Mark Story: Shifting conference landscape could benefit Kentucky, hurt Louisville

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 21, 2012 

In the never-ceasing game of conference musical chairs that engulfs college sports, the music accelerated dramatically in recent days.

First, the Florida State Board of Trustees chairman expressed public displeasure with the Atlantic Coast Conference and its recently negotiated TV contract and made googly eyes toward the Big 12. FSU subsequently tried to walk the comments back, but the impression now is that Florida State is a conference free agent.

Then, the Southeastern Conference announced last Friday it will enter into an agreement with the Big 12 to hold a football bowl game starting in 2014 that will match the two leagues' champions (or other league representatives if the champs are in the expected new college football playoff). It is designed to replicate the Big Ten and Pac-12's long-standing arrangement with the Rose Bowl.

What both developments have done is make the vision of four 16-team "super-conferences" in college football seem closer on the horizon than ever.

What could all this mean for our state's two marquee college sports programs, Kentucky and Louisville?

In recent years, with the Big 12 shedding teams and seemingly hellbent on self destruction, it had seemed that the SEC, the Big Ten, the Pac-12 and the ACC were the four most likely to emerge as super-conferences. Now, after the Florida State uncertainty and with the SEC throwing in with the Big 12, the Atlantic Coast Conference looks vulnerable to being excluded from the elite.

For U of L, anything that hobbles the ACC as a major football league — and broadens the pool of potential Big 12 expansion targets — is bad news with a capital B.

With the Bowl Championship Series automatic bowl qualifying system expected to die soon, Louisville is presently part of the "left behind series" that is Big East football.

If we're really moving toward 64 teams in four main conferences, it doesn't take Euclid's math skills to figure out big-time college football is headed for a massive squeeze play.

Next season, the SEC will have 14 teams; the Big Ten and Pac-12 will each have 12; the Big 12 has 10. That's 48 schools, meaning there would be 16 slots left to be filled in a 64-team, "super-conference" universe.

If the Big 12 makes the final four leagues, it means that vying for those 16 slots will be the entire present membership of the ACC and Big East Conferences plus such football notables as Notre Dame, BYU and Boise State.

Who would the Big 12 most covet? Florida State and Miami are both national football brands and would give the Big 12 a presence in Florida. Virginia Tech is a football power that would give new Big 12 member West Virginia a geographic rival.

That's 13. After that, it gets interesting. Since the University of Virginia essentially leveraged Virginia Tech into the ACC, would the Hokies return the favor and insist that UVa. go with them into a new league?

Does Notre Dame stay independent in football? If not, does it go Big 12 or Big Ten?

Would the Big 12 rather have Louisville or a presence in Atlanta that comes with Georgia Tech? For that matter, is U of L higher on the Big 12 pecking order than BYU, which has a national following due to its Mormon affiliation?

As for UK, if the SEC is eventually going to add two more teams, it should pass on Virginia Tech and Maryland (though both would be solid additions) and go for North Carolina and Duke.

Neither would enhance SEC football, but SEC football needs no enhancement. Add Carolina and Duke to the SEC, and the best football league would also become clearly the best men's basketball league. Bringing on Duke and UNC would also add the Charlotte and Raleigh/Durham TV markets to the SEC footprint and give the league a boost in academic cachet (which it needs).

Adding North Carolina and Duke to the SEC would also happen to be good for Kentucky. It would at long last bring into the league some basketball competitors who can look UK dead in the eye in terms of hoops tradition and emphasis. It would also add two football programs the Cats can 1.) beat regularly (Duke); 2.) compete with evenly (Carolina).

My argument from last fall for Kentucky to leave the SEC to find a more competitive football spot in the ACC is dead if that league is not going to emerge as one of the major football conferences.

If conference realignment can't take UK to the ACC, maybe the SEC can bring (some of) the benefits of the ACC to UK.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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