When you are watching a football game from the stands, you aren't fooled too terribly often. Maybe a particularly good play fake makes you follow the wrong guy, or maybe a receiver slips into the open so clearly that you don't even notice him (that happened to me on Saturday). But most of the time, a majority of the 22 players on the field are within your line of sight, and nothing completely catches you off-guard.
Watching a football game, then, is nothing like trying to keep up with conference realignment drama. Last year, we were focused entirely on who (and how many) the Big Ten may choose to bring into the fold, then Chip Brown and the "Pac-10 attempts to steal half the Big 12" development barged in the back door of the party. This past weekend, we experienced something similar. We were wondering who the SEC may bring in as Team No. 14, and we were wondering whether Oklahoma would decide to head west toward what is now the Pac-12. We were not, however, wondering if the ACC was about to strike a potentially devastating blow to both the Big East and the (probably naive) thought that this realignment saga might end quietly when the SEC and Pac-XX made their moves.
On its face, it might be difficult to see why Pittsburgh's and Syracuse's moves from the Big East to the ACC would affect much as it pertains to football. In terms of four-year F/+ performance, Syracuse ranks 81st among the FBS' 120 teams; Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has performed better, but it has been a long time since "Pitt Panthers" has been synonymous with "power" in college football.
(The move has a rather obviously incredible impact on college basketball, where the ACC just added two more great programs, and The 'Cuse will no longer be playing in the Big East Tournament at MSG in March ... which just doesn't feel right at all.)
Though seemingly innocuous at first, this move has broad implications for so many different conferences, especially when combined with the fact that higher-ups at both Oklahoma and Texas are meeting today, in part to discuss conference alignment.
Let's bring out the stock arrows to make sense of it all. The arrows below are intended to reflect a conference's stock both as it pertains to power and future maneuverability. And because this is a zero-sum game we are playing, I'll make sure the ups and downs even out.
The Effect: This one is obvious. Anytime we run through the "realignment Armageddon" scenarios, it plays out in virtually the same way: the Big 12 dies, the SEC, Pac-XX and Big Ten move to 16 teams, yadda yadda yadda, the ACC and Big East cannibalize themselves, and voila! Four 16-team conferences! As I've mentioned before, the math in that scenario does not work out in any clean fashion, but don't tell that to the ACC, who went ahead and skipped a few steps. Now, they bring into the fold a solid Pittsburgh team and a Syracuse program that has been historically successful and has improved over the last couple of seasons. And they have taken a few huge steps toward getting their "Best basketball conference" title back. Great move.
I must say, I very much admire all the players involved in this move, at least in terms of secrecy. We dealt with months of Big Ten expansion speculation. We dealt with months of A&M-to-the-SEC drama; the rumor would come, then go, then come, then go again. But this development went from rumor to fact in less than 24 hours. Players involved kept this so quiet that supposedly Big East commissioner John Marinatto didn't even know about it until it was all but official.
What Happens Next? Evidently there could be more Big East theft on the horizon. UConn wants in as well (can you blame them?), and supposedly Rutgers has been on the phone with both the ACC and Big Ten. West Virginia has gone into full 'self-interest' mode, which means they might be trying to get in the door, too. And that says nothing of last week's "Might Texas go east instead of west?" rumors. With the ACC's successful ability to move into secrecy mode, we probably won't know what's happening here until it's happening, but one thing is pretty clear: they're probably going to 16 teams at some point, and chances are, they'll be pecking away at the Big East again when they do.
The Effect: Oh, John Marinatto. Did you really not know what was going on? Please tell me that was some sort of misguided public face, and that you really did know behind the scenes. The Big East has been positioning itself, if passively, to benefit from the demise of the Big 12, and I guess technically they still could; but while they were focusing on a) whether to add Villanova to the football roster and b) whether to add all of the Big 12's leftovers or just some of them (when that damn zombie conference finally gets decapitated), the ACC sneaked up on them and dealt an incredibly damaging blow, just like they did almost a decade ago with the pilfering of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. That was also seen as a death blow, and the Big East managed to survive, but the timing of this one is really, really bad.
What Happens Next? The God of Conference Realignment is juggling a few different balls as it pertains to the Big East, and it is difficult to figure out which one may happen first.
1. The ACC will probably come at them again. As we've seen, if other Big East programs have a place to go, they probably won't hesitate about going there now.
2. The Big 12 could still pass away soon. This would allow the conference to somehow survive by pulling in programs like Kansas, Kansas State, etc., and replenish the roster as other pieces are leaving.
3. Notre Dame panics. If you believe the long-term innuendo, the Big Ten's end game is reeling in Notre Dame, and the only way that will happen is if the Big East dies and the Irish panic because their non-revenue sports have no place to play now. It is not difficult to see Jim Delany attempting to deal a Big East death blow by talking with Rutgers in the hopes that they could tag team with the ACC in dealing that death blow. If they move quickly (and they actually want to), they could potentially pull this off. But the Big Ten doesn't move quickly.
I'm not ready to proclaim the Big East a Dead Conference Walking by any means. As we've seen in recent years, it is incredibly difficult to actually a kill a conference. If it were easy, there would be no Big East or Big 12 already. Desperation makes deals happen, and the Big East could figure out a way to live on, just like it did when Miami, et al, left. That said, its future in this new world of college sports just got a lot blurrier.
The Effect: Again, something very good and something very bad happened as it pertains to the Big Ten. The "Notre Dame panics" scenario has once again come into play, but that could be offset by the fact that a) the ACC is now a lot more attractive an option if the Irish do decide to jump (aside from that whole "They're nowhere near the Atlantic Coast" thing; then again, Syracuse and Pittsburgh are not exactly hopping sea ports themselves), and b) the ACC just took two of their "If we ever do expand further..." candidates.
What Happens Next? We know one thing: Jim Delany and company are probably not going to panic. I actually somewhat believe it when they say they are satisfied at 12 teams. But if the ACC, SEC and Pac-XX are all going to have 14-16 soon, the need to play a larger role in the marketplace may get rather strong. And honestly, their window of play with some realistic, worthwhile candidates could close soon.
Let's go back to the original list of supposed Big Ten expansion candidates from last year (not counting Notre Dame):
Rutgers might be getting a potential look from the ACC, as is UConn, for that matter.
Missouri might be getting a potential look from the SEC.
Maryland is now part of a much stronger ACC, as are Syracuse and Pittsburgh. Georgia Tech as well, if you ever believed that rumor.
Who does that leave? Kansas? Cincinnati? The University of Toronto? The whole "four 16-team conferences" scenario might not ever take shape, and it might be because the B1G never finds 16 candidates they like. For that alone, their stock gets a small ding.
(By the way, I completely support the Toronto idea. That would be the Most Delany Thing ever. More big-picture oriented than the Big Bang Theory, more bold than Jamaica Blue Mountain, more pretentious than that new Sweet Genius show on Food Network. An absolute home run.)
The Effect: Honestly, this doesn't directly affect the Big 12 simply because they're a little busy right now trying to somehow keep Oklahoma (and potentially Texas) from bolting.
What Happens Next? If the conference survives this week's Oklahoma and Texas regent meetings (and it probably won't), this move could honestly mean good things for the constantly embattled Big 12 because, quite simply, some expansion candidates were just made available. If the Rutgers, Connecticut and potentially West Virginia depart, then technically that opens the door for the Big 12 to move in on programs like Louisville, Cincinnati and TCU, thereby surviving once again in unlikely fashion.
In other words, we will soon get to find out just how far out the door Oklahoma and Texas really are. Is the Big 12 dead to Oklahoma, or just mostly dead? OU president David Boren seemed to have soured on the conference when they both lost Texas A&M and realized they had no viable replacement/expansion candidates. But adding some combination of the three above schools and BYU would be attractive. Is it too late?
The Effect: As with the Big Ten, the SEC was impacted by the ACC's move simply because it potentially shrank the applicant pool.
What Happens Next? We know that both West Virginia and Missouri are available to become Team No. 14; the SEC could add one of those two and call it a day. But if they want to add both, then who becomes No. 16? If the "Gentlemen's Agreement"" is indeed a real thing, then the SEC's options were already somewhat limited. But if it wasn't, and Florida State or Clemson were a possibility, well, they are a bit less of a possibility now, as are programs like Maryland and N.C. State. So if ACC programs are off the table, as are Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, then that leaves ... who, exactly? Kansas? If there isn't an obvious No. 16, then they probably won't go to 15; WVU could be quickly attempting to glom onto the ACC, and Mizzou could be praying that the Big Ten actually looks in their direction for once.
The Effect: I know Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott says he doesn't want to expand, and I know that some of the conference's university presidents probably mean it. But still, instability helps this conference as much as any other, and if both the Big East and the Big 12 are suddenly in mortal danger, then Scott and company will probably swoop in to benefit from it.
What Happens Next? Oklahoma and Texas decide what they are going to do, basically. This conference is, and will continue to be, as aggressive as any other, but they are geographically limited, and if OU and/or UT don't come aboard, there really is no reason for them to expand. If Oklahoma does indeed head west, then this will probably be the first conference to reach 16 teams. Oklahoma State will go wherever their Bedlam rivals go (nice arrangement, eh, Cowboys?), so that's 14. Then, they can go one of three ways: 1) Bring in Texas and, presumably, Texas Tech, 2) Bring in some combination of Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri and Texas Tech if Texas is a no-go, or 3) Stop at 14.
There are over 2,000 words in this column, and as with most realignment analysis, there is strong reason to think that every single one of them will be rendered moot by a move nobody saw coming. It is the way of realignment. I am not going to even pretend to know what is about to happen, but this is roughly where I think we stand right now.