It's now official ( link here ); the Mountain West has two new members: Fresno St and Nevada, with BYU (for now) in the "who the hell knows" bucket. I don't want to focus on just one reaction here, so this will deal with a few different thoughts I've had on this news. Please keep in mind that I do NOT have any inside sources, and most of this is pure speculation. But I remain confident in my conclusions. Judge for yourselves.
1) Once again, conference expansion is all about clarifying and solidifying power relationships
Before this latest round of expansion news, it was fairly clear that: BYU was the power program in the Mountain West; the Mountain West was the king of the non-AQ league; and the main power players in the WAC were Fresno, Hawaii and Nevada. Fast-forward, and Fresno and Nevada have solidified their position by upgrading their league, BYU has reinforced their position by making a power play at being independent, and it turns out Hawaii wasn't that powerful after all (more on that later).
By poaching Boise, Fresno and Nevada from the WAC, the Mountain West has solidified its position as the only non-AQ league that matters, and made it clear to everyone that the WAC no longer matters. This means that the non-Hawaii programs, which had already not been powerful, were put into a position reflecting their inherent lack of power. Hawaii seemed like it might have been in a position of power, but as it turns out, that power was largely a mirage. And this also means that the Mountain West harnessed its own power as the strongest non-AQ league by finding a way to reinforce that status. If they then go on to poach some combination of Houston, Tulsa and UTEP (maybe SMU goes into the mix, though I doubt it) from C-USA, it will only further reinforce their power base.
And BYU, at the end of the day, will have either built on their power base by going independent in football and harnessing their TV network and large following, or will have struck a deal with the Mountain West that somehow reinforces their status as the "big dog" of the league (which they are).
And this is the same thing that's been happening throughout the entire process. The Big Ten built on their power base of tradition and money by bringing along Nebraska, who built on their power base of tradition and their fanbase by finding a strong, permanent home. The Pac-10 built on their power base as the pre-eminent Western conference by poaching Colorado from the Big 12 and Utah from the Mountain West. The Big 12 was exposed as basically being Nebraska, the teams the Pac-10 wanted, and a bunch of extras. And in that league, Texas has reinforced their power base through a (supposed) contract that will guarantee them the most money in the league (along with Oklahoma and A&M), while completely keeping their options open in the future (the Pac-10 is still interested, the SEC is still interested, and the Big Ten is at least arguably still interested).
In almost every case, programs are moving towards statuses that more accurately reflect their real power level. In no case has a program jumped up that didn't have something that backed it up, and in no case has a program gotten the shaft where it just didn't make sense (Hawaii is an interesting case, again, more below).
And this is a process that is likely to continue. The Mountain West still has at least one spot open if they want to hit 12 teams and stage a championship game, and it's extremely likely they'll fill that spot from C-USA (both to deal another blow to that league and to reinforce their presence in Texas). The Big Ten may still be interested in expansion, and have their pick of any Big East team they may want, and arguably any ACC team they want (do you really think that, if push came to shove, Maryland or Virginia would say no, for instance?). The Big 12 remains unstable, and Texas A&M is still at least somewhat interested in making a move to the SEC. And the list goes on.
Ultimately, college football is a valuable property, and there is legitimate public interest in consolidation (despite the complaining by many commentators who are made to feel icky by the process). The public remains interested in a playoff system, and an increase in good regular season games.
As far as good regular season games go, Boise, Fresno and Nevada to the Mountain West means more Boise-Wyoming, Fresno-Colorado St and Nevada-SD St matchups, which not fantastic are still light-years better than Boise-NM St, Fresno-Utah St or Nevada-SJ St. And, of course, we're going to see Boise-TCU, Fresno-Houston (I'd guess), and Nevada-Air Force more regularly, which are nice upgrades over previously regularly scheduled programming.
In addition, the fact remains that the ONLY way to put together a sensible, reasonable playoff structure is to consolidate power. If you want to do (for instance) a 12-team playoff, then you'd pretty much need to do auto-bids to some degree. The SEC, Big Ten, etc. would insist on guaranteed regular access, and you'd also want it simply to create less of an incentive for everyone to try to game their schedules to make the playoff.
But you can't just give everyone an auto-bid; it's idiotic to give one to the MAC, Sun Belt, etc. given that they never have teams that belong on a legitimate top 12 list, and clearly don't have the fanbases to drive interest in seeing them in such competitions. This means that realistically, you simply have to consolidate power to create a clear set of haves and have-nots. Whether that means further conference realignment like we've already seen, or a wholesale movement among the top 40 – 80 schools to ditch the NCAA and form a new organization, I don't know, but it's going to be one of those paths sooner or later.
2) The Mountain West will be a winner in this round, regardless of BYU's decision, regardless of AQ status
Remember that last point I made above, about consolidation being inevitable? Well, the Mountain West has just strongly consolidated their power. And by doing so, they struck a death blow to the WAC and will likely deal a major blow to C-USA in the near future. As a (presumed) consequence, the list of conferences that matter will clearly be down to seven.
Why does this matter? Think about this question: can you make a 12-team playoff with seven auto-bids and five at-large bids? The answer is yes. What that means is that THE MOST IMPORTANT consequence of this move (and the presumed C-USA raid) is that it becomes at least theoretically feasible to create a sensible playoff structure without having to bail on the NCAA.
Certainly, there would be difficulties involved in the process (resistance from the "have-not" leagues, whether or not the "have" leagues would all be forced to expand to 12 teams, etc.), but the relevant point is that it starts to at least maybe be feasible. And since, of the seven remaining relevant leagues, the Mountain West would still be the least powerful, by providing this possibility, they increase their chances of either forestalling a mass exodus or at least making it more likely they get invited to come along. This means that they will have made serious progress in fulfilling their #1 priority, not getting left behind in whatever the next set of moves turns out to be.
I won't lie: they're nowhere near a guarantee of getting a seat at the table. For instance, the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Pac-10 and Big 12 could decide by themselves to bail, bringing along a few independents (perhaps just Notre Dame, BYU, and a couple Big East teams, or perhaps more). But by making these moves, the Mountain West will have seriously increased the gap between themselves and every other non-AQ league, making it more politically difficult to exclude them if there is going to be fundamental change to the structure of college football. This is especially true if they are able to keep BYU in the fold, which is why I strongly expect them to make meaningful concessions to BYU before the Cougars make a final decision. Whether BYU accepts is another matter (see below), but I expect the Mountain West to do everything they can to make that happen.
And if there isn't going to be fundamental change to the structure of college football, the Mountain West should still benefit. Even if they don't get AQ status (I'm guessing they don't, at least for now), by creating a bigger gap between themselves and the rest of the non-AQ's they should be able to force the BCS to revise the revenue-sharing arrangements to at least let the Mountain West get a full share of BCS revenue in the years that they do make the party, as opposed to being forced to give most of it away to the other non-AQ leagues, as the BCS has currently set things up. And, even without either BYU or an auto-bid, there is a good chance that they would get BCS bids at least 50% of the time. Keeping a full paycheck 50% or more of the time is still much better than their current setup. Not the win they've been hoping for, of course, but still a nice step in the right direction for them.
3) BYU should have their pick of good options
The simplest solution for BYU is to back down from their original idea of going independent, while extracting some sort of concessions from the rest of the league (most likely the rights to broadcast at least some of their home games on their own network) in exchange for staying in the Mountain West and giving the league more credibility and strength (which it could use in whatever upcoming power plays might be going on in regards to the quest for AQ status, or at least meaningful concessions from the BCS). Personally, I think that this is what will happen in the end.
But if it doesn't, football independence should work out pretty well for BYU. Television is the obvious reason, given that they already have their own personal network set up, and being able to broadcast their own football games on their network would yield a nice revenue increase as well as give them a good avenue to spread their doctrine (which is almost certainly a consideration here as well). It's conceivable that by going independent BYU could end up with a political payoff, as proposed by Frank the Tank ( link here ). But there's more to it than that.
Scheduling should be a big plus for them as well. To be honest, BYU should have the fanbase and the cash to schedule 2:1 or 3:2 with most to all of the current MWC teams. They're also a sufficiently credible program to be able to schedule home for homes or at worst 2:3 deals with many BCS powers, especially on the West Coast (did home and homes with USC, UCLA and Stanford in last decade I believe, and they have done home and homes with a number of other BCS powers over the years, such as Georgia Tech, Boston College, plus a fairly recent 1:2 deal with Notre Dame [ link here ] ).
I doubt Notre Dame, Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio St, Michigan or Alabama would do a home and home, but I'm almost certain one of them would sign up for a 2:1 deal if offered (subject to schedule availability of course), and a 3:2 seems at least plausible. And 3:2 deals with programs like Auburn, Miami, West Virginia, Washington etc. seem completely reasonable, and to be honest I could see some thinking about 1:1 deals (Washington is finishing up a 1:1 deal this year, for instance).
What that means is that BYU could essentially make a huge upgrade to the quality of the schedule while still having 6-7 home games a year, with something like (in a given year):
1 home, 1 away vs Utah and a high-end non-AQ (Boise, TCU, etc.) or mid-level AQ (Oregon, Kansas, Illinois, etc.)
2 home, 3 away vs upper-end AQ's (USC, UCLA, Washington, Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio St, Texas, Texas A&M, etc.)
2 home, 1 away vs Utah St and mid to low level AQ's
2 home paycheck games
That's a HUGE schedule upgrade vs what they have now, still with 7 home games (and if they did 1:1 deals instead of 2:3 deals sometimes it could be 8 home games). It's the sort of slate where a 10-2 record means that a BCS bid is quite possible, where a 11-1 record means that a BCS bid is a virtual lock, and where a 12-0 record gives a very serious shot at a national title bid (as opposed to now, where it's much more of a reach).
Of course, they don't have to be quite so aggressive, but the point is that they could if they wanted to and still have 7 home games. The reason why they're able to get such a boost is that they no longer have to give home and homes to a bunch of lesser programs in their league (Wyoming, SD St, etc.). Removing that obligation helps them a LOT.
To be honest, I'm not sure which way they go. Personally, I think that they should be able to get a good enough deal with the Mountain West to forgo the risks inherent in going independent (not least of which is the enemies they'd make in the process), but if they did go forward they should be able to turn it into a good situation. Either way, they should emerge from the process a winner, much like Texas did (though again like Texas, they'll take a public relations hit no matter what decision they make).
4) The Mountain West clearly doesn't want Hawaii
The Mountain West has now had a number of chances to bring Hawaii into the fold: when they first left the WAC; when they expanded by grabbing TCU; when they expanded by grabbing Boise; and now, when they expanded by poaching Fresno and Nevada from the WAC. Of those, the first and the last are the most revealing (TCU and Boise were clearly better candidates at the time). The fact that they didn't take Hawaii when or soon after they bailed on the old WAC made it pretty clear that they weren't interested. Over ten years later, with Utah gone and BYU seemingly about to follow, they still didn't want Hawaii, and invited Nevada and Fresno (neither of which are exactly power programs) instead. What makes the message even clearer is that they still have spots left if they want to make 12 teams, and they still didn't go for the Warriors at a time when (if they were interested) it made plenty of sense to make the move.
So why aren't they interested? I'm completely speculating here, but I have to think the main issue is location and travel. For football, being in a league with Hawaii isn't so bad, because the trip can be a fun trip for fans, and the team can (maybe) take an extra day there to make the trip not such a bad thing for them either. But for most other sports, it's a nightmare. For basketball, teams will frequently have a pair of games two or three days apart, which basically means you fly in the day before (and maybe the day of) and fly back the day after the game. Doing that more years than not is extremely unpleasant, and I'm sure there are plenty of other sports that have similar situations (though I admit I haven't researched it).
Compounding the problem is the time zone issue. While the football trip may be fun for fans who make the trek, it's a lot less fun for the rest of the fans, especially if it's a late kickoff, or your school isn't a Pacific Time Zone school, or both. Catching a game on TV against Hawaii can be unpleasant, and it's another hassle for a league to have to deal with.
Ultimately, I think that what happened here is ultimately reflective of what Hawaii will have to deal with going forward. Maybe they can find a way to succeed at being a football independent, finding the right mix of opponents to come to the island, but it's abundantly clear that no good league wants them in all of the other sports, and unless someone invents a teleportation machine soon, that's extremely unlikely to change. The Mountain West isn't interested, the Pac-12 isn't interested, and there are just no other good options out there for Hawaii.
5) The "little guys" can play hardball and be greedy too
This is the flipside of points 1 and 2. When push came to shove, the Mountain West was willing to raid the WAC not once but twice, and Boise, Fresno and Nevada were just as willing to chase money and power as Nebraska, Colorado and Utah were. All programs, big and small alike, are fully willing to chase their own interests regardless of whether it makes you uncomfortable. Just to be clear, I'm fine with this. They should chase their own interests, and as I've argued above, the consolidation of power in college football is a good thing, not a bad thing. But anyone who wants to complain about the "big boys" being greedy and selfish needs to remember that this is true of everyone. There are no self-less "heroes" here. Nor should there be.
6) What was the WAC thinking?
Here's where not having inside sources makes things difficult. Honestly, I don't know where the "BYU to the WAC in everything but football" idea came from. If BYU went to the WAC and said "OK, we're proposing this, and if you say no, then we'll just go to the WCC or elsewhere", then I can't really bash them for this.
But if this is something the WAC actively pursued or helped create, then this was really, really stupid. It doesn't take a genius to figure out the Mountain West would make a play for some WAC teams to put the pressure on BYU to come back to the fold and to make sure the WAC remained way behind. If the WAC actually thought that they could use this to somehow force Boise to come crawling back, or poach teams like SD St, UNLV or (if they really drank their own kool-aid) TCU, then they were incredibly guilty of groupthink and letting wishful thinking drive their decision-making process.
And if they were banking on a mere $5 million keeping Fresno and Nevada from jumping ship… that's pretty naïve. Perhaps that was the most they could get anyone to agree on, but if that was the number they thought would be enough, then they just don't get it. The stakes are way too high, and the consequences way too long-term, to think that $5 million per team is enough of a barrier to keep either school from following their obvious self-interest.
Mr Pac-10's 2009 Blog
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