Bowling for Dollars: New SEC/Big 12 Bowl and Realignment Rumors

The SEC and Big 12 had a major announcement this past Friday that the two conferences are creating a new bowl pitting their champions against each other (provided that in the event either or both champions end up in the new college football playoff, the bowl will select other “deserving” teams from those conferences). Coupled with ongoing speculation that at least Florida State is looking to move to the Big 12 (with possibly Clemson following behind them), conference realignment fever is back once again. Let’s breakdown a number of questions that have come up regarding the new playoff system and conference movements in the wake of recent news:

(1) How will the new SEC/Big 12 bowl impact the college football postseason? – I’ll give the lawyerly answer that it could range from having very little impact to having a massive impact, with the likely outcome being somewhere in between. Here are the three main scenarios:

(a) Low Impact Scenario: Semifinals Rotated Among Bowls – If the new college football semifinals are simply rotated through 5 or 6 bowls on a regular basis, then this new SEC/Big 12 bowl won’t look too much different than the current Cotton Bowl matchup in most years despite all of the superlatives being thrown around in the media. (To be sure, the perception of where the conferences stand as a result of this new bowl is more important than the matchup itself, which I’ll get to later on.) All this is doing is effectively moving a team that would have played in the Fiesta Bowl to play the SEC champ in the Sugar Bowl (or whichever bowl or site ends up with the new matchup). It creates a clear separation of the Rose Bowl and the SEC/Big 12 bowl from the others in terms of the quality of the matchup and prestige, but doesn’t really impact the nature of the playoff itself in this scenario.

(b) Moderate Impact Scenario: Semifinals Slotted According to Bowl Tie-ins – What’s interesting is that out of all of the hub-bub about the SEC/Big 12 bowl on Friday, very little was mentioned by the media about a playoff format that received a ton of positive traction after last month’s BCS meetings: the semifinal matchups could be slotted according to bowl tie-ins (e.g. a #1 Big Ten champ would play the #4 team in the Rose Bowl, a #2 SEC champ would play the #3 team in the Sugar Bowl, etc.). Under that format, this new SEC/Big 12 bowl is fairly important since, just by basic arithmetic, a bowl with two contractual tie-ins is going to have a higher chance of hosting a semifinal than a bowl with only one tie-in and in practicality, a bowl with two tie-ins with conferences that have performed as well on the field as the SEC and Big 12 lately has an even higher chance of being a semifinal site.

If semifinals are slotted according to tie-ins, it would even further separate the Rose Bowl and the SEC/Big 12 bowl from the others. For example, if the playoff system were to use the selection criteria I proposed here (take the top 3 teams regardless of conference affiliation and the 4th spot goes to the highest ranked of a top4 independent or top 6 conference champ, and if those aren’t available, then it goes the #4-ranked team that isn’t a conference champ/independent), then the Rose Bowl and the SEC/Big 12 bowl would have hosted both semifinals every single year since the BCS system was overhauled in 2005 with the exception of 2009. The Rose Bowl and SEC/Big 12 bowl would more likely than not be semifinal sites on an annual basis.

(c) High Impact Scenario: Return of the Unseeded Plus-One or 4 Teams Plus – An unseeded plus-one system should be dead. The outcome of the BCS meetings indicated the support for a 4-team playoff and the Big Ten (who would have been most likely to fight for a plus-one) has come to a consensus that it supports it at a high level. However, Pete Thamel of the New York Times threw this wrinkle in his commentary on the new SEC/Big 12 bowl:

One notion that became more viable that had long been disregarded is an actual Plus One — the often misused term for a one-game playoff after the bowls are played. If all the power in football is consolidated in the Big Ten, the SEC, the Big 12 and the Pac-12 — especially if teams flee the A.C.C. — could the Rose Bowl and Champions Bowl serve as de facto national semifinals and the top-ranked teams play a title game?

It wouldn’t be a playoff, technically. And it would alienate fans, who want simplicity after years of frustration and confusion. But there is an argument that will be heard in the next few weeks that the four league title games would be (essentially) quarterfinals, the Rose and Champions Bowl semifinals and the Plus One game a title game in most years.

Remember the “4 Teams Plus” idea from reportedly Jim Delany that had the Rose Bowl matchup guaranteed to be the Big Ten champs vs. Pac-12 champs regardless of ranking and then the four highest-ranked teams outside of the participants in Pasadena would play each other? Pretty much everyone outside of the Big Ten and Pac-12 hated that idea at the time, but that sentiment could theoretically change quite a bit if the new SEC/Big 12 bowl also had a protected matchup just like the Rose Bowl.

Let’s say the the Big Ten champs and Pac-12 champs would always play each other in the Rose Bowl, the SEC and Big 12 champs would always play each other in their new bowl, and then the 4 highest ranked teams outside of that group would play in two other bowls. Would the ACC, Big East and other conferences actually like that format better since they’d have a better chance to be in that “other 4” group than in a pure top 4 playoff? Would the SEC and Big 12 like having de facto bids to a semifinal game every year?

Personally, I think we’re so far down the path of going toward a 4-team playoff that to reverse course suddenly isn’t realistically possible. However, no one can put it past for the rulers of college football to muddy the waters quickly. My guess is that we’ll end up with the Moderate Impact Scenario because it’s a way to enhance the values of both the Rose Bowl and the new SEC/Big 12 bowl without going away from a 4-team playoff. Speaking of which…

(2) What do the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Rose Bowl think of the new SEC/Big 12 bowl? – A lot of media-types enjoy playing up a supposed rivalry between the Big Ten and SEC and, in turn, want to project a similar rivalry between the Rose Bowl and the new SEC/Big 12 bowl. However, as I’ve said several times before, when it comes down to revenue sharing, which is what is truly contentious about the new postseason system (much more than which teams actually get into the playoff), Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and SEC commissioner Mike Slive are brothers-in-arms: they believe that they should receive a helluva lot more money than everyone else.

Up until now, much of the college football playoff debate has been characterized as the Big Ten/Pac-12/Rose Bowl standing in the way of everyone else. Now, that trifecta has company, where the SEC and Big 12 have similar self-interests to protect the value of their new bowl. Frankly, this new SEC/Big 12 bowl is the best thing that could have happened to the Big Ten/Pac-12/Rose Bowl since there are now 4 heavyweight conferences seeking to maximize their respective bowl tie-ins (instead of just 2).

(3) Does the new SEC/Big 12 bowl mean that Florida State and Clemson are heading to the Big 12? – Not necessarily, but each new bit of news indicates that it’s more likely than each passing day. I’ll fully admit again to being a long-time skeptic of any Big 12 poaching of ACC schools and still believe that it would be a bad idea for Florida State to move (unlike Texas A&M and Missouri, who were 110% correct in moving to the SEC), yet if the money is good enough, no one can actually be surprised at this point. The new bowl game itself really isn’t a game changer – as I’ve stated above, it may end up being the current Cotton Bowl matchup most years under different management. However, the perception of where the conferences stand seems to have changed, which is a much larger take-away. If the mighty SEC deems the Big 12 worthy to have their respective champions play each other, then by extension, the SEC sees the Big 12 as an equal. That viewing of equality between the SEC and Big 12 is certainly a massive change from last September when the SEC raided the Big 12 of two key schools and Ken Starr was ready to use any legal means necessary to stop it.

I don’t know if the new SEC/Big 12 bowl is the panacea of revenue and power that many SEC and Big 12 partisans are trying to make it out to be, but the new deal is really the first indication to me that the Big 12 is truly stable. Oh sure, I wasn’t one to believe that the Big 12 would completely collapse. I haven’t been a subscriber that Texas would be moving anywhere ever since the Longhorn Network was started. At the same time, UT’s modus operandi has been to run a conference in the same way that Notre Dame wants independence in and of itself as opposed to money (which I’ll expand upon further in a moment) and the Big 12 was always in position to get a great TV as long the Longhorns and Oklahoma in the fold. The conference members even agreed to grant its TV rights to the league for the next 13 years in the same way that the Big Ten and Pac-12 already do, which means that even if a school were to leave, such school’s TV rights would still be retained by the Big 12.

Still, it all felt like a situation where there was one big dog in the room (Texas) that had enough power by itself to throw just enough cash out to make the others stay (even if they would all leave if the Big Ten, SEC or Pac-12 came calling). A league with a healthy backbone doesn’t lose Nebraska, Colorado, Texas A&M and Missouri (all 4 of whom are valuable schools) in the span of 14 months. What the new bowl deal indicates is that the Big 12 has something beyond the value of its current TV contracts to provide. That’s a big change from the chaos of 2010 and 2011.

Is that enough for Florida State to move? In turn, if this new SEC/Big 12 bowl is going to be a massive revenue generator, how much is the Big 12 going to be willing to expand further? My feeling is that the new bowl isn’t a definitive objective catalyst for major conference changes, but it plays into the shift in the subjective belief that the Big 12 is in one of 4 power conferences while the ACC is on the outside.

(4) Is the ACC going to die? – If there’s one thing that I’ve noticed over the past couple of years in writing about conference realignment, it’s that people love apocalyptic scenarios. For example, if Florida State and Clemson leave for the Big 12, one thought is that schools such as Virginia Tech and North Carolina State might look toward the SEC and the Big Ten could end up getting Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and Duke, which in turn would kill the ACC completely. In the same way that people slow down to watch car wrecks, it’s almost addictive to plot out ways how a conference can be destroyed.

My response to this: simmer down! Just look at the Big East, which has only two members that were playing football in the conference prior to the ACC raid of that league in 2003 (Rutgers and Temple), and one of which (Temple) was actually kicked out and only invited back after the league was raided again. If any conference should be dead, it ought to be the Big East. Despite of all of this, the Big East still lives on*.

(* Counterpoint: Maybe the Big East was never alive in the first place.)

Even in the worst case scenario for the ACC described above with the Big 12, Big Ten and SEC simultaneously raiding the conference, the ACC could still backfill with schools such as UConn and Rutgers and continue to exist in some form. In the more realistic scenario of the ACC losing 2 schools, the league could still choose to take in UConn and/or Rutgers or simply stand pat at 12 schools.

Remember what I stated a couple of weeks ago about the one rule that we have learned in conference realignment: Shit ALWAYS runs downhill. The ACC might get weakened or even mortally wounded, but it’s far from the bottom of the hill. If you’re a fan of a school in a conference other than the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12 or Big 12, be careful in delighting too much about the ACC’s suddenly undesirable place in the college sports world, because you’re probably next in firing line.

(5) Can the ACC maintain a place at the big boy table? – I honestly believe that they can, even if they lose Florida State and/or others. My feeling is that UNC, UVA and Duke are wedded to the ACC as much as Texas is to the Big 12 and Michigan and Ohio State are to the Big Ten, and as long as those three schools are there, they’re going to have a seat at the power table. The on-the-field focused people might say, “Those schools haven’t done jackshit in football for years,” and they’d be correct. However, they are also three schools with disproportionate influence and power in the college sports governing structure due to their combination of athletics and academics.

To put the ACC onto the same level as the Big East is misguided. Even if the ACC is the #5 conference today, it’s still quite far ahead of #6 when considering its roster of flagship schools and top academic institutions. On-the-field, Virginia Tech likely would have been in a 4-team playoff last year if it hadn’t crapped the bed in the ACC Championship Game and I believe that it’s foolhardy to believe that Miami is going to be in some permanent funk considering its unbelievable recruiting location advantage, both in terms of local recruits and national allure to 18-year old kids to its campus and metro area, which is only comparable to USC. I’ve seen many arguments about why Miami supposedly won’t bounce back, such as its fair-weather fan base, off-campus stadium and the fact that it’s a private school. All of those certainly are disadvantages compared to the Ohio States and Alabamas of the world. However, what football recruiting ultimately comes down to is convincing 18-year old kids to commit to a program. As a 34-year old with a wife and twin 2-year olds, I might not want to live in Miami, but if I’m a single hotshot 18-year old recruit that is able to be on a gorgeous campus in a place with great weather and basically limitless extracurricular activities with beaches and models galore, I may have a vastly different set of priorities. Don’t count Miami out for the long-term. People were writing the same obituaries about the Hurricanes in the late-1990s, after which they promptly went on a dominant tear of success in the early-2000s.

On the bowl front, the ACC champion was never going to play the SEC or Big 12 champs in bowls, anyway, so the new SEC/Big 12 bowl won’t have a true practical impact. So, let’s say that the Orange Bowl ends up pitting the ACC champ versus Big Ten #2 or SEC #2. The Orange may not end up providing the same payout as the Rose Bowl or new SEC/Big 12 bowl, but it may actually end up being an upgrade compared to the current BCS system (where it seemed as if though the Orange got stuck with a less-than-desirable Big East school a disproportionate amount of the time).

There could also be a rotation from year-to-year among tie-ins either to account for semifinals or at-large bids in a new BCS system (or whatever it’s called). For purely the sake of discussion, let’s say that the Sugar Bowl becomes the home of the SEC/Big 12 bowl and then the Cotton and Capital One Bowls are elevated to top tier status. In year 1, the tie-ins could look like the following:

Rose Bowl: Big Ten #1 vs. Pac-12 #1
Sugar Bowl: SEC #1 vs. Big 12 #1
Orange Bowl: ACC #1 vs. SEC #2
Fiesta Bowl: Big Ten #2 vs. Big 12 #2
Capital One Bowl: at-large vs. at-large
Cotton Bowl: at-large vs. at-large

Then, the tie-ins would rotate the next year as follows:

Rose Bowl: Big Ten #1 vs. Pac-12 #1
Sugar Bowl: SEC #1 vs. Big 12 #1
Capital One Bowl: ACC #1 vs. Big Ten #2
Cotton Bowl: Big 12 #2 vs. SEC #2
Orange Bowl: at-large vs. at-large
Fiesta Bowl: at-large vs. at-large

Depending upon which format is used, the at-large bids can also be placeholders for the 4 teams that are playing in the semifinals of a playoff (or even the “other 4” in a 4 Teams Plus system). This way, conferences such as the Big Ten and SEC get bowl tie-ins in the markets that they care about the most regularly (Florida and Arizona in the case of the Big Ten, Florida and Texas in the case of the SEC) while not subjecting their fans to fatigue of having to travel to the same set of locales every year.

Regardless, the ACC still has assets to get a good bowl tie-in, even if it might not be great on the level of the Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC or Big 12. I can’t really say the same about anyone else in the new system.

(6) What will Notre Dame do? – My 99% feeling is absolutely, positively nothing. There is .99% of me that thinks that Notre Dame could end up in the Big 12 as a non-football member, and I’ll leave a .01% chance that the Irish give up independence in football. As I’ve stated in several other posts, Notre Dame is NOT an independent as a result of money from its NBC deal. If Notre Dame simply wanted to make the most TV money possible, it would have chosen to be an equal revenue sharing member of the Big Ten. Instead, Notre Dame is independent because its alums have completely and thoroughly convinced themselves that independence in and of itself is the end game value that makes the Golden Dome special. I have a good number of Texas and Texas A&M readers and enjoy their stereotyping of each others’ fan bases – it’s what takes college sports fandom to another level beyond pro sports fandom. However, there is absolutely nothing compared to the laser-like unwavering focus that Notre Dame alums have upon independence with a groupthink that crushes every single other argument that the entire rest of the world deems to be “rational”. While Florida State alums might be wondering why the Seminoles aren’t maximizing their TV dollars as a member of the ACC, Notre Dame alums are the opposite and constantly on guard (and withholding large donations) about selling out independence for a few more dollars. Unlike many other schools, where members of the board of trustees might be political appointees, the alums are truly in control of Notre Dame.

The upshot is that Notre Dame alums aren’t rational regarding the issue of independence and that matters because they have the ultimate power at that school (as opposed to the board of trustees or the university president). As a result, attempting to use rational arguments to say, “Notre Dame needs to join a conference to be competitive for the college football playoff” or “Notre Dame could keep its NBC deal if they joined us instead of them” isn’t going to get anyone anywhere from South Bend on board with that. Believe me – I’ve tried.

For what it’s worth, the Domers aren’t completely irrational, either. BYU has a freaking TV deal worth millions of dollars per year with ESPN and Texas gets paid $15 million per year for bottom-of-the-barrel sports rights on the Longhorn Network, so the thought that Notre Dame couldn’t sell 7 home football games (of which there is guaranteed to be at least a game against Michigan or USC every year) for a price where it can more than afford to maintain independence is ridiculous. With every article, column, blog post and column that I see claiming that Notre Dame is “irrelevant”, I also see at least 3 power conferences (the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC) that would add the Irish in a heartbeat and if the Pac-12 and SEC were actually viable options, they’d take the Domers, too. Every power conference bending over backwards to add a school is the antithesis of irrelevance.

Now, could I see Notre Dame end up moving its non-football sports to the Big 12? That’s certainly possible if the Big East gets raided again, although if the Irish haven’t left the Big East by now when schools that it actually cared about such as Pitt, Syracuse and Miami left, it’s hard to see them getting too hung up about the likes of UConn, Rutgers or Louisville leaving. Let me put it another way: Notre Dame would absolutely take a non-football membership in the Big 12 before it would take an all-sports membership in the ACC or Big Ten because independence is truly the end game for the Irish. However, there shouldn’t be any assumption that the willingness of Notre Dame to take a non-football membership in the Big 12 has any bearing on whether the Irish would ever join the Big 12 for all-sports. The Big East already knows that very well.

There are countless possibilities of how the college football world is going to look by the end of the summer, whether it’s how conference realignment is finalized or what format will be used for a college football playoff. Some words of wisdom actually come from Chip Brown of Orangebloods, who stated that “it’s important to remember that realignment plays out in real time. So you have to keep up. If you want to keep score on stories like these, good luck. Everyone will. But you have to keep up, because what is true now, might not be true in a week, a month, a year.” Lots could be happening or nothing could be happening at all, but only time will tell.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Image from Bleacher Report)