One of the most unique things about college sports is the schools themselves have the power to remake their environment, and that’s led to the chaotic round of conference realignment we’ve seen lately. The recent decisions by Nebraska and Colorado to leave the Big 12 for the Big 10 and the Pac-12 respectively, while noteworthy in their own right, may be just the first chips to fall in a round of conference realignment that could remake college football as we know it.
Texas A&M is well on the way to leaving the weakened Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference, and that could set off a round of dominos leading to 16-team superconferences. The key question for college football, though, is if that’s really a good thing.
On the surface, larger conferences stacked with powerhouse programs have several points in their favor. For one thing, that could destroy the BCS and lead to a playoff system, such as the one recently outlined for Forbes by Webster University economics professor Dr. Patrick Rishe. A playoff could be imposed without superconferences, but the current lineup of six theoretically-equal (but far from practically-equal) BCS automatic qualification conferences and five non-automatic qualifying conferences makes it more difficult to come up with a fair set of entrance criteria.
If you have four 16-team superconferences, that’s more likely to give you four deserving champions to receive automatic bid slots, and it gives you four at-large spots for independents, non-superconference teams or superconference teams that don’t win the conference championship. Under Rishe’s system, most teams play no more games than they currently do; two of the four teams that win quarterfinals play one extra game (semifinals), while the other two play two extra games (semifinals and the national championship). This looks like a practical system, one that could generate extra money and interest, and one that would be easy to implement if superconferences came along.
Another benefit of superconferences is that they could do away with some of the despised non-conference cupcake games currently in existence. Larger conferences don’t necessarily mean more conference games, but they could, and there would likely be less opposition to further conference games if there was an ironclad playoff berth for the conference champion instead of pressure to pad the resume with easy teams, go undefeated and lock up one of the two slots in the championship game. Most teams play eight conference games at the moment out of a 12-game schedule; boosting that to 10 or higher would make for substantially more compelling viewing week-in and week-out by eliminating some of the walkovers against cannon fodder, while still allowing for teams to play interesting non-conference clashes against other power teams.
However, there are significant perils associated with the superconference idea as well. Dallas Mavericks’ owner and long-time NCAA playoff proponent Mark Cuban made some interesting points against the idea, most notably arguing that many schools would hate the eventual consequences of larger conferences; it’s easy to get stuck in the basement of a big conference, and much tougher for occasionally strong schools to make a run when they’ve got multiple powerhouses to get past instead of just one or two.
There would also be less titles out there for the taking, too; a school like Connecticut that won the Big East football title in 2010 despite a less-than-stellar team might never be able to claim a title if they were in a larger conference; then again, they might never even make it into a bigger conference.
There are potential problems that go beyond football, too. If they come into existence, 16-team superconferences would certainly pose issues for many schools’ other sports, and they might even result in the destruction and replacement of the NCAA basketball tournament.
Superconferences could also further increase the already-growing divisions between the big wealthy and powerful schools and their weaker brethren, and that may not be good for college sports in the long run.
Cuban argues that the amount of television money each school gets would drop and that scheduling will get worse. It’s hard to determine if that will actually happen, though. The existing television contracts will certainly be drastically altered if superconference expansion goes ahead, and recent conference deals such as the Pac-12’s suggest that not only could they be altered to higher numbers, but also that the potential is there for massive multi-network deals. The Pac-12 currently plans to work with both ESPN and FOX as well as launching six of their own regional networks; deals along those lines could solve issues along both the money and scheduling fronts.
Conference realignment is nothing new, of course; schools have been remaking conferences for decades. Each of those moves, like the demise of the old Southwestern Conference and the Big Eight, the Big East – ACC turf wars and the recent expansions of the Big 10 and the Pac-12, have had ripple effects, and none of them could have been completely predicted. If superconferences do come to pass, it seems likely the same thing will happen. Some effects, both positive and negative, can be anticipated at this point, but many are still yet to be seen. At this point, there’s plenty for fans to be excited about – but also plenty to be wary of.