Conference realignment has slowed in recent years, mostly due to lengthy television contracts and a restructuring of college football's postseason format. But it's just a matter of time before it all heats up again. It's no secret that some Big 12 ADs are already angling to push the conference to add two schools in the near future.
In the last 15 years, dozens of schools have changed allegiances. The ACC has gutted the Big East twice, taking Miami, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Notre Dame. The Big Ten now has Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers. The SEC yanked Texas A&M and Missouri from the Big 12. The Pac-12 now includes Utah and Colorado. The Big 12 has West Virginia and TCU. Those are only changes to the power conferences.
Many in the industry believe we're eventually headed for four "super" conferences - which contain either 16 or 18 programs each. It isn't that far-fetched of an idea, given what we've seen the past decade or two. It would also make the College Football Playoff much easier to predict during the season.
We're going to go out on a ledge and predict 10 major college football/basketball programs that will be in different conferences in 2026. Let's get started.
Texas to the Pac-12
Everyone knows that Texas is the linchpin in the Big 12. If the Longhorns aren't optimistic about the future of the league, they could bolt for greener pastures. Those pastures won't be located east - so forget about the SEC or the ACC. In this scenario, it's either the Big Ten or the Pac-12 who will be assuming UT. Texas won't want to compete with fellow juggernauts Ohio State and Michigan for popularity, so the Pac-12 it'll be.
Texas, in the Pac-12, would instantly be the most prominent football program. That doesn't mean the Longhorns would win the league every year - we've seen recently that Texas is having trouble dominating its own state on the field - but in terms of revenue and power, there'd be no competition.
Texas' move to the Pac-12 wouldn't be a solo move, either. The Longhorns would bring a few friends along...
Texas Tech to the Pac-12
No, it isn't going to be called the Pac-12 anymore, as you're guessing. It's going to be the Pac-16, and Texas Tech might be the school that benefits the most from the situation. The Red Raiders will be joining the Longhorns in their journey west. The conference will be fine with it too - you do what you need to do to get Texas. For the record, Texas Tech isn't exactly a slouch either when it comes to program revenue.
Back in 2011, ESPN reported that Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State were exploring the idea of joining up with the Pac-10 to create a superconference. So we already know that the Pac-12 is fine with the idea of bringing in both the Longhorns and the Red Raiders. This time around, however, it's going to be a different foursome on the table.
Texas, Texas Tech, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State and two other schools will make up the new Pac-16 South. Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC and Cal will represent the North.
Kansas to the Pac-12
Yes, the Pac-12's dream scenario is probably to have Texas bring along Oklahoma and Oklahoma State to bolster its football roster. But the Sooners aren't going to let that happen. We'll go more into OU's future in a bit.
The Pac-12 likely won't want Baylor or TCU - small private schools that lack national fan bases and aren't tied to the Texas public school system. Iowa State isn't the answer either - especially since they don't have a natural partner. West Virginia makes zero sense, given its location. That leaves Kansas and...spoiler - Kansas State.
Kansas has an abysmal football program, but that hasn't exactly stopped the Jayhawks from remaining part of the Big 12 for years. One main reason - they have one of the best college basketball programs in the country. Kansas in the Pac-12 would instantly make the league more interesting. It'd also give the conference some marquee contests that aren't played three hours behind east coast time.
Kansas State to the Pac-12
Kansas State, obviously, would be Kansas' partner in expansion. If the Big 12 does implode, it's likely that the two schools will be picked up by either the Big Ten or the Pac-12. We think the B1G will go in a different direction, though.
K-State brings a solid-but-not-elite football program and a serviceable basketball program. The school's sports program ranked 43rd in total revenue in 2014, according to a report by USA Today.The Wildcats aren't the biggest draw out there, but combined with Kansas, they're part of a somewhat intriguing package deal. The Pac-12 would rather have KU and KSU than Boise State and BYU - that's for sure.
The Pac-16, now a superconference, will have much more power at the negotiating table when it comes to television contracts for both football and basketball. It'll also get much higher viewership numbers.
The league will have its competitors, though. At least two other conferences are going to match their numbers.
Georgia Tech to the Big Ten
The Big Ten has made it clear that it wants to conquer new territories - and preferably ones with big city markets. The league recently added both Maryland (Washington D.C.) and Rutgers (New York City) for that reason. Nobody believes that the league's brass actually thought that the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights would compete for titles on the football field. This was a money move.
With that in mind, the Big Ten is likely going to look east again - and it'll want some new markets. Syracuse, UConn and Boston College won't be lucrative enough. Clemson and Florida State don't fit the culture. SEC programs aren't really attainable. But Georgia Tech, a great academic school located in Atlanta, a southeastern hub, makes a ton of sense. In fact, it's been rumored before that the Yellow Jackets have been in talks with the league.
Remember - the Big Ten is interested in both athletics and academics. Georgia Tech, somewhat of an also-ran in the ACC at this point, isn't even a founding member of the league. They might really like the idea of being the Big Ten's southeastern representative. Well, one of two.
North Carolina to the Big Ten
The Big Ten will go after the ACC again, poaching one of its prized programs. North Carolina, another public school with solid academics and athletics, will be chosen over Virginia to join the B1G - because of the Carolina market. UNC and GT will be put in a division with Maryland, Rutgers, Penn State, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State.
The idea of North Carolina leaving the ACC - given the longstanding association - may seem crazy. But it's been reported in the past that UNC has had offers to join the league. The Tar Heels will eventually give in, knowing how well-positioned the Big Ten looks to be for long-term stability.
Yes, Duke would be upset, and it would be hard for fans to swallow. But remember - Texas A&M left the Big 12. Maryland left the ACC. It isn't unthinkable.
UNC would bolster the conference's basketball roster. The Tar Heels' football program wouldn't do it any harm. It's a no-brainer.
Oklahoma to the SEC
At this point, it's pretty clear that Oklahoma President David Boren is on a different page than many of his colleagues in the Big 12. Boren has expressed his view - numerous times - that he thinks the league should expand to 12 teams. Obviously, it's been met with opposition. And that frustration doesn't even factor in the concept of always having to play second fiddle to Texas when it comes to negotiating. The Longhorn Network has always been a point of contention between the two schools.
When Texas and a few of the other Big 12 schools decide to peace out and head west, Oklahoma, we're predicting, will head east. The Sooners would be a great fit for the SEC - given their emphasis on football - and they'd help the league add another power program to its ranks. It'd be a step up in competition, for sure, but OU is one of the few schools that could handle it.
Oklahoma, according to USA Today, is No. 7 in program revenue among public schools, so they're a serious get. But they don't come alone...
Oklahoma State to the SEC
In this scenario, with the Big 12 collapsing, Oklahoma State would be one of the few prizes left worth grabbing. The Cowboys boast an above-average football program, a somewhat consistent basketball program and rank 11th in public schools in revenue. They'd also be a natural scheduling partner for Oklahoma. They aren't a perfect fit for the SEC, but hey, neither was Missouri. The SEC has shown that it's interested in expanding to the Southwest, and this gets the league an even bigger foothold.
Plus, it would allow the league to balance its divisions - at least slightly. The west would then consist of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Alabama, LSU, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Auburn would (gasp) head to the east, keeping a permanent crossover game with the Crimson Tide. It'd be complicated to keep all of the current rivalries, but someone would figure it out.
The SEC joins both the Pac-16 and the Big Ten in getting to 16 schools. What does the ACC do?
Notre Dame to the ACC
Yes, Notre Dame is currently an ACC member - but the Fighting Irish aren't a full member, considering they've maintained their independent status in football. That'll eventually change, given all of the carnage that will eventually happen around the country. When it starts becoming clear that four superconferences are going to happen, Notre Dame will finally change its ways. Why?
Scheduling is going to become much more difficult for the Irish in the coming years. Conferences are moving to nine-game schedules - 10 if you include league title games for playoff contenders. Adding Notre Dame to an already-loaded schedule won't be nearly as desirable for the nation's top programs. At some point, the Fighting Irish will feel the heat and make a move. The Big Ten is certainly a possibility - we won't deny that. But we'll predict that they choose the ACC, given their current affiliation. Plus, the ACC is more winnable on a year-in-year-out basis. Florida State and Clemson are currently the only real competition.
If the ACC loses UNC and Georgia Tech, but adds Notre Dame, it'll have 13 schools in both football and basketball. That just won't do.
UConn to the ACC
Yes, after a few rounds of conference realignment, it's been established that UConn is not an uber-desirable program that other conferences are fawning over. It isn't a cash cow, doesn't bring anything to the table on the football field and doesn't bring in a high enough percentage of the New York City market. But in the scenario we've laid out, the Huskies are probably the best option for the ACC - that is, if the Northeast schools (hi Boston College) allow it to happen.
UConn fits in nicely from a basketball standpoint - and would be a good replacement for North Carolina. It boasts the best women's basketball program - a nice-to-have. And it makes scheduling a little easier for the schools in the northern half of the league.
Baylor, TCU, Iowa State and West Virginia aren't options - because of either geography or academics. Cincinnati could be, but we believe UConn is the more likely option.
What happens to the schools left out? It's hard to know, but we'd assume they'll band together and form a conference of their own, raiding smaller leagues like the AAC and Conference USA. Isn't that what happens every time anyway?
Here's to the next decade. See you on the other side.