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Casual fans of college sports who tune out the NCAA during the summer are in for a shock come September. What? Nebraska's in the Big Ten? Colorado and Texas are in the Pac-10? The Big 12 doesn't exist anymore?? What happened???
Thanks to Colorado joining the Pac-10 and Nebraska joining the Big Ten in a span of 24 hours, that is the likely scenario in what is expected to be the largest college sports realignment in two decades. Over the next two weeks, the Big 12 is expected to dissolve, and the Pac-10 will most likely gobble up Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State.
Confused? Let's sort it out with a look at the winner and losers of the Great Conference Shakeup of 2010.
The Big Ten (12?) and Pac-10 (16?)
Already flush with the overwhelming success of the Big Ten Network, the conference now gets its long-coveted 12th team. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has become a latter-day Roy Kramer, the former head honcho of the Southeastern Conference, and the catalyst for college sports' last major realignment 20 years ago. Delany didn't just successfully woo one of college football's most legendary programs and pave the way for a mouth-watering conference championship game (Soldier Field, anyone?), he managed to expand the conference without Notre Dame, which has long spurned the Big Ten and now finds itself scrambling to keep up with realignment. Though the Pac-10's shrewdest moves have been nabbing Colorado early and jumping on the bandwagon started by the Big Ten, it figures to be the biggest quantitative winner, with no fewer than six Big 12 teams expected to join the Pacific powers.
The Cornhuskers gained as much prestige and more money by joining the Big Ten than the conference did by adding them. The team joins fellow football factories Ohio State and Michigan in a conference rife with gridiron tradition. Even so, Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne is smiling mostly over the school's impending share of the profits from the Big Ten Network, which is expected to pay out more than $7 million to each of the conference's 11 schools this year. That'll look good on a balance sheet.
Though a casual observer might think the Broncos simply moved from one middling conference to another, their switch from the Western Athletic Conference to the Mountain West Conference will look clairvoyant in six months. If the Big 12 dissolves as expected, the MWC is the most likely home for Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor and Iowa State. Throw in the established prestige of Brigham Young and recent Bowl Championship Series participant Utah, and Boise State is essentially joining the Big 12's replacement as the sixth power conference in the NCAA. For a school that has long sought recognition as a national football power (witness its non-conference schedule), the Broncos will now have the chance to earn that respect.
The Big 12
Since it's probably not going to exist in a matter of weeks, the Big 12 is the Biggest Loser by far. Cobbled together from pieces of the old Big 8 and Southwestern conferences in 1994, the conference has been superb athletically on the national stage, winning four football championships (including two BCS titles) and one NCAA basketball championship in its short existence. But due in part to poorly negotiated television contracts, the Big 12 generated less revenue than the other power conferences. Once Nebraska and Colorado followed the money, there was little the Big 12 could do.
The Nebraska-Colorado rivalry is one of the oldest and most passionate in college football; the schools have played at least once every year since 1948. That will come to an ignominious end now that they're in different conferences, and fans will have to settle for ESPN Classic reruns of old clashes between the Cornhuskers and Buffaloes (like this epic offensive explosion from 2001.) And if rumors about Texas and Texas A&M heading to different conferences prove true, that's an even bigger rivalry gone.
In an ideal world, college athletics would be about competition between student-athletes and the rivalries, dynasties, and Cinderella stories that captivate us year after year. But it's not. It's about the money. A devotion to the bottom line is how we got the soul-sucking BCS and its near-annual failure to give college football's best teams a chance to win the championship. It's how March Madness—on paper the purest of athletic events—went from 64 to 65 to 68 teams (and almost jumped to 96) in less than a decade. And it's how the college sports landscape has shifted from six conferences whose teams played in the same general regions of the U.S. to five mega-conferences, one of which will likely have multiple schools from both Texas and Washington.
The athletes, fans, and lovers of the game are the real losers of realignment.