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Tuesday, November 20, 2012
The realignment cycle's next spin

By Mark Schlabach
ESPN.com

A few weeks ago, I asked Alabama coach Nick Saban what he thought about college football's recent conference realignment, which altered the sport's landscape like never before.

Much to my surprise, Saban said he believed there needed to be only 60 to 70 FBS teams in four or five conferences, and they needed to play one other and no one else.

Basically, Saban admitted he's a proponent of superconferences and programs that are financially able to compete in big-time football, and to hell with everyone else.

Nick Saban
Nick Saban suggests college football could benefit from a centralized approach.

Was Saban being prophetic or were these simply the opinions of a college football elitist?

After Monday's surprising announcements that Maryland and Rutgers are joining the Big Ten, and leaving behind the ACC and Big East, respectively, I'm beginning to wonder if Saban won't end up being right in the end.

And it might happen sooner than we believe.

After all, if a $50 million exit fee won't prevent one of the ACC's founding members from leaving, what else will?

Was Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany's latest shrewd move just a reaction to the ACC and Notre Dame forming a part-time relationship in football, or was it the first domino to fall in another free-for-all in conference expansion and realignment?

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, one of the most powerful men in college sports, says he believes the ACC might be in imminent danger. He told Sports Illustrated on Monday that his league is "vulnerable right now, I'm concerned about our conference."

Krzyzewski also said he believed there "could still be some movement in our conference." The Terrapins and Scarlet Knights are expected to join the Big Ten in 2014. Which school might leave next?

Some of you scoffed when I suggested this summer that the new bowl agreement between the Big 12 and SEC, which will pit the champions or two other highly ranked teams from those leagues in the Sugar Bowl each season, was the first sign of real trouble for the ACC.

I didn't think the ACC would become extinct any time soon, but I thought it was a clear sign the ACC was no longer playing on the same field as the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC. The ACC hasn't been pushed to the Thanksgiving Day children's table like the Big East has, but there now seem to be four power conferences in college football. The Big Ten and Pac-12 have long been joined at the hip with the Rose Bowl. Now the Big 12 and SEC will share multimillion-dollar paychecks from the Sugar Bowl.

The ACC was left to pick up the scraps, and its champion will play Notre Dame or a Big Ten or SEC opponent in the Orange Bowl (if the ACC champion isn't included in the four-team playoff that starts in 2014).

On the surface, losing Maryland isn't a huge deal for the ACC. The Terrapins have won only one ACC championship in football since 1985 and have struggled mightily the past two seasons under new coach Randy Edsall. But when one of your seven founding member institutions walks away for a much bigger payday from the Big Ten -- and is willing to absorb a $50 million penalty to do it (thank you Under Armour) -- it's clear evidence of instability at the home office.

Give Delany credit: He was able to control the news cycle during a BCS national championship race after his league's teams were eliminated months ago. And I don't believe Delany will settle on 14 teams. He just added two more lucrative TV markets in Baltimore/Washington, D.C., and New Jersey/New York. Might he now decide to expand the Big Ten's footprint even more into the Southeast or farther West?

Georgia Tech, Kansas and North Carolina, which are members of the prestigious Association of American Universities, like every Big Ten member except Nebraska, might be the next targets on Delany's radar. Like most of the ACC's football teams, the Yellow Jackets and Tar Heels aren't exactly powerhouse programs, but neither were the Scarlet Knights or Terrapins.

And if Maryland is leaving, who's to say Clemson and Florida State won't start looking around again? The Seminoles and Tigers would be attractive options for the Big 12 if it decides to expand any further. If the Big Ten and SEC are now sitting at 14 teams, how long can the Big 12 really stay at 10 schools? Hopefully, after another round of realignment, we'll at least have conference names that reflect the leagues' actual number of schools.

Frank Beamer
Frank Beamer's Hokies could be a future realignment target.

Clemson and Florida State seem to be great cultural fits for the SEC, but current members such as Florida, Georgia and South Carolina might be hesitant to let those programs join their conference. If SEC commissioner Mike Slive wants to expand his league's footprint even more, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech might be the best options.

The trickle-down effect from Delany's latest power play is already beginning to surface. ESPN's Brett McMurphy reported Monday that Brigham Young, Boise State and San Diego State have contacted the Mountain West about rejoining the league. The Cougars became a football independent two years ago, and the Aztecs and Broncos are scheduled to join the Big East next season.

After the BCS commissioners and presidents agreed last week to award the highest-rated champion of the "Group of Five" leagues (Big East, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt) an automatic berth to an access bowl in the future playoff, the Broncos and Aztecs might find more stability in the Mountain West than the reeling Big East.

The Big East has been on life support since the ACC raided it for Pittsburgh and Syracuse last year, and after Texas Christian and West Virginia left for the Big 12. Now Connecticut or Louisville might be a target to replace Maryland in the ACC.

Of course, we'll have to wait to see how everything shakes out. But if we learned anything in the most recent round of realignment, it's that you can't believe anyone when hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake.