Conference realignment: Should the Big 12 expand to avoid falling behind?

Brandon Wade

The latest round of conference realignment is in full swing and four 16-team superconferences seem more imminent than ever.

The passage of time seems about as hard to arrest right now as conference realignment.

Rutgers and Maryland to the Big 10 in a move that was mostly panned but may actually represent a bold play for the untapped markets of the Northeast. At least there is some upside there.

Tulane and East Carolina to the Big East? Just call it Conference USA 2.0 -- 10 members of the Big East will have played there before joining when the two new schools are added to the mix. Sometimes, survival is the only upside there is.

After losing two schools, the ACC is in danger of being completely raided themselves, so they took one of the few remaining attractive Big East teams. Could Cincinnati be that far behind?

Madness. There's just something of a crazed tinge to all of it. But to deny the inevitable is foolish and no one actually sets out to be foolish, do they? Seems like something that just sort of happens.

And what is about to sort of happen here appears to be four 16-team superconferences. It has seemed inevitable ever since the SEC went to 14 teams, a model that doesn't work particularly well for scheduling purposes. With the Big 10 now at 14 teams as well, it's only a matter of time before those two conferences both add two more teams, though the SEC's continued reluctance to add member institutions in states in which the league is already represented will probably slow that march.

Temporarily, at least.

Notably quiet in all of the movement is the Big 12, now sitting happily with 10 schools, no conference championship game, no conference television network, but one of the best television deals, a 13-year grant of rights that ensures none of the schools will be leaving, and a path to the national championship that doesn't include the possible pitfall of playing that conference title game.

Under new commissioner Bob Bowlsby, the league is currently willing to sit on the sidelines, content with the status quo in the ever-changing landscape of college football.

Is bigger better? Bowlsby isn't convinced:

You and others may think I'm crazy. I think no one has proven to me that larger is better ... If we had the opportunity geographically or financially for something that clearly moved the needle, we'd be on them.

There are no clear geographical fits for the Big 12 -- LSU and Arkansas would never leave the SEC and looking west provides no answers in the state of New Mexico. Heading towards flyover country simply leads to Big 10 schools.

Louisiana Tech? Louisiana-Monroe? Nice football teams right now, but leave the scraps for the conferences that actually need them, like the Big East and Conference USA.

One industry insider likes the position of the conference moving forward with 10 teams:

I would be laughing. They're in great shape. If the TV deal was lousy, if in two or three years their network deal was coming up. But right now, the Big 12 has hit the lottery. They've got it perfect. Those guys have it on Easy Street.

The only way to improve things would be to add teams that make sense financially -- schools that can bring enough to the table in terms of adding markets that matter, but without breaking up the financial pie smaller than it was before. The fancy term for that is pro rata.

So which schools could make that pro rata difference? If one accepts the inevitability of the superconference model, the conference will have to make moves at some point.

Right now, the conference ripe for poaching is the ACC, which has a terrible television contract that was just signed and holds the schools most appealing to the Big 12 -- Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech, four pretty big fish still out there. After that, assuming that the schools in the SEC, Pac-12, and Big 10 aren't in play, there's not much.

So how much urgency is there to move? Bowlsby clearly believes that there isn't much, but the Big 12 is taking something of a risk in that sense that if the SEC decides to move on two of those schools by putting aside the league's refusal to have two teams in the same state, two of the top targets could be off the table and the conference would be left scrambling to find suitable members.

Is there a chance that the Big 12 could simply stay at 10 indefinitely, no matter what happens with the other major conferences?

Whether Bowlsby likes it or not (he probably doesn't), college football is heading down a road that will lead to the creation of those superconferences and the separation of the sport from the NCAA, with a new governing body (which would allow those schools to pay their football players in some way), probably something similar to the BCS, then put in place.

Conference championship games would act as de-facto playoff games, with the winners then playing a semifinal match up before the winners would face off in the championship.

Not so entirely different from what will happen with the new playoff structure, is it?

The period of calm that Bowlsby was hoping for didn't really come to fruition, lasting not even the entire football season. But whatever shape the next iteration of college football takes, the Big 12 will be the fourth superconference, unless somehow a Big East/ACC alliance could threaten the conference.

It seems implausible, though -- Texas and Oklahoma aren't going to be left out and they aren't leaving the Big 12, either.

At some point superconferences are going to happen and the Big 12 will be one of them. In support of the best interests of the conference, Bowlsby's job is to make sure that the SEC doesn't grab the top teams out there before the Big 12 can.

And that may require a greater level of initiative than the conference seems to prefer at this point.

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