Skip to main content

Sweet 16: Exploring scenarios for how expansion dominos may fall

It's hard to believe that less than a week ago, hardly a soul outside of the parties involved had any inkling the Pac-10 might be on the verge of inviting Texas and five other teams. But with The Conference Realignment Texas Hold 'em Game suddenly moving at breakneck speed, we could be sitting here a week from now looking at a radically altered landscape. A series of impending, interconnected decisions currently being made in the offices and board rooms of a select few universities -- most notably Notre Dame, Nebraska and Texas -- could unleash a sweeping tidal wave that impacts nearly every Division I-A member.

Or, nothing could happen. Despite all the leaked e-mails, feverish politicking and frantic Twitter updates these past 96 hours, there remains a very real possibility that the "Pac-16" will fail to become reality, that only a couple of schools nationally will change locales and that college football come 2012 will hardly look any different than it did in 2010.

Whatever the case, much will be decided over the coming week. Speculation runs the gamut as to where exactly things stand, but the general consensus can be summed up thusly: The Pac-10 is expected to officially issue invites to Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and either Colorado or Baylor; those Big 12 schools are waiting on answers from Nebraska and Missouri, which have reportedly been given an in-or-out ultimatum that expires this weekend as to whether they'll re-up or hold out for an invite to the Big Ten; and those schools, in turn, may be waiting on the Big Ten to make yet another push for Notre Dame, which, should it finally forsake its independence, could complete that league's expansion at 12 teams.

Still with me?

In honor of the proposed Pac-16, here are 16 scenarios for how the dominos from this week's decisions may fall, ascending from the most conservative to the most radically far-fetched.

1. Notre Dame stays put (for now), Nebraska and Missouri pledge loyalty to the Big 12 and the Big Ten and Pac-10 go back to the drawing board.

It cannot be stated enough that Texas and its fellow reported South Division defectors would prefer to keep the current Big 12 intact. Sources say the league will command plenty of increased television revenue (albeit still not split equally) the next time it renegotiates its contracts. If Nebraska and Missouri officials decide it is either too risky to wait on a Big Ten invite (long assumed to be their preference) or plain have a change of heart, Texas and Co. stay put, too. We go back to waiting to see if the Pac-10 makes a more modest expansion (Colorado and Utah?) and/or the Big Ten turns its attention East (Rutgers? Syracuse?).

One immediate domino: The Mountain West -- currently waiting to see what happens with the Big 12 -- goes ahead and invites Boise State.

2. All of the above holds true, with one exception: Missouri holds out.

Great. The Big 12 plucks a team like TCU to replace the Tigers and life moves on. (And Missouri sits and prays it's not making a gigantic miscalculation as to the Big Ten's interest.)

3. Notre Dame ends 120 years of independence, joins the Big Ten.

Don't get me wrong -- this would be a gigantic development. It would probably cause riots on Notre Dame's campus, for one thing, and it would give the Big Ten a fourth national brand-name team to go with Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. However, it would also likely put a kibosh on most other potential conference shakeups. Most believe the Big Ten would be content to end its expansion push with Notre Dame, which would in turn preserve the Big 12 and Big East.

Personally, I don't see this one happening. Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick previously indicated the school would only consider joining a conference if its hand were forced -- and that hasn't happened yet.

4. Nebraska bids the Big 12 adieu.

There goes the conference. Nebraska AD/former coach Tom Obsborne has been at odds with Texas nearly since the league's inception, what with much of the conference's policies seemingly tailored to the Longhorns and their Lone Star counterparts. The Big Ten offers more money, equal revenue sharing and a fresh start. If an invite appears imminent, the Huskers head north.

A Big 12 without one of its three marquee franchises will no longer be palatable to Texas. The 'Horns will accept their invite to the Pac-10, and the other five will follow. (The only question is whether Colorado or Baylor, the latter of which is politicking hard for inclusion, would get the sixth bid.) The remaining holdovers -- Kansas, K-State, Iowa State and the Colorado/Baylor loser -- begin scrambling for a new home.

SI Recommends

Every remaining scenario from here includes this component as a starting point.

5. The Mountain West pounces.

Seizing an opportunity, the Mountain West -- to this point facing an uphill climb to gain a BCS automatic berth -- would suddenly find itself in a position to reconfigure itself as a bona fide player. With the Big 12 out of the picture, the MWC could invite any or all of the following -- Colorado, Kansas, K-State, Iowa State and Boise State -- to move to 12 teams.

If not, a team like Iowa State could be left completely out in the cold. Conference USA, anyone?

6. Kansas becomes a LeBron-like free agent.

One of the great mysteries amid the ongoing Pac-16 speculation is what will become of Kansas, which, while not necessarily a football power, has a huge alumni base, sits in a decent TV market and, most notably, boasts one of the nation's most prestigious basketball programs. It's seems hard to believe the Jayhawks will fade into the wilderness.

Kansas has pledged its loyalty to the Big 12, but if the league implodes, who's to say the Big Ten wouldn't couple KU with Missouri? For all we know, Jim Delanyprefers the Jayhawks. If not the Big Ten, what about the basketball-centric Big East, which knows no geographic bounds (see: Marquette)? It could be that KU can't go anywhere without K-State, thus diminishing its appeal, but if not, another major program could be changing major conferences.

7. The Big Ten pulls a power play, snags Texas.

We know from e-mails obtained by the Columbus Dispatch that the Big Ten has coveted the Longhorns all along. While it's assumed Texas is more interested in the Pac-10 (hence, the imminent invitation), Delany could still pull off one last sell job. He could point out that his league's TV network has a four-year head start on the Pac-10's proposed venture and/or he could invite buddies Oklahoma and Texas A&M. (We already know Texas has a "Tech problem.")

Nebraska -- which for this to unfold would have to fail to commit to the Big 12 -- may be left out of the Big Ten, to boot (yet another kick in the stomach by Texas). Perhaps the Pac-10 would come calling for the Huskers and/or Colorado, or perhaps Nebraska would try to start a new league with Kansas, Kansas State, et. al.

8. The Big Ten adds Nebraska -- and Notre Dame.

Why is this more radical than Big Ten/Texas? Because of the ripple effect it would cause back East.

And as stated before, Notre Dame's sole motivation for joining a conference would be the imminent destruction of the league (the Big East) in which all of its other sports teams participate. With that in mind...

9. The Big Ten goes to 16, adds Rutgers, Syracuse (and maybe Pittsburgh).

We've long assumed the Big Ten wants to get into the New York City area. If it does so solely by plucking Rutgers, the Big East will be fine. (Heck -- maybe it can upgrade by adding Kansas.) Were it to lose two or more teams, however, the sport's smallest BCS conference would have to once again reinvent itself.

Possible replacements could include Conference USA schools UCF and Memphis, which last year hired ex-Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese as a consultant.

10. The ACC sticks one last knife in the Big East

ACC commissioner John Swofford stabbed Tranghese in the back seven years ago with his secretive purge of Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech. If Delany does pick off multiple Big East teams, it's possible Swofford would come back to finish the job. Peeved that the Big East has surpassed the ACC as the nation's preeminent hoops conference, he might welcome Connecticut, Louisville, Pittsburgh and West Virginia. Or...

11. A new conference is born.

For a brief, glorious four-year run in the early '90s, Nick Van Exel (Cincinnati), Penny Hardaway (Memphis) and Tom Kleinschmidt (DePaul) wreaked havoc in the short-lived Great Midwest. Why not bring it back -- only with a different lineup and a football edition?

I hereby propose the following consortium of teams plucked from the potential wreckage of the Big 12 and Big East: Cincinnati, Memphis, Louisville, West Virginia, USF, Connecticut, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Baylor. With a couple of strong years, who's to say this league wouldn't qualify for BCS status?

12. The SEC goes on the offensive.

To date, the nation's proudest football conference has stayed out of the expansion melee, and with good reason: It's got no need to expand. The Big Ten is expanding in part because of shifting population away from its states -- to the South. The Pac-10 needs 16 teams just to get in the same ballpark financially as the 12-team SEC.

There were signs the SEC might pursue Texas and/or Texas A&M, but it appears those schools will stick together either in the Big 12 or Pac-16. The SEC can afford to stand pat, but if it decides to become proactive...

13. The SEC annexes Florida State and Miami.

Sure, the conference already has the Sunshine State's flagship school, Florida, but it couldn't hurt to gain a stranglehold in the nation's most fertile state for elite football prospects. The ACC would survive, but its existing television arrangements would not -- despite their recent struggles, FSU and Miami are by far the two most nationally renowned brands in that conference.

Admittedly, Florida might singlehandedly put the kibosh on this one -- but if not...

14. The SEC goes to 16, adding FSU and Miami plus Clemson and Virginia Tech.

Now the SEC -- which loves to boast about its "speed" -- would officially enter "ludicrous speed" territory. The league's members would boast more combined national championships and BCS title-game appearances than all other conferences combined. (That's an exaggeration -- I think.)

The remaining ACC teams would have no choice but to join forces with the Big East (or what's left of it) to remain a viable football conference.

15. The remaining BCS conferences apt for symmetry, form four 16-team quadrants.

If they do, hopefully they cut a royalty check to Andy Staples, who first coined the Collegiate Athletic Select Hegemony (CASH) -- including a hypothetical "Pac-16" -- back in February. (Sadly, poor Iowa State got left out in his scenario, too.) The 64-team format could logically lead to fans' long-desired playoff: Four league championship games (between division winners) would serve as de facto quarterfinals, feeding into a "Final Four" that could be played at existing bowl sites.

Of course, under this scenario, Utah/Boise State/BYU et. al., would be left on the outs yet again, leading to even more threats of Congressional hearings and antitrust lawsuits. Unless...

16. The four super-conferences lift off into outer space ... er, abandon the NCAA.

The concept has existed since at least the early '90s: The sport's football megapowers -- tired of sharing (or being pressured to share more of) their hard-earned revenues with the Ball States of the world -- will simply break off and form their own autonomous governing body. No more AQs and non-AQs. No more Boise State-TCU Fiesta Bowls. No more "FBS" period.

Personally, I don't think things will ever get this far. Football may be king, but it's just one of 20-plus sports offered by major conferences, none of which will want to deal with all the bureaucratic hassles that currently fall to the NCAA. University presidents also find comfort in the antiquated notion that the NCAA preserves a sense of "amateurism" in what has unavoidably become as cut-throat a business as any for-profit endeavor.

Then again, less than a week ago I never would have predicted that Pac-10 presidents would sign off on expanding into Norman, Okla., and Lubbock, Texas. By this time next week, anything and everything could be possible.