Another golden ticket has been offered and accepted. TCU is headed to the Big East, which now becomes as accurately named as the 10-team Big 12 and the 12-team Big Ten.
Only two questions remain. 1) How long before the major college sports landscape looks like the format -- four 16-team superconferences governed by an organization called the Collegiate Athletic Select Hegemony (CASH) -- I proposed in February? 2) Will I get a cut of the profits once it does?
The Big East, itself a potential target of conference raiders as recently as a few months ago, will bolster its sagging football credibility by adding a program that has won at least 11 games in five of the past six seasons. If any doubt remained as to whether the Big East would retain its automatic bid into the BCS bowls during the next BCS cycle, that doubt has vanished. TCU's data will count toward the Big East's totals during negotiations for the next cycle. Meanwhile, the Big East has done the BCS a solid by neutralizing one of the major threats to its existence. In fact, if this move is any indication, the power conferences may eventually assure the system's survival by enveloping all potential problems.
TCU is 12-0 this season. If Auburn and Oregon win their games Saturday, those two programs will play for the national title. The Horned Frogs will be on the outside looking in, but they aren't likely to rock the boat now that they'll be another cog in the machine come 2012. U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) is from Fort Worth, and he has led the charge against the BCS in the House of Representatives. His rancor levels probably plummeted Monday.
Also, the possibility of an antitrust investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice dips when fewer parties are concerned about the legality of the BCS. We could be headed to a point where almost everyone with a stake will be happy with the system. How? Invite the squeaky wheels into the clubhouse.
Utah, the original BCS buster, will begin play in the Pac-12 next year. TCU will join the Big East in 2012. Villanova, a current Big East member that plays FCS football, is next on the Big East's wish list, but if Nova declines to move up in football, the league will have to add one more football program and get permission from the NCAA if it wants to stage a lucrative championship game with 10 football-playing teams. Hello, Central Florida. Goodbye chances of a 13-0 UCF someday raising a ruckus about being excluded.
Would the six power conferences someday leave the NCAA and play by their own rules as I suggested in that February column? They may not have to. If the BCS automatic qualifying conferences collect every team that might possibly compete for a national title, the rest of the programs might make the fiscally prudent choice to drop down to the FCS in football and stop chasing a dream that will only drain budgets.
This can happen one of two ways. In the first scenario, some league will have to bite the bullet and take Boise State. The Broncos aren't attractive to power conferences because they play in a tiny stadium in a small media market. But they win a lot of games, and they could continue to be a thorn in the side of the BCS. Over the long run, it might be worth the hassle and expense to stick them in an AQ league to keep them quiet.
The second scenario involves making the Mountain West an AQ conference for the next BCS cycle. That isn't as attractive an option as it was in June when Boise State agreed to join a league that still included Utah and TCU. Now, Boise State will leave the WAC next spring to join what is essentially the WAC 2.0. Still, Boise State, Nevada, Air Force, and an improving San Diego State might constitute a stronger top of the conference than the Big East could boast this year, and if the MWC could somehow work with Conference USA to mix in its best teams, there wouldn't be anyone left with a legitimate complaint about the BCS.
That could be bad news for those of us who believe a playoff is the fairest way to determine a national champion. But if everyone comes out happy with the system, there isn't much we can do about it. Besides, college football will eventually have a playoff because a playoff will bring in a lot more money than the BCS, and money eventually always wins in these cases.
As for TCU, it comes out a huge winner in football. While West Virginia is above average seemingly every season, the rest of the Big East schedule isn't much more rugged than the current MWC lineup -- and it could be argued that the MWC lineup TCU will face in its final season in the conference (including Boise State, Air Force and San Diego State) is every bit as difficult as the schedule it will face in its first year in the Big East. But come 2012, if TCU goes undefeated, the Horned Frogs won't have to worry about the possibility of being excluded from the BCS bowls as they were until Boise State lost to Nevada last Friday. TCU also will have an easier path to the national title game, though not by much. Cincinnati went undefeated last year, and because Big East football was held in such low regard, the MWC-champ Horned Frogs might still have played for the national title instead of the Bearcats had Alabama, Texas or Florida stumbled.
The news of TCU's move also prompted a lot of "Won't anyone think of the children" moaning about non-revenue sports teams traversing great distances to play games. The complainers probably failed geography. They should consult BatchGeocode.com, a mapping site that calculates straight-line distance. In the Big East, TCU teams will have to travel to such exotic locales as Storrs, Conn. (1,509 miles), Syracuse, N.Y. (1,353 miles), Piscataway, N.J. (1,374 miles) and Tampa, Fla. (945 miles). Had TCU remained in the Mountain West, TCU teams would have traveled to Boise, Idaho (1,267 miles), Reno, Nev. (1,337 miles), Fresno, Calif. (1,303 miles) and San Diego (1,153 miles). If the MWC eventually added Hawaii, you could tack on a 3,763-mile trip.
The move also allows the Big East to claim the massive Dallas/Fort Worth television market when it renegotiates its media deals in 2012. Whether networks will pay a premium for that is unclear. While TCU is in Fort Worth, it doesn't offer much market penetration. Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma are the programs that get ratings in the Metroplex.
Even if TCU doesn't add a fortune in extra television dollars, plucking the Horned Frogs was a wise move for the Big East. It would have cost the conference a lot more to lose its AQ status. Besides, the Big Ten has yet to finish its expansion study, and a few Big East programs could be good fits if that league decides to grow again. The best defense, as the coaches say, is a good offense.
One thing is certain. TCU-to-the-Big East won't be the last piece of expansion news we hear this academic year. The Tilt-a-Whirl hasn't stopped spinning, and it's still anyone's guess as to what college sports will look like when it's done.
Just in case, I probably should get CASH trademarked.