NCAA Musical Chairs

Following Thursday’s report that USC and UCLA are departing for the Big Ten, speculation abounds. Could other teams be joining the Southern California schools in a move? Is the Pac-12 going to survive this ordeal? Does anyone care about geography anymore?

Let’s start with the last question: no. And that shouldn’t be a surprising answer if you think about it for a moment. Historically, college sports have always operated under geographical constraints. After all, these are students of the university – they need to be able to get back to campus and complete their schoolwork and yada yada. With NIL becoming a large part of revenue sports on college campuses, however, the concept of amateurism is pretty much dead. Instead, schools seem increasingly willing to schedule their football and basketball programs like professional teams. We don’t complain about the geography with the NBA or NFL, and it seems like the only reason we do complain about it in college sports is because of tradition. But this is a new era.

Now, the other two questions, which are much harder to answer. The easy answer to both is yes. The Big Ten doesn’t strike me as an entity that will be satisfied with securing USC and UCLA only, nor do the schools strike me as institutions that will so willingly create travel issues for themselves for the sake of prestige they already believe themselves to possess. By the same token, the Pac-12 will probably live on in some form. We thought the Big 12 might be done for after Texas and Oklahoma announced their move to the SEC, and yet they recovered by poaching four teams, primarily from the American.

The big question is what happens now. The ACC surely cannot watch time pass them by as the other conferences devour the landscape, for example. I’ve developed a few scenarios as snap reactions to the news that I think are viable solutions. The likelihood of most of these things happening is probably low, but then again the likelihood of USC and UCLA leaving for the Big Ten seemed low until today.

Scenario 1: Two 18-Teamers

As many people have brought up in the hour or so immediately following Thursday’s news, it seems like a good time for Washington and Oregon to hitch a ride to the Big Ten along with the California schools. This would give the conference 18 teams, with 4 on the west coast who could ostensibly play one another in football every season to cut down on travel logistics. If that happens, you’d have to assume the SEC would respond in kind. With Texas and Oklahoma in the fold, they have 16 teams, but I doubt they’d be willing to stand by and watch someone else dare to go bigger. You’d have to think Clemson and Miami would be their first choices if they were to expand to 18 teams with no constraints.

That’d leave the ACC with 12 teams and the Pac-12 with 8. Unless a school like Memphis or SMU wanted to jump ship to the ACC, I think they’d have to stick at 12. That is, unless they could convince Notre Dame to finally join up for football also, in which case I’d guess that Memphis would be the best bet to round off to 14. As far as the Pac-12, in order to survive I think they’d have to dissolve their long-standing rule on research institutions and let Boise State in, probably along with San Diego State. That gets them back to 10 teams, but getting to 12 seems like a difficult proposition. Colorado State, San Jose State, and Fresno State are all potential options, but each come with their respective challenges to admission as well. The UC schools (Cal and UCLA) have also historically been vehemently against adding state schools like SDSU, San Jose, or Fresno to keep their air of prestige about them, but Cal may lose the negotiating war without UCLA there to back them up. The conference could also potentially try to poach BYU from the Big 12, where they’re currently slated to move, but schools like Stanford have historically been against adding religious institutions.

Scenario 2: Mega-Conferences

Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic reported Thursday that some people believe the USC and UCLA move will lead to two mega-conferences with 20 or more members. So, let’s keep our 18-teamers from the first scenario and think about who else the SEC and Big Ten could add to get to at least 20.

High revenue schools. Big markets. Football and basketball prominence a plus. I’m thinking Florida State and North Carolina for the SEC. For the Big Ten, if they want to continue poaching the Pac-12 schools, maybe they go for Stanford and…one of Utah or Arizona State, I guess. Let’s say Utah for now because I’m not sure how receptive the Arizona schools would be towards splitting up. For the sake of the exercise, let’s go to 24 each. The SEC could also add Duke, Pitt, Syracuse, and Baylor to get there, while also shoring up the basketball side of things. On the Big Ten side, I’d imagine Notre Dame could be interested if things got this big. Let’s add them, Kansas, Arizona State, and Oklahoma State. So now, without our additions from scenario 1, we have 5 Pac-12 schools, 7 ACC schools, and 9 Big 12 schools left (counting the future members). At that point, I think the most prudent thing to do would be to combine the three conferences to create the third mega-conference with 21 teams. Invite Memphis, Boise State, and San Diego State from earlier and you have 24.

You’d then have this:

SECBig TenZombie Conference
AlabamaArizona StateArizona
ArkansasIllinoisBoise State
AuburnIndianaBoston College
Florida StateMichigan StateGeorgia Tech
KentuckyNebraskaIowa State
LSUNorthwesternKansas State
MiamiNotre DameLouisville
MississippiOhio StateMemphis
Mississippi StateOklahoma StateNorth Carolina State
MissouriOregonOregon State
North CarolinaPenn StateSan Diego State
PittRutgersTexas Tech
South CarolinaStanfordUCF
TennesseeUSCVirginia Tech
TexasUtahWake Forest
Texas A&MWashingtonWashington State
VanderbiltWisconsinWest Virginia

Scenario 3: Not Much!

Maybe this ends up like Texas and Oklahoma leaving for the SEC, and we think this is the end of the Pac-12 but it turns out they just add a few teams and maybe drop a tier in prestige. If that’s the case, expect it to be 2 of the 3 of Boise State, Colorado State, and San Diego State. That would leave the Mountain West at 10 teams (including Hawaii, who’s only there for football) while bringing the Pac-12 back to 12. At that point, maybe the Mountain West hits up North Dakota State to ask if they’re ready to make the FBS jump yet.

No matter what happens, it’s clear that the college sports landscape is going to continue to change as schools and conferences chase the money. For example, the Big Ten now has a team representing 5 of the 7 biggest markets in the US if you count Penn State for Philadelphia. Yeah, it’s going to be weird. But it was weird when they realigned the NFL divisions in 2002 also. You get used to it.

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