In Which I Gripe About College Conference Realignments…

UPDATE: ESPN reports that Texas A&M isn’t going anywhere. The Big 10 now has 12 teams, and the Big 12 will go forward with 10. No problems on this end with this development.

ORIGINAL POST: While the ongoing twin catastrophes of the Gulf Oil Spill and the Obamoratorium will return to the top of the Hayride’s update list shortly, over the weekend it appears that the realignment of the college athletic world is beginning to catch on as a major news topic. And since virtually everything else in the news is not just negative but catastrophically so, I figure we’ll move on for a brief period into a subject which isn’t The End of The World.

But I’m going to gripe about this, too. Sorry.

My complaint is a selfish one. As an LSU fan living in Baton Rouge, my primary concern where it comes to college athletic alignment is with the SEC. And since it seems clear that the turmoil surrounding the schools shifting conferences all over the country will affect the league I follow, I’ve got an opinion on what looks like it’s about to happen.

And that opinion, based on personal experience, is that you would be hard-pressed to find two worse places to go on the road to follow your college sports team than College Station, Texas and Blacksburg, Virginia. Guess who’s coming to the SEC, in all likelihood.

I last made the trip to College Station in 1995, the final year LSU played Texas A&M in football before the series was discontinued and the Aggies began harping on how Joe Dean owed them money – for FIFTEEN YEARS. I won’t quite say I saw rattlesnakes and tumbleweeds there, but I did have someone pull a knife on me for walking on a patch of grass, saw possibly the worst-designed football stadium in the history of sports, heard male cheerleaders in uniforms identical to those the prisoners from Hunt Correctional Center wear while manicuring the grounds of the Louisiana State Capitol yell “Go Army” while displaying hand signals which are obscene in many Far East nations and saw a graveyard for dogs equipped with an electronic scoreboard. Aggies are relatively nice people, but it would be inaccurate to describe that trip as anything but disturbing.

And in 2002, I went to Blacksburg. I was verbally assaulted as a “stupid cajun” by toothless Appalachian hillbillies in a watering hole near campus, witnessed a Barney Fife overreaction in which the local cops called out riot police in response to harmless smack-talking on a street corner, saw the locals burning trash in their front yards along the interstate between Roanoke and Blacksburg, witnessed a standing, tumultuous and orgasmic ovation at the presentation of campus hero Michael Vick (complete with Vick attired in trousers Rickey Hardy would put him in jail for) and watched 50,000 people doing the Hokey Pokey as though there was nothing inherently gay about it.

Repeat either one of those experiences? Not even on a goof.

But it appears that Texas A&M and Virginia Tech are coming to an expanded SEC. With the Big 10 adding Nebraska, the Pac-10 Colorado and, it appears, Utah, and possibly tomorrow Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech and the Mountain West Boise State, conference alignments are experiencing an earthquake throughout the country. The SEC couldn’t be expected to stand pat and watch other conferences make bids for a share of its action, so instead of a perfect 12 teams the league will go to 14.

If the SEC was going to add two teams, the Aggies and Hokies make as much or more sense than anyone. While the Clemsons, Georgia Techs, Miamis and Florida States would seem like better potential fits for the conference in terms of tradition, geography and other respects, the reason to expand a conference is to command a larger number of television sets in pursuit of higher network revenues. Any time you expand your league, you dilute the share of income each member will get – so every new member must bring with them the promise of a larger overall pie. Miami and Florida State sit in the same media markets the SEC already gets with Florida. Georgia Tech and Clemson occupy the same markets South Carolina and Georgia do. Even Louisville, which otherwise would appear to be a fine potential SEC member, doesn’t really bring anything Kentucky doesn’t.

But by getting Virginia Tech, the SEC now gets access to the Washington TV market (and the smaller Richmond and Norfolk markets as well). And by adding Texas A&M, the SEC reels in Houston, and Dallas to a lesser extent. For a league which has dominated the television revenue game despite largely consisting of secondary TV markets like New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Columbia, Jacksonville, Knoxville, Little Rock, Baton Rouge, Birmingham and Jackson in addition to only a few big markets in Atlanta, Tampa, Orlando and Miami, adding Washington and Houston alone makes for a major coup.

Bear in mind that the current maneuvers across the country are largely based on other leagues scrambling to catch up to what the SEC is doing. The Big 10 has recognized for quite some time that it has needed to add a 12th team so as to enable a conference championship game; for years the talk has centered around Notre Dame but intransigence in South Bend has prevented such a move. Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Rutgers, West Virginia, Cincinnati and Missouri have all been thrown around at one time or another as potential 12th members for the Big 10.

Finally, with rumors of an impending breakup of the Big 12, an opening was there for the league to grab Nebraska – and they took it. Nebraska is a perfect fit for the Big 10, after all – it’s a classic Midwestern flagship school virtually indistinguishable from Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Purdue or Michigan State, it’s a traditional power in college football with a big fan base and it gives the league an increased presence in sports like college baseball, where Nebraska has been quite good recently and few Big 10 schools are even remotely decent.

The Pac-10 has recognized that the SEC is burying it revenue-wise for quite some time, a fact which becomes very obvious to fans of both Pac-10 and SEC schools when there are road trips between them. SEC fans traveling to Pac-10 venues like Arizona, Arizona State, Washington and UCLA quickly notice that facilities look like their SEC counterparts 30 or 40 years ago, while Pac-10 fans traveling to LSU or Tennessee or Auburn marvel at the brand-new palaces SEC schools have erected. Like the Big 10, the Pac-10 folks recognize the power of a conference championship game in football to drive revenue and like the Big 10 they’ve recognized getting to 12 teams is a necessary step in creating such a championship.

But the Pac-10 wants to go further. Its grand vision is to become a 16-team megaconference, with two divisions of eight teams each. The far west division would entail the old Pac-8, with UCLA, USC, Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, Cal-Berkeley and Stanford. The identity of the eastern division isn’t quite set yet, but with Colorado joining the league last week and Utah set to join this week, those two will add to Arizona and Arizona State as half of the division. The Pac-10 is trying to bring in Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech to finish the plan; originally it appeared that Texas A&M would be part of the group rather than Utah but the word today is that the Aggies like the idea of moving east rather than west. Thus the Utes entering the picture.

Utah leaving the Mountain West is a major blow to that league, as it added Boise State last week in what is seen by many as a final piece to at last securing an automatic berth in the Bowl Championship Series. MWC teams have given a good accounting of themselves against top-flight opponents in recent years, as Utah, TCU and Boise State have beaten Alabama, Oregon and Oklahoma in dramatic fashion, and many believe that the Mountain West has shown itself to be every bit as competitive on a national level as the ACC or Big East. With Boise State, Utah, TCU and BYU, the MWC can argue it has four Top 25 football programs; keeping it out of the national championship picture is therefore nonsense.

And then Utah goes to the Pac-10, and the argument falls apart.

But if the Mountain West’s hopes appear dashed, the clear loser in all this is the Big 12. And the MWC might end up gaining as much as anyone from the carnage.

As of right now, an interesting situation has presented itself. With Nebraska and Colorado gone, it’s still possible to save the Big 12 as either a 10-team league or perhaps by stealing TCU and Houston from the MWC and Conference USA, respectively.

But it’s difficult to see why Texas A&M would want to participate in such an idea.

As a 10-team league, the Big 12 no longer has a championship game – that was the whole purpose of forming the league in the first place. And by adding TCU and Houston, the Big 12 works at a net loss from a TV standpoint; it might solidify the Dallas and Houston markets, but it already largely has those; and though TCU and Houston both currently have solid football programs (TCU is also extremely good in baseball as well and Houston sometimes is) losing the entire states of Colorado and Nebraska won’t be offset. So A&M, which reportedly has an eight-figure debt in its athletic program and needs to add revenue rather than cutting it, won’t likely see an attractiveness in such a diminished Holy Roman Empire of a venture.

More than that, though, A&M has an opening here. Staying in the same league as Texas will merely perpetuate A&M’s historical problem – namely, they’re the Little Brother. A&M was the Little Brother to Texas in the old Southwest Conference, and they’ve been the Little Brother to Texas in the Big 12. There are Little Brother schools all over the country – Michigan State, North Carolina State, Washington State, Auburn, Arizona and Oklahoma State are examples of how staying in the same conference as the larger in-state school will allow for some success, but true national prominence is elusive. On the other hand, Little Brothers like Louisville, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Cincinnati, Georgia Tech, TCU and even Memphis to an extent have found that being in a different conference from the Big Brother allows them a chance to escape from the big boy’s shadow and achieve prominence nationally in their own right (whether in football or basketball, or even some other sport). For A&M, staying in the same conference with Texas and Oklahoma means being perceived as a secondary option for recruits in an area the three schools fight over. Moving to the SEC would give them something different to offer – and especially if the comparison is to a setup where six teams from Texas are all in the same league together.

As such, A&M might end up being the school who officially broke up the Big 12.

The repercussions of such a decision would be pretty dire. An A&M departure means Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech would indeed move to the Pac-10 and make it a Pac-16. And Baylor, Missouri, Iowa State, Kansas and Kansas State would be left holding a very big bag.

Missouri’s hopes would likely rest on the Big 10 looking to further expand beyond 12 teams. They’re a fit for that league, but 13 is a rather unworkable number – the Big 10 would have to add one more team if they were to bring Mizzou in. That would suggest Kansas, unless the Big 10 were to balance out a Missouri addition with someone from the East like Syracuse, Pittsburgh or Rutgers. You may be asking, “how do you have a conference where New Jersey is in the same league as Nebraska and Missouri?” and you’d be right. But this new world is one where Austin, Texas and Pullman, Washington will have schools in the same league.

But if the Big 10 isn’t expanding beyond Nebraska, those Big 12 remnant schools are likely headed – to the Mountain West. Except for Baylor, who is likely going to get blackballed in the MWC by TCU out of a feud which goes back to the early 1990’s. If TCU does the dirty deed to the Bears, their options are going to become severely limited; they could join the Western Athletic Conference and deal with the travel issues of being in Texas and playing conference games in Moscow, Idaho, Honolulu, San Jose and Fresno (ask Louisiana Tech how much fun that is) or they could find a way into a Conference USA which might have a vacancy if Virginia Tech’s move from the ACC to the SEC prompts an ACC raid into the Big East for Rutgers, Syracuse, Connecticut, Louisville, West Virginia or even South Florida; thus triggering a Big East grab at Memphis, East Carolina or Central Florida. Baylor in Conference USA would mean a CUSA West division with the Bears, Houston, SMU, Texas-El Paso, Rice and Tulsa, with Tulane moving to the East. Few would care, but there is a certain quaint attractiveness to a league full of nice little private schools like Baylor, Tulane, Tulsa, SMU and Rice. Not exactly a recipe for huge TV revenues, however.

The Mountain West, meanwhile, would go from nine teams (its current number, plus Boise State and minus Utah) to 13 with the addition of Kansas, Missouri, Kansas State and Iowa State. It would then be looking to add a 14th. TCU might be persuaded to relent and let Baylor in so as to make for a 14-team league with an Eastern division of Kansas, K-State, Mizzou, Baylor, TCU, Iowa State and New Mexico and a Western division of San Diego State, UNLV, Boise State, BYU, Colorado State, Wyoming and Air Force. Whether that’s enough firepower to join the BCS remains to be seen, but with the Big 12 going away there’s an extra automatic slot out there – and if there is a plausible alternative to be had which allows the other conferences to deny the Pac-10 a second berth, they’ll be happy to vote for it.

Which makes for, among other things, a Brave New World of college football. And if you can get your head around the idea of massive mega-conferences and mind-bending geography, it might be an improvement.

But College Station and Blacksburg are still lousy road trips. So I’m gonna gripe about it nonetheless.

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