by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.,com Editor

Maybe things don’t really change that much in college football. After all, it might as well be 1973, when Notre Dame and Alabama clashed for the national title at the Sugar Bowl. Or the 1980 season, when the Fighting Irish and Georgia squared off in the highest-profile New Year’s Day bowl game (again at the Sugar). Decades later, it’s going to be the Fighting Irish vs. either the Crimson Tide or Bulldogs once again for the national crown, with the specific matchup to be confirmed after this Saturday’s SEC title game in Atlanta. We’ll have more on the history of that conference championship affair, as well as those from other leagues, later in this piece.

But a random national title rematch is about all that hasn’t changed in the college football landscape since the ‘70s and ‘80s. Last week’s moves of Maryland (from the ACC) and Rutgers (from the Big East) to the ever-expanding Big Ten illustrated the new-found realities of conference realignment that we first presented in some detail almost three years ago in a well-received editorial entitled “The Big 64" on our website.

We have occasionally made reference to The Big 64 in the time since and believe now is another opportunity to remind readers that no matter what some members of the print and TV media might lead you to believe, we’re not close to being finished with the conference membership shuffle that has picked up significant momentum in recent years. The eventual, and inexorable, move to four “super conferences” with 16 teams each (hence “The Big 64") remains on course for eventual delivery sometime later in this decade.

We also believe some developments from the past continue to influence the conference shuffle dynamic. Rutgers’ departure from the Big East is merely the latest and perhaps final blow to the one-time Eastern alignment that was never glued together as tightly as it could have been had Joe Paterno and Penn State not decided long ago that they were too big for the rest of the region and needed a stage like the Big Ten to be properly exposed. Without the adhesion provided by the high-profile Nittany Lions, the Eastern alliance was never as strong as it could have been, and the region has instead been colonized by different leagues the way the African continent once was. Meanwhile, the longstanding lack of a college football playoff (which has been partially addressed in future years beginning in 2014; more on that next week) continues to force schools into looking for other ways to generate revenue...for which the Big Ten has been a forerunner.

The conference shuffle, however, continues to fascinate. Earlier this season, we devoted significant space on these pages to commentary regarding Notre Dame’s future move into the ACC, which is more of an “alliance” on the football side as opposed to full-fledged membership in basketball. At the time, many scribes suggested that the marriage of the Irish with the ACC would signal an end to conference realignment in the foreseeable future, opining that the Big Ten, in particular, would be content to sit at its twelve members and not consider any further expansion with Notre Dame no longer a target.

Nothing could have been further from the truth, because Notre Dame had not been nearly as important to the Big Ten since the creation of its own Big Ten Network, which represents the template that figures to further distort the conference membership ranks in subsequent years. Simply, the Big Ten didn’t need Notre Dame.

The fact is the Big Ten Network is the sort of new-age money-spinner that will continue to redefine college sports into the foreseeable future. The progressive Big Ten model, which splits revenues equally among its members, is a staggering cash cow, with its TV network now on basic cable TV packages in all states where Big Ten institutions exist. This represents not only a consistent source of revenue, but one with built-in escalators as well. As such, it’s a better deal than the flat rate the SEC has been able to extract from ESPN. And it’s why schools such as Indiana and Purdue are realizing more TV revenue these days than Notre Dame.

The additions of Rutgers and Maryland have less to do with strengthening the Big Ten athletic brand than they do with adding more potential TV viewers (almost 15 million residents in New Jersey and Maryland alone) and other communication platform consumers into the Big Ten Network, and the inevitable revenue increases that will result.

The new reality of college sports is reflected in these TV dynamics. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, the parent company of Fox Sports (a partner with the Big Ten Network), has also just acquired a 49% stake in the YES Network, which telecasts most New York Yankees games. Reports indicate that News Corporation can eventually acquire up to 80% of YES, and industry sources say that News Corp has designs on bundling the Big Ten Network with all of its other cable channels (such as high-profile Fox News). Which means the Big Ten Network, with Rutgers and Maryland as regional reps, will be on basic cable throughout the Eastern Seaboard very soon.

Nowadays, a conference’s TV properties and markets are often more important than the on-field product. This fact is not lost upon Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, a chap we used to regard with some revulsion, but now instead consider a visionary. “They’re in a great population area,” Delany said of Maryland after the Terps accepted the Big Ten invitation last week. The same applies to Rutgers, as now even the New York City and Washington, D.C. markets, and their even-greater TV numbers, are within touching distance of the BTN.

That Delany was able to eventually convince the once-staid Big Ten school presidents about the future of the landscape is a testament to his powers of persuasion. And also of the financial realities of the day. For with budget cuts looming at almost every state university in the country, it’s time for good old business sense to save the day and for all legitimate revenue generators to be explored. And insulated (mostly) from the political process, Delany and the Big Ten schools only have to answer to themselves, and not worry about the sorts of political campaign watchdog groups who decry capitalism in all its forms. Redistribution, as it exists in the Big Ten, is for its member schools, not the masses.

The additions of Rutgers and Maryland were also an easier sell to the academe element in the Big Ten that doesn’t want just any school to be admitted to its ranks. As members of the prestigious Association of American Universities, Rutgers and Maryland more easily passed muster with the Big Ten than did the previous addition, Nebraska, which was justified on academic grounds because of its high standing in agricultural studies.

Mostly, however, don’t expect the Big Ten or other conferences to stop shuffling. Sources tell us the Big Ten will eventually get to 16 members; next on the target list could be Georgia Tech (also an AAU member), which potentially introduces the Big Ten Network to an entirely new (and population-growing) region from the Showcase City of the South, Atlanta. The Big Ten would also love to get into Florida, and while the University of Florida is the only AAU member in the state, we have a hard time believing that Delany couldn’t find a Nebraska-like loophole to mollify the academes in the Big Ten if the chance of landing Florida State (which has appeared restless in the ACC) or Miami present themselves.

The big fish on the horizon, however, remains the Lone Star State, and the potential whale in Austin. Although sources report that the University of Texas remains hellbent (for the time being, at least) to establish its Longhorn Network (partnered with ESPN) just as the Big Ten Network has done. UT, however, has had problems clearing the Longhorn Network on basic cable outside of its home state, and industry sources say that at some point, Texas might conclude that its brand is regional, and not national, and could change course. As for the current Big 12 alignment, it's held together by the Longhorns’ presence, but everything could splinter quickly if Texas bolts to the Big Ten or, perhaps, the expansion-minded Pac-12, which nearly annexed part of the Big 12 not long ago and would have likely done so had the Longhorn Network not clouded Texas’ vision.

Sources also tell us the Pac-12 is the next “power” player in this discussion, although unlike the Big Ten and its association with Fox, it is trying to go it alone with its new Pac-12 Network. The template set forth by Delany and the Big Ten remains the guiding light in the Pac-12, which is also in the process of clearing as many basic cable systems as possible. The Lone Star State would obviously represent the next frontier for the Pac-12 (or Big Ten). Aforementioned Florida State is also a potential player to watch in the near future (and we doubt the ACC is going to be able to hold its $50 million exit fee over the Noles, who voted against that enhanced penalty a few months ago). As for the Big East, we maintain that it could eventually revert to a non-football league by the end of the decade.

We’ll continue to periodically address the conference shuffle issues on these pages and those of our website as events unfold. We’re relatively sure that we’ll have more to talk about on the subject in the near future.

Meanwhile, it’s conference title-game week, another byproduct of the new age of college football first introduced to the concept by the SEC in 1992. Six conference contests will be taking place this week; following are brief reviews, past results (since 2003), and pointspread histories of each event. Note that underdog sides covered five of six conference title games a year ago. Forecasts of the specific games can be found, as usual, within our College Analysis section.

SEC...Twenty games since 1992, with favorites 16-4 straight up, but only 10-10 vs. the pointspread. As usual, national title implications are in store this year, with Alabama and Georgia almost assuredly competing for one slot in the January BCS title game vs. Notre Dame. 2011-LSU (-13) 42 - Georgia 10 (“over 46 ½); 2010-Auburn (-5) 56 - South Carolina 17 (“over” 61); 2009-Alabama 32 - Florida (-5) 13 (“over” 41); 2008-Florida (-10) 31 - Alabama 20 (“under” 52½); 2007-LSU (-7½) 21 - Tennessee 14 (“under” 60); 2006-Florida (-2½) 38 - Arkansas 28 (“over” 44½); 2005-Georgia (+ 1½) 34- LSU 14 (“over” 40½); 2004-Auburn (-14½) 38 - Tennessee 28 (“over” 47½); 2003-LSU (-3) 34 - Georgia 13 (“over” 42).

MAC...Fifteen games since 1997, with favorites 9-6 straight up and 6-9 vs. the pointspread. Prior to 2004 (when the game was moved indoors to Detroit’s Ford Field), MAC championships had been contested at campus sites. Underdogs have covered the last four. 2011-Northern Illinois (-3½) 23 - Ohio 20 (“under” 71); 2010-Miami Ohio (+17 ½) 26 - Northern Illinois 21 (“under” 54 ½); 2009-Central Michigan (-13½) 20 - Ohio 10 (“under” 54); 2008-Buffalo (+15½) 42 - Ball State 24 (“over” 63); 2007-Central Michigan (-3) 35 - Miami Ohio 10 (“under” 63½); 2006-Central Michigan (-3½) 31 - Ohio 10 (“under” 45½); 2005-Akron (+13) 31 - Northern Illinois 30 (“over” 52); 2004-Toledo (+1 1/2) 35 - Miami-Ohio 27 (“under” 64); 2003 - Miami-Ohio (-7) 49 - Bowling Green 27 (“over” 58½).

ACC...Seven games since 2005, with favorites 4-3 straight up and vs. the pointspread. First three games held at Jacksonville’s Alltel Stadium; 2008 and 2009 games held at Raymond James Stadium, Tampa; this marks the third straight year the game has been held at Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte. 2011-Clemson (+7) 38 - Virginia Tech 10 (“under” 54); 2010-Virginia Tech (-4) 44 - Florida State 33 (“over” 52); 2009-Georgia Tech (-1) 39 - Clemson 34 (“over” 56½); 2008-Virginia Tech(+1½) 30 - Boston College 12 (“over” 43); 2007-Virginia Tech (-4½) 30 - Boston College 16 (“under” 47); 2006-Wake Forest (-2) 9 - Georgia Tech 6 (“under” 40); 2005-Florida State (+14) 27 - Virginia Tech 22 (“over” 44½).

CONFERENCE USA...Like the ACC, began in 2005, with seven games since; favorites (and home teams) 4-3 straight up and vs. the pointspread. C-USA title games have been held at campus sites, with the home team noted by an *. 2011-Southern Miss (+13 ½) 49 - Houston* 28 (“over” 73); 2010- UCF* (-9) 17 - SMU 7 (“under” 55); 2009-East Carolina* 38 - Houston (-2) 33 (“over” 69); 2008-East Carolina (+12½) 27 - Tulsa* 24 (“under” 65½); 2007-UCF* (-7½) 44 - Tulsa 27 (“under” 74); 2006-Houston* (-5) 34 - Southern Miss 20(“over” 53½); 2005-Tulsa (-2) 44 - UCF* 27 (“over” 56½).

BIG TEN...2011-Wisconsin (-9½) 42 - Michigan State 39 (“over” 55).

PAC-12...2011-Oregon* (-31) 49 - UCLA 31 (“over” 66½). *-Home team.

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