Its June 2010. The Colorado Buffaloes have just joined the Pac Ten Conference and the Nebraska Cornhuskers have just joined the Big Ten Conference, following the Buffaloes’ departure. New Pac Ten Commissioner Larry Scott is ready to make the biggest move in conference realignment history, having just gotten his first domino to fall in Colorado. Scott waits for the final moves to be made, bringing five more Big 12 schools westward in an absolute death blow to the existing Big 12 Conference and be sure to be the biggest domino to ever fall in the geographic landscape of collegiate athletics.
We all know what happens next, the Big 12 holds together and conference realignment doesn’t have a cataclysmic shift for another 11 years until 2021, but in this scenario, Larry Scott gets his way.
The Pac 16 Conference is formed
The date is June 14, 2010 and its a warm and humid day in Austin, Texas. University of Texas President Bill Powers opens up his cell phone and makes a phone call to Larry Scott announcing the Longhorns would be accepting their offer for conference membership. In the moments following, the remaining four schools of Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma follow shortly after. The geographic landscape of collegiate athletics is forever changed.
The Big Ten responds
Not to be outdone by Scott, and with an immense desire to add coveted television markets on the eastern seaboard for the newly formed Big Ten Network, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney quickly moves to add Rutgers and Maryland, shoring up four major east-coast markets in Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City. Delaney then makes an offer to the University of Missouri to solidify the league’s presence in the Midwestern cities of St Louis and Kansas City. They all accept the offers immediately.
In South Bend, Notre Dame, seeing the “super conference” writing on the wall, becomes the Big Ten’s sixteenth member. The Universities of Kansas and Virginia are left waiting near a phone which never rings.
The SEC expands to 16
Simultaneous to moves being made by Jim Delaney in Chicago, SEC Commissioner Mike Slive has been working the phones in Birmingham as he sees Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma slip from his fingers. Slive, knowing he needs an SEC Network to be formed to counter the newly formed Big Ten Network, quickly extends offers to Virginia Tech and North Carolina to add two quickly growing states with the major media markets of Washington and Charlotte. After briefly debating extending an offer to a greatly diminished Miami program, the University of Virginia, or a program in West Virginia located in a very sparsely populated and northern state, Slive instead makes a call to Tallahassee and offers Florida State University instead. After the strong push by Miami, Virginia and West Virginia, Slive elects to add the Duke Blue Devils instead, due to their incredibly recognizable basketball brand as a package deal with the Tar Heels.
The Fourth Super Conference
Left to pick up the pieces, the remaining Big East, Big 12 and ACC schools begin putting together a patchwork of schools to make a fourth Super Conference to finish out the “Power Four” leagues. Following a few brief attempts to join the Big Ten or SEC, the presidents of remaining Big East, Big 12 and ACC schools work together to piece together a respectable 16-team league.
From the Big East, the Universities of Cincinnati, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia agree to join the to-be-named league. From the Big 12, Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas and Kansas State join ranks. From the ACC, the league receives commitments from Boston College, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Miami, NC-State and Virginia. After some discussion, the league agrees to add Texas Christian University to solidify a strong recruiting footprint in North Texas to compliment a footprint in Ohio and Florida. West of the Rocky Mountains, the Universities of Utah and Brigham Young University are left to remain in the Mountain West, after reluctance from Eastern Time Zone schools to travel more than two time zones for competition.
Where would we be today?
While the landscape today in 2023 is much different than seen during the Conference Realignment Missile Crisis of 2010, the reality today would have become much different. The following questions must be asked if this scenario were to have come to fruition 13 years ago.
The College Football Playoff
A lot of talk in 2010 was that these new four Super Conferences would directly populate a College Football Playoff with the four conference champions. In modern day, the SEC argues for at-large bids, citing that (in their opinion) their third or fourth best teams would beat most conference champions other conferences. Its likely that the other three leagues would have pushed for a four-team playoff, while the SEC would have pushed for six or eight teams.
Would Texas and Oklahoma schools have made the Pac (16) Network viable?
Today the Pac 12 network experiences incredibly low ratings compared to comparable networks for the SEC or Big Ten, coupled with waning fan interest on many of their campuses. These two issues are largely cited as the reason for the ultimate departure of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten. Its hard to imagine USC and UCLA making any such move with regular games in the Central Time Zone to boost their brands.
Validity of the fourth league
This hybrid league of remaining Big 12 and ACC schools somewhat resembles the new Big 12 in the actual reality of conference realignment today. This league features a lot of schools with good fanbases and solid followings, but has no blue bloods outside of Clemson or Miami. Would Dabo Swinney have been able to absolutely dominate the league for more than a decade? Would Bill Snyder have had more success than he had in his second tenure in the 10-team Big 12? Would the SEC be having recruiting success in Texas simply because this new league was viewed as lesser? The fourth league would lack media clout, but would be a tough out in every non-conference game and bowl game in which they play.
Would it still be SEC vs everyone else?
As mentioned above, the SEC has seen great success recruiting within Texas since 2012. Even without the addition of Texas A&M, its likely that the SEC would still be the premier conference in college football especially. Outside of Ohio State in the Big Ten region, schools like Michigan and Notre Dame have struggled mightily against SEC competition in bowl games in the College Football era.
Would we be better off today?
Moves by the SEC and Big Ten today suggest a contraction of teams to consolidate media revenue at the top. Although different, that push to contract would likely be occurring even with this Pac 16 alternative history scenario. The difference in this scenario would be three powerful leagues instead of two, since the powerful state of Texas would be skewing west toward the Pac 16 instead of east toward the SEC. The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are likely what sped up our current state of realignment, and I doubt any conference realignment alternative history could have prevented the pandemic from beginning.
Its ultimately impossible to definitively say if we’d be better off or worse today. Three powerful leagues would have likely leed to the fourth being propped up for sheer playoff purposes, compared to the two most powerful leagues we see today, which would be better for schools like Kansas State, Pittsburgh or Georgia Tech. I bet Colorado wishes Texas and Oklahoma had followed them west, instead of USC and UCLA flying right over them to play east.
The world of conference realignment is always changing, and individual moves today can change the landscape of sport for a generation. What seemed like a certainty in the Pac 16 over thirteen years ago is now perhaps the furthest thing from reality. What we think is certain to happen today may seem just as ridiculous in 2036.