It is perhaps ironic that the future of the city's most visible college athletics program — that of Vanderbilt University — rests to some extent on a man who spent part of the 1980s toiling in obscurity in a nondescript Green Hills office building. Back then, Jim Delany was commissioner of the Ohio Valley Conference. Today, as head of the powerful Big Ten Conference, it seems Delany has the whole world in his hands.
At least that's how it looks to college football fans and programs across the country, as the mighty Big Ten eyes an expansion that could redraw, redistribute and shake up the entire playing field.
Vanderbilt is hardly the only program biting its nails while the conference considers a boost from 11 schools to 12, 14 or 16. From the universities of Memphis and Tennessee to nearby Middle Tennessee State and Western Kentucky — both, interestingly, members of the OVC during Delany's tenure — all 120 U.S. universities that field Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) programs are feeling uncertain and unnerved.
The move could quickly kill Big East football, as BE members Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Rutgers and/or Syracuse are reported Big Ten targets. It could also force the remaining four Bowl Championshiop Series (BCS) conferences — the ACC, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC — to add schools they might ideally not want, fearing additional competitors could dilute an otherwise quality product and intensify already stiff intra-conference competition.
Oh, to be the Goldfinger looming over this threat of domination — the formidable James E. Delany, who grew up in South Orange, N.J., works in Park Ridge, Ill., and draws curses from college football fans nationwide. They accuse Delany of single-minded egomania, of strengthening his beloved Big Ten with no concern for the rest of college football.
Because the Big Ten is the nation's richest conference — it pays about $22 million annually to its 11 teams, courtesy of television revenue alone — Delany swings a big stick. Even the powerful SEC Commissioner Mike Slive must play the role of Delany's whipping boy, as Big Jim could make his move as early as June or as late as June 2011.
With that in mind, it's worth working through the various scenarios of what would happen if the Big Ten expanded to 12, 14 or 16 schools.
Seemingly, most folks hope Delany opts for one new Big Ten member, which could spur only modest changes with the other 10 FBS leagues. Even if it increased by three, however, a 14-team Big Ten model could be copied and result in a still stable and recognizable ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC. In fact, the upstart Mountain West would have a solid shot at replacing the almost certainly doomed Big East as one of the so-called "power six" football conferences.
Of note, six 14-school leagues would be composed of 84 football programs, as opposed to the 66 programs derived from the existing six BCS leagues and independence-obsessed Notre Dame.
With six 14-school "power leagues," Memphis (currently a member of non-BCS member Conference USA) might find itself in a BCS conference — say, a radically reconfigured Big 12 or a very respectable Big East/C-USA/Mountain West hybrid. Tiger football, long a sleeping giant, could awaken. SEC fans, who have long enjoyed keeping their collective feet clamped upon the Tigers' neck, would cringe.
"If you are Memphis, you hope the expansion is only 14 teams for the power conferences," says Craig Ladd, senior associate editor for Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook. "If that is the case ... TCU, Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State and Texas Tech, for example, would strongly consider Memphis as part of a 'new Southwest Conference.' "
If a seventh 14-school league hypothetically arose from the rubble, showing enough potential to garner one of currently 10 BCS bowl bids, enter MTSU and WKU. The long-time rivals would angle for inclusion in that league in a battle far more fierce than the two have ever waged on the field or court.
Clearly, 14 could be an attractive figure for Tennessee and Vanderbilt as well. Rivalries and divisional alignment might change with a 14-team SEC, but not dramatically.
Conversely, a 16-team Big Ten might spur the ACC, Pac-10 and SEC — if anything for fear of losing influence and money — to also opt for 16 schools. In theory, this movement would result not only in a death blow to the Big East, but a possible evisceration of the Big 12.
Which raises another inconvenient issue: There are currently 66 BCS-affiliated football programs. With a four-league 16-team model comprising 64 schools, two existing BCS-affiliated programs would be — to employ some football terminology — sacked, penalized and tackled for a loss. Which programs would be in grave trouble with this hypothetical scenario is debatable. But Big 12 members Iowa State and Baylor and the Big East's Cincinnati appear vulnerable.
"Yes, in some ways I'm concerned," Chris Massaro, MTSU athletics director, responds when asked about this scenario. "Obviously, if you're not one of the 64, you would be dealing with a different paradigm."
For Tennessee and Vanderbilt, gridiron competition in a 16-team SEC with, for example, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas A&M could be brutal. UT might never capture another national football title — or SEC crown, for that matter. A thoroughly overwhelmed VU would stand about as much chance of two wins per year as it would in the NFL.
As for Memphis, it would humbly accept 0–12 football seasons for eternity to be a part of the "Elite 64" fraternity. Exclusion from the club could render the powerful Tiger basketball program nationally irrelevant.
A key consideration for realignment involves possible changes to recruiting. If the Memphis Tigers land in a "power conference," the recruiting impact on SEC programs that lust for Memphis-area prep talent would be "huge," Blue Ribbon's Ladd says.
"Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, for example, would no longer be able to sell recruits on the fact that they will not be in a BCS bowl or get national television coverage if they attend Memphis," he explains. "For Tennessee, it would be especially troublesome because the program already struggles to recruit the city of Memphis due to distance.
"Oxford, Starkville, Nashville, Tuscaloosa and Fayetteville are all closer to Memphis than Knoxville. Throw into the equation Auburn and Baton Rouge, which are roughly equal in distance to Memphis than Knoxville is, and Tennessee could be crippled."
Braden Gall, an editor with Nashville-based Athlon Sports, disagrees.
"Ultimately, the recruiting impact on UT, I believe, would be fairly negligible," says Gall, who also has lived in Big Ten, Big 12 and Big East country. "Georgia, Florida, Ohio, North and South Carolina, and Virginia will always be more important to UT than Arkansas, Memphis and Mississippi."
While Memphis — after years of self-inflicted missteps and coldness from would-be conference suitors — could strike league gold, MTSU and WKU might have to settle for silver, or even nickel or copper. Not a bad thing necessarily.
"If [the Sun Belt is] perceived as the 11th league [of 11 nationally], any movement could benefit [us]," said MTSU's Massaro. "We've positioned Middle Tennessee to be a winner, whether in an improved Sun Belt, improved C-USA or [very] different Big East. One of our strengths is we're located in the 29th media market in the country."
But will it matter overall? If MTSU and WKU eventually wind up in a league that includes, for example, current C-USA members East Carolina, Marshall, Southern Mississippi and UAB, would Nashville-area college football fans and the local media pay more attention to the Raiders and Hilltoppers?
"I highly doubt it," Ladd said. "Tennessee and Vanderbilt would command even more media attention because of the [anticipated] SEC additions of more highly regarded athletic programs. The football tradition of most of the remaining Conference USA teams (assuming Houston bolts) is lacking — with the exception of Southern Miss."
Athlon's Gall says Murfreesboro-based MTSU and Bowling Green-based WKU have minimal chance at "BCS-ness." Just as Memphis athletics are further advanced than Middle's, he explains, MTSU is a "full decade ahead of Western" on the athletics developmental curve. Middle started official Division I-A football play 2001, while WKU began in 2009.
In the end, though, MTSU's prime location, the strong basketball programs at Memphis and WKU, and even the supposed security and stability the SEC offers Tennessee and Vanderbilt might not matter much. That's because one man is calling all the shots.
You might not know that one man holds a law degree. And now all of college football sits on edge, awaiting Jim Delany's verdict.
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