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Out of the frying pan and into… the Big 12?

West Virginia's departure from the crumbling Big East to the volatile Big 12 represents many programs' futile search for profit and stability in an ever-changing college football landscape.

With West Virginia’s move to the Big 12 becoming official Friday, the question needs to be asked: Are the Mountaineers any more secure in their new conference than they were in the Big East ?

The answer is no, but they, along with many other schools, are running out of options.

The Big East, as an automatically qualifying(AQ) football conference, is teetering on the edge of annihilation, but the situation in America’s heartland is hardly a safe haven for WVU. It may seem like a smart move on the surface, but West Virginia’s move is actually lateral at best and represents the plight of every program that is not currently in a stable power conference.

Here is a quick look at what has led to this constantly fluid situation in college football(Yes football, not basketball. Football drives athletic departments, and none of these decisions were made with any other sport in mind).

Since the Big Ten added Penn State in the early 90’s and the Big 8 merged with the Southwest Conference shortly thereafter, the tectonic plates of major conference athletics had been mostly stable.   Sure, the ACC made a power play, adding Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College from the Big East, but nobody seemed to be too fussed about it. But, it left the Big East weakened as an AQ football conference, and hinted at the changes to come.

Then came last June when the Big Ten dropped the first domino that would change the college football landscape. The midwestern conference added Big 12 power Nebraska, and had been in discussions with fellow Big 12 school Missouri. At the same time, the then-Pac 10 expanded to 12 by swiping Colorado from the Big 12 and adding Mountain West power Utah.

When Nebraska and Colorado left the Big 12, multiple reports surfaced that they were not pleased with the revenue split in the conference, which was not equal, and claimed that conference juggernaut Texas held far too much sway in conference decisions. Both schools found their way into equal revenue sharing conferences that seemed to be stable.

Nebraska is a historical power, so they were never in serious jeopardy, but Colorado and Utah lucked out.

Somehow, the Big 12 was able to survive without equal revenue sharing. It dropped to 10 schools, and Texas launched its “Longhorn Network,” much to the chagrin of rival Texas A&M. This led to A&M announcing they too would be leaving the Big 12, but for the SEC. It is almost a formality at this point that Missouri will follow them, pushing the SEC to 14 teams.

Earlier this year, the ACC once again raided the Big East, stealing two of the conference’s marquee schools, Pittsburgh and Syracuse. As it stands right now, there appear to only be four conferences that a school could feel comfortable in: The SEC, the Big Ten, the ACC and the Pac 12. The Big East was depleted enough with the loss of Pitt and ‘Cuse, but then soon-to-be member TCU accepted an invitation to join the Big 12.

This sets up a scary situation for the Big 12 and Big East. Clearly, WVU believes they are better off in the Big 12 since the Big East is now down to only five football programs with one(Connecticut) actively selling themselves to the ACC. It seems like the Big East is all but assured to lose its automatic qualifying status when the next BCS contract comes up in 2014, but the Big 12 is essentially a ticking time bomb.

The Longhorn Network and Texas have everyone in Big 12 country very nervous. With power programs Nebraska and Texas A&M now gone, Texas and Oklahoma hold all the cards. What if their television network generates enough revenue for the Longhorns to go independent, ala Notre Dame, and tell everyone else in the conference where to stick it? What if they decide they are better off in another conference? Also, will the extra revenue WVU is receiving make up for the cost of sending all of their non-revenue sports on 1,000 mile+ road trips to face schools in Texas and Oklahoma?

While the Big East is in dire straits, West Virginia could have been a power broker in rebuilding the conference. Had WVU overseen a new revenue splitting plan and helped bring in schools like Boise State, Houston, Memphis, Temple and Central Florida, the conference may have been able retain its AQ status while actually improving in basketball. But the truth is, even that is not a great situation.

Still, this is bigger than one program or one conference. As it stands, if you are not in one of those four lucky conferences, you are in a very precarious situation. Conference realignment, while exciting, has created an environment where if you are not a football power, you will struggle to compete at the highest level in any sport and be a profitable athletic department.

That is, of course, unless you were in one of these stable conferences to begin with. In that case, laugh your way to the bank.

If the Big 12 and Big East implode, storied basketball programs like Kansas, Connecticut and Louisville will be left out in the cold, while programs that offer little in any sport like Northwestern, Vanderbilt and Oregon State  will be raking in cash. What’s worse, if these “power conferences” pull away from the NCAA and set up their own post-season football and basketball championships, as many predict, it could put an end to any of those programs being relevant in basketball at all.

While West Virginia’s decision to join the Big 12 was shortsighted, it was also tragically predictable. In today’s college sports landscape, schools are forced into decisions that make little sense, just for a shot at survival. When the dust settles there will be many losers and few winners, and if you aren’t in, you will be like West Virginia: Forced to choose between a currently bad situation and a potentially disastrous one.

It truly is out of the frying pan and into the fire.


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