Leading up to the NFL Draft, you always have to be careful about any news you read or hear about different prospects. There are always teams try to leak things to the press to throw off other teams, possibly make a player fall, or the turn their fans against a coveted player that they can't trade up to get him.
That's what the state of conference realignment news feels like to me. Rumors about the Big 12 expanding at the ACC's expense simmered on the message board level for a while, but once the chair of FSU's board of trustees opened his mouth, suddenly everything seemed to become fair game. Ever since, I've seen a steady drip-drip-drip of information leaking out to all kinds of places.
I do not believe anything is a done deal. The picture of the present that rings most true was the one painted by the Tulsa World's Dave Sittler, who said last weekend that opinion on expansion is completely divided within the Big 12. Just because the Big 12 has emerged as more powerful than the ACC, it doesn't mean all of the dysfunction within the league has gone away. It just means that the Big 12 has a better lineup of football programs than the ACC does.
Texas PR condiut Orangebloods.com's Chip Brown did an information dump on his radio show based on a call he says he received this morning. It wasn't anything you haven't heard before or could have figured out on your own. Basically he says the Big 12 won't do anything until after the playoff details are set, though his source pegs Big 12 expansion at a 55-60% likelihood. He also said there hasn't been any formal contact between the Big 12 and any ACC schools, but "the football schools" of the ACC (which he named as FSU, Clemson, Virginia Tech, and Miami) are using "third party feelers" to see where they would stand with an expanding Big 12. [Update: add Georgia Tech to the list, as first reported by Ingram Smith on Sunday.] Finally, he thinks Texas is trying to pump the brakes on expansion until it knows where Notre Dame stands.
It all sounds reasonable enough, even the Notre Dame part given some of DeLoss Dodds' on-record statements in the past. I don't find it surprising that the source fed Brown information indicating that ACC schools are coming to the Big 12 and not the other way around. The Big 12 is not going to want a tampering lawsuit of some kind, and it's always best to avoid being seen as a conference raider. The only other point of interest was that Texas to the ACC had real legs last year, but the ACC turned down the Longhorns.
The next closest thing to a legit report came from ESPN's Chris Low on Paul Finebaum's radio show yesterday. He said he thinks conference realignment is not over and that the SEC has its eye on Virginia Tech. If the reports of an impending SEC Network are correct, then I think anything's possible there (though I don't think the SEC wants to expand again soon).
Here's where the reliability of the reports begins to break down. Take these only for what you think they're worth.
The Baylor 247sports affiliate is reporting that it has sources in South Carolina and Florida (how, I don't know) saying that FSU and Clemson will soon give official notice to the ACC that they will explore other conference affiliations. The expectation is that those schools would leave their current league and join the Big 12 for the 2013 season. It also thinks the Big 12 will look to go to 14 teams, with a list of candidates for the other two spots consisting of Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Louisville, and Pitt.
This report takes things a step beyond "third party feelers" and into the "going to happen soon" department. I really think it's jumping the gun, because again, opinion on expansion in the Big 12 is scattered. I can't imagine FSU and Clemson would tell the ACC they're going to look around without knowing that the Big 12 will take them, and right now, staying at 10 teams for a while is still a legit option for the Big 12.
Another scenario discussed by Brown and ChuckOliver.net's Ingram Smith is the Big 12.5 concept. The idea is that in the short term, FSU and Clemson will jump to the Big 12 and Notre Dame will move its non-football sports there as well. The Big 12 would be a more stable location than the Big East for Notre Dame's Olympic sports, the thinking goes, and the conference would be a possible landing spot for Irish football should it need one.
Notre Dame's football is locked in with NBC through the 2015 season, so its football team will be independent at least through then. The Big 12 would offer Notre Dame the chance to have its own network like what Texas has, though it should be noted that the structure of the playoff will probably determine the Irish's options more than anything else. Should Notre Dame football join up in 2016 or later, then the thinking goes that a school like Georgia Tech or Louisville would come on as school No. 14.
I think this line of thinking is really getting ahead of itself. Notre Dame prizes its independence even above maximizing its revenue, and starting a network is certainly no less viable to an independent program than a Big 12 member. Perhaps the Big 12 is more stable than the Big East, but the Big East has a lot of fellow Catholic institutions in it. Plus, there's no reason for Notre Dame to rush to leave the Big East. As basketball coach Mike Brey not-so-delicately put it, any conference would be glad to take the school if it had to start looking around.
I think there's a mixture of things going on here. One is that private parties are trying to posture publicly without actually putting their names on the information they choose to leak. It's the NFL Draft stuff, in other words. The other part I think is that people are looking at what they think is a logical sequence of future events and then talking like it's going to happen.
There's a big difference between saying the path is clear for something to happen and saying it's actually going to come to pass. Take Notre Dame as the perfect example: the path has been clear for Notre Dame to join any number of conferences forever, and yet here we are again speculating as to whether it will remain an independent.
There are a lot of paths that college football could take over the next few months and years, but none of them are guaranteed. There are no done deals until the ink is dry on the contracts, and even then it's not completely certain. How many Big East games did TCU play before joining the Big 12? The guessing games are certainly fun, but there are so many egos involved all over that all unofficial information should be taken with a skeptical eye and a mound of salt.