How possible BCS conference realignment might affect the top tier of NCAA championship football
The offseason for Division I college football fans usually is a long, arduous wait between spring practice and summer practice. This year, because of the actions of a few commissioners belonging to rich conferences, this offseason for fans of FCS schools has been anything but boring.
In January, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany announced that league officials would undergo a study to consider expanding the conference from its current 11-member membership. Since the former OVC commissioner made that announcement, sportswriters and bloggers have been speculating themselves silly as to the number of possible expansion candidates (one, three or five?), and targeted athletic programs (Notre Dame? Rutgers? Missouri? Nebraska? Texas?).
The mere speculation of the Big Ten’s expansion also has fed more talk that other “big money” conferences will not stand still while the Big Ten poaches their programs: that they also will invite other programs to join their conferences, causing a profound shakeup of Division I conference affiliations. Recently, the Pac-10 caused even more aftershocks when a rumor broke that it might offer membership to six schools in the Big 12 - which, of course, presupposes that the Big 12 would be broken up with all its members scattering elsewhere.
The temptation is great to look at the silliness of conference expansion rumors – driven entirely by money considerations rather than academics, rivalries or fans – as an oddity that does not affect FCS football. Unfortunately, the movements of those conferences does have an impact, directly or indirectly, on the status of FCS football.
In Part One of this series on how the FCS landscape could change, we’ll look at what might happen if the Big Ten decides to make the plunge.
“When the Big Ten Conference announced last month that it was considering expansion, the college sports world began a high-stakes game of musical chairs that will be influenced by athletic performance, academic standing, geography and money. Several universities have begun to circle hopefully, lobbying, eyeing a potential seat in new conference alignments, wanting desperately to avoid being left out of the big-money alliances once the music stops.” Those were the words of Jere Longman of The New York Times, written last January in regard to the Big Ten’s potential expansion.
As the offseason has continued, however, newspapers and blogs have stopped looking at everything but the last item – money – as it relates to expansion. Academic standing? Missouri doesn’t have it, but think of the money a Big Ten championship could have with 12 teams! Geography? Sure, Piscataway, N.J., is 620 miles and a time zone away from Ann Arbor, Mich., but think of that New Jersey TV market for the Big Ten Network! Athletic performance? Syracuse hasn’t had more than seven victories in a season since 2001, but wow, Jim Brown's alma mater in the Big Ten!
It could well be that the only lesson to take from this is how badly FBS football has been corrupted by the influence of big TV money. FBS already doesn’t have a true champion determined on the field, thanks to the concerns of bowl money, and the Big Ten’s unique arrangement of money from ESPN and its partnership with Fox Sports called the Big Ten Network seems to be the only thing – certainly not for fans, rivalry development or academic standing – that is driving expansion.
For the rest of the FBS and FCS world, however, the reasoning (or lack thereof) behind Big Ten expansion doesn’t matter much. What does matter is what might happen to their conferences.
Surveying the FBS landscape, there are several potential scenarios that might play themselves out. Let’s go through them and look at what might happen.
The Big Ten might say that it won’t expand.
Don’t laugh. Folks point out that the Big Ten hasn’t said that it's definitely expanding; it has just started a study to say that it was thinking about it. It could study the issue for a couple of years and determine that the school that it really wants to join (read: Notre Dame) will not come, so it will stand pat.
Financially, this might make sense. With expansion comes a dilution of the money from TV contracts, and the conclusion might well be that renegotiating its contracts split 11 ways is better than renegotiating its contracts split 12, 14 or 16ways. If the Big Ten sits and does nothing, it seems likely that everything will more or less stay the same, with the Big 12 staying intact and the Pac-10 most likely standing still, too.
There’s also the hope that fans' concerns, the development of rivalries and common sense prevail. That almost certainly won’t be the driving factor, but we can all dare to dream.
FCS Impact: Zero. While the potential exists for other conferences to still look to expand with other schools (and other possible unrelated moves), a Big Ten that stays put will likely keep the largest conferences the way they’ve always been and will limit the overall change to the FBS landscape.
The Big Ten expands with Notre Dame.
To outside observers, this seems like the best situation for the Big Ten. Notre Dame is the only institution that has a national following, a stellar academic standing and existing rivalries with Big Ten schools. Adding the Irish would mean its partnership with Fox, the Big Ten Network, could make a play in every household in America. It also would allow the Big Ten to have 12 teams and host a lucrative football championship in December.
If money were the only concern, Notre Dame would be a slam dunk; that it offers everything else the Big Ten wants (and have wanted for decades) in terms of academics, tradition and interest makes it quite possibly the beginning and end for the Big Ten in terms of its expansion targets.
If the Big Ten gets Notre Dame and the Big 12 remains intact, it seems likely that some of the moves throughout FBS’ largest conferences will not happen either.
FCS Impact: Zero. As one of the few FBS independents left, it might force Army and Navy to rethink their opposition to conference membership – possibly having them compete in the Big East or Conference USA. So if anything, it might keep FCS programs from jumping to FBS as the last FBS independents find their dance partners.
The Big Ten expands with a school not named Notre Dame.
Notre Dame is known for being stubborn about its independence. What if it says no to the Big Ten and all it can offer? Would the Big Ten just say that it's happy with 11 members or would it still attempt to expand by one – anyone would do – to save face on all the expansion talk and get the lucrative championship game it's looking for?
Some schools have been strangely public about their lobbying. Rutgers and Missouri have been outspoken that they would like to know more. Others have speculated that Pitt, Syracuse or even Texas might be geographically, historically or financially sound choices.
If Missouri does join the Big Ten, things start to get interesting. What would the Big 12 do at that point? With the Pac-10 rumor of a possible hostile takeover of more than half of that conference, the rest of the big-money FBS conferences would seem to be lining up to try to pick off the best teams. It could set off a chain reaction of conference shuffling.
However, another scenario is that the Big 12 could simply grab another team to take the place of Missouri as well – for example, UAB or Southern Miss. Similarly, if a Big East team such as Rutgers is taken instead, it’s possible that the Big East would just grab Temple and continue on.
FCS Impact: Possible. A Big East school (Rutgers, Syracuse or Pitt) or Big 12 school (Texas, Missouri) leaving could mean that those conferences look to fill the void with another school. There is zero chance, however, that they would look to an FCS school to fill the void. Rather than looking at a UMass (which does not have FBS-level facilities), they’d almost certainly look at teams in the MAC, Conference USA or Sun Belt for expansion first.
FCS teams are most likely to be seen as schools that join FBS conferences that are depleted after conferences such as the MAC or Sun Belt have been raided. They’re not likely to see the big money from the Big Ten or Pac-10: They’re much more likely to be in probable money-losing situations in the Sun Belt or MAC.
In addition, there are start-up FCS schools (South Alabama, Texas-San Antonio, Lamar) that have already announced their intent to play FBS level football once they become eligible. Any “poaching” of FBS schools from FCS would likely come from these three schools.
The Big Ten expands by three or five schools.
The Big Ten could successfully convince other schools that it needs to join up with them to create a “superconference” of 14 or 16 teams. Even though schedules would have the potential to be massively unbalanced, the Big Ten would be able to host a championship game and probably secure more lucrative mid-tier bowls for its conference as well. TV revenue would increase, but whether it would be enough to split 14 or 16 ways remains to be seen.
If this happens, some combination of Notre Dame, Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri, Rutgers, Syracuse or Pitt might be the teams being considered. But aside from the obvious impacts to the Big 12 and Big East, it’s also important to consider what would be the impacts to the other big-money conferences such as the Pac-10, ACC and SEC, which might not be happy with being smaller than the Big Ten. They might feel they need to expand to keep up, potentially causing a massive realignment that touches every FBS conference, potentially destroying some along the way (such as the Big 12, Big East or Conference USA).
By definition, any football conference that has more than 12 members is a creation that is designed only to extract as much money as possible from potential fans. It’s impossible to have every football team play one another during a season unless you eliminate out-of-conference games or expand schedules. And it’s unclear that fans will be willing to pay even more for these games, especially if long-time rivalries are broken up. Put it this way: Folks would be quite happy to pay to see more Texas vs. Texas A&M matchups. But would they be willing to fork over the same money to see Texas play Minnesota?
FCS Impact: Potentially large. While the Big Ten and Big 12 will not consider expansion with FCS schools, the FBS conferences they will raid for members (such as Conference USA, MAC, WAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt) will most certainly consider FCS schools to replenish their membership. The bigger questions are: will those conferences still be around after the music stops? And if they are, will they still be considered FBS?
Even if the Big Ten expands by multiple schools and causes a flurry of conference shifting, there is cause for caution for fans of FCS schools who want to make an FBS move.
First, is the point that life for FBS schools that aren’t members of big-money conferences such as the Big Ten or Pac-10 can be hard. The costs of putting all your players on full scholarship, creating compliance departments to make sure athletes graduate and other football-related expenses are massive, and they almost certainly won’t be paid off with more bowl revenue.
Second, if FBS football goes the “superconference” route the NCAA will almost certainly have to take a new look at the landscape and determine whether conferences should remain FBS or become FCS.
Can a nine-team WAC, for example, continue to survive without a major bowl with such a situation, even if (as is rumored) Boise State moves to another conference? It’s hard to picture, even if the WAC were to expand and replace with three or more western FCS teams.
Can a nine-team Sun Belt survive without a major bowl? Already with several former FCS teams (that have underachieved as FBS members) such as Florida International, Western Kentucky and Arkansas State counted as members, would they be able to survive losing one or more members even if they expand with four more FCS schools?
It doesn’t help that WAC and Sun Belt teams have been frequent upset victims of FCS schools through the years. For example, McNeese State still holds all-time winning records over the Sun Belt’s Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe - and for good measure went 2-0 against them this decade. Montana also has dominated Idaho out of the WAC in their all-time series, while beating it four straight years from 2000 to 2003.
With the line between the top teams in FCS and the low-level teams in FBS so blurred, can conferences such as the WAC and Sun Belt continue to pretend to be in the same ballpark as 16-team superconferences?
Without question, superconferences would change the playing field – and the NCAA’s answer to such alignments could be to reclassify the WAC and Sun Belt. That’s something that Lamar, Texas-San Antonio, South Alabama and other potential FBS candidates might want to consider carefully.
Officials at Texas-San Antonio, who are starting a Division I football program from scratch in 2011, recently scrapped plans to compete in the Southland Conference in football as they planned to compete as early as 2014 in FBS football as an independent.
Their actions deeply disturbed the Southland Conference, the Roadrunners’ conference affiliation in all other sports, and observers wonder whether UTSA might be booted from the conference as a result.
Shortly thereafter, Lamar University, another Southland Conference member, which is bringing back an FCS football program in 2011 that was disbanded in 1998, announced that its ultimate ambition is to move to FBS by 2015. Lamar athletic director Billy Tubbs told the Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise: "In a five-year program we would like be in the FBS, which is the Bowl Subdivision," he said. "That's where we aspire to be. As things are moving around, we want to position ourselves to have the possibility of upgrading our football program."
They are not the only FCS programs thinking about moving to FBS. South Alabama of the Sun Belt is starting a football program as well in 2011, and are planning to drive toward Sun Belt football in the FBS by 2015.
In addition, Jacksonville State, currently competing in the OVC, looks like it might be thinking about moving up, too. In an interview with the Anniston (Ala.) Star, athletic director Oval James said he’d like Jacksonville State to “be in a conference with Troy, South Alabama and UAB.” In 2015, two of those three schools – Troy and South Alabama - will be competing in the Sun Belt Conference.
If the conference landscape changes significantly, however, the question becomes will requirements for membership in FBS change?
It would be bitter for these schools indeed to be promised FBS football only to be denied membership due to a changing conference landscape. Can a Sun Belt Conference, even with a conference championship game, really expect to compete with the Big Ten, SEC and Pac 10s of the world whose share of the money pot seems to just grow bigger?
Counterintuitively, they might be rooting for the conference layout to remain largely the same, gaining a championship game and slowly gaining respectability in the world of FBS. That has to be what South Alabama and perhaps Jacksonville State is hoping for: basically the status quo, not a redefined FBS where conferences such as the Sun Belt end up folding or relocating to FCS instead.
Furthermore, while UTSA has announced publicly that it plans to compete as FBS independent, that path might not be an option if the NCAA decides to impose rules on having conference membership secured before changing football classification. This summer, it’s widely expected that a rule change will be ratified that requires a conference classification in order to change from FCS to FBS football.
That means FCS teams wanting to transition to FBS tread a road that remains filled with pitfalls. Not only do some not have a potential conference home for football in 2015, their most likely destinations – the Sun Belt or WAC – could be in jeopardy of dying or being evicted to FCS in a changed conference landscape. Only a bid to a bigger money conference – like the Mountain West Conference or, for now, Conference USA – would allow them definitively to become FBS programs and stay there.
In the grand scheme, FBS conference expansion is a large question mark. It could have huge impacts on conference alignment in FCS and FBS - or no impact at all. Some schools are already angling for FBS membership, even while needing a commitment out of their existing conferences for the next four years – but might well find themselves back in FCS in the end, thanks to the NCAA and a changing conference world.
But the Big Ten and Big 12 are not the only possible driver of conference shifts.
In the next installment, we’ll talk about another development that could affect FCS football even more.