As I wrote in part 10 of the expansion article series ( link here), moving towards a permanent "have" status quo of 6 AQ leagues with 12 teams each seems to be where we're going given the current setup of 1-A college football. However, this is far from inevitable.
One big x-factor in this process is USC. Pat Haden, their athletic director, said during the recent Pac-12 negotiating process that USC going independent was at least somewhat on the table. In other words, there's a very real chance that USC will someday decide to bail on the Pac-12.
So what would happen in such a scenario? Independence seems fairly straightforward, as the Pac-12 would then slot some other program as a replacement for USC. Certainly the league would take a hit, but it really doesn't seem like anything close to a death-blow. So why does it even matter?
It matters because independence isn't really what USC would end up doing. Independence is a structural disadvantage; the only reason why Notre Dame is still independent is that they have a cultural connection with independence (and the "Notre Dame rule" doesn't hurt). BYU is independent because no AQ league has invited them; they'd say yes to the Big 12 or Big East in a heartbeat, and given that they're arguably the premier non-AQ program (and are top 2 or 3 no question), it's pretty obvious that they're waiting on their chance to join the AQ club. And Army and Navy are irrelevant except for one day per year.
Independence gives less access to the BCS (since you have a limited number of at-large slots available), creates scheduling hassles for football (the Big East is the only AQ league Notre Dame seems to be able to schedule between mid-October and their annual California trip; that wouldn't really work for USC) and all other sports (it's far easier to fill basketball, baseball etc. schedules as a member of a league… and I don't think USC wants to join the WCC), and leaves a school alone and without real allies. Basically independence is a near-guaranteed loser.
And that's without even factoring in the Rose Bowl, who would no longer be directly tied to USC (BCS bowls are tied to leagues, not teams, and that won't change just because USC would want it to), which means that instead of great seasons leading to Pasadena, great seasons would much more likely lead to Miami or Glendale, which is almost certainly not what USC would want.
So what could USC do? Instead of independence, they could instead be the catalyst for the formation of a new league. As everyone knows, Texas is already a wildcard. What if they and USC decided to form a "best of" league between the Pac-12 and Big 12? Taking Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, UCLA and USC as absolute givens, they'd probably (though not definitely) add Cal and Stanford (the LA schools would almost certainly insist [and UCLA would probably be politically forced to], Texas would probably like the academic association [it's been noted that this matters to them in various expansion articles]), and probably add Oklahoma St as well (for the same reasons they were going to be brought along to the Pac-16). Then it'd be a question of how many spots they wanted to fill (three more to hit 12, but they might prefer more) from the list of: Arizona / Arizona St; Oregon; Washington; Colorado; Kansas; Missouri; Baylor; Kansas St; Utah. You can take three, five or seven from that list, but in pretty much any combination, that's a true power league that rivals the SEC in football, the Big Ten in academics, and both in market size and cultural impact right off the bat.
The next question is, what would be the impact? Obviously, it would be an unmitigated disaster for many of the schools left behind, most notably Iowa St (no allies), Kansas St (if Kansas makes the list and they don't); Oregon St (if Oregon makes the list and they don't); and Washington St (if Washington makes the list and they don't). But on a national level, it'd really depend on how the "new SWC" (or whatever) sets itself up. Presuming that the Big Ten really is done at 12, this could be the only realistic chance that things could actually move towards "super-conferences." If they went to 14 or 16 (entirely possible given that there are well more than four desirables on the above list of options), they could absolutely create a new status quo.
If they just stayed at 12, most likely the schools left behind (there would be 10) would form a new league, probably bringing in two non-AQ's to hit the magic number of 12. One or two might be left out (Iowa St would be very vulnerable, as would the other three listed if they other member of the local pair bailed), or they might just decide to stick together. Whatever the process, the end result would basically resemble the status quo, except that prestige and national relevance would be more clearly concentrated in three "really have" leagues (SEC, Big Ten, New SWC), with two "less have" leagues (Big East, Other 12) still AQ but less relevant, and the ACC somewhere in between.
If they went to 14 or 16, though, there could be radical changes in store. Those left behind would be in a much tougher situation (though the Big Ten, Big East and/or ACC would probably poach some of the schools, and the SEC would poach the ACC or Big East for 2-4 more members). Of course, since Texas A&M has indicated interest in the SEC, they could bypass the process and end up there instead, but that would just shuffle some teams around without really changing the high-level structure.
Ultimately, with 14-team leagues you'd probably see five leagues taking control (with the New SWC leftovers and non-AQ's filling in the gaps in the other leagues, plus inter-league shuffling), with 70 "haves" (plus ND if they stay independent), instead of the 72 you'd get with six 12-team leagues. The look would be different, but the ultimate split between haves and have-nots wouldn't really change in any meaningful way.
With 16 teams, though, that would be a far different story. With 16 teams from that list, the "New SWC" would instantly become THE premier league in the country, and it's highly likely that the Big Ten and SEC would be forced to react. And as the dominoes fall, the end result would be either four or five 16-team leagues left standing as "haves." Most likely (and again, this is just speculation), it'd be four leagues, with an even 64 teams left as "haves," cutting down the number far more than the 12-team and 14-league scenarios.
Yes, you could potentially see 80 teams instead… but can you really find 80 that would make sense? Even at 72 there'd be unhappiness on the part of the major powers at having to treat a few of the ones barely making the cut as equals, and padding the total by an extra eight would only exacerbate the issue. Of course, the politics and the order of the poaching (SEC and Big Ten would add four each, and some ACC/Big East combo would probably form the basis of the last league) would be fairly unpredictable, and it's possible that everyone just concedes a few extra spots on the boat to the have-nots, but ultimately, 64 teams feels like it would be the cleaner, more palatable solution (to the haves anyway), and would more likely be the way that things would shake out if 16-team leagues were the direction everyone went towards.
Of course, like the Big East scenario previously described, this is also a longshot. First of all, no one actually knows what Texas wants to do, much less if they'd go for this specifically. Second, it's fairly obvious that USC doesn't seem extremely inclined to instigate major changes, perhaps because they don't want to be the guys to rock the boat (especially nowadays), or perhaps because they feel a legitimate cultural connection and/or loyalty towards their league-mates. But that second point seems like it's changing of late, which I'll talk about in detail in the next piece.
Mr Pac-10's 2010 Blog
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