I find conference expansion fascinating, but exhausting as well. I feel like I've written extensively on it in the course of the last two years, and while the words may be a little different each time, we're constantly rehashing the same ideas and themes.
Yet, just when incidents like the Notre Dame-ACC debacle kill the idea that the Big 12 will actually do something proactive in the conference shuffle, news like what we found out this weekend about Maryland and Rutgers flirting with the Big Ten goes and gets my hopes up again.
The B1G bombshell about negotiations with the Terps seems like a game-changer for the conference landscape in a number of ways. First, for all the talk of ACC stability on the heels of the league's agreement with ND, Maryland's potential defection shows just how fragile the league truly is. Commissioner John Swofford actually did miraculous work to hold the conference together this summer, but the reality is that the ACC simply doesn't offer an elite football product, and that's where the money is in this game. That will continue to hold football-centric athletic departments back.
Second, Maryland's move could pose a big problem for the ACC regarding its substantial $50 million exit fee. I'm no lawyer, but the idea that a conference could unilaterally impose such significant penalties on a school that voted against the increase just seems really far-fetched to me. Whatever the outcome, it just goes to show that the league's supposedly ironclad handcuffs aren't as tight as portrayed.
Furthermore, Jim Delany just showed his hand. As would be expected, the B1G's head honcho envisions expanding his conference east. Assuming the conference isn't content to sit at 14, the ACC is the most likely pond for Delany to poach. Likewise, once the SEC decides that a 16-team league is the way forward, the ACC will be in commissioner Mike Slive's crosshairs, too.
Most immediately, schools like Florida State and Clemson are finding out this season just how much of a drawback the ACC will be for their football programs in the future. Both have just one loss on the year, and, yet, they've been reduced to afterthoughts in the national title race. The Tigers and Seminoles actually checked in behind three two-loss teams from the SEC in the latest BCS standings, a pretty clear indictment of their league schedule. That doesn't bode well for the lucrative new playoff structure that is forthcoming.
Which brings us to the future of the Big 12. The conference braintrust of one already botched the previous round of realignment with his pandering to the Fighting Irish. That gave Swofford time to circle the wagons with his own ND arrangement.
The Big 12 is being thrown a lifeline with Maryland's move, however. Assuming this signifies just the first step in the big dogs carving up the ACC like a turkey, it will mean the Big 12 should be standing in line to collect the scaps. If the SEC sticks with its goals of not making markets redundant and the B1G stays true to its academic requirements, there should be nothing stopping the Big 12 from grabbing FSU and a dance partner.
Honestly, it doesn't get much more perfect for poaching than this. If the Big 12 school administrators aren't pushing Bob Bowlsby to make something happen, it will represent a colossal blunder on their parts.