The Big Ten and Pac-10 both want to expand — the Big Ten is beginning to sound very, very certain about it — and when they do, certainly you have been made aware by now that Things Will Never Be the Same. If you’ve followed the sport for the last two decades, of course, you’re also aware that things have never been "the same" for long in college football, an unstructured, unwieldy, Darwinian ecosystem completely lacking the central brain and susceptibility to top-down logic that’s defined every other sport in America, save maybe professional wrestling. Schools and conferences have always been in it for themselves, and the next phase of that evolution will be every bit as pitiless on those that are slow or ill-equipped to adapt.
If there is one constant, central narrative in the business of college football over the last half-century, it’s the ongoing stratification of the "Haves" and "Have-Nots," and the ever-increasing stakes of falling into the former category. The specifics of the relationship between the insanely profitable, behemoth programs and the aspiring middle class have changed to a degree; there’s far more money to be had today than in the past, and more competition for it. Scholarship restrictions and increased exposure for smaller schools via mid-week games on ESPN and a sudden glut of bowl games have helped distribute talent more evenly. The "Have-Not" schools have more access to a fraction of the loot thanks to BCS payouts and "guarantee" games that keep the lights on for another year in exchange for (usually) a sound beating in front of a packed house at Juggernaut U. But the big trend — the steady consolidation of money and power among fewer programs — is only just reaching another critical juncture in a long, 40-year arc that’s made the notion of the all-encompassing superconference almost inevitable in the long run.
Not that I’m the fatalistic or conspiratorial type (in general, people are not competent to organize and execute master plans over many decades). Consider, though, that every major structural upheaval in college football over the last three generations has served to further separate the elite from the chaff — or, if you prefer, to bring the structure in line with the competitive and economic realities.
In 1973, the NCAA drew a sharp (though very easily crossed) line between the really serious football schools and those still just playing to play when it separated its new "Division I" classification into I-A and I-AA. Within 15 years, every major Eastern independent except Notre Dame — Miami, Florida State, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, West Virginia — had leapt at the chance to join one of the major conferences (or, in the case of the Big East, to form a new one of their own), and the SEC had hit upon the golden idea of splitting into divisions and staging a championship game between the winners; to get to the requisite 12 teams, it added independent South Carolina and poached Southwest Conference heavyweight Arkansas, confining the SWC to the state of Texas and hastening the implosion that would send its remaining "Have" members (Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and, for political reasons, Baylor) to the new, SEC-modeled Big 12 and its Have-Nots (TCU, Houston, Rice and SMU) scrambling for cover.
The Big East only narrowly avoided the same fate barely a decade into its football existence, when the ACC nabbed its two most prominent programs, Miami and Virginia Tech, along with Boston College in 2003. By then, the nascent postseason cartel that had begun with the Bowl Alliance in 1992 had morphed into the Bowl Coalition and finally the full-fledged Bowl Championship Series when the Big Ten, Pac-10 and Rose Bowl swallowed their traditionalist pride and signed on in 1998, formally dividing Division I-A into the "Big Six" leagues with automatic bids to the big money/prestige games and everyone else.
In all of those cases, the number of teams that can claim to play in the top tier of college football — structurally and competitively, at least, if not in terms of money, attendance or exposure — has gotten a little smaller. Fewer programs have been able to claim a formal (Division I-A, "Big Six") that clearly separated them from the little guys, with the attendant economic and recruiting advantages. By getting bigger, the Pac-10 and Big Ten, especially — along with the SEC, in certain retaliation to maintain its status and profitability as the premiere conference — stand to make that number even smaller.
The Big East, having narrowly avoided the guillotine earlier this decade, can already see the writing on the wall for its existence as a major (BCS) football conference if the Big Ten poaches two or more of its members to form a 14 or 16-team juggernaut — and possibly for its existence as a football conference, period, in the drawn-and-quartered fashion that did in the SWC. But even if the Big East is the most direct, obvious casualty of a Big Ten power grab, it doesn’t take much creativity to imagine the dominoes falling in a pattern that crushes larger, seemingly more stable leagues.
See, for example, the Big 12, which lays prostrate from the major players in all directions: The trio or quintet of teams the Big Ten plans to bring aboard to become a 14 or 16-team conglomerate could easily include Missouri, a potentially disastrous departure that would cost the conference two of its biggest television markets, St. Louis and Kansas City. The North Division could be further ripped asunder by the Pac-10’s courtship of Colorado (without whom Pac-10 expansion is not really possible) and possibly, if the sky seems to falling around it, Nebraska. To the south, the Miami Herald’s Joseph Goodman isn’t the first to see the SEC making a move for Texas and Texas A&M. Even if the imperialist plunderers leave Oklahoma, a conference anchored by Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Texas Tech obviously cannot stand as a "major" football league. And there are at least a few people already who think it won’t, a victim of its demographic destiny.
In Goodman’s scenario, the SEC’s blockbuster retaliation also includes an Eastern Front to rip Florida State and Miami from the ACC; other projections have imagined Florida State and Clemson instead, Miami being a relatively small private school with a relatively tepid fan base by SEC standards. In either case, the departure of two of its cornerstone football programs would threaten to relegate the ACC to a kind of second-class, limbo status that it occupied for much of its history (and that the Big East occupies now), a nominally "major" conference that no one really regards as one. In fact, plenty of people will argue the ACC is already a second-class league, and a major hit on the order of Florida State and/or Clemson/Miami could knock it that much further down the pecking order.
That scenario, whether played out relatively quickly or over decades, would leave exactly the kind of landscape Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick imagined earlier this month when describing the catastrophic scenario that might force the Irish to bite the bullet and join the imperialist race:
"The only things that could make it happen are the sorts of radical change in the industry that would cause upheaval and impact a lot more (schools) than Notre Dame," he says. "You wind up with only three conferences. You wind up with two tiers of conferences. Now, all of a sudden, it’s not three divisions in college; it’s four. It’s the big change."
The big change: A future of three swollen conferences — the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-10, possibly by different names — with 35-40 of the strongest, richest programs in the country (still bearing vestigial tails from the Dark Ages, when schools like Northwestern, Stanford and Vanderbilt could compete without compromising academics) standing astride a land littered with castoffs that have coalesced into respectable but decidedly second-rate leagues that no longer have their place alongside the behemoths at the adults’ table.
Of course, a swollen conference of 14-16 teams — by all accounts, an increasing likelihood for the Big Ten — isn’t really a conference at all, in the traditional sense. It’s a conference in the sense that the NFC or AFC is a conference, a collaboration under a large umbrella with scheduling and revenue-sharing agreements among teams that may only play one another once or twice a decade. That’s the really dystopian apocalypse at the end of the track: A pro-style "league" among the top three or four dozen programs in three or four power conferences, eventually shorn even of their academic vestigial tails, with a few power brokers at the top pulling the strings exclusively in the interest of TV contracts, merchandising deals and maximizing revenue. (And yes, with a playoff, albeit one that’s likely even more hostile from Have-Not interlopers than the BCS is now, despite certain Congressmen’s best efforts.)
Note that Swarbrick also says, "I don’t see that happening," and as a short-term vision over the next 10 years or so, there’s no way to present a radically reconfigured future without seeming a little heavy-handed and slightly unhinged. In many ways, though, that scenario — 30-40 of the strongest, richest programs standing astride the rest of the country, concerned mainly with TV contracts, merchandising deals and maximizing revenue — already exists in practice, and has for a long time. When it comes down to it, the decades-long obsession with the "superconference" is a desire for a governing structure that reflects the contemporary reality, as opposed to a chaotic remnant from a hopelessly bygone age whose most sacrosanct assumption about the game as an amateur pastime restrained by an academic, university structure has, for all practical purposes, faded into oblivion. As the stakes increase and the economic bar continues to rise, the sport has been moving slowly, often painfully in that direction for decades.
Eventually, it will get there in some fashion or another, and it probably won’t be pretty, in the same way that Pop Warner and Knute Rockne would probably become visibly ill by the state of the game in the 21st Century. But that’s the thing with radically reconfigured futures: They seem ridiculous until you get there, and you usually haven’t even noticed.