Depending on your choice of historical conflict, several of America's largest college athletic programs are either at Lexington, Mass., or floating in Charleston Harbor, waiting for some conference to fire the first shot. If that shot comes -- and indications are it could come as early as Wednesday -- the first stages of a major realignment of the conferences could be sudden, swift and dramatic.
The Pac-12, which has received interest from Oklahoma, Texas, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, does not want to make the first move. After last year's drama, when commissioner Larry Scott's league was the aggressor, the Pac-12 has been happy to sit back and look forward to the day its 12-year, $3 billion media rights deal kicks in. The league doesn't need to expand. But if another conference -- the SEC, for instance -- decided to grow, then the Pac-12 would be far more inclined to listen to the schools searching for safe haven outside the Big 12, where the environment has become too toxic for a certain powerful school (rhymes with Stokelahoma) to bear.
By Tuesday night, the SEC should know whether it has the required nine presidential votes to extend an invitation to Texas A&M, which sent a conditional withdrawal letter to the Big 12 last week. If the Aggies get the invitation, they will accept and announce as early as Wednesday their intention to join the SEC. Then, things could get wild.
So, with college sports again on the precipice of a major realignment for the second time in 15 months, here are the answers to a few key questions.
• Who is the aggressor this time? Last year, conferences sought out new members. The (then) Pac-10 courted six Big 12 schools, while the SEC courted Texas A&M and Oklahoma. This year is more like a Sadie Hawkins dance. The schools are the ones doing the asking. Texas A&M approached the SEC in July. Oklahoma approached the Pac-12 in August. The tenuous threads that tied the Big 12 back together after near-Armageddon last year began to snap as schools pushed back against the Longhorn Network -- which Texas launched last month. Texas A&M saw the Longhorn Network as a looming monster that would ensure the Aggies were relegated to second-class-citizen status in their own state. So A&M president R. Bowen Loftin reached out to the SEC to see if the league still had interest in expanding into Texas. Meanwhile, Oklahoma president David Boren, fed up with instability in the Big 12, said last Friday that the Sooners will have a voice in this round of realignment drama. "We obviously want stability in our conference relationships," Boren told The Oklahoman. "We want partners that are above outstanding, both athletically and academically. A conference that's strong is not only stable, but it's one in which there are multiple relationships, along with sports, between university members."
• Where does Texas stand? That's an interesting question. The Longhorns are tired of being painted as the villains, so don't expect them to make any move before the Sooners. But if Oklahoma -- and by extension Oklahoma State -- breaks away from the Big 12, then there would be no Big 12 left to salvage. Texas would need to decide whether it wants to join a conference or be independent. The Pac-12 probably would be the most attractive conference option.
• But what about the Longhorn Network? If Texas moved to the Pac-12, it would be possible to fold the Longhorn Network into the Pac-12's new regional network structure. Texas may have to partner with another school such as Texas Tech to make the deal work. Remember, ESPN, which runs the Longhorn Network, also is a network partner of the Pac-12. ESPN could essentially negotiate with itself to make a deal work that keeps all its partners happy.
• So if Texas A&M goes to the SEC and four Big 12 schools go to the Pac-12, are we far away from multiple 16-team superconferences? Let's hop in the time machine and travel back to July 2010. In an interview with SI.com, the Pac-12's Scott explained that he believed superconferences would eventually form. "Something like that is bound to happen at some stage," Scott said 14 months ago. Why? Because when he floated the idea in 2010, Scott found that television executives loved it. "What you couldn't predict is what fan reaction would be, what media reaction would be and how the TV executives who would ultimately have to stroke some big checks would react," Scott said. "That was the part that was very pleasing. I got contacted by every major TV network in the country."
Since the SEC has barely acknowledged the concept of expansion, we don't know whether commissioner Mike Slive wants to go to 16. We do know that he told CBSSports.com in July that that league was capable of getting that big. "I could get to 16 (teams) in 15 minutes," Slive told the site. Meanwhile, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said this to The Chicago Tribune: "We're about as comfortable as we can be with where we are. We've said we will continue to monitor the landscape, but we have closed down active expansion." The landscape could begin to shift this week, but it's still unclear what that would mean for the Big Ten, which would need to add schools of significant value (read: Notre Dame and others) to ensure its current members didn't lose revenue in the deal. At any rate, the Big Ten would have plenty of time. The league could wait a few years, see how the dominoes fall and time expansion to its next media rights deal.
• Can the Big 12 still be saved? Never say never when talking realignment. Last year, the Big 12 was dead until it wasn't. Do not underestimate the power of Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe to complete a Hail Mary. He has done it before. Until Texas A&M has nine votes from the SEC presidents, the tilt-a-whirl probably will not spin. Still, it's difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Aggies could come back to the Big 12. They seem to have passed the point of no return. But until the SEC presidents vote, nothing is certain.