Conference realignments, media negotiations, bowl contracts between conferences, posturing in the media and even future scheduling simply amounts to contracting the number of FBS teams who will share in a much larger financial pie. With estimates for the new contract at four times the amount of the current contract, BCS semifinalists could earn four times the $22.3 million each conference champion earned for participation in last year's BCS games.
The centrifugal force in today's college football assures that payments to non-BCS conferences would not be reduced (!). And the usual wild speculation has made its rounds through the gossipy housewives of college football writers that Notre Dame could be eliminated, if they do not join a conference.
Last year twenty-four teams made decisions to switch conferences. Seventeen of those moved into current AQ conferences. However, only four (Texas A&M, Missouri, West Virginia and TCU) switched to the elite four strongest conferences. Only two (West Virginia, TCU) of those four came from outside a "power" conference as replacements for the other two, when A&M and Missouri chose perceived bigger opportunities in the SEC.
Moves are made on the outside walls of this hurricane to position teams for inclusion in the more inner circles. Yet the inner circles are exclusive and closely guarded. No one wants to be relegated to the outside walls, while all the riches are pulled inward. Eventually, only four "superconferences" of sixteen teams might remain in this scenario. Effectively, FBS football would be contracted in half in doing "what's best for college football."
One of the biggest questions in finalizing a playoff is whether to guide the guaranteed $80+ million to four conferences through the conference champions proposal or to open the playoff up to the top four teams, giving an opportunity for one conference to get two participants worth $160+ million.
Which alternative is "best for college football"?
This "conference-think" mentality appeals to the simplistic and to the haves, while ignoring what has worked in conference expansion and the struggles of many universities to fund football programs which provide education to athletes who may not be able to afford it otherwise.
Will self-interest trump a "spread the wealth" philosophy?
Secrets of Success
With some history to conference expansion, we can come to some conclusions on what works and what does not.
- You must know who you are. The best conferenc expansions include universities with similar values, purposes, and are nearby geographically. Penn State and Nebraska, as the premier land grant universities in their states with top academic aspirations fit in well with the B1G. Missouri and Texas A&M may well fit in similarly with the SEC universities.
Jim Delany described the Big Ten's philosophy this way:
"This is not Monopoly, a game board where people are collecting markets and territories and schools. Our goal from the beginning has been to have a competition for teams and student-athletes against other universities that have the same feeling about how the enterprise ought to be conducted."
- Big conferences are not necessarily better. Few conferences are willing to expand beyond twelve teams without the strategic combination of partners. Twelve teams gives you a conference championship game. Adding more teams without adding strategic value just splits the pie into smaller pieces.
- The strongest conferences have a core of strong teams. Last year, the Big 12 held together because Texas and Oklahoma stayed the course. Either team would have been very attractive to any conference - as would Notre Dame.
John Swofford, ACC Commissioner, articulated the ACC's viewpoint:
"Any conference would be interested in Notre Dame. Our position over the years has been that membership for any potential team would be based on full membership, and Notre Dame has been very protective of its independent status. I know that continues to be their first choice."
In other words, the strategic addition of Forbes's magazine's second most valuable team in college football who have a national fanbase and alumni network would bring added value to any conference and strengthen a conference's set of core teams.
Don't Mess With ...
Texas and Notre Dame have formed a cordial relationship through their academic and athletic relationships. Two years ago, DeLoss Dodds put it this way, when he announced the renewal of a series with the Irish:
"We have a wonderful relationship with Notre Dame, and (AD) Jack (Swarbrick) and I have become great friends. I really admire and respect him and am excited we were able to pull this off. Texas and Notre Dame have met in a lot of great games over the years and I was lucky enough to be here for the series we had with them in 1995 and '96. Those games created a lot of interest and we've had a number of talks over the years to try to do it again. Football scheduling is always challenging so we're happy that we found a place on both teams' schedules to pull it off. When you match up two schools with so much pride, tradition and history, it's an event that everyone enjoys being a part of and we'll all really looking forward to."
While a strong core of teams are essential for any conference to survive, equally important for college football fans everywhere are series of games between the strongest teams in college football, which cross regional lines. Notre Dame's scheduling of USC, Oklahoma, Texas, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, BYU, and Miami in this and future years provides every fan that opportunity.
Don't mess with that, unless you can replace it.
We have reached this point because strong conferences with a core of strong teams, including Notre Dame, have combined to form attractive matchups. The better the future matchups, the more the hurricane will tighten, increasing their speed, force and producing much more energy. Simple relativity of objects rotating around each other.
Dodds recently evaluated Notre Dame's position:
"Notre Dame has options. I think they love their position. I certainly think they can continue to do what they're doing and do it well and be a major player. But they have options. We've talked to Notre Dame about the Big 12...They could put some football here (by playing a few non-conference games against Big 12 opponents)."
Over the years, I have enjoyed FranktheTank's columns on college football's expansion, especially when adding Notre Dame and Texas to the Big 10 seemed an opportunity. So let me quote this Illini alum and Big 10 proponent here:
"With every article, column, blog post and column that I see claiming that Notre Dame is 'irrelevant', I also see at least 3 power conferences (the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC) that would add the Irish in a heartbeat and if the Pac-12 and SEC were actually viable options, they'd take the Domers, too. Every power conference bending over backwards to add a school is the antithesis of irrelevance."
What kept the federal government out of the BCS is that it provided every team the opportunity to participate, having widened their position on the acceptance of non-BCS teams. Swarbrick, as a party to all BCS discussions, remains upbeat about the playoff opportunities for an independent Irish.
"I remain comfortable at this point. I haven't heard any conference champion proposals that wouldn't allow us if we finished in the top four to be one of those teams. There have been all kinds of models for us -- some are three conference champions and an at-large. There are a lot of permutations of it. None of them that have been discussed would preclude us from earning our way in."
Forces on the horizon could act as a windshear to this cyclone, but more on that at another time.