This is a long one, because I've got a lot to say. Buckle up. Oh, and it's only current through 1:30 Central, so keep that in mind.
There have been rumors and rumblings about schools possibly leaving the Big XII for months. I haven't commented about them on the blog before because it's very upsetting to me (this is also why I rarely write about politics). It's upsetting for two reasons: first, I'm very attached to the Big XII. I think it's a very good conference and am going to miss it when it's gone. The second reason is that's all just stupid.
For those of you who haven't been following the story, here's what's up: months ago, the Big Ten (which is comprised of eleven schools, natch) announced that they wanted to expand. This makes perfect sense. Now, athletic conferences affect many sports, but we're just going to focus on football, because, as the thing from whence the money comes, that's what's driving all of these actions. The Big Ten, with its eleven members, can't have divisions or a conference championship. You need 12 to do that. It is also a quirk of the Big Ten football schedule that it wraps up the weekend before Thanksgiving, meaning that it stops getting attention well before the other conferences, who keep playing. (This was also a big deal for the 2006 championship, when much was made of Ohio State's five weeks off from playing compared to Florida's three. It was theorized that all that time away took off tOSU's edge and, indeed, they performed much worse that you would have thought based on how they played during the season.) If the Big Ten had a conference championship, it would extend their pre-bowl season.
The question has always been, who would the Big Ten recruit? The answer seems to be Nebraska. This makes sense for the Big Ten, because it would widen their "TV footprint" (although only by the area of Nebraska, which contains no important TV markets), and of course Nebraska has its impressive football cache and broad fanbase.
Does it makes sense for Nebraska? I suppose it does. Their style of football (some would call it “smashmouth,” others would call it “boring”) fits with Big Ten style. And it makes sense geographically/culturally, I suppose, although not necessarily more sense than the Big XII makes. The real question is why Nebraska would want to leave the Big XII. Is it the different football sensibility (Nebraska having no truck with all that passing nonsense everybody else wants to do)? Is it the disparity between the North and South divisions (which, even though the weak North is good for Nebraska’s win-loss total, makes Nebraska’s schedule look weaker than it needs to be)? Or is it, depressingly, just the money?
The Big XII doesn’t pay out as many millions as the Big Ten as things stand now, mostly (as I understand it) because of the Big Ten Network. The conference owns it, so they get all the profit from the not-inconsiderable number of games they broadcast. This is the weird thing to me: as a resident of Big Ten country, it seems to me that most people around here who actually like watching football games hate the Big Ten Network. It’s expensive to get (being way up on the cable tiers), meaning that Big Ten Network games are games that you have to go to sports bar to watch or that you just miss. Given, I haven’t heard as many complaints about it recently as I did when it first launched, so either the situation has improved or people have gotten used to it. Still, it puzzles me when fans of other conferences talk about how they should get their own network too. It makes sense if you’re making money off of it, but not necessarily if you just want to watch some football.
My theory is that it’s a combination of the money, a desire to join kindred football spirits (who will be more prestigious to defeat than Iowa State yet easier to beat than texas), and a lack of rivalry glue within the Big XII. Whereas texas and Texas A&M don’t go conference-hopping without each other, Nebraska doesn’t have anybody like than in the Big XII. Admittedly, I’m not a huge expert on the mentality of the Nebraska fan, but I don’t feel like they really have anybody fun to hate. KU and K-State are, in the historical view, terrible at football; Nebraska may have a little more going on with Missouri or Colorado, but it’s nothing ESPN announcers gush about, you know? (Also, nobody cares about Iowa State besides maybe Iowa fans for one week a year.) Nebraska’s greatest Big Eight rival was Oklahoma and because of the Big XII’s rigid scheduling, they only play twice every four years (not even every other year; two on and two off). Perhaps this was a mistake. Take the SEC for instance—when it was split into divisions, provision was made for historic rivals to keep playing every year. Tennessee is in the East and Alabama in the West, but since the Tennessee-Alabama game is a big deal, it happens every single year. If Nebraska were playing Oklahoma every year, would it be harder to leave?
There has also been talk of Missouri bolting for the Big Ten (in case they wanted to be the Big T(hirte)en, I guess?) but I’m less sure what’s going on there. That is, I’m sure it’s because Mizzou has their collective panties in a wad over being passed over in Big XII’s bowl bids last year, losing out on a sweeter bowl to the inferior Iowa State. Attention, Missouri: it’s because your fans are terrible and don’t travel well. Get on that. Anyway, what I’m unsure about is whether the Big Ten really wants them. I don't think they do. If they get Nebraska, they’ll call it a day.
OK, stage three: I once read an article that described the Big XII as a conference with two 800-lb gorillas, Nebraska in the north and texas in the south. Without Nebraska, the conference becomes unattractive to texas. That blow to the conference’s prestige makes it not good enough for what is, objectively, one of the nation’s finest athletic programs. But where to go? And here’s where it starts getting, in my opinion, kind of stupid.
With the Big Ten’s talk of expansion and the increasing likelihood that the Big XII will become a carcass for the picking-apart, the Pac-10 has gotten in on the "fun." It's already poached Colorado. That's not super-important; the Big XII could survive without Colorado, replacing with, I dunno, somebody. Colorado isn't a deal-breaker. Its leaving is a symptom of Big XII death, not a cause.
But the Pac-10 isn't done! Oh no. Why stop at Pac-11 or Pac-12 when you could be The Pac-16, Conference Supreme!? Why add a bunch of teams from Texas and Oklahoma to the Pacific Athletic Conference? WHY NOT.
Basically, the Pac-10's supervillain plan is to poach not just Colorado, but also texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech. Then the old Big XII teams would be put into an eastern division with Arizona and Arizona State, while those Pac-10 teams that have any relation at all to the Pacific Ocean would be in the western division. This is baffling to me. Oklahoma State and Oregon State in the same conference? I just . . . it's . . . what? Sure, this conference (or "super conference" as ESPN's Mark May put it) would make a lot of cash--but then, they'll spend a lot of cash on travel expenses--but it just doesn't make the sense that the Big XII (or the existing Pac-10) does.
One interesting facet of this: Baylor. Baylor was lobbying to be in the new Pac-10 group instead of Colorado, but now of course, that ain't happ'nin'. And why would it? The Pac-10 wouldn't want to touch Baylor with a ten-foot pole. (Or, as it would need to be, a 2,100-mile-long pole.) Baylor shouldn't be in a major conference, and it's hard to see, in the likely event that the Big XII goes extinct, how it will be. The wild card is that Baylor alumni have political pull within the state of Texas, and they're using that leverage with the other Texas schools to try to stay together in a group. That's how they (and Texas Tech) got into the Big XII in the first place. I doubt if it will enough this time, though.
I wish the Big XII would just stay together (well, at this point, "stay together" with the remaining 11 members and some replacement for Colorado), but I think it won't. I shouldn't be this worried about it, because A&M is going to be fine. Even if we didn't have the understanding with texas, we've been flirting with the SEC for years, apparently (and Sports Illustrated has a very, very interesting article about the possibility), and that would be a pretty soft landing (although we'd be soft targets for SEC teams as the program stands now). But I don't wanna be a Pac-10 fan. And I was never a big K-State or KU fan, but I have a little affection in that direction, and I have no idea what would happen to them (or Iowa State or probably Missouri, but I don't care about those guys). Geographically and historically, I just don't know either who they'd join or what they could cobble together. Nothing springs to mind at all.I don't blame the Big Ten for wanting to expand. I don't blame Nebraska for wanting to go. I don't blame texas and the Texettes for wanting to go if Nebraska goes. I guess I don't blame the Pac-10 for wanting to take over the world. So whom do I blame for all of this? That's easy. Notre Dame.
Notre Dame is a perfect fit for the Big Ten. There's no reason for Notre Dame to be independent except that it gives them more flexibility in their schedule to play terrible teams and inflate their win total. They bring in a little more money with their independent television contract than the Big Ten currently pays out to its member schools, but the Big Ten's total and Notre Dame's share would increase with Notre Dame in the mix. If Notre Dame would have just done the obvious thing and join a conference already, no dominoes would have had to fall anywhere. The Big Ten would get better and everybody else could have stayed the same. But no. Notre Dame is killing the Big XII, which gives me just one more reason to hate them.
If you'd like to follow along with the drama, I'd recommend the ESPN Big XII blogger's page.