The National, 11/19/12: Carousel.

Rob Carr

The wheels of realignment are spinning again, and Jon explains why it's imperative for the Big 12 to get off the pot immediately.

Realignment's on us again with Maryland and, presumably, Rutgers moving to the Big Ten. On the surface, depending on which angle you approach this from, that move seems either brilliant or stupid. On the one hand, the Big Ten will assume this delivers the New York-to-DC corridor; on the other, it may not, and as far as adding football powerhouses it doesn't. Why might it not deliver? I've written before about how the general idea most people have of whether a team's worth adding financially is usually wrong. It's not about the size of your fanbase itself, but about the size of any media markets in which the team's fanbase is large enough to force the cable outlets to carry your content. Maryland does, in fact, provide this for the Baltimore and DC markets.

Rutgers, however, may not do so for New York. The idea that Rutgers owns New York is one borne of nothing more than geographical proximity. Located within a reasonable distance of the city, one would expect a school which commands an eight-digit media market to be able to pack an NFL-sized stadium. Rutgers doesn't even consistently sell out a 52,000 seat facility -- in fact, they have two sellouts at High Point Solutions Stadium... ever.

Still, here we are, with the Big Ten expanding to 14 teams alongside the SEC and ACC. The ACC is losing Maryland here, but will almost certainly move to snatch up Connecticut at this point to remain at 14. Meanwhile, the Big 12 is stuck at ten teams, hostage to the misguided notion that a conference championship game hurts the conference and that there aren't teams out there to add value to our contracts. Part of this also had to do with the dream of getting Notre Dame to join the fold in all sports, but that's now off the table.

The contract value point is probably valid. Of the potential candidates, only Florida State really had the potential to deliver a value great enough to warrant inclusion on solely financial grounds, and reports have leaked to suggest that even they didn't quite get there. The championship game issue, however, is a red herring -- and it also ties into other factors which, when looked at critically, make it obvious that the Big 12 needs to expand.

Not to 12 teams, but to 14.

When you look at the college football landscape, one thing now sticks out like a sore thumb: the SEC's impact on the polls is sort of ridiculous. You can't swing a dead cat without hitting someone kvetching about how the SEC is "overrated" and "overhyped", but here's the thing: they're not.

The SEC's model is a stroke of genius, especially now that they are at 14 teams. They finish the season with a bunch of ten-plus-win teams, ensuring that the following season will start with six or seven teams ranked in the top 25, and then they end that season with a bunch of ten-plus-win teams, so on, so forth. It's a vicious cycle which is enabled and perpetrated by one simple reality: the SEC schedule.

There's really only one way to get this across with clarity, so here come tables. First, a demonstration of what the records of the top six teams in each conference look like in a "perfect" scenario -- that is, a regular conference season in which the stars align, the big guns in the SEC miss each other cross-division, and the better team wins all games against the teams below them:

SEC Big 12
1 9-0 1 9-0
2 8-1 2 8-1
3 7-1 3 7-2
4 7-1 4 6-3
5 6-2 5 5-4
6 6-2 6 4-5

Now remember, this is just the conference schedule, with the SEC championship game figured in as well; to imagine the impact on voters and computers, you can generally just add four wins to each SEC team and three to each Big 12 team. You see the problem, DeLoss and Bob? It's entirely possible that the fifth-best team in the Big 12 could be just as talented and capable as the sixth-place team in the SEC, yet look two games worse... simply because of the schedule. That's ridiculous. I mean, yes, the round-robin is a good thing in a vacuum. There's no denying that. But when it results in the SEC appearing to be vastly overrated in comparison to the Big 12, you've stumbled into a very, very bad idea... one which has impacts far beyond just "whether or not Texas gets to play for a national title". In fact, it's an impact which could prevent a completely deserving Texas team from doing so in the future.

Okay, so that example is a best-case scenario which will almost never happen. Let's take a gander at a different scenario. We'll call that scenario "2011":

SEC Big 12
1 9-0 1 8-1
2 7-1 2 7-2
3 7-1 3 6-3
4 6-2 4 6-3
5 6-2 5 5-4
6 4-4 6 4-5

Here, there's a difference: the SEC only had 12 teams, not 14. With 12 teams, the SEC avoided three cross-divisional opponents; with 14, they avoid five, and the results are obvious. The gap wasn't nearly as harsh then as it is now. And now, here's the situation in 2012, assuming favorites win out:

SEC Big 12
1 7-1 1 8-1
2 7-1 2 8-1
3 7-1 3 5-4
4 6-2 4 5-4
5 6-2 5 5-4
6 6-2 6 4-5

Uh-huh. This is a problem, and it's got nothing to do with talent on the field. It has to do with structure. Just to drive the point home, here's one last theoretical which shows what things look like if this year's SEC had actually managed to avoid any cross-division conflicts between the top teams, compared to a slugfest Big 12 season:

SEC Big 12
1 8-1 1 8-1
2 7-2 2 8-1
3 7-1 3 8-1
4 7-1 4 5-4
5 7-1 5 5-4
6 7-1 6 5-4

This is where we're headed. You can look at the chances of winning the national title all day long, but the reality is this: the SEC always has that chance to sneak two one-loss teams into the title game as a direct result of their scheduling model, which almost always makes the SEC look like giant-killers because so many teams have ten wins at the end of the regular season. They might be, they might not be; that isn't the point at all. Again, I'm not making a value judgement on the SEC's talent level in any way, shape, or form here. I am not saying the system makes them overrated. I'm saying that no matter what the level of talent in the two leagues, the SEC is always going to look better when people look at the standings... because their model makes it nearly inevitable. Here's one last table, just to drive the point home:

SEC Big 12
1 8-1 1 8-1
2 7-1 2 7-1
3 6-2 3 7-2
4 6-2 4 5-3
5 6-3 5 5-3
6 5-3 6 4-4

Ladies and gentlemen, 2003. Funny how the two conferences have pretty similar records to one another in conference play among their top six then, isn't it? That's because back then they were playing almost the same schedule, the only difference being that the Big 12 rotated everyone while the SEC maintained traditional rivalries.

The Big 12 is only going to fall behind in perception if it maintains a 10-team format with a round-robin. This is inescapable. Worse, it's not just the SEC they're going to compare poorly against now; it's the Big Ten and ACC, too, and to a slightly lesser extent the Pac-12. That is going to do more to damage the Big 12's chances of landing teams in the playoffs than playing a conference championship game, and all the money in the world isn't going to mean a hill of beans a decade from now if we're not managing to sneak that second team in on occasion (or, worse, if we have a three-way one-loss tie atop the conference and all three teams get left out entirely). If we had a four team playoff right now, the SEC would have six teams in the discussion. The Big 12 would have one. And while the lack of a truly powerful #2 team in the Big 12 is responsible for the latter part of that problem, the fact that the SEC has six teams jockeying for position owes itself almost entirely to the genius of Mike Slive and the SEC presidents in setting their conference up in such a way that multiple teams look really, really good on paper.

It's not that the SEC is overrated. It's that the Big 12 structure absolutely begs for the Big 12 to be underrated. Bob Bowlsby, DeLoss Dodds... you need to address this right now. It doesn't even actually matter who the four teams you get are, although obviously you shouldn't be stupid about it. But the Big 12 must join the party and get to 14, or we're going to be left behind. Get to work.

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