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Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren sent a shockwave through college athletics on Thursday by kicking off a sudden and unexpected round of realignment by poaching USC and UCLA from the Pac 12. The move is more or less unprecedented in the sport, as the Big Ten will become, to my knowledge, the first power conference to achieve manifest destiny in stretching from sea to shining sea.
Above all else, my take on this move is that it vastly accelerates what most college football prognosticators felt was inevitable — the formation of a new tier (whether official or unofficial) of college athletic programs. Come 2024, there will be just as much separating Oklahoma from Oklahoma State as Oklahoma State from Tulsa. The G5 vs P5 paradigm will lose weight when some P5 programs are pulling in 8 digits’ worth of annual television revenue. The SEC and the Big Ten are soon to be in a different stratosphere than the Big 12, Pac 12, and ACC, introducing a third tier above what we currently call the Power 5.
It becomes less farfetched by the day to anticipate a world where the games’ top ~50 programs completely break away from the NCAA, create their own playoff system, and begin paying their players as employees. Coaching head count restrictions will be lifted, scholarship counts expanded, and many more competitive guard rails will be gutted.
It’s difficult to deny that the college football we all grew up with is on its way out, at least at the top end of the sport, as fun regional rivalries have given way to what will amount to university-sponsored NFL development academies.
While there is certainly a nearly endless amount of discussion to be had about the emergence of two bonafide superconferences in the sport, let’s take our focus down a level and predict how this week’s news might play out for UTSA and other G5 programs.
Let’s begin with the short term. At this moment, it seems unlikely that the AAC UTSA plans to join in 2023 will have a different roster than the one we anticipate seeing. Any scenarios I can imagine impacting the AAC lineup would likely require several more dominoes to fall, which I’ll get to in a bit.
In my opinion, this move may actually strengthen the AAC’s position by sheer luck alone. I have no clue what to expect as far as whether the Big 12 could steal some western Pac 12 teams, or if the Pac 12 could still be strong enough to grab some teams out of the Big 12. Both conferences are in the midst of new TV contract negotiations, and clearly things aren’t going well considering the departures of the two top brands in each league.
Assuming no Big 12 teams (or ACC teams!) are willing to make the jump to the west coast, the Pac 12’s expansion candidates are limited and flawed. Their best options would likely be grabbing San Diego State and Boise State, and perhaps even Gonzaga in hoops. This obviously benefits the AAC by weakening the league’s primary competition for the New Year’s Six bowl draw.
If we take it a step further and guess the Big 12 may be able to poach some of the top programs in the Pac 12 then it more or less shuts the door on the risk of SMU or Memphis making the jump to the Big 12.
Now to that point, would the Pac 12 be desperate enough to send an invitation to a program like SMU? It sounds wild on paper but if the Pac 12 lost additional teams after USC and UCLA depart then the Mustangs are likely a better addition than Fresno State or UNLV. While the Pac 12’s next TV deal is certain to be a disaster relative to previous deals, it will assuredly be several multitudes larger than the AAC’s current deal.
On a longer timeline, this abrupt movement to superconferences likely leads to some awkward transitions years and some even weirder conferences than we’re used to. The biggest domino I’m watching for is whether or not the SEC and Big Ten are willing to force out their weakest members to pursue programs like Notre Dame, Clemson, Florida State, etc. Would other conferences follow suit in ejecting members, leading to a trickle down effect of programs like NC State or Kansas State ending up stranded in the American?
Even if that happens… at what cost? The American and the rest of the traditional G5 will be even further from the spotlight of college football than ever before. It’s already hard enough for great G5 programs to receive any real coverage on the major sports networks. How much harder of an uphill battle do you think that will be when Fox and ESPN are both running their own super leagues?
While there’s plenty to be concerned about for the future of the sport, we can rest assured that the off-field dynamics will never cease to entertain. Let’s see if USC and UCLA spark another full round of realignment, or if the Pac 12 manages to stand pat in its battered state.
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