by Bruce Marshall, TGS EXTRA!!! Editor

Last year, we posted on our website an extended story forecasting the future of college athletic conferences. We called it "The Big 64," looking forward to the not-so-far-away date in which the biggest leagues would continue to add members until they reached the magic number of 16, poaching schools from other conferences along the way.

We were hardly the first to predict as much, however. Over a decade ago, none other than former Washington State, Pitt, Texas A&M, and Mississippi State football coach Jackie Sherrill was saying many of the same things to anyone who would listen. The big money that was concentrated in college football would eventually create new alliances and tear old ones asunder in the process.

The underlying reason? The lack of a college football playoff, which is at the root of all conference movement over the past two decades. As we mentioned a year ago, any college football enthusiast who hasn't picked up Dan Wetzel & Co.'s excellent "Death to the BCS" book should get a hold of one as soon as possible for a detailed look at the picture. Like Sherrill, we have always believed the lack of a playoff would have similar consequences.

The seeds of conference overhaul were actually planted long ago, although they really didn't start to bloom until the '90s.

We have long maintained that the Eastern alliance of schools was never as solidified as it should be solely because of Penn State's desire to affiliate elsewhere and satisfy Joe Paterno's dream of a national championship. Or, to be more specific, no chance of a repeat of his 1968, 1969, and 1973 teams that finished unbeaten but then out of the national title mix.

Which was a shame, really, as despite no official conference affiliation, Penn State had long-standing and bitter rivalries with the likes of in-state Pitt, plus West Virginia, Syracuse, Boston College and occasionally Navy. Almost all of whom would appear on the schedules of others each season, creating a sort of conference without a conference among those schools for decades.

With the East never as solidified as it should have been due to Penn State's reluctance to join, whatever alliance the Eastern schools managed was always subject to attacks and raids from elsewhere. The Big East was a swell idea for football, but not as swell as it would have been with the real power gridiron school from the northeast, Penn State, involved. The Nittany Lions' absence made all of the members a bit less likely to band together if opportunities arose elsewhere. And now the ACC has practically picked the football side of the Big East clean, heisting Miami-Florida, Virginia Tech, and Boston College, in addition to Syracuse and Pitt, in recent years. The core of the non-Penn State Eastern alliance will soon be in the ACC.

Moreover, the once-burgeoning independent ranks dissipated as schools sought new alliances wherever possible, which is how a league such as Conference USA was formed. Florida State also joined the ACC in 1992. The Big East created a football league, although it didn't include Penn State, which joined the Big Ten in 1993, making it in fact the Big 11. A year previously, the SEC shook up the landscape by adding Arkansas and South Carolina, forming two six-team divisions, and staging a conference title game, which NCAA bylaws permitted for leagues with 12 members or more.

The latter development regarding conference title games was watched closely across the college athletics landscape, and provided the impetus for more changes in the middle of the decade, in particular the breakup of the old Southwest Conference. Its members scattered, three following Texas into the newly-named Big XII along with the entirety of the old Big 8, others joining an expanded WAC, and Houston moving to CUSA. The new Big XII and expanded WAC also followed suit with the conference title game idea, beginning in 1996.

So, we have seen upheaval in conference alignments before. Although we suspect the real movin' and shakin' is still to come.

We got a small dose of the first phase of "The Big 64" last year when the initial salvos were fired. Nebraska and Colorado left the Big XII for the Big Ten and newly-created Pac-10 (to become Pac-12), respectively. Utah left the Mountain West for the Pac-10 (12), and BYU also left the MWC for independent status in football and membership in the West Coast Conference for other sports. Boise State left the WAC for the Mountain West, and WAC brethren Nevada and Fresno State soon followed suit, although they wouldn't be switching leagues until next season. Hawaii also announced it would be bolting the WAC for the Mountain West in football and Big West in other sports. TCU jumped from the Mountain West to the Big East, effective 2012.

All of those moves, however, somewhat paled in comparison to the Pac-10's hostile takeover bid for much of the southern half of the Big XII. Before being annexed, however, the Big XII put the brakes on the move and recalibrated as a 10-team league. Along the way it made some significant concessions to the University of Texas, including the blessing of allowing the Longhorns to develop their own TV network with ESPN.

After a relative period of calm over the past eleven months, however, all hell is breaking loose again. The Big XII's remaining non-Texas schools began to feel quite uncomfortable with the whole Longhorn Network things, and the loop was subject to the most conjecture in the late summer months.

September was a busy month, not just for the Big XII, with Syracuse and Pittsburgh bolting the Big East for the ACC (although the move will be delayed up to two years), while speculation of Texas A&M jumping from the Big XII to the SEC was finally confirmed.

Don't expect those to be the last moves for a while, either; informed sources have told us that October could be just as busy, or busier, than September.

Make no mistake, the Big XII is in trouble. Although league sources moved quickly to hold things together in September, with conference commissioner Dan Beebe forced out and Chuck Neinas, the former Big 8 commish in the '70s more recently known for his consulting service to help colleges find new coaches and administrators, now on board in an interim (yet extremely important) capacity.

Neinas is tasked with keeping the loop together and perhaps luring others from elsewhere to fortify the ranks if more schools leave the fold. Or if they don't; depending upon the rumors, Neinas has apparently been in contact with Air Force, BYU, TCU, Houston, and the remaining football-playing members of the Big East to perhaps for a new amalgamation. But his task is daunting.

Like tectonic plates, the college landscape is indeed shifting. Following are some "power points" to watch as the situation moves forward into October and November.

1) Texas. Don't for a minute believe that the Pac-12 didn't want to annex Texas and three other potential Big XII defectors (Texas Tech and the Oklahoma schools) when expansion talk resurfaced last month. Sources tell us the Pac-12 was ready to move to expand as long as it could come to some resolution with the Longhorns on their own TV network deal with ESPN. The Pac-12 would have preferred Texas partner with somebody else on the venture; the Longhorns said no way.

And therein was the only reason the Pac-12 didn't annex those four Big XII schools last month.

Sources maintain, however, that the situation remains fluid with the Pac-12 and is a hardly a closed subject. But the Pac-12 is hardly Texas' only option.

Sources say the Longhorns have also been courted by the ACC, which after expanding to fourteen schools by adding Syracuse and Pitt has stated that it might want go all of the way to sixteen and add two more.

Which leads us to...

2) Notre Dame. The Irish have long had the potential to be "in play" if they wished. To this point, they have resisted all overtures relating to football (several years ago, ND was quick to align with the Big East in basketball when its interests in hoops and selected other sports were best-served by conference affiliation), but some believe the Irish are weighing their options more carefully than ever, fearful that prime football dates might be harder to come by if the "super leagues" indeed metastasize without their inclusion.

And the best bet to land Notre Dame, according to our sources, is none other than the ACC.

The Irish would be tempted by the exposure to the population shift and recruiting riches of the mid-Atlantic and South regions that the ACC encompasses. Mostly, however, they might be tempted by a potential ACC offer that would allow the Irish to keep their football TV deal with NBC.

And combined with the ACC perhaps offering the same sort of deal to none other than Texas (you can come, Longhorns, and you can bring your TV network, too), and you see why the ACC might be balking a bit at adding the likes of UConn and Rutgers to the mix.

That's because the ACC might have a chance to land two of the biggest fishes in the college football pond, Texas and Notre Dame, instead.

3) SEC. Those wondering why the SEC was quick to confirm A&M's membership last month and add the Aggies as a seemingly-awkward thirteenth league member, well, like everything else, it had to do with economics.

Or, to put things as simply as possible, more money.

The SEC, which has existing mega-deals with ESPN and CBS for college football, was apparently collectively miffed that the Pac-12's recent expansion and new TV deals were worth slightly more per school than the existing SEC deals, negotiated a couple of years ago.

But by adding Texas A&M, the SEC could invoke a clause in its TV deals that permitted the league to be re-open for bidding and renegotiation for the telecast rights whenever the composition of the conference would change.

Thus, adding A&M as a 13th member has allowed the SEC to re-open the bidding on its vast TV contracts, which can now be negotiated for significantly more-favorable terms by the conference than previously. And each subsequent addition by the league would allow it to do the same thing over again.

So, be prepared for more expansion from the SEC.

4) Big East. This is the league, along with the Big XII, in the most-serious trouble at the moment.

The Big East has always been an awkward collection of football and non-football schools who have long distrusted the other. Keeping this diverse group as a happy family has always been a chore.

The departures of Pitt and Syracuse, however, have further reduced the league's gridiron profile, to the point where ESPN has stopped negotiations on a new football TV deal. More than anything, that development alone might signal the death knell for Big East football.

What likely happens to the remaining football-playing members of the conference? Count Rutgers and UConn as two who see their futures in the ACC, and that could happen soon if the ACC dreams of landing Notre Dame and/or Texas are scuttled. As for the others, a potential amalgamation with what might be left of the Big XII (think Iowa State, Baylor, the Kansas schools, and perhaps Missouri) could be in store.

Meanwhile, the future of the Big East could well be as a basketball-only loop as it first was when originally formed in 1979.

5) TCU. Sources tell us the Horned Frogs have more than a little wiggle room in their announced move to the Big East next year, especially with the league's TV deals now up in the air.

It says here that TCU never moves to the Big East. Potential landing spots include a reconfigured Big XII, perhaps the Pac-12, or, most interestingly, a return to the Mountain West, where the Frogs would still be welcomed and could prove the linchpin of a proposed merger with Conference USA that could end up netting that expanded super loop an automatic BCS football qualifier.

Indeed, lots still going on, including the chance the BCS blows up entirely along with the NCAA as we know it, and the biggest 80 schools decide to break away and form their new organization. All to satisfy the insatiable football appetite.

As we said, hang on to your hats. And we're not even sure a viable playoff option can stop the insanity.

Hang on your hats, the wild ride has just begun.

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