Analysis: The return of conference realignment and 12 questions facing the Big 12 (2023)

ByTim Fitzgerald

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Just when it seemed as if there would be a brief respite from college conference expansion and realignment, the Big Ten raided the Pac-12 of two of its biggest jewels: USC and UCLA. And that might not be the biggest news to emerge from Thursday’s stunning breaking news.

In some ways, what the Big Ten pulled off Thursday is even bigger than last July’s news of Oklahoma and Texas leaving the Big 12 for the SEC. At least that made regional sense. The Big Ten will now stretch from Jersey to Southern California. The nearest school to USC and UCLA would be in Lincoln, Nebraska. That means that the Big Ten is almost assuredly not done with expansion.

If this expansion holds up, both the SEC and Big Ten will be at 16 members. Thus, another reason this news feels more significant than last summer’s is that it seems to be an indication that both conferences appear headed beyond 16 with 20 being the likely number for both in a new post-NCAA super conference environment.

Oddly, the Big 12 may be the most insulated from further raiding of its members. The Pac-12 better have one heck of a backup plan, or at least two more significant members — Oregon and Washington — will also be headed to the Big Ten. And sorry ACC, that media rights contract won’t seem so ironclad with the SEC and Big Ten begin fighting over the best of the rest. North Carolina, Virginia, Clemson, and Florida State would all be giant gets for either conference.

It's also probably time for Notre Dame to pick a conference. Of course, the best fit is in the Big Ten and that addition would be a clear indication that the end goal isn't 16 members for the conference. The Irish, though, are such a big player that joining the ACC along with one other school — the Big 12's West Virginia continues to make sense — could insulatethe ACC from Big Ten and SEC raids.

Outside of Kansas and Iowa State dreaming of Big Ten membership — thoughts that seem greatly diminished by this Pacific time zone grab — the rest of the Big 12 seems immune to further expansion by the Big Ten or SEC. (Unless those leagues are eying more than 20 members apiece.)

It also creates a new environment for incoming Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark to navigate. It suddenly doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the Big 12 announced its new boss one day before the LA bomb was dropped on college athletics.

Yormark carries a reputation as a hard charger, a guy who gets things done and isn’t bound by conventional thinking. That is exactly what the Big 12 needs as it looks to the future and its own possible expansion beyond the 12 members that will exist after OU and UT leave.

Behind the scenes, the Big 12 has been eying the Pac-12 since it added BYU, Cincinnati, UCF and Houston last fall. All four will now join the Big 12 in 2023, whether the Sooners and Longhorns stay or go prior to their scheduled departure in 2025.

Now the Pac-12 is in play, but so too might be the ACC if the Big Ten and SEC wage a two-front attack on the mostly basketball-first ACC. Even if raided, the ACC would offer the Big 12 or Big 16 or Big 20 a chance to pick up really tantalizing pieces for the new, growing Eastern wing of the conference. For example, beyond schools such as North Carolina and Virginia, would Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, North Carolina State or Miami be on the wish list of the two most powerful conferences? Maybe, but not all, and those and other ACC members would look great when added to West Virginia, Cincinnati and UCF.

The first step for Yormack is to look West, though, The league solved its WVU-island issue with additions last summer but created a BYU-island problem in the process. So, adding at least three Pac-12 schools to a Western scheduling pod seems like an obvious move. Picking up one more Eastern school to get to 16 also seems likely but there are many ways to go about this.

There are a lot of questions surrounding the future of the Big 12, and college athletics (actually football is what counts in this discussion) so let’s address some of those issues.

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Is the Big 12 in a better position to poach the Pac-12 or the other way around?

The Big 12 finds itself in an unfamiliar position. It is the hunter and not the hunted. The decision of Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff to not invite Big 12 members to join the league last summer may prove foolish. Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and two other Big 12 schools would have leaped off the burning wreckage of the Big 12 11 months ago, but now the Big 12 feels as solid and sturdy as it has since the first waves of realignment swept away Nebraska (Big Ten), Colorado (Pac-12), Texas A&M and Missouri (SEC).

The new Big 12 has a sense of confidence that a boxer finds after being rocked in the early round but is still trading punches in the 10th round. Yormack brings a new burst of energy to the conference and the Big 12 may be posed to launch some haymakers at the Pac-12.

What Pac-12 schools seem most likely for Big 12 membership?

The answer to this question starts with the future of Oregon and Washington, the Pac-12’s most desirable programs not located in Los Angeles. If youare the Big 12 Conference, you have to be concerned that they would accept a quick invite while planning to bolt for the Big Ten at first chance. Honestly, that’s a pretty good plan if you’re at either of those schools.

From geographical and cultural perspectives, the remaining members of the Pac-12 South —Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State — make the most sense. Ironically, the most-likely Pac-12 school to get a quick Big 12 invite would be the youngest in terms of membership and Power 5 standing: Utah. Adding the Utes gives BYU a natural rival.

Furthermore, the Big 12 seems like a logical fit for the Arizona schools since the conference already features five schools from what would also be considered the geographical Southwest. But do those schools move the needle in terms of TV and fan support? And would the Big 12 invite Colorado to rejoin after it previously betrayed the conference?

And unless the Big 12 invites more than four Pac-12 schools —in a Big 16 scenario with four Pac-12 additions would likely move Houston to the east scheduling pod — northern California members Stanford and Cal seem poor fits for the Big 12 and Oregon State and Washington State don’t seem to move the needle much.

What school, if any, are leaving the Big 12? Who replaces them?

Talk continues on KU message boards that an invite to the Big Ten is imminent, but that now seems even more laughable than before the USC and UCLA invites. However, KU being added to the Big Ten isn’t unthinkable for two reasons: 1. KU carries AAU academic standing so valued by the Big Ten and 2. Someone needs to lose the football games in an expanded Big Ten, so at least it could be a school that brings basketball value, which doesn’t mean a lot to conference media rights deals.

The other scenario is the Big 12 is sluggish as the ACC is raided and looks to reload, poaching the conference’s three Eastern schools: West Virginia, Cincinnati and UCF.

If Kansas or a current Big 12 member would leave, it likely means the conference would invite another current Pac-12 member, but other western schools such as Boise or San Diego State bring value too. And if the ACC steals the Big 12’s eastern flank, then a full-on Pac-12/Big 12 merger is on.

The biggest question here is what is the end goal of the Big Ten and SEC? If it is to get to 20 members, then the Big 12 is mostly safe. But if they're going to 24, then this could turn into chaos.

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Why won't the Pac-12 raid the Big 12 for new members?

They can try but there is absolutely no reason for the likes of Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, or anyone else to leave the stability of the Big 12 — that's a remarkable phrase considering the reality of 11 months ago — to leap into a conference with a plethora of issues that includes limited TV value and certain fan bases that are nothing like those in the fan-first Big 12. The best plan for the Pac-12 is to identify two schools that its remaining members will accept athletically and academically and invite them into an even further weakened Pac-12.

The issues that have faced the Big 12 in the past, most importantly being exposed to regional raids from multiple conferences, is the same problem now facing the ACC. Aside from the Big Ten and SEC sharing borders or states with key ACC members, now Big 12 expansion brought it in contact with ACC schools. The Pac-12 meanwhile is isolated in its ability to attract new members, certainly when the academic demands of some current members are calculated into the equation.

Do you think the Big Ten is stopping at just the two Pac-12 schools or will it add a few more?

It seems unfathomable that the Big Ten is going to add two schools from Los Angeles and call it good. It seems almost certain that the conference would also want Oregon and Washington — all four of those schools carry AAU status — but those additions come with the added political fallout from supporters of Oregon State and Washington State. That gets a lot muckier almost immediately.

It’s also hard to imagine the Big Ten (and as mentioned the SEC) won’t test the ACC’s media rights agreement because the University of North Carolinais acrown jewel of conference expansion. Notre Dame probably ranks ahead of UNC on everyone's wish list, so what are the Irish going to do now?

Again, getting to 20 for the Big Ten and SEC may not impact the new Big 12 much but if they move to 24 each, all of the Power 5 as we now know it will be destroyed. That seems sad and unfortunate.

Will remaining schools still take the money to schedule games with Power 2 of the SEC and Big Ten, or will they tell the P2 they can only play each other?

This is a great question if the ultimate plan is for the Big Ten and SEC to form a level of football above the current Power 5. Schools left behind in the remnants of the former Power 5 might be tempted by the money and exposure that comes with playing schools from the two super conferences, but if these conferences envision paying players and completely abandoning the amateur model, such scheduling would also be foolhardy.

No, the Big 12 and those schools still competed in the gutted FBS level of play would be wise to ban all FBS schools from scheduling games with these professional or semi-professional leagues. The end result is the members of the Big Ten and SEC would only play against themselves, thus resulting in an average record of 6-6 for all members.

When schools that are accustomed to winning start losing for years on end, fans will not be happy. Nebraska fans are loyal and persistent, but the Huskers might want to start winning again or that school’s move to the Big Ten, let alone the mega-sized Big Ten, will look like a disastrous decision.

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Was the timing of the new Big 12 commissioner announcement on Wednesday and the Big Ten expansion leaking on Thursday a coincidence?

Probably not, but if it was, what a huge break for the Big 12. Not only did the conference know who its new leader would be, but Yormark’s reputation strengthens the outlook of the Big 12. He is regarded as a strong leader who doesn't miss details and is like a shark, always in motion.

What’s more logical, the Big 12 poaching from the Pac-12, or the Pac-12 taking the same approach as the Big 12 a year ago and try to add SDSU, UNLV, BSU, CSU?

There are two problems with Pac-12 expansion. One, it is somewhat limited by geography, and, two, its academic standards would preclude some of those schools, most notably UNLV and Boise, from being invited to the Pac-12.

Stanford and Cal don’t want to be affiliated with schools they view as glorified junior colleges.

Will the Big 12 become the Big 16?

When the Big 12 was formed in 1996 by merging the Big Eight with four former members of the Southwest Conference — the Pac-12 may want to look at the history of the SWC and understand why it died despite regional importance — it also apparently trademarked the Big 14 and Big 16 names. Now, if those trademarks are still in place is a good question. Still, it sure feels like since the day the league began to explore expansion after the announced departure of OU and Texas, the league has left the door wide open to expanding beyond 12 if the right members presented themselves.

Now they have.

What's hard to explain is this apparent push beyond 16 to 20 by both the SEC and Big Ten. A grouping of 20 schools isn't really a conference. It's two 10-school conferences, or four five-school conferences, under one heading. With 20 members, how often would one play all of its fellow members in football? Not very often, if ever. That sure doesn't seem like a conference.

At 16, however, by grouping members in four scheduling pods of four, every school would play every other member school in a home-and-home football series every six years if the league is playing nine conference games. That is sustainable andwould provide scheduling variety whilefacing every other conference member in a reasonable timeframe.

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Was this how the Alliance was supposed to work between the Big Ten, Pac-12, and ACC?

That entire “Alliance” thing was silly, reactive, and somewhat childish because we all knew money would talk the loudest, and now it seems as if the Big Ten and SEC are joined at the hip in destroying college athletics as we know it. It seems like it will be great for them, but never forget that someone has to lose the games so a lot of schools that want to be great won’t have much of a chance at being much above average.

Are you saying schools such as Kansas State and other Big 12 members soon won’t be playing at the highest level of college football?

The harsh truth is yes. If someone can explain to me a viable plan for the remaining members of this version of the Big 12 to have access to membership in either a Big Ten or SEC super-conference, then I will listen. I don’t think there is one, which means the most palatable plan is for the remaining schools to bolster their standing and make the most out of the situation.

All indications are that the new super conferences will exist outside of the realm of NCAA football, which means being the best of those schools still playing amateur college football will be tangible for schools such as Kansas State.

Ask yourself this: Would you prefer your college football team to win 10 or more games and play for hardware, orwin five or fewer games and play for much larger paychecks?

What is the best plan for the Big 12 as of right now?

It’s time for the Big 12 to do something it has never done: Get aggressive. I think the largest a conference can be to actually be a conference is 16, so get to 16 with the best possible members available right now. If the SEC and Big Ten go to 20 or 24, they will essentially be two 10- or 12-school conferences under one umbrella. You will rarely if ever, play teams within your own conference.

The Big 12 has been confident for a while that this was coming for the Pac-12 so it’s hard to believe a plan isn’t in place for getting to 16, but it’s also the often-passive Big 12 we’re talking about.

Adding four Pac-12 members right now and becoming a coast-to-coast conference offering broadcast and streaming media partners inventory in every available time slot for college sports seems like a viable plan. Playing up that you are college football as it was intended is also a strong marketing ploy because there will be tremendous pushback against those conferences decimating college athletics as we know it.

The Big 12 needs to be concerned about the Big 12. Go hurt some feelings. Go get some members. And understand that for once, the Big 12 is in a position to win at the expansion/realignment game.

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