When Is a Conference No Longer a Conference?

Most everyone in the college sports-blogging world has spent the week chewing over various conference expansion schemes. Some of that is because all of the conference commissioners were down in Scottsdale meeting, and couldn't keep their mouths shut even if they cared to. The rest is de to the fact that it's the silly season of college sports, and folks like nothing better than making their own ideal conference line-ups. It's basically the sports version of writing fanfic, but with slightly less slash involved. (And only slightly – I remain unconvinced folks aren't putting Texas and Florida in the same conference only to increase the odds Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy somehow find themselves making out.)

The cold water will soon be thrown on most of these ideas; everyone's already decided that Notre Dame's sitting things out, for instance. But everyone seems oddly excited about 16-team superconferences in general. Am I the only one who thinks it's an absolutely horrible idea?

The general theory seems to revolve around the Big Ten leaping from 11 teams to 16 by stealing a couple of Big East football teams, and maybe Missouri and Iowa State. The SEC responds by poaching Texas and Texas A&M from the Big 12 and Florida State and Clemson from the ACC. Then there are second order effects combining the Pac-10 with most of the rest of the Big 12 and the ACC probably scooping up the rest of the Big East, leaving four 16-team conferences and some bystanders. Now, let's put aside that the last sixteen team superconference broke apart after only three years because of travel costs and academic concerns. Or that the superconference in UNC's own history twice had mass defections to form other conferences.  What does a sixteen team conference get you?

In football, you're going to get eight or nine conference games. And most likely eight, since Texas and Florida aren't going to sign up for a ninth game when they still have Oklahoma and Miami on their respective schedules. You either end up with two conferences with a scheduling agreement and a weird playoff at the end or  the strange rotating quadrants of the mayfly that was the 16-team WAC. The latter won't fly anywhere where there's more than one rivalry per team – just think about the SEC. Florida has to be paired with Florida State, but they also need the World's Biggest Cocktail party with Georgia and the Tennessee game. But Tennessee needs its Alabama rivalry, and Georgia its game with Auburn; something gets blown up in this situation. And if you have two divisions, well then you get to see your vaunted Texas-Florida matchup twice every sixteen years. Exciting.

In basketball, of course, you're pretty much stuck with the Big East's horrible method of one game per year, and possibly the bizarre system where you can fail to make your own conference tournament. That right there is why you'll never see the ACC expand to 16; not only is the ACC tournament still the big moneymaker that needs to be protected from dilution, but shifting to one scheduled UNC-Duke game a year, would be a huge profit loss in addition to being a crime against humanity. The SEC probably wouldn't bat an eye about diminishing a pretty weak basketball product, but the Big and Pac Ten-or-Mores would probably pull back from the abyss. And it would actively destroy most of the Olympic sports, as travel expenses became unmanageable and ate away at a chunk of the new pot of money.

So no, sixteen-team conference probably won't start popping up any day now, and if one came into existence it would probably fall apart pretty quickly. We're stuck with the kluged-together system we have now, as more teams approach twelve and keep threatening to poach one another. Expect lots of talk but little action, the NCAA's favorite type of game.

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