Yesterday's April Fools joke about the SEC and ACC trading schools (no offense intended, Kentucky and Vanderbilt) was pretty transparent, but hey, at least we didn't go all OMG Ponies!!! around here. You're welcome, America.
Anyway, it brings up the topic of conference realignment. From the demise of the SWC to the various permutations of the WAC to the ACC's raid on the Big East, conferences have been in a state of flux for the past twenty years.
For now though, it appears to me that things are pretty much stable. The Sun Belt will be absorbing teams as they come up to Div. I-A/ the FBS (WKU this season, South Alabama in the near future), but otherwise, I think we're set for now.
As the MAC has shown, going above 12 teams is not a great idea. The Big Ten almost certainly won't add anyone except Notre Dame, and that's not likely to happen soon. The Big East is stuck where it is because it can't take on more basketball teams. The Pac-10 won't be adding anyone soon because it doesn't believe any of the best sports schools out west are academically up to its standards.
That pretty much leaves the MWC and WAC as the only potentially combustible conferences, and I think a lot of people could imagine the former making a run at adding the latter's better schools like Boise State. Things are still cyclical though, and it wouldn't take much for the WAC to overtake the MWC in power with teams like Boise, Fresno State, and Hawaii taking the lead.
So if we're stuck in neutral in conventional terms, what could possibly shake things up?
One possibility is the Super Conference idea, alluded to by commenter ejruiz on yesterday's story and fleshed out by the Orlando Sentinel's Tim Stephens. The idea is that the current conference system gets blown up, the best teams join together in 16-team superconferences, and we essentially have FBS-A and FBS-AA divisions above the current FCS.
As you might gather from everything up to this point, I don't see that happening. The WAC tried having a 16 team conference and it turned out to be untenable. The Big East is making it work in basketball for now, but that expansion happened more out of necessity than choice.
I have a vague, general feeling that the escalating financial war in college football will eventually necessitate another divisional split like what happened in the '70s when we got I-A and I-AA. It's sort of like my belief that eventually TV will be entirely delivered via the internet over FTTH: it's happening eventually, I just have no idea when.
If/when such a scenario takes place, I think it would involve Notre Dame being forced into the Big Ten and the Pac-10 taking on two more schools (Utah, BYU, and Boise State are the likely candidates). The rest would be cordoned off into another, lower division. Six conferences of 12 teams apiece seems more plausible to me than 16-team conferences, but don't ask me to pick between those three Pac-10 candidates. Maybe the Big 12 can demote Baylor or Iowa State and pick up one of them.
The 12-team conference is the cornerstone of the other conference expansion possibility: an FBS with 10 uniform 12-team leagues. Inevitably several people a year make their guesses known (for example), and they all end up somewhat different.
These schemes are almost exclusively thought up for the purpose of greasing the skids to a playoff. Having all conferences have the same number of teams and the same method for deciding a champion makes a national playoff a lot easier after all.
I personally believe that a playoff is basically inevitable in the same sort of way I believe in the internet being the future of TV. I think it will happen via an evolutionary path like how we got from the old bowl system to the BCS. I don't think it's going to happen in one fell swoop in one of these conference realignment schemes (or by lawsuits or acts of Congress for that matter).
It may make logical sense to make the 10/12 scheme happen, but college football doesn't work by standard logic.
Outside of the standard Notre Dame-to-the-Big Ten and add-two-to-the-Pac-10 moves, you'd need full scale changes involving coordinated swapping of teams among the MAC, WAC, MWC, and CUSA (and maybe even the Sun Belt).
That's an awful lot to ask. You also have the problem of adding four teams to the Big East, which would then have 19 basketball teams (because Notre Dame is now in the Big Ten, remember). The fact that there are more sports than just football make pretty much all of these ideas explode in the hangar.
Whatever happens in the future, I'm pretty certain that the SEC is going to remain the same. When it expanded to 12 teams in 1991, it achieved a balance and a configuration that quite simply works.
Adding another power school is unlikely since the ACC seems pretty happy with itself and the Big East can't afford to lose any more football teams. I don't forsee any other schools within the conference's current footprint growing into SEC-level status (sorry, UCF).
Unless Baylor gets booted from the Big 12 and Arkansas replaces it, nothing is going to happen to the SEC's configuration. It's been stable (only the Pac-10's current lineup is older) and highly successful.