13 August 2011

NCAA Conference Realignment

Recent talk of Texas A&M departing the Big XII for the SEC has me thinking. If they go, the SEC will have to invite another school, presumably one that could slip into the eastern division without violating sense. But then there's word that the SEC might want Oklahoma--the assumption being, obviously, that Texas is heading for independence, at least in football. I've heard FSU, Clemson, Louisville (really?) and Miami bandied about as possibilities to be A&M's doppelganger. Personally, I believe there's no way the SEC would be satisfied at 14 teams; for whatever reason the theory always seems to be that ultimately we'll have four 16-team "superconferences." I don't know why that should be so, why not 18? Why not 14? But that's the conventional wisdom. And it's got me to thinking. What would four 16-team superconferences look like? Which conferences would be the four?
The Big XII is done for. If A&M leaves, it's down to 9 teams; A&M only wants to leave because they suspect Texas is going to follow Notre Dame's lead and go independent. Then you'd be left with 7 teams that are only occasionally relevant nationally, and Oklahoma. So the Big XII is going to die.
That would leave either the Big East or the ACC as a conference that will either dissolve or become one of the four afterthought conferences (which would be made up of teams from the Mountain West, Sun Belt, MAC, WAC, and C-USA as well). I am a Clemson fan and therefore an ACC apologist, so it's easy for me to say the ACC would accrete four good teams and stay relevant and the Big East would dissolve or, more likely, take on some teams from C-USA or the Sun Belt.
But... the ACC does not impress me as being particularly forward-thinking. Last summer when we all thought the great realignment was about to begin, ACC commish John Swofford specifically said there were no plans to expand, nor any contingency for expansion. Which means, if A&M joins the SEC and the Big XII dissolves, the ACC is apparently planning to get caught on the outside while other conferences scramble to be among the Big Four. This would be disastrous for college basketball, but also for the teams that remain in the ACC. I hope very sincerely that there are more progressive voices in the ACC looking at how expansion to a 16-team conference could best be handled; indeed I hope there is a list of at least six schools that would be on the “immediate invitation” list should a major realignment kick off. But I doubt that’s the case.
Still, would the Big East really be able to poach teams from the ACC? It doesn’t seem likely, but say the SEC grabs (as examples) Clemson and FSU. Now the ACC is down to 10 teams. Either both the ACC and the Big East are going to poke along as conferences with too few teams to host a conference championship and with gradually decreasing relevance in the college football landscape, or one of the conferences poaches the other and joins the ranks of the superconferences. Would the ACC be willing to be progressive? Would the major basketball schools in the ACC be willing to move en masse to the Big East? Neither of those things seems particularly likely to me. The Big East is said to have had contingencies aplenty should major realignment have occurred last summer, so clearly they want to stay relevant. The ACC seems to simply think they can remain relevant because they’re just so damn awesome. That’s not a good place to be.
I really love the ACC, I do. But I’m a Clemson fan first, and an ACC homer second (actually I’m an Air Force fan second, and an ACC fan third, if we want to get down to it). If major realignment suddenly heaves into view this year, I sincerely hope the SEC asks Clemson to switch allegiances. As long as we can play NC State every year I’ll be satisfied; I’ll take Georgia over Georgia Tech, and I wouldn’t miss most of the other schools as rivals. I’d rather stay in an expanded ACC, make no mistake, but I have very little faith that the ACC would be quick enough to expand before the landscape changed so significantly we’d have to accept the likes of Texas State and Florida Atlantic to get to 16.
That said I’ve been wrong before and will be again. I hope I’m wrong now.
This brings me back to my original point, which was what four superconferences might look like. Why does being wrong bring me back to that point? Because I simply cannot conceive of four superconferences that include all the nationally relevant schools and make any sort of geographic sense. Four superconferences would include 64 schools. When I look out over the landscape I see 70 schools that could be relevant nationally in football (not that I’m saying they are or will be, but they could be) or are in any event not going to be left out of a realignment (such as Duke, Washington State, or Vanderbilt). Even if I assume Texas and Notre Dame remain/become independent, and add BYU to that list, I’m left with at least three decent schools on the outside looking in (maybe more depending on how generous you want to be), and a Pac-10/12/16 that is geographically unwieldy at best, unless they dumb down their admission requirements (the same is true for the Big Ten, but I see their additions as so obvious that they’d almost have to offer more wiggle room on academic standards).
Of course I’m mainly taking into account football here. If there is a quick realignment (when it comes I do think it will be quick), the NCAA will simply have to let things go until they can call a national conference to figure out how to handle the other sports—can a team be in a superconference for football but another conference for other sports? Can a team be part of a superconference for other sports but not for football? The answer, it seems to me, is that schools can realign into football-specific conferences, leaving the other conferences more or less untouched or, perhaps more realistically, allowing for some significant and probably geographically-based realignment for other sports in the aftermath.
This could, for example, allow us to leave Duke out of the superconferences for football, but have them remain in a somewhat reconstituted ACC for other sports. That said, it won’t happen that way; that would require advance planning, and when this realignment occurs it won’t be done with any advance planning. Existing conferences will conclude they must either go super or become irrelevant, and they’ll make a mad grab for whatever schools they can get.
What this means is that we’ll have a situation where some schools that are never relevant in football, such as Duke, or indeed ever relevant in any sport, such as Mississippi State, are going to be in superconferences, and other schools that simply couldn’t convince one of the majors to let them in, like Boise State, will be left on the outside. Which means we’ll be left with exactly the same situation we have now with the BCS—several relevant programs that can’t get the time of day, and a bunch of programs with no business being in automatic-bid conferences.
So, frankly, I’m not exactly looking forward to superconferences. They’re just a different form of the same sort of bad that we have now.
So we assume the SEC is going to kick this off, and that they’ll do so with Texas A&M. Okay. I’ll take that as my starting point. I’ve heard from Tallahassee that the SEC isn’t interested in FSU; I’ve also heard that they are interested in Oklahoma. Why would they want Oklahoma but not FSU? Market share is the only possible reason, and if market share is all that matters, they’ll be adding OU, Oklahoma State (like in VA, the governor won’t let the schools split up), and probably Missouri along with A&M. That said, Larry Scott over in the Pac-12 has said he’s interested in inviting Oklahoma if the Big XII starts to dissolve, and Oklahoma might be more interested in the Pac-12 than the SEC for competitiveness reasons. Larry Scott is the smartest conference commish out there, and he won’t be caught on the backpedal when this starts to break.
I figure, if the SEC is starting this, and they’re more interested in markets and money than anything else, then that will be what defines how the realignment occurs. And so on that basis I came up with the following:
South Carolina
Mississippi State
Louisiana State
Texas A&M
West Virginia

No, it’s not anybody’s ideal picture, but I look at it this way. A&M is first. Larry Scott swoops in and picks up Oklahoma and Ok State. If they don’t want FSU, they wouldn’t want Clemson, either, and Clemson may not be so eager to dash to the SEC—the pro-academic slant of the ACC is important here, as this is a school that wants to be one of the top-rated public schools in the country. Since the president has to approve a move, not the AD, is Jim Barker going to be more interested in hanging out with the likes of Duke, UVA, UNC, and Boston College, or with Arkansas, Kentucky, and Mississippi State?
So, Clemson stays in the ACC. With the Oklahoma schools gone, the SEC has to look either farther west (Texas Tech, which is in Lubbock (a city of 250,000) and has no national following), or somewhere to the north. Louisville is at least in a bigger city and locks in the entire state of Kentucky (WKU is a blip, economically). West Virginia doesn’t embarrass anybody academically (either way) and is the only relevant school in the state since Randy Moss left Marshall; plus the fans travel well. That leaves an opening in the west, and Missouri is the obvious choice. They’ve been spurned once by the Big Ten, so they’ll be happy to take an invite from the SEC (well, why wouldn’t they?), and the SEC gets to add Missouri to its empire. Works out well all around, I’d say.

This leaves us with a Pac-14 that includes Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, and is looking for two more schools. In the past, the Pac-10 made a point of only being willing to talk to schools with high academic ratings. This is nonsense. Oregon State and Arizona State compare academically with Mississippi and Mississippi State, and Oregon, Arizona, and Washington State aren’t on any top 10 lists. Plus, the Pac-10 went out and grabbed Utah, ranked 129th, but spurned BYU, ranked 75th. Why? Because BYU isn’t exactly West Coast when it comes to mentality, if you know what I mean.
And anyway, they’re getting Oklahoma and Ok State, which rank higher than Arizona State but don’t exactly help the conference average. Still, they want to get some good academic schools, but we’ve seen they don’t care for BYU. Let’s help them out. In the entire rest of the western United States, the only schools academically in the top 100 (per US News, which is an awful ranking but also the only credible one) are Baylor, TCU (99), Southern Methodist, the Air Force Academy, and (get this) Tulsa, which is ranked higher academically than either of the other Oklahoma schools.
What to do, what to do. Tulsa is at least near the Oklahomas; the Academy is near Colorado, which might be nice. The Academy probably wouldn’t pass muster as far as being a research university goes, though it would be worth investigating. Can’t be sure they’d accept the invitation, either, though they’d be the highest ranked academically of the bunch. Larry Scott likes the idea of picking the Oklahoma schools, which add nothing academically but raise the national profile athletically and stretch the conference geographically. If it was me, I’d invite Air Force and Tulsa, but I suspect the Pac-14 takes a look at their options and decides to go for academic value. That would be Southern Methodist (56) and Baylor (79). As it happens, those schools are nearby one another but stretch the conference again. Thus we have the new Pac-16:
Washington State
Oregon State
Arizona State
Oklahoma State
Southern Methodist

Of course, it may be another year after this before the eastern conferences decide it’s a matter of expand or die. As it happens, these conferences consider academics very important, too—in fact, the average ranking of the schools in these conferences is significantly better—by 20 points or more—than the ranking of the current Pac-12, and the ACC is ahead of the Big Ten.
By this point, the old Big XII is down to four schools, three of them in the Midwest. You can bet Kansas, Kansas State, and Iowa State will be desperate to join the Big Sixteen. The governor of Iowa will probably get involved. Academically these schools do not help the Big Ten, but it’s worth pointing out that the Big Ten decided not to invite Missouri, ranked 94th, but did invite Nebraska, ranked 104th. Well, Kansas is also 104; Iowa State is also 94. Might as well bring them both, and K State should come along for the ride. At this point they need an academic school. They could beg and plead with Notre Dame, but I’ll assume Notre Dame will be staying independent. They could try for Connecticut, say, but there are two better-ranked schools closer by: Pittsburgh and Syracuse. (For that matter, Miami of Ohio ranks well, but Buckeye Nation would never tolerate a second Ohio school in the conference.) That said, Connecticut is a big get for whatever conference gets it—and if the Big Ten moves faster than the ACC, we’d have this Big Midwest conference:
Kansas State
Iowa State
Michigan State
Ohio State
Penn State

This leaves us with the ACC, which I have to hope will have started to move before the Big Midwest consolidates. Academic standards are key here, and a good basketball program is probably at least as important as football, if not moreso. Several of the choices are obvious. Also, since the ACC would be the slowest conference to move, my revised and updated ACC looks like this:
Boston College
Virginia Tech
Wake Forest
NC State
Georgia Tech
Florida State

The only real trip here is USF, which has a rather bad ranking in US News. But they do bring the Tampa Bay area along, and the school’s athletic teams have been improving markedly over the last decade. Alternatives could include U Mass, which will be just joining FBS and is a second school in Boston; Navy, which brings a national audience and good academics but erratic athletic performance and may not take the invitation; Villanova, which would have to upgrade their football program but at least brings good basketball and stellar academics; and perhaps Tulane or Rice, both of which would be good academic fits but lousy geographic ones and don’t have huge fan bases in their cities. (Not that Houston would be a bad market to have.)

This leaves a number of schools on the outside looking in. Notre Dame, BYU, and Texas I assume would be independent, along with the military academies. I suspect Boise State might try independence as well, rather than join a revamped Mountain West with the likes of Idaho, Wyoming, and New Mexico. Texas Tech, too, loses out in this design—as would USF, if they were left on the sidelines while Rice joined the ACC. Cincinnati, too, has no home.
I don’t know. It’s quite possible that none of this will happen, that Texas A&M is just using the SEC to extract concessions from Texas, and this will all peter out and we’ll keep the status quo for some years yet. I have my doubts, though. The theory goes that superconferences are more or less inevitable. This is what I suspect it would look like when the dust settled, but it’s by no means what I think would be the best solution.

Comments, anyone?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Loved the article...I only hope that the reason for expanding to 4 superconferences would be to set up a playoff system (ie. the 4 conference champions). If this is the case, then Texas would be desperately trying to land in one of these four conferences (possibly Notre Dame and BYU too).