Back in the early 1990s, former Arkansas head football coach and Athletic Director Frank Broyles famously claimed that the long arc of college football realignment was going to be toward four 16-team super conferences. That was back in the quaint days when the big domino of realignment was of his own Razorbacks moving from the old Southwest Conference, of which they’d been a member for basically their entire football-playing history, into the Southeastern Conference, which wanted to expand to 12 teams to take advantage of a then-little-known NCAA provision which allowed a 12-team conference to split into two divisions and play a conference championship game.
The conference championship game was a cash grab, just like everything related to realignment. In those early days of conference realignment, the big driver was television. After Oklahoma (and a few other schools) sued the NCAA for limiting the number of cable television appearances and won before the Supreme Court, suddenly a vast market of cable television dollars opened up to the sport. Schools not named Notre Dame found that they didn’t have enough pull by themselves to negotiate television contracts, so the solution was for conferences to negotiate them and split the money. A network might not pay for the rights to Oklahoma, but they’d certainly pay for the rights to Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Colorado, along with getting Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Iowa State, and Oklahoma State to fill the Saturday schedule. Thus the initial moves of realignment were for the last remaining independents to join conferences: Florida State to the ACC, Miami to the Big East, South Carolina to the SEC, Penn State to the Big Ten.
It’s long been forgotten, but the SEC didn’t always dominate college football. The SEC won a grand total of four recognized national titles between 1980 and 2006: Alabama’s in 1992, Florida’s in 1996, Tennessee’s in 1998, and LSU’s (split) national title in 2003. In the days of bowl and poll, and the early BCS era, the SEC had a distinct disadvantage vis-a-vis the other conferences. Where Nebraska often had a one-game season — between 1970 and 1995, the Huskers lost a grand total of ten games to Big 8 teams not named Oklahoma (including zero to the trio of Kansas, Kansas State, and Oklahoma State) — Alabama had to navigate Auburn, Tennessee, Georgia, LSU, and Florida. When the sport placed a great premium on not losing games, it was harder to contend for national titles when you were in the meat grinder of the SEC.
But starting around the 2000s, the math changed. The SEC’s concentration of brand-name programs became the league’s ace in the hole. Where a television contract with the other leagues got a network the rights to broadcast a handful of premium games along with a much larger number of beatdowns by the conference’s elite and a whole lot of nationally irrelevant content, a television contract with the SEC got you Alabama-Auburn, Alabama-Tennessee, Tennessee-Florida, Alabama-LSU, Auburn-LSU, Georgia-Auburn, Florida-Georgia... do I really need to go on here? The league’s disadvantage suddenly became a massive advantage in negotiating television contracts, which meant that the league could command a premium.
And then the SEC expanded. The additions of Texas A&M and Missouri were warning shots, plays designed to get the SEC Network on basic cable in Texas and Missouri. And then, the SEC added Texas and Oklahoma.
The long arc of realignment has been about walling off college football’s Haves from its Have-Nots, and related to that has been the sport’s long push to have One True National Champion, which originally started with the Bowl Coalition in 1992. That begat the Bowl Alliance in 1995, and the Bowl Championship Series in 1998.
Ostensibly, all three were about guaranteeing that the top two teams would play one another in a bowl game. But there was another, more nefarious element to it. The five Bowl Coalition conferences (the SEC, SWC, Big 8, ACC, and Big East) effectively made an agreement with four major bowl games (the Orange, Cotton, Sugar, and Fiesta) that only teams from those five conferences (and Notre Dame) would get invited.
The effect was immediate. As late as 1990, the Fiesta Bowl had invited Louisville (then a plucky independent more known for basketball) for a New Year’s Day bowl matchup with Alabama; under the new system, the Cardinals would have no shot at any major bowl game unless they were good enough to play for a national title. The Bowl Alliance of 1995 was even more nefarious; that system managed to leave out BYU, which in 1996 was 13-1 and ranked 5th in the AP Poll, because their conference, the WAC, was not a part of it. And then there was the BCS, which — while its formula would eventually be cracked by Boise State’s 2007 Fiesta Bowl bid — did the long-term work of walling off the Have-Nots. Approximately half of FBS was fighting over a single at-large bid, and even then, that bid wouldn’t be for a national championship.
The College Football Playoff was supposed to expand access, but it weirdly had the opposite effect — in large part because the Playoff went away from the BCS computer formula (which over the years had been whittled down to be more reliant on human polls, but still at least had a predictable formula) to a committee approach — with a committee that seemed intent on making sure that the Cincinnatis and Boise States and UCFs of the world could only get so high, regardless of how many games they won.
And then Texas and Oklahoma joined the SEC.
The unholy alliance between the Pac-12, ACC, and Big Ten has certainly been overplayed as a story. There’s no real contract amongst the three conferences involved, just some sort of tacit scheduling agreement. It’s been presented in the national sports media as a countershot in the SEC, but lost in all of it is that there’s nothing actually prohibiting any of its members from scheduling an SEC team out of conference — because there’s simply no way that Florida State was going to get on board with anything requiring them to cancel their annual rivalry game with Florida.
But then yesterday I had my light bulb moment: the unholy alliance isn’t about the SEC at all, it’s about the Big 12.
There’s nothing in writing, but the gentleman’s agreement between the three conferences seems to have two main points: one, nobody is expanding; and two, they’re going to vote against Playoff expansion (which the SEC had been pushing.)
Refusing to expand the Playoff hurts the SEC mildly, but the SEC will be fine, because its conference champion will always make the four-team Playoff. And refusing to expand the Playoff probably hurts the other three leagues more than it helps them, except in one key aspect: it pretty much kills off the Big 12, or at least it makes the conference non-viable as a “power” conference. And by refusing to expand, the Big 10, Pac-12, and ACC effectively just put the screws to the remaining Big 12 members. Whenever Texas and Oklahoma officially depart the Big 12 for the SEC, Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas Tech, and West Virginia will no longer be considered among the Haves of the sport. They’ll be sharing a league with BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF, four schools that the Haves very much want you to know are the Have-Nots.
And that, I think, is the real point. Now that the Haves are at long last walled off from the Have-Nots, now the work begins to toss some of the Haves over the wall into the realm of the Have-Nots. The Big 12’s remaining schools not getting a life raft from one of the other power conferences is the first salvo in that war. Don’t think it ends there.
In the end, Frank Broyles was wrong, because the Big Ten, ACC, and Pac-12 had the opportunity to make his prediction of four 16-team super conferences come true, choosing instead to stand firm when they had the chance to make it a reality. Instead, now the arc of college football is bending toward even fewer Haves to share in the sport’s exploding revenue. Who knows what the next round will look like — but for now, the arc of the sport couldn’t be more obvious.