"The only one that can survive as an independent today is Notre Dame," says Wahl. "The others are going to have a harder time getting home games."
Louisville coach Howard Schnellenberger disagrees. He points out that if his team can sustain the success it enjoyed last season (10-1-1), it will have a strong chance every year of getting one of the three at-large berths in the new bowl alliance.
Perhaps, but the truth is that for the foreseeable future, Notre Dame is the only remaining independent that will consistently be in the Top 10 and have a shot at the national championship. Says Tranghese, "I don't think Notre Dame will ever align itself with a conference in football. They view alignment as narrowing and not in their best interest, and they're probably right."
"Only a fool would say 'always' or 'never,' " says Notre Dame athletic director Dick Rosenthal. "But we've got strong and marvelous intersectional rivalries, plus the ability to play some of the other great names in football, and that means a lot to us."
•The age of the superconference is not far off. For years, the major football programs, convinced that they have little in common with lesser NCAA members, have tried and largely failed to get the NCAA to grant them virtual autonomy. Their inability to control their own destinies is what led in 1977 to the formation of the CFA, which includes all the NCAA Division I-A schools except those in the Big Ten and Pac-10. Now, besides Notre Dame, which is almost a super conference unto itself, there are four emerging power groupings: the expanded SEC; the Big East-ACC, a sort of unofficial Eastern cartel; the Big Ten-Pac-10 alliance; and the Big Eight-SWC, a potential Midwestern entity.
Of these, the most vulnerable is the developing partnership between the Big Eight and the SWC, which are exploring what SWC commissioner Fred Jacoby calls "more of an alliance than a merger." The two leagues have some of the game's biggest names, but they are challenged by the NFL in their biggest TV markets.
"What we want to do is enhance both conferences as best we can, perhaps with more crossover scheduling," says Jacoby. "We want to strengthen both leagues without hurting any of the traditional games. But the Big Ten is the key."
Indeed, the SWC and the Big Eight fear that the Big Ten, which will have an unwieldy 11 teams with the addition of Penn State, might look to expand by adding one or more teams from their leagues. The Big Ten might be interested in inviting either Missouri or Kansas to jump from the Big Eight. In addition, both Texas and Texas A&M have considered options that include moving either to the SEC, which would then have 14 teams, or to the Pac-10, which is also in an expansionist frame of mind.
Both Texas president William Cunningham and Texas A&M president William Mobley have said that their universities intend to stay put for the time being. But they've also said they expect to see the SWC deliver 1) better fan support; 2) more flexible intersectional scheduling, especially in basketball; 3) more competitive women's programs; 4) improvement in conference basketball administration; and 5) possible alliances or expansion that could enhance TV opportunities.
The members of the lesser Division I-A conferences—Big West, Western Athletic Conference and Mid-American—are in limbo, dangling somewhere between the superpowers and Division I-AA. As the haves consolidate their power, the have-nots will be all but shut out of any shot at the major bowls or TV exposure, begging the question of why they simply don't drop back to I-AA or split off and form an entirely new division. The WAC in particular will be diminished if Brigham Young leaves for the Pac-10, as some envision, even though the WAC will add Fresno State to its ranks in '92. "The powerful will survive, and the less powerful will struggle," Tranghese says.