It all began back in December with the Big Ten, when it let slip it was thinking of — gulp — expanding. Since then, the E-word has spread like wildfire. Two months later, conferences like the Pac-10 started talking of expanding when its television contract ran out after the 2011-12 season, meaning one thing: Discussions of adding teams were really going to heat up … and fast.
"It is really over the next six to 12 months that we'll start having serious analysis and serious evaluations," Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott said in February.
He meant more like four months, as the Pac-10, in the midst of its annual spring meetings, is rumored to offer six Big 12 schools an invitation to join the Pac-10 as early as this weekend. Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Colorado would be plucked from the Big 12 and join current Pac-10 members Arizona and Arizona State in one eight-team division, and the other eight Pac-10 members would be in the other division, comprising a massive, 16-team football conference, the first of its kind.
Scott, however, denies these invitations have been sent.
"We have not developed any definitive plans," Scott told the Cedar-Rapids Gazette. "We have not extended any invitations for expansion and we do not anticipate any such decisions in the near term."
Mike Bohn, athletic director at Colorado University, on the other hand, is under the impression that an expansion offer is imminent.
"The longer that we were together in Kansas City [for the Big 12 spring meetings], it appeared that that rumor or speculation did have some validity to it," said Bohn, who did not reveal his sources for why he felt so strongly that invitations were coming.
Given the recent appetite for expansion, it's hard to believe the head honcho of the Pac-10, who has to be sweating with the constant chatter of the Big Ten adding a 12th school — or maybe even more, as Missouri's and Nebraska's departures from the Big 12 are becoming more and more feasible — is not drafting formal letters of invitation at this very moment.
No one wants to be on the outside looking in on the expansion game. And the only way to ensure that you're at the table is if you serve the meal.
The SEC is also heading toward the kitchen. After not discussing expansion at all during its spring meetings, conference officials have said that they will talk about it in the final meeting today. University of Georgia president Michael Adams maintains that the SEC has the luxury of adopting a wait-and-see approach and will respond only if other conferences actually act on their impulses.
"If we see movement, then I think we analyze it," Adams said. "But there’s a pretty strong sense, I believe, among the 12 presidents and the commissioner right now, that the SEC is in the best shape it's ever been in. So we feel pretty good about things."
So, in other words, if the Pac-10 contacts those six universities, the SEC will not sit idly by, twiddling its thumbs.
And let's not forget about the Little Engine That Could Conference — the Mountain West — which is desperately trying to garner respect and a spot in the automatic BCS bid group of six conferences. Boise State can expect to receive an invitation from the Mountain West in a matter of days, and the conference hopes to know in the next week if it's found a 10th member, which would give it an extremely strong argument for earning national recognition.
Clearly, there's a great deal of movement. It's new. It's exciting.
But it's bad.
The college football landscape is perfectly pruned, with established rivalries still in full bloom and others sprouting up left and right, almost all of which happens because of the conference breakdowns. Despite the public wailing about the BCS, it is a playoff system that works — and generates a ton of cash, with the ACC and Big East (widely considered the weakest two BCS conferences) pulling in just under $19 million last season.
The reason conferences can pull in that much money is the growing number of teams able to win at least six games, making them bowl eligible. The more teams added to a conference, the more competition and the better the competition. It's possible the outcome could be much like this year's SEC (10 of 12 teams bowl eligible), but it is probably more likely it will end like the ACC and Big 12 (seven of 12 bowl eligible), which generates less money for the schools and the conference.
Number-crunching and financials aside, if one conference can't resist its insatiable desire for more, the dominoes will fall, disrupting college football to the tune of three conferences with at least 14 teams and the dissolution of one of the major conferences in college athletics. If the Pac-10 actually sends out those six invitations, and Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe's pleas to stay unified fall on deaf ears, here's what will happen:
- The Pac-10 becomes the Pac-16 with Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State in one division. The other division will have Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, USC, California, Washington, Washington State and UCLA.
- Displeased that the Pac-10 just invaded its turf and scooped up an enormous portion of the southern viewing networks, the SEC will respond by offering Texas A&M — a rumor that has already been swirling, to which A&M athletic director Bill Byrne told the Houston Chronicle, "It might be [true]. You know what? It might be."
In need of a 14th team to even the divisions out, the SEC could entice Texas, the biggest fish in the pond, with its 15-year, $3-billion TV deals and football prowess. Mack Brown and the Longhorns oblige.
- After Texas A&M and Texas defect to the SEC (now 14 teams big), the Pac-16 adds Baylor and Kansas State, two of the four teams remaining in the now-extinct Big 12, to replace the two original squads from the Lone Star State.
- The Big Ten will also act swiftly if the Pac-10 sends out these invites, bringing in Missouri and Nebraska, as expected. Of the four teams without a home in the Pac-16 (Baylor, Kansas State, Kansas and Iowa State), the Big Ten salivates at the chance of adding Kansas and Iowa State, two more members of the Association of American Universities (AAU), augmenting the Big Ten's commitment to balancing both athletics and academics. This would expand the Big Ten to 15 schools, all of which are members of the AAU.
To keep up with its pride of all-AAU schools and in need of an even 16th, the Big Ten offers Pittsburgh a chance to leave the Big East — an opportunity the Panthers can't refuse given the conference's devotion to both football and basketball, as well as its own TV channel, the Big Ten Network. It likely will need to change its name to the Big Sixteen Network (which just doesn't have the same ring).
- With the loss of Pittsburgh, the Big East is at an awkward seven teams in football and 15 teams in basketball. The only solution is for Notre Dame to finally relinquish its spot among the Independents and join the Big East in football. It's already a member of the Big East in basketball, and it knows that this massive expansion effort will further single them out.
It does leave the conference with an odd number of teams in basketball, but does 1-17 DePaul really deserve to make it to the conference tournament? Of course not, so the conference could create a 14-team bracket. But if the conference insists on having all teams make the conference tournament, surely it can draft a 15-team one. It's worth adding Notre Dame football to them — and what other choice does the Big East have? It needs an eighth football team.
- Lastly, and least obnoxiously, Boise State heads to the Mountain West, giving the conference 10 teams and national powerhouses in the Broncos, BYU, Utah and TCU. It also could potentially replace the Big 12 as the sixth major conference in the BCS standings, though the competition would certainly be weaker from top to bottom.
Got all that? Expansion sure sounds fun, but it looks complicated. And it also looks like it breaks up a Kansas-Kansas State rivalry, creates three mega-conferences for no reason, makes the SEC even stronger in football, demands that teams such as Texas Tech and Washington make a 1,400-mile trip every year to play a conference foe and renders the Big East's revolutionary 16-team expansion relatively obsolete, as it will now have to compete with two more behemoth conferences for attention, as well as the 14-team SEC and 12-team ACC, in basketball.
College football expansion is change for the sake of change, which is never a good idea.
Just shut the lid on the Box and back away.