There is a lot of talk out there about conference realignment. New rumors are passed around every day about which school is unhappy and might flee to greener pastures. The rumor-mill is a popular place though – we’re all listening closely- because we’re all dying to know…Who’s next?
It’s helpful to look at conference realignment/expansion in terms of a chess match. In chess, your strategy should be created based on the imbalances of the particular game you’re playing. For example, you could have a material imbalance (you’re ahead or behind in points), or a space imbalance (you or your opponent controls more of the board). The imbalances dictate your strategy, and allow you to see how the game should be played out.
As we look at the college football landscape, we can see the effect that imbalances have had already.
The greatest imbalance of late has been that the SEC is the undisputed king of college football. Five straight national championships belong to SEC teams. Obviously, other conferences have tried to produce contenders in that time, but they have come up short. There is an imbalance. So the weak will grab for power.
The top conferences last year, according to Mark Schlabach, were (BCS in bold):
- Big 10
- Big 12
- Pac 10
- Big East
The Shifting Imbalances
Since the article was published shortly before the majority of realignment began, it’s a helpful starting point.
When Nebraska shifted to the Big 10, what happened? You take a strong team from the (yes, assumed) third best conference, and add it to the second best. There is now a greater gap, or imbalance between them.
The biggest player in conference expansion has been the Pac 10/12. Why? Do you remember all of those USC championships a few years ago? Yeah, it’s been awhile. And no self-respecting BCS conference is going to settle for being 4th best. So Larry Scott sees the imbalance and finds a potential weakness in his opponent. If he managed to take six top teams from the Big 12, what a coup that would be! It certainly would have vaulted the Pac  to the top of the conference heap. The combined strength of the Pac 10 and the Big 12? The plan was genius. At the very least you have devoured one of the conferences that was ahead of you.
But it didn’t work out. Dan Beebe convinces Texas, and thereby the rest of the Big 12, to stay, sit, and wait. In the end, the Pac 10 does take Colorado from them, and acquires Utah from the MWC. While not the move Larry Scott wanted, he has added talent to his conference, and a championship game, while the Big 12 has lost two teams and their own championship game. The Pac 12 has leap-frogged the Big 12.
Now, the MWC has had this little brother syndrome for as long as anyone can remember. They are the conference that is just not quite good enough to play with the big boys and have a full share. But they’re always so close, especially when you consider the football talent of the Big East. So when the Pac 12 took Utah, creating imbalance, Craig Thompson took Boise St. from the WAC. The divide between the MWC and WAC had never been wider, and Boise was a good enough replacement for Utah. Balance restored.
Then BYU went independent. And TCU went to the Big East. These moves widened the divide between BCS and non-BCS, by removing top-MWC talent and giving some of it to the Big East. Thompson again grabs for as much strength as he can, and adds Nevada, Fresno, and later, Hawaii from the WAC. Not quite balance restored, but the MWC just took out it’s next closest competitor for good, and they’re still the “just outside the BCS” conference.
Here’s a look at a possible conference ranking based on the recent moves:
- Big 10
- Pac 12
- Big 12
- Big East
Who isn’t moving?
Conferences and teams that do not perceive imbalances or who feel that the imbalances are in their favor will not choose to move. Here are the main ones:
The SEC and Big 10 Why? They’re at the top. Once someone proves otherwise, on the field, then further expansion for these conferences will look reasonable.
The ACC Why? They just don’t seem to have that drive to want to be at the top. With all of the changes around them, they seem to have been satisfied with the status quo, and so far, no one has come looking for their members.
BYU Why? The obvious answer is, because they just did. The not-so-obvious answer is that they simply are better off as an independent than they could be in a conference. BCS access and difficulty scheduling seem to be the biggest downsides. If any BCS teams choose to go independent in the near future (maybe Texas?), it seems likely that instead of the Notre Dame exception, the BCS will simply create a blanket “independents” rule, which would benefit BYU. The scheduling difficulties have been eased somewhat by the partnership with ESPN. I could see BYU accepting a conference invitation in the future, if said conference would allow BYU to retain their TV deal. It’s not likely, but given the current landscape, it can’t be completely ruled out.
What Moves are Ahead
The Pac 12 did not meet their goals last year. Larry Scott’s vision was for the Pac [whatever] to become the premier conference in college football. They didn’t. To them, there is still an imbalance that they are going to fight to correct. The Pac 12 will expand again. It’s likely that they will approach some of the same Big 12 schools; whoever they do add will have to be high in talent. Simply having 16 teams does not make you the best.
The Big 12 should make a move. If they continue this “sit and wait for it all to blow over” strategy, they will cease to be a conference. The college football world perceives the Big 12 to be weak and on the verge of collapse, with rumors of Texas’ possible independence and Texas A&M wanting a spot in the SEC, etc. If the Big 12 does not make a move to strengthen themselves, they will either get picked over by other conferences, or will fall apart from within.
You can argue all day long about the “other sports” having to be good enough to compete in a new conference, but football rules college sports. Boise State is the hottest commodity out there. The last remaining non-AQ powerhouse (that is to say, they own more BCS wins than most BCS teams have). A BCS conference will take Boise State before conference realignment is done. It would make the most sense to add Boise in a Pac-16 deal, because it lies so close to the conference footprint, but the Big East (come on, if TCU is East…) may take them as well.
While a conference championship game adds a dangerous, extra hurdle for that undefeated team to go through before they reach the national championship game, it does seem to be the going standard now. Conferences with a championship game are generally perceived as strong, and those without are perceived as weak. And honestly, who enjoys naming a champion based on tie-breaks? It’s great for the fans and the voters reward those teams that face tough conference championships before bowl season. The (actual or perceived) imbalance here is the power of that game and 12 teams behind it. The pressure is on for conferences like the Big 12, Big East, and the MWC to get up to 12 members and add a championship game. And if (when) the Pac 12 expands to 16, all hell will break loose.