Just about everyone in college football spent their Fourth of July weekend talking, texting and sitting through meetings about what will happen next in conference realignment and what, if anything, each school and league can do to either protect or maximize itself going forward.
What six months ago was a Power Five with a lucrative, fair playoff plan on the table is now a Big Two (Big Ten, SEC), with no postseason plan and just about everyone looking to find a path to survival.
Here, after speaking to dozens of sources, is what each league should reasonably do going forward. “Reasonably” is the operative word here, i.e. “adding Alabama” isn’t an option.
Also, understand this: The college football playoff format after 2026 is unknown. However, while in the past all 10 conferences and Notre Dame had to unanimously agree on the format, that is no longer the case.
The Big Ten and SEC can essentially create what they want and everyone else will have to go along. The power of the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 has been significantly reduced, if not eliminated. That $1 billion, 12-team, six-automatic-bid proposal that was rejected in January but looks like heaven now is unlikely to come back.
With that in mind …
Get a television deal done before membership is plucked away by other leagues.
The Pac-12 made that much clear with a Tuesday announcement that its board of directors had voted to authorize “the conference to immediately begin negotiations for its next media rights agreements.”
The Pac-12 is ripe for the picking. Every school would follow USC and UCLA in jumping to the Big Ten. Oregon and Washington have been particularly aggressive in reaching out.
The Big Ten isn’t in a rush though. It wants to figure out Notre Dame’s plans (the Irish will likely only join a conference if its access to the playoff is severely limited or eliminated).
The Big 12 would take the entire Pac-12, or almost the entire league, but has also focused on selling itself to Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah as a good and stable fit. Sure those schools could stick with the Pac-12, but it would do so knowing that Oregon, Washington, Stanford et al. would jump at first chance.
To buy time, the Pac-12 needs a media rights deal that locks the remaining 10 schools in for five, seven, 10 years.
It won’t be nearly as lucrative as it was with USC/UCLA — one estimate from Portland radio host and longtime columnist John Canzano had the Pac-12 deal dropping from an estimated $500 million per year to $300 million. Still, it would be something. If nothing else it would stop the bleeding.
For stability’s sake, maybe the league needs to add San Diego State, Boise State or UNLV, even if they don’t bring additional value. Or maybe it can just go back to being the Pac-10 and hope the next College Football Playoff still offers automatic bids.
This can still be a good league … if it can stick together.
In the days last summer after Oklahoma and Texas announced they were heading to the SEC, the remaining Big 12 schools scrambled looking for another conference that wanted them. No major one did. That group rejection served as a positive, however, by galvanizing the remaining eight schools.
Getting Oregon, Washington, et al. would be the best path, but just adding the foursome of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State would be huge. Those schools fit and while the Big 12 would still be well behind the eight ball in revenue and will have to wish for automatic playoff bids, the league would be stronger.
Get Notre Dame.
The Irish are the belle of the expansion ball. The Irish could likely join any conference. Big Ten membership is certainly on the table.
The likelihood of the Irish joining the ACC for all sports seems remote, but maybe it’s not impossible.
Notre Dame football has a five-game per year scheduling arrangement with the ACC and most of the school’s other teams are full ACC members through 2036. Notre Dame loves playing games in the Southeast, where the population, especially for recruits and future students, is growing at a far faster rate than the Midwest. It also offers games up and down the East Coast.
There’s a lot to like about the ACC, and the full addition of Notre Dame would allow for a reworking of its undervalued television deal with ESPN. Get the Irish and the ACC is in a far more lucrative and stable spot.
Of course, Notre Dame knows all of this, which is why it could easily prey on a desperate conference to ask for a disproportionate amount of revenue. The ACC would need to overpay for Notre Dame — or pay more than the Big Ten. It might need to guarantee $100 million per year to get them (among other concessions) and that might not make economic sense. It certainly wouldn’t make political sense.
Why would Clemson agree to pay more to Notre Dame when it deserves more of the pie now?
There aren’t a lot of good options for the ACC, which is hanging by its long running media rights deal and not a lot else.
Get Notre Dame.
The Irish add a lot of value. It would also strip NBC of its college football product and thus make that network even more desperate to bid for the remaining parts of the Big Ten television package.
The Big Ten once rejected Notre Dame, at least partially on anti-Catholic bias. It changed its tune decades ago, though, and the idea that the Irish have managed to flourish as independents right in the geographic heart of the league is a point of frustration.
The Big Ten can offer a huge media deal, stability, access to the playoff and as close to a national conference as available — including games on the East Coast and Los Angeles.
It is also full of elite academic institutions — with the addition of USC and UCLA, 15 of its 16 member schools are top 100 in the US News and World Report rankings (sorry Nebraska) and eight of the top 50.
The Irish aren’t looking to jump though. They cherish their independence and believe their ability to schedule nationally is the key to recruiting.
Consider that over the next four seasons, Notre Dame will play in 21 different states (plus a Navy game in Ireland). Then understand that since becoming head coach in December of 2021, Marcus Freeman has secured 26 commitments. Those recruits hail from 16 different states. Can you do that in a conference? It wouldn’t be easy.
Notre Dame’s chief fear is a playoff system that all but requires conference membership or is just a SEC/Big Ten affair. (The SEC might oppose such a thing because it doesn’t want to drive Notre Dame to the Big Ten).
If the Irish have access to the playoff, they likely stay independent. They can make up for the revenue disparity.
If Notre Dame is a no — or “not now” — then the Big Ten could expand to 20 and take over the West Coast by adding Washington, Oregon, Cal and Stanford. It’s uncertain if that would bring enough additional money though.
The Big Ten may be fine just sitting at 16 for now. This league is powerful. It made its big move and doesn’t need to add anything.
Unless it can get Notre Dame.
The Irish in the SEC? Yes, it sounds ridiculous and probably is. But if Notre Dame has to join a conference, why not the biggest and best? The idea of a SEC outpost on the Indiana/Michigan border would drive the Big Ten mad. And Notre Dame is the only value-add available out there for the SEC.
Sure, the Irish would have to agree to join a league with lesser academic schools than the Big Ten, but money can change thinking.
It’s far-fetched, to say the least. The SEC would probably be better off just making sure Notre Dame has a carve out of sorts for any future playoffs and thus keep it from the Big Ten. But at this point, it’s the only move that makes sense for the SEC until the ACC breaks up and Clemson, Miami, North Carolina, Florida State and Virginia become available.
Or it can just sit around and count its money and national championship rings.