CLINE: Conference Shuffle

In 2003, one conference's decision to expand radically restructured the college football landscape. The ACC poached three teams from the Big East to create their conference championship game.

The Big East in turn reached down and gave Louisville, Cincinnati and USF the golden ticket of membership into a BCS conference. To make up for those losses, Conference USA grabbed five schools from other conferences and wound up with teams scattered all over the place, from Orlando to Huntington, W.V. to El Paso.

Now, four years later, another league is making noises about expanding. The reason is surprising, and their likely target is as well.

This fall the Big Ten Network makes its debut August 30 on select cable systems and DirecTV. While the Mountain West's "the mtn" was the first channel solely devoted to a college conference, its debut last season was greeted with a yawn. It could barely get cleared on cable systems in its region, and no one was willing to look at putting it on satellite.

Things were supposed to be different for the mighty Big Ten, though. With a large alumni base scattered across the country and many major TV markets in the Midwest, they insisted on being offered as an expanded basic channel rather than as part of a "sports tier". Couple that with a cost per customer that would make the Big Ten's channel the second most expensive sports network to only ESPN and you can see why negotiations with most of the biggest cable operators have not gone smoothly. A lot of Big Ten fans may wind up needing to spend Saturdays this fall in sports bars that get DirecTV instead of on their couch.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany's now initiated discussion of the conference adding another member to its current eleven (and presumably keeping the same ridiculous name, since Big Twelve is already taken) as a way to grow the channel. Last week, he told the Des Moines Register his time frame.

"I think we need to look at it in the next year," he said.

While he backtracked a bit at the Big Ten Kickoff event Tuesday, it's clear expansion is a legit possibility. It would give the Big Ten the ability to hold a championship game, which they could opt to televise on their own network as a way to encourage broader distribution.

The obvious dream choice for the Big Ten's new member is Notre Dame. There's still no interest in South Bend, though, and that's not changing anytime soon. The Fighting Irish have their own TV deal, an assured BCS spot if they're good and the ability to take one of the Big East's bowl slots if they're only okay. What do they need the Big Ten for? In the past month Notre Dame's scheduled contracts for neutral site games over the next decade, which should make it clear they're not wavering on football independence. So who's next on the Big Ten's list and what will that mean for other leagues?

The answer to that question may lie in a move that didn't attract as much attention as it should have at the time. Kevin Weiberg stepped down as commissioner of the Big 12 last month to join the Big Ten Network as vice president of planning and development. It seemed like a curious move at the time, particularly since the Big 12 decided not to form their own network during recent TV negotiations handled by Weiberg. If "planning and development" now involves expanding the conference, suddenly it makes perfect sense. Weiberg's contacts make him the perfect guy to handle talks with Missouri about joining Big Ten. They're the most natural fit for the conference available - a respected academic school, a state university, normally good in basketball as well.

Of course, since TV's driving this, the most important thing is they bring sizable fanbases in St. Louis (TV market 21) and Kansas City (market 31). The possibility of Texas to the Big Ten has been floated in the past, but makes little sense. The travel costs for non-revenue sports would be enormous, and Longhorn fans aren't looking to replace Oklahoma and Texas A&M on the schedule with Iowa and Minnesota anytime soon.

Should Missouri jump leagues, things get extremely interesting. Does the Big 12 try to lure Arkansas away from the SEC, back to a conference with several familiar rivals from their Southwest Conference days? If so, where would the SEC look for an Arkansas replacement - West Virginia? Louisville?

If the Pac-10 ever wants to expand for purposes of creating a title game, while the Big 12 was already disrupted would be the most logical time to make the move. Colorado has been the subject of rumors about a possible switch for years. Utah of the Mountain West would likely be the best other program available to join the Pac-10. What would that do to "the mtn"? (You see, it really all does come back to television.) All of us who enjoy college football are in for a very intriguing next few months as this story plays out.

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