Realignment could spell the end of the NCAA

Dominoes will begin falling with increasing frequency now that Texas and Oklahoma have shattered the college football landscape by moving to the SEC. Mega-conferences, chaos and the possible end of the NCAA may be the result.



August 3, 2021 - 9:29 AM

Texas Tech fans volley the Raider Power chant during a 2019 game against Oklahoma State. Both schools and the rest of the Big 12 face an uncertain future with Texas and Oklahoma exploring a move to the Southeastern Conference. Photo by TNS

There was never a plan for college football. On Nov. 6, 1869 — only four years after Americans fought Americans on battlefields — Rutgers played New Jersey. The latter is now known as Princeton. Rutgers won 6-4. Nothing since has gone according to script, there having been no script. The sport hasn’t so much evolved as careened from place to place.

There was a time when Notre Dame, the biggest name of all, deigned not to grace any bowl. There was a time when bowl destinations — this when there were seven or so bowls, not seventy thousand — were determined by which team had visited Pasadena or Miami or New Orleans less recently. There was a time when the sport’s champion was decided by vote, a time when a player’s only way of pocketing money for his on-field service was to shake an alum’s hand.

That was then. This is now, though “now” will surely have a shortish shelf life. By the time Texas and Oklahoma begin SEC play — the date is set for 2025 — there mightn’t be a Big 12, which as of now has only eight committed members. The Big Ten might have merged with its little brother, the Pac-12. (Remember when those two decided NOT to play football in 2020? Remember how long that lasted?) Notre Dame, which played in the ACC on a guest pass last season, might have finally bowed to the inevitable and enrolled as a member in full. The ACC, which cannot stand the SEC, might well have said, “Can’t beat ‘em; better join ‘em.”

This being college football, there’s also a chance none of the above will happen. But something will. Something always does.

The big story of July involved Texas and Oklahoma, who decided they weren’t making enough money — note: Texas has its own ESPN-backed network — and bolted to the conference that advertises itself as the only one that matters. The SEC has (or had) a longstanding policy, though nothing in college football stands for long, of not taking new members from any state in which it already had a base. (Meaning: No Clemson because of South Carolina, no Florida State/Miami because of Florida.) Texas A&M harrumphed for five minutes but, as happens when bigger money is involved, agreed to welcome the much-loathed Longhorns into the ever-expanding fold.

The remainder of the Big 12 has been left to stand on its remaining merits, which don’t amount to much. In football, Oklahoma State is now the conference’s bell cow, which says it all. The Big 12, which has had trouble enough sending a team to the College Football Playoff, is eyeing a future where its big payoff is the Cheez-It Bowl. The Big 12 must merge with somebody, though it’s hard to imagine the Big Ten opting to open its arms to the likes of Iowa State and West Virginia when the Pac-12 can offer USC, UCLA, Stanford, Oregon and Washington.

As for the ACC: At the highest level, the 14-team football league — it’s a 15-team league in all other sports — has managed to hold its own. Clemson has become, at worst, the nation’s second-best program. Trouble is, ACC football begins and ends with the crew from Pickens County, S.C. The ACC needs Notre Dame to stop its hedging and report for full-time duty. (Contractually, the Irish are obliged to join the ACC if they join any league.) Then what?

An SEC/ACC merger? A 31-team league? (They’d need a month for Media Days.) Would the Big Ten and Pac-12 and what’s left of the Big 12, seek to wedge their way into this vast assemblage, creating what some see as inevitable — a super-conference that answers only to itself? Remember, the Power 5 already refer to themselves as “autonomous.”

The playoff is about to expand, probably to 12 teams. The CFP is not run by the NCAA. Mark Emmert, the NCAA chief who seems hell-bent on destroying his own organization, has said he wants his operation to recede from the managerial side of college sports, which is essentially the only reason the NCAA exists. After saying forever that it didn’t want student-athletes to be paid, state laws have allowed players to sell the rights to their names/images/likenesses.

The dominoes falling from the defections of Texas and Oklahoma could well topple the NCAA itself. If the big conferences choose to become one mega-conference with various divisions, that entity could seize control everything, from the running of the Final Four to rule enforcement, though if you let the conferences police themselves, there mightn’t be any rules. Which might lead to chaos.

Let’s be honest, though: College football has always catered to the chaotic. Progress has been a function of frenzied reaction, as opposed to thoughtful action. If the SEC hadn’t admitted South Carolina and Arkansas and adopted a championship game, there’d have been no bowl coalition, no BCS, no CFP. If the Big Ten hadn’t poached Nebraska, other leagues wouldn’t have realized how vulnerable they were. If the ACC hadn’t nearly doubled in size, it might be headed the way of the Big 12.

If we cringe at the thought of conferences, which are in it for themselves, being left to chart the future of college football, be advised that it has ever been thus. The NCAA washed its hands of the sport long ago. What began with Texas and Oklahoma getting antsy over their bank accounts might leave us without an NCAA, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing.