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June 18, 2010

Mailbag: What does the future hold for the Big 12?

Offseasons come and go and usually are forgotten.

In most years, the months of February through August are spent monitoring the number of players injured, the number arrested and the number of volatile quotes from LSU coach Les Miles.

But the offseason of 2010 is different.

Sure, there have been familiar story lines about arrests, suspensions, dismissals and transfers. There have been atypical tragedies, such as the deaths of Notre Dame recruit Matt James and Florida International player Kendall Berry. And there were the NCAA sanctions placed on USC.

Yet, for good or bad, the 2010 offseason will be remembered as the year of conference expansion, when the landscape of college football came close to changing forever.

The Big 12 almost collapsed. Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State were close to joining the Pac-10, while Texas A&M was on the verge of joining the SEC. But at the last minute, that quintet opted to remain in a 10-team version of the Big 12.

The 11th-hour change of heart is a topic of discussion for this week's mailbag.

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Better off?

What is your opinion on how the Big 12 stayed together and its future?
Elizabeth in Orlando

The deal with the Pac-10 was nearly signed and sealed until Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe, television execs and college football officials got together to put together a lucrative TV deal that saved the conference. It has been well-documented that the teams remaining in the Big 12 stand to get TV revenue similar to the sums received by SEC teams.

While it seemed inevitable the Big 12 would lose more than half of its members, Beebe was wheeling and dealing with ESPN/ABC, Fox, college football officials and others to come up with a deal that would entice Texas, Oklahoma and the others to stay together.

Texas, which also had drawn interest from the Big Ten and SEC, was the key. Had Texas opted to join the Pac-10, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech would have followed.

Texas agreed to stay in the Big 12 because Beebe's deal is supposed to increase the Longhorns' share of conference TV revenue to about $20 million (up from just over $10 million). Texas also will be allowed to launch its own network (estimated to bring in another $3 million to $5 million annually).

Ironically, numerous Big 12 members had grumbled about the league's uneven distribution of TV revenue, which most benefitted teams that made the most appearances, such as Texas. But when the league appeared on the verge of dying, which would have left the leftovers looking for a new home, they all of a sudden were OK with the uneven revenue division.

Obviously, Texas made out like a bandit by staying in the Big 12. Still, there are some drawbacks.

The Big 12 is a weaker conference without Nebraska, one of its highest-profile teams. It also loses Denver, the league's largest TV market outside the state of Texas, with the defection of Colorado to the Pac-10.

Some are saying Texas and Oklahoma now have an easier road to the BCS because beginning in 20011, there will be no Big 12 championship game. Alas, that kind of thinking is partly what is wrong with college football. Shouldn't winning a national championship be more about fielding the best team rather than having the fewest obstacles?

Besides, the easier road to the BCS isn't necessarily accurate. The Big 12 now has only two elite programs (Texas and Oklahoma). Unless they're undefeated, they may have difficulty being ranked high enough in the BCS standings to get into the championship game. Teams with perceived weak schedules are at risk of being left out.

That hurt Texas in '08. Texas and Oklahoma had identical 11-1 records and the Longhorns beat the Sooners. But OU was ranked higher in the BCS standings (and thus was chosen to play Missouri in the Big 12 championship game) and a major factor in OU being ranked ahead of Texas was its strength of schedule. OU had played Cincinnati and TCU, which combined to post 22 victories that season. Texas' strongest non-conference opponent was Arkansas, which finished 5-7.

With a 10-team Big 12, the Longhorns must dramatically upgrade their non-conference schedule (and upcoming series against UCLA, Ole Miss and Minnesota probably won't cut it.)

In addition, if voting is close, a team that won a conference championship game frequently has an advantage over one that doesn't. That was clear in 2008, when USC went 12-1 but was passed over in the BCS standings by Oklahoma and Florida. The Sooners and Gators each had a loss, but each won a conference championship game. The Pac-10 didn't have a championship game, so USC didn't get that last chance to impress BCS voters. The champion of the new Big 12 (whatever it may be called) won't have that chance, either.

Maybe it's just my way of looking at things, but playing in a weaker conference doesn't necessarily enhance national championship prospects.

Nothing's changed

My question: With all the realignment talk, what do you think will happen to the four smaller FBS conferences (C-USA, Mid-American, Sun Belt and the WAC)?
Darrin in Starke, Fla.

For the most part, the answer is there will be minimal impact on those conferences.

Sure, the WAC will lose Boise State, but one of its remaining teams still will have a chance to reach a BCS bowl if it goes undefeated and along the way beats an opponent or two from a major conference. The New Orleans Bowl still will be there for the Sun Belt champion. The Little Caesar's Bowl still will be there for the MAC champ. Conference USA still will have six bowl tie-ins.

The decision of the remaining 10 teams in the Big 12 to remain united as a conference appears to have ended the flow of expansion.

Well, for now it has.

If the Big Ten opts to expand further, the SEC probably will respond. And it wouldn't come as any surprise if the Pac-10 again has discussions with Texas and Oklahoma schools.

Until then, life in the non-automatic qualifying conferences will go on pretty much as it always has. In fact, that probably wouldn't change unless the scenario of four or five 16-team "super conferences" ever becomes reality.

Even then, the leftover schools probably wouldn't be affected too much. They could schedule non-conference games against higher profile programs, just like they do now. They could still play in lesser bowl games. And perhaps a division would be created between what is now the FBS and the FCS.

Let's face it: Even though teams from those four conferences -- and the Mountain West -- technically are FBS members, they really have no chance to be in the national championship game. That has been proved year after year.

Double standard?

Some have complained that Michigan's sanctions are unfairly less severe than those the NCAA placed on USC. What do you think?
Sean in Bluffton, S.C.

First of all, the NCAA hasn't taken any action against Michigan. Michigan's sanctions, which include two years' probation, the elimination of two "quality control" coaches and 130 hours of reduced practice time over the next two years, are self-imposed.

But even when the NCAA acts, Michigan's transgressions pale in comparison to what USC was penalized for, so the sanctions Michigan face should be less severe.

Michigan violated NCAA rules limiting practice time. "Quality control" staffers allegedly overstepped their boundaries and at times were taking on roles and responsibilities of coaching staff members. Those are serious issues. But I'm among those who believe exceeding practice time is a rule commonly broken -- probably even at USC.

Now, I can agree that the NCAA penalties against USC (a two-year ban on postseason appearances and the loss of 30 scholarships over three years) are too severe if university officials had no knowledge of the Bush family's deal. Seriously, is the NCAA going to demand university compliance departments now monitor players' families as well as the players? If so, would that include extended families? What if an agent or booster funneled money or benefits through a cousin, an uncle, a grandfather or even a good friend? How much can a university compliance staff be expected to realistically keep track of?

Still, the NCAA charges that at USC running backs coach Todd McNair was aware that Bush was receiving illegal benefits and did nothing. Thus, USC can't claim ignorance in the matter nor mount a strong argument against "a lack of institutional control."

Michigan deserves to face penalties, perhaps more than it has self-imposed. But the Wolverines shouldn't get anything close to what USC received.

Badger blues

Every season, it seems as if Wisconsin returns talent on both sides of the ball and is rated as a team with a legitimate shot at a Big Ten title. Every season, the Badgers fall short. Is the season they finally put it all together?
Kevin in Madison, Wis.

Come on, Kevin. "Every year" Wisconsin falls short? You make the Badgers sound like Clemson or California.

Yes, it has been a while since the Badgers won a Big Ten championship (1999), although they did go 12-1 in '06. That year the Badgers finished second to Ohio State, and my guess is that will happen again this season.

Still, the Badgers, along with the Buckeyes and Iowa, are strong contenders to win the Big Ten. Wisconsin returns eight offensive and six defensive starters from a team that had 10 victories in '09.

Of course, Wisconsin appeared similarly loaded in '08, only to stumble to a 7-6 finish. That season, the Badgers had questions at quarterback. This season, the Badgers are in good hands with Scott Tolzien directing an offense that also features one of the nation's best offensive linemen (tackle Gabe Carimi) and running backs (John Clay).

There is some concern at cornerback and an adequate replacement must be found for departed defensive end O'Brien Schofield, but if those areas are shored up the Badgers could be even better than last season.

That doesn't mean they will be good enough to beat Ohio State. But the Buckeyes must travel to Madison this season, so the Badgers have that going for them.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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