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Welcome To The Superconference Era Of College Football

Coming soon to a conference near you?
Coming soon to a conference near you?

It seems like only yesterday that I was addressing, with somewhat of a bemused detachment, the rumored interest Florida State was purported to have in joining the Big 12.

OK, it wasn't quite yesterday: it was a whole five days ago. Since then, a seismic shift in college football has occurred. I think it's difficult to overstate the significance of the announcement that the champions of the Big 12 and SEC will be meeting annually in a new, conference-controlled bowl game beginning with the 2014 season. (The current BCS contracts run through the 2013 season.)

I think aloud and ramble on for several thousand words about what I think this all means, and where we're heading, after the jump.

Let me be clear that pretty much all that follows is personal conjecture as I try to fit the pieces of the puzzle together. Let me also be clear that I, like pretty much everyone else who follows realignment-related news more closely than a sane person should, have been wrong pretty much every step of the way with my realignment-related prognostications. (How's that Big 10 working out for Texas, Hopkins?) But at least I'll admit that I don't know what I'm talking about, and, as the following days and weeks unfold, I would take any media report based upon anonymous sourcing with an enormous grain of salt, even if that media source is writing under the assumed name of a deity and is claiming ties with someone pretty high up within the Texas administration.

That being said, the thought I can't escape is that this new Big 12-SEC bowl game (to which, for simplicity's sake, I'll refer to as the "Champions Bowl" from here on out) only makes sense if the Big 12 and the SEC are prepared to offer up their actual champions each and every year.

Much has been written in the days following the announcement of the creation of the Champions Bowl about how, in practice, it would be anything but a bowl game of champions. And under most of the discussed four-team playoff formats, that would be true. Most of these proposals seem to have had the playoff participants playing in games independent of the current bowl system.

Simply plugging the Champions Bowl into the world which would be created by these proposals means that, more often than not*, one league champion, if not both, would not participate in the Champions Bowl because they would be participating in the separate playoff games instead, making the Champions Bowl into nothing more than a warmed-over Cotton Bowl. (In fact, superimposing most of the proposed playoff structures onto last season produces a Champions Bowl which was, in fact, last year's Cotton Bowl.) And in years in which both champs were eligible, the game wouldn't be a particularly attractive one, matching, at best, #5 vs. #6 (and that in only the most fluky of circumstances).

(*I think it's important here to reiterate one of my long-standing mantras when it comes to realignment-related discussions: everything is cyclical, and it's important to keep this in mind when determining what would be the best course of action for Texas and the Big 12 to pursue. I deliberately wrote "more often than not" rather than much stronger wording I've read elsewhere -- "always", "virtually always", etc. -- because, even though the SEC has proven to be the strongest conference in recent years and the Big 12 has proven to be a strong number two, there is absolutely no guarantee that the balance of power won't shift back towards the Pac 12 and/or the Big 10 at some point in the future. We should prepare simultaneously for scenarios in which we are preeminent and in which we are not.)

The conclusion I find inescapable is that the Big 12 and SEC would not have agreed to create -- and control! -- the Champions Bowl while simultaneously agreeing to leave an extremely large amount of money on the table by not guaranteeing to their future television partner that the Champions Bowl will, in fact, match the champion of the SEC against the champion of the Big 12. It makes virtually no sense (or cents, as it were) otherwise.

And if that conclusion I've reached is correct, what we've witnessed in the past few days is an absolute game-changer in college football and, of course, college athletics in general.

What we will have witnessed, more importantly than the creation of a really cool bowl game, is the final shifting of the balance of power from the bowl games themselves to the conferences -- more specifically, the power conferences. It's striking to consider, in the wake of the creation of the Champions Bowl, why this took so long to happen, why the Mike Slives of the world didn't seize control of their teams' postseasons sooner.

And now that the seal on multi-conference creation and control of bowl games has been broken, I tend to think things could get even more interesting very quickly. It's hard to imagine Jim Delany and Larry Scott sitting back and not seizing similar control of their champions' bowl game for the financial betterment of their member schools. (Oh, sure, it will still be called the "Rose Bowl Game," and it will still be played in the Rose Bowl . . . in much the same way SBC bought AT&T and kept the name.)

But who controls the financials of the Rose Bowl is merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. What I think is a likely next step -- almost what has to be the next step -- is the creation of a new and additional bowl game, controlled jointly by the Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC, which would pit the winner of the Rose Bowl against the winner of the Champions Bowl. (I'll just call it the "Awesome Bowl" for now.)

Just imagine the financials on that one. And then just imagine what incentive any of the big power conferences would have to share any of that extraordinarily huge sum of money with anyone else.

Let me put it this way: Mike Slive has been pretty adamant about creating a four-team playoff** beginning with the 2014 season. I guess no one has had the presence of mind to try and pin Slive down as to which teams would actually be eligible for that playoff -- or, more precisely, "playoff".

(**If you think about it, what will have been created is not a four-team playoff but, in fact, an eight-team playoff, once the Big 12 inevitably expands to at least 12 and again stages a conference championship game, with the de facto quarterfinal games being the four championship games of the power conferences. An eight-team playoff featuring the eight division winners of the four power conferences, playing on a predetermined bracket, as it were.)

To be clear, the creators and controllers of the Awesome Bowl wouldn't claim that they were staging a national championship game, either real or mythical. How could they, with at least half of the FBS (depending on how realignment after the creation of the Awesome Bowl shook out) ineligible to compete for it? But they would know, and we would know, and the pollsters would know, that the winner of the Awesome Bowl will almost certainly be considered champions of any particular college football season.***

(***There's the obvious problem with that assumption in that a completely dominant team outside the Awesome Bowl's reach could emerge in any particular season, though the odds of that would be very slim, especially with the realignment which would almost certainly occur after the Awesome Bowl's creation. There's also the thorny issue that, as is the case with almost any playoff system, a completely unworthy team, based upon regular season performance, could win the Awesome Bowl. Superimpose the Awesome Bowl upon last season, and suddenly a 6-6 UCLA team -- champions of the Pac 12 South only through USC's ineligibility -- would have found itself a mere three wins away from being "champs" of, well, something. Cuing Brooklyn Horn's outrage . . . now!)

And with this, the long-theorized advent of a college football universe of four power conferences and everyone else will have take fruition. And I think it's safe to assume that pretty much every school within that "everyone else" category will be doing whatever it can to become a member of a power conference.

But it won't necessarily be the symmetrical 4x16 structure (four conferences with 16 teams each) which many have presumed. There's no logical reason why there would have to be exactly 64 teams competing in those four conferences. As of today, there will be 48 teams competing in the four power conferences come 2014. Are there really 16 additional schools which bring enough to the table to be considered for addition to one of the four power conferences, at least as of today? I don't think so.

Disregarding Notre Dame for a moment (I will deal with the Irish separately and more extensively shortly), there are very few schools outside the new power conference structure which strike me as no-brainer admits. In fact, I think there are only three which make complete sense from a football-centric perspective: Florida State, Virginia Tech and BYU.**** And of those three, one might have struck a deal with a Cavalier-cloked devil to get itself in the ACC nearly a decade ago and might find it hard to escape on its own, and the other might have its own Notre Dame-esque reasons for wanting to retain independence. So, at the end of the day, Florida State might be the only no-brainer making an immediate move into a power conference.

(****For the purposes of this discussion, let's not get bogged down on which schools may or may not be no-brainers, because, so long as the universe of no-brainer schools is a limited one, it really doesn't matter for these purposes which schools they might be [Clemson instead of BYU, for example]. If, on the other hand, the argument is that the universe of no-brainer schools is much larger than I'm arguing it is, then by all means let's have that discussion.)

Beyond those schools, there are a number of schools which would make some sense but strike me as being a bit problematic from a football-centric perspective. I'm primarily talking about a good chunk of the ACC -- Miami, UNC, UVa, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Clemson, maybe NCSU and Pittsburgh -- but perhaps Louisville as well. I think that many who obsess about realignment assume to quickly that the spare parts of the ACC would be gobbled up by the other power conferences, but I'm not entirely sure. Does it make sense for the Big 10 to dilute (my choice of word) its football brand by making Maryland and Virginia its 13th and 14th members?***** Does it similarly make sense for the SEC to make UNC and NCSU its 15th and 16th members? And, more relevantly for us, apart from the reality that adding FSU (which I think the Big 12 will, and that's all I have to say about that particular rumor right now) almost certainly (but not absolutely certainly) dictates that a 12th team be added pretty quickly as well, do any of those schools strike anyone as must-haves?

Not to me.

(*****I can just see any number of Frank The Tank realignment-obsessed readers seeing this and claiming that I'm completely discounting market penetration and television network footprints and any other number of non-football related items which make those schools no-brainer must-haves. Of course the Big 10 would want to add the crucial Richmond market to its Big 10 Network footprint! To that, I respond: when it was time to expand, the Big 10 took all of those network footprint concerns under consideration and wound up with -- wait for it -- Nebraska. Football bona fides still kind of count just a little in all this.)

This isn't to say that some, if not many or most, of those schools won't find their way eventually into a power conference. It's just that there's no reason to expect that there will be a rapid disintegration of the ACC after its banishment into "everybody else" purgatory, even if Florida State leaves and takes a Clemson or Miami or Virginia Tech with it. What I would expect to happen is that the ACC will retrench and double-down on its "premier basketball conference" branding by poaching UConn and perhaps Louisville (academic concerns notwithstanding) to go along with recent additions Syracuse and Pittsburgh. It will continue to play football at a pretty good level (better than most people give it credit for, in my estimation) for a few years at least, and its champion will still have the perk of the Orange Bowl or something similar, but the reality of being an "everybody else" will slowly but surely send it into a Big East-esque death spiral, at least as far as football is concerned.

But enough about the ACC and the Big East leftovers. What about the biggest prize out there, Notre Dame?

In short, I think the seismic shift we've seen this week means the death knell for Notre Dame's independence.

Yes, we all know Notre Dame treasures its independence. More specifically, it values its football independence. Notre Dame has actually proven itself pragmatic when it comes to giving up independence when it becomes practical to do so: witness its joining the Big East in all sports save football for the past 17 years.

Up until now, it hasn't had to give up football independence to remain relevant. So long as the bowl games themselves retained a disproportionate amount of power in determining who their participants were going to be, the wheel has been greased to Notre Dame's benefit in terms of access to the best bowl games.

But with last week's announcement of the creation of the Champions Bowl, controlled by the conferences, the future is clear. The conferences are calling the shots now, not the bowls.

In short, Notre Dame has lost its protectors of its viability as an independent. For what possible incentive do Mike Slive and Jim Delany have to ensure Notre Dame access to the Awesome Bowl? Even if my Awesome Bowl hypothesis is off-base, it's nevertheless clear that power has shifted, and not in any way a fan of Notre Dame's independence can be pleased with.

So Notre Dame will have a decision to make. Bowls outside the control of the power conferences will continue to exist, and Notre Dame will continue to have access to good bowl games disproportionate to its level of performance on the field. But will Notre Dame content itself with being a team which can go to the Orange Bowl most years to do battle with an 9-4 Maryland team, or will it try to be a team which can compete for, and play for, national championships?

If Notre Dame chooses the latter course -- and I think (and hope!) that it will -- then it has no choice but join a conference.

But let's not get too carried away just yet. Yes, I declared Domer Law dead last week, and, yes, I just laid out why I think Notre Dame's joining a conference is inevitable, and sooner rather than later. But that doesn't mean that the Irish joining the Big 12 is inevitable. Yes, the Big 12 offers the Irish some powerful inducements (go ahead and start your own network, Irish!), but the Big 10 is logical for any number of reasons, and don't count out an imaginative conference commissioner like Larry Scott to figure out some way to lure the Irish into the Pac-Whatever. (It's hard to imagine that, when this is all said and done, the net of Scott's wheeling and dealing will be merely Colorado and Utah.)

But so long as the Irish are on the table, it's a good reminder for any conference, including the Big 12, not to add any other additional school just because they're kinda sorta attractive and throwing itself at your feet (is the SEC kicking itself about Mizzou yet?), another reason why realignment won't necessarily happen extremely rapidly with the dawn of the superconference.

Let's be clear: there are a world of intangibles out there (the biggest, in my estimation, being what ESPN will have to $ay about all of this), and, if there's anything we've learned over the last couple of years, it's that this will continue to unfold in completely unpredictable matters.

But what I think we can say with certainty is that everything in college football has just changed, even if the only tangible evidence over the next few months to come is a Seminole move to the Big 12. Whether it's for the better, only time will tell.