What does the future of realignment look like in college football?

ByESPN Staff ESPN logo
Monday, March 13, 2023

We're getting closer and closer to seeing major changes in college football. Houston, Cincinnati, UCF and BYU are all set to enter the Big 12 on July 1. And in the summer of 2024, we'll see Oklahoma and Texas join the SEC and UCLA and USC will head to the Big Ten.

With those moves set in stone, and surely more to come soon, our reporters discuss what the future of realignment might look like in college football and give their wildest wishes for the sport.

What's the next domino to fall?

Bill Connelly: The next logical move will come when the Pac-12 figures out the valuations for its next set of media contracts. If it's competitive enough to what the Big 12 has arranged to pull in, then one assumes the Pac-12 will add two programs -- with San Diego Stateand SMUbeing the rumored front-runners (and UNLV, Boise Stateand others still hoping for a shot) -- and everything will potentially stabilize for a bit. If the Pac-12's estimates end up far short of expectation, then I guess we'll find out exactly how serious the Big 12 is about potentially adding the Colorado-Utah-Arizona-Arizona Statequartet of programs. Looming over all of this, of course, is whether the Big Ten decides to expand past 16 programs and add whatever combination of Oregon, Washington, Caland Stanfordis most attractive. But since the Big Ten doesn't even have a commissioner or a full set of college presidents at the moment, we'll hold off on wondering about that.

Adam Rittenberg: I agree with Bill in a sense, as the most immediate move could come from the Pac-12 once its media contract -- with the existing 10 members -- is finally set. But the next major move likely lies with the Big Ten. Although Commissioner Kevin Warren ultimately couldn't get the league's presidents on board with additional West Coast expansion beyond USC and UCLA, I'm told there was some support in the room. With Warren taking over as Chicago Bears president on April 17, could a new commissioner with perhaps a stronger presentation convince the Big Ten presidents and chancellors that adding Washington and Oregon makes sense? It's possible. If it happens, there would be more seismic change around the sport. I don't see anything happening right away given the importance of getting a commissioner in place and the general flux among the Big Ten president/chancellor group, which existed throughout Warren's tenure. But once leadership is in place, the Big Ten could be the place to watch again.

Heather Dinich: One lesson learned after about two decades covering college football is that realignment is never over, but it wouldn't be surprising if the next move wasn't as seismic as the speculation might indicate. The Pac-12 could add San Diego State and SMU following its next television deal and that could be the extent of the "next round of realignment." These decisions are made by the university presidents and chancellors, and unless there is a great disparity in revenue, they aren't going to move their academic institutions, period. The question is, what's the gap in revenue that would prompt Pac-12 presidents to seriously consider the Big 12? Ten million? Twenty? More? In the Big Ten, are there enough university presidents who would be willing to share the revenue with 18 schools? The Pac-12's television deal holds the crux of these answers.

Will Notre Dameever join the ACC or another conference?

David Hale: On good nights, I suspect ACC commissioner Jim Phillips dreams of a call from Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick announcing, "This is the day!" Amid a very uncertain future for the ACC, this would be akin to winning the lottery. All those big revenue issues would be addressed, the future would look bright and all would be right with the world. The small problem here is that it isn't going to happen. Notre Dame's contract with the ACC gives the Irish all it needs for its non-football sports and creates no incentive for them to join the ACC in football. With a new expanded playoff, the odds are even lower. And while the contract tethers the Irish, at least to a degree, to the ACC, buying their way out of that deal wouldn't be impossible should the Big Ten make a particularly lucrative offer. In other words, Plan A for Notre Dame is independence. That's also Plans B, C and D. And if a time comes where those options are off the table, the ACC is still unlikely to be Plan E.

Rittenberg: Notre Dame will only join a conference once the mythical super league is finally formed, and there's a clear delineation between the programs competing at the highest level of the sport. I still think that's another cycle or two away, but Notre Dame ultimately wants to compete for national championships. Until the school's access to the championship stage is stripped away, it will remain independent in football. Independence means too much to Notre Dame's identity. But if the sport trends toward some type of breakaway with 30-40 programs, Notre Dame will have to agree to change its status.

Dinich:Swarbrick told me last summer there are three potential reasons why the university would consider relinquishing its independent status: the loss of a committed broadcast partner; the loss of a fair route into the postseason; "or such an adverse financial consequence that you had to reconsider." Any of those three factors seems highly unlikely anytime soon, and Notre Dame's independence runs deeper than its football program. It's a university-wide sense of identity and history, so deeply rooted that not even the news of the pending 16-team SEC and Big Ten was enough to rattle the Irish into change. The 12-team playoff will only help Notre Dame, and Swarbrick was one of the coauthors of the original proposal. If Notre Dame joins a conference, it probably won't be during this leadership's tenure.

Are we moving toward a future of just two super leagues?

Hale: The ultimate tipping point may come if and when the courts determine a serious shake-up of the college sports model is necessary. If athletes are deemed as employees, and schools that can spend the most on the best players have a built-in advantage, there essentially becomes no path forward for anyone playing outside the SEC and Big Ten. Regardless of the legal consequences, teams like Florida State, Clemson, Oregon or Washington, which aim to win national championships, would be in a move-or-die situation. Meanwhile, other schools less comfortable with the idea of college football as a semi-pro league might voluntarily opt to leave the mega conferences for something more akin to an Ivy League model. (Or, perhaps, be pushed out down the road. No one ever mentions contraction as an option, but financially, it makes a ton of sense.) As bad as the revenue disparities are shaping up to be right now, there's only so many new football operations buildings and nutrition centers a school can build for recruiting purposes. But if schools are forced (or allowed) to pay athletes directly, then the correlation between money and wins will get far stronger, and the race to super conferences will be on.

Connelly: I still think the most likely scenario is more of a "power two and light heavyweight three" situation, not unlike what we see in European soccer. Even if the Big Ten and SEC expand beyond 16 schools -- which, at this point, feels almost inevitable -- there will still be a lot of schools willing and occasionally able to compete with lower budgets. Football is a pretty addictive pursuit, after all, and honestly, a 12-team playoff with spots for six conference champions might turn out to be a saving grace of sorts. Even if the SEC and Big Ten gobble up a majority of at-large bids in a given year, assuring at least five spots for teams outside of those conferences will assure that the rest of FBS, however it looks in the future, will have something to play for.

Dinich: It depends on what you consider "super leagues." I'd argue the SEC and Big Ten will already qualify for that in 2024. There are too many other respectable FBS programs to try and sort that out, and for many of these university presidents, there is an academic bar that must be met if they are going to agree to bring other universities into their club. NIL will continue to drive a wedge between the wealthiest programs and everyone else, even within their own conferences (see Maryland and Ohio State), regardless of how large they become. Before presidents and conference commissioners think about superconferences, they should prepare to pay players.

What Group of 5 teams can make the jump to Power 5?

Rittenberg: San Diego State is positioned well to join the Pac-12 or Big 12 in the near future. There's no other available FBS-playing school in Southern California after USC and UCLA's departures to the Big Ten. San Diego State has had success in both football and men's basketball, and its new stadium reflects its investment in football and wanting to raise its profile. SMU is more of a projection candidate because of the money around the school. Can SMU follow a TCU-like path to prominence as a Power 5 member? That's the gamble with a smaller private school, despite an appealing Dallas location. The Big 12 clearly wants to move to the West, so I wonder if Boise State has enough appeal. The long-term football success there definitely helps. Memphis has a lot of ingredients to be in a Power 5 and seems to be getting left behind. The location doesn't really help, but Memphis has invested in its top two programs. We'll see if similar investments at South Florida better positions the school for the next round of realignment, after really getting left behind this time around.

Kyle Bonagura:I agree with Adam that San Diego State is the obvious choice. With a new stadium, the still somewhat-recent departure of the Los Angeles Chargers, the size of the market and sustained athletic success, SDSU is a no-brainer. However, they aren't the only team in California that can make the jump. Fresno State can, too. It's located in a region of the state with a large population base that doesn't have great access to any professional teams and already has impressive fan support. With the added resources that would come with being at the Power 5 level, there would be a clear path for FSU to be able to compete regularly with mid-tier Power 5 programs. Especially when considered the Bulldogs are almost always able to compete as things stand.

Hale: "The jump" is really a two-part question. There are certainly programs that could join the Big 12 or ACC or Pac-12 and, within a couple years, field competitive teams. But is there a program out there that would also have a chance to grow into a serious brand -- something that moves the needle financially? The additions for the Big 12 (BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF) were about adding the next-best things, not creating true value for a league that just lost two genuine brands. The Pac-12's flirtations with San Diego State or SMU offer some upside with two programs more than capable of winning, but will they become must-see TV for Oregon or Washington fans when their teams face off? There's always long-term growth potential with places like USFor North Texas-- but that's a matter of decades, not years. And there are established fan bases for schools like Memphis or Navy, but they're far from crown jewels that would fetch a hefty TV deal. The truth is, the entire idea of the Power 5 may be irrelevant soon, and the teams that truly move the needle in the big picture do so because of decades of success and fan investment. It's nearly impossible to create that now at places where it doesn't already exist.

Connelly: Let's start with this: Not including one-year FBS member James Madison, there are 10 programs that have averaged a positive SP+ rating -- meaning, they're better than the average FBS team -- over the past decade without being a power conference team (or Notre Dame): Boise State,Memphis, UCF, Appalachian State, Houston, BYU, Cincinnati, San Diego State, Air Forceand Marshall. Four of those programs just got gobbled up by the Big 12, and SDSU remains the leading candidate to join an expanded Pac-12 if or when the Pac-12 is able to expand. Geography suggests Memphis would be the top candidate if the Big 12 were to decide to expand further, and geography also suggests Boise State might continue to get the short end of the realignment stick. But with the four making the Big 12 jump this year, the list of obvious, high-potential candidates shrank considerably.

What's the wildest move you would want to see?

Hale: Let's just erase the blackboard and start from scratch. So many of college football's ills are driven by the paradoxical influences of modern revenue generation and old-school tradition. TV money will pay Vanderbiltand Illinoismore than Florida Stateor Clemsonbecause of contractual ties from decades (or centuries) ago. The sport is constantly trying to fit square pegs into round holes. So let's blow it up! If we're moving toward super leagues, let's shed the shackles of conference tie-ins from a time when teams traveled by train and build out a league that allows all programs who want to compete a chance to truly do so; that maintains long-standing rivalries that put actual butts in actual seats for the games; that gives players a fair slice of the pie. Oh, and have we mentioned promotion and relegation? How much time to do we have here?

Connelly: Oh, we're absolutely going to talk about promotion and relegation, time be damned. I've spent far too many hours of my life thinking about it not to bring it up at every possible opportunity. We could remodel the entire NCAA ladder, from Division I to Division III, based on a relegation model, and we wouldn't have to redraft conferences or anything. We set up conference affiliations across the board -- the SEC with the Sun Belt, the Big 12 with Conference USA, the ACC with the AAC, the Pac-12 with the Mountain West, the Big Ten with the MAC (and then, the MAC with the Missouri Valley, etc.) -- and off we go. The last-place team in the SEC (Vanderbilt) plays the first-place team in the Sun Belt (Troy) for a spot in next year's SEC! Extra drama! A level of actual merit in power conference membership! Everybody wins with relegation! Except Vanderbilt! Acknowledging that won't happen, however, what about relegation WITHIN a conference? What about a full-scale Pac-12 and Mountain West merger, where the bottom four teams from one tier trade places with the top four teams from the lower tier each year? Imagine a Pac-12 that trades last year's dismal Cal, Arizona State, Stanford and Colorado teams for Boise State, Fresno State, SDSU and San Jose State? That's a better conference! I can't imagine the money would make sense here, but hey, that's for money people to figure out! I'm just an irresponsible ideas guy!

Bonagura:Just sitting over here nodding in approval at the promotion-relegation concept. As realignment has shown, there are very few untouchable rivalry games in college football. Life goes on and people move on to whatever is new. So the idea that we need to preserve history for history's sake is an outdated way to approach the sport. I think it's best to think about college football's structure is like this: If we were to start from scratch, what would it look like? Well, obviously, there would be no bowl games. Having mostly meaningless exhibition games at the end of the season doesn't exist in any other sport. Why? Because it doesn't make any sense. Let's get rid of them. Yes, people still watch, but that's because it's football on TV and people like watching football on TV. It's pretty simple. What would make the sport better is to create higher-stakes games at the end of the year -- for everyone. Not just the teams at the top. And if a team is threatened with relegation to a lesser-tier conference, those end-of-the-season games carry real stakes. There is much more that would need to be ironed out, of course, but there is so much potential to create a much more exciting, relevant competitive structure.