Conference Expansion: What Does This Mean for ND?

If you’ve been following my musings on Twitter (and lately, that’s been the best way to see my “writing” since I’m far behind on a certain series), you’ve likely seen me mention a few times that I believed conference expansion was nearly a certainty.  You also might remember me saying that ND could very well likely have their hand forced into joining a conference, as well as me saying it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Today though, we stand on the brink of that very insanity.  The Big 10 has become the new Big 12 more or less, and the Big XII will likely be resting in peace very soon.  On the heels of rumors that the Pac 10 invited Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Colorado to join in on some west-coast fun, Nebraska decided it was time to go ahead and make a move and become the 12th team to join the now even more confusingly named Big 10 (with an official announcement coming as soon as tomorrow).

With the first domino falling, news and rumors were flying all over that the Big XII would soon be good as dead.  While Texas and Texas A&M decided to take their time and meet today on their potential options, Colorado decided to take a much more proactive stance.  With news of Texas politicians posed to make a major push to have Baylor receive Colorado’s invite, Colorado officially joined the Pac 10, making such posturing all but moot.

The question though is: what happens next?  And as far as (most of) Notre Dame Nation is concerned: “OH HOLY CRAP, DOES THIS MEAN WE WON’T BE INDEPENDENT ANYMORE?!”

First off, take a deep breath, I’ll come right out and say it: ND likely won’t be affected in this mess.  However, there is a certain situation that could very well force ND’s hand into conference membership.  Understanding the “why’s” of these situations will likely lower your blood pressure considerably if you are on full-blown panic mode, and why some ND fans like myself are watching this situation with a large bucket of popcorn laughing our asses off.

Let’s get rid of myth #1: the money.  Yeah, the Big 10 has a sweet TV deal and other future super-conferences will have similar deals that will allow for absurd amounts of cash to come pouring in.  Hell, these deals are likely even better than what ND has with their NBC contract.

Forget about whether or not the numbers work, are valid, whatever.  It flat out doesn’t matter.

Sure, ND wouldn’t mind a bit of extra cash, but it isn’t like the NBC deal is crippling the school by any means.  The revenue sharing deals from such networks help smaller schools with less brand recognition far more than a juggernaut like ND.  If Swarbrick has a list of priorities at his desk in making this decision, I can assure you money is way down that list.  The priorities at hand are to ensure our football team will always have the chance to compete for a title and that our other sports have a place to play in.

Which brings us to the rather large piece of this puzzle: the Big East.

ND is able to remain its football independence largely in part to our relationship in the Big East.  Every other sport has a home and despite a little bit of huffing and puffing a couple of weeks ago, they are fine with our football independence.  As long as our “home” in the Big East remains in one piece, ND will likely be able to continue as normal.

The majority of the “OH GOD NO WE HAVE TO JOIN A CONFERENCE” doomsday scenarios dealt with the Big 10 ravaging the Big East’s roster, and then looking at us saying “now what are you going to do?”.  However, the Pac 10 completely pulled the rug out from everyone by more or less destroying the Big XII.  Make no mistake, the other five schools with invites feel the writing is on the wall.  If the Big XII is going down, joining a “Pac 16” super-conference is an obvious decision.

Now this is highly important from the ND point-of-view because this can put the Big East in the driver’s seat.  Instead of being the potential cannibalized conference, they can now join the “Loot the Big XII” party.  For instance, taking a school like Kansas would be a rather easy choice, making the Big East a true basketball super-conference.  While you might not think basketball would relate much to football, think of it this way: a future “Big East Network” could be the premiere college basketball network.  Toss in a bit of football from some decent teams, and there is no way they won’t bring in some major cash.  It likely won’t be on the “big boy” level, but they surely won’t be hurting either.

But what of the SEC and ACC?  Or will the Big 10 continue to take more teams?  Answers to both: don’t worry about them.

The SEC is in fantastic shape, and if any expansion on their end were to happen, they’d only want the crown jewels from the Big XII like Texas or OU.  Don’t look for them to try to take apart the Big East either as that makes very little geographical sense, much less thinking any of those teams would boost their conference.  The SEC is basically just watching this unfold with very little worry.

Much of the same could be said for the ACC.  Sure, they are far from a powerhouse conference, but they have their title game and still have schools in their conference with quite a bit of history.  Again, I can’t see the ACC wanting anyone but the crown jewels of college football to strengthen their position.  They could make a play for Kansas for basketball reasons, but I don’t see it personally.  Trying to take the lower tier Big XII leftovers doesn’t make a whole lot of geographical sense either.  Like the SEC, they have no reason to expand, so don’t expect them to try.  Even making a mega-super-awesome-holy-crap-basketball-conference with the Big East would put the number of teams in both conferences to a rather absurd level (read: scheduling nightmare).

And the Big 10 seems quite happy with their twelve as well.  After Nebraska committed, word quickly spread that Mizzou was no longer being considered.  In fact, the only rumored future expansion of the conference is for two more teams, which would likely only happen if ND crosses over.  Considering our hand isn’t forced by a crumbling Big East, I don’t see this happening either.

So what would force our hand? That answer is easy: the BCS (or its collapse).

The BCS contract as it stands now will stand until 2014.  With the way things are playing out, the only conference to not see the light of this day will be the Big XII.  At this point, the BCS will have to change the ways bowls are structured, and with a bunch of conference title games, a playoff might actually be a possibility.  That, of course, could leave a non-conference contender like ND out in the cold.  If that were to happen, ND would fly to a conference without thinking twice.

Of course, our bargaining position in 2014 will be greatly related to our performance between now and then.  If ND is one of the better teams in the nation, the BCS will again bend over backwards to include us.  If not, pressure could easily mount to have us excluded, and this time around, you can bet the BCS will listen to everyone else.

Why? Again, easy answer: the conferences now have the cash to not worry about what the BCS does.

With loads of conference network money, the BCS contracts really don’t seem to be the gigantic money-driving factor that they once were.  With plenty of financial backing from their network deals, the conferences could easily cut the BCS out of the entire equation and create their own playoff.  It would be a win-win for everyone (save for the BCS).  Conferences and teams make their cash, and fans get their playoff.  In this scenario, with the conferences becoming their own governing body, you can bet they will force ND into conference membership.  The BCS might be fine paying ND money, but all the conferences sure won’t play ball in the same manner.

So long story short, with the way things are going right now (and even with more possible craziness happening as I write this post) don’t worry about ND’s precious independence.  As long as conferences continue to leave the Big East alone, kick back, relax, and enjoy as the rest of the college football world sets fire to itself.

Oh, and enjoy some USC sanctions too (more on that in a later post)!