Last summer, college football was gripped by the prospect of the Great Consolidation, a long-prophesied, money-driven upheaval that threatened to tear entire conferences asunder and reshuffle the landscape into a few, elite "superconferences" standing athwart the continent, gobbling up ever greater swatches of territory to feed their growing media behemoths. In the end, despite a few relatively minor tremors, the balance of power endured, for the very simple reason that Texas – at least for the time being – decided to preserve it.
In fact, the giant star at the center of the Big 12's solar system and the Pac-10's ambitious expansion plans sent out an entirely different kind of tremors this week – leading not to a grand merger, but toward spinning off as an entire solar system in and of itself. With $300 million partnership with ESPN for a first-of-its-kind, all-Longhorn television network, Texas not only justified its decision not to sign on to the Pac-10's plan for a conference-wide network based on the Big Ten model, but kicked off another round of questions about just how badly the Longhorns need the rest of the Big 12, anyway. This time, the buzz will be about the future of independence.
Texas downplayed that angle as a long-term result of its big announcement, and it would be a much harder sell if the first domino hadn't already fallen over the summer, when BYU ditched the Mountain West to strike out on its own. That move didn't generate earth-shaking headlines because BYU is, well, BYU. The Cougars had been stuck for five years in the Mountain West's hopelessly obscure television arrangement, which shunned the standard deal with ESPN for a pair of hard-to-find cable outlets, Versus and CBS College Sports, and the conference's even harder-to-find network, The mtn. They were immediately rewarded with an eight-year deal with ESPN to air every Cougar home game, and a six-game series with the other major independent, Notre Dame. Turns out there was a niche market for BYU football, which it successfully exploited while also increasing both the odds and profitability of landing in a BCS bowl.
That niche certainly doesn't exist for every program, which is why every longstanding independent save Notre Dame and the service academies started scrambling to latch onto the television contracts, bowl tie-ins and shared profits that came with conference membership 20 years ago; the Big East and Conference USA were effectively forged out of whole cloth in the '90s by relatively low-profile independents to create that niche in the cutthroat market that followed the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling against an NCAA-controlled television plan in 1984 and the rise of ESPN as a viable outlet for more games. For almost everyone, the conference umbrella provides leverage they could never command on their own.
BYU's bid for independence – universally hailed so far as a likely boon for the university – challenges that assumption for certain schools that aren't Notre Dame. And Texas' potential windfall outside of the conference media model, courtesy of a deal that includes one lopsided football game per year, at most, will be intently monitored by every heavyweight in the country. Two potential models by two very different schools, both pointing toward a devolution from conference dominance. If they succeed, it's hard to see from this vantage point how the ranks of both columns aren't going to grow at least a little.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.