Independence or Alliance? Texas’ Options in Future Realignment

With the start of the 2015 college football season a mere month away we have reached peak off-season with incessant talk of conference realignment, playoff expansion, pre-season rankings, and coach speak. The focal point of conference realignment conversation has been the Big 12 as per usual with the center of gravity remaining the Great Burnt Orange Attractor in Austin. The consensus is that Texas will remain in the Big 12 until the expiration of the Grant of Rights in 2025. From that point the Longhorns could go west to an expanded Pac-12, north to an expanded Big Ten, or east to a 16 team ACC or joining Texas A&M in the SEC. There also remains speculation that the Horns could go independent and try to make their schedule and the Longhorn Network work the old fashioned Notre Dame way. Some of these options remain more farfethched than others which raises the question…what realistic scenarios are in store for the Big 12’s future.

1) Pac-12 Expansion

This makes the most sense for the Longhorns and it makes the most sense from a realignment standpoint. One thing we’ve seen from realignment is that conference’s do not expand unless they have something to gain. They do not expand simply to capture a name brand or to act from the gratitude of their collective hearts. When the SEC expanded in the early 90’s they did so to create a conference championship game first and foremost. ACC expansion in the early 2000’s was for the same purpose. The Big Ten’s acquisition of Nebraska and the Pac-10’s expansion, first as an attempt to go to Pac-16, second in the form of adding Colorado and Utah, was also to meet the 12 team requirements to have a championship game. Subsequent expansion by the SEC (adding A&M and Missouri) and the Big Ten (adding Maryland and Rutgers) was to provide additional markets for their conference networks (the addition of Texas A&M and Missouri adding Texas and Missouri’s markets doubled the population of the SEC’s footprint while Maryland and Rutgers added Washington D.C. and New York City). ACC expansion (adding Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and Louisville as well as their deal with Notre Dame) was an effort to expand its market into old Big East territory, add competitive basketball programs, and generally keep the conference alive.

This brings us to the reason why Texas makes so much sense to the Pac-12…they HAVE to expand. A failure to add Austin means the Pac-12 will be hemmed in geographically and could be at a major disadvantage to a Big Ten or SEC that does add Texas. Secondly, the Pac-12 Network is struggling compared to the SEC Network and Big Ten Network. The main culprit is a lack of broadcast partner (the Big Ten Network is handled by Fox while the SEC Network is handled by ESPN) but also a confused regional broadcast plan and lower sports tune in rates out west. Adding Texas increases the conference footprint, adds several rabid fanbases to the conference. and the Pac-12 Network could absorb and rework the Longhorn Network to make the Pac-12 Network an ESPN managed property. At minimum if the Pac-12 added Texas and Oklahoma they could create a Pac-14 with a south division containing Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, USC, and UCLA with a north division containing Utah, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, California, Washington, and Washington State. If state politics forced Texas and Oklahoma to bring Texas Tech and Oklahoma State (there have long been rumors that Oklahoma City wants to keep the Sooners and Cowboys together and in the early 90’s Texas Lt. Governor Bob Bullock threw his considerable political weight around to get his Alma Mater in Lubbock attached to Austin and College Station) along then a Pac-16 could be evenly divided into four divisions of four: A Pacific Northwest Division with the Oregon and Washington schools, a California Division with those schools, a Mountain Division with the Arizona schools, Utah, and Colorado, and an Eastern Division with the Oklahoma and Texas schools.

This makes sense for the Longhorns as well as the other Big 12 refugees because they throw their lot in with a massive athletic conference that is a powerhouse in all sports and off the field academically. A conference that combines the markets and recruiting bases of Texas and California is downright scary. They likely will bring regional partners to play which would limit travel and dreaded late Pacific Time Zone games. A Pac-16 divided into four divisions, playing nine conference games, with rotating home and away games between each division ensures Texas plays six games in the Central Time Zone, one game in Mountain Time, and two during Pacific Time. Hardly a deal breaker for the fans when one considers the increased quality of opponents and the other intangible benefits of joining the Pac-12.

2) Big Ten Expansion

This one is a tough sell geographically and culturally. While Texas academics would relish being a part of the CIC research initiative and being in the same breath as schools like Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Minnesota, the styles of play, the climates, and the travel distances are considerable. Any Big Ten expansion in the direction of Texas would have to come with Big 12 traveling partners. Oklahoma would make a perfect 16th team to Texas’ 15th slot but that still leaves a considerable geographical gap between the two schools and Lincoln and Iowa City, the two closest institutions in the Big Ten. Like a move to the Pac-12, Big Ten expansion presents potential legal and political problems to Texas and Oklahoma from the remaining Big 12, and especially the in-state, schools. Southwest expansion also undercuts the existing Big Ten strategy of East Coast expansion in an attempt to open up the last remaining untapped college football market in the America. The Big Ten already added Maryland (“opening” Washington D.C. and Baltimore) and Rutgers (“opening” New York City) and many expect Boston College to be in its sights to anchor the conference in New England (disregarding the pesky sticking point of BC being an ACC school and lacking AAU status which seems to be a Big Ten prerequisite).

In terms of two Big 12 teams going to the Big Ten the tag team of Kansas and Oklahoma makes the most sense geographically and culturally but presents a host of other issues. Kansas provides marginal new markets compared to the Longhorns with Texas, or a longshot cross-conference flip of Missouri from the SEC or Virginia, Boston College, or North Carolina from the core of the ACC. Oklahoma would be the first school not in the AAU to receive an invite from the Big Ten in this scenario (Nebraska lost AAU membership on a technicality shortly after admission to the conference). Despite growth in Oklahoma City and Tulsa the Oklahoma market pales in comparison to markets in Texas, New England, Virginia, and North Carolina that the Big Ten might wish to hold out longer for. OU football, KU basketball, and KU’s academic status are big draws but the cable markets in the states simply might not add enough additional revenue to the Big Ten Network and a renegotiated Big Ten football rights contract to justify an immediate Big Ten expansion to 16 teams.

This brings me to the allure of the Longhorns. Texas does provide a new market to the Big Ten, the second largest cable TV market in the country. It brings academic and athletic power. Alone Texas and Oklahoma are appealing in their own right. If the Big Ten were willing to think bolder (and dump strict adherence to AAU membership) they could cement themselves as THE athletic and research conference in the country. This would be the long shot of long shots but if the 14 members of the Big Ten added Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and Kansas State the deal would be unprecedented. The finances would be tough to work out by adding three new markets (two of which contain low populations) but six additional teams. However if a network was willing to pay top dollar, the benefits of adding six large public institutions, two AAU schools, Texas and OU football, KU basketball, and hem in any potential SEC or Pac-12 expansion could be too good to pass up. This assumes the political obstacles of adding the “other” in-state school cannot be overcome. If the Big Ten could add Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and flip Missouri and Boston College then bean counting TV execs and stuffy deans would probably happily overlook an in-state non-AAU institution joining the party.

3) Big 12-ACC Merger

This was a missed opportunity during the initial wave of conference realignment several years ago. With Nebraska, Colorado, Texas A&M, and Missouri all jumping to other conferences, the Big 12 collapsing, and the Big East being divided like China in 1900, it appeared imminent that another major conference would collapse. Rumors were rampant that core ACC schools were mulling a jump to the SEC or Big Ten. One founding school, Maryland, actually made that jump to the Big Ten. The ACC needed stability, Big 12 programs were searching for a new home, and four consolidated power conferences made the most sense because then a playoff system could be implemented with four conference champions. Had the Big 12 and ACC dissolved and the best of the best of the two conferences merged a fourth consolidated power conference would have formed with as many blue blood programs as the SEC and as many TV sets as the Big Ten. Particulars about academics, lawsuits, and the role of the Longhorn Network ultimately kept the idea confined to internet message boards but had it succeeded think about this conference in the landscape of college football today:

West: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas Tech

South: Florida State, Miami, Clemson, Georgia Tech

East: North Carolina, North Carolina State, Duke, Virginia Tech

North: Kansas, Virginia, Maryland, and an addition of either Iowa State/Kansas State/Boston College/Pitt/Louisville/West Virginia/Syracuse

Obviously the four divisions would need tweaking and there would be considerable jockeying for the last spots but this automatically becomes one of the premier football, basketball, and academic conferences in the country. The Big Ten and SEC would be held off from raiding this new conference and it would actually dictate that the SEC and Big Ten would have to be quick about expanding to 16 and they wouldn’t get to be picky about who they bring in in the scenario.

Of course this scenario did not play out. The ACC and the Big 12 still remain and despite strong showings by their top teams they fail to garner the respect of the selection committee. Despite being undefeated, Florida State was the third selection in the inaugural playoff where they were subsequently thumped by Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Baylor and TCU dominated the Big 12 but were left out of the playoff for a myriad of possible reasons. The chief concern for the Big 12 remains conference instability and inconsistency (many believe the crucial reason the Big 12 failed to place a team in the playoff was their decision to ignore the head to head matchup and award both TCU and Baylor the conference championship) while the chief concern for the ACC is strength of schedule. On FSU’s schedule they played only four teams that finished the year ranked: Clemson whch finished 15th, Louisville which finished 24th, and Georgia Tech which finished 8th in the ACC Championship game. The last ranked game came against Oregon which finished 2nd and destroyed the Seminoles.

Assuming these issues continue into the future for both conferences (not a bad assumption given the ACC has had strength of schedule problems for some time now and the Big 12 has historically had at least some level of instability dating to its inception as a merger of necessity between half of the SWC and the Big 8) the expansion possibility remains ripe. A Texas jump to the ACC as a 16th special team to compliment Notre Dame’s quasi-independent status would suit the Horns, their network, and likely the ACC just fine. The possibility also remains that Texas could bring Oklahoma along for the ride as proper outright 15th and 16th members of the ACC and Notre Dame hovers as a 17th quasi-independent institution. Obtaining these three schools in addition to the recent addition of Louisville would be academic and athletic coups for a conference that was on its deathbed less than five years ago.

 

4) SEC Expansion

The most popular option among the Longhorn fanbase at the moment is joining the SEC. The SEC long coveted adding the Longhorns going so far as to add Arkansas in the early 90’s and making room for Austin and College Station in anticipation of landing the burnt orange lunker. However, Texas leadership preferred the Big Ten or Pac-10 and for a time it appeared the Longhorns were prepared to head west to the Pac-10 and the Aggies were prepared to head east to the SEC before Texas politics intervened, forced the two to stay together, added Texas Tech and Baylor and the four SWC exiles found home with the Big 8 in the newly created Big 12. Since then A&M coveted SEC membership and finally got their wish in 2011. The SEC hoped they could still land the Horns but the Longhorn Network and an administration preference for the Big 12/Pac-10/Big Ten undercut that possibility and A&M’s membership has pulled the rug out from potential Longhorn membership. Not only does A&M provide the Texas cable market for the SEC Network but the animosity between College Station and Austin (along with animosity between Columbia as well as Fayetteville and Austin) will likely hamper any efforts by the Longhorns to lobby for membership the way prior additions including A&M did.

On paper a move to the SEC seems like a slam dunk for the Longhorns. They would join a nearby power conference, undercut A&M’s move and all the gains their nemsis has made via SEC association, and establish natural games and rivalries with old foes A&M and Arkansas but also LSU, the Mississippis, and the Alabama schools. As a 16th team Oklahoma would make sense as well preserving that rivalry. Thinking big picture though, the SEC doesn’t make sense for Texas is anyway except for spite against A&M. Right now if Horns went to the SEC all they would do is split the revenue pie without adding a substantial bump in conference revenue (since they will not be adding a new state to the SEC Network’s market, and if Oklahoma did join that market is not big enough to increase all 16 members new payout). So they’d actually hurt the SEC AND themselves financially by joining (especially when one remembers the Longhorn Network would have to go away in a scenario where Texas outright joins a power conference and has to delegate its rights to the conference network). This is in addition to further splitting recruiting grounds, generating additional animosity, and sharing the spotlight in the SEC in a way Austin has never had to do in the SWC or Big 12. Also good luck to any team playing in the SEC in a future that include Texas and OU, at some point a conference simply has too many blue bloods. For instance Arkansas won 19 SWC championships but has yet to win an SEC championship in nearly 25 years. Georgia has not won an SEC championship in a decade. Tennessee hasn’t won since 1998. Even the most competitive programs wait years to win a conference title in the SEC. Adding Texas and OU would only lower everyone’s odds…would the SEC want that? Would Texas and OU want that?

 

5) Reworked Big 12

An expanded Big 12 is no slouch but it will lack a certain amount of credibility. Prestige and brand will assure that whenever Texas or Oklahoma go undefeated they will be a playoff team but as we saw in 2014 the lack of blue blood programs and the inherent air of instability that follows the conference combine to undermine its stature. A one loss Texas or Oklahoma program will inherently get a benefit of the doubt that one loss TCU and Baylor programs do not get but there is little room for error. A two loss Big 12 program will need tons of outside help to make the playoff and one loss Big 12 teams will not get the benefit of the doubt over other one loss blue bloods from stronger conferences. The Big 12 does not have the problem the ACC has with strength of schedule but its in a fortunate place that its middle tier members are punching above their weight. Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma State, and Kansas State are all respectable programs at the moment but one has to wonder how they will hold up in the long run in the absence of the tremendous coaching staffs currently in place. We have already seen K-State collapse once after Bill Snyder’s retirement and Baylor and TCU have long been programs that can achieve great things but only with the perfect coaches in place. It will take years, national championships, and successful coaching changes for any of these programs to establish themselves as a blue blood. The list of teams that have done such a thing in the past 30 years is very short: Florida, Florida State, LSU, Miami, and possibly Oregon. All are major state schools located in recruiting hotbeds, that were led by hall of fame coaches. So much of Oregon’s success can be attributed to Nike investment, smart coaching hires, and a ultra rapid style of play…even they only have championship appearances to show for everything they’ve built. Hoping a Big 12 team can step up and become an elite program in its own right for the long term just isn’t a smart business bet.

Expansion offers few good options either. If the Big 12 sought an immediate increase in competition they would be wise to offer a spot to Boise State. The problem with this is while Boise has been fantastic on the field its hard to tell how much is legitimate and how much comes from beating up schools in their Group of Five conference. TCU has proven the transition can be made successfully but conference power brokers have to look at Utah’s story in the Pac-12 and realize that mid-major success does not always translate to power conference championships. Travel, lack of recruiting base, and academics also have to be a concern. Major schools contiguous or within Big 12 territory show the lack of viable options. New Mexico, Colorado State, Houston, Rice, SMU, Tulsa, Louisiana Tech, Tulane, Memphis, Cincinnati, Eastern Carolina have all been floated as potential Big 12 expansion targets. Occasionally these programs can field excellent football and basketball teams but the consistency the Big 12 desperately needs is not there. Unlike the other conferences the air of instability hanging over the Big 12 assures stealing a program from another power conference is next to impossible. Hopeful but albeit desperate internet speculation that the Big 12 could lure Arkansas, LSU, or even a former member like Nebraska or Texas A&M has no bearing in reality.

The Big 12’s best bet is to offer spots to Boise State, BYU, and Cincinnati. Take the first two that accept and further strengthen the middle tier of the conference. Perhaps Boise State becomes TCU, perhaps it becomes Utah…either way 12 teams means a conference championship and the added revenue and credibility that comes with that. A semblance of conference stability, a recovery by Texas or OU to consistent top 10 status, playing for championships on the last weekend of the season, these would all go a long way towards stabilizing the conference and regaining lost prestige. While this would be good for the conference, is it good for Texas? Probably not to be honest. Even expanding to 12 and adding competitive teams does not solve the problem of market size and exposure as well as the lack of historic blue bloods in the conference that will reliably move the needle year in and year out. Jumping to greener pastures just makes the most sense for Texas at this point, especially if they can bring OU or other Big 12 teams with them. But while the Big 12 isn’t the best option, it is not a BAD option. The bad option is…

6) Independence

Many have speculated that going independent has been the Longhorn’s backup plan for some time. In fact a recent Staking the Plains article inspired this one. The buzz around the start of the Longhorn Network seemed to reinforce the idea. Texas would join Notre Dame as the only two schools with school-specific TV deals and Notre Dame remains the only major independent program in college football.

The problem with this strategy is that is an outdated one. Notre Dame is already feeling the pressure for its independence in an age of 14 team conferences and a new playoff structure. They’ve agreed to special membership in the ACC and some speculate that its merely a first step on the road to becoming a full member of the ACC. At this point the only true independents left in FBS football are Army, Navy, and BYU. The service academies have long held special status and even Navy will be joining the AAC this fall as a full football only member. BYU made the decision to go independent due to the drop off in Mountain West Conference competition and the failure of the Mountain West Sports Network. A new BYU oriented deal with ESPN combined with greater scheduling freedom and an uber-passionate national fanbase and support structure with the Church of Latter Day Saints all worked to make independence a viable option for BYU.

Could Texas go independent? Of course they could. They have their own network, a passionate fanbase, and a blue blood brand. But it would be a terrible move long term. The ratings show that the Longhorn Network is a failure. Football only ratings would surely tick upwards if the Longhorns televised all of their home opponents ala Notre Dame’ deal with NBC but therein lies the problem. All of the Longhorns home games would be on an alternate ESPN channel, not the flagship channel itself or a national network like NBC. In addition the Longhorns will struggle to find home and home opponents that will accept playing on the Longhorn Network. Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma (every other year for the Red River Rivalry)…these teams will not willingly take home and home deals that place them, or even have the potential to place them,on a network dedicated exclusively to a hated rival. Especially after the A&M/Texas breakup and the Longhorns leaving the Big 12 high and dry for FBS independence. In addition, Texas will be going in the opposite direction of every other team in major college football. The major conferences have expanded or will soon expand to nine conference games. This means 3/4 of Texas’ schedule as an independent, all of which lies in the crucial back half of the season, will play out at a time when the other marquee teams will be playing conference games. Even if Texas scheduled three premier non-conference games to play out at the beginning of the season its going to struggle to find teams the rest of the way that will keep its fan interested, its strength of schedule competitive, and its schedule consistent year to year. Notre Dame has the luxury of a schedule full of traditional rivals that has been in place for decades. Even then they catch flak for their schedule being too easy. Texas would have to build its independence from the ground up in an age of super conferences with most of its traditional power rivals wanting nothing to do with them. Most likely scenario Texas becomes a poor man’s Notre Dame with a sometimes decent independent schedule, no room for error to make the playoff, and few if any traditional rivals on its schedule, all for a reduced payout (ESPN is very unlikely to up the payout for the Longhorn Network and they will lose their cut of Big 12 moment), and questionable bump in market visibility. How is this better than the Big 12? More importantly, how is this better than another conference option?

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