Thursday, July 23, 2015

The next wave of college football realignment? The new Big 12?

It is been a while since I have written a piece on realignment, but I think now is the right time to talk about it.  Why?  Because conferences expand when they are motivated and there are not obviously apparent hurdles and pushback.  Now happens to be a good time for several conferences.

I want to start with the Big 12.

The member schools understand that UT has a new President, Greg Fenves, who does not think much of  still fairly new Athletic Director Steve Patterson.  That is opportunity.

Understand that the other 9 schools of the Big 12 get that this is the most unstable of the power 5 conferences and that there are immediate pressing issues to be addressed.

Economic drivers: The nuts and bolts behind expansion soon

Frank the Tank points out in his blog that "group of five" conference championship games are de-facto first round playoff games and as such their value is just going to go up.  He speculates that a Big 12 championship game might be worth $50 Million.  That is a lot of money to ignore.

That combined with the statistical disadvantage of not having an end of season championship game bumping up a champion's strength of schedule the final week when every other school competing for a spot gets a bump hurts the Big 12's chances of securing a playoff spot in the playoff era.  That looks like an annual speed bump for the Big 12 champ playing for a national title.

National championships drive big donations to a program for years.

The Big 12 has scheduled TCU vs. Baylor in the last game of this season to try and get around the end of season bump issue, but you are still hoping injuries or an off season do not derail one of those two teams.  Those concerns do not matter if you have a championship game.

These are appropriate spurs for expansion.

Staying at 10 was a Dodds idea...

UT under AD DeLoss Dodds was the voice most strongly in favor of staying at a seemingly awkward (in today's terms) 10 members with all the limitations that come with that.  Why?  Because Dodds liked the leverage to leave at any time.

Fans tend think about conferences emotionally, not logically.  They like to point at the Grant of Rights deal in the Big 12 conference that says any departing team that leaves would surrender the first and second tier rights to their home games to the conference for the length of the conference TV deal and scream as loud as possible that the conference is secure.

The thing is there are two loopholes there.  First, that isn't a deal that affects all member schools equally.  The GOR doesn't tie UT to the ties the members of the conference to UT (with the possible exception of OU).  

UT can actually leave at anytime because their road games and fan base are worth far, far more to any conference than the member share that conference would need to pay UT out of the conference coffers.  (It is unlikely the same applies to any other school in the conference.)

But UT doesn't want to leave alone.   UT's value at the core is that of a dominant regional giant.  They need other regional schools to play and play off.

If they go, they want to take OU and 2-4 other local schools to have a voting block in their new conference.  The best local foils are in the Big 12.  For a quick departure, that means defanging the GOR.  At 10 members in the Big 12, that is possible.

Blueprint for disassembly.

If push came to shove, three quarters of the conference can vote the conference out of business. It would not be that unfeasible for UT to get 8 of the 10 members to vote the conference out of business, nullifying the Grant of Rights issue.

How, you ask?  If UT were to tell the Pac-12 they would surrender the Longhorn Network and join as an equal member, but their 3 long rumored companions would have to come --- Texas Tech, OU, and Oklahoma State --- plus TCU and maybe Rice to make the academics work for UT and the academic elites of the PAC-12...That is a done deal for a PAC/SW 18. 

The resulting super conference could easily roll with 9 team divisions in football and possibly 6 team divisions in Olympic sports.

Rice is by far the best academic school in the state.  They bring a platform in the contested Houston market for recruiting.  In this kind of setup, the idea of Rice becoming a Stanford with lesser football is not far fetched.  Additionally, it is the kind of school the Stanford and Berkley might insist upon for their support.

TCU may confuse some as a candidate.  TCU grades out fairly similarly to Texas A&M as an undergraduate university which is again important to the PAC.  TCU is excellent in football, good in baseball, and they give a football platform for a UCLA or USC game in DFW every year.

Finally, the PAC-12, and especially Stanford and Cal, have taken a lot of heat from religious groups for passing on BYU and Baylor.  TCU is a school with religious roots who's founders "nourished a vision for an institution of higher education that would be Christian in character, but non-sectarian in spirit and intellectually open-minded."  (This interesting point brought to you by Wikipedia.)

That, my friends, is a religious school the PAC can support.  Adding TCU would give the PAC an innoculation to any heat from religious circles for passing on BYU and Baylor.

That would be 5 of 8 Big 12 teams moving.

Tellingly left out of that is Kansas. 

Why?  So the Big Ten can have some reason to swoop in. 

The Big Ten could add Kansas and Iowa State from the Big 12 for 16 to set up a nice final layup ---grabbing Missouri and UConn for a Big 18.  One division would have pretty much the flavor of the old big 8 with Wisconsin replacing OU as the balancing power,  the other division would have most of the traditional Big 10 powers and PSU. 

Such an expansion would do a lot to prop up Nebraska, which honestly has not been the power school divisional counter balance the Big 10 hoped for so far.

The Big Ten would add three AAU members and one school that might as well be.  It is a much better Big 10 than what exists today in terms of rivalries, the power sports, balance, and the markets.

Each resulting superconference would own roughly a third to 40 percent of the country's TV households.

The SEC has publically stated if a movement to superconferences starts, they will follow suit.  West Virginia would likely be in the SEC's top 3 candidates with Virginia Tech and a North Carolina school.  Losing Missouri would open a spot for them.

There is your eight.  (Although either Baylor or Kansas State would likely sell their vote for vote eight in return for favorable long term scheduling concessions if approached.)

Why would the Big 10 and Pac-12 work together?

Because they always have.  The Pac-12 and Big 10 see each other as partners.  The Big Ten has secured a toehold in the TV markets to the east.  The only way the Pac-12 does not become a junior partner to the Big Ten is by landing the TV markets in Texas. 

Whether the totals are 16 teams or 18 teams, the only scenario that make sense for both of the partner schools is if the PAC can add the Texas markets.  That is by far the most likely end goal.  That means UT in the PAC.

Such a move would have the partner conferences wiping out the GOR and the Big 12.

That is probably not possible with 12 or 14 member teams in the Big 12.  UT would at least have to wait a few years before it would make financial sense to pull out a posse for a UT-friendly move.

A eight vote conference implosion would create a lot of angst for Baylor and Kansas State.  Baylor and Kansas State might be considered by the SEC considering how good they have been in football lately...It all depending on how much the SEC feels a need to expand.

One can certainly argue that almost every Big 12 school would end up in a better home, but there is uncertainty there and no university president wants that.

What if the Pac-10 and Big 10 go smaller?  What if OSU gets squeezed out in favor of TCU for example... Its not tough to imagine the SEC having an interest but what kind of fallout would that have in Oklahoma?  What kind of headaches would OU have to deal with? 

The same goes for Kansas.  What if KU gets the gold ring (the Big 10) and KSU gets the plastic one (the MWC)?  How much of a beating does KU take in state?

And what about the Longhorn Network?  That would have to go to make this work.  Is UT ready to leave the legacy of DeLoss Dodds in the past?  Is UT willing to let go of several million dollars in TV money to be an equal member in a stable conference?

The scenario that creates the fewest angry alums is to try to eliminate the possibility of a Big 12 collapse.  How do you do that?  You threaten UT with the loss of the only Big 12 school that is really irreplaceable to UT----OU --- in order to get an expansion vote.

(The UT/OU football game in Dallas fuels a disproportionately large portion of UT's athletic budget.  It is literally the only loss to the Big 12 membership that UT would feel immediately.)

As if on queue...

OU's President David Boren is publically championing the idea of expansion soon.  Now.  Not months ago when TCU and Baylor missed the playoffs.  Now.

And that something needs to be done about the Longhorn Network. It was on the back burner last year, but it is an issue now.

That tells me a lot.

I have been following realignment for 30 years. 

Anyone who has paid attention to the realignment dance realizes that what a principle says in regards to realignment doesn't really matter.  What does matter is what he appears to be angling for and why he is choosing this moment to make his move.

Boren clearly either wants the conference to expand for stability or he wants the roadblock to the PAC (the Longhorn Network) removed.  He is making his move now because for the first time in years UT's leadership's focus is not currently on the future of the conference or the survival of the Longhorn Network.

It is not a ridiculous statement to say that at this moment Boren may be the loudest and most powerful voice in the conference.  That won't last, so make things happen today.

The threat

It would make a ton of sense to me if the idea is to make it sound like OU is toying with leaving for the SEC to make UT concede to Boren and the other schools' wishes. 

The SEC is the only power conference UT flat out won't join.  UT will not follow little brother A&M.


Should OU leave, UT will once again be looking at a long term association with some slightly below BCS standard schools (either in academics -Texas Tech and Houston - or attendance - Baylor, TCU, or Rice).

In that, it is in some ways a reasonable sounding threat.  OU can jump to the SEC and could say play A&M in Dallas every year(!!!!)  The money would be the same for OU.  The thought of that would have most UT alumni throwing up.

OU would likely have to take OSU with them to keep peace in the state.  The way the SEC treats expansion makes that look fairly unlikely on paper.  The SEC has a stated preference for one school from a new state  as a way to expand their footprint.  Oklahoma is a tiny state on top of that.   This appears unlikely ...UNLESS the SEC also took TCU.

Such a move with OU, OSU, and TCU joining A&M and Arkansas would make DFW largely SEC territory.  Oklahoma plus DFW is about 10 Million.  That is worth thinking about for the SEC.

UT football has already lost a ton of recruiting dominance in Houston to the SEC. They cannot afford DFW going down the same Dodds-created black hole.  

Such an event would effectively cut the conference footprint in half and leave UT no choice but to take Texas Tech to the PAC on the PAC's terms.

That kind of move would steadily erode UT's stature over the coming years.

(Now OU and TCU would not consider a future in the cheat-heavy SEC without UT any kind of optimal move, so lets not dwell on this distasteful scenario too much.)

Would UT's new President sacrifice the Longhorn Network for stability with OU?  Maybe.

And there is another possible read.

UT's and OU's Presidents may have already determined that the Big 12 is largely unsalvageable as a high level "group of five" conference.

Boren could be working as UT's front man. This may be showmanship. 

He could be "twisting UT's arm" to get them to dump the lucrative but moderately unsuccessful and embarrassing Longhorn Network (or turn it into the Big 12 network) in a way that saves face with Dodds' loyalists among the alumni.

His actions and the fact that UT has a new President could quickly rehabilitate UT's image in the eyes of the Pac-12.  The Pac-12 would then have a face-saving excuse to again show interest.  That would allow UT to carry OU and certain other schools to the PAC.

With that idea floating out there, the political scene in Texas should really be discussed.

Consider that prior to 2010 or so UT & A&M reportedly used to have an informal deal where they had "veto power" over each other's potential realignment moves.

A&M rightly figured out that their ticket out of those cuffs was to infuriate the largely insufferable Dodds until he let them go with no strings attached.

When the 2010 Pac-10 deal was floating around, UT and A&M were a pair and both would think to bring along Texas Tech to bridge the western schools.  (Also Texas Tech was very good in football back then.)

The implications of that "veto power" deal no longer being in place is that UT doesn't really have to take Texas Tech (or really any Texas school) with them to the PAC-12 if they don't want to. The political conditions that existed in other UT moves and near moves just are not there anymore.

(Now as a Texan and a fan of Texas having good colleges, I would love to see the state insist UT leverage a PAC-12 affiliation into improved public universities for Texas kids, but that is a liberal high concept; this state is proudly conservative politically.  While there is political lip service to transforming public schools like Tech, Houston, North Texas and others into tier 1 public schools, no one is going to use the obvious lever of UT's conference affiliation to dramatically speed up that goal.  There is simply the potential of too much political cost.)

UT isn't as hugely reliant on the PUF fund as they were 30 years ago. There are not politicians in key places that will be able to damage UT.  Plus A&M fans considers a move west a folly and would likely figuratively help UT pack it's bags if UT made that choice.

UT might take a single school with it for PR purposes, but it might not be Tech at this point.

If UT does want to take a single Texas school west, TCU has better football, better academics, a better market, and offer UT and OU a better recruiting areas than Tech does and they are far less caustic of an addition than Baylor.  That would be a very popular choice in DFW --- the nation's #5 media market, the largest media market in Texas, and a "winners town".

If the Big 12 is strong enough --- if the Big 12 is still considered say "ACC level" in football when UT and OU leave --- the duo could take Kansas and maybe TCU or OSU (or maybe all of them and Rice) and still potentially leave a second tier Gang of Five conference with Baylor and Kansas State dominating in football.

The PAC and Big Ten could then throw support behind the Big 12 as still the fifth conference in the Group of five.  If the two dominant superconferences say the Big 12 stays, it happens.

Now the Big 12 would still be gutted of major influence in Texas and that would have to be corrected for TV payouts, but Tech and Baylor have statewide followings and good support in DFW.  That is a solid core to rebuild around.

The conference could back fill with big enrollment Texas schools like UTEP and UTSA that pull strong crowds (and would have some good media value).   UNM, Colorado State, Tulane, and (at that point pipe dream) BYU might make sense in media terms.  Tulsa, SMU, UNT, and Texas State might be other candidates to consider to fill footprint holes.

It would not look pretty, but if the conference strung together large Texas media markets and large enrollment schools, it could piece back together a media argument for strong statewide support and TV viewership and the resulting solid media payouts.

This scenario could solve a lot of problems with potential problem schools Kansas State and Baylor (and TCU or OSU).

So who gets in?

Frank the Tank did a metric workup of most of the top 6-8 candidates --- I think BYU, Memphis, Houston, Rice, USF, UCF, UCONN, and Cincinnati were on the list --- and reached the conclusion that BYU and Cinci were the smart money picks.

The only problem with this is rule one in expansion is that the team that gets in is the team that satisfies the most voting principles when the expansion takes place.

It is all about timing.

If expansion were to take place in the next 8 months, I firmly believe that UT would be essentially a partner in the process --- bordering on an observer in the process --- not the key vote as they have been for the last several years.

Conferences generally try to appease (or is it silence?) an unhappy regional outlier.  This is in part because their members do feel some fraternity with their peers, but also because if a member schools have to make a long trip, they may as well get a double-header in for their Olympic sports by adding a travel partner.

I think this expansion, if it happens soon, will yield a travel partner for West Virginia.  Right now the smart money is on Cinci, but I think it is a closer race than you'd think and in fact I wouldn't be surprised to see the southern schools have a last minute change of heart and push for a more convenient flight --- Memphis.

The football strength of the school added would not seem to be a huge concern with UT, OU, Baylor, and TCU already in the conference.  I don't know if say an 8-3 Cinnci team vs. a 5-7 Memphis team means more to the Big 12 at this point.  If I am reading that right, that would really hurt Cinci's chances. Basketball may be more of a concern and Memphis is better there. 

Recruiting would be a big factor.  Both candidate schools are in good recruiting areas, but I think the rank and file of the Big 12 would have far more success pulling players out of the edge of the SEC footprint than out of a very culturally dissimilar Ohio.

Additionally, Memphis is very close to the Mississippi/Louisiana region that produces an abnormally high number of big, strong, athletic defensive tackles.  That is a big factor in competing at a championship level and has played a big role in the SEC's extended period of dominance.

(Also OU President Boren has been a champion of Tulane as a candidate in the past.  It sounds like he may realize the support isn't there for Tulane this time.  Memphis offers a recruiting toehold in the same region as a main selling point, while being a viable travel partner for West Virginia.)

Plus adding Cinci would push better Ohio recruits to West Virginia and Cinci, disproportunately improving both northeastern schools vs. their Big 12 competition...I am suspecting that when push comes to shove that will not be a goal of the Big 12 schools in expansion.

Cinci is not the only leading candidate who may be in some trouble.   No one seems to be talking about BYU.  That means something.

When you look at fan support and what they bring to a conference, BYU is a top 30 school at the FBS ranks in terms of athletic financial value.  It is by far the best candidate school available, but I think BYU's candidacy has problems today.

I think BYU is perceived as aloof and perhaps even somewhat ambivalent of potential admission to the Big 12.  I do not think they are campaigning enough to express a deep desire to join.

I think they are considered a bit of a headache with too many exceptions needed (the Big 12 already has that with UT!) as well as being too far away.  The Big 12 already has one member in BFE, they do not seem all that interested in another in the other direction.

I think BYU secretly desperately wants in, but my feeling reading the talk is that they probably have not made it clear enough to Big 12 leadership that BYU will do whatever it takes to make things work for the Big 12.  The boat may be sailing on the Cougars.   

(One wonders if Colorado State had built a larger stadium if BYU would have more chatter right now.)

There is a lot of talk about Houston and that makes a lot of sense...given the sources and the players.   OU is probably feeling the SEC recruiting incursion in East Texas. Comments about UH out of UT over the last 3 years have suggested UT's leaders have become moderately tolerant of Houston recently.

I think everyone who looks at the size of UH's enrollment and their new on-campus stadium realizes the Cougars are finally in a position to be a stable football program long term even in a top conference --- even with the strength sapping presence of the NFL Texans next door.

More importantly, adding Houston would really do a lot to control the East Texas talent bleed into the SEC by putting the Big 12 powers in front of Houston high school recruits every year.

Should UT and OU eventually bolt, Houston should be a nice middle of the pack Big 12 program for the next decade or two.

This is not the expansion I would advocate even with these goals, but it makes some sense on some levels.

UT leaders would likely have little interest in a long term affiliation with any of these three schools.

It isn't likely to do much to ensure UT and OU don't eventually leave, but this kind of expansion would give the conference a title game, create a public sense of stability, pay for the cost of admitting both schools, and likely help keep the conference going at a moderately high level should the Big Two go at some point.

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