If you thought expansion talk had reached its zenith five years ago, when NIU was seriously being considered for membership in the Big 12 Conference, Wednesday showed that the cultural appetite for college football hasn’t gone away. If anything, it’s only gotten more outrageous.
The news was a bit inescapable on Wednesday, as both the Big 12 and the Southeastern Conference, who had either recently or were currently conducting their respective media days, were both caught off-guard by a report from the Houston Chronicle that the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners were committed to abandoning the league they helped to create and leave for the SEC.
The implications are massive; such a move would almost assuredly spell the collapse of the Big 12 as a power conference (or at the least, water it down to a shell of its former self) and solidify the SEC as the golden standard for college football, both on-field and in marketing.
Already, the college football world has flown a bit off-the-handle on the idea, creating hypothetical conference schedules and structures and determining how the dominoes will fall in EXPANSIONPALOOZA 3: THE THIRD ONE. (Admittedly, there was a time where we also had the appetite for such content once upon a time. Multiple times, in fact.) Much like in the previous EXPANSIONPALOOZAS, the landscape has changed dramatically in a short amount of time.
The biggest difference between this go-around and the one which dominated conversation in 2016, however, is the urgency of the College Football Playoff and its freezing effect on any rational, non-branding conversation. For the first time, expansion is dangerous to the long-term health of fostering the game.
All the implications of what Texas and Oklahoma are proposing to do— even if it doesn’t get approved by the other members of the SEC— will have ripples, consciously or unconsciously, on the future of college football. The guise that these moves were being done to enhance the profile of the conferences on the field, already a flimsy premise in practice, is all but gone in the latest negotiations. The moves being discussed now are blatantly about market share and shoring up as much money as possible.
The SEC Network, a subsidiary of ESPN, went straight to work in pushing the narrative, proposing a nine-game schedule and “pods” which would optimize TV schedules and geographical matchups which are conveniently attractive to televise to the various SECN markets.
That’s more or less the way it is in today’s day and age, where the Playoff, a mish-mash concoction of ESPN’s various fever dreams to run a sports league without outright owning it in order to fill out their Q3 content schedules, dictates much of the conversation about everything in college football.
From the kickoff of Week 0, the scheduled lulls of the on-field action are filled with the sounds of announcers ignoring the on-field action to promote their Playoff brackets, and discuss at length the week’s highlighted blueblood matchup. The action of multiple series per game go out the window for the sake of promoting something the teams on screen have no chance of ever attaining if you’re a Group of Five team, no matter how good they are.
Even with the proposed 12-team playoff, it will still be hard for any team in the G5 to be rightfully rewarded for a superb effort, with only one automatic qualifier. This overarching narrative is what makes the hypothetical move more gross; for all of the work G5 teams and commissioners have done to finally earn a place in the big dance, in comes teams with bigger brands to try and prevent other lesser-known teams from getting at larges, by virtue of playing in a bigger conference.
It’s all part of a bigger issue in college athletics in general, as the NCAA has been unable— or unwilling— to intercede in the top levels of their biggest money-making sport and stop member organizations from making decisions which are counter to the intended purpose of the organization they’re supposedly members of, for reasons which continue to evade explanation.
So what does this mean for the MAC? Well, honestly, nothing will happen in the short term.
Overall, the MAC is in a good place. They’re in a fertile recruiting ground, they have a recent TV extension in hand with both of their primary partners in hand, and their leadership is some of the most respected in the college athletic landscape, both on the field and in the boardrooms. Of their peer conferences, the MAC is the oldest and steadiest by far in terms of structure. Putting it plainly, it won’t be going anywhere any time soon.
However, the conference seems to be keenly aware that change is afoot, and made it known during MAC Media Days. Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher was unusually candid and straightforward about various issues plaguing the NCAA on Tuesday morning, from pointing out the lack of updated policies, to inconsistent applications of discipline and suspensions, to the postseason selection process for non-revenue sports, and even took the NCAA to task for dragging its feet on name-and-license issues, which he called “unacceptable” and “a failure.”
Steinbrecher remained hopeful in his comments that the NCAA will work things out on the majority of these issues, but even that optimism was pouched in a certain cynicism, cautioning the NCAA that future choices may not be in their hands anymore.
It’s a reflection, ultimately, of a certain helplessness that G5 programs might be feeling at the moment, and that vulnerability was out in full effect on Tuesday. For about as long as the FBS has existed as a concept, lower-level schools and higher-level schools have operated with a mutual respect towards one another. These gentleman’s agreements have allowed both sides to function and ensure the health of the sport for decades prior to the introduction of the Playoff, most commonly by scheduling pay games.
The Playoff, and its over-reliance on creating a show, has threatened this ecosystem, and at some point, whether that be now or 10 years in the future, this will have an unavoidable conflict between the growth of the game and the growth of the brand. Once it gets to that point, it may be impossible for a lot of Group of Five schools to function as they currently do— and many are already walking a tightrope just to be in the running.
Our friends at Underdog Dynasty summed up three potential scenarios which could happen in the case of a Big 12 collapse, and it’s a good look into the potential future of the NCAA, should this Texas/Oklahoma move be approved.
The first two scenarios, on their surface, don’t affect the MAC directly.
It’s unlikely that any MAC team would be considered as an expansion candidate (sorry, Buffalo and NIU), and the MAC has not indicated they would be willing to take on additional teams after the disaster that was the UCF, Temple and UMass affiliate experiments.
But it’s the third scenario that the MAC, and other G5 conferences, should be afraid of: the collapse of the Big 12.
A wholesale collapse— and aggressive expansion as a result— would spell trouble for the MAC and their peer institutions, as it would become a life-or-death negotiation to swing schools from one conference to another. The sudden emergence of eight Power Five programs for sale could open up the gates for the advent of the super-conference, which would greatly alter the landscape of the league.
Even if the MAC isn’t a player in said negotiations, they’ll be severely affected, especially if those super-conferences, which would be made up of mostly current Power Five schools, declared autonomy, leaving the rest of the NCAA members high and dry in terms of money, brand exposure and resource availability.
I don’t meant to spell gloom and doom in discussing all this, but the reality has to be faced that even this hypothetical move spells out a risky, uncertain future for the conference—and sports— we love so much. Looking at it critically now allows for us to process the possible moves for the future, and plan out ahead of time for the long-term effects.
There are also routes where the overall landscape does change, but only in minor fashion, in which case, the MAC would be fine and it would be business as usual.
The path forward will be a tenuous one, and it will be something to keep an eye on as the situation with the SEC and Big 12 develops over time. It’s now, in the spectre of potential, league-altering change, that we should take the chance to appreciate #MACtion for what it is, and relish it for the imperfect, chaotic gem that it is.
As long as the Best Little Conference in the Midwest is around to show the rest of the country the spirit of the underdog, and those who care about it come out to support those who wear their favorite teams’ colors, the MAC will be in good hands.