Mon Jun 14 10:20pm EDT
Well, that was fun. But after the Pac-10's attempt to poach Texas and several of the Big 12's other most valuable properties was foiled today at the 11th hour, it turns out nothing really happened – at least not to the extent anyone had been led to expect over the last 10 days. The expansion mania that gripped college football since news broke of the imminent Pac-10 invasion appears to be rapidly subsiding after a grand sum of three actual defections: Colorado to the Pac-10, Nebraska to the Big Ten and Boise State to the Mountain West.
There is a very high likelihood that the Pac-10, having missed in its valiant attempt to assemble a 16-team juggernaut, will settle for adding Utah as its 12th member in the next few days. Otherwise, we settle in on a landscape that somehow managed to escape the seismic shifts that seemed inevitable 48 hours ago.
I don't want to suggest that we actually learned anything in the big picture, other than reinforcing that, at the end of the day, people with skin in the game are basically terrified of the big change if they can salvage any palatable part of the status quo. We come away with a handful of smaller insights, though, that put the episode into perspective:
• Don't mess with Texas. The Longhorn brass probably didn't have any grand, overarching scheme to orchestrate this particular result – by all appearances, they really were set to embark for the Pac-10 – but never has Texas' total ownership of the conference been more obvious. Oklahoma latched itself to UT's ankle; Texas A&M wasn't willing to follow through on the brief independent streak it displayed in its flirtation with the SEC; and the one team that didn't seem willing to yield to the Longhorns, Nebraska, was leveraged into bailing out of the conference. If initial reports got the numbers right on the television deal that apparently saved the day, Texas emerges from the scare with elite, Big Ten/SEC money coming its way, the freedom to begin an all-Texas network and the certainty that it can continue to have its way in the revamped Big 12 with close to total impunity.
• Dan Beebe has some game. Twenty-four hours ago, the Big 12 commissioner was a dead man walking, caught flatfooted by the Pac-10's aggressive bid for half of his conference and helpless to prevent the rest from being scavenged in all directions. The initial effects of his "process" to save the Big 12 resulted in Colorado and Nebraska fleeing in opposite directions, all but guaranteeing the Texas/Oklahoma contingent would take their act to the West Coast. His ability to deliver a viable TV package even as opportunistic Pac-10 commish Larry Scott was hand-delivering invitations to selective targets over the weekend . The Big 12 is a weaker conference without Nebraska, but if Beebe delivers the numbers being thrown around in reports with his back against the wall, just ensuring a viable conference to come back to could go down one of the most clutch performances the sport has seen in ages.
• Everyone comes out more or less ahead... Texas gets the big television payday it wanted and the shot at a profitable network it doesn't have to share with anyone. Nebraska and Colorado both move into conferences they consider better academic and cultural fits. Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Missouri and, yes, Baylor hold on to their spots in a big-money conference and aren't forced to seek refuge in the Mountain West, Conference USA or Big East. The Big Ten and Pac-10 (assuming it makes a play for Utah out of the Mountain West) both pick up a 12th member that facilitates a conference championship game. Assuming the Big Ten is content at an even dozen – Missouri is presumably locked into the Big 12 for the foreseeable future, and Notre Dame remains by all appearances firmly committed to independence – the once doomed Big East will remain intact without losing a single member. Even if it loses Utah, the Mountain West picks up the slack with the addition of Boise State, a net boost (albeit a small one) in the MWC's bid for an automatic BCS bid in 2012.
The Pac-10 ultimately whiffed on the blockbuster score it was hoping for, but it did expand in exactly the (relatively modest) fashion everyone expected when it first announced its plan to add teams. No one is in worse position as the smoke begins to clear than they were when the fires started burning.
• ... well, except maybe the networks. It's hard to peg what, exactly, about the ten-team Big 12 that makes it so much more valuable to television than it was with 12 teams, or why Fox and/or ABC/ESPN was so eager not only to pony up to save the league in reduced form, but to sign up for a whopping 18-year commitment. The Big 12 gets the payout either way, but even with two fewer schools to split the profits, revenue will have to increase from current projections of somewhere around $100 million a year to $170 million to meet the numbers Beebe is reportedly promising – and that's without one of the league's major TV draws in Nebraska or, it appears, a conference championship game. If the subsequent ratings bump isn't there, it could be a money loser for the network.
• The "super conference" is still a pipe dream – for now. Cal chancellor Robert Birgeneau wasn't kidding when he projected a push that would "revolutionize college sports" out Pac-10 meeting two weeks ago. The Pac-10's push for a 16-team colossus that encompassed the entire western half of the country was an ambitious, long-term vision for what the sport is going to look like for the next 50 years, and who knows how close it actually came to becoming a reality. Had Larry Scott's Napoleon routine succeeded, the SEC and Big Ten may have felt compelled to make much stronger plays to maintain their positions of strength, and the entire national landscape may have really been throw into a revolutionary upheaval that worked itself out in some completely novel, unrecognizable way.
The dominoes didn't go down like that, but to pretend they didn't come very, very close – or especially that the time won't come again for one of the heavy hitters to make a play at forging something bigger – is to miss the fundamental point of the entire episode: No matter how big the money gets, there's always someone for whom the status quo isn't paying enough to sit still.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.