The only thing flying more recently than the various rumors about conference expansion and realignment are the denials from everyone in a position of importance that anything is in the works. Of course what they mean is that no one is ready to tip any cards in this billion dollar poker game.
While recent drinking events have occupied the local media, law enforcement, and athletic department, others from Boise to Bloomington have been bouncing the subject around at length. John Berkowitz, from the UW Dawg Pound, has done as clear a job as any at looking at the issue.
The dominoes probably won't start to fall until the Big 10 and those they are considering make a move, because what, and more importantly, who many moves the Big 10 makes will dictate both the options and the requirements for everyone else.
The Big 10 needs to add an odd number of teams to resolve a whole list of problems, and at least one to add a conference championship game, a requirement to bolster their already second best in class (to the SEC) television package into the neighborhood of the SEC.
But stopping at the minimum isn't their only option, and maybe not their best option.Notre Dame is the team caught in the middle, as they don't want to become the 12th. member of the Big 10++, and share their own television deal. Or give up their BCS deal. And there is the matter of them being in the Big East for other than football, though Irish football trumps all else when push comes to dollars in South Bend.
They also don't want to disappear into a Big 16, and with the likes of Ohio St., Penn St., Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan (don't think they will stay down for all that long), and potentially Nebraska and Pitt, that's exactly what would happen.
But they run the risk of being left behind if they stand pat.
Talk of offers to Nebraska, Missouri, Rutgers, and possibly Pitt and UConn as well as Notre Dame is very real, despite poker face press releases. Nebraska is a national profile program as well as one that delivers over 100% of all televisions in their state. Missouri isn't close to that, but there are a huge number of viewers in the show-me state, and they would establish a solid foothold in both the St. Louis and Kansas City markets.
"Rutgers?" might be some people's first reaction, but remember the Scarlet Knights are the ONLY option to establish a beachhead in the New York and New Jersey markets.
If there is a move to 14 or 16 teams in the Big-10 television network, which is where huge football and basketball dollars would go, then a lot of hands will be forced, but some not instantly.
If the Big 10 adds just one team, Notre Dame profits by staying as they are. Mega expansion would force them in, as the marketability of their competition would be too much to overcome.
While the Big 10 is the focus of the realignment talk, the 900 lb. gorilla in the room is still the SEC. If the Big 10 adds just one team, there won't be any real need for the SEC to take action. But if more go, then what the SEC does will dictate everyone else's options.
The problem is, there aren't that many moves available that helps the SEC. Florida St. and Georgia Tech, who once was a member of the SEC are obvious candidates, but the SEC is already strong in Florida, and Georgia and the SEC championship game already deliver a lot of the Atlanta market.
Clemson would bring a solid and huge local audience, but not that much nationally. The addition of any two of the Tigers, Yellow Jackets, or Seminoles would make a couple major rivalry games SEC games every year, though.
It is hard to see the North Carolina big four risk their basketball empire by chasing SEC football money with programs that are not up to the task.
Virginia Tech would be a good fit, but delivering the Blacksburg market is like Arizona delivering the Tucson market. Nice, but not a deal maker.
Virginia and Maryland make the most sense in terms of delivering a large new market to the SEC on the eastern side, but that might be a reach in an area that sees South Carolina and Arkansas (the newcomers that made the SEC a 12 team conference) as well off the beaten path.
The prizes lie west of the SEC, and for the same reasons that talk of the Pac-10 courting Texas and Texas A&M. Texas produces more athletic revenue than anyone in the country, and delivers the majority of the markets in the state to whatever conference they are a part of.
When the Big XII was formed out of the old Big 8 and the remnants of the South West Conference, Texas was a talking point then for the Pac-10. Texas A&M was the rest of a package deal at the time, and realistically, they probably still are.
There is little doubt they are more likely to be separated now than then, as dollars talk louder than ever, but it is still hard to do anything in Texas if the Longhorns and the Aggies align against it. And A&M does bring enough to the table to make trying to split them up not worth the trouble, considering a package deal of Texas and SMU would still trump anything anyone could offer.
Luring the Texas big two to the Pac-10 won't be nearly as easy as a joint television deal would be if the Big XII remains viable. Texas has taken a liking to ruling the Big XII "footprint", something Nebraska doesn't appreciate. And don't think for a minute that Texas will agree to the Pac-10 share and share alike television and bowl revenue model. The Big XII experience serves as evidence, and the existing Pac-10 presidents (remember, Pullman, Corvallis, Eugene, Tucson, and Palo Alto have the same number of presidential votes as USC, UCLA, Phoenix, Berkeley, and Seattle do).
So even if the Big XII folds or becomes too small for Texas, the Longhorns joining in a marketing package is an option, while their becoming an equal partner with the Cougars, well, isn't.
What would make much more sense for the Pac-10, in addition to television marketing, would be something akin to the basketball Hardwood Series, where some cooperative scheduling would assist with unsold seats as well.
No one but Oregon consistently sells out in the Pac-10. Washington with some more wins comes close at times, but everyone else, even USC, plays in front of empty seats. Television market is the primary issue with all of these potential moves, but the Pac-10 also needs to sell tickets, including to a championship game.
That's not the case in the SEC, or with the big boys of the Big 10. Or Texas and Nebraska, for that matter. Adding a tough opponent does nothing for them unless it adds a big boost in television money, because it might add a loss, and won't sell a ticket.
The SEC is a completely different prospect than the Pac-10 for Texas. They offer an attractive solution for not only football, but also basketball and baseball, and much better travel logistics than the Pac-10.
Colorado and Utah, as has been discussed, make a lot of sense as the next teams added to the Pac-10, even though they don't deliver as much clout in the Salt Lake and Denver markets as Pac-10 Commissioner Larry Scott would like.
What would deliver, though, would be a Pac-16. Oklahoma is the key here. While the SEC would like Texas and Oklahoma, and say, Georgia Tech and Clemson, getting Texas without Texas A&M might be out of even their reach, unless they kick Arkansas out in the process. Which seems just a little too far out.
But if Nebraska, Missouri, and Colorado all bolt, the remnants of the Big XII are barely more viable than Conference USA. Texas and A&M would be forced to move, and without a doubt, they could strike the most lucrative deal with the SEC. The question is how much adding Texas is worth to the SEC. The Longhorns are going to force some raising in the television deal poker game before they call.
Oklahoma, Kansas, and Kansas St. coming west, and bringing Oklahoma St. (remember, the Cowboys are a bigger player in high stakes poker than most think, what with T. Boone Pickens sitting at the table) with them, would allow much of the old Pac-8 to remain intact, with five of the old Big-8 plus Utah and the Arizona schools as the new Big-8.
The prospect of a conference championship game rotating between Cowboy Stadium and the Rose Bowl quickly becomes a reality.
Iowa St., Texas Tech, and Baylor fans must be very nervous, with the prospect of joining forces with the Mt. West or Conference USA as their options.
The surprising thing is that there has been little focus on Houston and TCU. Austin is actually a long ways from either Dallas or Houston, and the smart money might be for the Pac-10 to add Houston and TCU, along with the Oklahomas, instead of the Kansas schools, to the eastern division. Texas would still dominate these markets, but even footholds in the Dallas and Houston markets are worth a whole lot more than the state of Kansas.
The Big East faces the toughest decision, as, while the loss of a couple of their football playing members would compromise them as a BCS conference, something that the Mt. West has already done, they remain a hoops monster.
The Big East and the Sunbelt are the only FCS football conferences that have a different footprint for hoops than football (technically, the MAC, due to Temple, also differs, but that one exception for the Owls is of negligible significance).
How the Big East decides to proceed, where some alliance for football with a weakened ACC, who also just happens to be probably their principal rival for television viewers, and contracts, is impossible to predict. And probably a place where only the very adventurous will invest.
Meanwhile, envision BYU, Boise St., and the Kansas schools as the haves in the western leftover conference. Hard to swallow for the Kansas schools, but they may be left with no better option. The question would be whether the Big East falls so far out of the football picture that this new Midwest/West conference could garner a BCS berth. If Memphis, Louisville, and Cincinnati join, and West Virginia and Syracuse move to the ACC to fill the gaps left from an SEC raid, it could happen.
So while the Big-10 will play the first card, the SEC still holds the largest table stakes, and Texas is holding a pretty good hand.
Maybe all the coverage of poker tournaments by the various networks is relevant after all, now that football has become a poker game!