The young gentleman above (I think Rodney Dangerfield once said something about young guys like him and tigers…but I digress) is one of many UL fans who spent the moments after Saturday’s game sending me various hateful messages on Twitter. The general themes prevalent were happiness (understandable), gloating (forgivable) and vulgarity (less than shocking), and they entertained me with their various degrees of misspelling and contempt. But for the more knowledgable of the Card faithful, Saturday’s win also came with a dose of humility, as they recognize that a much more serious issue is about to hit them square in the face. The latest round of conference expansion is about to fundamentally change the landscape of college sports forever. While we all watched the games on the field, the most important news occurred in the boardrooms, as Pittsburgh and Syracuse became official members of the ACC. With the addition to 14, the ACC also doubled the penalty for leaving the league to $20 million and set us all on a course for what is inevitable, the move to four mega-conferences.
With two of the Big East’s cornerstone members abandoning ship, we now fully set sail for a two-week period in which teams desperately try to find a home for the foreseeable future. Most believe that the Pac 12 is likely to approve four new members this week, with Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State moving to the West Coast league. At that point the Big 12 collapses, and the Big East is on life support, leaving those teams scrambling to find a home and three leagues, the SEC, ACC, and Big Ten, ready to pick up the scraps. The set-up as it would then be situated would look like this:
SEC: 13 schools with the addition of Texas A&M
ACC: 14 schools with the addition of Syracuse and Pittsburgh
Big Ten: 12 schools with the recent addition of Nebraska
Pac 16: 16 schools with the Southwest Four
What happens next is anyone’s guess. Some have speculated that the scraps of the Big East and Big 12 could get together and form a football league, find new basketball homes and survive as a powerful, but shaky conference. The theory is that the scraps would still have enough talent to get an automatic qualifier to the BCS and five powerful conferences could still exist. I doubt it. Instead, I have been a believer for some time that we are headed to a system of four leagues of 16 teams, that will make up the power of college athletics going forward. These teams will either (A) control the football landscape and play on a different tier in all sports, including basketball or (B) in John Calipari’s world, break away from the NCAA and form their own organization of major football and basketball. Being one of these 64 teams would essentially mean breaking away from college sports as we now know them, creating a super league that would be the totality of major college athletics. Such a system is extreme, but it would consolidate power amongst the schools that already have it most and is the most logical outcome for all involved.
But if that is where we are headed, which of the remaining schools will make the cut to be part of this 64 team power play? If we assume the dissolution of the Big 12, these current BCS schools will be without a home:
With the ACC still needing 2 schools, the SEC needing 3 and the Big Ten theoretically needing 4, that leaves 12 schools for 9 spots. But it isn’t quite that simple. Notre Dame in such a system might have no choice BUT to join a major conference, as their options for competing go out the window in such a system. Plus a few non-BCS schools with aspirations of greatness such as Central Florida, Houston, Memphis and Boise State would want to find a home, even if it looks unlikely one would exist. We would then be left with chaos and a scramble between conferences and schools to find the best fit. For me, three interesting questions would then be raised:
Who does the SEC take?: What once seemed like a foregone conclusion, that the SEC could grab a couple of ACC teams to get to 16, now seems less certain. The ACC has become more stable with the additions of Syracuse and Pittsburgh and has doubled its penalty for leaving. That does not mean that the SEC could not reach in and take a Virginia Tech, Clemson or NC State, but it might be less likely than just a couple of weeks before. At this point it seems almost certain to me that West Virginia will be team #14. They currently have no home in a folding Big East and the SEC geographic connection is obvious. But who else do you take? Do you go Midwest for Missouri or Kansas? How about a team like TCU that fits the SEC culture but isn’t necessarily an obvious draw/powerhouse. Do you take South Florida, a huge university in a big market but almost no fanbase? And what about Louisville? Would UK try and keep out its little brother? Interesting questions, with no obvious answers.
2. Does the Big Ten change its academic standards?: For years the Big Ten has claimed, with some factual justification, to hold itself to a higher standard than the other major conferences. Mostly composed of large, land-grant institutions with a strong academic reputation, if the league chooses to go to 16, something has to give. There simply are not four programs that fit its current status. One would assume the league would try and add Missouri, Kansas and Notre Dame (if they would listen). But what if Kansas and Missouri have joined the SEC? Do they go with Iowa State/Baylor. And even worse for the Big Ten, what if none of their top three choices are available and they have to dip into the former Big East schools or into Conference USA? Would they take a Louisville or Cincy? One has to think no, but if 16 is the magic number (and most think it is), finding #16 is not easy for the Big 10.
3. What happens to Louisville?: Locally, and for our flat-billed friend above, this is the most important question. The Cardinals fit rather easily into two major leagues, the Big East and the Big 12. But now both leagues might disappear. And finding them a home in the remaining three isn’t easy. Academically, they are not a Big Ten school. Louisville is also not a very attractive member to the SEC with the potential creation of an SEC Network. Because UK games would ensure that the city of Louisville would subscribe to such a network (via its cable and Direct TV agreements), adding UL might potentially bring literally ZERO new subscribers to the table. Literally every other option would be better. So while facilities and tradition for the Cardinals are terrific, financially the argument for the SEC is harder. The ACC might be a fit, but most believe UCONN and Rutgers have the inside track for those last 2 spots. If so, then where do the Cards go? It is hard to imagine a scenario where the Cards don’t have a major conference home…but it is also hard to imagine exactly where that home would be. They may be the highest quality program in limbo and their future is far from certain.
The next three weeks will shed a great deal of light on all of these questions. Most of my questions above are premised on a belief that we will have four power conferences of 16 teams. If that doesn’t happen, the crisis may be averted. But if we do, where we end up is far from clear. Luckily for UK, their place is secure, and we all can just be interested observers, instead of sweating out the future viability of their athletic program.