The conference realignment pot has started simmering again in the past few weeks, and it's time to issue some reality checks on things.
FSU and Clemson have been rumored to be possible expansion targets for the Big 12. Well, reality check: some officials at Texas and Texas Tech have heard nothing of the sort, according to Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman. Texas AD DeLoss Dodds thinks there's nothing to it either. Furthermore, FSU athletic director Randy Spetman issued a fairly strong denial, saying that he and his colleagues at the school are committed to the ACC.
So we can close the book on that train of thought, right? Well, here's another reality check: denials have never meant anything in conference realignment over the past couple of years. We know the Big 12 is going to look at possibly adding schools, and it's likely that anything that has happened on that front already is very much on the preliminary side of the spectrum. Officials at individual schools might not have been briefed yet. Plus, athletic directors don't have that much say in conference alignment. One of the reasons Texas A&M dumped Bill Byrne, after all, was him not being 100% on board with the move to the SEC from Day 1. Saying "we're committed to our conference" is a classic hedge line anyway as that commitment could be reevaluated tomorrow without making today's statement false.
The real reality is that the rumors about ACC teams leaving for the Big 12 have kernels of truth behind them, those being the potential resulting windfall for the schools and the known discontent that FSU and especially Clemson have for their conference leadership. Because of those kernels, the rumors probably won't ever go completely away until something happens to destabilize one conference or the other.
That said, the rumors have not been substantiated by any reliable sources. They've bubbled up from message boards to blogs to media members speculating on them to boilerplate denials. Missing in that chain is a firm report from a respected journalist saying that there's fire causing all the smoke. Until then, these rumors should be considered nothing more than rumors.
For a good contrast, consider today's reports on Boise State possibly reconsidering its move to the Big East.
The report comes from CBS's Brett McMurphy, who has been the first to report just about any news on Big East realignment matters since 2010. It includes documented facts regarding Boise's official exit statement to the Mountain West (which hasn't been submitted) and its signed agreement with the Big East (which includes a $5-10 million exit fee, depending on timing). The WAC, which is scheduled to take the Broncos' non-football sports, is having major trouble right now, and MW commissioner Craig Thompson has said he'd be willing to keep Boise State on as a full member. The report has real facts galore, which makes it reasonable to think that Boise might be considering going back on its pledge to the Big East.
Here's my reality check on that one: there's no reason why Boise State shouldn't give the Big East a try. Everyone knew last December when the Big East expanded that automatic qualifying status in the BCS was likely to be done away with beginning in 2014. Boise's move to the Big East was about getting more TV money than it could in the MW, plain and simple. Maybe the WAC finds a way to survive, or maybe the Big West will take BSU's non-football sports in the way it did for San Diego State. If the Broncos' Olympic sports teams can find any kind of home at all, the football program should go ahead with the Big East move.
Even in its reduced state, the Big East is still a more valuable television property than the MW is. McMurphy's report cites conflicting opinions on whether the league will get the same as or less than the $1.4 billion over nine years ($8.4 million per year to football-only schools like Boise) that it turned down last year from ESPN, but I think it has a shot at ending up somewhere in that neighborhood. Comcast is looking to greatly expand its NBC Sports offerings, and as we saw with ESPN and Fox uncharacteristically teaming up on the Pac-12 deal, the established players don't want the cable guys to have a strong foothold.
Competition among networks will drive the price for TV rights up—just ask Larry Scott. Even if the new Big East deal comes out to $5 million annually for Boise State, that's still almost four times as much as the current MW deal. The Big East will also get better distribution deals in its next contract than the MW will, giving more exposure to the Broncos in addition to more money. And, after all, the MW will still be there to welcome Boise back if the Big East blows up due to losing Louisville and UConn.
Here's the other big reality check: the conference system we have now will not last forever. The moves over the past two years have reduced the number of football power conferences from six to five. Over the next decade, it wouldn't surprise me to see the number shrink again from five to four.
Boise State will never be a Pac-12 expansion target because of academics. However, it might have a chance at being a Big 12 target a decade or more down the road if it keeps building its program and brand, it improves its facilities, and the state of Idaho continues to be one of the top ten fastest growing states by population. Boise State can only control those first two factors, and being in the Big East helps both. The Big East will give the school better exposure and more money thanks to a better television contract.
The greater risk to Boise State is not going to the Big East. Someday, the power schools of I-A will break off into another top division. If it were to happen next year (and it won't), Boise State would be left behind for sure. If it happens 10-20 years down the line, BSU has a better shot of not being left behind if it joins the Big East than if it doesn't. It's as simple as that.
The SEC, Pac-12, and Big Ten obviously will be three of the major powers indefinitely. The Big 12 will be another as long as Texas and Oklahoma want to make it work, and Texas sure will if the Longhorn Network ever takes off. As long as the Big 12 is in one piece, the ACC will never be one of the top four football leagues because most of its members and leadership simply won't commit to football in the same way that the other four power leagues do.
Put all of this together, and a strong Big 12 is the potential future lifeboat for Boise State and any serious football schools in the ACC. Maybe the SEC might take a couple of ACC schools in the event of true chaos breaking out, but the conference prefers to move slowly. It's not going to want to take on more schools right after bringing in Texas A&M and Missouri, and it's debatable how much value any ACC programs could bring. Last year's expansion was a unique opportunity to get into Texas, and only California (not Virginia, North Carolina, or DC) could offer similar value to the league. And no, I don't think the SEC will ever expand into California as long as the SEC is something we would recognize today.
Whether anything will go down this summer, I don't know. The power leagues will be getting a nice, big cash infusion from the upcoming playoff, and that might be enough to keep them satisfied with where they're at for a while. It won't keep them satisfied forever any more than the cash bonus from the BCS did though. The door to money driving college athletics was opened in 1984, and it's not going to be shut again as long as college athletics is structured the way it is today.
Schools jumping from one conference to another has been the rule, not the exception, over the last 100 years. There's no reason to think what we have today will prove any more stable than the configurations of the past.