An Optimistic Pessimistic Scenario

The biggest news in conference expansion this week might not come out of the meeting of Big Ten athletic directors and coaches in Chicago. It might be found instead in the ACC's new TV deal revealed on Monday.

The news is that the ACC is more than doubling its income from television revenues in its new contract. After competition between ESPN and Fox pushed the numbers north, ESPN and the ACC are coming together on a deal that will pay the ACC about $1.86 billion over 12 years, an average of $155 million a year, giving each of the 12 ACC schools TV revenues of nearly $13 million a year. Raycom will be playing a supporting role, cast as the ACC Network.

That's pretty sweet for the ACC. That figure is still much less than the $22 million or more that the Big Ten and SEC schools are pulling in annually, but it's more than twice what the ACC schools were getting from their previous TV contract.

What's that mean? It certainly doesn't preclude an ACC school from accepting an invitation from the Big Ten or SEC, but unless that happened and the ACC had to add schools to replace them, the idea of ACC expansion is probably a dead issue. The ACC now has a nice TV contract in hand for the next dozen years, and with a conference set at 12 schools.

It's possible that if the Big Ten and SEC both expand, ego would drive the ACC to match them. But I doubt it. Especially with its new TV contract in place, the ACC has no incentive to expand beyond 12 members, and a financial disincentive to do so.

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Conference expansion has been the biggest subject of this spring in college sports. We've read and heard so much about it that we're all getting topic fatigue, but we keep reading, talking, and emailing about it. It's almost an addiction.

My son says, "Quit worrying, Pops!" And honestly, I'm not actually worried. My main concern is for WVU, and I think the Mountaineers will end up okay. I doubt we'll end up in an expanded SEC or ACC, but I still think we'll be okay when the calliope stops and this latest spin on the conference merry-go-round comes to an end.

Many WVU fans seem to be in a state of high fret and deep despair, however, so let's imagine some of the worst possible events and see where that might leave WVU. Even the least desired likely outcome might be okay.

First, let's assume the Big Ten expands and does its worst to damage the Big East. Let's say the Big Ten adds Pitt, Syracuse, and Rutgers from the Big East, and also adds Nebraska and Missouri from the Big XII, becoming the first major 16-team football superconference. (UConn could replace Pitt or Syracuse in this scenario, depending on who gets invited to the Big Ten prom, but we'll say in this scenario that it's UConn that's left out.) The 16 Big Ten schools count their money, and everyone else trembles.

Almost immediately, in this crystal ball, WVU and Pitt announce a 20-year home-and-home contract to continue the Backyard Brawl. It's in the best interest of both schools to continue the rivalry. All is not lost. Even better, since it's a nonconference game now, it'll be scheduled for September, when the students are in town, not on the day after Thanksgiving.

The SEC could stand pat, and the Big XII could add schools to replace Nebraska and Mizzou. But for the sake of argument, let's say that the SEC wouldn't like the idea of playing second fiddle to the Big Ten, sees the Big XII in dire straits, and invites Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State. All four could feel the Big XII crumbling, look at the paychecks the SEC is handing out, and gratefully accept the invitation. In that case the SEC becomes the second major 16-team football superconference. (There are rumors of a resumption of the Civil War.)

The Pac-10 requires unanimous consent of its conference schools to expand, so that complicates their situation a bit. Still, each of their schools has adept accountants, and the money from a conference championship game is too enticing to pass up. They expand, but only to 12, not to 16. Since they like pairs of schools for natural rivalries (USC and UCLA, Cal and Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State, Washington and Washington State, Arizona and Arizona State), they decide to invite Colorado and Colorado State. Sorry, Utah. The Buffs and the Rams joyfully become part of the Pac-12.

The ACC schools, wrapped in the security blanket of a warm new TV contract, and with some members still unhappy about the last round of expansion, have one primary response to all of this: a huge gasp of relief that the SEC has added four schools from the Big XII, rather than going after Miami, Florida State, or other ACC schools. Whew! They have a cigarette down on tobacco road.

Some in the ACC might argue that they need to keep up with the SEC and the Big Ten. They might even discuss adding four of the five remaining Big East football schools. (There's a lot of opposition to adding WVU because we apparently have lousy academics, rude fans, and no TV sets in the state.) They discuss adding UConn, Louisville, USF, and Central Florida. In the end, though, they decide to stand pat at 12. They just don't want to divide their pie into 16 slices. They have a 12-year TV contract in hand and can relax on the porch together. Sweet tea all around, except of course in Boston.

Where would that pessimistic series of events leave WVU? Obviously, the scenario so far is pretty dismal, with no invitation to the Big Ten, SEC, or ACC on our new Athletic Director's desk, and the Big East on life support.

The most likely scenario probably would be for the Big East to try to reconstitute, again, adding three schools to replace the three lost to the Big Ten. Memphis, East Carolina, and UCF are the favorites. That would retain the basketball connections for schools like UConn, Georgetown, Villanova, and Notre Dame, so there's significant sentiment for that solution.

The alternative, of course, is for the often-discussed breakup. The remaining football schools might reason that they're going to lose their BCS automatic qualifier status if there are only eight of them in a reconstituted league, and especially with Pitt and Syracuse being two of the losses. And without Syracuse and Pitt, the shine would be off the Big East in basketball as well.

So let's say the conference football schools decide to break away. The eight remaining basketball schools stay together, retain the Big East name (although the remaining conference isn't very big anymore), and take some comfort in knowing they'll still play their basketball tournament in Madison Square Garden. And with only eight teams left in the conference, they won't have to worry about how to structure first-round byes.

Now, when I think about conference shuffling these days, the lyrics to a very old song sometimes echo through my head... "You're nobody 'til somebody loves you; you're nobody 'til somebody cares...."

A friend recently told me he thinks that in all this conference expansion talk, WVU is like a "bubble team." We're on the list of prospects, but just below the cut. Everyone seems to think we belong in a BCS conference, just not in theirs.

We're not alone. Louisville, UConn (if not invited by the Big Ten), Cincinnati, and USF from the Big East will be in the same boat. So will some Big XII schools if the scenario painted above plays out like that.

Oh, and that song I mentioned above ends with the line, "Find somebody to love."

So imagine that the five remaining Big East football schools decide to form the nucleus of a new conference. We'll call it the "Nobody Loves Us Conference."

Begin with the five remaining Big East schools, WVU, UConn, Louisville, UC, and USF. Invite Kansas and Kansas State from what used to be the Big XII, and invite Memphis, ECU, UCF, Tulane, and Houston from C-USA. Yes, we'd be doing to C-USA what the Big Ten did to us. I don't like that, but schools are going to act in their self-interest.

That would be 12 schools, and a lot of TV sets. Would it be strong enough in football to retain the Big East's BCS automatic bid? I think it would be. It would certainly reach a lot of media markets. UConn would bring Hartford and reach into New York City. Houston would bring its city. Tulane brings New Orleans. USF and UCF bring Tampa and Orlando. We'd have Cincinnati, Memphis, and Louisville. And we'd have the states of Kansas and West Virginia, and reach into eastern North Carolina.

That conference would be at least as strong as the Big East has been in football, and would be an excellent basketball conference as well. It would be stronger than C-USA. Have you ever heard the phrase "airplane conference"? Well, this would certainly be one. Every school would rack up the frequent flier miles -- especially UConn.

Could it work? I think so. And maybe there's a guy in Houston who would make an excellent and dynamic conference commissioner.

Can I imagine a worse scenario? Yes, of course. The ACC could expand and invite four schools but not WVU. In that case, WVU might be left to apply for admission to C-USA. But I don't think that's a likely outcome.

At this point, of course, it's all just conjecture. Just more speculatin'. It's like a parlor game, and you can play, too. None of us knows what the future holds, but I honestly don't think WVU will end up without a good conference home.

We could remain in a reconstituted Big East. Or the Big Ten could decide to leave the Big East alone, or take just one Big East team, in which case we're in clover. Notre Dame could decide to join the Big Ten, and conference expansion could end there. The Mountaineers could become part of an expanded SEC or an expanded ACC. We could end up in the Nobody Loves Us Conference, which wouldn't be the end of the world, and such a new conference could even receive an automatic BCS bid and feature a conference championship game.

Whatever happens, I think WVU will be okay. And whatever happens, I'll still buy tickets, and still be in the stands rooting for the Old Gold and Blue.

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