The future landscape of the NCAA

USC and UCLA could see chilly November and December games in East Lansing as they join the Big Ten.

USC and UCLA could see chilly November and December games in East Lansing as they join the Big Ten.
Image: Getty Images

As we approach an era where USC kicks off at 9 a.m. PT in freezing November temperatures in East Lansing is a very realistic and potentially biennial situation, let’s look at the options for college athletics in the future.

This move from USC and UCLA really cannot be underestimated in its impact. The dust had largely settled since Texas and Oklahoma moved to the SEC, as the Big XII were able to fill their spots with strong promising backup options, but this? It is, like my colleague Eric Blum (and before him, REM) said, the end of the world – or, at least, of the regional conferences – as we know it.

The following scenarios revolve around the concept that football is the deciding factor in conference realignment decisions, which it has largely been until now. I understand Duke and Kansas have a lot to offer in March, but in the fall they won’t be held back.

Start Your Pac-12 Praise

Realistically, the Pac-12 doesn’t make it. With regional loyalties so casually set aside, Washington, Oregon and even Utah are now likely to explore other options if they don’t shop around their programs eagerly. The SEC, no longer the only conference with 16 teams, will likely look west for expansion (Manifest Destiny, anyone?) as well as east to Clemson, Florida State and Miami. While only one of the three schools has seen consistent success over the past few seasons, brands and fanbases would be huge steals now that it’s a free-to-play game.

If, say, Washington and Oregon head to the Big Ten and the SEC grabs Utah, the Pac-12 is left with a whole bunch of draws. It becomes a Group of 5 conference at this point, and with their media rights agreement expiring in 2024, they’re pretty much done.

So there are a few options here. The remaining Pac-12 could effectively merge with the Big XII, staying loosely in the same region (mostly west of the Mississippi, at least), to create a third so-called superconference. But he wouldn’t be able to compete with the powerhouses of the Big Ten and the new SEC, and would remain the little brother without iconic brands.

Another option appears if ACC drops.

And you, Sankey?

If the SEC is able to remove two of the three ACC schools I mentioned, the ACC is also lost. Some schools — Duke, Louisville, North Carolina — will run to the Big Ten, which will likely take them for their basketball programs and academic standards. Boston College would be accepted into the fray, as would Pittsburgh and Syracuse. It would basically be split on a parallel line from coast to coast. Big Ten and Southeastern Conference would be gross misnomers.

At this point, the rest of the Big XII and Pac-12 schools would have to join one of the two big conferences lest they risk becoming minor league football, which would cost college bottom lines dearly. Even Notre-Dame will finally have to join a conference.

It’s the conclusion many see as inevitable – two super-conferences monopolizing college sports with no regard for what it means for their non-football programs. A FOX deal, an ESPN deal, and that’s it.

But how will the planning work?

Well, in my opinion, with conferences that would theoretically bring together 20 to 30 teams, it would be necessary to create divisions. Regional divisions, perhaps. The Big Ten West would be in the Rockies. The Eastern SEC would involve pretty much all of the existing SEC. Perhaps the college football playoffs are like the winners east and west of the two superconferences facing each other and the winners of those playing for the national title.

This is, of course, incredibly ironic. While money and exposure are at the center of many of these decisions, creating these divisions within superconferences would literally recreate conferences as they were meant to be: you mostly travel to other schools in your area, which facilitates student-athletes, with some great games across the country that attract a more geographically diverse audience.

It’s going to be one of the funniest full-circle moments ever, naturally.

What about a total restructuring?

Another option—one that’s less likely to happen, given that there’s no greater power in college sports outside of the NCAA, which doesn’t determine conference structure—would be a league. of, say, 30 schools, in which the bottom four or six face regulation each year, and the top four or six of a high school league would be promoted each year.

However, that would require a lot of people to agree on a lot of things, which the college sports world is notorious for not being able to do (see: expansion talks). And neither of these conclusions will fully see the light of day for another few years, so for now, we have to embrace the chaos. Countdown to 2022 kick-off: 57 days.


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