1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …

There will be losers.

If you take nothing else from the latest shockwave of conference expansion, embrace the reality that not every program — for any number of reasons — will make it through unscathed.

There will be losers. There will be Power 5 schools that won’t be part of the new college football world.

“I suspect many universities who were once a fabric of college sports will be on the outside looking in very soon,” a former SEC president told me this week. “I don’t know that it’s good for the collegiate model, but it’s where we are.”

The question: Where do we go from here?

The answer isn’t as simple as you’d think, and will depend on the presidents of both the SEC and the Big Ten — and their desire to press forward into 20-team super conferences, or finding a suitable landing spot that incorporates a majority of the current Autonomous (Power) 5 structure.

Unlike the last paradigm shift in conference expansion a decade ago, this time ESPN and Fox won’t be around to bail out the Big 12 (and by proxy, the college football structure).

And unlike the previous iteration, trust and honor among conference leaders has all but been eliminated from the process.

If the Big Ten — which long held itself as the conscience of college sports and desperately tried to not play football in the 2020 COVID season to be the “leader amateur sports needed” — could somehow convince the Pac-12 and ACC that it, too, was a pauper before turning the expansion knife on its partners, anything is possible.

From the conference of Legends and Leaders, to the Conference of Judas. Money changes everything — and will convince any university not currently part of the SEC and Big Ten to consider moving.

At all cost.

We’ve entered a wild and unpredictable phase of conference expansion, with 4 distinct factors on the horizon. A breakdown of each:

2. The Notre Dame question

As I wrote last week at Saturday Down South, the Irish hold the key to future movement.

Notre Dame is the biggest piece remaining in expansion, and both the Big Ten and SEC would financially benefit from a conference affiliation with the Irish.

An industry source told SDS that the Big Ten’s first move in this latest expansion process was reaching out to Notre Dame. The idea was to land both USC and Notre Dame as a counterpunch to the SEC landing Texas and Oklahoma.

When Notre Dame balked, the Big Ten moved to UCLA to complete the Los Angeles market and deliver a death blow to the Pac-12 — its “Alliance” partner of the last year. That doesn’t mean the Big Ten doesn’t have a chance to still land Notre Dame.

Both the Big Ten and SEC are strict about revenue sharing, with all 16 conference members earning equal media rights shares. Notre Dame has a football contract with NBC for home games that expires after the 2025 season.

In a perfect world, Notre Dame would keep the ability to negotiate a separate deal for its home games in any conference. That perfect world likely won’t happen with the Big Ten and SEC, leaving the Irish with a decision — with all financial things being equal — based on fit.

Notre Dame can’t make the amount of money on its own as an independent that it could as a member of the SEC or Big Ten. And it may not have access to the Playoff as we know it (more on that later) without conference affiliation.

3. TV market or brand?

Forget all you believe about college football brands. Every industry source I’ve spoken to reiterates over and over: elite brands can be built.

Case in point: Clemson (under Dabo Swinney), Oregon (under Mike Bellotti and Chip Kelly) and Virginia Tech (under Frank Beamer).

Network and cable television is still king in media rights, despite a push from streaming giants Apple, Amazon and Hulu. It doesn’t mean streaming sites will be ignored — quite the opposite, they’ll be embraced — but they won’t determine expansion decisions.

The SEC and Big Ten will compete head-to-head for Notre Dame and North Carolina, while geography and fit will determine any other expansion decisions.

The Big Ten touts its connection to the prestigious Association of American Universities, where 13 of its current members are affiliated (only Nebraska isn’t). USC and UCLA are AAU members.

There are 13 universities from the ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12 that are AAU members: Arizona, California, Colorado, Duke, Georgia Tech, Kansas, North Carolina, Oregon, Pitt, Stanford, Utah, Virginia and Washington.

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More than likely, further Big Ten expansion will come from that group and Notre Dame.

The SEC, meanwhile, will more than likely zero in on brand names and geographic fit: Clemson, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina, Duke, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Virginia Tech.

One thing to remember: the SEC and Big Ten won’t expand for the sake of expanding, but will do so only with universities who add value to media rights deals.

Not all of those aforementioned universities will add value.

Remember, there will be losers.

4. The Power 3

Big 12 teams are available after the 2024 football season. Pac-12 teams are available after 2023, and the ACC after 2035.

The Big 12 and Pac-12 could combine to form a 24-team super conference (the existing 10 from the Pac-12, and the 14 teams from the future Big 12 alignment), but it’s unclear how much that conference would command in media rights negotiation.

A national Pac-12/Big 12 conference that would stretch from California to Florida would be intriguing and likely push the per-university payout higher than anything the conferences could command on their own — but still not close to SEC and Big Ten levels.

The problem: The Big Ten more than likely isn’t done poaching from the Pac-12.

Meanwhile, ACC schools are in a much more precarious situation. The estimated $100 million exit fee isn’t the problem; that could be paid with a bank loan and repaid with revenue from a new conference.

The sticking point is the grant of rights deal signed by every ACC school that guarantees the media rights of every member school to the ACC if they leave before 2035. In other words, if Clemson left for the SEC in 2024, the remaining 11 years of its media rights it would earn from the SEC — as much as $80 million per year — would be owed to the ACC.

That is, unless ACC schools can find a legal workaround by arguing in court that the college landscape has changed, and the loss of Notre Dame’s 4-6 games a year vs. the ACC (if Notre Dame leaves for the Big Ten or SEC) has damaged the ACC and should therefore void the media rights guarantee.

If ACC schools can get the media rights voided, North Carolina, Clemson, FSU and Miami become prime targets for the SEC.

Then there’s the great longshot: The ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12 combine elite properties and form a national conference with Notre Dame for a media rights deal that would, at the very least, push the group toward the $50-plus million each range.

In that scenario, 16-20 teams would be winnowed from the current (or 2024 projected) 35 including Notre Dame.

Again, there will be losers. All over the college football footprint.

5. The Playoff

Days before news leaked that the Big Ten had invited USC and UCLA to join the conference, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff tweeted how proud he was to celebrate the 50th year of Title IX with his “partners at the Big Ten and ACC.”

The Big Ten, of course, was in the final stages of poaching the Pac-12’s two biggest properties and exposing the “Alliance” for what it was: a sham of an agreement cooked up by the Big Ten to curb SEC power after it added Texas and Oklahoma.

The Pac-12 and ACC were used, and the college football postseason was thrown into flux at the whims of the Big Ten. It was as shrewd as it was brilliant by Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren — but likely changed the face of the postseason forever.

The idea of a new Playoff format in 2026 with all 130 FBS schools involved and available looks more and more like a pipe dream. Any Playoff could now center around the SEC and Big Ten, depending on the growth of the super conferences.

One industry source told SDS that it’s not inconceivable for the SEC and Big Ten to add crucial properties and run a Playoff between the conferences. The SEC already has gamed out an SEC Playoff.

One thing is clear: When the current Playoff contract ends after the 2025 season, the 4-team format will be gone for good.

6. Your tape is your résumé

A NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Alabama LB Henry To’o To’o.

“I thought he would thrive in the Alabama system, but he looked a step slow. He wasn’t making the same type of explosion plays he made at Tennessee. He was a difference-maker at Tennessee. He was a cog in the machine at Alabama. He has to show (in 2022) that he’s the player he was at Tennessee. The explosion, the vision, the chase. He has the size and football instincts. It almost looked like he was thinking too much instead of just getting the ball and disrupting. He just looked a step off on way too many plays.”

7. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: can’t-miss benefit of expansion.

1. Georgia: The Clemson rivalry renewed. Annually.

2. Alabama: Clemson’s Dabo Swinney coaching against his alma mater in Tuscaloosa.

3. Texas A&M: The annual Texas game.

4. Kentucky: UNC basketball. Twice (or more) a season.

5. Arkansas: A rekindling of Southwest Conference rivals.

6. LSU: The swag of Mario Cristobal-infused Miami strolling into Death Valley.

7. Ole Miss: The daylong party vs. the most exciting 25 seconds in college football.

8. Mississippi State: FSU baseball at Dudy Noble.

9. Tennessee: Two more opportunities to beat a team from the state of Florida.

10. South Carolina: Renewing instant border rivalry with North Carolina.

11. Florida: Gators can no longer ignore Miami.

12. Auburn: A natural rivalry with Florida State.

13. Missouri: Nothing can top the addition of Texas and Oklahoma.

14. Vanderbilt: More home game sellouts.

8. Ask and you shall receive

Matt: Are we too far gone right now with expansion? Is there any chance the SEC sticks at 16. I really don’t want Notre Dame or anyone else. I like where we are. — Floyd Pointer, Columbia, S.C.


With Notre Dame still available, the SEC and Big Ten both can’t stop now. Nor would I imagine they would agree to any pause in expansion.

Frankly, I don’t know why SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and Warren could or would trust each other at this point.

We’re long past the point of changing the face of the sport. The Big Ten is now a national conference, and the SEC could potentially run from North Texas, to the Deep South, to Florida and up the Atlantic Coast — and maybe all the way north to Chicago with Notre Dame.

If the idea of Texas and Oklahoma playing games against Alabama and Georgia and Florida and LSU every season excites you, imagine adding blue bloods Clemson, Miami and Florida State into the mix (or maybe Notre Dame). Imagine a 12-game schedule — against 12 SEC teams — leading to an 8-team SEC Playoff.

Or the best 8 from the SEC playing the best 8 from the Big Ten in a 16-team Playoff. The possibilities are limitless.

9. Numbers

6. For those expecting a big jump for Florida QB Anthony Richardson in his third season in Gainesville, consider this damaging statistic: The Gators’ top 3 returning wide receivers combined for 6 TDs in 2021.

Just how limited are the Gators at wide receiver? Justin Shorter (3 TDs), Xzavier Henderson (2 TDs) and Trent Whittemore (1 TD) combined for 2 more touchdowns than Arizona State transfer Ricky Pearsall — who is expected to play a significant role for Florida in 2022.

10. Quote to note

South Carolina coach Shane Beamer: “It’s somewhat disappointing and frustrating that you can spend 365 days a year developing a relationship, and you may be super close with that kid, but he may not come to your school because somebody else pays him more money to come.”