Following the bombshell announcement that Texas and Oklahoma are joining the SEC, chaos has emerged across the college athletic landscape. Here is what we know about the entire conference realignment situation.
The Big 12 conference is currently in full-on panic mode after their to stellar schools, Texas and Oklahoma, announced their intentions to join the SEC. While the schools have initially announced that they will be leaving at the end of their media rights contract with the conference (2025), it’s been speculated that it may be sooner than that.
Speculation began when the Big 12 wrote a cease-and-desist letter to its television partner, ESPN. This letter accused the network of accelerating discussions with other conferences about adding Big 12 schools to their conference. The motive, said commissioner Bob Bowlsby, was that ESPN could gain financially from their other conference deals making substantially more money.
Dominos are beginning to fall all across the college athletic landscape. A potential conference realignment seems inevitable. Will the Big 12 survive? Are other conferences looking to collect the fall-out? What seems to be happening?
Let’s talk about all that we know about the situation.
The SEC has set a new precident
Last offseason, we thought we might see a massive “super-conference” as Big Ten schools wanting to play football in 2020 reached out about joining the conference for the season to play. The Big Ten initially canceled their season in August before backtracking in September and re-scheduling an abbreviated season. During the month of uncertainty, several big-name schools were very interested in playing in the SEC.
It appears that the SEC didn’t give up on the notion of a super-conference. These talks with Oklahoma and Texas have apparently gone back well over six months. The problem is that a potential buy-out from their conference media agreement is currently estimated to be $76M per school. Therefore, the schools announced that they would start performing in the SEC when their media right agreement expires in 2025.
Will that last? The number will drop as the years go by. I can’t imagine that Texas and Oklahoma will wait it out.
Why is the Big 12 acting so aggressively?
The Big 12 has the most to lose in this situation. Currently, the College Football Playoff is in discussions on expanding. These discussions are including automatic bids for each of the power five conference championship winners. The next meeting regarding the future of the Playoff in this format is scheduled for early September. If the conference can’t maintain its standard, those plans will be amended not to include them.
Losing Oklahoma and Texas is a damning blow to the conference’s credibility. They don’t have marquee schools outside of those two schools. Would they hope that Oklahoma State, Baylor, TCU, and Iowa State would lift them into playoff appearances? If the current format would hold, one of those schools could indeed separate. However, without Texas and Oklahoma in the conference, what draw would the conference have to pull big-name recruits while considering the new NIL laws?
The eight schools outside of Oklahoma and Texas have pulled two five-star recruits in the last seven years. In 2020, TCU landed running back Zachary Evans after the running back fell out with the SEC. Before that, you have to go to 2014 when Baylor landed five-star wide receiver KD Cannon.
During that time span, Texas and Oklahoma drew a combined total of 13 five-star prospects.
Potential Big 12/PAC-12 merger
Word came out on August 3rd that the Big 12 and the PAC-12 were meeting regarding a potential conference partnership and/or merger. Per Max Olson of The Athletic, they were meeting about a potential “scheduling alliance, merger, or other options” so that the two conferences could work together. The PAC-12 has struggled to produce a Playoff opponent over several years, putting Oregon in one year and Washington in another. Outside of that, the strength of schedule and consistency has been their problem.
Bowlsby is in a potential conference ruining spot. He has to figure out a way to keep the schools that remain from bolting for greener pastures to remain relevant. Without Texas and Oklahoma, the Big 12 falls into the Group of Five in terms of talent across athletics.
A potential merger is that it does nothing to help the PAC-12 without Texas or Oklahoma. Sure, the conference would be a “Super-Conference” with potentially twenty schools, and it wouldn’t be too hard to re-align the schools to fit that geographically. The issue is that Oklahoma State, Iowa State, and others don’t add much to the strength-of-schedule aspect.
Kansas appears headed for the Big Ten
Kansas does appear prepared to leave the Big 12 and head for the Big Ten. Reports are that the deal is imminent and may be announced within the next few weeks. From an athletic standpoint, this makes a lot of sense. After all, Kansas is a basketball powerhouse that hasn’t seen a losing season since 1982-83. Outside of football, adding them for other sports would be a huge power move for the Big Ten.
The real question that remains is how else the Big Ten can capitalize on the chaos? Do they want a 15-school format where they do away with divisions? That might be difficult to pull off, especially with the intricate series of rivalries established across the conference. They’d really need to pull Iowa State or West Virginia as well from the chaos.
West Virginia is in a rough spot
Pat McAfee, the popular radio host of the Pat McAfee Show, initially reacted to the SEC news with some major excitement. He spoke of the future of the Big 12, raising concerns about his Alma Mater, West Virginia, and the particular spot that they find themselves in.
“I remember when [West Virginia] signed up, we were signed up for Oklahoma and Texas,” he stated on July 24th. “Times have changed now.” The map that McAfee displayed on his show makes no sense that the school is in the conference – especially if the conference aligns with the PAC-12. Would West Virginia want to travel several extra times a year to play games on the pacific coast?
“If I’m West Virginia, I’m trying to get to the ACC right now,” McAfee explained. “I mean, what are we doing? Let’s get to the ACC.”
Will the ACC be looking to expand?
Reportedly, discussions have already begun between West Virginia and the ACC. Also, through the chaos, Clemson and Florida State have inquired about joining the SEC as well.
Obviously, Clemson has been the ACC. They’ve been the school that has dominated the last half of a decade and look to have another several years left in the tank. Florida State has a rich history – one that keeps them relevant in recruiting. Obviously, now, the ACC feels threatened.
To me, the X-factor in this situation is Notre Dame, who played in the conference last season. It went well for them – they performed in both the conference championship and earned a playoff appearance. Notre Dame has long prided themselves as an independent school and their lucrative television contract with NBC. However, times are changing, and being independent isn’t a strength longer.
To me, I can’t see Notre Dame standing pat during this major realignment. They see the writing on the walls – four super conferences that can eliminate their ability to compete for the Playoff. Scheduling independently will become significantly harder.
Where does the American Athletic Conference stand?
Undoubtedly, the American Athletic Conference (AAC) views this as a huge potential to raise their conference into the Power Five. With the recent success of schools like Cincinnati, UCF, and SMU, they want more challengers to continue to grow the brand. In 2017, the Big 12 had almost added Houston and UCF to the conference. However, Houston opened the season with an upset win over Oklahoma, and the conference immediately voted against it.
Now, with the chip on their shoulder and the hype that the conference has built over the last few years, it’s too late to poach those schools. Instead, the Big 12 has reportedly reached out to Louisiana from the Sun Belt and Louisiana Tech from the C-USA about joining their conference as “fillers” per se. Both schools have seen some success at their current levels.
However, adding those schools doesn’t help the Big 12 at all. It’s a desperate ploy to stay relevant in these negotiations. The AAC knows this, and now they have a golden opportunity to poach the unsettled schools with the situation. All of the Big 12 schools fit their geography, as they are an inclusive conference extending north to Temple in Pennsylvania and west to Texas with SMU. Oklahoma State, Baylor, TCU, and Texas Tech would be fine additions to their conference.
Why retain conferences and the NCAA at all?
This is a question that I receive all of the time. Why do these schools stay within the NCAA? Why don’t they leave and form their own association?
The answer is two-fold. First off – the NCAA is a vital part of college athletics because of its compliance department. Without the compliance department of the NCAA, these schools would have to form their own department with their own rules, an absolute headache to put together at this point. Schools would find new ways to bend the rules and recruit with all sorts of open and rampant disadvantages to other schools. College athletics is an amateur level – people have to remember that.
Secondly, conferences generate a ton of additional income. The media rights allow other people to negotiate for contract details and the schools collect the generated income. It’s the easiest way for them to market and make a killing off of sports.
As discussed above, buying out media contracts would be something that the schools don’t want to do. How long could they survive before disgruntled schools return to the NCAA? It’s not a venture worth exploring with too many associated risks involved.
My final thoughts on conference realignment
This has been a long time coming in college athletics. The Big 12 and the PAC-12 have both struggled to present reliable Playoff contenders in football, and it’s been a constant source of frustration for these schools. That revenue that the Playoff generates is unmatched by any other event in football.
The Big 12 schools know that they are being faced with irrelevancy. It doesn’t matter if they post an undefeated season without Texas or Oklahoma – they won’t have the strength of schedule to push into the playoffs. We know that because UCF and Cincinnati have both failed in recent memory to get in.
Follow the money trail and see where it leads.