Late last week, Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman got Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby to go on record about his league's intentions to partner up with other conferences for the purposes of "scheduling, marketing, and possibly even television". Bowlsby said he's been talking with three other leagues, one being the ACC, as a way to get some of the benefits of expansion without actually adding new members.
Now comes the great mystery: who are the other two?
I think we can rule out any of the mid-majors. The gap between the haves and have-nots will never have been wider by the time the playoff rolls around. The Big East and MWC are neck-and-neck as far as the best of the rest goes, and their members will likely need more than five years to make from TV what schools in the ACC, the weakest of the power leagues, will make on average in one year of its new TV deal.
Bohls singles out the Pac-12 as likely being one of the two, and I completely agree. He euphemistically says that it "faces significant geographical obstacles to expansion". In plain English: there is no one left that meets its standards that makes any sense in the world.
Even the old Pac-16 targets from the Big 12 made no sense when you look at a map. The conference is long believed to want nothing to do with BYU on the rationale that its institutions don't want to partner with a religious school. The presidents voted against extending an offer to the two Oklahoma schools a couple years ago on academic grounds, which means Boise State is so far out of the picture as to be totally unseen. San Diego State? UNLV? Please. As long as the Big 12 is stable, and it will be for the next dozen years or so thanks to its grant of rights, there's nowhere for the Pac-12 to look to expand like the ACC, SEC, and Big Ten have done.
I think the SEC is likely to be the other one. Sure, the league poached a couple of Big 12 schools, but the conferences announced the Champions Bowl initiative less than a year after that all went down. They've obviously made up enough to do some business already. Plus, the SEC and ACC already have a good relationship for whatever that's worth. They did co-sponsor a playoff proposal back in 2008, after all.
I am assuming here (perhaps wrongly, we'll see) that any arrangement will involve relationships between all of the parties rather than this just being a series of contracts between the Big 12 and the others. That assumption is why I lean against putting the Big Ten up as one of the possibilities. The ACC has open litigation against future Big Ten member Maryland, and I have a hard time imagining those two conferences signing up for any kind of new partnership while that lawsuit is still pending.
It makes perfect sense for the Big 12. Its grant of rights keeps it stable for the duration of that contract, but let's face it, it's potentially vulnerable at a smaller size than the other conferences. There is strength in numbers. Obviously something like the ACC-Big Ten Challenge wasn't a big enough partnership to prevent poaching among them, but perhaps these more expansive deals will help promote détente among the conferences. Another big plus is that not expanding means the conference gets to split its postseason haul only 10 ways instead of 12 or 14 ways. It won't have any trouble placing multiple teams into the big bowls and playoffs with regularity, so that's an extra couple of million per year for its members.
Also, another less-attention grabbing factor is that the Big 12 is in the roughly same situation as the Pac-12. It doesn't have schools to go get that make sense geographically. It doesn't need any more members in Texas like Houston or SMU, and the ACC members it looked at according to rumors and reports don't make geographic sense either. It already went well outside its footprint to add West Virginia, and it had plenty of time to give it a geographic partner in Louisville before the ACC snapped up the Cardinals to replace Maryland. It might be able to consider BYU, given that it already has religious-affiliated schools in Baylor and TCU. However 11 is not a good number, and it passed on BYU for WVU and TCU last time around.
This story could end up being nothing. It also could be the first step into something big. I'm not referring to the black helicopter crowd's theory that this is just cover for the Big 12 to have open contact with ACC schools it wants to poach. Rather, it could end up being the first step towards the Big Five conferences breaking off into their own thing. After all, it doesn't make sense for four of the big leagues to be aligned without the fifth, so if I'm right, then the Big Ten should be able to sign on after the litigation over Maryland runs its course. Whether that new thing is a new subdivision within the NCAA's Division I or something outside of it, I don't know.
Put simply: if the five conferences end up formally partnering up on scheduling, marketing, and television stuff on top of their existing postseason deals with each other, why exactly do they need to share anything with any other conferences? You know, the ones whose members are so valuable that they make less in a year from TV than what the JerryWorld kickoff game pays to the individual participants. Each passing year makes it more farcical that Florida and Michigan are in the same football division as Florida Atlantic and Eastern Michigan. Something will eventually have to give, and this might turn out to be the start of it.