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Conference Expansion? College Football Must Change

The Big 12 dissolves...but what's next?

This could end up being the most epic transition in college sports history, and we have prime seats for the show.  Front row, center. 

Multiple sources, including, are reporting that six Big 12 programs will accept an invitation to join the Pac 10 conference beginning in 2012.  Meanwhile, it has also been reported that Nebraska is about to jump to the Big 10, giving that conference its twelfth team.

Make no mistake- it is time for a change.  But amid the turmoil swirl dozens of unanswered questions.

Will the Big 10 try to immediately expand to 16?  If so, will it further raid the former Big 12, or will it attempt to push east into larger media markets?  Will the SEC and ACC attempt to follow suit by expanding to 16 teams?  If so, will the powerhouse SEC attempt to do so by staging a coup, swiping some geographically appropriate ACC programs?

And beyond all that, how will these moves affect the BCS system?  How many auto-bids will we see, and from where?  Will this instigate a playoff or plus-1 set-up?

And beyond that, what will happen to the “non-BCS” conferences, particularly the Mountain West?  Will it try to add some former Big 12 teams in an effort to join the exclusive auto-bid club?  What will Notre Dame do in the wake of this upheaval? Can the Irish hope to maintain their closely-guarded and much-prized independence as the landscape around them comes crashing apart?

For every answer we receive over the next few months, more speculation and deeper questions will arise.  Frankly, there are so many possible outcomes that it boggles the mind to try to anticipate what the sport might look like in two or three years.

For the moment, let’s leave the wondering to our increasingly cloudy future.  Instead, let’s focus on what we do know:  College football is on the verge of a dramatic and perhaps unprecedented change.

And though traditionalists are surely having apoplectic fits over it, this is a good thing.

More than ever before, college football has become a business first and a sport second.  And it’s done so quite successfully, at least at the top levels.  The revenue generated by big time programs is immense, often paying for the endeavors of entire athletic departments.  The television contracts and sponsorship dollars have grown by leaps and bounds in recent seasons, but what has been the on-field result?

The rich have gotten richer.

Of course college football, like sport in general, is cyclical.  To varying degrees, yesterdays “haves” become tomorrow’s “have-nots” and vice versa.  Aside from a few select franchises or programs, such as the New York Yankees, no one can win all the time.  So clearly, given enough time the balance of power would eventually shift again on its own.  But in the current environment it would be a mighty slow shift.

And in the meantime, today’s power programs would continue to reap huge benefits, enjoying the widening gulf between themselves and the rest of the sport.  Look at the major conferences.  In each, there are two, maybe three schools that have a legitimate chance of competing year in and year out:

Ohio State
West Virginia
Boise State

…and so on.

This isn’t to suggest there aren’t numerous other talented programs, because there are.  But those need to have exceptional years to overcome the standard-bearing programs within each conference.  And more often than not, the handful of elite schools get first crack at the big paydays and prime time publicity.

As I said, the rich get richer.

But now come these sweeping changes, brushing away the past and setting up a new-look alignment that could be exactly the change that college football needs.  As one example, look at your new Pac 10.

It will no longer be a matter of the best Big 12 South program automatically punching its BCS ticket.  Now, juggernauts like Texas and Oklahoma have to contend not only with their nearby rivals, but also with the west coast elite like USC and Oregon.  Complaints about weak schedules and who deserves what bowl berth will be effectively silenced when team schedules suddenly include an additional handful of games against monster opponents.

Whichever teams emerge atop these superconferences will have unquestionably earned their stripes, and isn’t that one of the greatest failures of the current BCS?  An inability or unwillingness to provide quantitative justification for who is better than whom?

Which names will be added to the Big Ten?

Take another example.  Ohio State has been the butt of countless jokes in recent years as it has run roughshod over the Big 10 only to be trounced in title games.  However, fighting through a 16-team superconference, the Buckeyes’ perceived “easy road” won’t be easy any longer.

The re-alignment will also help SEC fans.  Right now a major gripe is that the SEC fields the nation’s best, but only one representative can make the title game.  This re-alignment will drastically reduce, if not eliminate, any disparity that might exist between the SEC and the other BCS conferences.  Though the conference will still only be able to send a maximum of one team to the title, whichever opponent that team faces will be worthy of the other spot.

The bottom line is that however this craziness shakes out, a shake-up was necessary and overdue.  It was time for a change in the sport, and though the possible move to superconferences is perhaps more extreme than many of us would prefer, it has the real potential to improve college football.


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