An article by Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports highlights one of the many court cases the NCAA is engulfed in at the moment. This one is a suit brought by 2 former college football players (a center from Cal-Berkeley and a running back from West Virginia) challenging the current amateur athlete model the NCAA uses to determine eligibility to play college sports. The players think that they should be entitled to a much larger share of the billions of dollars colleges receive. Previously, we covered the arguments for and against paying college athletes. Assuming the athletes emerge victorious, the next big question becomes, how do conferences change their alignment?
I have long suspected the biggest conferences will consolidate into four 16-team conferences, and that the Big XII would be the one that goes away, similarly to how the Big East went away when the ACC raided them for members to expand from 9 to 12 members to stage an ACC championship game in the early 21stcentury. My assumption was that the Pac 12 would take the 4 most Western teams from the Big XII, and the Big Ten and SEC would take 2 each, and the ACC would take 1 of the 2 remaining, along with forcing Notre Dame to join as a full member in all sports. Then, these 64 schools would break away from the NCAA and form their own association.
In Dodd’s article, an insider opined that it would not be that simple. The realignment would likely be driven by whether a school was academically-minded or athletically-minded. Although there is plenty of high-quality education at most of the schools, the SEC schools are obviously more athletically-minded. There are a bunch of schools in the ACC that are very clearly more academically-minded than football-minded, such as Duke, North Carolina, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Virginia. (These schools are powerful in basketball, but their academics are much higher in priority than their football teams.) The reasoning here is that schools like Clemson and Florida State would be more philosophically inclined to go with the SEC rather than stay in the ACC. The Pac 10 courted Texas earlier this decade before settling on Colorado and Utah to make itself the Pac 12. What will Texas – the only university with its own TV network – choose to do? And if Clemson and Florida State seek to join the SEC, what would that conference do about the long-held unspoken belief that they would want Oklahoma and Oklahoma State as their 15th and 16thteams?
Many believe that those Oklahoma schools would join the SEC, all 4 Texas teams from the Big XII would go to the Pac 12, the Kansas schools would join the Big Ten, and the ACC would force Notre Dame to join in football and take either West Virginia or Iowa State for the 16th member, which I would expect to be West Virginia for its higher football profile and geographic location. But let’s examine the athletic vs academic alignment.
The SEC could take Clemson and Florida State. I suspect the SEC would then seek to get rid of Vanderbilt and one other school so they could also get the Oklahoma schools. Vanderbilt would fit better with the ACC’s academically-minded schools. I think the other school the SEC would try to force on the ACC would be South Carolina, which used to be in the ACC many years ago and has never been nationally relevant other than 5 years when Steve Spurrier was their coach. Who, then, would the academically-minded school the ACC turn to for its 16th team? The most obvious candidate is Maryland, which left the ACC for the Big Ten earlier this decade. The other “new” team in the Big Ten, Rutgers, would also be a fit. Either way, the Big Ten would then need 3 schools to get to 16.
The Big Ten and Pac 12 both seem to have a better roster of schools that are high-end with academics and athletics. In the Big Ten, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State have all been athletic super-powers at one time or another as well as highly-respected institutions of learning. Purdue and Northwestern, although never national title contenders, have also enjoyed some success in athletics while being high-ranking academically. Although they aren’t as well-known as many others, it would seem that the Kansas schools would be the way they would go, and probably take Iowa State as they all make the most geographic sense. The Pac 12 has UCLA, Cal, USC and Stanford. Adding Texas, TCU and Texas Tech makes sense for them. Baylor would probably come along in a package deal.
This would be the resulting association:
ACC Big Ten Pac 16 SEC
Boston College Illinois Arizona Alabama
Duke Indiana Arizona State Arkansas
Georgia Tech Iowa Baylor Auburn
Louisville Iowa St California Clemson
Maryland Kansas Colorado Florida
Miami Kansas St Oregon Florida St
Notre Dame Michigan Oregon State Georgia
North Carolina Michigan St Stanford Kentucky
NC State Minnesota TCU LSU
Pittsburgh Nebraska Texas Mississippi
South Carolina Northwestern Texas Tech Miss. State
Syracuse Ohio State UCLA Missouri
Vanderbilt Penn State USC Oklahoma
Virginia Purdue Utah Oklahoma St
Virginia Tech Rutgers Washington Tennessee
Wake Forest Wisconsin Washington St Texas A&M
In this scenario, West Virginia is the 65th school left without a dance partner, The American Athletic Conference, who would be the most superior of the second-tier NCAA, would snap them up quickly.
What would the schedules look like? In football, the conferences could set up 4 “pods” of 4 teams each. You would play the 3 teams in your pod every year, and rotate the other 12 opponents. Going to 9-game schedules, as the Big Ten already has, makes it convenient – a team could play half of the 12 teams in other pods one year, play them again the next year in opposite stadiums, then do the same with the other 6 teams the following 2 years. This would ensure every 4-year player gets to play every other team in the conference. The new association could write in its rules that each team in this association may play 1 NCAA team each year. There would then be room for 2 games among themselves, so the TV networks could still set up mega-games to start the year, like Alabama-Michigan or Georgia-Texas. Other traditional rivalries, such as Miami-Florida State, Louisville-Kentucky or Notre Dame-USC could still be held. Notre Dame typically plays USC and Stanford every year and Northwestern fairly regularly, so some of them would go away.
This association probably takes the Rose, Orange, Sugar, Cotton, Fiesta, Peach, Outback, Citrus, Texas, Music City, Belk, Pinstripe, Alamo and Holiday bowls with them, along with the bowl games that are played in Jacksonville on New Year’s Day and Santa Clara on New Year’s Eve (those 2 games change names regularly). That’s 16 games, 32 teams, and probably just enough 6-game winners to fill them. The remaining 20-24 bowl games would stay with the NCAA.
In basketball, the same pod structure would apply, with 18-game conference schedules. Teams would play the 3 others in their pod twice, and everyone else once. I could see a rule allowing 2 games against NCAA teams. These games would be like current FBS-FCS football games – the teams in the lesser NCAA would never get a home game against a power school, but a very nice paycheck for going on the road and taking a beating. The conference tournaments may invite only the top 12 in the standings, as many do now. The postseason national tournament is probably 32 teams over 3 weekends, with the first weekend only being 1 round.
What about the NCAA? Well, with the power conferences gone, there would be little incentive for the 65 remaining FBS teams to keep a separate class from the FCS programs. It would be advisable for those groups to merge into a single Division I group. They would have their 20 or so bowl games and could continue on as they currently do. Basketball could certainly continue and do well, as there would be 287 Division I programs remaining, more than enough to keep both the NCAA and NIT going onward. The American Athletic and Big East would be dominant in the early going.
It’s fun to speculate. We’ll see how it all shakes out once the lawsuit is settled.