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Conference Realignment: What Elephant?

The first domino tipped today.  Unfortunately, it was pushed by an Aggie and there may not be any others behind it to fall.  Nonetheless, the internets are ablaze with speculation on the formation of 4 super-conferences.  Which makes for some exciting discussion.  However, no one seems to be stepping back to ask the question, does this really make sense?

We all know the story.  Some school gets pissed off at the University of Texas and decides to leave the conference for greener pastures.  First it was Nebraska, then Colorado, now Texas A&M has said, "Well, it's happened twice, so it must be a tradition around here.  We're leaving, too."  Only they haven't yet.  They would like to, though the rationality of this decision escapes me.  As we all know, the caveat emptor for the SEC is that, while the Big XII conference agreed not to file suit, they have no control over the decisions of the individual institutions.  Oops.  I guess the Aggies didn't think of that one.  Though they are said to be actively trying to persuade the institutions to sign a legal waiver.

The standard thinking seems to be that if A&M does leave the Big XII and join the SEC (remember, their departure from the Big XII is still contingent on securing a spot in a new conference), the conference will end up splitting apart, and the member institutions absorbed into other conferences, creating a new college football super-conference arms race.  The inevitable result: four 16-team super conferences.  Or so the standard thinking goes.

The question that no one seems to be asking is what happens to the other 52 FBS schools (not including the 4 independents)?  Does anyone think that those schools left out of one of the projected super conferences are going to take this lying down?  If you think that the legal mess A&M has stirred up with between the Big XII schools and the SEC is ugly, wait for the law suits that will be filed if 52 former potentially contending schools get shut out. 

It is my belief that those pining for super conferences are doing as a back door way of getting to a pseudo play-off system.  But the schools, largely, still do not want a playoff.  Further, most of the major conferences do not want 16 teams (or so they say).  Any number beyond 12 schools becomes problematic.  Scheduling is difficult because no one wants to play more than 8 or 9 conference games.  Without blowing up almost every major conference, things get difficult geographically, culturally, academically, etc.  Rivalries lose importance or go away entirely. 

Even economically, there is a law of diminishing returns, since assembling that many teams that people want to see play becomes difficult at best.  This is a challenge even in 10 and 12 team conferences.  As Texas Tech fans, we should understand that 3rd (or 4th) tier games don't get widely televised very often.  Imagine the increased number of conference games that don't get televised and how much more will have to be made on televised games to make up the difference.  Bigger doesn't necessarily mean better quality games or more coverage.  There are still going to be 50 - 60 games a week, split between a dozen or so networks. Even if they split coverage regionally, that is a lot of games to cover, and lets face it, not all will get coverage.

As great as they sound in theory, 4 (or even 6 or 7) 16-team super conferences are not likely to form.

So what could happen?  Lets start with the SEC.  Assuming A&M joins the SEC, that means only 3 things can happen: A) they add 1 or more teams to get to an even number for balance of divisions,  B) somebody gets cut to get back to 12, or C) they stay at 13.  None of these paths is easy.  However, adding one team to get to 14 seems the easiest and most likely.  Note this is not 16 and therefore not the desired super conference.  14 teams makes sense.  It makes further sense if the Big XII dissolves, since the SEC would then have its pick of several potential schools.  Based on the logic that schools be chosen by increasing value and exposure, the most logical picks are one of the Oklahoma schools or Missouri.  Texas, Texas Tech, and Baylor do not add to the footprint.  Iowa State and the Kansas schools do not fit in the SEC regional model (not south and not east).  Other pundits have suggested Missouri is already on the SEC radar, and they seem to carry the least baggage.  A least the state was part of the Confederacy, is bordered by Arkansas and the Mississippi river.  And Mississippi is already in the SEC.  It makes sense to me that the school that would even things out for the SEC is Missouri.  To summarize, it makes most sense to me that the SEC ends up at 14 teams by picking up A&M and Missouri.

Continuing with the assumption of the dissolution of the Big XII, that leaves 8 teams to find a home.  The PAC 12 is pretty content and can afford to be choosy about who they let in.  As much as Austin likes to think of itself as a west coast fit, there are lots of things that would have to be worked out.  I won't link to everything, but a number of people have pointed out the many issues beyond just the LHN.  The University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State will probably try to go west as a package, though I don't think it is a foregone conclusion that they will get an invitation.  The other option would be for the Indian Territory to join the SEC, pushing them to 16 teams.  I give both options 3:1 of happening.

I am not convinced that Texas Tech goes nowhere without Texas.  However, I don't see us getting into the PAC without someone else coming along to make it even.  No one likes a third wheel.  Assuming OU and OSU are a package deal (which may not be valid, but I'm sticking with it), and that Texas has too much baggage to carry west, that leaves our only available dance partners as Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State, and Iowa State.  I don't see the PAC sending us an invitation unless they think we'll bring someone good to the party to keep things even. 

This leaves us with a 50/50 chance that the Oklahoma schools don't have an offer east or west, 5 schools (including Tech) hoping the music doesn't stop, and Texas still hanging out in the buffet line getting fat.  And the Mountain West conference. 

That's right.  If things start to implode, I could see a merger between the remnants of the Big 12 and the MWC.  Bringing in Boise State  and Air Force would not be a bad thing.  Texas will do as Texas pleases and may end up independent.  That is fine by me.  I would take a 14 team combo of the MWC and former Big 12.  It would be sure to be an automatic qualifying conference, the MWC already has its own network, and the combination would give room for a new round of TV negotiations.  It leaves a lot in the air, but would create a conference with enough power programs to be relevant and a good stage for Tech.

In this, the Big East, Big 10, the ACC Conference USA, WAC, etc. do not change in this round of realignment.  And they don't need to.  Occum's razor says that, when faced with competing hypotheses, you should select the one with the fewest assumptions.  Major realignment requires many assumptions.  2 schools from the Big XII to the SEC and the merger of a conference that would like to be an AQ with one that has an AQ does not take a great leap of faith.

Ultimately, unless the Big XII dissolves, the legal battle for A&M to break free from the conference may prove too great, and the Big XII may end up one big dysfunctional family again.  Of course all of this leaves us asking, if a tree falls in the woods and no one is there who gives a damn, does it really matter?