crossing_the_chasm1024_bwReady for the next big shake-up in college athletics?

We're now just months away from what figures to be game-changing NCAA vote.  Either big-dollar conferences will be given greater autonomy -- allowing the biggest leagues to provide bigger scholarships and better medical care and insurance for players -- or the Power Five league will be voted down.  If they're voted down, some like Mike Slive have already stated that they'll start working on a new "Division IV" within the NCAA structure.

The basic gist: If autonomy is granted, the Power Five conferences will continue to open their new College Football Playoff and their biggest bowls and the revenue from both to the smaller FBS conferences.  If not, they'll leave the poorer conferences completely behind, cutting them off from the new playoff and all of the money it will create.

The playoff and playoff revenues are the biggest factor at play here.  Remember, this new system is not an NCAA championship.  Division I college football is the one and only sport where the NCAA does not actually crown a champ.  Like the BCS before it, the new playoff has been put together by the biggest conferences.  The little guys receive a pittance to keep them quiet.  So if the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC want to keep their playoffs to themselves, the NCAA can't really say a thing about it.  (Some smaller schools might try to get their local legislators involved, but that's a story for another day.)

For all the posturing that's currently being done, we suspect that the autonomy request will be granted.  The big guys don't really want the headache of creating a Division IV (and all the potential lawsuits such a move might bring).  And the little guys surely realize that while millions don't equal billions, millions are still a helluva lot better than nothing.

NCAA president Mark Emmert also believes that the push for autonomy will end in a deal.  He said this week:  "The reality is, (the rich leagues and the poor leagues are) not that far apart on the various ends of (a new framework) and I'm pretty confident the whole thing is going to work out and probably be successful."

The NCAA currently plans to require a two-thirds majority to vote in the autonomy measure.  Mike Slive has suggested 60% would be a more realistic requirement.  Emmert said he's sure the NCAA's steering committee "will find a sensible compromise" between 60 and 66.

If autonomy is granted, there will be a push from some schools to jump on board the Power Five train.  But we at MrSEC.com don't see a "together but unequal" set-up as providing enough impetus for the Power Five leagues to open their doors.  If, however, a Division IV becomes necessary, that's when things might change.  Such a set-up would truly pit the top five conferences against one another -- and no one else -- in a battle for cash and power.    If a conference believes it can make more money with more schools, it will expand.  If a conference believes it needs a greater say in the decision-making within a Division IV structure, it will expand.  Assuming that a new Division IV would also require a 60% threshold on votes -- and that seems a logical assumption -- a league like the Big 12 might suddenly feel that 10 schools just isn't big enough.  The SEC, Big Ten and ACC would effectively have four more votes per league than Bob Bowlsby's conference.  See the issue?

In an autonomous system, the Power Five would reign over the little guys.  In a Division IV structure, one of the five big boy conferences will suddenly become the runt of the litter.  Again, let's consider the Big 12.  Currently that conference is enjoying a championship game-free world with just 10 member institutions, plenty of cash and no plans for expansion on the table.  But if the paradigm shifts and the Big 12 goes from being one of the Power Five conferences in the FBS to the least powerful conference in a new Division IV, well, that's the kind of thing that might re-open the expansion/realignment battle.

For our purposes, let's suppose that no agreement can be reached with the smaller conferences and the Power Five do form their own Division IV within the NCAA.  Which schools currently outside the Power Five would have any hope of slipping past the velvet rope?

There are four issues to consider:

 

1.  Does a school have a large athletic budget like the Power Five schools?  (We looked only at the top 100 budgets according to the Department of Education's numbers for 2012-13... and that's being very lenient.)

2.  Will ESPN view a school as a plus in terms of television markets and television ratings?  ("Growing the footprint" has become as synonymous with college athletics in the 2000s as "coach," "tournament," and "touchdown.")

3.  Does a school have a solid athletic department?  (This somewhat depends on the needs of the conference.  Rutgers isn't on the same par as Ohio State in terms of athletics, but the Big Ten needed/wanted to expand into the New York area.)

4.  And what kind of academic reputation does an institution have?  (For all the guff we've taken for including academic rankings in our expansion talk over the years, it was recently revealed that John Swofford's league recently commissioned a market analysis of itself.  The first category discussed was academics and the university rankings of US News & World Report were used as the measuring stick.  Anyone interested in conference expansion/realignment should read the ACC's report.  It's a playbook for conference expansion.  Then you can go back through our Blue Chip stories section and see for yourself just how dead-on we were with our expansion coverage going back four years.)

 

With those four categories in mind, we found very few schools that we believe would move the needle enough to gain entry into a Power Five conference.  They are:

 

*  Connecticut -- The best of the rest, if you will.  UConn is solid in terms of academics (#57 on the USN&WR list).  The school can legitimately claim the Hartford television market while also trying to convince a league that the Huskies' alumni base can bring in viewers in New York and Boston as well.  UConn's basketball program has arguably been the best in the nation in the 2000s.  Its football program has grown (with a new stadium) and it has actually reached a BCS bowl in recent years.  In addition, UConn's athletic budget is bigger than those of Iowa State, Vanderbilt, Boston College, Oregon State, Kansas State, Maryland, Pittsburgh, Mississippi State and a few more current Power Five schools.  The Huskies have been passed over again and again by the Big Ten and the ACC, but if one of those conferences wants to strengthen its voting bloc while possibly increasing revenue, UConn would be the hands down school of choice from those remaining.

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*  SMU -- The Mustangs are still rehabbing their reputation following their football death penalty in the 1980s.  Basketball and football have improved under Larry Brown and June Jones.  SMU's athletic spending tops Power Five members Utah, Washington State and Wake Forest.  While certainly not as big a draw as Texas or Texas A&M, Southern Methodist is located in Dallas, a top five TV market.  SMU also ranks as the #60 school on the USN& WR list.  If the Big 12 eventually looks to add schools simply because it needs to grow, the Mustangs make sense.  But from a television revenue perspective, what could yet another Texas school do for the Big 12's coffers?  And here's a far-fetched notion: What if the SEC and ESPN come to believe the SEC Network needs better Texas penetration to fully maximize its cable/satellite dollars from that state?  Ain't happening, but an interesting what-if, nonetheless.

*  BYU -- The only current Power Five school with a smaller athletic budget is Wake Forest, so we're getting near the bottom of the barrel now.  Brigham Young ranks a healthy 62nd on the USN&WR chart.  The school has also had some very good football and basketball teams over the years.  Kick in Salt Lake City -- the nation's 33rd largest TV market -- and BYU would appear to be a winner for a Big 12 or Pac-12 in need of an expansion partner.  Ah, but there's the whole Mormon thing.  Nothing against Mormons, but the Pac-12 has steered clear of schools with religious ties in the past.  And while the Big 12 has no problem with religious affiliations, that league might not want to jump through all the scheduling hoops involved with a school that doesn't want to play any of its games on Sundays.  Cougar football coach Bronco Mendenhall is campaigning for a Big 12 spot, by the way.

*  Cincinnati -- The Bearcats have enjoyed football and basketball success (though their football facilities leave much to be desired).  The Queen City is the 35th biggest TV market in the country.  And academically UC ranks #135 ahead of Arizona State, Mississippi State, Oklahoma State, Oregon State and Ole Miss.  While the Big Ten won't open the door for Cincinnati, the ACC -- which just opened its doors for Louisville instead -- and the Big 12 someday might.  We keep saying this, but if the Big 12 finds itself in need of members, UC -- like a few other schools below -- would provide new territory while also bringing solid athletics.  Cincinnati would also give West Virginia a foe that's in somewhat the same region of the country.

 

From there the odds only get longer for schools hoping to crash the Power Five party.

 

*  The current budgets for the remaining schools are all smaller than those of the Power Five institutions.  Yes, those budgets could be grown, but to date we haven't seen many power conferences gamble on schools because of "hot prospects."  (For those thinking "Rutgers," the Scarlet Knights actually had the #38 athletic budget in the country in 2012-13.)

*  South Florida, Memphis, San Diego State, and UCF have hurdles to clear with their academic reputations (all rank outside the USN&WR top 150).  But if the Big 12 needs to grow and wants to be daring, it can open up some new territory by reaching into Tennessee.  Grabbing a California or Florida school would carry more risk.  Remember, the league has already discovered that there are some troubles scheduling league games with distant member West Virginia.

*  Houston and East Carolina rank below the 180 mark on the USN&WR list.  The Cougars once flirted with the SEC in the 1980s, but the rationale behind expansion has changed since then.  If -- and again we don't see this happening -- the SEC and ESPN felt the SEC Network would generate more money with a second Texas school in the league, SMU and the Dallas market would likely get the nod over Houston and it's home market which is less than a couple of hours from Texas A&M's campus.  The Pirates market themselves hot and heavy, but the #99 TV market Greenville provides isn't going to wow anyone.

*  Hawaii ranks #158 as a school and Honolulu is the nation's #69 television market.  Travel costs would be an obvious issue.  So would the Rainbow Warriors' home time zone.  Hawaii is three hours behind Pacific Time which makes it a whopping six hours behind Eastern Time.  The Pac-12 -- which is really the only prayer for Hawaii -- is currently looking to start some of its football games earlier in the day in order to grab eyeballs in the Midwest and East.  Hawaii wouldn't help on that front.  However.  Visionary Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott has made no secret of his desire to tap into Asian markets.  Adding Hawaii would literally be a step in that direction.

*  You can toss out Colorado State, New Mexico, Wyoming, Buffalo, and UMass for various budgetary, academic, television or athletics reasons.

*  Boise State and UNLV have as many minuses as they do pluses.  Boise State has a good athletic program but it lacks a solid academic reputation and the Boise TV market is just #110.  UNLV has good basketball tradition and a good-sized television market (#47), but it's not viewed as a premier university.  Also, there's the gambling stigma connected to anything Las Vegas.  We believe that's short-sighted, but we'd bet -- get it? -- that some university presidents would want no part of Sin City.  That said, if the Big 12 finds itself in a "we've got to grow" pinch, expect the Broncos and Runnin' Rebels to get some attention.  And don't scratch UNLV from the list of possible Pac-12 partners should that league decide to grow.  The Pac-12's options are limited by geography.  That might help a Boise State or UNLV.

*  Next come a few schools that actually rank well on the USN&WR list -- Rice (#18), Tulane (#52), Miami of Ohio (#75), Tulsa (#86), UMass (#91) and Buffalo (#109).  None have Power Five-caliber athletic budgets at the moment.  Rice and Tulane have been better known for academics than athletics over the years.  Miami is the "cradle of coaches," but the Big Ten won't come calling.  Tulsa has reasonably good athletics and a solid TV market (#60).  But Oklahoma and Oklahoma State won't allow the Big 12 to elevate the Golden Hurricane regardless of the league's situation.  UMass and Buffalo just don't have enough clout in both football and basketball to interest either the Big Ten or the ACC.  But allow us to throw a curve ball.  Tulane is an interesting school, to us, in terms of future Big 12 moves.  If that league does find itself being pushed around by bigger conferences in a Division IV, a move into New Orleans would make a lot of sense.  Much like the Big Ten inviting Rutgers, the Big 12 could add a fine academic school, grow its boundaries and geographic footprint, step on the SEC's toes a bit in the process, open up new recruiting territory and snare a nice television market (#51) as part of the deal.  Big picture?  Tulane to the Big 12 is no crazier than Rutgers to the Big Ten.

*  And then finally come a few true dark horses.  In fact, these guys are practically glue already.  Temple (the Big Ten and ACC are already in Pennsylvania), Old Dominion (not enough athletic history), and Texas State (new to the FBS playing field) have little hope of landing an invitation from any of the Power Five conferences.  These schools are mentioned solely because they ranked in the top 100 for athletic spenders in 2012-13.

 

So how do we see things shaking out?  Well, if the big conferences are given autonomy, we suspect the next round of expansion/realignment won't hit until everyone sees how the new College Football Playoff will work.

But if the conferences aren't given the autonomy they seek and they follow through on threats to create a Division IV at the top of the NCAA pyramid, then we believe a lot of schools will start scratching and clawing for a spot in the new well-monied super-division.

If and only if a current Power Five conference finds itself being out-voted or out-earned by the other conferences in the new Division IV would one or two potentially open their doors.

And if those doors open, we believe the schools with the best chances of gaining entry somewhere will be UConn, SMU, BYU and Cincinnati.

Depending on the Big 12's desire to catch up with the SEC (14 members), Big Ten (14 members) and ACC (15 members counting Notre Dame), that conference could balloon in size.  If so, Boise State, UNLV, BYU, Tulane, Memphis, Cincinnati and BYU might wind up on Bowlsby's league's radar.

And if the Pac-12 feels it needs to reach the 14-member plateau, Boise State, UNLV (the Pac-12 has already taken its basketball tournament to the desert) and even Hawaii (if Scott is serious about marketing to Asia) could find themselves in play.

Best bet?  UConn finds a home somewhere if a Division IV actually becomes a reality.  The rest are long shots.