The last time we went through this a little more than a year ago, I noted from the outset that I thought the best (and most interesting) way to evaluate conference realignment was as a giant game of live, high stakes game theory in action. And in fact it was by evaluating Texas' position through that prism that I predicted that rather than make a move to another conference UT would sit tight and buy time.
Fast forward fifteen months and the landscape has changed a good deal, and though I think we'd all rather this drama were contained to the offseason, now seems the right time to revisit what I said about Texas' position last summer and re-evaluate it in light of recent events.
As an initial question, do those same evaluations from fifteen months ago still hold today? I think that they largely do, for one important reason: without any particular costs to bear from operating in a weakened conference in the short-term, what Texas would like at this stage of the game more than anything else is still more time. Although it's easy to focus on maximizing our revenue potential, that's a (very important) means to an end, but not the ultimate end. Likewise, while finding a neat fit for our sports is, by definition, what this is all about, it isn't necessarily the case that we're interested in deciding right now where we will be in, say, 2020.
Instead, if you're in Texas' position, what you most want is to slow the realignment dance down, buy as much time as you can, gather as much information as you can, and to the greatest extent possible control the pace at which realignment unfolds.
I actually think that if you look at Texas' position heading into this past summer, it was pretty much ideal, and exactly what we wanted. We were preparing to launch the Longhorn Network, had a workable Big 12 conference in which to operate profitably and competitively for the forseeable future, and -- assuming there would be a change at some point in the near-ish future -- were in great position to gather information and evaluate what we wanted to do next.
The problem, of course, is that there are other stakeholders in this game, and though I still think Texas made the right play by adopting the course of action that it did, UT was and is powerless to prevent others from taking actions that are disruptive to our preferred timeline of events.
That brings us to the one big caveat of that initial analysis: "If the entire sport were headed towards four 16-team super-conferences, [Texas might then] be forced to make that hard choice, but unless and until it is, it’s going to serve and protect its entrenched position." Alas, three recent moves now force Texas to that very re-evaluating and re-calculating of its position:
1. Texas A&M's SECession. The most important event was Texas A&M's decision to adopt a different strategy than UT. I've argued extensively that the Aggie strategy is a foolish one, but for better or worse they plowed ahead with their plan to join the SEC as soon as possible, and this -- more than anything else -- is the catalyst of the rapid unfolding of recent events.
2. Oklahoma decides to act for itself. The Aggies' decision to bolt the Big 12 meant that even if Texas was going to do everything in its power to preserve the status quo for as long as possible, it was at least as likely -- probably more so -- that the Big 12 would implode. Oklahoma was fine with the original timeline when it looked like the Big 12-2 could chug along well enough for at least a while, but upon A&M announcing its intention to leave, the Sooners concluded that they had to begin taking a proactive approach to their future home.
3. The ACC makes the first move. With the SEC poised to add a 13th team, it stood to reason that a 14th (and possibly 15th and 16th) might not be far behind, and among the best candidates for the SEC to poach are two ACC schools -- Virginia Tech and Clemson. Meanwhile, with Oklahoma (and by extension Oklahoma State) making noise about making an immediate move to the Pac 12, we suddenly had ourselves two moves that together added up to the first big step towards a possible landscape of four 16-team superconferences. And who would those super-conferences be? For certain we'd have the Pac-12, the Big 10, and the SEC. With the Big 12 imploding, that leaves either the ACC or Big East as the fourth, and facing the possible consequences of acting second/too slowly, the ACC concluded it had to assert itself as the conference that would survive. Welcome aboard, Pitt and Syracuse, and good luck with what's left, Big East.
WHERE TEXAS STANDS
So where do recent events leave Texas? There are three possible outcomes: (1) salvage some sort of Big 12-3, (2) go independent, or (3) join one of the four super-conferences.
Let's momentarily set aside what is going to happen and consider, again, what Texas would like to happen. Again, for Texas, the optimal short-term solution is to salvage some kind of workable Big 12, slowing down the fall of realignment dominoes and buying some time to make its long-term decision. Why is time so important? Because with a little more time, and all the information that will come with it, there are -- at least potentially -- more options on the table for Texas. The extra information might reveal independence to be more viable/workable than it appears right now (i.e. less risky). The extra time and information might also open up possibilities for Texas and, say, Notre Dame, to make a move together. It's also possible that the extra time and information might leave Texas more or less in exactly the same position it is in right now, but the opportunity to make that decision with the additional information would be valuable in and of itself.
Will Texas get that extra time? That's the million dollar question, but as this process steamrolls forward, I don't think you can divorce the evaluation of what will be best for Texas in the long-term from that which would be most beneficial in the short-term. It seems to me that if it can find a way, Texas ideally would like to convince Oklahoma to sit tight and ride out the Big 12-# for a little while longer. The case Texas makes is that (1) Oklahoma stands to benefit from more time and information, as well; (2) Oklahoma is better off -- long-term -- being in the same conference as Texas (for many reasons, including recruiting); and (3) that if the Pac-12 is going to be the right destination for both of them then they'll both benefit from stringing this out and recapturing leverage with respect to the Pac-12.
That last part is key, because on an accelerated timeline the Pac-12 has much more leverage than it would if, say, Texas and Oklahoma held out together and then forced the Pac-12 to negotiate favorably with the two schools in order to secure their presence in its super-conference. Because let's face it, if the Pac-12 strikes out on both, it's a big, big blow to their stature in a super-conference future. Look at the other western-oriented candidates... it's slim pickings.
At least to me, that's what this all boils down to: Can Texas talk Oklahoma into holding out from an immediate move, getting by in a duct-taped Big 12, and leveraging their collective strength into a more favorable position down the line. There are many reasons that's far from a sure thing, not least of which is because it requires a leap of faith on the part of Oklahoma that Texas won't ultimately go a different direction. Whether Texas is willing to make enough assurances to Oklahoma to keep them on board probably depends on how realistic/attractive UT considers its other options, but if Texas sees the Pac-16 as its ultimate destination, it's in its interest to make some commitments now, even if it forecloses other possibilities later.
If, on the other hand, Texas thinks there are a number of viable options that it wants to leave on the table, it's at the mercy of Oklahoma and will have to decide whether to make its long-term decision now, or scrounge together another interim plan while it holds out for more information and better leverage. Given those two options, I'm inclined to think that Texas tries its best to band with Oklahoma and negotiate collectively with the Pac-12. Together, Texas and OU have leverage, because together they can always MacGuyver the Big 12 for a little while longer. Separated, Texas' options get messy, and they'll have to decide whether to compromise pretty heavily as part of entry into the Pac-12, or hold off on their own.