Back in mid-May, what seemed like semi-realistic rumors began to float that Florida State was positioning itself for a move to the Big 12 conference. In response, I wrote one of my favorite pieces, even though I knew as I was writing it that it might appear rather foolish in a short amount of time. In it, I suggested that the Big 12, fresh with a new commissioner and yet another new lease on life, should begin public pursuit of BYU, Clemson, Florida State, Louisville, Miami and Notre Dame, not unlike what Larry Scott and the Pac-10 did with the Big 12 South in his first months on the job.
Of course, it goes without saying that the odds of this move succeeding would be minimal. Notre Dame is still likely to stay independent, BYU hasn't figured out how to make it work with the Big 12 to date (which suggests there's a chance they never will), Clemson might not actually be interested in leaving a conference it helped to establish, and at the end of the day, Florida State might decide it is no more attractive to leave a conference dominated by North Carolina and Duke for a conference dominated by Texas and, well, Texas. But the fact that this move would have even a five or 10 percent chance of success suggests that Bowlsby and company should attempt it.
Odds are good that, if the Big 12 were to attempt a move like this, the more realistic result would be something like FSU, Miami, Louisville and Tulane (as a random, academics-friendly, large-market addition) coming aboard or perhaps just Louisville and BYU. But aside from short-term, what-could-have-been disappointment, there is almost no drawback to aiming this high. It certainly didn't hurt the Pac-12; more than a year after their attempt at six Big 12 schools came up short, they found themselves in position to still add Oklahoma and Texas, among others, but allegedly didn't want to deal with the Longhorn Network. It is almost impossible to envision the fallout of such an attempt (Would the SEC go after more programs? Would the Big Ten and Pac-12 form an even tighter alliance?), but almost none of such fallout would adversely impact the Big 12.
In writing this, I was doing a little bit of fantasizing (you have to admit, that conference would have been really fun), but I was brushing off one of the key rules of conference realignment: John Swofford always wins.
Now, he doesn't just pick a fight with anybody -- he's not exactly trying to pilfer South Carolina or Vanderbilt from the SEC -- but when he does get into the ring, he does so knowing that he's going to win. He has victimized the Big East on multiple occasions, and with this move, he has managed to simultaneously go on further offense against the Big East while, with the addition of both Notre Dame and an enormous buy-out clause, playing stellar defense against the Big 12. Here's what Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples had to say about Swofford and the ACC:
Every time the ACC has appeared weak or vulnerable, Swofford has moved to make it stronger. Wednesday's play to add Notre Dame in every sport except football and hockey -- but with five football games annually against ACC members -- makes the ACC nearly impenetrable. (So does the new $50 million exit fee.) That faction at Florida State that wants to go to the Big 12? They might want to rethink that plan. Any stragglers at Clemson still wishing for another conference home? Forget it. You're in a good place now. For all the things it can do for the conference, the Notre Dame move was essentially a defensive one. The other option for the Fighting Irish was the Big 12, which might have expanded further and moved on Florida State and Clemson had the ACC not snatched Notre Dame.
Just over a year ago, the Big East Conference's future looked strangely fantastic. The conference was zeroing in on a happy, lucrative new television contract and positioning itself to take the likes of Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and/or Missouri if or when the Big 12 officially fell to pieces. But by the end of September, Pittsburgh and Syracuse had agreed to join the ACC. By the end of October, TCU (scheduled to begin its first season in the Big East in 2012) and West Virginia had agreed to move to the Big 12. That television contract? Still all rumors and negotiations.
And now one of the league's long-term crutches, the Notre Dame arrangement, has been kicked out from under it. Granted, this isn't nearly as big a deal as last fall's losses, but it is indeed another loss, and to the same opponent, no less.
If nothing else, this move further confirms what a lot of us were beginning to already believe: the Big East's future basically exists as a souped up Conference USA. (Well, a souped up version of what Conference USA used to be.) That is still indeed a future -- make no mistake, the conference is almost certainly not going to disintegrate -- but it is staggering to see how different it is from the vision the conference had about 13 months ago. In Boise State, it will still have a program capable of national heights in a given season, and it still has a lot of football programs that have proven viable here and there. But while we already knew it is going to struggle in terms of national football perceptions, Notre Dame's departure adds one more ding to what was, not long ago, a pristine basketball conference.
As for what's next in the realignment saga (and let's face it, we tend to think about the future tense more than the present tense when it comes to realignment), this likely puts an end to the major movement for now. First of all, it paralyzes the Big 12, which has openly stated that only Notre Dame makes fiscal sense if the conference were to expand beyond 10 teams. Allegedly, the Champions Bowl contract might stipulate that the conference add a title game and therefore move to 12 teams; even if that were the case, the teams the Big 12 would add at that point -- Louisville? BYU? Cincinnati? -- would not cause any major realignment ripples. And the ACC claims to be done for a while.
It isn't impossible to craft a scenario where the ACC decides it might be able to add a basketball-only team to the ranks -- that keeps you at 14 football teams but brings you to an even 16 in basketball (granted, an even number of teams is not a grave necessity in basketball, where you can live with or without a division structure) -- and if the conference were to determine that a basketball-only member makes sense (and from a dollars-and-sense perspective, it may not -- we often make the mistake of overestimating basketball's importance in the realignment equation), I've got a pretty good idea where it might begin its search. We know that Swofford will probably win a fight he picks with the Big East, and another defection could cause some serious consternation on the basketball-only portion of the Big East roster. But for now, we should probably assume that, like the Big 12, the ACC might be done for a while.
Meanwhile, what's next for Notre Dame? More interesting games in more areas of the country, for one. Future schedules now include battles with major west coast teams (USC), major east coast teams (Florida State, Virginia Tech), and the best of the upper (Michigan, Michigan State) and lower (Texas, Oklahoma) midwest. (Hell, they get to add Duke and North Carolina to the basketball slate as well.) Notre Dame became a truly national program in the 1920s and 1930s because of its willingness to play marquee games throughout the country. This allows them to burnish that reputation by 2010s standards. Granted, the Irish also became a national name because they won some of those games; their ability to do that in the future is obviously undetermined.
This truly is best of all worlds for the Irish. As Spencer Hall put it yesterday, this truly does offer "everything at once" for Notre Dame. You get the bowl arrangements and potential television money that a conference affiliation offers, but you get to keep your own television contract and relative independence. Once it was revealed that the upcoming college football playoff didn't have a conference championship requirement, we knew that Notre Dame would not be forced to join a different conference on anything but its own terms. To say the least, the terms of this deal are rather friendly to the Irish.
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