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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

How Big is Too Big?

I haven't written much in the last few days for various reasons -- a lot of accumulated vacation hours, little going on around campus, etc. -- but I've done radio the past two days and the topic of conversation in both cases was the same: Expansion.

I mentioned the idea of expansion -- both in the SEC and around the country -- last week and compared it to the fight scene in "Anchorman." The situation really escalated quickly.

Monday, we got -- potentially -- the first real step beyond speculation, however. Well maybe. But probably not.

A Kansas City radio station cited anonymous sources in a report that Nebraska, Missouri, Notre Dame and Rutgers had been offered invites by the Big Ten. Those schools have either denied the story or refused comment, as has the Big Ten.

The lesson? Well, for one, when is the last time an anonymous report by a radio station turned out to be true?

The other lesson? We're still far from getting any closure on what has quickly become one of the most hotly debated topics in sports.

But there's a reason it's being talked about so much. For one, it's fun to speculate about things like this the same way we do with other meaningless exercises like preseason polls and mock drafts. But more importantly, some of the scenarios being discussed have the potential to effect every corner of the college football landscape.

In the end, there may not be much change beyond the Big Ten and Pac-10 getting conference title games and a few schools swapping conference affiliations.

For now, however - while we're still in the speculation phase -- every school is potentially affected, which makes every fan interested.

It's hard at this point to even grasp the full range of possibilities and ripple effects from any significant shake-ups, but here are a few key questions pertinent to this forum:

1.) Is this good for college football?

That question might be better phrased: "Is this good for college football fans?" Because college football will do what's beneficial for itself financially, but I don't get the feeling most fans are clammoring for 16-team super conferences just yet.

(* Side note: I don't think we should assume that large-scale expansion is going to be as financially beneficial as many people think either. Keep in mind that the NCAA didn't expand the basketball tournament as many assumed they would because, at the end of the day, the revenue streams simply wouldn't support it. It's a down economy, schools are already tightening their belts on things like travel, and when we talk about conference expansion, we're not simply discussing football.)

But I'm also not sure that bigger conferences would be a bad thing for fans either.

For one, while fans all say they like the underdogs -- and Boise State, Utah and TCU have certainly proven worthy of late -- those are the rare exceptions. If you remember my look at the Mountain West a few months ago, the truth is that that conference hasn't gotten more competitive, but rather that the top three teams have gotten better while the rest of the league has been exceptionally poor.

Moreover, those underdogs aren't playing a lot of marquee games -- and what we're certainly seeing more of is a lack of great non-conference games. Yes, Georgia has played some interesting opponents the past few years, but what about Florida? Or Ole Miss? Or a big chunk of the entire Big 12? The upside to a 16-team conference might be more conference games -- which would mean, theoretically, less one-sided non-conference showdowns.

But there's also a lot to be said for tradition, and the idea of 16 teams playing in the SEC could mean Georgia saying goodbye to annual rivalry games against Auburn, for example, and seeing the Tigers just once every few years instead. Or it could mean Alabama and LSU visit Sanford Stadium just once every 12 years or so.

My guess is the fans against any large-scale expansion see the disappearance of tradition as the primary reason.

2.) How does the SEC fit in?

Right now, it doesn't. But that can change.

I spoke to Mike Slive about this issue and his bottom line answer was that the league is monitoring the situation, and will act when it needs to.

I have no doubt that is the case, but it also would surprise me if a league as successful as the SEC was reactive rather than proactive.

Of course, the bigger question is whether the SEC needs to expand in the first place. Mark Richt certainly doesn't think so.

"I’d be surprised if it happened any time soon," Richt said. "I could see the other leagues getting to the format we have which I think is a great format with six teams on each side and a championship game. There’s some leagues that might be trying to get to that. That would make more sense to me than trying to get these super conferences because you don’t get to play everybody if you do that. It’s almost like two different leagues when you do that.”

Richt sounds awfully reasonable to me. After all, why does the SEC need to expand? For the Big Ten and Pac-10, expansion gets them the all-important conference title game, but the SEC has already set the standard on how that's done.

Moreover, the league just inked a huge TV deal with ESPN last year and has produced the last four national champions. Revenue and competition is already about as high as it can go. Even the annual also-rans like Mississippi State, Vandy and Kentucky have enjoyed some measure of recent success (and in truth, expansion would likly hurt those programs the most).

So my bet on this is much the same as Richt's -- the SEC is already the best, and they don't need to overreact to the Pac-10 or Big Ten's rush to catch up. After all, it's the ACC that more realistically competes for the same dollars as the SEC, and the ACC's expansion hasn't done a thing to dent the SEC's armor.

The wild card, however, might be Texas.

The Pac-10 would love to hook the Horns. So would the Big Ten. And for that very reason, it would make sense that the SEC would at least kick the tires on the idea.

But that, too, seems like an unlikely scenario. Of course, all of this might have seemed unlikely even a few months ago, but now here we are, on the precipice of the biggest shakeups to the college football landscape in the past 15 years.

Because while things may not change much in the SEC, things are going to change. Expansion is a reality in the Big Ten. That is likely true for the Pac-10, too. And if those leagues grow, it has to come at the expense of someone else. And when those dominoes start falling, it's hard to say exactly where we'll end up -- which is what makes this debate so interesting in the first place.

So what do you guys think? Are you all for expansion? If other leagues get bigger, would you want the SEC to follow suit, or stay with how things are? And if the SEC did get bigger, which teams would you like to see added?


Anonymous said...

Why can't we have the Big-10 and Pac-10 just add the appropriate teams to have a conference championship? That would make life so much easier on everyone instead of these stupid super conferences. Can you imagine the complaints when it comes to bowl time? This team didn't play that team and so on. It would get out of hand fast. Just put ND in the Big-10. Problem solved. Pac-10 just add Boise State and Utah. They couldn't add BYU because of political reasons from what I have read.

Paul said...

David, I think you are asking fun questions here with the right perspective. A few points:

I'm a Georgia homer and I've always fallen on the side of traditions. But, I like the "super conference" idea with some caveats.

First, the SEC should only expand if it goes to 16 and gets Texas and Texas A&M or Oklahoma. There's a huge problem with Texas, though, which I'll get back to later.

Personally, I'd like to have Clemson and Florida State come over with Texas and A&M. It's a nice, even addition: two to the west and two to the east.

Everyone would play everyone in their division - which is now essentially what a conference used to be. That's 7 games.

Each team continues the tradition of a permanent opponent from the other division to maintain a few special games: AU-UGA among them. That's 8.

Then, two rotating opponents from the other division. That's 10.

10 quality games on a 12 game schedule. Basically, out-of-division games replace non-conference games. If you think of the division as the conference, then the out-of-division games are high quality OOC games. Is this better than our current set up? Well, do I want to pay full price to see UGA play UL-L and Idaho State? With 10 games scheduled within the SuperSEC and Georgia Tech, then that leaves only one slot for the SunBelts and I-AA we shouldn't be playing anyway.

I don't really care if we wouldn't play Bama or LSU but every x years if I'm missing them to play Clemson and FSU EVERY year and I'm getting home-homes with Texas sprinkled in there too. The trade-off, IMO is well worth it. Plus, the championship game is a chance to battle those teams.

This all assumes, too, that the current landscape includes the Big10 and Pac10 and one other league going to the 16 team model.

The problem with Texas is that they are going to come at a price. The strength of the Big 10 and the SEC is their revenue sharing which is much more equitable than the Big XII. In fact, Texas' greed is what is making Mizzou and Nebraska a target. Since Texas is the coveted prize in the expansion sweepstakes, it's possible they'll simply be a bidding war. The SEC should get Texas, but not if it means Texas isn't going to participate in an equitable pay-out structure. If they insist on remaining greedy, then take the Aggies and OU and let Texas destroy the Pac10 (on the field and at the bank).

Paul said...

...afterall, snubbing the SEC worked out so well for Florida State the first time right?

I also meant to add that I don't think this would ever happen within the NCAA because the non-BCS and FCS schools will be locked out of the big pay days. Think of all this from Louisiana Tech or Troy or Charleston Southern's perspectives: they more or less need the pay for play cash they get to go to The Swamp and take a beating. If there are fewer of those opportunities, then they become less viable athletic departments.

Dawgaholic said...

Have to have a ten game conference schedule then its just one extra year between games with each team in the other division.

David Hale said...

Yes but there would also be two extra teams in that division, theoretically. So... 7 in division games plus Auburn leaves two West teams every two years (home & home). Eight teams in the West, minus Auburn... so you'd get a home date vs. each West team once every 8 years? I think that's right.

AppleDawg said...

Expansion was bound to happen with the money in conferences growing.

The SEC will be able to pick whoever they want and Texas/A&M are the two logical choices at first. I then say Clemson and FSU. Add 2 to the West, 2 to the East. Makes sense