Movement on the Mountain

Wednesday saw the next big thing in conference realignment, and it came as something of a surprise. Not a 7.0 on the college football Richter scale, but much more than just a tremor.

BYU, seeking to leverage both their own BYU TV network, and a nationwide following, announced they are seriously considering becoming only the fourth independent Football Bowl Series school, joining Notre Dame, Army, and Navy.

With the departure of Utah from the Mt. West for the Pac->10 effective in 2011, the prospects for an automatic BCS berth and an improved television contract for the Mt. West dimmed, despite the move of Boise St. from the WAC to the Mt. West, also in 2011, dimmed. So much so that BYU, feeling left behind after neither the Pac-10plus or the Big 12minus offered them a membership, decided to explore other avenues than the Mt. West.

The BYU plan so weakened the Mt. West that Boise St. considered reneging on their move to the Mt. West.

(Updated)

The next dominoes to fall came quickly, as the Mt. West conference made an attempt to end run both Boise St.'s doubts and BYU's plan to become a WAC member again for every sport except football by inviting Nevada and Fresno St. to join the Mt. West, which both institutions quickly indicated they would accept.

This despite an apparent $5 million buyout both teams might have to pay to the WAC, due to an agreement amongst the eight remaining members quickly enacted after Boise St. bolted. Notably, Nevada never signed the agreement, which in some quarters is expected to invalidate it.

The WAC conference, of course, is of the opinion that the agreement is valid, and unless the remaining members vote to waive the buyout, and possibly vote to officially release the Wolfpack and the Bulldogs after this season, instead of after the 2011-12 school year, intends to pursue legal action to collect the buyouts.

The Mt. West Conference, of course was formed when Utah, BYU, and also UNLV, San Diego St., New Mexico, Air Force, Wyoming, and Colorado St. then half the conference, bolted from the WAC, forming the new Mt. West in 1999. And left the at the time have-nots, including Nevada and Fresno St., behind.

Until Boise St., added to the WAC after the Mt. West exodus, joined, only TCU had been added to the Mt. West Conference, which, as it happens, essentially led to the formation of "The Mountain" television network.

Now, the poor cousins at Nevada and Fresno St., now the best of what's left of the WAC, are highly desirable additions, instead of dead weight to be left behind.

These developments will leave a six team WAC conference, now comprised of Hawaii, Idaho, Utah St., New Mexico St., San Jose St., and Louisiana Tech, at least until the WAC can find some new recruits.

Another consequence is the probable unraveling of BYU's plan to play 4-6 of their football games against WAC teams. Which would impact relative values when the WAC, BYU, the Mt. West, and probably others, the Pac-12 included, all go negotiating with various networks and carriers for new television contracts.

The diminishing of the WAC also makes BYU's plan to rejoin the WAC for all other sports probably null and void. Given BYU's long term success in mens' basketball, that's not entirely a ho-hum matter, and is a huge deal for what's left of the WAC.

BYU's motivation is driven by the Mt. West's miserable bowl tie-ins and mediocre television revenue from the agreement with the Mountain network. As an independent, they would get to keep all of their share of bowl revenue, and since the Las Vegas Bowl is the best a Mt. West team that doesn't get a BCS invite can count on, it's easy to see why they would want to do better. But what bowl could they realistically hope to get a consistent tie-in with that would be better, given they might well vary from skipping out to a BCS at-large invite to being 6-6, or anything in between, in any given year?

Note to that while all the moves are about the money, and getting more of it, the lawyers are making out just fine.

Further dominoe falling could include movement of conference USA teams, or the move up of existing Football Championship Division teams. Possible candidates here include Eastern Washington, Montana, and Northern Arizona from the Big Sky. Portland St. and Sacramento St., which are in attractive markets, are much farther away as far as overall programs and facilities, darkening their prospects considerably.

Whether the WAC could cut an attractive deal for some members of Conference-USA or the Sunbelt, or even afford to, if they lose the $5 million per buyout scuffle, further stirs up the NCAA bottom waters.

Much of this would appear to be of limited concern to the members of the Pac-10, but Boise St., BYU, TCU, and Fresno St. to a degree, are players on the national level already, so the potential for impact on recruiting, as well as non-conference schedules, is not insignificant, even if the immediate impact on current and new television contracts is minimal.

Jockeying for position amongst Fox Sports, Comcast, the Mountain, the BYU network, various cable carriers, and probably even the "Joe and Ed Video Camera network", for position behind ESPN and CBS could have an impact on possibilities for forming the Pac-12 network, however.

Utah St. was invited by the Mt. West as well, but initially declined. However, as the week comes to an end, the Aggies are rumored to be in negotiation again. If they jump, the Mt. West reaches 12 members, which, recall, is the magic number that would allow them to stage a conference championship game.

Hawaii, who already plays a fairly nationwide schedule, with the 13th. game exemption card to play, is reportedly also exploring the possibility of becoming a football independent. And bringing the non-football WCAC into the picture, by becoming a member of that conference for other sports.

Seattle, a recent returnee to NCAA Division I, and an independent, though a non-football school, suddenly becomes a player in the conference monopoly board game as well. One also wonders how quickly former football schools like Pacific and Long Beach St. might restart a program, especially if there were to be assists from the WAC and their remaining members.

The entire Big Sky is also being mentioned in expansion conversations, but with difficult economic times across the west, the amount of dollars that would be involved in raising all of some of those school's other programs to DI level would surely become a major issue, even with football $s dangled as an incentive.

Bottom line, as a college sports fan, it might be a good idea to keep your calendar relatively clear for the next few years; no telling who will be playing where, or when.

Andy_Wooldridge@yahoo.com

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