Wednesday, September 19, 2012

the last domino

That's Notre Dame, in case you haven't been paying attention to the news.  Conference realignment is slowly working its way toward some kind of equilibrium, and Notre Dame represented a major, major step in that department: the last unpredictable element.

It's become a very badly kept secret that Texas's AD DeLoss Dodds absolutely coveted Notre Dame for the Big 12, and was willing to do most anything to make it happen.  (It so happens that DeLoss Dodds not getting his way is one of the most beautiful and satisfying things about the ND/ACC matchup.  I'll bet you anything that if ND had struck the same agreement with the Big 12, and played five games a year against Big 12 teams, Dodds would've tried to engineer it so Texas never had to skip a year against Notre Dame.  But I digress.)  It's also a long-running badly-kept secret that the Big Ten had been working on Notre Dame for, like, decades.  With the impending obsolescence of Notre Dame's independent model, the Irish represented the one remaining really unpredictable piece of the conference realignment game.  Where they went and how they did it was going to have major implications.  Now that Notre Dame has found a home, the highest tier of college football (and sports in general) is just about set, and what isn't set is easy to see.

Mind you, I'm speaking only of the upper tier, of which the Big East is no longer part.  The next level down, which includes the MWC, CUSA, and Biggish Eastish, probably has a lot of shuffling left.  It's open season on jumping to I-A again, and that's going to continue to make a mess of things.  Basketball conferences like the CAA, A-10, and the like, face uncertain futures.  There are still a few odd pieces, like the leftover WAC teams forced into football independence.  But the big five?  (Which we might as well capitalize: Big Five.)  They're settling in for the long haul.

A few items do remain, namely:

-- What happens when Notre Dame becomes a full football member of the ACC?  This is largely inevitable, by the way.  I'm not the only one who thinks this.  In fact, folks who think the arrangement as it stands now is the long-term, definite solution....I think they're in the clear minority.  ESPN's Gene Wojciechowski figures ND will be ACC-for-real by 2024.  I give it less time than that.  2020 is what I reckon.  That'll be fun when that happens, because we'll have a 16th slot to give out to whoever says "please" the nicest.  UConn?  Rutgers?  Navy?  Louisville?  Here's a crazy thought: ODU.  They're going I-A, and being as they sit plop in the middle of Talentville, it's not nuts to think they'll be good enough by 2020 for the ACC to at least give them a look.  Regardless, the ACC will grow by one sometime in the next ten years.

-- Does the Big 12 want to get back to 12 teams?  I imagine it does.  Louisville would be a prime candidate - the prime candidate, really - and WVU would probably push for it.  Who else?  One of the Texas schools, maybe.  I would look in the direction of Brigham Young myself.  I don't think BYU's experiment with football independency will work out so hot.  Boise State is another idea, if they can stay relevant long enough.  Regardless, once again, the candidate will be someone from the lower tier.

That, in fact, is the larger point.  I firmly believe we're done with power conferences poaching other power conferences.  The ACC is almost completely poach-proof now.  Both of the above expansion scenarios involve expansion for a goal other than footprint expansion or making 1+1 equal 3.  In the case of the Big 12 it's just about hosting a championship game again, and for the ACC it'd be about evening things up.  The list of teams unhappy enough with their current situation that they're legitimate rumor targets has dwindled to zero.

So other than that, there's no longer any reason to expand.  For anyone.  The 4x16 superconference model is dead, not that it was ever viable to begin with (and you can best believe I told you so in that regard.)  It's not happening.  Why would it?  The SEC added Texas A&M to get into the Texas market, and Missouri to make an even number (and the markets Mizzou brings are no slouches either.)  There's nowhere else to go.  They're not gonna want to split the pie up any more.  The only conquest left is Texas, and Texas isn't going anywhere where it can't be the boss.

The Big Ten has figured out how to breed a money tree (scientific name: Bigtenius Networkilus) and the list of schools they ever desired to share that with was one long: Notre Dame.  (People who preached the superconference model always had Iowa State in the Big Ten.  To which I always asked: why?)  The Pac-12 isn't going to become the Pac-Even-Bigger without Texas.  And since the Big 12 has stabilized thanks to Texas's realization that the Big 12 is the only conference where they can keep the Longhorn Network, they're not going anywhere either.

So with apologies to Gerald Ford, our long national nightmare is mostly over.  As far as the power conferences go, we can say goodbye to the days of 10 rumors for every actual move.  I suppose the next question is "now that the five conferences have drawn themselves a nice little line of demarcation, are the NCAA's days numbered?"  People will ask that; the idea being, why should the Big Five share the schwag and have about 300 other D-I schools constantly trying to take a cut and push the big schools around, just because there are way more little schools that can outvote them at every turn?  (The answer is "March Madness," but I wouldn't be surprised if, in the next eight years or so, the Big Five at least try to assert a little bit of further separation between themselves and the rest of college football.)

Don't get me wrong: as I said, we're not done with conference realignment.  The Big East is facing an existential crisis, in that none of its best teams want to be there, and it just lost the country's flagship Catholic school - which until just recently was a big reason the basketball wing of the conference hung around.  That particular Jenga tower is a couple pulls away.   Idaho and New Mexico State can't survive as independents.  There's only so much room in the Sun Belt and MAC for new arrivals to I-A football, of which there are four this year and at least four more coming soon.  So there's still plenty of shuffling to be done.  But all among the unwashed masses.  We in the Big Five can finally sit back and watch it unfold.  The only drama left now is finding out what's behind door number sixteen.  (And then, when that finally does happen, shuffling the divisional alignments, but that's not exactly a panic-mode thing.  You can help make it work by getting on board with this scheduling idea, which is the best one ever.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This reminds me a bit of when the Berlin Wall fell, marking the end of the Cold War, and journalists everywhere were seriously wondering if this was "the end of history". It's a ridiculous thought in hindsight, but at the time it seemed plausible: the dominant historical narrative that everyone had been living under for 40 years had ended, and many folks just couldn't imagine any other narrative (existence bias).

Fortunately, you've captured a lot of the future narratives that are likely to emerge and keep things interesting (mid-majors, threats to the NCAA model). But I imagine things will stay interesting for the Big Five as well, for reasons that are hard to see now. For example, if the Big Five were to exert its muscle and break from the NCAA, it's conceivable that that would result in political pressures that could morph them into a professional (paid) farm league (whereas the smaller schools remain true purveyors of student-athletes). In short, when there's that much money on the table, those that have it (the Big Five in this example) should never feel they can just sit by and watch securely from the sidelines. Their old threats (e.g. poaching by other majors) will inevitably be replaced by new ones (e.g. the NFL trying to get a piece, or college players unionizing in some sense, or the government sticking its nose in).

Now, if it were up to me, I'd turn the clock back 30 years, but at least whatever happens next won't be boring.