Thursday, November 3, 2011
(2012 SEC/Big XII footprint map: @Ranger222)
Updated 11-9-11 (to reflect still-evolving changes to the college football landscape caused by the Penn State scandal):
Over the past two years, as NCAA conference realignment-mania has taken over the sports blogosphere (and has made celebrities out of some old Drive and Dish friends), people have asked us for our thoughts on on the subject.
To date, we've remained largely silent.
That's primarily because we haven't been privy to any legitimate inside information (though we wouldn't have revealed inside information even if we'd had it), and because, aside from our longstanding opinion that the Big Ten should pursue the University of Texas and the University of Notre Dame (neither of which, it would now appear, will ever join the Big Ten), we haven't had a dog in this fight, as the cliche goes.
Thus, we've watched the conference realignment feeding frenzy from the sidelines -- as more or less disinterested parties.
Our absence from the realignment-mania scene shouldn't be mistaken for total disinterest in the topic though. We were, in fact, paying attention throughout the last year as the college sports world witnessed several big name schools abandon their historic conference affiliations and jump to new conference homes.
Utah ditched the Mountain West the minute that the Pac-10 came calling.
Then Colorado and Nebraska -- purportedly upset over the degree to which Texas had long exerted its influence over Big XII headquarters -- said "see-ya" to the Big XII and bounced to the Pac-10 and Big Ten, respectively.
Finally, after a year of grumbling about their burnt orange-clad big brothers in Austin, Texas A&M left the Longhorns and the Big XII in the rear view mirror and joined the Southeastern Conference (SEC).
Drive and Dish didn't say anything about those shufflings of the deck when they occurred, but we thought they were all solid, if not Earth-shattering moves.
Utah and Colorado are decent additions to the Pac-10, but they won't alter the balance of power in that league any time soon. Their additions did, however, allow the California-heavy conference to snag two schools in western, but non-West Coast states (to go along with longtime inland Pac-10 members Arizona and Arizona State). The Pac-10 has now repositioned itself as a "western" conference, rather than as the almost exclusively West Coast-oriented conference that it used to be.
Of course, it probably goes without saying football drives conference realignment. Drive and Dish is a basketball blog, but college basketball doesn't pay the bills. College football, however, does.
Our take on conference alignment to date:
Texas A&M is likely to find out that it's not easy to win football games in the SEC, but the Aggies should at least find their new conference to be a decent cultural fit.
Though the SEC's recent dominance of the college football landscape has resulted in its becoming the de facto center of the collegiate gridiron universe, the league's identity remains so firmly-rooted in its regional character that it's difficult to imagine it becoming home to a school from outside the traditional Deep South. But Texas A&M seems to make sense for the SEC in ways that some other rumored (and previously rumored) targets of SEC expansion don't (yes, that would be you West Virginia and Missouri). First, A&M is a very traditional southern school with a strong military history. And while Texas may be a southwestern state (rather than part of the Deep South, or of the SEC's namesake, the southeast), Texas A&M's Bryan/College Station, TX, campus is in East Texas -- and East Texas is more culturally "Southern" than most other parts of the Lone Star State.
Perhaps unbeknownst to most northerners, there's a fairly wide cultural gulf between Texas and the Deep South. So it's possible that Texas A&M won't be immediately welcomed as a full-fledged SEC "brother." But the SEC wanted to gain better access to the state of Texas' television markets and football recruiting circles, so the prospect of adding a school from Texas was very attractive. And the Aggies should fit in with the tradition-rich SEC better than other, less culturally Southern, Texas schools would (like say, UT or Texas Tech). Over time, the SEC should eventually warm to their new conference rivals from Texas. But whatever hurdles the Aggies face in getting acclimated to life in the SEC, this much is certain: with the the SEC now widely recognized as the preeminent conference in college football, A&M alumni and students are very gung-ho about moving there.
It must be noted though, that in recent years, Texas A&M football has struggled to remain relevant in the Big XII. So next year's move to the SEC could very well prove to be a rude awakening for the Aggies.
Our take was mixed when it was announced that Nebraska would join the Big Ten.
At first, we weren't especially impressed with the move. We were well aware of Nebraska's first-rate football tradition, of course. But since we'd been under the impression that the raison d'etre for Big Ten expansion was to add large television markets to enhance the Big Ten Network's TV footprint, we were a bit surprised that the Big Ten chose a school that failed to deliver a large television market.
There's no doubt that Nebraska has some of the most passionate, devoted fans in all of college football (and some of the most knowledgeable fans too!). The problem is, in a state that has fewer than 2 million residents, there aren't that many of them.
But the more time we spent thinking about Nebraska's pending membership in the Big Ten, the more we started to like it.
Eventually, we came to really like it.
And now we're having second thoughts (or would that be third thoughts?).
Nebraska is a historic football power with a strong football brand that commands nationwide recognition. We've heard Big Ten fans complain that the University of Nebraska doesn't have the academic prestige that the other Big Ten schools have. And we know that its addition makes it the only Big Ten member institution that doesn't belong to the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU). What's more, as noted above, we're well aware that the state of Nebraska -- a Midwestern plains state with a mere 1.7 million residents -- doesn't deliver a large television market, or allow the Big Ten to stake out a foothold in a new region.
But Nebraska is a decent school, and its addition gives the conference a football power to bookend its westernmost territories (as football power Penn State bookends its easternmost territories). Nebraska's addition to the Big Ten will provide the Iowa Hawkeyes with a much needed natural in-conference rival (the states of Nebraska and Iowa are very similar in terms of culture, geography and population). Michigan has natural rivals in Ohio State and Michigan State; Indiana has a natural rival in Purdue; Wisconsin has a natural rival in Minnesota; and Illinois has a natural rival in Northwestern.
Many sports writers and bloggers are fond of equating college football to chess (or at least fond of borrowing chess terminology). Accordingly, elite college football programs are often referred to as football "kings." By those terms, Nebraska would certainly have to be considered a college football "king." When taken with the Big Ten's big three traditional football powers -- Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State (or at least Penn State prior to the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal and its attendant fallout) -- the Cornhuskers' addition gives the Big Ten an enviable four football "kings" (assuming, of course, that Penn St. football eventually rises from its Sandusky-induced ashes).
But now comes the part about those second thoughts (or third thoughts, as it were): In theory, having four football "kings" should put the Big Ten in position to battle the SEC for college football preeminence for years to come. In reality, however, Nebraska's addition to the Big Ten will probably only make it tougher for teams to run the table in Big Ten conference play. And that will be tough for the Big Ten, since running the table is about the only thing a non SEC team can do to get to the BCS championship game.
The Southeast Conference is widely seen as the best conference in college football. Most of the recent BCS champions have come from that league. But the SEC is top-heavy. There are always a few elite programs on the top of the SEC (which are, in fact, better than, teams from other conferences), but there's usually a significant drop off after that.
By contrast, the Big Ten has become a middle-heavy league. In a typical year, Ohio State, Michigan and either Penn State or Wisconsin are in the BCS picture, but just below them, the league is packed with a second tier of good-but-not-great teams that specialize in knocking the "kings" off their respective perches (and yes, we're aware that the post-scandal Ohio State isn't up to par this year). In short, Big Ten teams beat up on themselves.
That makes it difficult for any Big Ten team to emerge from conference play unscathed and in contention for a national championship (since, as noted, being undefeated has all but become a prerequisite for being selected to play in the BCS championship game).
SEC teams often beat up on each other too, but the national sports media sees that as evidence of the SEC's superiority. If a solid, but middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team's ability to knock off an Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan or Wisconsin on any given Saturday proves the Big Ten's elite programs to be "pager tigers," then a middle-of-the-pack SEC team's occasional upset of an Alabama, Georgia, Florida or LSU proves that the SEC is so superior that even the mediocre SEC teams can beat anybody in the country!
So while the Big Ten looks stronger on paper now that Nebraska is on board, there's a strong likelihood that in years to come, the Big Ten will be a meat grinder that chews up its elite teams and spits them out with BCS-eliminating losses on their records. The Big Ten is more interesting with Nebraska, but the SEC will continue to be seen as the premier conference in college football.
Now that the Big XII has announced the addition of West Virginia to fill the expected vacancy that Missouri will leave if/when, as rumored, it bolts the Big XII for the Southeastern Conference (SEC), the Big XII has lost its geographic contiguity.
When the old Southwest Conference folded in 1995, it made sense for Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor and Texas Tech to join the old Big 8 schools to form the Big XII. Rivalries between the Texas schools and Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Nebraska and Missouri seemed like naturals.
But now that Nebraska, Colorado, Texas A&M and (probably) Missouri have fled for greener pastures, the conference is scrambling to remain viable. So it grabbed the best available football school, regardless of geography, tradition or overall fit.
West Virginia wisely jumped off the sinking ship that was the Big East. But the Mountaineers seem like a haphazard addition to the Big XII.
If as rumored, Louisville follows the lead of its former Big East rival West Virginia and joins the Big XII, the former Great Plains-centered conference will only become that much more jumbled.
In some instances, it makes sense for conferences to expand beyond their traditional geographic footprints. But such expansion is usually done with the acquisition of new television markets and population bases in mind. Thus, adding Boston College and Miami made financial sense for the ACC. However, even though West Virginia and Louisville are good football programs, adding them won't bring coveted big new TV markets or metropolitan areas to the Big XII (Louisville is a decent-sized city, it's still considered a small TV market).
West Virginia and Louisville are solid football programs that don't want to be left homeless if/once the Big East folds. So they're available for a Big XII that's desperately looking to rebound from the breakup of longtime relationships with Nebraska, Texas A&M, Colorado and Missouri.
Thank you Texas Longhorns.
The Big XII may live on, but they won't be fooling anybody.
Again, thank you Texas Longhorns.