To say the least, numbers are in my comfort zone. I both watch and write about college football with numbers in mind. But when it comes to conference realignment, I struggle, and for one obvious reason: I cannot make 67 (or 68, or 69) equal 64. Neither can you. But that's alright.
We have been waiting for the official nuclear detonation of collegiate conferences for quite a while now, with one writer after another predicting that, unlike the last round of movement, this time we are definitely going to see Conference Armageddon. With Texas A&M on the verge of moving to the SEC, we have seen the same type of pouncing. Really, though, A&M's move means very little. If the SEC pulls in an ACC team as No. 14 (Virginia Tech? Florida State? ...Boston College?), then the ACC probably pulls in a team from the Big East, the Big East gives Mike Bianchi's UCF Knights a long-coveted BCS slot, and that's about it. Combine that with the Big 12 pulling in BYU or, possibly, a former SWC school (we thank you for your application, SMU, but the application process hasn't actually begun yet), and we're done for another year or so.
That's a decent-sized ripple, really (and it will do serious damage to the WAC's footprint when CUSA finally gives Louisiana Tech a spot so I can stop complaining about how confusing it is that they're in the WAC and UTEP's in CUSA), but it isn't the kind of Armageddon we have been preparing for over the last two years.
The only way we finally find our euphoric Armageddon is if a) the SEC adds Missouri, thereby making it one full third of the original Big 12 heading toward the exit, and b) it spooks Oklahoma. Really, athletic director Joe Castiglione and the Sooners hold all the cards. Without (b), (a) doesn't matter either. The Big 12 will remain a major conference as long as Oklahoma and Texas remain in it, even if every other original team departs and is replaced by Austin College, Southwestern Oklahoma State and a team that consists of the offspring Chip Brown and Matthew McConahuey and is coached by Greg Davis; but if at any point the Oklahoma higher-ups get nervous -- if Castiglione actually answers the phone during one of the 23 times per day that Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott calls him -- then look out. As it currently stands, if expansionapalooza chaos takes place, it begins in Norman, Oklahoma.
So, fine, chaos is unlikely but still hanging out nearby. What does chaos look like, anyway?
Anytime the subject of expansionapalooza comes up, we gravitate toward the "end game" scenario of four 16-team conferences. In a vacuum, it makes some amount of sense to think in these terms, and we have inevitably read (or written) some 64-team mock-up in which current conference affiliation is discarded and a perfect, playoff-friendly layout is installed. But this obviously only works on paper; nobody's dissolving all conferences and starting over, at least not until Jim Delany is dead and buried. (And even then, his demon spirit will probably remain Big Ten commissioner.) If the "four 16-teamers" scenario is going to happen, it would have to come about organically, and the math just doesn't work.
Let's play out the most popular Armageddon scenario:
1. Texas A&M and, we'll say, Missouri join the SEC. We can debate the likelihood of Missouri's selection, but this isn't about what's likely. For everybody's dream scenario to play out, the SEC has to be interested in Missouri, and Missouri has to be interested in the SEC.
2. Oklahoma panics and rewards Larry Scott for his persistent advances, as do Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and a random 16th team. For this example, it really doesn't matter if we're talking about Texas, Boise State, Baylor, or anybody else. No matter the identity of Team No. 16, we are now off and running.
3. With the SEC at 14 and the Pac-12 about to become the Pac-16, the Big Ten gets antsy and moves, too. Maybe they get Notre Dame and Texas, maybe they get two to four Big East teams; again, the details are unimportant.
Now, for the coming years, I think it is just as likely that the SEC and Big Ten end up at 14 instead of 16, but let's continue down the doomdsay road.
4. The SEC adds Virginia Tech and Random Other ACC Team (Florida State?) to go with A&M and Missouri.
Now we've got three 16-team superconferences. We are well on our way. One problem: the Big East will absolutely not stand still.
5. The Big East moves immediately and adds the batch of four remaining Big 12 programs (Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and Baylor). Maybe they stop at three (sorry, Baylor), maybe not, but regardless, the Big East will move as quickly as possible. The reason, of course, is obvious: it does the most to ensure conference survival. That, and it gives the Big East the best basketball conference in the history of sport.
(We are, for now, ignoring the possible "National Conference" scenario DeLoss Dodds brainstormed a while back, where the Big 12 falls apart and Notre Dame and Texas join forces, filling out a new major conference with, I guess, Big 12 remnants, service academies, Texas schools and perhaps nervous Big East or ACC programs.)
That leaves the following: somewhere between eight and 11 Big East teams (depending on who the Big Ten plucked and whether the Big East added Baylor), 10 ACC teams, BYU (if we're counting them as a major conference program), maybe Notre Dame and maybe Texas. That's between 18 and 24 programs overall, not 16. And while it's easy enough to just say "Forget ISU, Baylor and BYU -- that might give us the perfect 16," that isn't realistic as long as the Big East is acting aggressively.
So we've got three perfect (and unlikely) 16-team conferences and a giant mess. At this point, which of the following three scenarios is more likely?
A) The Big East and ACC attempt to cannibalize each other. The Big East comes after Boston College, Maryland and whoever else, while the ACC tries to pick off West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, South Florida ... somebody, in other words. Eventually, one of the two succeeds and ends up at 16 teams.
B) The Big East and ACC merge into an 18-21 team super-duper conference, one that, when including the Big East's basketball-only schools, is almost large enough to start its own NCAA basketball tournament.
C) The Big East adds between one and three schools (UCF? East Carolina? Houston? Memphis? SMU?), while the ACC adds two more (same candidates, plus perhaps a couple of Big East teams), and in the end, both conferences end up at 12 or 14 programs.
I would put the odds at 10% for (A), 20% for (B) and 70% for (C). Wouldn't you?
The bottom line is simple: while we are still working our way toward more conference redesign, all we are really doing is redefining what we consider "super conferences." (Remember when 12 was super? How quaint.) It is more likely that we end up actually increasing the number of programs that call themselves BCS schools instead of paring them down to a perfect 64. And really, what's wrong with that? Boise State and TCU have proven that you can build a true, powerful football program without direct access to BCS-level revenue, and we should not be limiting their access to the national championship. College football is big enough to handle more than 64 "major" programs, and in a time of unlimited television and revenue opportunities, why limit ourselves in this regard?