Dissertation: Plans for the Little 8
What the remaining Big 12 Schools Can REALLY Do
Note: This is the first of a longer form dissertation on a topic here at LarryTheGM.com. In these types of dissertations, I will do an even deeper dive into a topic and often provide several alternatives and options. Please let me know what you think.
August 2021 - the month that changed college sports forever. Texas and Oklahoma are leaving the Big 12 and joining the SEC. In response, the Big 12 and Pac-12 commissioners met but nothing was decided. Reports are now out that the ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12 are in talks about alliances. What are the options for the remaining eight schools left in the Big 12 (aka the Little 8)?
We will work through the options from a best case to worst case scenario for the remaining members. For each of the scenarios, I will describe/ illustrate where the Big 12 schools would go and aspects that might make this scenario unique. I will also score the likelihood that scenario will happen.
The Go Big Plan (Big 12, Pac-12, AAC, MW with Promotion/ Relegation)
If the Big 12 schools want to change the very nature of college athletics they will convince the Pac-12 schools to implement The Go Big Plan. This plan will potentially reverse the course of the Pac-12 and Big 12 and elevate the programs of the AAC, Mountain West, and some independents.
This plan calls for a radical expansion of the Pac-12, and the Big 12 to become 14 team conferences and PARTNERING with the Mountain West and the AAC (as nine team conferences) in a two-tiered promotion and relegation model prevalent in European Soccer leagues. To accomplish this, four independent teams will be invited into this alliance. Notre Dame is not joining this but there are some independents that might.
Two of the Mountain West schools would be added to the Pac-12. Four of the AAC schools and two independents would be added to the remaining eight schools of the Big 12. What this might look like follows.
Part of the key here will be the scheduling and matchups this 46-team alliance can create. The Pac-12 and Big 12 schools will play five of their six other division members, two members of the other division, two members of the other power conference and two members of the other group conference (Pac-12 with MW and Big 12 with AAC) and one school outside of the alliance. The AAC and the MW schools will generally play six of the other eight conference members, two members of the other group conference and three or four (for one team) members of their partner power conference, and one school outside of the alliance (for eight of the nine teams.) Rivalries will be locked in when advantageous. The scheduling means these 46 teams will play a vast majority of their games within the alliance. The alliance will be able to package the games to a willing media partner.
What separates this alliance from any other in college sports is the structure to have one team from each power conference to relegated to its partner group conference and for one team to be promoted from each group conference to the partner power conference. This means the end of the season will bring the alliance teams massive attention as the intrigue of what school will be promoted from the AAC to the Big 12 and what school from the Mountain West will be promoted to the Pac-12. The two top teams in the AAC and the MW will play for promotion. Similarly, the relegation drama involving which Power Conference school will be sent down to its aligned Group Conference will be mid-December ratings gold for these alliance members. The two last place division teams in the Pac-12 and Big 12 fill face each other for the dishonor of relegation. The second week of December could be promotion/ relegation weekend.
The media revenue split with this promotion/ relegation model is a key here. A relegated team will lose 25% of their power program share each year they remain relegated. A promoted team will gain 25% of the power program share. If the media revenue split was $40M/yr for a power program in this alliance and $10M/yr for a group program in this alliance, then the relegated team receives $30M in year one of relegation, $20M in year two of relegation, and is on par with group members at $10M in year three of relegation. The promoted team receives $20M in year one of promotion, $30M in year two of promotion, and is on par with power members at $40M in year three of promotion.
This model attempts to make the Pac-12 and remaining Big 12 schools into a mini-division and somewhat self-contained from the rest of the college football world. This might not be the best for these schools. They could end up viewed as the AA level to the AAA level in the SEC and Big Ten. If these institutions are not prepared to spend the resources that the SEC universities are (and they don’t appear to be), this second-tier power conference status might happen anyway. One could argue that may already true today.
This media rights sharing model is why no school in the Pac-12 will buy into this plan. A Pac-12 school (and some of the Big 12 schools) are unlikely to want to face the performance pressure nor the funding uncertainty. Without promotion and the escalating model, there is little incentive for AAC nor MW schools to want to remain a permanent financial underclass in this alliance.
IF all these schools accepted their current tenuous state and bought into this scenario, this partnership might make all the schools richer. The tension of promotion and relegation that exists in English Soccer would be a media rights bonanza.
Grade for Big 12 Schools – A
Likelihood – <1%
The Pac Partner Plan (B12, P12)
Beyond the Go Big Plan, the next best option for the remaining eight schools in the Big 12 would be to form a twenty team super conference. We will call this the Pac Partner Plan. I would propose they align in four 5-team pods as shown below. Teams could play the four other teams in their pod, two teams in another pod, and one in the remaining two pods.
This might be a great scenario for the Big 12 schools. Perhaps this option is even better for some than the Go Big Plan. However, among these 20 teams in this super conference there are few that would be considered true college football “blue blood” programs. It is likely all the Pac-12 schools would lose media rights dollars in this format. Without an interesting hook like relegation and promotion, one must wonder what the appeal of this super conference would be.
As we stated in the beginning, there were talks between the Pac-12 and Big 12 commissioners and those were rapidly followed my Pac-12 alliance talks with the Big Ten and ACC. Perhaps, the Pac-12 officials reached the same conclusion. The most likely path for this to happen would involve the Pac-12 being shut out of other more financially attractive options. Since the alliance talks appear to be progressing, this 20-team super conference is highly unlikely.
Grade for Big 12 Schools – A-
Likelihood – 1%
The Pac Media Partner Plan (B12, P12)
The next option is more likely a media and scheduling agreement. This is not a conference realignment but a scheduling agreement. Perhaps a scheduling partnership for each of the twelve Pac-12 schools to play two Big 12 schools would be advantageous for both sides. The Big 12 schools in this scenario would each have three Pac-12 games.
One of the issues Pac-12 schools face is that their timing window for national exposure to their games is smaller than the other major conferences. A night game starting at 7:00PM PT is on too late for almost half of the country’s population to watch. A game starting at 12:00PM or 1:00PM PT is going against one of the top two SEC games of the week and many other games on the schedule. When Pac-12 teams travel east and play in early day games, those games can be at 9:00 or 10:00 AM PT.
A scheduling partnership for each of the twelve Pac-12 schools to play two Big 12 schools would allow the Pac 12 to have more exposure nationally to those games throughout the day. Perhaps, a Friday night Pac-12 / Big 12 challenge game would garner both conferences more attention.
This plan may not address the fundamental issue for the Big 12 remaining schools – that their conference will likely be viewed on par or only slightly above the Group 5 schools in competitiveness and prestige. As a group the eight Big 12 schools- sarcastically labeled here as the Little 8- would be far less competitive than the other major conferences. It is possible that a mediocre showing of the Pac-12 teams in these games would hurt the reputation of the Pac-12 more than it would help the Little 8 schools.
As mentioned previously there were talks of this type of media and scheduling alliance between the Pac-12 and Big 12 commissioners. The Pac-12 then went into similar talks with the Big Ten and ACC. It is far more likely that the Pac-12 would view the latter option as the better option.
Grade for Big 12 Schools – B-
Likelihood – 2%
The Big Tent Plan (B12, AAC)
If the group of the remaining Big 12 schools concludes that they need to have a better conference option and is frozen out of the previous options, what could they do?
The best-case scenario might be to partner with the AAC and BYU to form a new “Power” conference. This “Big 12 Big Tent Power” conference could be aligned as follows. The remaining schools in the AAC could be aligned in the AAC Big Tent Group Conference as follows.
These schools in general may lack prestige but this power conference would be as competitive as the Pac-12. This conference group would have had Cincinnati (8th), Iowa State (10th), BYU (16th), and Oklahoma State (21st) in the CFP final poll.
An agreement with the AAC could be reached to relegate the lowest ranked “Big 12 Big Tent” school under two scenarios. This would not be required for this to work but may enhance the AAC members wanting in.
AAC Big Tent Group Conference school is in the CFP (not likely)
1. The AAC Big Tent Group Conference CFP participant is promoted to the Big 12 Big Tent Power Conference the next year
2. The two lowest rated “Big Tent Power Conference” historical AAC schools play a relegation game with the loser relegated to the AAC Big Tent Group division the next year
No AAC Big Tent Group Conference school is in the CFP (more likely)
1. The lowest rated of the “Big Tent Power Conference” historical AAC school plays the top rated AAC Big Tent Group Conference school
2. The winner of the game is in the Big 12 Big Tent Power Conference and the loser is in the AAC Big Tent Group Conference the next season
I have assumed for this that the Little 8 teams- would be protected from this relegation system in order to protect them financially.
The problem this league will face is financial. The Little 8 members would face a serious reduction in their media rights. However, if the conference is competitive perhaps with time there will be more media interest. This still will not be the worst-case scenario and is one of the three most likely options.
Grade for Big 12 Schools – C-
Likelihood – 25%
The Breaking Up is Hard to Do Plan aka Survival of Fittest
The next scenario for the remaining Big 12 schools is for them to quickly assess that the previous more favorable scenarios are truly more unlikely than shown here. It becomes clear that any option for the eight to remain together is a financial doomsday for them. I expect the institutions to then start to act in their own interests. The BEST case under this survival of the fittest scenario is the following:
The Breaking Up is Hard to Do Plan will make it clear that this breakup will be even worse for some than others. IF this happened, it would be the best-case scenario for West Virginia, Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma St. and Texas Tech. It would be the one of the worst of all possibilities for the three other institutions not claimed by one of the Power Conferences (TCU, Kansas St., Baylor). Let’s go conference by conference to determine where each of the Little 8 could end up.
I expect that the ACC will soon make a full court press to have Notre Dame join their conference. If this happens expect West Virginia to try to angle itself in as a 16th member of the ACC. WVU will not be a media value proposition for many of the ACC members. Some teams have historical rivalries with the Mountaineers, so perhaps there is enough support to make this happen for them.
For illustration purposes I am showing the potential of Kansas and Iowa St. to go the Big Ten. This may be the least likely of all the realignment moves I show for this plan. There might be some value for Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska to add these institutions.
My conclusions here may not be popular. I suspect the Pac-12 would benefit the most financially by adding BYU (Utah would likely support their rival being added) and there might be interest in adding Boise St. for the schools in the Pacific Northwest. Of the Little 8 schools, I believe Pac-12 members would only have interest in Oklahoma St. and Texas Tech. I do not believe they will view TCU nor Baylor as a cultural fit and unlike BYU (also not a cultural fit), they would not make an accretive difference financially. The debate here may come down to Kansas St. or Boise St. I think the Pac-12 members would choose Boise. St.
In the Big Tent plan I added five members of the AAC and BYU to the eight remaining members of the Big 12. That conference would at least attempt to maintain a power conference standing. In this scenario, the last three former members of the Big 12 (Kansas St., TCU, Baylor) would have no other real option other than the AAC. It could be worse. The AAC might not want them all.
Grade for Big 12 Schools – A/D-
Likelihood – 15%
The Harsh Reality Plan
The next plan is the Harsh Reality Plan. I don’t believe that the power conferences would see a financial benefit to adding any of the Little 8. Given the state of the alliance talks between the ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12, they may be able address financial realities without realignment. The most likely of all scenarios is that the AAC strives to become the true big tent conference and adds all Little 8 members with Army. The new AAC would likely look something like this.
The former Big 12 members end up joining the larger AAC and are essentially relegated to the Group Conference level. The AAC will likely elevate even further beyond the other group conferences and as mentioned before this group of teams can be competitive in an expanded playoff scenario. Financially, these schools will be dividing a smaller media rights pool among 20 teams. For comparison the Big Tent plan above had 14 teams dividing what was more likely to be a larger media rights pool. This will be a harsh reality financially for these teams.
With these teams forming four 5-team pods, it is likely they would play their four other pod teams and two teams from another pod and one team from the remaining two pods. With only eight conference games in this set-up, I would expect the new AAC teams to seek all opportunities to play against the power conference teams.
I believe the scenario where most if not all the former Big 12 members join the AAC is the most likely. These schools may believe other options are more attractive but in almost all these scenarios the other institutions lose money to add members of the Little 8. In this scenario, the AAC probably more than doubles its media rights, and gets creative in scheduling games to increase the conference’s exposure.
This 20-team AAC could deploy a two-tiered model as well and build in some of the promotion/ relegation concepts to grow more attention to the better teams in the conference. In this scenario, I would expect this AAC to be very creative to differentiate it from the other Group Conferences.
Grade for Big 12 Schools – D-
Likelihood – 40%
The Ultimate Nightmare Plan
What if the AAC were not able to grow media rights to justify adding all eight former members of the Big 12? After being told no by the power conferences and we can’t take all of you by the AAC, then what? This is the Ultimate Nightmare Plan. To illustrate, it could look something like the following:
In the hierarchy of the Little 8 teams, I have made some guesses that the AAC would take Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas Tech, and choose Kansas State because they might be perceived to have more football interest. While the Kansas basketball program would be the crown jewel among the basketball teams, this is a football centric view. The Little 8 could even stay together as a basketball conference.
In this, CUSA is assumed to pick up West Virginia (a natural rival for member Marshall) and Baylor (joining a division with four other Texas schools including Rice.). I suspect Baylor may be in for the worst ride of all former Big 12 members. I am sure that will upset Baylor alums.
Also, the Mountain West is projected to claim Iowa State and Kansas. These schools would be a decent regional fit for the Mountain Division.
As bad as this scenario if for the former Big 12 members, it is FAR more likely than the more positive scenarios. The Little 8 members may soon realize how bad this nightmare really is.
Grade for Big 12 Schools – F
Likelihood – 17%
The worst scenarios for the Little 8 are far more likely than the best or even neutral scenarios. The harsh reality for these programs is that they garner little national interest and even less media value.
When one reads and understands these options, they develop a better understanding why Texas and Oklahoma needed to move to the SEC and seek a better but competitively more challenging future.
Which scenarios do you think are most likely? Please leave a comment.