After months of speculation over the Big 12's potential expansion plans, and a Bachelor-esque courting process involving a ludicrous 17 (17!) teams - or possibly more! - new reports this week began to suggest a turning of the tides.
First, Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel reported that Oklahoma, long seen as one of the leading voices in favor of expansion, had cooled considerably on the matter. Now, we have reports from SBNation's own TCU blog, Frogs O' War, that TCU is also planning to vote against. Given that there has never been clear agreement toward leading candidates, and that any candidate would require a supermajority - 8 of 10 conference members - to vote in favor, it seems increasingly likely that the conference will stand pat. After all that.
And I've had it.
Sure, conference realignment has been with us for years, peaking in the 2010-13 flurry that remade the top conferences and killed the Big East. But it's never been this frustrating. You mean to tell me you took applications from Colorado State and Tulane, and then decided, "hey, nah, we got this all figured out, we're fine now?" I'm furious, and not just as a Cincinnati alum who's sick and tired of being teased.
So I've got a plan.
Now, look, I know there are plenty of articles, many of them from the SBNation family, suggesting potential realignments. Personally, I think many of these suffer from projection and wishful thinking. We want to redraw the maps to give us matchups we want to see, geography that makes sense, that sort of thing. But we're not treating the conferences as fully-drawn characters with their own motivations. I may not like it, but there's absolutely no reason to think that the Big Ten would have reason to consider Cincinnati as a candidate. I'm not saying what I'm going to suggest here is likely - but I think the motivations are sound.
We're going to finally get the other four Power 5 conferences to 16 teams each, like so many have anticipated for years. And we're going to do our best to ruin the Big 12 in the process.
I. THE SEC STRIKES FIRST
The Southeastern Conference's moves in expansion - including in the past - have always been moves of patient, steady expansion of its territory, and dominance within that zone. Despite being the spiritual home of "hold my beer and watch this," the SEC's opted for "let's renovate the kitchen and refinish the deck" moves over the Big Ten's "I BOUGHT A HOUSEBOAT" strategy. Texas A&M and Missouri - and Arkansas and South Carolina in the '90s - have represented a steady creep of the conference's well-defended borders. Also, the SEC has key imperatives: kick ass more than anyone in football, and spite your enemies.
So we're nabbing everyone's hottest expansion candidate, and the Big 12's best future hope. Houston is joining the SEC West.
Now, this bucks the conference's "gentleman's agreement" of not expanding within its own borders, and they've already added the state of Texas via the Aggies. But isn't Texas big enough for two schools? And besides, we're going to have Houston and A&M play every year. On Thanksgiving weekend. We're drinking your milkshake, Texas. We're drinking it up.
We're going to need to reshuffle the divisions, though. We'll bring Mizzou to the West, and shift Alabama and Auburn to the East. We're going to get better SEC title game matchups this way, and oh, we've got an open slot still.
We'll come back to that.
II. THE BIG TEN DOES BIG TENLY THINGS, BIGLY
Jim Delany doesn't buy football teams. Jim Delany buys TV screens. The conference moved into New Jersey and Maryland and they're great places to stage Michigan or Ohio State games for East Coast audiences. Well, we're not stopping there. We're going to grab another mid-range football program (Editor's note: this is the nicest thing anyone's said about Rutgers in years) in a major media market.
That's right: Connecticut is joining the Big Ten's East Division.
The conference gets even stronger in basketball, digs in its East Coast footprint, and oh, they've also got an extra slot before they get to 16.
III. THE ACC SHORES UP
It feels weird when you realize it, but the ACC may have been the most steady and logical conference throughout expansion. In losing Maryland, but adding Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville, the league has chose geographically sensible partners with balanced, established athletic programs. Paired with the earlier expansion that brought in Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College, the conference has morphed from a Tobacco Road-centric grouping to having a strong hold across the entire Eastern time zone.
So we're continuing that approach, and bringing The Cincinnati Bearcats into the fray.
Reunited with former conference rivals Pittsburgh, Louisville and Syracuse, they'll fit nicely in both football and basketball.
And we've got one slot left.
IV. HEY, BIG 12. HOW YA DOIN'? HOW ARE THINGS?
Are you sweating yet? You dallied on expansion, and now three of the most-discussed remaining programs are gone. Whatcha gonna do? Nothing again? Alright, that's fine. We'll continue without you. Texas, Oklahoma? We've got some open spots if either of you want to jump. No? Okay. Let us know.
V. NOW THE SEC'S JUST GETTING MEAN
We've got that open slot in the SEC West, which is already a brutal division for football, even with the shift of the Alabama schools. We want to expand the footprint, but remain contiguous. We want a valuable, top-30 athletic program. Maybe one that even plays basketball?
BOOM. We're surprising everyone and putting Kansas in the SEC West.
"Wait! This is madness!" Sure, Kansas has been terrible in football in recent years, but it wasn't so long ago that they made an Orange Bowl. Meanwhile, they're indisputably one of the nation's best basketball programs. They'll be Kentucky West. Wouldn't you want to see the Wildcats square off with the Jayhawks in the SEC Tournament each year? Meanwhile, Mizzou's reunited with its traditional rival, and SEC West teams get a new rest week.
VI. BACK TO THE BIG TEN
Jim Delany likes schools with big alumni bases, spread out across the country. Well-to-do fanbases that can deliver big TV audiences and travel well to bowl games. He's not super concerned about geographic continuity, based on previous overtures. Texas? You'd sure look good here. No?
Okay then. We're setting aside any reservations, and adding BYU to the Big Ten West.
The conference's weaker division gains a steady, strong football program. The Big Ten Network gains a nationwide fanbase and folds in an extant TV infrastructure.
You can't look me in the eye and tell me he wouldn't consider it.
VII. MORE ACC MOVES
You know who really wanted in the ACC last time? And would fit perfectly in the conference's footprint? And has established rivalries with many conference members?
West Virginia, you still want in? They'll reunite with former conference rivals Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Louisville and Virginia Tech in the league's Angry Appalachian subset.
Not sure, WVU? We can always call Memphis. Oh, look, they're calling us right now. You probably have a long flight to Texas to catch, should we take this?
I thought so.
VIII. PACIFIC LIFE
Now we've moved ourselves to 16-team scenarios for the SEC, Big Ten and ACC, but we haven't yet mentioned the Pac-12. There's good reason for that - the conference's imperatives are different than the others, and harder to address.
While the SEC and Big Ten looked to grab more territory, and the ACC sought to shore up football strength, neither approach is so clear for the Pac-12. Colorado and Utah expanded the borders, but there aren't many future candidates who are nearby. Boise State doesn't share the university profile of current conference members, and isn't even that close. BYU was never a cultural fit, and the Big Ten nabbed them anyways.
Well, remember the Pac-16? The "Lennon-McCartney reunion on SNL" moment that almost came to fruition in 2010, and would've re-written the entire conference landscape? It's back on the table.
The Big 12's down to 8 teams, its top replacement options are gone, and if they want it, Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and oh, let's say TCU could join the Pac-12 in a revamped Eastern Division with Colorado, Utah and the Arizona schools.
But they won't do this, because this would require Texas and Oklahoma to made a damned decision for once.
So hold my beer, and watch this.
XI. COAST TO COAST FOOTBALL
Going back to strategic imperatives: more than anything, the Pac-12 needs visibility. Geography almost guarantees no member will leave - the West Coast is relatively isolated, in college athletics terms. We just need to shore up the Pac-12 Network, and get more eyes on these teams. Christian McCaffrey might have won that Heisman last year if more people saw him play. Many of these teams might poll stronger if sportswriters on the East Coast ever got to see them play before 10:30pm.
Did you know that the entire conference plays three games east of the Mississippi this year? Colorado at Michigan, Oregon State at Minnesota, and Stanford at Notre Dame. That's it. No bowl games east of Texas. Nearly 60% of the country's population never sees these teams play.
So we're going for the Hail Mary. We're adding UCF and USF to the Pac-12 South, and Temple and East Carolina to the Pac-12 North.
Stagger their scheduling, and every team in the conference will play in the Eastern Time Zone once a year. Your kids get a trip to Orlando, Tampa, or Philadelphia! (Greenville's probably nice, too.)
You might say this is watering down the conference - that none of these teams has a traditional power conference profile. Okay, but wouldn't it benefit these strong West Coast teams to run up some scores when half the country is actually awake?
Of course, these were pretty desperate American Athletic Conference schools, so we set the terms of the arrangement. It's an 8-year deal, with a conference option at the end. They get a chance to build their profiles. We get a chance to revisit the Pac-16 idea if Texas and Oklahoma get antsy.
X. WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE THE BIG 12?
Back on the ropes, with even tougher decisions to make. After poaching WVU and Kansas, we're left with only eight: Texas, Texas Tech, TCU, Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Iowa State.
Maybe the best four finally do make the jump to the Pac-12. Maybe Texas or Oklahoma make a move that supplants one of our additions elsewhere. Texas and Oklahoma are among the very few teams who could survive as independents these days.
Or, maybe they can add Rice after all.