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College football realignment tracker: Biggest questions and next steps for each conference

Texas and Oklahoma have officially notified the SEC they’re seeking “an invitation for membership” beginning July 1, 2025. This comes after the two schools notified the Big 12 they did not intend to extend their grant of rights media agreement, which ends one day before on June 30, 2025.

The announcement has been sending shock waves throughout all of college football since the news first broke late last week.

What’s next for conference realignment? ESPN reporters answer key questions for each conference and what the next steps might be for each.

Jump to: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC | Notre Dame | AAC

ACC

There’s genuine trust that new commissioner Jim Phillips is the right man for the job, and at least for now, the power players are saying the right things (or nothing at all) about sticking together. The league’s grant of rights deal runs through 2036, so unless the ACC feels generous in making accommodations, it would be incredibly difficult for any team to absorb the financial hit of departing for the SEC or Big Ten. The question then becomes how the ACC can remain competitive with its regional rival in the SEC when that league might ultimately double the ACC’s TV contract while enjoying the immense recruiting advantage of being seen as, essentially, a mini-NFL. Worse, if realignment turns into a land war between the SEC and Big Ten, it would be nearly impossible for the ACC not to be caught in the middle.

The ACC was already thinking about ways to get out of an increasingly bad TV deal that runs through 2036, with expansion the best option. Several league administrators said they thought Texas and Oklahoma could be a good play down the road, but the SEC struck first. Now the list of programs that could genuinely change the economic landscape for the league is likely down to one: Notre Dame. The league certainly would consider additional options, including Cincinnati, UCF and West Virginia, or work out the framework of a partnership with the equally challenged Pac-12, but none of those would make a sizable dent in the larger problem, which is an annual per-school revenue deficit, compared with the SEC, that could now reach upward of $30 million.

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Jay Bilas implores ACC commissioner Jim Phillips to approach the SEC about a merger because of the natural rivalries both conferences have.

Phillips is the calming force for now. He has preached patience with league members, and until another domino falls, that message appears to be resonating. Of course, no one wants to be the last school standing when the music stops, and for football power players such as Clemson, Miami and Florida State, there’s reason to be concerned about how the new-look SEC might change the revenue and recruiting dynamics. Meanwhile, schools such as North Carolina, Virginia and Pitt could all have value in a Big Ten expansion, too. Would any of them actually start taking a move seriously? For now, no. But as Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said when acknowledging the departure of Texas and Oklahoma, the reality of college football is changing rapidly.

— Andrea Adelson and David Hale

Big 12

The Big 12 once again has found itself on the wrong end of realignment discussions. After losing Colorado, Nebraska, Texas A&M and Missouri, Texas and Oklahoma are now on the way out. The loss of the last two historical powers from the league’s roster will significantly weaken its appeal in upcoming rights negotiations, after the league was already rebuffed on extension talks while the two were still in the league.

The Big 12’s only hope is to be aggressive in expansion in order to preserve its Autonomy 5 status. But the next move could end up being a tug-of-war between the Big 12 and the American Athletic Conference on which league can pry teams from each other. In a growing concern about attendance among administrators, there’s a case that Houston and SMU would love to have a chance to play Baylor, Texas Tech and TCU again. It will, as usual, likely come down to money — would an AAC school want to pay an exit fee to go to a weakened Big 12 facing a next TV contract that is going to be drastically reduced? Would a Big 12 school want to jump to the AAC, which already has a footprint in nine states? The key will be whether the Big 12 schools — few of which are talking right now — can stick together.

— Dave Wilson

Big Ten

The Big Ten sparked the last major round of realignment in 2010. Buoyed by the success of the Big Ten Network, commissioner Jim Delany and the nation’s oldest conference led from the front and ultimately continued to rake in revenue. This time, the Big Ten finds itself in a different, murkier position. Despite only one consistent CFP contender — Ohio State — the Big Ten can hold its own with the SEC in terms of revenue — at least for now — and doesn’t need to make moves out of desperation. But there’s some concern around the league, especially surrounding commissioner Kevin Warren’s ability to push things forward and make moves for the future — as SEC commissioner Greg Sankey clearly has done. “My focus is to make sure that we’re prepared for what happens three, five, seven, 10 years from now,” Warren recently said to ESPN. Can he follow through on that pledge?

There’s some angst within the league about Warren, who had a rough first year as commissioner during the COVID-19 pandemic, and he must repair trust in certain corners of the league. Schools wonder whether he will lead from the front as Delany often did, and put the conference on the strongest path, even if that means staying at 14 members. But the Big Ten’s media rights agreement expires in 2023, and a bold approach with realignment could pay off significantly. One possibility is making another run at Notre Dame, the school Delany couldn’t add despite his best efforts. Warren, who has a Notre Dame law degree, and other key people around the Big Ten — new football consultant Barry Alvarez, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour — have ties to the school. Another aggressive route would be poaching the Pac-12 for attractive programs such as USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington. This would be a painful strategy, as the two leagues are extremely close and have the shared Rose Bowl relationship, but the Big Ten would command even more revenue with a consistent West Coast football presence.

The Big Ten should not counter the SEC’s splashy move by adding schools just for the sake of adding. Sources say Big Ten presidents remain somewhat picky about candidates, and they would strongly prefer those with similar academic profiles and, ideally, membership in the Association of American Universities. Iowa State and Kansas are AAU members with some pluses on their profiles, but neither would make an obvious dent in what the SEC is building. Warren has reached another critical moment in his short but turbulent tenure, and the entire conference is watching. The onus is really on him since nearly half the league has newer presidents or chancellors.

“How do we make the Big Ten lead again?” a league source asked Tuesday. The next few months likely will shape the answer.

— Adam Rittenberg

Pac-12

If the Pac-12 were to entertain expansion, a number of factors make it hard to assess who might qualify as worthy candidates. Would the preference be programs within the geographic footprint (Boise State, San Diego State, BYU, etc.), or would they try to scoop up current Big 12 teams potentially looking for a new home (Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, etc.)? There aren’t any schools that are obvious choices the way Utah and Colorado were the last time around. There are many reasons (whether it be academic, cultural or religious) some of the more attractive schools in the region from a football standpoint don’t come off like a good fit. In this era, though, does that even matter? It likely will on some level. It’s hard to imagine a world where the Pac-12 would open its doors to Baylor, for example.

Instead of expansion, it makes more sense for the Pac-12 to enter into some kind of alliance with the Big Ten. The conferences have shared a strong bond for generations through the Rose Bowl, and it seems like a natural way for both conferences to move forward as the landscape changes. How would that look? Not sure. But if there were a mandate for a certain number of nonconference games between the two, that could make sense. One of the good things that came from the 2020 season was the concept of plus-one games at the end of the year, which both the Pac-12 and Big Ten implemented. A structure where there are possibly two rounds of additional games would be intriguing. The first round would run as the conference championship game, and in the second the Pac-12 champ could play the Big Ten champ with a bunch of nonconference games (runners-up play each other and so on down the list). There could be unintended playoff ramifications with something like that, but it feels like a way to preserve what so many of us like about the sport as we move into a new era.

Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff’s first day on the job — and his first day working in college sports administration — was earlier this month. He has an impressive background in various roles within sports and entertainment and gives the Pac-12 reason to be optimistic about how it might adapt with the times.

— Kyle Bonagura

SEC

The Longhorns and Sooners formally requested to be considered for SEC membership on Tuesday, a day after informing the Big 12 that they won’t renew their grant of rights agreement with that league, which expires in 2025. SEC chancellors and presidents are scheduled to meet Thursday, but it’s unclear whether they will vote to extend invitations to Oklahoma and Texas. Clearly, all signs point to that happening in the near future, if not on Thursday. This is a deal that has been in the works for months, and Oklahoma and Texas wouldn’t have taken these dramatic and sudden steps without assurances that they will be invited to join the SEC.

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Sam Acho is confident Texas and Oklahoma will have no problem being strong competitors in the SEC.

Although Texas A&M officials expressed displeasure about no longer being the only SEC team in the Lone Star State, there are too many competitive and financial benefits for the league not to add these two schools to what would become college football’s first superconference at 16 teams. The biggest question moving forward, obviously, is how soon the Longhorns and Sooners can begin competing in the SEC. Texas and OU both stated in a letter to the SEC that they intend to remain in the Big 12 through June 30, 2025, when the current Big 12 media rights deals end. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t find a way to leave before then. That could happen as early as 2022, according to sources, or they could ride out their remaining four years in the Big 12, as painful and inhospitable as they might be. Odds are that Oklahoma and Texas will work out a financial deal with the remaining eight Big 12 teams, which so far don’t seem willing to allow their two flagship schools to walk away without a fight.

Industry sources have indicated to ESPN that this might be only the first step in the SEC’s grand plan to create a true superconference, which a source said might include as many as 60 teams or as few as 32. If it’s a bigger number of schools, then the sport’s upper echelon would include four superconferences, and the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC would remain as stand-alone entities. If the Big 12 doesn’t survive, some of its teams would probably be absorbed by the remaining leagues, while others would fall to the AAC, Mountain West or other non-Power 5 conferences.

If a superconference with a smaller number of teams comes to fruition, it would include the best of the best from the existing Power 5 leagues plus Notre Dame. Not all of the teams in those leagues would be invited to join. The league would resemble the NFL’s structure, with two conferences and divisions, with the season ending with a 12-team playoff.

— Mark Schlabach

Notre Dame

Notre Dame has three key priorities, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the school’s thinking. First is a broadcast partner, and the Irish already have a home with NBC. The second is a league for its Olympic sports, and the ACC provides that through 2036. The last, and perhaps most significant, is access to the College Football Playoff. Under the proposed 12-team expansion, the Irish would still be in excellent position to make the playoff every year. But should that proposal not come to fruition, and the value of a conference championship then become greater, that could be the trigger that pushes the Irish to finally give up on independence.

Part of Notre Dame’s agreement with the ACC for its other sports is that, should the Irish ever want to join a conference in football, it must be the ACC. Of course, everything is negotiable, and for Notre Dame to truly consider conference affiliation, it’s likely huge amounts of money would be involved. Still, the default at the moment is the ACC, which has contractual ties, history with the program and the biggest need. At this point, however, nearly every administrator briefed on the situation believes Notre Dame’s priority is to stay right where it’s at.

— Hale

AAC

AAC commissioner Mike Aresco knows firsthand what it looks like to pick up the pieces after conference realignment. He was hired as Big East commissioner in 2012 in the midst of a massive realignment shake-up that ended up with the Big East no longer sponsoring football. Aresco took charge of the football-playing schools to lead the American Athletic Conference, which has been fighting for inclusion as a national player ever since. Now that another conference shake-up is happening, the American is determined not to let another expansion wave destroy this league, too.

But how realistic is that? Multiple sources indicated that the American feels it is in much better position than the Big East 10 years ago to perhaps be more aggressive in the current environment. The idea that the Big 12 would come and raid the American is predicated on two giant questions: Are the eight remaining teams staying in the Big 12? If yes, how much greater is the monetary value in a depleted Big 12 as compared with a school’s current home in the American?

Multiple sources have indicated that Texas and Oklahoma are worth up to 75% of the Big 12 television contract value. One conference insider said with those schools out of the mix, the question any team in the American is going to ask first to Big 12 commissioner Bowlsby is, “How does this benefit us financially?”

Ten years ago, it would have been a no-brainer for schools such as Cincinnati, USF and UCF to jump to the Big 12. They all pitched for a spot in the conference. But now? It remains unknown whether a move there is still, indeed, a no-brainer. If the ACC, Big Ten or Pac-12 came calling, the conversation obviously changes, and the American would be hard pressed to stave off those conferences from taking member schools. But the most imminent threat appears to be the Big 12, and there are far more questions than answers at this point. In fact, the American might have an easier time pitching its own selling points to Big 12 schools than at any point in its history.

— Adelson

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