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Further examining the Big Ten’s potential candidates for expansion

Logic and geography might be out the window. The realignment wars are back on.

2021 Big Ten Football Media Day Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Texas and Oklahoma made their intentions to leave the Big 12 Conference known on Monday by issuing a joint statement saying they will not renew their grant of rights agreements when they expire in 2025. If there was any doubt these two schools are planning on bolting for the SEC, it was all cast aside when this became official.

The Big Ten is the No. 1 revenue conference in the country when it comes to collegiate sports, so the SEC’s most recent power play will almost certainly see them challenge for the throne. Because we know the almighty dollar rules over everything — traditions, geography and logic be damned — it is only a matter of time before the arms race gets pushed forward.

The Big Ten does not necessarily need to add anyone, as it is on much stronger footing than a few other conferences in the Power 5 (Big 12, Pac-12). But these displaced Big 12 teams are going to need a place to go. That conference is not going to survive with its two biggest brands exiting.

From CBS Sports on Monday:

In 2016, Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard made this prescient statement: “The Big 12 exists because we have Texas and Oklahoma in the room. If we take Texas and Oklahoma out of the room, we’re the Mountain West Conference.”

Those words hit like a sledgehammer today. As the SEC shocked the world by preparing to assume the ‘Horns and Sooners, the Big 12 lost 50% to 75% of its value, several industry sources tell CBS Sports. Their TV contracts with ESPN and Fox contain language that allows the Big 12 networks to reduce payouts if there is a loss of membership.

“When you’re losing two of the most visible programs, the network has the right to come and say, ‘We’re going to reduce the rights by X.’” one longtime, high-profile administrator said.

That means the Big 12 deal could drop from $37 million in annual revenue to as low as $9 million per school. Considering there aren’t two schools available that come close to replacing the value of Texas and Oklahoma, the Big 12 is in troubled waters to say the least.

The Big 12 is dead. You don’t lose the Michigan and Ohio State equivalents from your conference and move forward from that. There are not multiple brands available to them to come close to replacing the value of Texas and Oklahoma.

The Longhorns and Sooners would put the SEC at 16 teams and well on its way to “Super Conference” status. There are people out there who believe the SEC wants to push it to 20 and have its own pseudo-league that secedes from everything else, but that seems a bit too conspiracy theory-ish. However, it does feel like we are now on the speeding freight train to massive changes to the college football landscape and the dawn of a “Power 4”.

The writing is on the wall for the Big 12 and we have already seen reports of schools reaching out to other conferences. Kansas and Oklahoma State are reportedly two schools that have reached out to the Big Ten. Iowa State and Kansas State are geographical fits but do not do much to move the needle. There is not a logical move on paper that could equal the impact of Texas and OU.

Notre Dame would be a home run, but they have resisted fully joining a conference for years and already have one foot in the door in the ACC. It would be a perfect fit and give the Big Ten a superpower that has rivalry ties already built-in. Should ND ever change its archaic ways, it would be great for the Big Ten to pull out all the stops to make it happen. It just feels unlikely.

Before we move this conversation forward, here is what each team in the Power 5 conferences gets paid out with their current deals in place. (h/t Scott Bell)

  • Big Ten: $54.3 million
  • SEC: $45.5 million
  • Big 12: $37-$40.5 million (pre-Texas/OU departure)
  • Pac 12: $33.6 million
  • ACC: $30.9-$37 million

Assuming that Oklahoma and Texas push SEC to the top spot, the Big Ten still has a pretty sizeable advantage over everyone else with a massive TV contract set to come in 2023 that might increase its value even more.

Adam Rittenberg of ESPN mentioned that the Big Ten would only be interested in adding AAU (American Association of Universities) schools in a potential expansion. This is a grouping of some of the top research institutions in the country, but let’s remember that the Big Ten is an athletics conference. They might prefer to add AAU schools, but it depends on who comes a-knockin.

Some of those AAU schools that are not in the Big Ten include:

  • Iowa State (Big 12)
  • Cal (Pac-12)
  • Duke (ACC)
  • USC (Pac-12)
  • UCLA (Pac-12)
  • Kansas (Big 12)
  • North Carolina (ACC)
  • Oregon (Pac-12)
  • Pittsburgh (ACC)
  • Stanford (Pac-12)
  • Texas (Big 12)
  • Texas A&M (SEC)
  • Utah (Pac-12)
  • Virginia (ACC)
  • Washington (Pac-12)

Rittenberg also says that an exception would be made for a school like Notre Dame. If Oklahoma was on the verge of joining the Big Ten, it probably would not apply to them, either. Nebraska was an AAU school when it joined, but no longer holds that status and will not be punished for it.

Given the reports of schools reaching out to set up calls with the Big Ten, it seems like the conference is more than open to the idea of adding a 15th and 16th school to the mix.

In the scenario that the Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC split what’s left of the Big 12 amongst themselves. That would probably look something like this in some combination or another:

Pac-12: Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State

Big Ten: Kansas, Iowa State

ACC: West Virginia, Kansas State

Everything the SEC is doing is football-driven and none of these moves would do much to improve the bottom lines of the respective conferences. But if the Big 12 ceases to exist, these schools have to go somewhere. Perhaps the American Athletic Conference could jump in and make a play, as they have the most to gain by the dissolving of a Power 5 conference.

The boldest move that could be made would be a school like USC jumping in and expanding the Big Ten’s footprint out West. Any addition of a Pac-12 school feels like it would come as a package deal with at least one other (Washington?). Geography does not matter anymore. It is all about power and money. Adding a USC and Notre Dame would be the closest thing the Big Ten could do to match the SEC’s power play.

The ACC may be on somewhat strong footing, but the Big Ten should be looking at its options there. North Carolina and Virginia are both AAU schools and have a nice combination of hybrid success with both their football and basketball programs. The Big Ten already picked Maryland out of the group from there, so there is a precedent set already. It might not be able to take over the SEC as a conference power, but it could certainly cement its grip on the second spot while adding two schools that fit the bill.

The SEC pulling the trigger on adding a pair of football powers to its conference strengthens the grip it has on the sport and its nationwide recruiting footprint. Any elite recruit with designs on having the most eyeballs on him will continue to look to the SEC. It is a lot easier for the SEC to get on board with an expanded 12-team playoff when it knows that half of its teams might wind up there anyway.

The ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 will have to adjust to this or get left in the stone age. Nobody has the answers and everyone is scrambling quickly to secure its position in line for the next stage of college athletics. The toothpaste is out of the tube and there is no putting it back.

Whether we like it or not, the arms race is back on.