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FIRST SUPER-CONFERENCE DOMINO FALLS
September 9, 2011

SCS.com Just when you thought the discussion would turn from off-field turmoil and realignment, Texas A&M threw a big hammer through the screen of stability and the focus on football by leaving the Big 12 and being accepted by the SEC by a unanimous vote that happened Wednesday (pending litigation). The SEC was the first major football conference to go to 12 teams successfully, and they will certainly battle to be successful as the first conference to go to 14 or 16 teams. With the Big 12 looking like it is on the verge of collapse with the big name programs looking west to the Pac-12, the dominoes will likely continue to fall to force the major football conferences to expand further to keep up with one another. Speculation is wild about how this will all go down, but I am here to put in my two cents on how the superconference era will shake out, at least until those superconference become fractured and undesirable.

Counting the pending addition of TCU to the Big East, the six automatic qualifying conferences currently number 67 teams total. Add Notre Dame to the list and there are 68 teams that currently are in full control of the BCS championship chase every season. Of the remaining teams in FBS football, probably only Houston, SMU, and Boise State have enough clout to be considered for additions to the "cartel" of top tier programs. Consdiering that there are some teams that could be left in the cold when realignment happens, it is pretty easy to see how four superconferences of 16 teams each (and one with 18 if that becomes necessary) would create a new upper tier for football. This is functionally no different than the current system, except that all the teams would be organized in 8 divisions or 4 conferences rather than six conferences. Once all of these changes are in place, the new superconferences could officially cut everyone else in FBS football from the national championship hunt by adopting a plus one playoff format so that only the four superconference champions qualify for the playoffs. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, a look at how the realignment should play out is in order.

The first and easiest domino to fall will be the power Big 12 quartet moving to the Pac-12 to make the Pac-16. More specifically, Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State stick together (while abandoning Baylor) and expand the Pac-16 footprint to nearly half of the country. The divisional lines set during the formation of the Pac-12 could be maintained so each division has ties to California, but I don't believe Oklahoma and Texas will be split from each other or their rivals. The Arizona schools are a natural fit, so the only question remaining is whether to put Utah/Colorado with the southeast division or USC/UCLA. Competitive balance will dictate that the Los Angeles teams cannot be lumped in with Oklahoma and Texas, so the new divisional alignments would be A: Colorado, Utah, Arizona State, Arizona, Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State; and B: USC, UCLA, California, Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington, Washington State.

The next conference to make a leap to 16 is the most powerful conference in America, the SEC. Texas A&M is already in, so now the conference only needs to add three teams. The SEC will not accept mediocrity, but it would not hurt the league to take some schools that are strong in basketball also to improve the league profile. Assuming that the SEC does not want to snipe from the ACC, that leaves Big East teams and the remaining Big 12 schools to pick from: Baylor, Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, TCU, and the other 8 Big East schools. TCU is ready to continue staying relevant in the BCS and makes a nice partner for Texas A&M, so the Horned Frogs get swallowed up. Of the remaining options, South Florida, Louisville, and West Virginia make the most sense from the Big East. Only two of those schools bring relevant basketball programs to go with their football programs, and Florida does not want to compete against any of the other Florida schools in conference play, so USF gets left off the dance card. Therefore, the SEC adds A&M, TCU, West Virginia, and Louisville. A&M and TCU go to the current west division with Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Mississippi State. West Virginia and Louisville join Kentucky, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and South Carolina in the east division.

The Big Ten would not want to be left out from picking the teams they want to add considering their longtime rivals to the west and south are now at 16. The big conundrum is whether Notre Dame stays with the Big East or jumps to the Big Ten. With the Big East only losing two teams to date, Notre Dame will want to keep their basketball rivalries going and will tie their fortunes to whatever happens to the Big East remainder. Thus, the Big Ten will have the five remaining Big 12 teams and any teams from the Big East or ACC to add. Although the Big Ten has long talked about jumping to the east coast with multiple schools, the reality is that the Big 12 remainders are the better fits overall. Iowa State and Baylor do not bring enough to the table and thus get left behind once more as Missouri, Kansas, and Kansas State join the Big Ten. For the final slot, Pittsburgh, virginia, and Maryland are the best choices. Pittsburgh fits best geographically, but Virginia makes more sense academically. Struggling to decide between these two, the Big Ten will pull a rabbit out of the hat and nab Virginia Tech instead to make a major splash on the east coast. Geography will win the day in the second division alignment as the Legends division gets Missouri, Kansas, and Kansas State to join Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Northwestern. The Leaders division will consist of Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, and Virginia Tech.

That leaves Baylor, Iowa State, Notre Dame, eleven teams in the ACC, and six teams in the Big East. A pure merger of the Big East and Notre Dame with the ACC will be 18 teams, which could happen, but the original Big East teams may turn their back on the Conference USA teams that filled in when the ACC raided them previously, especially considering Cincinnati and USF do not bring much to the table not already covered by the ACC. So the ACC adds Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Rutgers, Syracuse, and Notre Dame to form the final sixteen team ACC superconference. It will finally be time for geography to trump weird divisional alignments here as well, so a north division would include Notre Dame, Connecticut, Rutgers, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Boston College, Maryland and Virginia. The south division would be Florida State, Clemson, NC State, Duke, North Carolina, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, and Miami.

After all the dominoes fall, Baylor, Iowa State, Cincinnati, and South Florida will lose their dance cards to the BCS. However, it is possible that those teams will find their way back in if the superconference decide to continue expanding like the NCAA tournament (64 teams becomes 68 and so on). But for the time being, 64 teams would take the field every season with a division crown being the ultimate goal so that a national championship is possible with three wisn on the field. The bowl system would still be maintained and would keep ties between the new BCS division and the remainder of FBS football. Everything almost seems too perfect, and it probably is. But with the SEC now at 13 teams, the endgame seems inevitable for the superconference era. How the dominoes fall will be the major story of the sport for the next couple of years.

Although we usually hold the playoff comparison to the BCS system until late November, this hypothetical realignment is detailed enough to discuss what would happen. Based on current projections, the Pac-16 championship would be Stanford vs. Oklahoma, with Oklahoma winning the league. The SEC would come down to South Carolina vs. Alabama, with Alabama moving into the playoffs. The Big Ten division winners would be Wisconsin and Virginia Tech, with Wisconsin winning the league. The final conference championship in the ACC would be Florida State vs. Pittsburgh, with Florida State winning the crown. Then Florida State, Wisconsin, Alabama, and Oklahoma would duke it out in a Final four or plus one to remember. Nobody can deny the compelling nature of what may come of this era, but everyone must be on the same page, which will be hard to accomplish.

Back to the football. After a lackluster week 1 of picks, week 2 only offers one game between ranked teams. But that will not stop us from previewing three games of the week. The first game of the week is South Carolina at Georgia. Although many around the country will think this game has lost its luster thanks to Georgia's stumble against Boise State last weekend, the season could still be saved immediately if the Bulldogs take control of the SEC East race by beating the favorite Gamecocks. Georgia was pushed around on the line of scrimmage on offense and defense agaisnt Boise State, and the line play will need to take a big step of improvement to prevent even more domination from better line units at USC. When Georgia has the ball, watch for freshman DE Jadeveon Clowney to be highly disruptive and in the backfield chasing Georgia QB Aaron Murray all day. Murray will need to take advantage of a lot of single coverage caused by the need to cover Bulldogs TE Orson Charles (109 receiving yards and a touchdown in week 1). RB Isaiah Crowell had a poor opening week statistically but cannot be let into open spaces or he will explode through the Gamecocks defense. South Carolina struggled before QB Stephen Garcia came in the game last week, but Spurrier will have Garcia in right away this time and he should find success against the Bulldogs defense. Marcus Lattimore could dominate this game if Georgia's defensive line does not plug the holes from a week ago. Although all signs point towards a South Carolina win, the game is in Athens, the Bulldogs are cornered, and these games always seem to come down to less than a touchdown margins. Georgia keeps the game interesting into the fourth quarter, but then Murray makes a costly mistake that allows South Carolina to win by 10.

The second game of the week is the first night game at Michigan Stadium as Notre Dame visit Michigan. Some more ugly retro uniforms will be in force at this game, but nothing as atrocious as that Maryland or Georgia debacle from opening weekend. The past two seasons Michigan has won this showdown but both games have had fantastic finishes and both games have been decided by the skills of Denard Robinson. This year Brian Kelly will have his defense ready to stop the power running game of Robinson and RB Fitzgerald Touissant, leaving Robinson some openings to beat the Irish defense with his arm. Robinson does have all his recieving weapons back including Darryl Stonum and Roy Roundtree, who will be tough match ups for the Irish secondary. However, Robinson will have to get his receivers the balls in good situations, and that may be a dicey proposition, especially if the running game stumbles. Brian Kelly has decided that Tommy Rees will start the game this week, but he will likely use a quick hook for Dayne Crist once again if Rees struggles early. The Michigan defense was opportunistic against Western Michigan and will be licking its chops after watching the Irish turn the ball over five times in the opener. Michael Floyd has been a tough player to stop for the Michigan defense the past two years, and he could be posied for a breakout start after being the primary target of Tommy Rees last week. The Fighting Irish will also find some success running the ball with Cierre Wood, but the Irish will only win with a big day passing. Both teams will put up points as in previous years, but this time Notre Dame will come up with a big stop against Robinson instead of allowing him to steal the game. The Michigan fans go home unhappy from their first night game at home after Notre Dame wins by 4.

The third game of the week is Alabama at Penn State. Last year Alabama was supposed to win in Tuscaloosa, but nobody expected the dominant performance that the Crimson Tide would have against PSU. Just like last year, Joe Paterno cannot seem to make a decision as to whether Rob Bolden or Matt Mcgloin is the better quarterback. It probably does not help that neither one seems to separate from the other or play well when the opportunity arises, such as against Indiana State last week. Silas Redd surprisingly struggled to get the running game going last weekend until late in the game and will find the going even tougher against arguably the best defense in the country. Cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and Dee Milliner should be able to shut down Penn State's primary receivers, which means whoever is quarterback will need to find his tight ends or slot recievers regularly to make a dent against Alabama. Despite the dominating performance last season, Alabama only put up 24 points against the Nittany Lions, who are even better on defense this season. QB A.J. McCarron and his backups threw four interceptions against a weak Kent State defense and will not be able to afford similar mistakes in a hostile environment at State College. Crimson Tide RB Trent Richardson will need to do much better than the 37 yards he had a week ago to take the pressure off the young quarterbacks in their first tough road game. Penn State will play much better than a season ago, but Alabama will simply not surrender many points against a questionable Nittany Lions offense. Thus, Alabama wins a defensive showdown by 14 points.

Other Games of the Week - Week 2

(9) Oklahoma State def. Arizona
Arizona State def. (21) Missouri
(2) LSU def. Northwestern State
(5) Florida State def. CSU
(6) Stanford def. Duke
(8) Wisconsin def. Oregon State
(10) Nebraska def. Fresno State
(11) Virginia Tech def. East Carolina
(13) Oregon def. Nevada
(14) Arkansas def. New Mexico
(15) Ohio State def. Toledo
(16) Mississippi State def. Auburn
(17) Michigan State def. FAU
(18) Florida def. UAB
(19) West Virginia def. Norfolk State
(22) South Florida def. Ball State
BYU def. (24) Texas
Air Force def. (25) TCU

2011 GOTW Record: 1-2
Last Week: 1-2
2011 Overall Top 25 Record: 19-4
Last Week: 19-4

Fitz Top 10 - Week 1

1. Alabama
2. LSU
3. Oklahoma
4. Boise State
5. Florida State
6. Nebraska
7. Wisconsin
8. Texas A&M
9. Oklahoma State
10. Stanford

Just Missed: Virginia Tech, Arkansas, South Carolina, Ohio State, Michigan State

So how will the superconference era realignment actually happen? It will be surprising if anybody can guess because there are too many moving parts and too many hurt feelings that will make the process highly interesting. There's a slight possibility the Big 12 is saved by Oklahoma and Texas, in which case BYU will likely be brought in to leave Boise State as the only regular BCS buster not yet in an automatic qualifying conference. It will be interesting to see who the next small schools are that will step up and break down the BCS door with all these teams needing to beat the big boys to earn their berths. Iowa State and Baylor need to save the Big 12 for their sakes, but if it does not happen, then perhaps a soft landing in a non-superconference Big East is still possible for both schools. Perhaps the SEC stops at 14 and nobody else makes a big move. But with all the greed running the sport these days, do not count on the realignment talks to stop anytime soon. Thankfully the slate of games is improving quickly week by week and conference play will be here to distract us soon enough. Until next week, have a great one!

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