Saturday, June 19, 2010

NCAA Conference Merry-Go-Round

To paraphrase "Wait! Wait! Don't Tell Me"'s Peter Sagal, the only thing more American than sports is pointless arguments about sports. He was talking about baseball, but if there's one sport that's almost as American as baseball, it's college football. And the pointless argument du jour is conference realignment. Conference realignment isn't all about football--it's about all athletics, and even about academics (what a concept)--but it's gotten the most attention in the light of football, so that's mostly how I'll consider it.

All this buzz about conference readjustment started when the Big Ten started throwing around notions of expanding to a horrific 14 teams, and the Pac-10 announced its truly idiotic plan to pursue Texas as its twelfth member. True, like Oregon and California and Arizona, it's a massive public land-grant institution. The similarities end there. Conferences are traditionally geographic for a reason: competition is more fun (and collaboration more worthwhile) when it's with your close peers... and who wants to drive literally halfway across the country to go see a football game?

The Pac-10 was all prepared to accept Texas, but fortunately for everyone involved, Texas stood their ground in the Big 12. Their departure not only would have made the Pac-10 into a nonsensical cherry-picked mess of a conference, but it would have set the precedent across all of college football that it was okay to do that very thing. This isn't to say that Texas acted selflessly, only looking out for the good of the game--they surely got its own sweet financial deal, and more power to them.

Despite my strong objection to Texas joining the Pac-10, I do feel like some expansion was justified or even necessary:

Big Ten

Eleven teams is a miserable place to be, I'll give you that. You're too big to enjoy the cohesion of a small conference where every team plays every other team every year--that's only feasible with ten or fewer teams. But you're not big enough that you can really build meaningful divisions or have a championship game; 12 teams is the magic number there.

At first, I thought it would make the most sense to go after Cincinnati, which is a school consistent with the conference's current geography and one that's established itself as a football powerhouse in the last few seasons. I thought that Rutgers and Syracuse would be good options as well--apparently I felt that pillaging the Big East was much more acceptable than taking from the Big 12.

But the more I think about the Nebraska addition, the more I like it. Nebraska brings many of the same benefits as Texas--big state school, storied football program with plenty of depth and tradition. But it makes more geographic sense. Like Iowa, Nebraska is one of those gray area "sort of the Midwest, sort of the Great Plains" states. Nebraska borders Iowa, which means the Big Ten retains its geographic contiguity, which is perhaps more important to me than it should be.

Finally, it's an interesting move for the Big Ten's audience. Did any Nebraskan ever watch a Big Ten game before? Now they'll be watching twelve. Did any Kansan? Now they'll be watching at least one, because there's no reason to think that they'll stop playing the same series they've been at since 1892. They're not huge markets, but they'll do nothing but boost the Big Ten.

Unsolicited advice to the Big Ten: stop here. Change your name to something that makes more sense (though avoid going for "Big 12"), but quit adding teams. If you hit 13, you're going to be in as awkward spot as you were in with 11, and you're going to have to keep adding until you reach a full-on superconference of 16.


Ten is not a horrible place to be, but the more teams that play a conference championship, the less relevant your conference becomes for the first two weeks of December, and that's revenue you don't want to miss out on.

Utah seemed the natural choice for expansion, so I'm happy that that's going to happen. The 2009 Poinsettia Bowl didn't exactly have the best outcome for us Cal fans, but it showed us that Utah is going to give the conference some entertaining opposition indeed.

At first, Colorado didn't strike me as particularly "Pacific", but then again neither is Arizona, and it fits in just fine with the Pac-10. While Colorado isn't as powerful an athletic addition as Utah, it does represent a good move to expand the conference into the Rocky Mountain states.

Unsolicited advice to the Pac-10: change your name to "Pac-12" and be done with it for exactly the same reasons the Big Ten needs to quit while it's ahead.

Big 12

Losing two schools is bad, but at least it's not your prime moneymakers (anything in Oklahoma or Texas). You can recover.

Unsolicited advice to the Big 12: fight back. Get two more members, and do it quickly, or you're going to be marginalized in the end of the season the same way the Big Ten has been for the last decade. And don't do it by raiding any other "major" conference, or the merry-go-round will just keep turning.

Instead, focus on the so-called "mid-majors", the FBS conferences that aren't guaranteed a piece of the BCS pie. TCU would be an excellent pickup, but the upward-trending Mountain West might not be so happy to lose them. Conference USA then becomes the best place to go. Houston would be an excellent addition to the conference--it's within spitting distance of most of the Texas schools, and it's proven to be a contender in recent years. And there are a handful of other schools in Texas that might fit in just fine.

Mountain West

I, along with probably a million other armchair commissioners, decided back at the BCS-busting 2010 Fiesta Bowl that Boise State would be a natural addition to the MWC. The conference might have weak bottom half, but what a top half Boise State, Utah, TCU, and BYU would be--and Air Force, to their credit, is no slouch of a program either.

Utah is leaving, so that dream of a "mid-major" won't be happening. But I think if the MWC plays its cards right, it can still become a power player at its level, and perhaps even ascend to the upper echelons of the game.

Unsolicited advice to the Mountain West: hang on to your top-tier programs, which at this point are BYU, TCU, and now Boise State. Consider your own expansion to 12 teams--look at Nevada, which is a natural rival for UNLV, and Idaho, which was the surprise of the WAC last year in that they managed to give Boise State a run for their money.

The superconference idea

What happens if (when) someone expands beyond 12 teams? 13 is as bad as 11, and 15 is no better either. 14 is okay, but why stop there? 16 just seems better. At this point, you're more than a conference, you're the first superconference.

A 16-team conglomeration may seem downright unholy, but they make more sense the more you think about them. There are several specific proposals, but the basic idea is this: four 16-team conferences are formed out of the six current eight-to-twelve team conferences. The four conferences that remain are the ones with the biggest impact, or most iconic regional representation, or most robust history. Under this plan:

The ACC expands to 16 teams by absorbing the more "coastal" Big East teams (like Rutgers and Connecticut). Its geographical profile remains essentially the same, ranging down the Eastern seaboard from Boston to Miami, but its presence in the northeast strengthens.

The SEC expands to 16 teams by absorbing the more "southern" Big 12 teams (like Texas and Oklahoma). Its geographical profile remains mostly restricted to the traditional "southeast" but grows in the west.

The Big Ten expands to 16 teams and changes its name to the Big Sixteen by absorbing the more "midwestern" Big East teams (like Cincinnati) and the more "northern" Big 12 teams (like Nebraska, which it has already done). It remains a mostly "midwestern" conference but expands slightly to the east and west.

The Pac-10 expands to 16 teams and changes its name to the Pac-16 by absorbing the more "western" Big 12 teams (like Colorado, which it has already done). If necessary, it also takes the more "Pacific" schools in the WAC and MWC (like Utah, which it has already done).

The Big East is dissolved and divided more or less equally between the ACC and the new Big Sixteen (though West Virginia strikes me as a very SEC-friendly team).

The Big 12 is dissolved and spread among the SEC, new Big Sixteen, and new Pac-16.

Each conference would be comprised of two eight-team divisions. Every team would have a nine-game conference schedule, consisting of seven in-division games, one fixed inter-division "rival", and one rotation inter-division opponent. The other three games would be some combination of FCS opponents, inter-conference rivals, and anything else.

This setup even lends itself to a mini-tournament to close each season: the Pac-16 winner plays the Big Sixteen winner in the Rose Bowl, the ACC winner plays the SEC winner in the Fiesta of Sugary Oranges Bowl, and the winners of those two bowls play each other in the national championship. Or, to expand the tournament to 8 teams, take the winner of each division, seed them according to national ranking, and play a 7-game single-elimination tournament.

Any thoughts? Is expansion good for the game? How about superconferences?

Currently listening: "Window", Guster

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