The Rules of the Road: Conference Expansion and Why the SEC Shouldn't Do Anything (Yet)

Editor's Note: Year2 has done a great job in several posts you can find here of laying out many of the pros and cons of the conference expansion debate. So more than a general post outlining a few big-picture thoughts seemed excessive.

While I was following maverick governors and cost-cutting senators, the conference expansion discussion took off. The main reason for this is that -- well, none of us really have anything better to write about. It's still a little bit early for previews (our's start next week) and it's too late to do any more season reviews (we'll fix that as well), so the meta-posts are taking control. There are a few things that your humble correspondent thinks you and the conference commissioners (because they're so eager to here my thoughts) should keep in mind.

SIXTEEN IS WAY TOO MUCH

We're all familiar with the WAC, right? Were you aware that the WAC had sixteen teams for three years? Tulsa was part of the WAC then. So was TCU. And Rice. And Southern Methodist. And Utah. Air Force, UNLV, Colorado State, UTEP, BYU, San Diego State. It was a sprawling mess.

To make sure the whole thing "worked," the conference came up with a brilliant idea: It would have no fixed divisions. Four teams would anchor one division and another four teams would anchor the other. Then, a third group of four teams would periodically switch places with yet a fourth group of four teams to realign the divisions. It was like relegation, only without any internal logic. Or any logic at all, really.

"BYU today will play division rival Fresno State tonight. Wait a minute. I've just been informed that BYU was Fresno's division rival last year, but not this year. Sorry about that."

Not surprisingly, the thing fell apart after three years.

The problem with two fixed divisions of eight schools from the fans' perspective, of course, is that you don't see the teams from the other division often enough. If you have an eight-game conference schedule (the norm), then you have seven games against the other teams in your division and one game against a team from the other division. If you don't play all your division opponents, the entire advantage of a superconference (that it allows more teams to join a league and till determine a definitive champion every year) is lost.

So let's say the Big XII loses Colorado to the Pac-10 and Missouri and Nebraska to the Big Ten. (Why not?) The Big XII implodes, with Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State joining the SEC. So let's create our divisions using logic and geography.

EAST WEST
Alabama Arkansas
Auburn LSU
Florida Mississippi
Georgia Mississippi State
Kentucky Oklahoma
South Carolina Oklahoma State
Tennessee Texas
Vanderbilt Texas A&M

In some ways that works nicely -- we keep the Alabama-Tennesee, Alabama-Auburn, Auburn-Georgia, Georgia-Florida, Florida-Tennessee and Oklahoma-Texas rivalries together, as well as other grudge matches like the Egg Bowl, South Carolina-Georgia, Tennessee-Vanderbilt, Tennessee-Kentucky, etc.

But you get to see Alabama-Oklahoma once every eight years. Florida-Texas once every eight years. Alabama-LSU once every eight years. With the exception of the Iron Bowl, every one of Alabama and Auburn's Western Division rivalries are gone. North and South doesn't fix things.

NORTH SOUTH
Arkansas Alabama
Georgia Auburn
Kentucky Florida
Oklahoma LSU
Oklahoma State Mississippi
South Carolina Mississippi State
Tennessee Texas
Vanderbilt Texas A&M

Ugh. Florida-Georgia is gone. Alabama-Tennessee is gone. Oklahoma-Texas is a once-every-eight years deal. Or you have a nine-game conference slate -- which is fine -- and you see one team every year and and another team that you play once every seven years. So, Georgia fan, do you give up the Auburn game or the Florida game?

The only alternative to either of those set-ups -- or the not really relegation idea, which I am assuming we've all agreed isn't on the table because most of the people who read this blog are sane individuals -- is to do what the ACC did: Create divisions that are solely an attempt to keep tradition and profit at the same time, thus creating a hash where no one remembers which division they're in or who else is in it. Eight team divisions won't work. (If you really want to cause havoc, remove Oklahoma State from the list and add Clemson, which might make some people happy but would make working divisions with any logic even harder to construct in the East-West scenario and would change nothing in the North-South blueprint.)

FOURTEEN MIGHT WORK

I still think 12 is the ideal number. But if the SEC has to expand -- and I don't think it does, but more on that later -- two teams should be the maximum. One team, or a two-for-one swap of some sort (with Arkansas taking leave of its senses and heading to the Big XII), will set up a situation like they have in the MAC, where only division games count one year and then not the next or some such nonsense.

So it's stay at twelve or go to fourteen. Texas is obviously the only prize worth considering, and if you're taking Texas you have to take Texas A&M. Here, we can make divisions that sort of make sense and we have the advantage of only needing six division games, which gives us some room to go with two interdivision games or three and go back to three nonconference games.

EAST WEST
Alabama Arkansas
Auburn LSU
Florida Mississippi
Georgia Mississippi State
Kentucky Texas
South Carolina Texas A&M
Tennessee Vanderbilt

It's not great, but it's workable. Alabama's Western Division rival is Texas. Auburn's is LSU. Florida's is Mississippi State (just because it would be fun to watch Florida have to play in Starkville every other year). Georgia's is Texas A&M (not everyone can be a winner). Kentucky gets Mississippi. South Carolina and Arkansas remain paired. Tennessee and Vanderbilt play each year. Again, workable. And if we go to nine conference games, Alabama would play Texas every third year, Florida would meet LSU every third year, etc. We're not completely destroying the appeal of the conference.

But ... what if Texas and Texas A&M don't go along. The best options are West Virginia and Clemson. That actually might work a little better, but we lose one mid-tier rivalry.

EAST WEST
Clemson Alabama
Florida Arkansas
Georgia Auburn
Kentucky LSU
South Carolina Mississippi
Tennessee Mississippi State
West Virginia Vanderbilt

Clemson's Western Division rival is Vanderbilt. Florida's is LSU. Georgia's is Auburn. Kentucky's is Mississippi State. South Carolina's is Arkansas. Tennessee's is Alabama. West Virginia is Mississippi. There's no way Tennessee can play Alabama and Vanderbilt. You could switch Kentucky and Vanderbilt, I suppose, and make Kentucky and Clemson rivals, but it really doesn't change the fact that Tennessee has to give up one of its mid-tier rivalries to continue playing Alabama.

But does that really strengthen the conference? Maybe a little competitively, but not at all economically. It gives the SEC one state it already has (South Carolina) and another that's too small to really make a difference (West Virginia). If you can't get Texas and Texas A&M, why would you go with this plan?

KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES IS A BAD RATIONALE FOR EXPANSION

First of all, the SEC would be following the lead of the Big Ten. That alone should be enough to give anyone pause. But wait, there's more.

A few things are going to happen if and when the Big Ten embarks on its plan. First of all, there are going to be lawsuits. Lots and lots of lawsuits. If the Big Ten takes Missouri, the Big XII is going to sue the Big Ten and Missouri. If they also take Rutgers, Cincinnati, West Virginia and/or Pittsburgh, there will be lawsuits flying between all of those parties. Notre Dame might be able to join the Big Ten without going to the courthouse. None of these lawsuits will be successful, mind you. But the Big XII or the Big East would be fighting for their survival at this point, and so they would have no choice but to sue as a final attempt to stay alive.

If the Big East loses more than one member, it's done as an AQ league. Losing the right single member would also do the trick. The only way for the Big XII to survive if it loses, say, two or three members would be to join with the Pac-10 in destroying the Mountain West and maybe the WAC.

Folks, this is going to get ugly.

And into this land mine walks the SEC. Why, exactly? The conference already has one of the richest TV deals in sports history, unparalleled fan loyalty and a brand name that practically guarantees an undefeated or one-loss champion a spot in the national title game. And we're worried about the Big Ten picking off a few Big East or mid-tier Big XII teams and maybe Notre Dame in an experiment that will either (1) add a few more teams with minor fan appeal; or (2) add five more teams and fall apart within five years?

Don't get me wrong: Clemson, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M and West Virginia would all fit in the SEC if the conference needed to expand. But why does it need to expand? Sure, if the Big XII or the Big East were to spin apart and there was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grab West Virginia and Clemson indicated they might be interested, or if the Big XII started to dissolve and the two Texas schools were looking for a life raft in short order, it might be worth it.

But adding conference members just because another league is doing so, with no other geographical, economic or competitive reason for the move is ridiculous. And it's not how the SEC came to be the premier conference in the land.

ARKANSAS ISN'T GOING ANYWHERE

We covered this in Sprints, but the dollars don't add up and the tradition has been dead for 18 years now. It ain't happening.

IN THE END, THIS IS ABOUT NOTRE DAME

I still think that all the rumors are a veiled threat to Notre Dame: Join the Big Ten now or you'll never get in. This is why the 14- and 16-team versions of the Big Ten are even being considered. If Notre Dame calls the Big Ten's bluff, then the conference almost has to expand or everyone will see things for what they really are. So Missouri or Pitt or Rutgers will be added, and we'll have a 12-team Big Ten. (Or maybe they'll actually decide to call themselves the Big Eleven then.)

Then, in a few years, the Big Ten / Big Eleven / Big Numbers Are For Dumb Southerners will again approach Notre Dame about joining, this time with one of the teams that didn't get an invite before. Or as part of a four-team deal. Or whatever. But it's all about Notre Dame.

That's why the SEC and everyone else should stop thinking that they have to respond to this. It's a local Big Ten issue that happens to come at the right time for the Pac-10 to begin looking for new members. These are not two points that indicate a trend; they are two distinct and unique situations.

HOW IT TURNS OUT

So what happens in the end? Here is my guess.

Notre Dame calls the Big Ten's bluff. The money is still too good for Notre Dame to break its contract for NBC. If the Big Ten allows Notre Dame to keep its NBC contract and CBS still gets the first selection of Notre Dame basketball games (as it will under the NCAA contract), the whole exercise is pointless unless the Big Ten thinks a championship game is worth that much. So ...

The Big Ten adds Missouri or Pitt or Rutgers. If they don't care about appearances, they'll go with Rutgers; if they want to appeal to tradition, probably Missouri with Pitt as the fallback option. The Big Ten declares victory but says that there's no reason they'll stop at 12, beginning the hints to Notre Dame that negotiations can start at any time if the Irish want to join the league.

The Pac-10 still might expand. This is the wild card. If the Pac-10 gets Colorado, the Big XII will respond by trying to get BYU, Utah and/or TCU (one of those has likely joined the Pac-10 along with Colorado) to join. If the Pac-10 takes Utah, TCU and/or (least likely) BYU, the Big XII stands pat, In either case, the Mountain West tries to get Boise State and perhaps Nevada or Fresno State to join the MWC and keep itself in contention for AQ status. (This probably doesn't work out, but they have to keep eight members to be eligible, which means if they lose two they have to find another.) If the Pac-10 takes Boise State and one of the MWC teams (this is really a stretch), then the MWC might be able to get AQ status with or without a team like Nevada or Fresno State, but it's not easy. In any scenario, if the Pac-10 expands, either the MWC or the WAC is going to become a Western version of Conference USA. And it's possible that both of them do. If Missouri and Colorado are taken out of the Big XII, it probably means the MWC has already lost Utah or TCU to the Pac-10 and will now lose the other of those two schools and BYU to the Big XII. The Mountain West and the WAC have to consider merging, with some members possibly spun off on their own.

The Big East collapses. This might take a few years if only one of its members goes to the Big Ten or if Missouri gets the nod, but it's hard to see the football league surviving in its current state. With the fall of Louisville and the plateauing of Rutgers, there are only a few teams in the Big East that can legitimately think title if they are the third undefeated team -- West Virginia, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh -- and even then it depends on the other two teams in the conversation. The way the Big East was configured after its expansion in the 1980s and 1990s -- the latter to create a BCS-caliber football league -- and again in the 2000s made it more vulnerable to raids. It shares its footprint with three other AQ conferences. Which means that when the Big East loses its AQ status -- and I said when -- some schools are going to begin looking for the exit.

For now, the SEC and the Big XII stay the way they are. The Big XII has plenty of targets if it loses Colorado and/or Missouri. It would take something truly apocalyptic -- a loss of three or more teams -- for the Big XII to crumble. For the SEC, there's no reason to expand unless Texas, West Virginia or Clemson are on the market. Barring the Big Ten absorbing more than one team from the Big East -- in which case West Virginia might be one of those -- it will take a few years until the Big East ends. Best to spend that time figuring out who will join West Virginia than trying to get West Virginia to join and worrying about the other team later. Who knows -- maybe Notre Dame will be ready to join a conference by then. (I'm kidding.)

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