High schools and college sports have mostly all closed down for the summer, with only the College World Series still to be played. The NHL and NBA are wrapping up their playoffs. That leaves golf, tennis and baseball to entertain the sports fan during the summer months.
Of course, this means only one thing. College football.
There was a time when college football meant rivalries and intense conference loyalties. However, the siren song of “more money” began to waft across the landscape, and suddenly, Arkansas thought it better to travel east and abandon the Southwest Conference. The Big Ten reasoned that numbers were not meant to be taken literally and invited Penn State to join them to make 11 teams. The SWC split apart, with half its members joining forces with the Big 8 to form the Big 12. Suddenly, it was time for conferences to consider what it could all mean.
Nowadays, the Southeastern Conference includes teams from the Midwest (Missouri) and from College Station, Texas, which may be considered southern, but certainly not eastern. The Big 10 now has 14 teams, and the Big 12 is now down to 10. And the Pac-12 features teams from Arizona, Utah and Colorado. Yes, global warming is supposed to expand the oceans, but I don’t think the Pacific has reached the Rocky Mountains just yet.
All of this was because of TV money for college football.
The TV contracts are ending in 2024-2025, and already the conferences are in discussions with various networks and cable outlets. Conferences are considering other means of viewing content outside of the traditional networks and cable channels. No one really knows where the money will be coming from, but it’s pretty much agreed money will be flowing. The question is, what will the conferences do?
Do we even need conferences?
It my mind, the conferences are becoming irrelevant, at least when it comes to football. If the powers that be insist that the top-tier Division I football playoffs stay at four teams, then it seems logical that the conferences should be reduced from the Power Five conferences to four conferences of equal number.
Currently, the Power Five leagues consist of 64 teams — 14 each in the SEC, Big 10 and ACC, 12 in the PAC 12 and 10 in the Big 12. Notre Dame is quasi-independent, but plays games with the ACC, even though Notre Dame’s games have no real bearing on conference standings in the ACC. It would make sense for football to separate itself from the conference affiliations and have four conferences of 16 teams each, with Notre Dame remaining an independent.
The simplicity of such a plan would allow for each conference to subdivide into two eight-team divisions. The eight teams would play each other, as well as a few in-conference games and some outside the conference games, preferably with the Group of Five non-power conferences (American Athletic, Mountain West, etc.). The champions of each sub-division would then play each other for their conference championships, and the conference champions would advance to the Final Four. In effect, the teams would play a round-robin schedule to determine who qualifies for the quarterfinals (conference championships).
The problem with this is that it’s really difficult to come up with four equal conferences without creating major travel problems and scheduling issues. In my criteria, I would want state schools to be in the same conference. For instance, Iowa State is a Big 12 school and Iowa is a Big 10 team. They should be in the same conference. The same is true of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina schools, not to mention Texas A&M (or LSU West if you prefer).
Add to that that only 12 Power Five teams are outside the Eastern and Central time zones. The Mountain zone has four teams — Colorado, Utah and the Arizonas. There are eight Pacific zone teams — two each in Washington and Oregon, and eight more in California. In order for all state teams to remain in the same conference and for the geographically reasonable Pac-12 to remain relatively intact, either four or five teams would have to travel west to become a part of that super conference. For instance, if we put the five Texas teams in the Pac-12, then Colorado, which is further west than any Texas team, would have to move to another conference.
I’ve tried to work out a reasonable four conference, 64-team football landscape. I’ve broken up the SEC and the Big 10 to create an East Coast conference, a Southeastern Conference consisting of 11 current SEC teams and the Texas five — UT, A&M, Baylor, TCU and Tech. It really doesn’t work, though, because most scenarios would require the Pac-12 to take leftovers Nebraska, the Kansas schools and Iowa State.
The more likely scenario is that the SEC, Big Ten and ACC may decide they want to expand to 16 teams, and that does not bode well for the Big 12. Of the Power Five conferences, the SEC rakes in the most money per school, followed by the Big Ten, then the Big 12. The Pac-12 is fourth with the ACC bringing up the rear.
That means that it’s highly unlikely the SEC or Big 10 will lose teams. They’ll want to look for other teams. It’s possible the SEC could turn to Florida State and Miami, but I think Florida is happy with its exclusive tie to SEC. I’m not sure how the Aggies would feel about an SEC that includes the Longhorns, but it seems reasonable that any expansion would look to Austin, since the Longhorn Network’s contract is ending around the same time.
If a conference wants to get two really good football programs, it couldn’t do too badly with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Sure, Texas and TCU would be good gets, possibly Tech, too. If the Big 12 is raided again, it may be that the remnants — the Kansas schools and Iowa State — will have to go somewhere. Iowa State would fit more into the Big Ten, but why would the Big Ten want the Cyclines? The same with Kansas and K-State. Great basketball, but this is football we’re talking.
And then there’s Baylor. I’m not sure if athletic director Mack Rhoades has a contingency plan in his files, but it seems reasonable he would. And Baylor will have to sell itself. Matt Rhule has the football team on the rise again, and BU’s other programs have acquitted themselves well, from basketball, baseball, track and field, and acrobatics and tumbling. The Bears’ tennis and golf programs are postseason-bound most of the time.
The problem with Baylor is that it’s a small, private school with a relatively small alumni base. It can’t bring television viewers — other teams in Texas do that. While Baylor has a lot to offer, I’m not sure what it has to offer is what a conference would really want. And if a conference decided to bring in a relatively small private school, it would seem that TCU would have more to offer, if for no other reason than its location in the Metroplex.
In short, as the television talks begin in earnest, it will be interesting to see if conferences remain intact or if we’ll see another round of expansions. If the expansion comes, I would hope the Big 12 would be proactive, if for no other reason than a reactive agenda will probably be the demise of the conference.