Just over a month ago, I wrote an article about college football’s conference realignment. It wasn’t a prediction and I didn’t expect this topic to be truly relevant for another couple of years. I thought that it was something that was barely visible on the horizon but today and for the past week, conference realignment has been the dominant topic in college football.
I wanted to take stock of what has happened over the past week and look forward again, to something that I now expect to happen and sooner than originally expected.
If you missed the original article, you can read it here… It may make some sense to read that before going on.
One of the main features of last month’s article, and mechanisms for a lot of the movement of teams around the conferences and the creation of larger conferences was the disbanding of the Big XII conference.
Last Friday (August 23rd), it came to light that Texas and Oklahoma had been talking to the SEC about joining the conference and talks had been going on for months. The two powerhouses of Big XII football seemingly had their heads turned by the potential revenue growth for all SEC member schools over Big XII schools, given the 10-year, $3bn dollar TV deal that ESPN struck with the SEC in December 2020. Coupled this with ESPN and Fox declined the Big XII’s request to extend their existing contract early in May of this year.
For clarity, the Big XII’s current TV deal was signed in September 2012, which was for $2.6bn over 13-years and paid each member around £20m per year and expires in 2025.
The leak came from Texas A&M, the school who I originally thought would be the biggest stumbling block in UT and OU’s plan to bolt to the SEC.
When A&M leaked the news that Texas and Oklahoma had been planning to jump ship, probably in the hope of stopping the action dead then and there, the Big XII hastily organised a conference call for all members – Which led to the tell tale sign that something was amiss – Texas and Oklahoma declined to attend.
Texas A&M were the stumbling block and that was the case until yesterday, when A&M announced they would approve the move and accept Texas and Oklahoma into the conference – You can fill in your own reasons for why those particular wheels were greased in such short order.
This time last week I was dismissive of the idea that this may happen – I put it down to these two schools making a threat in order to force the hand of the television companies into renegotiating with the Big XII. Little did we know there was, and has been, dealings and calls going on in the shadows going on for a while.
Now however, the deal is pretty much done.
This storyline has been moving at a pace and there has been a little mud-slinging too for good measure, in the form of a cease and desist order being sent from Big XII commissioner, Bill Bowlsby to ESPN, which was promptly responded to by ESPN, with the TV giant saying these was “nothing to cease and desist”.
Bowlsby has also voiced concern that the American Athletic Conference is eying up the remaining eight members.
It really feels like the Big XII and Bowlsby are fighting for the life of the conference and the vultures are circling.
The situation is desperate for the Big XII. One Big XII Athletic Director was quoted on Wednesday saying,
“The Big XII exists because we have Texas and Oklahoma in the room. If we take Texas and Oklahoma out of the room we’re the Mountain West Conference and we’re getting $3m [per year in TV revenue”.
Ok but surely Texas and Oklahoma are going to have to compensate the rest of the conference for their departure? And that could put them off, right?
Texas and Oklahoma would have to pay $70m each but as my colleague, Andy Moore said on our Big XII preview podcast, which came out earlier today, the revenue that would be owed to Texas from ESPN would cover the buyout for both teams quickly. The schools would also have the option of going cap-in-hand to their boosters and again, the money would be raised very quickly, as the two schools would make their money back very quickly from playing in the SEC.
So all in all, the remaining eight members would get to split the $140m paid back to the Big XII, meaning that they would get $17.5m each, which immediately already creates a $2.5m shortfall for those teams compared to what they receive for TV revenue as part of the Big XII each season, and then they still have to find a conference which will take them in. More of that in a moment though…
To conclude the week’s activities, Texas and Oklahoma officially requested to join the SEC and on Thursday evening, SEC presidents and chancellors unanimously voted to extend membership invitations for the two breakaway schools to join effective July 1 2025, in time for the 2025/26 academic year.
What’s more, is that given the state of the conference and the alarm bell which must be ringing around the other eight Big XII members’ minds, will the conference last that long?
Earlier in the week, the remaining eight banded together, saying that they wanted to stand firm and hold the house together, despite the walls around them looking a little less stable than they did a couple of weeks ago.
In these situations it is almost always the case that it just takes one member to blink first and go elsewhere and the strain becomes too much for the rest and those walls come crashing down.
The bad news for the Big XII is that the majority of the conference’s remaining members would fit in and be attractive additions for other conferences, so it feels to me at this point that it’s just a matter of time before this particular pie divided up and we move to an era of college football with larger conferences and perhaps only four Power conferences.
So what could be next?
There are two possible outcomes in my mind at this present time; firstly, Bill Bowslby’s fears come to light and all eight remaining members of the Big XII join the American Athletic Conference. This would give the AAC 17 members and they would have to either find an 18th member or find a way to exclude a current member or one of the Big XII newcomers.
A couple of methods come to do this, the first one being that given Navy is only an associate member and only plays football in the conference, they could be excluded or the most obvious outlier amongst the Big XII is West Virginia, who lay in the catchment area of the Big Ten or the ACC. The ACC would be the easiest fit, given that the Big Ten likes its members to also be members of the AAU (Association of American Universities), which in short ensures that the Big Ten’s schools have high academic standards.
However, the other outcome could be that the Big Ten and Pac-12 take on the majority of the eight teams, with the ACC and American picking up one each.
This way, the conferences become equal sized and instead of bloating one, lesser, conference, the rest of the Power conferences become 16 team leagues to match the SEC’s new number.
The way I see this potentially happening, and again, it’s not perfect just as the article last month wasn’t perfect, would firstly be for the two AAU members amongst the eight Big XII members, Iowa State and Kansas join the Big Ten.
These two meet the academic requirements, they give the Big Ten a foothold in the Kansas market and offer something (although different things) from a sporting sense too.
Iowa State could challenge at the top of the conference immediately and Kansas would be valuable from a basketball prospective, given their history in college hoops.
This also brings the Kansas-Nebraska “Border Rivalry” in conference which is a game that hasn’t been played since 2010, and the same goes for the Cy-Hawk rivalry in Iowa, that also becomes an in conference game too.
Next up, the Pac-12.
New Commissioner George Kliavkoff has been coy on the prospect of adding teams to the Pac-12 stating,
“We believe the move by Texas and Oklahoma from the Big XII to the SEC strengthens our unique position as the only Power Five conference with teams in the Mountain and Pacific time zones.”
How long he will continue to hold this viewpoint is questionable, and Kliavkoff did leave the door ajar with the following,
“…We’ve already had significant inbound interest from other schools. We will work with our chancellors and presidents to evaluate these opportunities.”
To me, it’s quite simple, in a world where the more powerful conferences are getting bigger and stronger, and with the potential for the American Athletic Conference to get bigger in the rearview mirror, it’s a case of eat or be eaten for the Pac-12, regardless of their dominance of the western time zones.
Not only does the Pac-12 get less eyeballs on TV screens in the Eastern parts of the US because of the time difference, the likelihood of bigger teams in bigger more powerful conferences getting more of a grip in recruiting prospects from hotbed states like California.
In 2021, 9 of the top 50 recruits in California opted to attend schools outside of the West of the US, in 2020 that number was 13 which included Bryce Young (#1 prospect in California) DJ Uiagalelei (#2) and CJ Stroud (#4) and in 2019 there were 12 players who went elsewhere.
I feel that despite the Pac-12’s views on religious schools and their academic standards, I do think something has to give here for the Pac-12 to thrive, so extending invites to Texas Tech, Baylor and Oklahoma State would be wise.
This means these three schools would bring their prestigious basketball programmes to the conference and the benefits are two-fold in a sporting sense and it also extends the Pac-12’s reach into Texas and Oklahoma.
The choice would be then to either extend this invite to TCU or to Kansas State… TCU strengthens the conference’s real estate portfolio in Texas further and they already have a history in the Mountain West conference too.
Over to the ACC and the simple thing would be to add West Virginia, as mentioned earlier and try to reach out to Notre Dame to join as a full member for football. This is the part I’m least confident about because Notre Dame does seem to love being independent and they have their traditional rivalry games with USC, Stanford and Navy, which would be their out of conference schedule every year, and where does that leave the games with Michigan and Michigan State?
We have seen rivalries fall by the wayside in the past so there is precedent for this sort of thing but it would need to be a big offer from the ACC to make this happen.
That would leave the American Athletic Conference to pick up Kansas State and boost their membership number to 12. The American would have options to add a couple of further teams, and continue their quest to step into the space left by the disbanded Big XII and become a Power 5 conference in essence.
Could they tempt one or two of the top Sun Belt teams to join? Or dip into the independent teams and invite Liberty to join the conference? Or even, go into the FCS market and tempt James Madison or even North Dakota State?
These moves would boost the conference’s numbers but perhaps not its quality – which would be an issue but if the American didn’t move, the chasm between the now Power 4 and the rest would grow again, and how long would it be before the likes of UCF, USF or Houston become disgruntled?
This would leave the conferences looking something like this:
|Missouri||Penn State||Arizona||Wake Forest||Navy|
|Kentucky||Maryland||Arizona State||Florida State||East Carolina|
|South Carolina||Michigan State||Baylor*||NC State|
|LSU^||Purdue^||Oklahoma State*||Notre Dame*|
|Texas A&M||Iowa||Oregon State||Virginia||Tulsa|
|Ole Miss||Wisconsin||Washington State||Pittsburgh||Houston|
|Mississippi State||Minnesota||California||North Carolina||Tulane|
*Denotes a team who has moved conference
^Denotes a team who has moved division or a realignment of that division as a whole
This story still has a long way to go and it is moving at pace. It’s going to be incredibly interesting to see how everything shakes out both this season and also beyond, in terms of where the teams land. What we do know is college football is evolving and with new conference realignments and things like NIL sponsorships, college football is going to look quite different in the coming years.
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If you want to hear more about the Big XII, head over to wherever you get your podcasts and listen to Lee and Andy preview the Big XII.
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