How a Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12 alliance combats SEC in TV rights negotiations, College Football Playoff expansion

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Barely 3 ½ weeks after the news initially broke that Texas and Oklahoma were seeking to join the SEC, major college athletics appears set to redraw its boundaries again. A potential scheduling alliance under discussion between the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 would serve as a compelling answer to the SEC’s raid of two of the nation’s top programs from the Big 12.

Compelling because it would mean conference realignment — at least on that level — would basically be over just weeks after it started. The SEC with its 16 teams would be armed with some the biggest brands and rivalries in college athletics. The Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 would be attempting to come as close as possible to that if such an alliance is finalized.

Compelling because that alliance would close a loop around 57 teams, essentially creating a Power Four with the eight remaining Big 12 teams on the outside looking in. It wouldn’t be the breakaway from the NCAA that many believe is coming one day, but it would be darn close considering the legislative, financial and recruiting power of those conferences with the association itself fading from view.

Maybe separation was bound to occur given college athletics’ gravitational forces orbiting around monstrous amounts of cash, but the swiftness with which it could happen this time has some heads spinning.

This trek toward a new look for the game is equally impacted by forthcoming College Football Playoff expansion. If there is one aspect of the BCS era that holds true, it’s that schedule strength increasingly matters more and more when it comes to postseason selections. Whether it’s humans or machines deciding which teams make it in, those that generally play the toughest schedules and beat the best opponents have an advantage. That has led to the rise of the SEC, which has won 11 of the last 15 national championships.

It’s all about the (TV) money …

With Texas and Oklahoma, the SEC can now brag that it has approximately 10 of the best rivalries of all time within the walls of its conference.

A scheduling alliance across the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 is the best way for those leagues to approximate that total and enhance their television inventory with new, compelling nonconference matchups.

CBS Sports on Saturday confirmed discussions about such an alliance with sources calling it a “concept” at this point. The conversations between the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 were first reported by The Athletic on Friday.

In the TV media rights game, networks are basically paying for Ohio State-Michigan in the Big Ten, a couple of Duke-North Carolina basketball games in the ACC and USC-UCLA in the Pac-12. Everything else is extra baggage. With a four-conference consolidation, the best games would be wrapped in a tighter package.

The Big Ten still leads the field paying its members $54 million each annually in media rights revenue. Why would the richest league share its value — both brand and financial — with the ACC and Pac-12?

The answer continues to be playoff access (and some common bonds). The Big Ten and Pac-12 have played each other in the Rose Bowl more or less since 1902. The Big Ten-ACC Challenge in basketball has existed for almost a quarter century.

If you want further proof of the natural fit, consider that Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff attended Virginia for law and Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren is from the Pac-12 footprint (Phoenix). His brother also played football at Stanford. ACC commissioner Jim Phillips has worked in the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12.

The three conferences also share an academic culture, which would appeal to university presidents who most likely would have to approve such a large undertaking. Forty percent of United States colleges in the Association of American Universities (AAU) — 27 of 66 — are in the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12. AAU schools are the top research institutions in North America.

While the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 would improve their nonconference schedules with an alliance, they could take it a step further by refusing to play the top eight teams in the SEC. Hey, TV networks, forget Florida-Florida State, we’ll raise you Ohio State-USC.

Collusion? You bet. Completely legal in the cutthroat corporate world of major college athletics. While this process has been rapid in nature, sources tell CBS Sports there is currently no appetite for such a move among stakeholders.

A scheduling alliance remains complicated. There would be current nonconference contracts to unwind. There are conference media rights deals that expire at different times: the Big Ten in 2023, the Pac-12 in 2024 and the ACC in 2036.

… and College Football Playoff access

Those three leagues plus the SEC now will convene in late September with leverage to decide what an expanded playoff looks like and how to divide the bloated revenues it will demand.

Scarfing up Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12 strengthens the SEC’s position and dooms the Big 12 to second-tier status — if the league continues at all. With a scheduling alliance, the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 would together buy themselves equal leverage at the CFP table.

Whatever playoff expansion looks like, a larger field is going to be worth multiples more than it is now ($475 million annually). Whether the networks pay significantly more for those nonconference games in a scheduling alliance is up for debate and really isn’t the point.

From the moment it was known Texas and Oklahoma had wandering eyes, the response has been seen as a long-term play. About money? For sure. But also about CFP access and the structure of an expanded bracket.

Several college sports leaders — Kliavkoff the most vocal among them — have already protested the SEC’s power play in that respect. 

“Who’s in?” Indeed.

We’re seeing in real time the best, most-watched teams gathering in a tighter circle. The four power conferences could then agree to a common set of playing and eligibility rules to keep that circle taut and powerful. If the SEC was to increase its annual scholarship limits from 25 to 35, the other three would have to do the same to keep up.

That’s why the 12-team CFP expansion, as proposed, will almost certainly have to be reworked. The current plan being discussed includes the top six conference winners plus six at-large team. With the SEC strengthened and the other three conferences potentially aligned, would any of those leagues actually want to give two berths to the Group of Five? Or is that scenario a financial give-back to those schools in return for consolidation at the top?

Bye, bye Big 12

Of course, even the hint of an alliance is a bad sign for the Big 12. It signals that the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 do not believe the Big 12’s eight remaining programs — in any form — bring substantial value to their conferences. Taken a step further, it suggests a reality that could see the Big 12 or American fade away with one likely absorbing the other.

Worse for the Big 12, it portends a nuclear winter for those schools’ athletic budgets. Programs with hundreds of millions tied up in facilities will downsize. Minor sports will be dropped. The impact will affect not only athletics but the universities themselves. Being an autonomous (Power Five) institution is a branding that carries with it the cache that allows schools to hire staff, faculty and be awarded research grants. Even enrollment would likely be impacted.

Who absorbs who doesn’t really matter at this point. We’re almost assured of dropping from 10 to nine FBS conferences. Ten years ago, realignment offered a step up for the likes TCU (Big 12) and Utah (Pac-12). This time, it threatens to thin the herd with the likes of Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Baylor no longer being major-conference members. Kansas could wind up playing basketball in the Mountain West.

Cut from that herd would be eight Big 12 athletic departments with a combined nine national championships in football and basketball and 44 major bowl berths.

“That’s a massive, massive blow,” one high-profile sports TV industry source said.

The alliance could also move up the timeline of that takeover attempt by speeding up Texas and Oklahoma’s departure from the Big 12. Through the league is determined to make the pair stay for the remaining four years of the TV rights deal, the sides may simply come together sooner and agree on a buyout figure. That money could stock the athletic budgets of the Big 12’s remaining eight schools at least for a couple years while they sort through their options.

Unless Notre Dame decides to join the Big Ten or ACC sometime soon — not likely — this proposed alliance between the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 appears to be the best way to answer what looks to many like a hostile takeover of the sport by the SEC.

Until then, the inevitable redrawing of boundaries in major college football continues unabated.