directors. However, when the Big Ten as an entity has, for as long as anyone can remember, been so staunchly and uniformly against any hint of a playoff and placed a muzzle on any dissenters, there’s more than just idle chatter here when you see the commissioner and ADs suddenly start openly talk about it.
As Greenstein noted in a discussion on WSCR-AM today, the Big Ten is now effectively saying, “We have now presented a plan for a 4-team playoff. It’s not our fault if one isn’t passed.” Thus, it appears that a large impetus for the Big Ten setting forth this proposal is to put some of the onus on the other conferences. For quite awhile, whether rightly or wrongly, the other conferences could largely deflect criticism over the BCS system onto Jim Delany and the Big Ten (and to a lesser extent, the Pac-12 and Rose Bowl) even if their own university presidents weren’t necessarily on board. Indeed, the Big 12 and Big East were the ones that ultimately killed a 4-team plus-one proposal from the SEC and ACC in 2008.
One tweak that I’d like to see to this plan (and previously suggested by Andy Staples and Slant commenter Eric, among others) is to have the losers of the semifinal games be placed back into the BCS bowl selection pool. So, if the Big Ten champ or Pac-12 champ loses in a semifinal game, they would still end up going to the Rose Bowl. Even though there’s a real concern that the fan base of a semifinal game loser might not be as willing to travel, I don’t see it as being much different than conference championship game losers being selected for top bowls (which happens quite frequently). Plus, the bowls themselves would still ultimately rather have access to more higher-ranked teams instead of diluting the BCS pool even further. This seems like a reasonable compromise to preserve the value of the top bowls such as the Rose Bowl while still providing for a seeded 4-team playoff.
To be honest, I never thought that the Big Ten would get behind a seeded plus-one/4-team playoff scenario, much less lead a proposal to do just that. It’s good to be surprised every once in awhile.