Covid-19 has infused the 2020 football season with unprecedented chaos, challenging some conferences, waylaying others and packing ramifications across the spectrum.
The pandemic will wreck havoc on budgets, affect recruiting, change NFL Draft dynamics and impact FBS rosters for years to come.
Other implications are only faintly detectable — background noise to the sport’s biggest bang.
Longtime observers, for example, wonder if the pandemic could spark another wave of conference realignment.
The timing certainly suggests that possibility:
The sport’s ecosystem has experienced a disruption event as the Big Ten, Pac-12, Big 12 and SEC prepare to negotiate new media rights agreements in the first half of the decade.
But the Hotline doesn’t believe realignment is looming.
We’re convinced it’s already underway — just not in the form we’re conditioned to expect.
This iteration of realignment is more reactive than proactive, more subtle than overt.
It’s a tectonic shift driven by pandemic pressure rather than changes in the media landscape.
And at the heart of the recalibration, of course, is the Big 12.
The conference that was teetering a decade ago … that was raided (Colorado and Nebraska) and almost obliterated … that only has 10 members and no dedicated television network …
The conference that forever seems subject to the economic and egomaniacal whims of just one university.
In the past six weeks, the Big 12 has tilted to the right — to the southeast.
The three power conferences still standing aren’t “locked at the hip,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said recently. But clearly, they’re holding hands, digging in and turning shoulders to the storm.
“I think, de-facto, we’re in it together,” Bowlsby added. “We’ll continue to talk to each other with regularity.”
And with that, the sport’s center of gravity moves further to the east and deeper into the south.
What if that togetherness is the first, subtle step in the next round of realignment — the move that only becomes obvious with hindsight?
To be clear: We are not suggesting a physical merger of the three conferences is looming or anticipating that the end game results in 16-team super-conferences.
This version of realignment is less a physical restructuring of the sport and more a psychological, priority-driven shift.
It’s shared passion (for football) meshing with comparable levels of risk tolerance (for Covid-19) topped with growing inter-conference comfort (for the presidents).
That’s a brew with staying power.
Perhaps it leads to the three conferences become more aligned on NCAA legislative matters.
Perhaps it leads to a schedule alliance between the three, by which each team plays two or three games per season against peers from the others.
Perhaps it’s as simple as an annual early-September triple-header that sucks up the sport’s oxygen supply on a showcase weekend.
Or maybe it leads to Notre Dame permanently joining the ACC in football, strengthening that league while undercutting the Big Ten.
Maybe it’s a three-conference consortium that maximizes the third tier, digital or multimedia rights of each school.
Maybe it’s a massive branding campaign that extols the virtues of southern football.
Sure, that all feels like a major, perhaps implausible leap from the current state of play.
But combine the present challenges posed by Covid-19 with the looming reality of media rights negotiations and the likelihood of College Football Playoff expansion — combine it all into this five-year window, and sweeping change of some sort seems inevitable.
“It will be a world in which everyone wants to create more value,” an industry source explained.
Why couldn’t we emerge with a form of realignment, with a deeper alignment between the ACC, SEC and Big 12.
The most-populous states in that enormous patch of land, Texas and Florida, are already home territory for two of the three conferences.
Whatever the outcome of this subtle southern coalescence, it’s not good news for the Big Ten and even worse news for the Pac-12.
The Big Ten has been struggling to keep homegrown recruits from heading south, and the likelihood of slowing that flow seems less remote.
But the Big Ten, with its population base and fan affinity, has the resources to hold its ground.
The Pac-12 does not, at least without a momentous change in future revenue streams.
Cast aside the short-term challenges, peer into the future, and the chief consequence of Covid disruption might be increased isolation from its Power Five peers.
For years, there has been speculation about a convergence of the westernmost conferences in the sport.
About the emboldened Big 12 attempting to raid the vulnerable Pac-12.
Or the Pac-12 taking another charge at the Big 12’s top programs.
Or, as the Hotline suggested, the conferences forming a strategic schedule alliance that would fill every TV window from 12 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Eastern.
That possibility feels vastly more remote than it did even two months ago, as does the Big 12’s need to call upon the Pac-12 for any reason.
It has future partners all lined up — 28 of ’em, in fact (and maybe 29) — even if few people currently realize it and nobody’s started talking about it.
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