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It is New Year's Day 1998. You're comfortably settled into your favorite beanbag chair (they're back in vogue). Time to take in a little football. You click on the tube and get the Cotton Bowl on PBS, featuring SSWC (Streamlined Southwest Conference) champ SMU against Penn, the Ivy League titlist. Yeech! So you switch over to ABC, where the Sugar Bowl is about to kick off with Miami, champion of the Southeastern Conference, going up against Notre Dame, the country's sole remaining independent, for the right to face Rose Bowl winner San Diego State in next week's national championship game.
"You know, Jim," an announcer says, "this one could harken back to some of those epic games these two teams had back in the '80s, when they were still deciding the national championship by looking at wire-service polls."
If you think this scenario is farfetched, you're right—beanbag chairs will never make a comeback. Everything else about it is perfectly plausible. College football as we have known it is about to change drastically. In a dominolike sequence of changes that is part power grab, part defense mechanism and at least part greed, a number of sprawling superconferences are expected to be created sometime from five weeks to five years from now. Most, if not all, of the superconferences will get rich. Some traditional conferences will merge, shrink or eventually become defunct. Some bowls (Rose and Sugar, most likely) will prosper, and some (probably Cotton and Orange) will go into decline. And the inevitable arrival of a national-championship playoff game will be hastened.
The upheaval in college football has already begun. In February, Notre Dame, which had been part of the CFA's TV package with CBS, cut its own deal with NBC. Last month Penn State forsook its independence and formally took up with the Big Ten (soon to be called the Big Eleven or the Big Twelve or the Big...), beginning in the mid-1990s. In recent days officials at Miami, Florida State and Arkansas have expressed interest in talking with the 10-team SEC, which is considering expansion into East and West divisions of eight teams each. And last week the eight-member Metro Conference, which is currently organized for basketball and other sports but not for football, invited eight independents to help it form a 16-team, two-division league for football (chart, page 28). Other mega-conferences may be in the offing. For example, the ACC could expand to a 12-team, two-division format. Miami is also being eyed for that one.
"The '90s are predicted to be moving in the direction of three superconferences, each with a major network," says Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles. Some would quibble with Broyles's arithmetic—the outlines of at least four super-conferences have appeared on the horizon—but there's no missing the gist of his message. Super-, maxi-, mega-, cosmic-conferences are the wave of the future.
Division I-A football could be transformed by quicky divorces and hastily arranged marriages. The day after Arkansas raised the possibility that it may not be a member of the Southwest Conference much longer, that conference's executive committee met to map out contingency plans—foremost among them a merger with the Big Eight. Of course, by the time that union could be arranged, Colorado might have bolted to the Pac-10. The Pac-10—or Packed Tent, as it may come to be known—has been rumored to be interested in at least three teams besides Colorado (chart).
What's next, an alliance of Atlantic powers from Miami to Boston? Well, as a matter of fact, there is an Eastern Seaboard League (ESL) under discussion that would include Boston College, the ever-present Miami and eight other independents if—a big if—it sees the light of day.
While the aforementioned realignments are all just in the talking—or dreaming—stage, Division I-A has already been thrown into mild disarray by Notre Dame's decision to cut its own TV package and Penn State's abandonment of the independent ranks. In addition, the Federal Trade Commission has been investigating possible restraint-of-trade violations in the 63-member CFA's new $300 million, five-year TV package with ABC that is scheduled to go into effect in 1991. Should it find the contract anticompetitive, the FTC could void it. If that happens, there would be a rush of conference commissioners to cut the best possible deal with the networks.
The battle over conference realignment has pitted punchers against counterpunchers: The Big Ten and the SEC have taken the initiative to expand, while some Southwest Conference and Big Eight officials are talking merger in hopes that their conferences won't be left behind. Memo to schools that can't find a chair in the superconferences when the music stops: Scrap those stadium-expansion plans and report immediately to Division I-AA.
Suddenly, being an independent has lost some of its cachet. If most big schools join megaconferences, independents will discover it will be difficult to find opponents for games after the end of September, when conference play begins. Of course, by the time the realignment shakes out, there may not be too many independents left. For example, the independents envisioned for the proposed ESL are Miami, Boston College, Florida State, South Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Temple, Rutgers, Syracuse and Pitt. The burning question of where Miami will end up aside, the Big Ten could throw a monkey wrench into the ESL's plans because it, too, has evinced interest in Pitt, Syracuse and Rutgers. "Big Ten officals have declared a moratorium [of four years] on expansion," says a Big East athletic director, "but who knows if they'll stick to it, once they see the writing on the wall."