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Realignment Chronicles: Realignment 101

In the discussion of last week's first installment of Realignment Chronicles, it was suggested that a comprehensive guide be prepared covering the basic issues conference realignment for those who haven't been following the minutia of realignment possibilities as closely as certain people who have no life me.

So, without further ado, after the jump, Realignment 101.

Why might conference realignment happen?  Because the Big 10 is hungry, the Pac 10 is feeling left behind, and the SEC is cranky.

Many have believed for years that the Big 10 would eventually expand by one school to get to the 12 schools required under present NCAA rules to stage a conference championship game.  And while having the ability to have such a game might be a pleasant by-product of its current exploration of expansion, what seems to be fueling the need to expand is the appetite of the unexpectedly profitable Big Ten Network (BTN).  Skeptically launched in 2006, the BTN has proven its naysayers wrong.  The exact amount of profitability per school is questionable and might be worthy of further exploration in a future edition of the Realignment Chronicles, but it suffices for our purposes today to state that each Big 10 school earns a lot more as a result of the conference's television contract than each Big XII school does.  So, yes, Northwestern makes more on its conference's TV contracts than Texas.  And perhaps more importantly, Northwestern makes a lot more than Mizzou or Nebraska.

And with feeding the BTN, and not the addition of a conference championship game, driving the Big 10's investigating the benefits of expansion, it is quite possible that the conference will expand to 14 or even 16 teams in a quest to pick up schools in lucrative markets or in Nebraska to expand the footprint of the network and allow the conference to charge cable companies more for carrying the network where it's already carried.

Meanwhile, the Pac 10 has indicated that it, too, is exploring the possibility of expanding, presumably to 12 schools.  Despite the greater noise coming from the Midwest, quite a few observers believe that the fact that the Pac 10's television contracts are expiring soon will lead the Pac 10, and not the Big 10, to make the first move so that the conference will be able to start negotiating a better TV contract this summer.  The Pac 10 is pretty much in the same boat with the Big XII in terms of general dissatisfaction with the amount of TV revenue coming in.

And lurking in the background of all of this is the SEC.  SEC Commissioner Mike Silve recently dropped a not-so-subtle hint that a move by the Big 10 to expand by several schools might require the SEC to respond in kind to preserve its preeminent place in the marketplace.

So how much do we know about what's actually going on?  Not a whole hell of a lot.  Pretty much everything that is actually known about what is going on is discussed in the section above.

Virtually everything else you might see here or elsewhere -- that such-and-such conference has invited this school or that school, or that School X will move to this conference but won't move to that conference -- is purely speculative.  And the absence of many real facts has led to some really fantastic rumors out there.

Rumors?  Such as? Focusing just on Texas-centric rumors, I have seen all of the following rumors about Texas being floated over the last couple of week:

  • Texas has expressed an interest in moving to the Pac 10 but has asked the Pac 10 to get rid of its "dead weight" (presumably Washington State) first before Texas would engage in further conversations with the conference.
  • The Pac 10 has reached out to gauge the interest of Texas and Texas A&M in joining the conference.  A&M was interested, but Texas was not.
  • Texas and Notre Dame are jointly negotiating entry into the Big 10 under a plan which would allow each school to play one less conference game a year in order for the two schools to play an additional OOC game.  Under the plan, if Texas and, say, Ohio State both went undefeated, OSU would win the Big 10 since its 8-0 record would trump Texas' 7-0 record.  There would be no conference championship game despite the addition of enough schools to allow the Big 10 to stage one.
  • Negotiations between the Big 10 and Texas are hung up on UT's insistence that the conference championship game be played in Texas on a regular basis.
  • Texas would prefer the Big XII to blow up so that it could form its own "tomato can" conference, comprised of schools like Fresno State and such whom Texas could domineer, which would virtually ensure that the Horns would win the conference and the BCS berth each year.
  • Texas will try and bring the University of Houston along wherever it goes, since Bill Powers' championing of UH's academic goals of achieving Tier One status means that Texas wants UH to be an equal partner on the football field as well.

You don't have to have the brains of an Acho brother to realize that these rumors are pure, unadulterated beergut.  Take pretty much anything you read about what is supposedly happening, especially completely unsourced articles emerging from oddball sites, with a huge grain of salt.

Even if we know little in the way of hard facts, are there any facts we can reasonably assume to be true?  Ah, excellent question!

It was accurately pointed out in the comments section of last week's Realignment Chronicles that each school's balancing of the athletic, academic, geographic, financial, cultural and political concerns in making the best possible decision can and will be very complex.  Texas, perhaps more than any other school, has layers of complexity in making its decision, layers which we can only begin to fathom.

But, on the flip side, the actual number of options available for Texas, or any other school, are pretty limited after that complex balancing act occurs.  Texas has more options than any other school on the realignment table, but even these options can be listed very quickly: stay in the Big XII, go independent, or move to the Big 10, Pac 10 or SEC.  (And, of those options, most BONers who've been following this issue closely tend to discount our chances of going to the SEC or fending out for ourselves as an independent.) Most schools in the mix probably only have two, or perhaps three, options open.

I would implore you to keep this in mind when coming up with realignment scenarios, or analyzing the realignment scenarios of others:

KISS.  Keep It Simple Stupid.

Don't get overly complex.  Don't devise schemes which have the Pac 10 splitting in two, or which have the Southwest Conference rising from the ashes, or which have the SEC booting existing members just because it can.

With that in mind, I would recommend following these Golden Rules of Realignment.  Disregard these rules, and prepare to be mocked:

  • No school will be leaving the Big 10 for any other conference.
  • No school will be leaving the SEC for any other conference. It would be financial malpractice for Arkansas to leave the SEC to join the Big XII, so stop scheming about the Hogs being a potential replacement for a departing Big XII school.
  • All 10 schools of the Pac 10 will still be in the same conference when this is said and done. This is essentially the same rule as the first two, but the lawyer in me wants to preserve some sort of technical wiggle room for the minute possibility that there could be something like a "all Pac 10 schools + select Big XII schools = brand new conference" in the same manner in which the Big XII was formed.  (Note that I said minute possibility.  For the purposes of KISS, I would just assume it's an impossibility.)  No one's being kicked out of the Pac 10, and the same geographic isolation which minimizes its TV revenues also acts as a security blanket to keep its members from being poached by the more prosperous Big 10.
  • No conference which is scrambling to save itself will boot out existing members.  No, Baylor and ISU aren't going anywhere so long as the Big XII survives, and they especially aren't going anywhere if the Big XII is in trouble.  Keen observers will note that the Big East violated this very rule when it expelled Temple a few years back, but ISU and Baylor are not what Temple had become by any stretch of the imagination. And Temple was a football-only member of the Big East to boot.
  • The pool of potential expansion teams for the Big XII is limited to non-BCS schools.  There has been some discussion about the Big XII being proactive, but the reality of the first three rules listed above limit who the Big XII could add.  With the potential exception of orphan schools from the Big East if that conference explodes (Louisville?), the pool of potential invitees is limited to non-BCS conferences, presumably just the MWC and C-USA.  Though Utah has actually had some success over the past few years (Quick: name all schools which have finished in the top two in hoops and football during the Big XII era. Answer: Florida, Ohio State and Utah.) and might be an upgrade athletically from Mizzou, the pickings start to become really slim really quickly.

Also, keep in mind that academics will kill certain school's chances of landing in conferences, particularly the Pac 10, no matter how much athletic or geographic sense it might make. If you read a proposed realignment scheme that has Boise State or Fresno State heading to the Pac 10, you can stop reading and move to the next article, because Stanford would never allow that to happen.

So who's heading to the Big Ten? Probably some combination of one to five of the following schools, which can be grouped as realistic contenders (Missouri, Nebraska, Rutgers, Pitt and Syracuse) to safety schools (UConn) to longshots (Maryland) to longshot home runs (Notre Dame, Texas and Texas A&M).  (Note: A&M is considered a "home run" because, if Texas were to be invited, A&M might need to be brought along for the ride.  I don't think it'd be the "home run" on its own.)

The hot rumor of the moment is that the Big 10 is looking to invite NU, Mizzou, Rutgers and Notre Dame.  The former three are pretty much considered locks to accept invites, while ND remains a wild card.  If ND accepts, the Big 10 would immediately look to at a 16th school.  If ND declines, the Big Ten might stand pat at 14, at least for the near future.  Again, this is merely a rumor, and there's no way to confirm or deny whether this is accurate, although there may be some fire to go along with the Mizzou smoke.  I have my doubts as to whether this will hold up.

Why would NU and Mizzou want to leave the Big XII?  I think I've made my position on NU clear, and as for Mizzou, the Tigers have the rare opportunity to prove that they can be mediocre non-entities in three major conferences in less than two decades.  Very few schools ever have that chance.

Seriously, though, it's pretty much a no-brainer for both schools to accept invites if offered.  The relative value of the increase in television revenues from moving from the Big XII to the Big 10 is much more important for those schools than it would be for a wealthy athletic department like UT's.  Texas could afford to leave those extra dollars on the table.  I'm not sure Mizzou can.

Add on top of that the ability to leave behind a conference which Texas supposedly dominates, and we can start looking forward to Rutgers-Mizzou games (now that screams "Big Ten football!") on the fifth BTN auxiliary channel in Octobers in the near future.

(And what would be the over/under on the number of years it would take either Tom Osborne Nebraska or Mizzou to start publicly griping over Michigan's and Ohio State's domination of conference affairs?  I say three.)

We're Texas.  Can't we ignore everything else going on and do what we damn well please?  Maybe, maybe not.

Even though I've made my advocacy for a move to the Big 10 clear over the past few months, I think it's fair to say that most Longhorn fans and supporters, including me, would prefer that Texas stay where it is unless it has to move.  The question becomes at what point in the process a move might be prudent to avoid being stuck in a bad, bad place.  I tend to think early in the process; other very sharp minds believe Texas can hold out for quite a while without having to rush a decision.

Assuming that the Big 10 does go ahead and make a move, and I think that's a pretty safe assumption, let me present a couple of extremes of what could happen:

  • Scenario One: The Containment Scenario. The Big Ten fails to land the two big fish ostensibly available, Notre Dame and Texas, and settles for adding Nebraska, Mizzou and Rutgers.  The Pac 10 crunches the numbers and concludes that expansion only makes sense if it can lure Texas.  The SEC isn't alarmed by the Big 10's addition of three schools which haven't won conference championships since the last century and elects not to pursue a tit-for-tat expansion. The Big East is nicked but can retool by simply adding one school, perhaps Memphis. The Big XII simply reloads by adding Utah (which is still free given the Pac 10's refusal to expand) and BYU.
  • Scenario Two: The Conference Realignment Armageddon Scenario. The Big Ten expands by five schools, adding Nebraska, Mizzou, Rutgers, Notre Dame and Syracuse after Texas turns down the conference (or expresses no interest at all).  The Pac 10 concludes that expansion makes sense even without Texas and invites Colorado and Utah after UT declines an invite.  The SEC is sufficiently alarmed by a five-team Big 10 expansion which includes big fish Notre Dame and starts making its plans to expand by four schools.  Smelling Big XII blood in the water, the SEC approaches UT, A&M, OU and Okie State.  The latter three, not wanting to remain in a dying conference, decide together that they will bolt the Big XII regardless of what Texas does.

The first scenario highlights the danger of Texas making a move too soon when it doesn't need to, while the second scenario illustrates a situation in which UT inaction would lead to having to choose joining the SEC (presumed to be an unwelcome choice for UT) or remain in a conference more or less indistinguishable from the Mountain West.  What will actually happen remains to be determined, but one would have to imagine that Powers and Dodds are working quietly behind the scenes to plan for all contingencies and to shape events in such a way that will allow Texas to pursue its preferred outcome.

So what will Texas do? That's the million dollar question.  It's been the question which has spurred many debates already on BON and which will continue to spur debates until everything is eventually settled.  And the answer is, quite simply, no one knows, and anyone who claims to have greater insight is merely speculating like the rest of us.  I would doubt that either Powers or Dodds have any great level of confidence right now as to how everything will shake out.

I personally am beginning to back away from my prior prediction that Texas would wind up in the Big 10.  Is it still possible?  Yes, but applying the KISS methodology to what has been unfolding, I have to start thinking that a cigar is just a cigar and that the lack of any legitimate contact or expressed interest between the Big 10 and Texas is indicative of a great likelihood that we're not moving north.

My working theory now is that Texas will resist moving to another conference so long as a safe harbor exists for an eventual move to either the Big 10 or the Pac 10.  With that in mind, if the Big 10 appears as though it will settle for a 14-school conference by adding a trio of schools which do not include Notre Dame, the door would probably remain open for Texas to join that conference if it needed to.  And if the numbers crunchers for the Pac 10, a conference which has been very conservative historically, decide that expansion only makes sense if Texas is one of the schools -- and that's quite possible, because geography dictates that the Pac 10's options are very limited -- Texas can defer having to make a move so long as the door remained open to join that conference down the road.

The question becomes at what point a move would be prudent to avoid winding up in a situation like the second scenario laid out above.  Unless, of course, to the shock of many of us, UT wouldn't mind being in the SEC if it came down to it.

So Texas can fend for itself and will almost certainly be OK at the end of the day.  Who won't be? The leftovers of the Big XII and the Big East if realignment spins out of control.  Certain schools, like Kansas and West Virginia, might not have natural homes if realignment destroys the Big XII and the Big East, but they intrinsically seem too good to be left out of the BCS conference mix.  One would think that, somehow, someway, the Jayhawks and Mountaineers would find homes.  I wouldn't be so confident, though, if I were a fan of Iowa State, Cincinnati or South Florida, and perhaps even Baylor.

How soon will all of this happen?  As quickly as this summer, but more likely over a couple of years, especially with all of the trickle-down realignments an initial expansion by the Big 10 or Pac 10 might lead to.  The Big 10 has stated that it will take its time over a 12 to 18 month period, but I sense that the demands of the news cycle in the internet era, with its never-satiated rumor mill, might drive a decision to be made sooner rather than later.  And the Pac 10 might need to make a decision by the end of June of this year so that it can commence negotiations on its next round of television contracts with the knowledge of who, exactly, will comprise the Pac 10.

On the other hand, DeLoss Dodds is negotiating an extension on his contract, and it seems in part to ensure continuity at the top throughout the realignment process.  Without an extension, Dodds contract wouldn't expire until August 31, 2011.  Read into that what you will.

So there's your Realignment 101.  I went on a lot more than I anticipated and didn't even get to touch a myriad of other subjects which will factor into what Texas does, including political considerations (covered in last week's chronicles), how a possible Longhorn Sports Network will play into this, the extent to which academics will drive athletics (or vice versa), and so on.  We can explore those issues more in depth in future editions of the Chronicles.

(Author's Note: Literally a minute before I was going to publish, I received from learned hand a very well written [would you expect anything less?] email on this subject.  Reading it through, I think it works better as a separate but complementary piece on the basic issues surrounding realignment, so instead of trying to incorporate his words into mine, I will wait for him to post it below in the comments for your reading pleasure.)