You've heard all of the rumblings about conference expansion these last few weeks - the Big10 is looking for a 12th member, the Pac10 might be looking for two more, etc. So it's time to reevaluate the conferences as I did a few seasons back. I'll have a bigger post later this off-season with a lot more details about the current state of the conferences, so consider this a bit of an appetizer.
We're not going to look at all the individual players involved here, but examine the trigger spots, where the big dominoes are that could have a ripple effect on the whole of the college football landscape. One of the main things to remember is that this isn't just about football - it's about each school's entire athletic department as well as the institution as a whole. Academics, geography, tradition, and the ubiquitous "fit" all play a role too. In a way, all the big teams and conferences want the same thing when considering expansion: an increase in revenue and TV footprint combined with as little risk and disruption to their current money and members as possible. So with that in mind, let's start with two of the most talked about situations.
Dominoes #1 & 2 - The Big10 adding #12 & the Pac10 becoming the Pac12.
These two have been stable for a long time, so they're in no big rush to add more teams. They're more concerned with quality and getting top-notch schools than anything else. They can afford to do that because they're two of the top conferences in terms of history, academics, geographic stability, revenue, and a host of other things.
Of the two, the Big10 is much more likely to add #12 because
1) they only have to add one more,
2) they have a lot of solid candidates for consideration, and
3) a conference championship game in football would bring in gobbs of money for everyone.
(There are other reasons too, of course, but these seem to be the biggest.)
The same can't really be said about the Pac10. They'd have to add two, probably from a the small list of Utah, BYU, Colorado, and the extreme long(horn)shot Texas, and a conference championship wouldn't be a guaranteed money machine like it would in the Midwest.
Right now, the Pac10's exploration timetable is a lot quicker than the Big10's though - the west coast guys are thinking of examining it over the next 6-12 months before they have to sign a new TV contract, while the Big10 is planning on taking about twice as long. Of course these conferences know what's going on within the conference ranks, and whatever one does is going to affect the other. One of them expanding will put major pressure on the other to get to 12 as well. I'd say that the odds that the Pac10 expands go up a good 30-40% if the Big10 expands first, and that the Big10 is pretty much guaranteed to expand if the Pac10 does so first. That's partly because neither wants to get left behind. If either one goes to 12, that puts them on par with the SEC, Big12, and ACC, leaving the other and the BigEast as the only BCS conferences at an "uneven" number. Even if they don't want to expand, they might feel they have to in order to stay viable.
Here's the thing: while the Big10 is the more likely of the two to expand, the Pac10 is the key because they're the more likely of the two to be able to resist going along with everyone else. Do they want to expand? Not really. The main thing to understand about the Pac10 is that if they don't expand now (soon), they're not going to. The conference hasn't really examined expansion in a long time, so the fact that they're even thinking about it right now is huge. But if they look at the situation and decide that they want to stay at ten, that's gonna be set in stone for decades. No matter what else happens, how the BCS changes, what other conferences do - if the Pac10 says "no" now, that's gonna be final. If they decide to buck the trend and stay at ten, it'll be kinda awkward, sure, but nothing earth shattering. They'll still have the Rose Bowl as a partner, which is a big stabilizer.
If both of these dominoes fall and the Pac10 & Big10 go to 12, things will start to happen fast. Here's what else will go down:
Domino #3 - The Big12 will probably have to add at least one more school.
That's mainly because some of their schools are major candidates for other conferences, Missouri to the Big10 and/or Colorado to the Pac10. But this really isn't such a big deal, since they could just add TCU and/or Houston and stay relatively strong. The whopper would be if Texas jumped ship - extremely unlikely, but the Big12 would definitely drop a few notches on the conference standing list if it happened.
Domino #4 - The BigEast will be scrambling and their BCS status will be in jeopardy.
This is not only because there's a decent chance that it will be one of their teams that joins the Big10, but also because whatever makeup their conference ends up having it's assured of being seen as much weaker than the other BCS conferences. They'll have pressure to expand, just like the Big10 & Pac10, but they'll have to add a whopping 4 (or even 5) teams to get to 12. And even if they added the consensus best 4 or 5 non-BCS teams available, it's still going to water down the conference as a whole and keep them at the bottom of the BCS totem. Not to mention what it would do to teams' relationships with the BigEast members that don't play football... It'd be a really messy situation that I'm sure they're praying they don't have to deal with.
The only way it could work out for them is if Notre Dame football joined the BigEast. Another longshot, but if they don't join the Big10...
Domino #5 - Notre Dame would be in a really tough spot.
Here the thing: at some point in the near future, Notre Dame is going to have to join a conference. They don't want to, mainly because independence is a big part of their identity, but conferences as a whole are becoming too powerful and make too much revenue to take on as a single independent school - even one with Notre Dame's pedigree. They're very much in danger of being left behind.
But the Irish are playing a dangerous game of chicken here. Right now, any conference would be thrilled to have them for what they'd bring to the table - but the reality is that once a conference is at 12, they're pretty much full. Would the ACC, Big12, or SEC let Notre Dame join right now? I'd have to say probably not (though the ACC would give it serious consideration), because 1) they're not going to give any current conference members the boot and 2) adding a 13th team is really risky. So that leaves the Big10, Pac10, and BigEast as the only viable options right now. But as soon as the Big10 and Pac10 get to 12, where else is there for the Irish to go? Sure they're already in the BigEast for all non-football sports, but it would be a huge blow to the Irish ego to have to join them on the gridiron. They might just decide to go down with the ship - who knows. It would certainly give the BigEast conference a huge boost and help them keep their BCS status though.
Could the Irish join the Big10 right now and save themselves the heartache? Definitely - the Big10 would have them and their following. But that would mean the Irish blinked first... Unless Notre Dame goes on a tear and wins 10 games a season for the foreseeable future, their special BCS status will continue to erode.
Domino #6 - The MtnWest's dreams of BCS membership will come crashing down.
If the previous dominoes have fallen, the chances are slim that the MtnWest has survived unscathed and unplundered. It would be good for Utah or TCU if they got to move up to a BCS conference, but bad for the rest of the schools and the conference as a whole. They'd be down to 7 or less schools and in the same position as the BigEast in needing to replentish their ranks with lesser-qualified choices. Could they join up with the best of the CUSA and/or WAC schools to make a solid 12-member conference? Sure, but again, like the BigEast it wouldn't be seen as nearly as strong as the top 5 BCS conferences.
The Final Result - A college football playoff would be all but inevitable.
As soon as both the Pac10 and Big10 get to 12, book it - it's done. A lot of people think that's the case right now, but a playoff becomes a exponentially a lot more likely if the Big10 or Pac10 expand, partly because they are part of the Rose Bowl trifecta that are so against a playoff right now. Any change in the status quo would get the ball rolling. (A quick aside - if the other BCS conferences were pro-playoff, and the only things standing in the way were these three, it would seem that the best solution would be to offer the Rose Bowl the national championship every year. They've been pushed far enough from their beloved Big10-Pac10 matchup over the last decade that they'd probably accept it and the status it would bring. Of course that assumes that the other BCS conferences really are pro-playoff...)
These completely rearranged super-conferences that people bandy about - those aren't gonna happen, sorry. But if the SEC, Big12, Big10, ACC, and Pac10 are all at 12 schools with a conference championship game... that naturally leads to a playoff. Probably 8 team, guaranteeing conference champions as well as a few at-larges reserved for the best non-BCS team & highest ranked BCS non-champions. (Even if the Pac10 stays at 10, a while all the others have championship games, it wouldn't be that bad since the Pac10 is the only conference with a true round-robin.)
Sure they bowls will have to be changed/absorbed somehow. And it will leave all the other conferences (BigEast included) scrambling for a piece of the action, but it would happen. And there'll be more moaning and complaining from the "little guys" that they don't have a shot. And teams will still play cupcakes in order to pad their resumes. And people will complain about the system and their team getting screwed. And competition will often take a back seat to money.
So... not much will change really.