Realignment roundtable: Next steps, Notre Dame and unrealistic relegation dreams
We are seeing more and more major changes in college football. Houston, Cincinnati, UCF and BYU are poised to enter the Big 12 on July 1st. And in the summer of 2024, we will see Oklahoma and Texas join the SEC, and UCLA and USC go to the Big Ten.
With these moves set in stone, and of course more coming soon, our reporters discuss what the future of college football’s reorganization might look like and express their wildest wishes for the sport.
What is the next domino to fall?
Bill Connelly: The next logical step will be taken when Pac-12 determines the value of their next set of media contracts. If it’s competitive enough against what the Big 12 did, then it’s safe to assume that Pac-12 will add two programs – San Diego State and SMU are rumored to be the leaders (and UNLV, Boise State and others are still hoping for a shot) — and potentially everything stabilizes for a while. If the Pac-12 scores end up falling far short of expectations, then I think we’ll know how serious the Big 12 is about the possible addition of the Colorado-Utah-Arizona-Arizona state quartet. Of course, looming over all of this is the question of whether the Big Ten will decide to expand the past 16 programs and add the most compelling combination of Oregon, Washington, California and Stanford. But since the G-10 don’t even have a commissioner or a full complement of college presidents at the moment, we’ll refrain from thinking about it.
Adam Rittenberg: I agree with Bill in a way, as the most immediate move could come from Pac-12 once his media contract – with the existing 10 members – is finalized. But the next major step is likely related to the Big Ten. Although Commissioner Kevin Warren was ultimately unable to win the league presidents over for additional West Coast expansion beyond USC and UCLA, I was told there was some support in the room. With Warren taking over as president of the Chicago Bears on April 17, can the new commissioner, with perhaps a stronger presentation, convince G-10 presidents and chancellors that adding Washington and Oregon makes sense? Maybe. If this happens, there will be more seismic changes in the sport. I don’t think anything will happen right away, given the importance of appointing a commissioner to the seat and the general flow in the group of G-ten presidents/chancellors that has existed throughout Warren’s tenure. But once the lead is established, the Big Ten could once again be a place to watch.
Heather Dinich: One lesson learned from about two decades of college football coverage is that the reorganization will never end, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the next step wasn’t as seismic as one might think. Pac-12 could add San Diego State and SMU after its next TV deal, and that could be the extent of the “next round of reorganization.” These decisions are made by rectors and university presidents, and unless there’s a big difference in income, they’re not going to move their academic institutions, period. The question is, what is the income gap that would prompt Pac-12 presidents to seriously consider the Big 12? Ten millions? Twenty? More? Are there enough university presidents in the “big ten” who would be willing to share the income with 18 schools? The Pac-12 TV deal contains the essence of these answers.
Will Notre Dame ever join the ACC or another conference?
David Hale: I suspect that on good nights, ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips dreams of a call from Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick and the announcement: “The day has come!” With a very uncertain future for ACC, this would be like winning the lottery. All these big income problems will be solved, the future will look bright and everything will be fine with the world. The slight problem here is that this won’t happen. Notre Dame’s contract with the ACC gives the Irish everything they need for non-football sports and doesn’t create an incentive for them to join the ACC in football. With the new extended playoffs, the chances are even lower. And while the contract ties the Irish, at least to some extent, to the ACC, buying them out of this deal won’t be out of the question if the Big Ten make a particularly lucrative offer. In other words, Plan A for Notre Dame is independence. It’s also Plans B, C, and D. And if the time comes when those options aren’t discussed, ACC is still unlikely to be Plan E.
Rittenberg: Notre Dame will only join the conference once the mythical Super League has been finalized and there will be a clear demarcation between programs competing at the highest level of sport. I still think it’s still one or two cycles away, but Notre Dame ultimately wants to fight for national championships. As long as the school is not denied access to the championship stage, it will remain independent in football. Independence means too much to the identity of Notre Dame. But if the sport leans towards some kind of lead with 30-40 programs, Notre Dame will have to agree to a change in its status.
Have lunch: Swarbrick told me last summer that there are three possible reasons why the university might be relinquishing its independent status: the loss of a dedicated broadcast partner; loss of a fair route in the postseason; “or such an unfavorable financial consequence that you had to reconsider.” Any of these three factors seem unlikely anytime soon, and Notre Dame’s independence has deeper roots than its football program. This university-wide sense of identity and history is so deeply ingrained that even the news of the upcoming 16-team SEC and the Big Ten was not enough to move the Irish to change. A 12-team playoff would only help Notre Dame, and Swarbrick was one of the co-sponsors of the original proposal. If Notre Dame joins the conference, it probably won’t be during this leader’s tenure.
Are we moving towards a future of only two super leagues?
Hale: The ultimate tipping point could come if and when the courts decide a major shake-up of the college athletic model is needed. If athletes are considered employees and the schools that can spend the most on top players have a built-in advantage, there is essentially no way forward for those who play outside of the SEC and Big Ten. Regardless of the legal consequences, teams like Florida State, Clemson, Oregon, or Washington that are looking to win national championships will find themselves in a make-or-die situation. Meanwhile, other schools less happy with the idea of college football as a semi-professional league may voluntarily ditch mega-conferences for something more like the Ivy League model. (Or perhaps be brushed aside. No one ever mentions downsizing as an option, but it makes a lot of financial sense.) As bad as income inequalities are, there aren’t many of them. new football operations buildings and food centers that the school can build for recruitment purposes. But if schools are forced (or allowed) to pay athletes directly, then the correlation between money and winnings will become much stronger, and the race for superconferences will begin.
Connelly: I still think the most likely scenario is a “second power and a trio at light heavyweight” not unlike what we see in European football. Even if the Big Ten and the SEC expand beyond 16 schools—which at this point seems almost inevitable—there will still be many schools willing and sometimes able to compete with lower budgets. At the end of the day, football is a pretty exciting thing to do, and to be honest, a 12-team, six conference champion playoff could be a bit of a saving grace. Even if the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Big Ten swallow up the majority of major event filings in a given year, securing at least five seats for teams outside of those conferences ensures that the rest of the FBS, whatever it looks like in the future , will have something. play for.
Have lunch: It depends on what you consider “super league”. I would say that the SEC and the Big Ten will already be claiming it in 2024. There are far too many other respectable FBS programs to try to sort this out, and for many of these university presidents there is an academic bar that must be met if they are going to agree to bring other universities into their club. The NIL will continue to drive a wedge between the richest programs and everyone else, even within its own conferences (see Maryland and Ohio), no matter how big they get. Before presidents and conference commissioners think about super conferences, they need to get ready to pay the players.
Which teams from group 5 can go to Power 5?
Rittenberg: San Diego State is well positioned to join the Pac-12 or Big 12 in the near future. There is no other FBS-playing school available in Southern California following the departure of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten. San Diego State has been successful in both football and men’s basketball, and its new stadium reflects its investment in football and desire to raise its profile. SMU is more of a projection candidate because of the money around the school. Can SMU follow a TCU-like path to prominence as a member of the Power 5? It’s a gamble with a small private school despite its attractive Dallas location. The G12 clearly want to move to the West, so I’m wondering if Boise is attractive enough. Years of football success definitely helps. Memphis has a lot of ingredients to be in Power 5 and it looks like he’s being left behind. Location doesn’t really help, but Memphis has invested in its top two programs. Let’s see if a similar investment in South Florida can position the school for the next round of reorganization after it really got left behind this time.
Kyle Bonagura: I agree with Adam that San Diego State is the obvious choice. With a new stadium, the still-recent departure of the Los Angeles Chargers, the size of the market, and sustained sporting success, SDSU presents no problem. However, they are not the only team in California that can make the jump. Fresno State can also….