We Are Never Ever Ever Getting Back Together: Rutgers Leaves the Big East for the Big Ten and Conference Realignment Potpourri

Posted by    |    November 21st, 2012 at 5:30 am

As expected, the Big Ten has officially added Rutgers as its newest member. (See the start of the Rutgers-Big Ten relationship above.) When looking back at the last 3 years of conference realignment, Rutgers is vying with Utah and TCU for the title of being the biggest beneficiary of the constant earthquakes, which I’m sure is particularly sweet for Scarlet Knight fans that were on the precipice of being the largest loser in the process after Syracuse, Pitt, West Virginia and Notre Dame left the Big East. Prior to today, the only schools that were members of the six original BCS AQ conferences (Big Ten, Big 12, the old Pac-10, ACC, SEC and Big East) when the current postseason system began in 1998 and hadn’t moved to one of the five “new” contract bowl conferences (Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, ACC and SEC) were Rutgers and Temple… and Temple had such a horrible football program that it was kicked out of the Big East even after Miami, Boston College and Boston College defected to the ACC in 2003. (The Owls rejoined the Big East as a full member this season.) In a way, conference realignment hasn’t necessarily been about expansion for individual leagues, but rather consolidation of all of the power schools from six “chosen” leagues into five. Rutgers moving to the Big Ten completes that consolidation process.

I’ve already spent some time in yesterday’s post addressing what the additions of Rutgers and Maryland mean to the Big Ten along with the possible reactions from the ACC and Big 12. So, let’s address some of the latest news and rumors flying around the country:

(1) Louisville might be the target for the ACC instead of UConn – Andy Katz of ESPN has indicated that “Louisville is a serious player to bump out UConn” for the 14th spot in the ACC. My bet would still be on UConn taking that last spot because of the academic, geographic and cultural fits with the ACC, but you never know if there might be a radical change in the mindset of that conference in the wake of a defection. Louisville has certainly done everything right as an athletic department over the past few years, yet let’s not forget that UConn isn’t exactly a competitive slouch, either. Both the Connecticut men’s and women’s basketball programs are at the elite level and the football program (as down in the dumps as it might be today) won the Big East and was in a BCS bowl only 2 years ago. As a result, I believe that there’s a bit of an overstatement in what seems to be a widespread belief that Louisville is far ahead of UConn athletically (as that’s colored by the “What have you done for me lately?” thinking of how well Louisville is doing today in football specifically compared to UConn). To be sure, the addition of Rutgers to the Big Ten certainly demonstrates how much TV markets matter. If the athletic departments at Louisville or Connecticut were able to swap locations with Rutgers, they would have been picked up by power conferences long ago and we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

(2) Big 12 Observations – Barry Tramel of The Oklahoman has been looking at Big Ten expansion from the Big 12 angle, where he states that Louisville’s chances of getting into that league have improved. I agree with his assessment that the ACC’s loss of Maryland doesn’t mean that Florida State and Clemson (or other ACC schools) would end up bolting to the Big 12 and how he sees Louisville as the main realistic option. Now, I doubt that the Big 12 would add solely Louisville as school number 11 as he suggested (as the Big Ten staying at 11 schools with Penn State for so long was mainly based on the belief that Notre Dame was destined to be team number 12), so BYU and Cincinnati should get ready to polish off their resumes.

(3) BYU, Boise State and San Diego State Speaking with the Mountain West? – Last night, Brett McMurphy of ESPN reported that BYU, Boise State and San Diego State were having conversations with the Mountain West about re-joining (or in the cases of Boise State and San Diego State, not leaving) the conference. My knee-jerk reaction is that this makes no sense at all. Even if the Big East ends up losing Rutgers, UConn and Louisville, the remnants of that league would still likely cobble together enough to make substnatially more TV money than the current CBS payout of $800,000 per year per MWC school. BYU is even farther ahead with its independent TV deal with ESPN.

There was one plausible rumor out there that at least made a tiny bit of sense as to why this could happen. Essentially, BYU could be speaking with the Mountain West about joining as a non-football member with a Notre Dame/ACC-type deal where the school would remain independent with a partial MWC football scheduling arrangement (to aid BYU with late season scheduling). That could be enough to (a) spur Boise State and San Diego State to ditch its Big East obligations and stay in the MWC and (b) open the MWC TV contract back up for negotiation where that league could end up with revenue on par (or maybe better) than the remnants of the Big East.

I don’t quite buy that rumor (as I still don’t believe the TV dollars add up), but once again, you just never know with conference realignment these days.

(4) What does the Big East do? – Well, this could get somewhat ugly. At the very least, the Big East is going to have to replace 2 members (Rutgers and 1 of Louisville or UConn) out of the current 13 football schools in or about to be in the conference, might have to replace 3 members, or could even lose 5 of them (if Boise State and San Diego State get an MWC deal as described above). The good news is that even the worst case scenario, the Big East would survive as a conference with 8 members. There won’t be a case of schadenfreude in favor of, say, Conference USA where they will start picking off Big East schools. The bad news is that the already slim pickings for the Big East get reduced even further, as BYU (who I never believed would end up in the Big East even before the latest realignment news occurred) is completely off the table and, if the Mountain West becomes relatively strong again, there isn’t too much value to found in expansion candidates from Conference USA or the MAC. East Carolina is perpetually brought up as a Big East candidate since they have a solid fan base, but they’re a small market victim of the TV market-driven economics of conference expansion. Beyond ECU, there are schools such as Tulane (great academics and market, but needs a lot of help athletically), Rice (ditto and overlaps with Houston’s market), UMass (excellent geographic fit and a rare Northeast flagship school, yet only moved up to the FBS level last year), Marshall (will always be the #2 team in an already small West Virginia market)… I think that you get the idea.

The Big East’s main hope is that they only lose Rutgers and one other school. If either Louisville or UConn is still in the conference, that will make a world of difference in terms of the Big East trying to sell itself to the TV networks.

Of course, just when so much of the talk on Monday revolved around how much money was being made in college sports, Division II Chaminade went out and convincingly defeated Texas, the most powerful and richest athletic department in the country that can single-handedly control conference realignment, in basketball. (I did not witness this monumental upset since I was watching the NFL Division II level offense of the Bears get pummeled by the 49ers. Let’s hope my Illini don’t suffer a fate similar to Texas against Chaminade later tonight.) It’s a reminder that money will only take you so far – schools still have to prove it on the field or court of play.

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(Image from ESPN)