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Answering your conference realignment Q’s, from ACC’s next steps to CFP

It’s (still) a volatile landscape in college conference realignment, and a day after Colorado announced it would leave the Pac-12 for its former home, the Big 12, there are many questions about what comes next. Nicole Auerbach, Chris Vannini, Justin Williams, Sam Khan and Stew Mandel have some answers.

(Note: Submitted questions have been lightly edited for length and clarity.) 

What are the ACC’s next steps? — Jack L. 

If I’m the ACC, I’ve already been looking for ways to increase my value so I don’t fall too far behind the Big Ten and the SEC by the end of the decade. I’ve already been trying to find potential new revenue streams. So, I’m staying in contact with the Pac-12 either about some sort of scheduling alliance or partnership, just to see what’s available. But I’d also keep a close eye on the Pac-12 to see if anyone else follows Colorado out the door, which could lead to a collapse.

If that appears imminent, I call Oregon, Washington, Stanford and Cal, and I add a western wing. They fit academically, which is important to ACC presidents, and Oregon and Washington help boost the football product. The issue that could be thorny is that of revenue sharing. Already, Florida State, Clemson and others have made it clear that they believe they deserve more. So, would they really want to split the pie by another four slices if it’s all evenly shared? Probably not. Could you do a tiered revenue split and add a western wing? I know things are never as simple as they sound on paper, but I’d explore that.

It’s also noteworthy that ACC commissioner Jim Phillips went on the record about expansion, telling ESPN on Thursday that his league has “spent considerable time on expansion to see if there is anything that fits. We have a tremendous group of institutions but if there was something that made us better, we would absolutely be open to it.”

Of course, there’s always the possibility that someone challenges the ACC’s grant of rights and tries to get out of the league. Florida State has a virtual board of trustees meeting scheduled for Aug. 2, which should be worth monitoring. The Seminoles would have to give notice of their withdrawal from the ACC by Aug. 15 in order to be able to compete in a new league by fall 2024. (And, well, then there’s the subsequent question of where they’d go. And then how much it’d cost to pay the exit fee and to get out of the grant of rights…)

If the ACC breaks open, we’ll have a very different conversation. But I do think the ACC could very well keep its current membership and also become an aggressor here if 1) it wants to; and 2) that doesn’t open up a way for FSU or Clemson or whoever to get out of the grant of rights. (I’m not sure if expansion would open up that can of worms. As of right now, I haven’t gotten a clear answer on its impact on the grant of rights.)

The ACC corner of realignment is the most intriguing bit to me, to be honest. — Nicole Auerbach


How will landing Colorado impact Big 12 expansion plans? Don’t sleep on UConn

George Kliavkoff was hired out of the entertainment industry. Is lack of leadership with the Pac-12 media deal partly blamed on him not having prior college football experience? And is the Big Ten asking for trouble since Tony Petitti does not have prior college football experience either? —Brandon M.

I don’t know — Brett Yormark didn’t have any prior college football experience, and he seems to be equipping himself just fine. Perhaps Petitti can serve as the tiebreaker in this debate. (And Petitti does have some interesting BCS roots, for what it’s worth.)

As far as negotiating a television rights contract, I would think someone with Kliavkoff’s entertainment background — or Yormark’s, or Petitti’s — would actually be better suited to navigate those murky, multi-hyphenate broadcast waters than a dyed-in-the-wool college administrator. It’s also hard to argue that a college-football lifer with longstanding relationships would have avoided the same conference realignment pratfalls Kliavkoff has suffered, considering we’re just two years removed from Greg Sankey boosting Texas and Oklahoma right from under Bob Bowlsby’s nose.

The biggest issue with Kliavkoff seems to be that he was a bad hire, for the wrong conference, at the worst possible time.

The Pac-12 presidents and chancellors have a reputation for being more aristocratic, small-c conservative, and academic-focused when it comes to things like conference realignment and expansion. On paper, Kliavkoff may have possessed the right temperament to manage that group while being viewed as just innovative enough to nudge the Pac-12 out of its comfort zone. A perfectly suitable peace-time candidate.

Instead, he walked into a hornet’s nest of volatility in college sports, and thus far has lacked the leadership or foresight to maneuver it. Yormark, on the other hand, proved to be the perfect choice for the recently stabilized — and scorned — Big 12. He’s been aggressive and disruptive for a chastened, gloves-off conference that craved and embraced that very approach, and the league is further solidified because of it. (Whereas Yormark in the Pac-12 probably would have a disaster, too.)

The Big 12 made the right hire at the right time. The Pac-12 did the opposite. It‘s probably that simple. Though to Brandon’s point, it will be interesting to see if how Petitti handles the job, good or bad, impacts the perspective on hiring “outsider” commissioners in the future. — Justin Williams

Why is there no interest from any conference in Boise State? I know it is not a large television market, but the Broncos kind of have a national following. People watch their games, if for no other reason than to see the blue turf and enjoy exciting football. In short, they bring eyeballs nationwide. — Percy C.

You’ve stumbled upon the most puzzling riddle in all of realignment.

Almost every other Group of 5 school that has reached a BCS or New Year’s Six bowl — Utah, TCU, Houston, UCF, Cincinnati — has gotten the call up to a Power 5 league. You would think Boise State’s run from 2004-2011, which included seven double-digit win seasons, four Top 10 finishes and one of the most iconic wins in bowl history against Oklahoma, would have made the Broncos as attractive (or more attractive) than any of them.

We also know they’re a TV draw. Boise State has long had a special clause in the Mountain West’s contract that pays it more money than the other members. Note that this season’s Week 1 Boise State-Washington game got picked up by ABC for its 3:30 p.m. window. If Washington was instead playing Rice, the game would be buried on Pac-12 Network.

And yet, the Big 12 didn’t want Boise when it expanded in 2021, and there’s been no indication the Pac-12 is currently interested. It’s not a mystery why. It’s just uncomfortable to talk about.

The presidents and chancellors who make these decisions don’t respect Boise State academically. The university was founded as a junior college, and somehow that perception hasn’t fully faded nearly 60 years after it began offering bachelor’s degrees. In the annual US News “best colleges” rankings, Boise last year fell into the “#331-440” tier, far lower than the “worst” schools in either the Pac-12 (No. 212 Washington State) or Big 12 (No. 234 West Virginia).

By comparison, SMU is No. 72, San Diego State No. 152.

I personally hate that arbitrary academic rankings are part of these discussions. The quality of Boise State’s chemistry department has no bearing on the success of the Broncos’ athletics teams.  But, university presidents do care about academics, and it’s working against Boise State. — Stewart Mandel

The Broncos have as many accolades as other Group of 5 programs that got the call up, but remain outside of the scope of current realignment moves. Photo: Brian Losness / USA Today

How does this affect the 12-team playoff model? It seems to be the most perfect model with the auto-bids. It keeps the regular season important. It keeps teams from conferences not named SEC and Big Ten involved. But with what looks like the death of the Pac-12, will the 6-6 model remain after 2025? Will it stay at 12? — Chris P.

I can’t imagine the 12-team model changing because it does include and engage more teams than just those in the Big Ten and SEC, as you said. But the 6-6 piece is even more intriguing now. They set it up for the six highest-ranked conference champions to automatically qualify and then six at-large teams to fill out the field. Already, they knew that there were six spots and five Power 5 leagues, but it definitely would look and feel significantly different if the Pac-12 no longer existed and we were truly down to a Power 4 … or a Power 2 and Middle 2, or however you’d want to label ‘em.

I remember some administrators wondering if they’d change the format back in the summer of 2021 when no one was sure that the Big 12 would survive. Even after the league added its four new members, I had people in my ear telling me that the league still wasn’t strong enough to merit essentially an auto-bid. But it never changed. So, my instinct is to say I don’t think the 6-6 format would change in this circumstance, either. The CFP is already looking at the 2024 and 2025 seasons as a bit of a test run for the 12-team bracket, so I’m sure they could tweak whatever they needed to if 6-6 didn’t make sense anymore.

The more interesting idea to track would be the next iteration of the makeup rules. Could the Big Ten and SEC throw their weight around and guarantee two auto-bids for themselves and just one for others? What if they swallow up most of the at-large bids and argue that it’s their schools that provide the most value to the CFP? — Auerbach

What happens to SMU and San Diego State now that Colorado is headed back to the Big 12? Is there any way Oregon is also headed to the Big 12? — Mac W.

The Big 12’s top targets for expansion are Power 5 schools (they won’t dilute the conference money pie, unlike non-P5 schools) and the Arizona schools are the most likely after Colorado to follow, especially Arizona. The school’s president already told our Max Olson he’s still waiting for a Pac-12 TV deal before making a decision. The Pac-12 still maintains it will do a TV deal before expansion, much to the confusion of many people across the country.

If the Pac-9 holds together, San Diego State is the most obvious addition. It’s in southern California, it leads the nation in football + men’s basketball winning percentage since 2010 and it just opened a new football stadium. It’s arguably an upgrade over Colorado. The question then is any further expansion. SMU probably won’t help your TV deal, but it has a whole lotta money invested in athletics, and getting into Texas and the central time zone helps. Those big-money boosters could help offset a difference if SMU comes in without a full membership payout. SMU might even be an easier 2024 addition than SDSU because of the Mountain West’s $34 million exit fee for the next year. (The AAC requires a 27-month notice but the conference has negotiated that previously, and again, SMU has money).

If you add those two, you’re at 11 schools. Do you look further at Colorado State, Air Force, UNLV or Boise State? Our Stewart Mandel reported last week that at least two Pac-12 schools weren’t keen on expanding greater than 10 (before Colorado left). You don’t want to dilute your payout, and Oregon/Washington have an easier path to a 12-team playoff in a smaller conference. But you also know they’re eying the exits and you have to be prepared to withstand that. — Chris Vannini

I know this won’t happen, but why can’t the NCAA step in and dictate what schools and conferences can do? For example, the NCAA can establish a fair TV media deal for all conferences and schools to get paid the same. This way schools aren’t jumping ship when things get rocky. — Garrett K.

Once upon a time, this was precisely how the college football television deals were set up. The NCAA controlled it all and even limited how often teams’ games were televised. The restrictions were borne out of concern that too many televised games would hurt attendance. Then Oklahoma and Georgia sued the NCAA and the U.S. Supreme Court in 1984 ruled in favor of the schools, affirming that the regulations violated the Sherman Antitrust Act.

After that ruling, the College Football Association, a coalition of dozens of major college football programs, brokered TV deals for several major conferences but, eventually, the conferences started negotiating the deals themselves — a move kickstarted by Notre Dame breaking away from the CFA in 1990 to negotiate its own TV contract with NBC. The CFA eventually dissolved and conferences/schools have had full control over their media rights since.

It isn’t at all a coincidence that we’ve seen major conference realignment moves ever since. The first major shakeup led to the demise of a conference: Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor joined the Big 8 schools and the Southwest Conference died as a result. That move was made largely to increase TV footprint, as the SWC was entirely comprised of Texas schools at its time of death and the thought was they needed to be in more households. The vast majority of realignment moves we’ve seen since, including Colorado’s recent move to the Big 12, have been driven largely with TV contracts in mind.

The toothpaste was out of the tube after the 1984 Supreme Court case and there’s no putting it back. Could a modern day CFA, negotiating on behalf of major conferences, work in 2023? Maybe, but it would be difficult to get the leagues to work together for the greater good. They can’t even do that for the good of the sport on issues much less impactful than television revenue. But there’s no doubt the lack of a centralized entity or leader has contributed to the current state of affairs.

The TV money has been good for the schools and leagues, but it has come at a high cost for college football at large, particularly for fans who cherish the rivalries and regionality that makes the sport unique. — Sam Khan

Are the SEC and Big Ten actually interested in going beyond 16 teams? Is anyone other than Notre Dame additive in terms of TV value? Also, much beyond 16 teams and you lose any semblance of being able to play everyone else on regular basis. Are there anti-trust concerns if they try to go to 20 or 24? (Delany seemed to think there could be in his interview as part of the realignment series.) — Robby W.

The SEC and Big Ten right now don’t want to expand and steal someone from the ACC or Pac-12 right now. Both commissioners Greg Sankey and Tony Petitti have said that publicly. But the potential implosion of the ACC or Pac-12 might change that. If the Pac-12 collapses or North Carolina, Virginia, Florida State, Clemson and the like somehow find a way out of the ACC Grant of Rights, the Big Ten and SEC would each be concerned about the other scooping them up, and that changes the dynamic. Sankey has maintained that the SEC only added Texas/Oklahoma because the schools approached the conference about coming and it would have been foolish to pass. (And yes, Notre Dame is the only obvious TV additive right now if you’re the SEC or Big Ten, unless a conference blows up and comes off the books).

If conferences grow further, it could open them up to antitrust concerns, yes, as Jim Delany told our Scott Dochterman recently. At that point, you’re almost a sport’s governing body with immense market power and the lawsuits that have been directed against the NCAA could turn their focus on the conferences as well. — Vannini

Why don’t schools separate football from their conference affiliation for all other sports? What is happening makes no sense for the athletes — even basketball with its winter midweek games. — Tom B.

I could not agree more with the premise behind this question. I was chatting with a Power 5 administrator just this week about how much simpler college sports would be if football was totally separate from everything else. Football is the least of the travel issues and logistical problems because it has so few games and they’re spaced out well. If I could wave a magic wand, I’d return to regional scheduling for all other sports. I do think it’s possible that college sports eventually gets to a model like the one you described, but it may take eight different steps to get there. We’d probably need to see the College Football Playoff (or an equivalent leadership group or person) take over managing the sport of football and then get the rest of the leagues together to pool rights and resources and/or divvy everything up. It’d be complicated, but it would also be a good outcome if it ever happens. — Auerbach

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(Top photo: Chris Leduc / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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