It's official, the first shots have been fired in the Great Conference Realignment of 2010. Colorado has scheduled a press conference to announce its defection to the Pac 10, and Nebraska has all but signed on the line with the Big 10. Which means, for a brief moment at least, my fondest dream has come true – we have a 12-team Big 10 and a 10-team Big 12. No one expects this situation to last, of course. Both the Pac-10 and the Big 10 are talking about becoming sixteen-team abomiconferences, and the SEC is licking its lips as well. The first two invitations were just to get the ball rolling, by two conferences who could be happy just to expand to 12. They were just startling the herd, wounding the Big 12 until its members believe collapse is eminent. Any other expansion is based solely around the one team the Big 10, Pac-10 and SEC are all coveting. Texas.
Rumors of two offers are already out there. The Big Ten has been poking around for awhile, with little response, and there's the constant mention of the Pac-10 expanding to 16 by snatching up Texas, their A&M and Tech brethren , and the two Oklahoma schools. The SEC is also sniffing around A&M, presumably hoping to take Texas and Texas Tech as well. (The Texas legislature is even more prone to meddle in college sports than Virginia is; expect the three schools to move as a block and marvel at the dwindling clout of Baylor.) The rest of the Big XII North is doomed to isolation.
Everyone expects these things to happen right this instant, but it's worth remembering that the first shot of the last big realignment was Arkansas abandoning the SWC for the SEC in 1990, but the conference wasn't stripped for parts by the Big 8-going-on-12 three years later. These two moves were made to force Texas to jump ship, but I'm not sure the reverberations will be as great as people think.
First of all, consider the SEC. They have only two reasons for expansion, the Texas television market, and insecurity should 16-team conferences become the norm. They have the most lucrative contract covering most of the media areas they desire. They'll never be poached from, and if Texas decides to join up with the Californians or rebuild the Big 12, they're not going to go pulling in teams just to dilute their profit margin. I'd ignore the wilder rumors; they're pretty stable. The Pac-10, on the other hand would have no qualms about becoming a 16-team organization (Which basically means pawning the Arizona schools off on the SWC remnants and coming to a revenue sharing agreement. Oh, and making basketball a total mess.) But outside the destruction of the Big 12, even that might not bring down the whole house of cards.
People keep assuming the increasingly misnamed Big 10 is also trying to jump to 16, but they've got the big money contract the Pac-10 and Big 12 haven't been able to rustle up already. Twelve teams will get them the championship game money, and staying at that number will still leave the door open for Notre Dame. I fully expect the conference to keep talking about further expansion – you've got to push the Irish off that fence somehow – but to actually dilute their revenue with some Big East teams or Maryland? They'd need big media markets risk that, and hopefully have learned from the ACC's misbegotten play for BC that grabbing a school in the Northeast isn't going to make those cities care about you.
I wouldn't be surprised if the BCS conferences let the Pac-10 be the 16-team canary in the coal mine for a couple of years before trying to expand themselves. Don't forget, the last 16-team conference lasted a whopping three years before imploding, and the rest of the BCS conferences save the hapless wildebeest that is the Big East have shiny new networks or new fat TV contracts. Once renegotiation hits the horizon that may change, but until then I wouldn't look to see that many schools east of the Mississippi head for the exits or start beggaring their neighbors just yet. In the meantime, we can all sit back and enjoy the complete panic the Kansas athletic department must be going through right about now.