Author's note: I realize this is exceptionally long, but hacking it up would require the assistance of somebody else and quite frankly I'm afraid that this whole concept is about to expire.
For nearly 18 months the theme of the college sports landscape has been major conference movement. Many thought that Nebraska and Colorado bolting the Big 12 last year would light the fuse to blow up the landscape of collegiate sports as we know it. As it turns out, somebody stepped on that fuse before it could get to the dynamite and we all soldiered on knowing that major changes where a matter of if - not when. With Texas A&M's official announcement that they would be joining "another conference" for the 2012-2013 academic year that fuse is once again lit and it just may find its target this time around.
Look around the interwebs and you will find many theories about what will happen once the cards go flying in the air and are dealt out for good. The consensus seems to be four 16-team superconferences as the ultimate end game. But I don't personally see it. For one, it bumps at least three (don't forget TCU is joining the Big East in 2012) teams from auto qualifier status. Four if BYU finagles an invite to the table. Five if Notre Dame jumps in like many believe. Quite frankly you can't simply tell five schools to piss off without very very serious ramifications. Even the dregs of current BCS conferences have in many cases held their status for several decades and as much as Iowa State hasn't been competitive in the Big 12 recently, you simply cannot tell a founding member of the Big Six that they no longer get a seat at the table.
So what should the endgame be? Five conferences composed of 14 members apiece. With some minor to moderate shifting it can be done quite cleanly in a way that actually makes some sense. We'll break it down conference by conference starting with the one that will get the axe of the current auto qualifiers.
The Big East
The Big East for football purposes currently consists of Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, South Florida, Syracuse, and West Virginia. Most college sports fans know that the Big East also has ten basketball only member schools which consist of current 1-AA football teams plus Notre Dame. As I mentioned before, TCU is slated to join the Big East for the 2012-13 academic year. The easiest way to consolidate conferences is to split up the Big East in football and leave the remaining ten basketball only schools in a Big East basketball conference. To appropriately disburse these schools TCU, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Louisville should join the remaining nine members of the Big 12 to get membership to thirteen. It is rumored that the Big 12 is currently looking at Pittsburgh to join the conference and the only way they should consider such an offer is if the Big 12 can position themselves as a viable long term option, which adding these three plus one other surprise (more later) accomplishes. Cincinnati and Rutgers should join the Big 10 to get them to the magic fourteen. During EXPANSIONAPOLOOZA(TM) 2010 it was rumored the Big 10 was very interested in Rutgers and Cincinnati adds another school within the conference footprint. The Bearcats might not bring a lot to the table, but as a fourteenth member to allow the conference a spot in the new landscape they serve a very useful purpose. The remaining three schools (Syracuse, South Florida, and Connecticut) all move to the ACC to, for the purposes of this exercise, temporarily give that conference fifteen members. While it may sound drastic on the surface to simply abolish a major conference, when the dust settles it becomes clear that it is the right thing to do. Plus, as an added side bonus, it gets rid of the absurd eighteen team basketball conference.
The Big 10
As mentioned in the Big East portion, the Big 10 adds Cincinnati and Rutgers to up their membership from the current twelve to fourteen. Rutgers was reported by many outlets last summer to be very high on Jim Delaney's list of candidates to join his beloved conference, and it's easy to see why. Rutgers is a very highly regarded academic institution that would have no trouble fitting in to the conference culture on that front. Adding Rutgers also lets the B1G dip their toe into a coveted east coast media market and while Rutgers doesn't exactly bring the entire NYC market with them, their portion is large enough that the Big 10 Network would be able to increase its subscription numbers significantly. Cincinnati on the other hand is not as perfect of a fit as the Scarlet Knights. It is a university located in a state that the conference already has pretty well locked down with Ohio State, so Big 10 Network additions would likely be minimal. However Cincinnati is a fairly well regarded academic research institution in its own right, despite its lack of AAU membership, so it would still be a decent fit culturally for the conference. But the major reason the Big 10 should look to add the Bearcats would be to totally close off the fertile talent beds of Ohio to any other conference while assuring a seat at the fourteen team conference table without having to expand their conference footprint any further than is necessary. A shift like is surely upon us will create some funky situations and avoiding major travels for as many members as possible is a big factor in today's world. For the same reason that geographically BYU simply isn't a good fit for the Big 12, Cincinnati makes perfect sense for the Big 10.
New Big 10 Division #1: Iowa, Michigan, Michigan St., Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, and Rutgers
New Big 10 Division #2: Illinois, Indiana, Ohio St., Penn St., Purdue, Wisconsin, and Cincinnati
Ah, the SEC. The conference that is mostly responsible for the current state of affairs we find ourselves in. Before we lay this all at the feet of Mike Slive though it should be pointed out that without Texas A&M crying and taking their ball to another conference none of this would be happening. The Aggies had their eye on the SEC for a bit last summer but ultimately decided to stay put when DeLoss Dodds cobbled together a plan to keep the gang together. But then the Longhorn Network came down the chute and that was all that the Aggies could take - now they've officially announced their intentions to join "another conference". While they haven't officially said what "other conference" it is they're going to be applying to, they're not applying to join Conference USA. This move leaves the SEC with thirteen teams and searching for one more. If you believe sources their short list right now is Missouri and a few ACC schools, namely Virginia Tech, Clemson, or North Carolina. With the Big 12 stabilizing itself Missouri comes off the table and with the ACC taking on three Big East refugees they have a spare team that the SEC can cannibalize to fill their ranks. Which actual school it is matters very little, but I think they should also look into Maryland as well. If none of that happens then the SEC may have to give a little and add a team from their current footprint and look toward Georgia Tech and Florida State as those schools are fairly recent additions to the ACC. Just for grins, though, we'll go ahead and assume the SEC gets what the SEC wants and they are able to peel off Virginia Tech from UVA and expand themselves into the northeast. Adding one team in the east and one team in the west allows the SEC to maintain balance and a very tidy conference of their own, much like the Big 10. They will for the foreseeable future remain the predominant college football power conference and won't be likely to cede that title as they dip their finger further into Texas recruiting.
New SEC Divison #1: Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Virginia Tech
New SEC Division #2: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Texas A&M
The ACC is an excellent example of how much easier and more logical it is to move toward fourteen team conferences instead of sixteen. As the Big East collapses three teams still need a home and since the ACC is nearby they become the logical fit for the remainder of the conference. Adding Syracuse, South Florida, and Connecticut ensures that all current Big East members are taken care of and nobody is left out in the cold. Syracuse and Connecticut cement the ACC as the premiere hoops conference in the wake of the Big East breakup. South Florida admittedly isn't a great fit as the ACC already has a Florida presence with Florida State, but honestly they weren't a good fit in the Big East, either. They're really not a good fit for major collegiate athletics, but this exercise is about preserving the big time status of as many schools as possible. The ACC is far and away the most logical landing place for the Bulls and they do help the ACC increase their visibility in a state that churns out high major athletic talent on a regular basis. The only problem here is that adding three teams gives this conference a total of fifteen, which means they need to shed a member. The perfect thing about this is, as mentioned before, the SEC needs a fourteenth team of their own and adding an eastward team preserves balance for them while evening out the eastern half of the country's conferences. It is rumored that the SEC has its eye on Virginia Tech and if they can clear the political hurdles to make that happen that would be best. But there is a solid list of backups if Virginia Tech can't be obtained that includes Maryland, Clemson, and possibly North Carolina. If getting one of those three founding members to leave the ACC proves too difficult then the SEC could look to bend their "no teams from the current footprint" rule and add Georgia Tech or Florida State. If the ACC loses Florida State then adding South Florida becomes more palatable as it preserves a Florida presence for the conference. For the sake of brevity let's assume the SEC lands their first choice in Virginia Tech.
ACC Division #1: BC, Clemson, Maryland, Florida State, North Carolina State, Wake Forest, and Syracuse
ACC Division #2: Duke, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Miami, Virginia, South Florida, and Connecticut
The Pac Whatever
The Pac (currently) 12 was a big player in last summer's proceedings by siphoning off Colorado from the Big 12 and Utah from the Mountain West. Now they have themselves a championship game and all the fun perks that come with being a twelve team conference. Personally I like the 10 team round robin style format as it tends to produce a true conference champion but that is neither here nor there. With everybody else going to fourteen teams Larry Scott has a decision to make. Is he happy with what he's got, or does he feel some pressure to move to fourteen teams like everybody else. For the sake of balance and sanity I hope he moves to fourteen teams, because if he doesn't it leaves two teams hanging out west that don't have much of a home. If he does decide to invite two more teams I think the two obvious choices would be BYU and Boise St. However, both of those schools have a few flaws of their own. Boise has a tremendous football program that would likely step right in and compete right away, but the rest of their sports would immediately become cellar dwellers. Their facilities, being a mid major school for so long, would likely be the worst in the conference by a long shot. But this move is made with the eye on the long term future and over time I'm sure the Boise athletic department would use their new resources to invest in their infrastructure and step up their game to the big boy table. BYU on the other hand could pretty easily step into a major conference and catch up pretty quickly. The Cougars, however, are currently independent in football and have their own BYU network. A school network was a pretty big sticking point last summer between the Pac (then) 10 and Texas and there's no telling how it may affect things this time around. My guess is that if the Pac Whatever decides to expand to fourteen the drop-off from BYU to the next best option (Fresno? Nevada? Hawaii?) from a status standpoint is large enough that something gets worked out. Likely the Pac Whatever caves a little and BYU gives a little as well for a seat at the table.
New PAC Whatever Division #1: California, Oregon, Oregon St., Stanford, Washington, Washington St., and Boise St.
New PAC Whatever Division #2: Arizona, Arizona St., Colorado, UCLA, USC, Utah, and BYU
The Big 12
The Big 12 is a conference that is quite frankly teetering on the ledge at the moment. With Texas A&M's departure there is only nine teams left from what was twelve just a little more than a year ago. The Big 12 is weakened, but not dead just yet. Supposedly the conference is talking with BYU about becoming a tenth member, but that kind of singular move will not save the conference from imminent collapse. BYU is more than 800 miles away from the nearest Big 12 school and more than 1,000 miles away from most. Trips from Provo to Austin would be 1,200 mile affairs that would tax the Cougar travel budget and put a mild strain on the other nine members as well. Adding just one outlier school will not solve anything, and if BYU wants to join a major conference they are really better off working things out with the Pac Whatever. So who should the Big 12 turn to then? We'll start with four wanderers from the blown up Big East in Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Louisville, and TCU. Now I realize that Pittsburgh to any Texas school is a further road trip than BYU to anybody in the current Big 12. To this point there are two counterpoints. Firstly, Pittsburgh is going to have to find a way to haul themselves to Dallas anyway with TCU joining the conference in 2012. While it is easier for a one off trip every other year than multiple trips every single year, there are no perfect solutions to what is about to happen. Secondly, adding Pittsburgh along with Louisville and West Virginia gives the Panthers two schools that would slide into a recreated Big 12 North that are relatively close for travel purposes. Pittsburgh to Manhattan, the furthest western school in the new Big 12 North is roughly the same distance as Ames to Lubbock, Austin, or Waco. So while the distance would admittedly be a bit far for some road trips, with rotational scheduling for cross division matchups it can be done. Once you can justify adding Pittsburgh from a distance standpoint then West Virginia and Louisville become no problem at all. Finding a new home for TCU in the Big 12 also allows the state of Texas to have four voices in the new conference, but now four of fourteen instead of four of twelve. But adding four former Big East teams to the current nine only gets the Big 12 up to thirteen teams. Who becomes number fourteen? The Big 12 in order to get up to fourteen teams should continue to look a bit east to maintain no more than a one hour time zone difference and take their pick of one of the several midmajor options between the Mississippi river and the coast. Memphis and Tulsa to me are the most likely candidates and while either school would have a tough time early on the eye must be on long term stability. Memphis makes the most sense as they already have a well established basketball program that would step in and compete immediately and plenty of FedEx money to help bring the rest of their facilities up to par over time. The reason Memphis doesn't have much now is because they don't need a 70,000 seat football stadium in Conference USA, not because they don't have the ability to do it. With motivation like a move to the Big 12, Memphis would have high major caliber facilities within 10 years. This gets the Big 12 to fourteen teams while adding several new markets and adding a very diverse group of assets to the conference. A conference with these schools would be a stable one that could compete in the new landscape of college sports.
Big 12 Division #1: Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, and Louisville or Memphis
Big 12 Division #2: Texas, Texas Tech, Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Louisville or Memphis
The Little Guys and the Independents
Of course all of this shifting leaves a bit of a mess at the midmajor conference level, but with a few moves everything can be tidied up even for the little guys, something that nobody is thinking about with the ramifications of these megaconferences. Move number one deals with the Sun Belt conference, which currently has nine members. Nine is an odd number and odd numbers are not allowed in the new landscape of college sports so they need to add a team. Who to add? Louisiana Tech from the WAC. It has never made sense that a team from Louisiana is in a conference that begins its name with "Western". The Sun Belt already has Louisiana Lafayette and Louisiana Monroe along with seven other schools that fit much better for La Tech. The Sun Belt should then stay put at a nice even ten teams. Next up is the MAC and Conference USA. The MAC is a strange conference because it has for the past four years been comprised of thirteen teams. The MAC has rectified this by adding UMass for the 2012 year, but that may be the lone true causality of this shifting around. With the Big 12 taking Memphis Conference USA only has eleven teams left and the MAC has thirteen. Common sense says that one team should move from the MAC to Conference USA to make two twelve team conferences. Problem solved. The actual team can be negotiated and it matters very little as the two conferences are in almost identical places geographically so almost no school would raise issues. As for the Minutemen, I suppose they should find a partner to come up to Division I-A with them to join a twelve team midmajor conference to make it into fourteen, or Conference USA could find another team to join them instead of poaching a MAC team (Appalachian State, anyone?). The last bit of midmajor issues arises out west where there are thirteen teams left between the former Mountain West and WAC. These thirteen teams either need to drop one down or bring one up from the I-AA ranks to form a fourteen team conference of their own out west.
As for the independents, moving to five fourteen team conferences likely won't pressure Notre Dame enough to make them want to join a conference, a move likely will only happen when a true playoff system is developed whereby the only way in is through a conference championship of sorts. Army and Navy will likely always be independent regardless of the college sports landscape as their focus will always be slightly distracted from sports, as it should be.
Conference USA Division #1: East Carolina, Marshall, UCF, Southern Miss, UAB, I-AA team
Conference USA Division #2: Tulsa, Tulane, UTEP, Houston, Rice, SMU
MAC Division #1: Ball State, Northern Illinois, Western Michigan, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Miami (OH), Ohio
MAC Division #2: Kent State, Toledo, Buffalo, Akron, Bowling Green, Temple, UMass
Mountain WAC Division #1: Fresno State, Hawaii, San Diego State, San Jose State, Nevada, Idaho, I-AA team
Mountain WAC Division #2: Air Force, Colorado State, UNLV, Wyoming, Utah State, New Mexico, New Mexico State
Sun Belt Conference: Arkansas State, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Louisiana Lafayette, Louisiana Monroe, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee State, North Texas, Troy, Western Kentucky
I-A Independents: Notre Dame, Army, Navy
For the visually inclined, I have created an excel file that displays America's new conferences here in Google Docs form.
Much has been said in the past few weeks and even more in the past eighteen months about how college football is destined to go to sixteen team superconferences. As I said at the beginning of this behemoth I just don't see it. The major point of traction in the 4x16 theory is that it gives way to a playoff much easier, but I don't see that either. For one, it creates a situation where no midmajor team has ANY shot, even the small one they do now, of playing for a national title. If you thought Congress was interested in the BCS, wait until you try to make it so only a select portion of schools even has a chance at playing for a title. There might as well not even be the rest of Division I football if the 4x16 theory happens. Plus 4x16 proponents are also forgetting schedule concerns. In a sixteen team conference there is absolutely no way to shorten the regular season, at least no way that the universities would allow. A sixteen team conference requires nine conference games, leaving only three nonconference matchups which are just as important to teams as their conference slate. Cutting that number down to two, when most teams have been playing four for many years now, will be an impossible road to hoe. A sixteen team conference also MUST have a championship game, number thirteen on the year. Then you have the two rounds of playoffs for a total of fifteen games. The NCAA isn't too likely to sign off on fifteen game seasons and even if they did, there's the issue of limited access to a championship that was brought up before. If the NCAA somehow was able to finagle limiting access to a Division I championship to only part of their Division I, why wouldn't we just do eight conferences of eight? Play 7 round robin conference games, three non-con games, and start a three round eight team playoff in week 12? Have predetermined matchups for the first round between conference champions so fans could make quick travel arrangements and play the semifinals two weeks later during the week after Thanksgiving (or thereabouts). Championship game could still be played in January and the bowls still have access to every other team. Even within the 4x16 scenario there is a better option.
But yet there is no denying that conference shifts are going to happen. The SEC has already topped that domino and high major conferences will be expanding to at least fourteen. I think though it makes the most sense to stay at fourteen rather than decide what schools get bumped into the abyss. It simply is unfair to tell teams that have been a part of high major athletics for decades that they no longer can play because there isn't enough space. Sports is cyclical and while it may not be as true at the collegiate level as it is in the pros, those schools that are in the dumps today may be powerhouses in the future if left in the spot they have occupied for so long. Likewise there are several schools that are currently powers or at least very strong programs that would have been left out in the dust as recently as fifteen years ago. Timing should not be the deciding factor in condemning a school to obscurity, especially when an option that avoids that is out there. I think this proposal is a sound one with a few stretches that will require some working around, but change like this never comes without such hurdles. Moving to a 4x16 alignment would, in my opinion, create far more headaches that are not worth it.
All we as fans can do is sit back and watch. We can pressure the leaders of our individual schools to do what's best, but when everybody looks out for #1 then true long term vision gets cast aside. I sincerely hope that the movers and shakers around the college sports landscape are taking a good hard look at the true long term impact of the decisions they are about to make. I hope that they do not consider the next 5 years, but the next 50. I hope they do the right thing.