Here we go again.
Just when we'd finally exhaled following two years of conference shakeups, finally come to grips with Missouri in the Southeast and Temple in the (Big East) West, it looks like college football's never-ending realignment headache is back. Notre Dame's September decision to join the ACC as a partial member seemed like the culmination of the madness. Instead, it may have touched off a whole new round.
And just like nearly every wave before it, the latest realignment possibility seems to be the strangest yet.
Multiple reports Saturday indicated that Maryland and Rutgers are in serious discussions with the Big Ten to join the mostly Midwestern conference. Maryland and Rutgers were among the many geographically illogical schools rumored to be Big Ten bound in the months before Jim Delany's conference added traditional football power Nebraska, but all 12 conference members had maintained their satisfaction with the head count since the Cornhuskers joined.
Apparently that sentiment has changed. Apparently the conference is no longer so discriminating. And apparently it's not interested in a laborious, step-by-step expansion process this time around. The Maryland/Rutgers news came as a shocker not just to the public but also to many within the industry, numerous sources indicated to SI.com.
Reportedly, nothing is final. And it's important to remember that many prior reported shuffles (Texas and Oklahoma to the Pac-12, Florida State to the Big 12, etc.) ultimately fizzled. But the mere possibility of Big Ten expansion means nervous leaders across the sport must return to their posts.
While coaches and players across the country engaged in actual football games Saturday, athletic directors and commissioners scurried to quiet spots to check their phones. We've been through this so many times before, but each new domino brings in a fresh wave of panic for all parties who may be affected.
After news broke, many were parsing for possible clues to flesh out the rumors. For instance, is it a coincidence that NewsCorp -- whose subsidiary, FOX, owns 49 percent of the Big Ten Network -- was reported this week to be closing in on acquiring a stake in the New York-based YES Network? That channel has often shown syndicated Rutgers games in the past. Package the two together, and suddenly users are getting BTN on basic cable in Manhattan.
Or how about the announcement this week that UnderArmour CEO and Maryland super-booster Kevin Plank plans to cash out $64.5 million in company stock? His alma mater may soon need to write a similarly huge check if it wants out of the ACC. How convenient.
Those tidbits may be irrelevant. They may be extremely relevant. It doesn't really matter. Once an expansion wormhole like this opens, speculation and panic will ensue.
Imagine being in a Big East athletic department today. The conference, shelled so many times over the past 14 months, finally looked to be returning to stable turf. Just this week it received reassuring news that its champion will be able to compete for a guaranteed spot in one of the sport's six upper-tier bowls going forward. It also gave a peek into its own reconfigured future by announcing new divisional alignments. News of a member's possible departure could not come at a worse time, as the conference is in the midst of long-awaited negotiations for a new television deal.
Imagine being in an ACC athletic department today. Those parties assumed they'd locked in some semblance of long-term stability after winning the Notre Dame sweepstakes and voting to increase the league's exit fee to an unprecedented $50 million. Now a charter member -- one of only two schools that voted against the buyout -- is apparently eyeing an exit only a couple of months later.
It's not hard to see the possible dominos here. If Maryland leaves, the ACC will tap Connecticut as its 14th member roughly 30 seconds later. If Rutgers does indeed follow suit, the Big East will be down two members and scrambling once again to remain viable. Acquiring BYU, a possible target for the conference's new West division, would suddenly take on new urgency.
But it won't end there. Louisville has made no secret of wanting out if it can find a suitor. It may soon be placing another round of calls to the ACC and Big 12. And if cash-strapped Maryland can find a way around the $50 million penalty, what's to stop Florida State, the other school that voted against it? Like the Big Ten, the Big 12 has repeatedly said its members are happy with their current configuration. Like the Big Ten teams, the Big 12 schools could change their minds.
If all this feels maddening to try to keep up with ... that's because it is. Maryland and Rutgers in the Big Ten? Really? Think that's going to excite Ohio State or Wisconsin fans? Nope. Think Maryland fans are looking to trade in those Duke and North Carolina basketball showdowns for Indiana and Illinois? Not in the slightest.
Welcome to college athletics in 2012. It's all about television households. If these already bloated conferences keep expanding, perhaps we can finally get them to change their names to something more accurate. Not the Big 14, per se, or the Big Entire Country. Frankly, geographic names no longer apply.
Leagues might as well name themselves after cable and satellite companies. And fans might as well brace for a future where properties keep changing hands.