The fallout from Nebraska’s jump from the Big XII to the Big Ten is still very much alive. You’d think a drop of only two “bigs” would quickly be absorbed by the college football world, but every week sees new stories and rumors develop.
I took a long look at this issue last year, and came up with a method for ranking schools. But what’s changed in the last year is the apparent willingness of mid-major conferences to ignore geographic boundaries if it means gaining a new slice of television money.
So I’m revisiting and updating my analysis from last year. I’ll review everything, conference by conference.
I’m going to make two rather unsettling assumptions. One, that anything you read that isn’t accompanied by a quote from an official who has the authority to make decisions can easily be disregarded. So, when you read rumors that Texas is definitely moving to the SEC, take them with more than one grain of salt.
And two, the four major conferences – the ACC, the Big Ten, the SEC and the Pac Twelve – seem to have some sort of unwritten agreement that they will not pursue each other’s schools. The Big Twelve would have been on this list if it hadn’t imploded over its problems dealing with Texas and ESPN. I’m making this assumption because the SEC could easily raid the ACC, but those rumors have had no life whatsoever.
That locks up 51 schools – including 39 of the 45 most valuable college properties. Those schools are guaranteed a chance at whatever playoff/bowl championship the conference presidents can whip up for the future.
Which means there are three questions we have to answer for the future:
1) Are the four major conferences done expanding? Each had 12 schools going into this season. But the SEC will expand to 13 next year, and the ACC will expand to 14 in 2014.
2) What will the two “‘tween” conferences – the Big East and the Big Twelve – do to preserve their access to this playoff/bowl structure? Those automatic bids expire after the 2013 season. There is currently no algorithm in place to make this determination.
3) What will the smaller conferences do to gain access? The Mountain West and Conference USA are combining in an attempt to make a case that the best team in the combined conference should have an automatic bid.
QUESTION 1: Expansion of the four major conferences.
This is a discussion fueled by money and money alone. If ESPN (or any competing entity) can offer 10% more money if a new school joins a conference, then it could be worth expanding. Tradition isn’t as important these days. The problem is that there are only a handful of schools worth inviting.
I’ll look at this question, conference by conference:
Big Ten: At some point, it’s inevitable that Notre Dame will want to join a conference. When it does, the Big Ten is its logical choice. Otherwise, the Big Ten seems happy with twelve schools. No new opportunity stands out. I think the Big Ten would quickly grab a 14th school if Notre Dame joined. Under the assumption I made that the ACC can’t be raided, that bid would either go to Rutgers or Kansas, unless Missouri doesn’t end up moving to the SEC.
ACC: In 2014, the ACC will have 14 schools. That seems unwieldy, but possible. I think it’s unlikely that the ACC will want 16 any time soon, unless the SEC makes that move and it’s very successful. In that case, the ACC will probably look at Rutgers, West Virginia and Connecticut, in that order.
SEC: It’s entirely possible to run a conference with 13 schools and two divisions. It requires a slightly unbalanced schedule, with only three schools in the seven-team division playing all six possible opponents. This means it’s both slightly more random and slightly more difficult for a good team to win a division. But it can be done. The SEC probably wants to go to 14, though. Its first choice would be Texas, all things considered. But that might not be possible. It could also jump to 16 with Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, which would be a daring and very lucrative move. I think that’s slightly more possible, though we’re not hearing any rumors along those lines. The conventional wisdom right now says the SEC will try and add one school. And that will likely be Missouri. I think either West Virginia or Missouri will work fine for the SEC, though not as well as Texas or Oklahoma.
Pac Twelve: Barring a resurrection of the Texas/Oklahoma/Oklahoma State/Texas Tech rumors, the Pac Twelve will happily remain intact for a long time. It would take a package of that kind of value to make it worth while to even discuss further expansion.
QUESTION 2: Preservation of the Big East and Big Twelve.
As the major conferences expand, they’re grabbing up schools from these conferences. They’ve had experience competing at a BCS level. The question is whether the remaining teams can continue at that level.
Big Twelve: Despite organizational problems that rival the government itself, the Big Twelve is still remarkably successful. Unless it loses Texas and Oklahoma, it will easily retain prime access to the BCS moving forward. Texas Christian will join next year. Missouri may leave next year. That would leave the conference with nine schools. The easiest move would be to get to twelve schools by taking Louisville, Cincinnati and West Virginia. Or add one to get to ten. As long as Texas and Oklahoma remain happy, all sorts of options are on the table. The conference could even reach down and take Houston, Tulane or Rice if needed. Tulane and Rice are interesting options because they are excellent academic schools, and that still matters a little these days. The new Big Twelve won’t be nearly as strong as last year’s version, but it can remain very healthy anchored only by Texas and Oklahoma.
Big East: The Big East is in serious trouble right now, and has to hope that the Big Twelve doesn’t want to be accurately named any more. Rumors abound that as many as six new schools will receive invitations to join the Big East. The automatic BCS bid is secure while the current structure is in place, until the end of the 2013 season. After that, it’s all up in the air, and what will be a rag-tag amalgamation of schools from all over the country and a few basketball-only schools isn’t much of an image of stability. In 2014, only Rutgers and West Virginia will remain from the schools that founded the football portion of the conference in 1991. Ask again next week, and that might only include Rutgers. And next year, maybe no one. So this is a pure scramble to assemble as many good football teams as possible, with no interest whatsoever in the long-term health of the conference.
QUESTION 3: How do the mid-majors gain access to the BCS?
To answer this question, understanding two concepts are important. One is that the current BCS arrangement expires after the 2013 season and no one knows exactly what form the BCS will take moving forward. The second is that the current arrangement is designed to emphasize conferences with teams that place highly in the standings. There’s really only a slight difference between the level of achievement necessary to gain an automatic bid and the level required to play in the BCS. So the entire fight right now is all about what happens when a conference does not have a high achiever.
This means the BCS will make its decisions based on trying to get the best teams into the top bowls. It was definitely burned by Connecticut’s mediocre season (and Big East championship) last season.
This is why the strategy of Conference USA and the Mountain West makes a lot of sense. By putting 20-24 schools together, one of them is bound to be fairly good. The Big East is countering this strategy by allegedly offering invitations to the schools in that group that look most likely to be good enough to win a bid.
My guess is that the new BCS arrangement won’t give this new conference an automatic bid. Nor will it give the Big East a bid. But it will continue to add slots where a team from one of these conferences receives a bid if it’s ranked amongst the top teams. The bottom line is that the top school from the mid-majors has consistently received a bid the last few years. We can argue all day as to whether that’s warranted, but it seems a fair compromise between rewarding teams that don’t lose and not over-rewarding teams that don’t play an elite schedule. College football can’t give every team a similar schedule. Not even close. It has to use the BCS to balance this problem.
We still have look at the most valuable franchises in vulnerable positions if we want to know how this will shake out. For now, that means continuing to watch Texas closely. Oklahoma and Notre Dame are also elite franchises that could make moves.
I would add a third tier made up of Missouri, West Virginia, Kansas, Oklahoma State and Brigham Young. Those schools belong securely in any major conference discussion, though in Brigham Young’s case the school’s refusal to consider playing minor sports games on Sundays makes an invitation much more difficult. After the third tier there are maybe 20 schools that could make the move up, but that would depend on factors specific to the inviting conference. Most likely current performance level is at the top of the list these days.