Conference Cakewalk

Remember the old “cakewalk” contests played at carnivals and fairs and school festivals?

You pay a dollar or two to enter. Music starts playing, everybody walks around these numbered placards placed on the ground, and when the music stops one lucky number wins a cake or some other prize. Win or lose it is a fun game.

The conference realignments of the past couple of years remind me a bit of those old cakewalks, only with winners landing in lucrative conferences that pay out millions to members, and losers feeling left out when the music stops. The conference cakewalks have not been fun for everyone.

We are still a week away from full conference play in college football, but one matchup caught my eye this week and brought to mind the winners and losers of the conference cakewalk: West Virginia at Maryland at 12:00 ET on the Big Ten Network. In my mind, those two schools epitomize some of the silliness and surprise of conference realignment these past few years.

West Virginia was a solid member of the Big East, a decent football league and an excellent basketball conference. On the gridiron, the Mountaineers annually played traditional geographical foes like Pitt and Cincinnati, they faced opponents with historical significance such as Syracuse, and had developed a recently formed league rivalry with Louisville. The program perhaps did not rate top five or even top ten status, but the Mountaineers played solid big-time football and boasted a strong fan following.

So, when the conference cakewalk music stopped, West Virginia ended up in … the Big 12? Uh oh.

This season Mountaineer faithful might traverse the Lone Star state with trips to play Texas Tech in Lubbock and Texas in Austin. They can sojourn to Stillwater, Oklahoma the week of Halloween to watch the OK State Cowboys, and then finish up the season out in Ames, Iowa, for the Iowa State game on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Bundle up for that one. Oh, and have your 401K ready to cash in just to pay for the privilege.

The Big 12 is a fine football conference, and landing there was a pretty nice consolation for West Virginia; but there are no natural rivals to play and the travel is daunting from Morgantown to all those schools in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. It is just not a good fit. Maryland in the Midwest-based Big Ten does not make much more sense.

But, Maryland was still luckier than the Mountaineers.

The Terps were a founding member of the ACC way back in 1953, but bolted for the big money of the Big Ten in 2014. Goodbye tradition, so long rivalries, see you later school heritage. Hello BTN (that’s Big Ten Network … and that is what the move was all about). The Big Ten schools will pull in around $31 million each this year, but Maryland will have to wait six years to get its full membership share. By that time, the league expects to be paying out more than $45 million annually to members.

Maryland gets a lot of money and stability from joining the Big Ten … but what does the Big Ten get from accepting the Terps into the fold? Not much other than the television sets along the Eastern seaboard and in the Washington, DC, market (that’s why Rutgers – and the NYC market – got the Big Ten call too). These conference television deals are all about getting the subscription fees from the conference footprint. The bigger and more populous the geographical footprint, the bigger the financial windfall (even if no right-thinking football fan in New York City or Washington, DC, watches Maryland play Rutgers on the same day of the Iron Bowl).

The Big Ten may not beat the other power conferences much on the football field these days, but the league is still the conference cakewalk champ.

Around the Nation

There are several intriguing intersectional games this week. Jim Mora has UCLA back in national contention as he takes the Bruins to the hill country of Austin to play Texas. First-year Longhorns coach Charlie Strong has been suspending people faster than you can keep count in establishing a tone of toughness and discipline. Another Big 12 teams hosts an out-of-conference opponent when Oklahoma welcomes Tennessee to Norman. The Volunteers are speedy but very young, while the Sooners are a popular pick to make the college football playoff. Arkansas plays at Texas Tech in another SEC-Big 12 pairing that might be worth a peek. The biggest conference game on the docket takes place in the SEC East, where South Carolina hopes to jump back into the division race against Georgia. The Bulldogs are coming off a bye week.

Note – this column originally appeared in The Blitz (Volume 4 Issue 3; Sept 11-13 2014)

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