Conference Realignment: Academics, Religion, and Politics

Like many other college football fans, I have been excited about the drama unfolding around conference realignment. The announcement that the University of Oklahoma and the University of Texas are on the verge of moving to the Southeastern Conference has sent the college football world into an absolute frenzy. Multiple Big 12 schools have already come out with emergency statements, and Texas A&M is still throwing the biggest collective adult temper tantrum in the history of organized sporting events. As a current University of Oklahoma graduate student and fan, I have been consuming everything possible surrounding this new realignment of significant college athletics, from news articles to podcasts. If you have not yet, I would recommend listening to the most recent Crimson and Cream Machine Podcast episode that does a reasonably good job walking through all the ins and outs of an Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC move. I am writing this article today to throw my two cents out on conference realignment and try to sort through all the academics, religion, and politics that are going to shape realignment if the move of Oklahoma and Texas becomes official.

I believe that the Big 12, even if it attempts to expand to 12-16 teams, does not survive as an influential conference without Texas and Oklahoma. Even if all the dominos fall for the Big 12 and the conference add Brigham Young, Cincinnati, Memphis, Houston, Central Florida, Boise State, and Rice, that does not create a power 5 level conference on par with a 16 team SEC, ACC, Pac-12 or Big Ten. I believe the remaining eight teams will dissolve and seek to help the other ACC, Pac-12, and Big Ten get to 16 teams apiece. If the SEC goes to 16, then the other three major conferences will follow suit and do so as quickly as possible.

I will go through the eight remaining Big 12 teams and try to parse out the football and non-football factors to determine a landing spot for them. I will try to focus on less-known factors that many people are missing in the otherwise excellent analysis. I am also operating under an assumption that the current members of the Big Ten, ACC, SEC, and Pac-12 are not looking to move even though this type of massive realignment could open the door to teams like Missouri, Nebraska, and Rutgers to try to find a new spot in a different power conference.

I want to get the most straightforward call out of the way. West Virginia will go to the ACC. While the ACC is filled with top academic institutions like Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia, they do not hold academics in high regard as the Big Ten does. Louisville, NC State, and Clemson are not regarded as academic powerhouses, and they are in the conference. West Virginia already has built-in rivalries with Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, and the other schools that left the Big East for the ACC.

Kansas is the next easiest call. If the Big-12 dissolves, the Kansas Jayhawks will go to the Big Ten. The Big Ten Conference values academic prestige, specifically the institution being a member of the Association of American Universities, above athletic performance. The addition of Rutgers and the continued presence of Northwestern University shows what the Big Ten values in its member institutions. Nebraska is the only non-AAU member in the Big Ten, and their addition is the one time the conference made a football-only decision, and that seems to have come back to bite the conference with the lack of success Nebraska has had since joining the conference. I do not see the Big Ten adding another non-AAU school during this realignment process. Kansas is a long-time member of the AAU, joining in 1909, and from an athletic standpoint, the addition of Kansas automatically increases the prestige of the conference in basketball. From a financial standpoint, it also opens up the Big Ten to the Kansas City market.

The following school on my list will surprise many people, but if the Big 12 dissolves, I believe that the most logical choice for a 16th team in the Big Ten is Iowa State. It gives Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska another regional rival assuming Kansas joins as well, and Iowa State fits the Big Ten criteria by being an AAU school that joined in 1958. I do not think the Big Ten is on the hunt for TV markets as many of their schools are already national brands that get televised coast to coast. Iowa State gets into the Big Ten because the regional fit and academic prestige mean a lot to the other Big Ten institutions. Rutgers joining the Big Ten is exhibit A in this respect because Rutgers did not open up any additional TV markets, nor did it provide any additional athletic prestige to any sport in the Big Ten umbrella. Rutgers won the 1869 Football National Championship and was the 2007 runner-up in women’s basketball, and that about sums up their athletic accomplishments. Rutgers was added to the Big Ten because of its proximity to the eastern Big Ten schools and its academic prestige. Iowa State’s addition would include regional proximity, academic prestige, and recent athletic success.

After my first two schools, the following six is where my predictive confidence begins to drop as I go down the list. Up next is Oklahoma State, whom I believe will go the Pac-12. The Pac-12 does have academically prestigious schools, especially with Stanford, UC-Berkley, and UCLA as member institutions, but I do not think that they care as much as the Big Ten does about the academic prestige of all-conference members. What is going to drive the Pac-12 membership decisions is financial stability and athletic success. This is something that Oklahoma State provides. They have Top 20 athletic facilities and will bring successful basketball and football programs into the conference that will instantly raise the prominence of the conference. Oklahoma State’s golf and wrestling programs will also add to the athletic prestige of the conference. I believe that Oklahoma State is the first team to join Pac-12 if the Big 12 dissolves.

The following school on my list is TCU, and I could see them joining the ACC to give the conference a school in Texas, but my gut tells me they will go west to the Pac-12. This addition gives the Pac-12 a Texas school, especially if Baylor fails to get a Pac-12 invite. Also, the same religious convictions that hurt schools like Baylor and BYU do not apply to TCU. Many do not realize that Texas Christian University is affiliated with the Disciples of Christ denomination. Besides ordaining cult leader Jim Jones, the denomination has a long track record of being the most theologically progressive denomination in the United States. They will have absolutely no issue joining the Pac-12 or ACC.

My next school is a surprise because I have noticed that many people leave them for dead as a power conference school, and I think they are doing so based on incomplete information about who they are as an academic, political, and religious institution. Baylor University is positioned to get an invite to a power conference, and that conference, in my opinion, will be the Pac-12. First, Baylor is a highly rated academic institution, and while they are non-AAU, they are above many AAU schools in the annual US News and World Report rankings of top US Universities. In 2020 they were ranked the 76th best university all-around in The United States. The Pac-12 would also be bringing in successful basketball and football programs. Baylor’s basketball teams are set up to compete for final fours and national titles for years to come.

Secondly, Baylor is not some conservative Christian university like Bob Jones or Liberty. Baylor is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, whose ties to the more conservative Southern Baptist Convention have degraded to pretty much non-existent ever since the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC that began in 1979. The BGTC has sought to distance itself from the SBC, including not adopting the more conservative 1998 revision of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message. The BGTC took steps to protect the academic integrity of Baylor by not allowing for a conservative takeover of the university. Since 1998, Baylor University has been on a trajectory of modernization as they continue to move into a more progressive lane as an institution. From an academic perspective, their science departments teach the exact science taught at any other major university, so the idea that the Pac-12 would be adding an institution that teaches pseudoscience is unfounded. Now the most significant thing holding Baylor back is its history of scandals. However, I do think Baylor has taken steps to clean house and repair its reputation from those scandals. In my opinion, the sexual assault scandal and the ousting of football coach Art Briles and President Kenneth Starr have helped supercharge this move toward progress. The university has continued to revise its policies to be more welcoming to LGBTQ individuals and create Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion programs that would be indistinguishable from other Pac-12 schools. An example of this is creating a Bias Response Team under the DEI that would be unthinkable if the institution was trying to remain "conservative." I believe the university will adopt whatever policies it needs to stay in a power conference.

Third, the most critical driver to Baylor’s overcoming obstacles to joining a power conference will be political connections. These connections have saved Baylor before, and I believe it will save Baylor again. Baylor was outside looking into the Big 12 in 1994, and if Baylor alumnus and the sitting Governor of Texas, Democrat Ann Richards, had not intervened, Baylor may have been left out of the Big 12 altogether. This time the primary saving political connection will come from the current President of Baylor, Linda Livingstone, who is a well-connected graduate (BA, MBA, and Ph.D.) of Oklahoma State University and will be able to leverage her connection to Oklahoma State to help the Pac-12 take both schools as a package deal.

The final two schools are Texas Tech and Kansas State who are in similar situations. Due to their mediocre academic prestige, lack of tv marketability, and mediocre athletic performance, they will be the last teams vying for spots in the Pac-12 or ACC. The ACC is interesting because, with West Virginia, it will have 15 teams with a quasi-member in Notre Dame. Do they add Kansas State or Texas Tech to get to a full 16 because if I had to bet, I would wager that Notre Dame remains a football independent? The Pac-12 takes one of Texas Tech or Kansas State in a perfect world, and the ACC takes the other getting the conferences up to both having a full 16-member count. Now I fully expect UCF, BYU, SMU, Houston, and Boise State to come hard after a spot in the ACC or Pac-12, so Texas Tech and Kansas State could end up as a group of 5 schools. That would not surprise me in the least.

FanPosts are for the voice of the fan and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Crimson and Cream Machine administrators.