Every decade or so in the unstable world of major-college sports, some of the top conferences indulge in a game of musical chairs.
One move leads to another, and then more, as some leagues try to bolster their image and marketability while others simply try to survive.
From every indication, either the Pacific-10 or the Big Ten conferences — if not both — will ignite the next wave of expansion, realignments and wholesale changes.
Don't be shocked, either, if the impact threatens the Mountain West Conference. In fact, I'd go so far as to call that a certainty, so much so that the Mountain West should be as proactive as possible. And with that, let's tour the country and look at some scenarios:
• Pac-10. Already, commissioner Larry Scott has said publicly he is looking seriously at expansion. As that league is set up, the next step almost certainly would be adding two schools. Colorado is high on every list of candidates, along with Brigham Young, Utah and possibly Nebraska. Some are guessing CU and Utah as most likely, but that's discounting the wide appeal of BYU, with its huge Mormon following (and bigger football stadium). I'd guess Colorado and BYU, and this would happen first since the Pac-10 needs a new TV contract by 2012.
• Big 12. Most likely, the conference won't do anything unless it loses a member, or more. If, say, Colorado goes, more could follow. Texas reportedly has turned down the Big Ten, but might jump if the Southeastern Conference decides to make changes. If CU is the only departure, the Big 12 could fill that hole quickly with either TCU or Arkansas. Of course, if Nebraska also bolts, then the Big 12 could look at others, such as BYU or Utah. My guess: Colorado out, TCU in. Anything more could mean chaos.
• Big Ten. OK, it's really the Big Eleven with Penn State, but the brand still is Big Ten — and will be even if it adds a 12th member. Notre Dame would be the first choice but likely will stay independent in football, and Big East in everything else. Most conjecture has focused on Missouri, Pittsburgh, Syracuse or even Rutgers to give the Big Ten an even number again, and Missouri would love it. My guess: Pittsburgh, riding a wave of prominence right now in both football and men's basketball.
• Southeastern. You'd think the SEC would be comfortable standing pat with its 12 current members. But that's not the SEC's style. If Texas wants to sleep around, the SEC would jump in that bed without hesitation. Assuming that any expansion would be multiple, who could join along with Texas? Possibly a South Florida (the Tampa market), perhaps Florida State or Miami? Or all three, if Arkansas were to defect to the Big 12. Just don't be surprised at anything.
• Mountain West. Today, the MWC is closer than any other outsider to joining the Bowl Championship Series, but that could unravel if it loses marquee members such as BYU and TCU. Suddenly we could be looking at the Mountain West trying to rob from its roots in the Western Athletic Conference, perhaps going after Fresno State, Boise State or Nevada. Another option could be Southern Methodist, which would salvage the huge Dallas-Fort Worth market if TCU goes elsewhere. Having its own cable TV network helps the Mountain West considerably, but the prestige factor would not be the same without TCU and/or BYU.
• Texas. Of all the schools being mentioned at a time when some kind of shakeup appears inevitable, Texas wields the most power. Back in the 1990s, UT was willing to throw away its history in the old Southwest Conference after Arkansas jumped to the SEC. Since leading the parade that turned the Big Eight into the Big 12, Texas' athletic program has become a monster, with a whopping $125 million annual budget. So will UT be content staying in the stodgy Big 12, or will it look for new challenges? Texas could make one phone call and join the Pac-10, Big Ten or SEC. Which will it be? Something tells me Texas will end up in the Southeastern Conference.
And then all hell really would break loose.
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