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Conference Realignment: The Barriers to the Beginning of the Mega-Conference Era

Not going anywhere. Not yet.
Not going anywhere. Not yet.

If you've read anything on the web about college football in, say, the past 72 hours, you've almost certainly come across a slate of news articles, blog posts and columns about how the SEC-Big 12 bowl game announced last week will lead to THE INEVITABLE ONSET OF THE MEGACONFERENCE ERA MIKE SLIVE IS HOLDING THE PRESS CONFERENCE TOMORROW TO ANNOUNCE VIRGINIA TECH AND THE UNIVERSITY OF TOKYO ARE JOINING THE SEC.

The impetus for that talk, of course, is that this looks very much like laying the groundwork for two semifinals (the Rose Bowl and the Champions Bowl) that leads to a national championship game. And while I think -- somewhat sadly -- that a group of four 16-teams megaconferences are the future of college football, I think we're still a ways away from that.

The reason I think it's further off is that there are several things that have to happen before the Mega-Conference Era actually begins. And I don't know that any of these things are going to suddenly occur tomorrow. In fact, my guess is that we're at least five years away and probably more like a decade out from the last realignment wave sweeping college football in quite some time. Why?

The Big Ten's great white whale is content to let this play out for a few years. Don't kid yourself -- Notre Dame will be accounted for in the 2014 college football playoff. Sure, Jim Delany wants to keep the Irish out so that they'll be persuaded to join the Big Ten and other conferences will have objections based on Notre Dame's schedule -- but all it takes to paper over those concerns are a couple hundred million dollars.

The reason that Notre Dame will be okay has nothing to do with what the conferences want and everything to do with what television wants. Sure, you and I and almost every non-Notre Dame fan knows that the Irish haven't been nationally relevant in something like 20 years. But there's a reason the Irish are able to command their own television deal and a wildly disproportionate share of media attention -- they still have a massive and loyal fan base that few other universities can match.

The more telling date for Notre Dame's independence won't be 2014 but a year later -- when the television contract with NBC runs out. If Brian Kelly continues to turn the Irish into something resembling a contender and the team can start drawing over 4 million viewers again, there's no reason for Notre Dame to consider running to a conference.

However, if things go south and Michigan starts mulling pulling out of its handshake agreement with Notre Dame to play their annual series, things could change. None of that's happened yet, though, and there's no way the Big Ten goes to 16 without Notre Dame.

The ACC isn't dead -- yet. Despite all of the discussion about Florida State and Clemson bolting to the Big 12ish, that hasn't happened as of this writing. Until it does, there's no incentive for the SEC or the Big Ten to go to 16, much less the Big 12ish.

Look around. Exactly which teams that aren't part of the ACC do you see joining the SEC in the next few years? Take your time.

The fact of the matter is that there are few teams that would make valuable additions to the SEC. And Florida State and Miami don't really fit the bill -- not if Mike Slive's moves in the 2011 round of conference realignment are any indication. Because his moves were all about adding to the footprint for a future SEC Network -- and that means adding states, not national powerhouses that might add more viewers. To see why, all you have to do is look at the deal the Big Ten Network has with cable providers.

Cable subscribers inside the eight Big Ten states receive the network on either an expanded basic or digital basic level of service. Outside the eight states, excluding St. Louis, Omaha and Louisville, cable operators who carry the network make it available on a variety of packages. [Emphasis added]

Advertising dollars are no doubt important for a conference network -- but subscriber dollars are also a pretty significant source of income. If the SEC can get a similar deal with the cable operators, then every expanded basic or digital basic subscriber in Texas, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi and Arkansas will essentially be paying for a subscription to the SEC Network.

That's a lot of people -- and they don't count twice if there are two SEC teams in their state. Which is why Slive has been more interested in adding teams in different states than simply the most attractive teams in existing SEC states. (It's also why Missouri, which instantly became the fifth-largest state in the conference footprint, made more sense than West Virginia, which would have been the smallest.)

So the teams that make the most sense now for the SEC are in North Carolina and Virginia. And the teams that make the most sense in those states are UNC or N.C. State and Virginia Tech. But all three of those teams bring different complications with them. While N.C. State might be willing to bolt the other Tobacco Road schools, that's no sure thing, and it's laughable to think that UNC would even consider it. And UVA and Virginia Tech are closely tied together by state politics.

The only thing that might change those dynamics is an implosion of the ACC, which gives UNC and N.C. State no other options except to look at other conferences and could allow UVA and Virginia Tech to negotiate a separation with Virginia politicians, sending UVA to the B1G and Virginia Tech to the SEC based on their academic and athletic profiles.

At that point, the SEC takes Virginia Tech and N.C. State, UVA and UNC become teams No. 13 and 14 for the B1G and the jockeying begins for who becomes No. 16 whenever the great white whale of Notre Dame is finally brought in. Look for UConn, Syracuse, Maryland, Rutgers and Duke to all try to get in that conversation.

Of course, this would all be triggered by FSU and Clemson bolting for the Big 12ish, which then needs two four more teams. My guess would be that Louisville and Miami (FL) would be the top candidates for going to 16 14 there. It would then be easy enough to get to 16 with other ACC and Big East refugees, which is kind of what I was thinking but didn't write because I didn't do the math. Remember that I'm a journalist, and thanks to Gil_4 for pointing out the error. But that leaves us with one last obstacle.

Where does the Pac-12 go to become the Pac-16? You'll hear a lot about how the conference realignment saga has shredded any notion of geographically coherent conferences, but that's not quite right. Only two AQ conferences have added members in non-contiguous states -- the Big 12ish and the Big East -- and in both cases, the leagues were in survival mode when they did so.

But if the Big 12ish is going to remain stable, then there are some major problems for Pac-12 expansion in the near term. The conference can't go west for rather obvious reasons, the most intimidating being the Pacific Ocean; going north poses problems because Canadians put too many players on the field during football games.

The far term, though, offers a potential solution for the Pac-12: Demographics. Just take a look at the fastest-growing states in percentage terms from 2000-2010: No. 1 Nevada, No. 3 Utah and No. 4 Idaho. Colorado's at No. 9. Colorado and Utah don't have the population to support having two Pac-12 teams right now, and Nevada and Idaho might not have the population to support one. (Nevada's very close to Utah, but the University of Utah allowed the then-Pac-11 to hold a championship game.)

Given another five or ten years of that kind of growth rate, things start to open up a bit. If Boise State continues its progress as an elite program, the viewers might be there to add the Broncos. A continuing population boom in Colorado might make Air Force or Colorado State worth a call. And maybe BYU would be more willing to talk about changing some of its scheduling ideas if independence doesn't pan out. If Nevada does well in the Mountain West -- who knows?

But that's still several years off, as are the possible disintegration of the ACC and the events that would cause Notre Dame to rethink its independence. Those things will likely still happen at some point, and they will bring on the sprawling, 16-team leagues that some of us look forward to and some of us dread. But if someone were to offer me a bet with 2014 as the over-under date, and I bet on sports (or anything), I would take the over. There's no way to get rid of all these obstacles that quickly.