Tue Jun 08 11:57am EDT
The Pac-10 is poised to strike and may begin issuing formal invitations to six members of the Big 12 as soon as this week. But it can't move until its primary target, Texas, calls time of death on the Big 12 and agrees to lead its orbits in the South Division to the West Coast. And the Longhorns likely aren't willing to give up on the Big 12 if Nebraska decides to remain in the North Division. But Nebraska can't decide until it knows whether it will be invited to join the Big Ten. And the Big Ten isn't issuing any invitations to anyone else until it's exhausted its efforts to sign the great white whale, Notre Dame.
The state of affairs, then, is gridlock, which will hold until either a) The rest of the Big 12 forces Nebraska and Missouri to make a commitment under threat of disbanding the conference, thus pushing Texas and Co. toward the Pac-10, or b) The Big Ten and Notre Dame conclude negotiations with a definitive answer of one kind or another – though, no matter what the answer is, it's almost certainly going to be one the independent-minded Irish aren't going to like (from OrangeBloods.com, emphasis added):
Meanwhile, an athletic director with knowledge of the Big Ten said "Notre Dame may now be on the clock" in its discussions with the Big Ten.
The Big Ten is apparently telling Notre Dame if the Irish turn down the invitation, the Big Ten could expand by five schools to go to 16. The fear on Notre Dame's part, and the reason officials are considering the bid carefully, is because officials fear four, 16-team conferences could emerge, and Notre Dame could be left out, sources said.
The Big Ten is apparently ready to grant Notre Dame's request that if the Irish decide to join the Big Ten that it be the only school added to the league.
In other words, the Irish can fully satisfy the Big Ten's appetite for expansion in one stroke by facilitating a conference championship game and a guaranteed national reach for the Big Ten Network. At the same time, it would instantly extinguish the fuse set to explode underneath the Big 12, scattering various pieces around the country in exactly the kind of chaotic upheaval Notre Dame desperately wants to avoid. With the Irish on board, the Big Ten could quietly inform Nebraska and Missouri to return their family, allowing Texas and its associates to reciprocate by rebuffing the Pac-10, reaffirming a shaky status quo at the expense of its precious independence.
The alleged deadline for that decision, according to plugged-in Orangebloods.com reporter Chip Brown (still the main driver of back-channel expansion news since breaking the Pac-10's impending move on the Big 12 last week), is June 15, the same day the sands run out on Nebraska's deadline for committing to the Big 12.
At least, that's one narrative. Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick had his own version for the New York Times on Monday night, in which these "negotiations" that have everyone on edge have not taken place, and apparently will not take place:
Swarbrick, however, said he had not been engaged in any discussions with the Big Ten.
"First of all, there haven’t been any sort of deliberations," he said. "Internally, we talk about this stuff all the time. We have not entered into discussions with anyone.
"The only thing we've done externally is try and work as closely as we can with the Big East and try and help them."
If Swarbrick is to be believed, the Big Ten will likely be snapping up Nebraska, Missouri and a Big East team or two in a matter of weeks, and the funeral dirges for the Big 12 may commence in earnest.
Obviously, Swarbrick probably can't be believed if he's suggesting Notre Dame would leave the ongoing viability of its ingrained independence to the tenuous power struggles of dozens of players from New Brunswick to San Francisco. From the beginning of the expansion wars, the Irish have viewed instability and wholesale realignment into an exclusive handful of monolithic super-conferences as a serious threat to their dearly held outsider status. Now, it seems the only way they can prevent instability and wholesale realignment into an exclusive handful of monolithic super-conferences is to sacrifice their dearly held outsider status.
If independence remains the top priority – and among Notre Dame fans, clearly it does – preserving it is going to require months of crossed fingers and held breaths as the dominoes fall. If they're still able to hold the line on independence after surveying a vastly restructured landscape at the end of the year, without conceding any of ND's current profitability, non-gridiron associations with the Big East or national relevance in terms of the big-money bowls, it will be as impressive a coup as anyone manages from the entire affair.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.