SEC vs. Big Ten tale of the tape, schedule projections and more realignment takeaways

by Ricardo Gutierrez - Which is better: the new-look Big Ten or the soon-to-be SEC? What will Notre Dame do now? What's up with the Rose Bowl? We try to sort it all out.

8:00 AM ET Bill ConnellyESPN Staff Writer Close Bill Connelly is a staff writer for ESPN.com. Maybe the wildest semi-legitimate conference realignment rumor ever didn't come when Texas, Oklahoma and half the Big 12 nearly joined the Pac-10 a decade or so ago. It was much earlier than that. For most of 1959 and 1960, it looked as if about half of the Pacific Coast Conference (Cal, Stanford, UCLA, USC and Washington) would join up with eastern independents (Notre Dame, Penn State, Syracuse and maybe West Virginia or Pitt), the three service academies and maybe even Oklahoma to form what was colloquially called the Airplane Conference. The PCC was falling apart, air travel was getting easier and cheaper, and some of the biggest, most well-followed (and integrated) programs in the sport were really enjoying the idea of competing with one another annually. It was set up perfectly for divisions and an annual championship game in the Rose Bowl. It fell apart, eventually. The Pentagon decided that really wasn't an Army priority (which made sense, really). Stanford started hoping to include other PCC programs. And by 1964, the PCC had basically dumped poor Idaho and continued on as the Athletic Association of Western Universities (AAWU), then the Pac-8. It would add Arizona and Arizona State in the 1970s and become the Pac-10. For decades, the Airplane Conference has been the biggest what-if rumor that college football has produced. Then Thursday happened. Granted, decision-makers are getting better and better at keeping secrets -- everything went from rumor to confirmed rumor to fact within a few hours -- but the Big Ten, which already stretched from New Jersey to Nebraska, officially invited UCLA and USC to become its 15th and 16th members. Penn State and California schools, together at last. The Airplane Conference really has become a thing. The Pac-12 Conference -- or whatever it was called in a given year -- has long been a marriage of geographic convenience. Schools like USC have always had grander ambitions but were limited by the simple fact that only so many similarly ambitious programs were available to play out West. But while the remaining Pac-12 schools can feel shocked by the timing of this move, and they can certainly feel alarmed about their future, they can't really feel betrayed. Or at least, they can't act like they didn't know betrayal was a possibility. Here are a few takeaways from a move at least equally seismic as Oklahoma and Texas bolting the Big 12 for the SEC last summer. The next big move is the biggest one At 16 teams, you can still act like a conference . Now that we've accepted that it's OK to ditch divisions, you can play all of your 15 other conference-mates in a short time: With a nine-game conference schedule, you can play three permanent rivals annually, rotate among the other 12 -- six one year, six the next -- and play home-and-homes with everyone within four years. Granted, it's still a little awkward when one of your conference members is as close to Iceland as a couple of its new siblings, but it can be done. If you move to 18 teams or 20, you either have to play 10 or 11 conference games to assure the same rotations, or you have to accept messy scheduling and fewer games among some conference members. That obviously can be done, too -- just look up how many times Texas A&M and Georgia have played since A&M joined the SEC in 2012 -- but it's not quite as cohesive. Sixteen programs works great for tournaments in the other sports, too. There's at least a possibility that the Big Ten will decide to stick with 16 members for a while, both for that reason and because at some point there might be diminishing financial returns per school. Adding the Los Angeles market was massive; it's possible the conference doesn't think adding, say, the Portland and Seattle markets or the Bay Area adds as much. Barring a call from a certain program in South Bend, it might decide to pause, bask in the boom of new TV contracts and new money and go about life as one of college sports' two superconferences. There's also a chance the conference decides to break the seal and go beyond 16 teams. If or when that happens, it's a new ballgame altogether. In the wake of last week's shocking news, all of our imaginations went wild. Oregon and Washington might go to the Big Ten too! And what about Cal and Stanford -- they're extremely Big Ten! This could be the thing that finally entices Notre Dame to join! And ACC heavyweights might try to lawyer their way out of their grant of rights and join the SEC! Duke and North Carolina could join either one! The age of superduper conferences has begun! A 32-team (or so) super league isn't far behind! Until that happens, however, this might be it. (Lord knows that with the way secrets are kept now, we might not hear about it in advance.) The Big Ten might decide no other Western entities add to the bankroll in quite the same way as USC and UCLA, Notre Dame might continue to stand pat, the Pac-12 might simply add the most enticing Mountain West programs on the board -- San Diego State? Colorado State? Boise State joining at last? -- and life will go on. Make no mistake, though: If the Big Ten wants Oregon and Washington, it will get Oregon and Washington. Cal and Stanford? Same thing. We might not have reached that point with Notre Dame yet, but it could be getting awfully close. Schools may want to preserve rivalries, maintain some semblance of loyalty and assure that their volleyball team isn't traveling three time zones away on a Wednesday night in October. But there is no loyalty in college sports when FOGLB -- Fear of Getting Left Behind -- is as powerful as it has become, and football money will forever trump volleyball logistics. If the Big Ten indeed elects to more fully flesh out its Western branch, the only limit on what could happen next is your own imagination. (By the way, I'm ignoring the thought of the Big Ten and SEC ejecting underperforming members and adding other powers for now. I know that one has floated around online, too, but I just don't think it's as realistic as other options. I could be wrong -- it wouldn't be the first time.) What say you, Notre Dame? Yes, I copied this header from a takeaway in last year's OU-Texas piece . Sue me. In a world with a 16-team Big Ten and SEC, Notre Dame could feasibly still remain an independent if it chooses to. It still has a healthy home for its other sports (the ACC), and with Oregon and Washington still out West and Clemson et al remaining in the ACC, there are still powerful programs outside of these two megaconferences. But if the Big Ten moves past 16 teams, that might no longer be the case. As ESPN's David Hale wrote on Thursday, "The Irish need a path to the football playoff. In the current landscape, that path exists (Notre Dame has made it to the playoff twice already) and most expansion models would likely make that path even easier. But again, in a world where one or two superconferences dictated the postseason -- or, for that matter, even in-season scheduling -- could Notre Dame survive as an independent?" Probably not. Everyone's got a breaking point; we don't know where Notre Dame's is, but we know it's closer to it than it's ever been. play 2:05 Why the college football landscape could hinge on Notre Dame Paul Finebaum and Heather Dinich break down why the college football landscape could be shaped by the potential of Notre Dame joining a conference. Does Gene Smith still believe in an FBS breakaway? One of the more intriguing recent statements from a high-level administrator came when Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith shared some thoughts with ESPN's Heather Dinich at the Big Ten's spring meetings. "The reality is, those schools who offer 85 scholarships in football" -- those in FBS, in other words -- "have made a different commitment and that needs to be addressed," he said. Those schools "need different rules." The idea of a 32- or 40-team college football super league has certainly been a fun one for writers, radio hosts and all to chew on, but that doesn't mean it's either the preference or most likely option for others. Smith, as connected and powerful as any other athletic director on the planet, certainly wasn't envisioning that (publicly, at least) a couple of months ago. We love a good soccer analogy -- Lord knows I do -- but we still don't know whether college football is headed toward a Super League or Champions League situation. Let me explain the difference. Super League: a folded tent of sorts with 32 to 64 teams in the sport's top division, perhaps all belonging to either the Big Ten or SEC. We spent part of last summer yelling "SEC SUPER LEAGUE" after Oklahoma and Texas announced they were joining, and now we're doing the same with the Big Ten. If this comes to pass, it would be the biggest structural change the sport has ever experienced. It's clearly a possibility, and it became more likely when USC and UCLA made their move. But it's not a given. Champions League: Smith's vision above, in which FBS membership remains mostly the same -- perhaps some extra qualifiers are added for membership, and it shrinks from 133 (where it will be in 2023) to something more in the 90-110 range, but anyone who can and will offer 85 scholarships has a spot in the subdivision. I give it this name because the Champions League in Europe currently offers 32 spots in the field (it will soon expand to 36), and virtually any champion of any top-division league can qualify ... but most of the spots go to the sport's powerhouses. The top four leagues in Europe get 16 of the 32 spots to themselves, the remainders fight for scraps and, in the end, someone from a power league wins the title. (The past 18 champs, and 26 of the past 27, have come from England, Spain, Germany or Italy. England and Spain alone have occupied 14 of the past 18 spots in the finals.) Obviously the Big Ten and SEC will dominate the sport moving forward, and if the College Football Playoff were to expand to 12 teams as commonly discussed, we could easily end up with an annual field of about four SEC teams, four Big Ten teams and four teams from the remaining FBS conferences. But that's still more Champions League than Super League. If the Big Ten sticks with 16 ... what the heck do schedules look like? For now, let's stop speculating on what comes next and focus on what has already come to pass. How does scheduling work if the Big Ten indeed holds at 16 programs for a while? The two main options are pretty clear: 1. Keep the East and West divisions, adding USC and UCLA to the West, obviously, and perhaps moving Purdue to the East so it can once again join Indiana. With nine-game conference schedules, everyone plays seven division games and plays two cross-division opponents, and on we go. Editor's Picks 2 Related 2. Embrace division-free life. Assign permanent rivals and rotating schedules and send your two best teams to the conference title game. This is by far the easiest way for huge conferences to still feel like conferences, and it likely benefits the Big Ten in a future world with an expanded playoff. How the heck do you draw up permanent rivalries with USC and UCLA involved, though? The possibilities are endless ... and quite weird. Because we're pretending history still actually matters, I drew up a set of permanent rivalry assignments based as much as possible on which teams have played each other the most. USC has played Ohio State 24 times -- they have engaged in a few home-and-homes through the years and have obviously met a lot in the Rose Bowl -- and Iowa 10 times. UCLA has played Nebraska 13 times and Illinois 12 times. (As strange as it sounds, the Bruins and Illini played quite a few nonconference games against each other in the 1950s and 1960s.) I started there, assured that every Big Ten rivalry that has been played at least 100 times was also accounted for and ended up with this list. It has a couple of oddities (hello, Maryland vs. Northwestern), but it's pretty comprehensive. Proposed annual Big Ten rivalries Illinois: Northwestern, Ohio State, UCLA Indiana: Michigan State, Purdue, Rutgers Iowa: Minnesota, Nebraska, USC Maryland: Northwestern, Penn State, Rutgers Michigan: Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State Michigan State: Indiana, Michigan, Penn State Minnesota: Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin Nebraska: Iowa, Purdue, UCLA Northwestern: Illinois, Maryland, Wisconsin Ohio State: Illinois, Michigan, USC Penn State: Maryland, Michigan State, Rutgers Purdue: Indiana, Nebraska, Wisconsin Rutgers: Indiana, Maryland, Penn State UCLA: Illinois, Nebraska, USC USC: Iowa, Ohio State, UCLA Wisconsin: Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue Admittedly, Michigan ends up taking on a pretty significant load, and an emphasis on geography means that Penn State's annual games are light by comparison. But because teams are still playing half of the rest of the conference each year, things will stay pretty balanced. Using five-year SP+ averages and balanced rotations, everyone's average opponents remain within about three points of one another. (And hey, if this is a genuine sticking point, Michigan can trade Minnesota to Penn State for Rutgers. Problem solved.) Using this as our model, here are examples for how a four-year rotation could work out for the two newest members. Year 1 USC: Illinois, Iowa, Northwestern, Penn State, UCLA, at Maryland, at Michigan State, at Nebraska, at Ohio State UCLA: Maryland, Nebraska, Ohio State, Purdue, at Illinois, at Indiana, at Minnesota, at Penn State, at USC Year 2 USC: Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State, at Iowa, at Purdue, at Rutgers, at UCLA, at Wisconsin UCLA: Illinois, Iowa, Northwestern, Rutgers, USC, at Michigan, at Michigan State, at Nebraska, at Northwestern Year 3 USC: Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State, Nebraska, UCLA, at Illinois, at Northwestern, at Ohio State, at Penn State UCLA: Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Penn State, at Illinois, at Maryland, at Ohio State, at Purdue, at USC Year 4 USC: Ohio State, Purdue, Rutgers, Wisconsin, at Indiana, at Iowa, at Michigan, at Minnesota, at UCLA UCLA: Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, USC, at Iowa, at Nebraska, at Rutgers, at Wisconsin Over time, we'll get used to Purdue playing in Pasadena, California, in October, or USC playing in Iowa City in mid-November, but ... this is still weird! Really, really weird! How will USC and UCLA compete in their new conference? Mike Bohn can talk about values and academics all he wants, but USC is making this move for three reasons: money, security and, well, money again. UCLA and USC transformed their financial potential with a single news release. But they still have to compete when they get to their new home. How might that work out? Let's begin answering that by looking at recent performance. Obviously more revenue could mean higher upside for the Trojans and Bruins, but let's start with what we actually know. Five-year SP+ average for the future Big Ten : 1. Ohio State 29.6* 2. Wisconsin 19.8 3. Penn State 19.8 4. Michigan 18.9 5. Iowa 14.0 6. USC 11.4 7. MInnesota 9.8 8. Michigan State 9.0 9. Nebraska 6.0 10. Indiana 5.7 11. Purdue 5.6 12. UCLA 3.1 13. Northwestern 1.3 14. Maryland 0.4 15. Illinois -2.9 16. Rutgers -8.9 * SP+ is presented in terms of adjusted points per play. A rating of 29.6 means that on average, Ohio State has been 29.6 points above the perfectly average FBS team over the previous five seasons. Over the previous 17 seasons, the second-best Big Ten team has had an SP+ rating of at least 18.7 every year, so let's conservatively set the bar for Big Ten championship game contention at 18.0. In the past 25 years, USC has hit that mark 11 times (2002-08, 2011-13 and 2016), while UCLA has done so four times (1997-98, 2013, 2015). Obviously recent years haven't been incredibly kind to either program, but over a long enough period of time, we could expect USC to contend for the conference title every two or three years and UCLA to do so once every six years or so. Superconference vs. superconference: tale of the tape Obviously this future world of a mega-Big Ten and mega-SEC will have an impact on more sports than just football. The Big Ten was already one of the two or three best men's basketball conferences in the country and a women's volleyball superpower before adding UCLA basketball and both UCLA and USC volleyball to the equation. The SEC was already absurdly good in baseball and women's softball before adding top-10 Oklahoma and Texas programs. Both conferences' lineups are becoming more intriguing (and logistically nightmarish) with their impending additions. Today, we're just focusing on football, however. How do these megaconferences and their future rosters shape up against each other? play 0:55 Why USC and UCLA are considering joining the Big Ten Heather Dinich breaks down the massive news of USC and UCLA in negotiations to depart the Pac-12 and join the Big Ten. The short answer: The Big Ten is obviously better than everyone else , but the SEC is still superior on average. With Oklahoma and Texas, the SEC's average SP+ rating last year would have been 11.7; with USC and UCLA, the Big Ten's average would have been 8.9. If we think broader and more historically, the SEC still has an edge. Using 25-year averages for each program -- an incredibly broad look at program health and consistency of power -- here's how a Big Ten-SEC challenge would take shape if we set up games between the conferences' best programs, second-best programs and so on. Best: No. 1 Ohio State (23.7 average) vs. No. 2 Alabama (23.0) Second-best: No. 3 Oklahoma (21.9) vs. No. 7 USC (18.9) Third-best: No. 4 Georgia (20.8) vs. No. 11 Michigan (16.6) Fourth-best: No. 5 Florida (19.6) vs. No. 15 Wisconsin (15.5) Fifth-best: No. 6 LSU (19.4) vs. No. 16 Penn State (15.2) Sixth-best: No. 9 Texas (17.0) vs. No. 18 Nebraska (14.6) Seventh-best: No. 17 Auburn (15.2) vs. No. 25 Iowa (11.3) Eighth-best: No. 19 Tennessee (13.8) vs. No. 30 Michigan State (9.8) Ninth-best: No. 20 Texas A&M (13.4) vs. No. 34 UCLA (8.4) 10th-best: No. 29 Arkansas (10.3) vs. No. 49 Purdue (4.7) 11th-best: No. 33 Missouri (8.7) vs. No. 51 Minnesota (4.5) 12th-best: No. 37 Ole Miss (7.6) vs. No. 56 Maryland (2.0) 13th-best: No. 38 South Carolina (7.6) vs. No. 68 Northwestern (-0.5) 14th-best: No. 50 Mississippi State (4.6) vs. No. 75 Illinois (-2.1) 15th-best: No. 62 Kentucky (0.9) vs. No. 79 Indiana (-3.9) 16th-best: No. 86 Vanderbilt (-5.3) vs. No. 97 Rutgers (-7.5) The SEC still holds at least a slight advantage in 15 of those 16 matchups and averages a 12.4 rating to the Big Ten's 8.2. That's certainly noteworthy. Even more noteworthy, however: These conferences now house nine of the 11 best programs of the past 25 years. And 15 of the top 20! And 22 of the top 40! Both conferences could add more programs in the future, but they've already acquired nearly every long-term power the sport has produced. The Big 12: next in line We've learned by now that conference realignment is basically a live-action role-playing game -- each team gets to take its turn (even if it takes a while), and the order of play is, in this case, determined by conference power. When the SEC plucked away OU and Texas, for instance, the American couldn't rope in remaining Big 12 programs yet, as initially rumored, because it wasn't their turn. The Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC passed on moves, and when it was the Big 12's turn, it raided the AAC (and landed BYU as well). It doesn't appear the Big 12 will have to wait as long for a turn this time. Because of both geography and stability (as absurd as that sounds considering how unstable the Big 12 has been, basically since its creation), it will be in a great position to add some solid programs from the West. Even if Oregon and Washington eventually get the call from the Big Ten, the Big 12 could still try to add Utah -- the defending Pac-12 champs, if you needed a reminder -- plus perhaps Colorado and the Arizona schools if it chooses (and BYU agrees to offer its bitter in-state rival a decent landing spot). Even for Oregon and Washington, it might seem more attractive to move to a Bigger Big 12 than stay in a USC-less Pac-10 or so. And if the Big 12 chooses to pursue a merger of sorts with the remaining Pac-12 schools, it would do from a position of strength. Barring such a Big 12-Pac-10 merger, it's hard to see this run of realignment working out particularly well for Washington State and Oregon State in particular, and if Cal and Stanford don't land a Big Ten invitation, there isn't an amazing fit for them anywhere -- institutionally, the ACC makes as much sense for them as anything, and that's about as big a geographic reach as USC and UCLA going to the Big Ten (and without the same financial benefit). But it does appear the unsinkable Big 12 will have a chance to make an upgrade at some point. It's really hard to make the case that this is good for college football Another header stolen from last year's OU-Texas piece. USC is playing Maryland but not Oregon State. UCLA is playing Rutgers but (perhaps) not Cal. We're used to seeing quite a few rivalries disappear in the waves of conference realignment, but this breaks geography in the process. And it does so at a time when climate change and rising travel costs should mean decreasing these things. Los Angeles International Airport is easy to access from all over the country, but a three-time-zone trip is still a three-time-zone trip. In the early 1970s, when the SEC was considering (and ultimately rejecting) expansion, the schools on the board included former members Georgia Tech and Tulane and southeastern independents such as Memphis State, Southern Miss and a not-yet-proven Florida State. The conference's footprint was a top priority. And even in an era of expanding conferences -- BYU and UCF will both be in the future Big 12, and Chicago State once belonged to the Western Athletic Conference, after all -- this is the most jarring move yet. Think about how many college football decisions have been made through the years with preserving the Rose Bowl in mind. But now what happens? Does the Rose Bowl split hosting the Big Ten championship game with Indianapolis every December? Does that become its biggest event? This really isn't going to change who contends for national titles, who signs the best recruiting classes and so forth. And however the dominoes fall, there will be loads of incredibly fun football to watch regardless. (Seriously, think of a future Big 12, with not only the impending fun additions but also the Holy War rivalry and, for that matter, Arizona basketball.) But even more than the OU-Texas move, this is the clearest assertion of power, both for the conferences that have it and the brands that still have access to it, that college sports have seen to date. At this point, not even the Granddaddy of Them All can get in the way.