College athletics are on the verge of a monumental shift, a realignment that could disintegrate one conference, turn others
into 16-school goliaths and have huge financial implications on some of the biggest programs in the country.
The first card flipped on Thursday, when Colorado ditched the Big 12 for the Pac-10. Next up appear to be Nebraska and Missouri, both facing decisions that could spark another exodus and the collapse of the Big 12.
"(Now) the first move is made, I think you'll see the dominos start falling," said Joel Maxcey, sports economist at the University of Georgia.
It's already been a wild ride.
The Big Ten started it off by exploring plans to expand, an effort it hoped would add more eyes to its successful cable network and reach the NCAA minimum of 12 teams required to hold a conference championship game in football.
The Big Ten's big grab led to harried calls between rivals, political ploys and behind-the-scenes maneuvering as schools across the country look to make sure they're not standing alone, pockets empty, when the music stops.
Colorado took a pre-emptive strike, deciding to head west to the Pac-10 instead of waiting to see what everyone else was going to do. The next move could come Friday, when Nebraska and Missouri face a stay-or-go ultimatum from the Big 12.
Nebraska seems most likely to go, likely to the Big Ten.
The Cornhuskers have long-standing ties with many of the schools in the Big 12's North Division — they've played Kansas and Missouri in football since the 1890s — but Big Ten money might be too much to pass up.
Nebraska's regents are scheduled to meet Friday to discuss realignment. Colorado's choice to bolt early could play a role in the decision, though it might already be a done deal.
"It doesn't say anything," Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne said of Colorado's announcement. "I really have no comment on this. I'm not saying we're gone or not gone. Until we have a definite decision, I'm not saying anything else."
Missouri faces a more difficult challenge.
The school has expressed interest in joining the Big Ten and seemed to be a good fit with its proximity and heated rivalry with Illinois. But the Tigers apparently became a less-popular choice for the conference in recent weeks and the university's curator said Thursday the school had not been invited to join the Big Ten.
Even if Missouri decides to stay in the Big 12, the school could be left to forage amid the scraps of the Big 12 or searching for another, lower-profile, less-profitable conference.
"There's a lot of concern among alumni about what happens to Mizzou and how this works out," said Todd McCubbin, executive director of the Missouri Alumni Association.
The next round of movement could be the most volatile.
The Big Ten appears to be interested in adding Notre Dame — as most conferences would — though Fighting Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Thursday that the school's position hasn't changed and he wouldn't comment on realignment. The Big Ten might also be looking east, to pilfer schools from the Big East.
The biggest move could come from the Pac-10.
Now that the conference has Colorado, it could set its sights on the Big 12's South Division, reportedly interested in inviting Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State to form a 16-team megaconference.
Officials from rival schools Texas and Texas A&M met Thursday to discuss their athletic futures, while Oklahoma and Oklahoma are keeping options open while the Big 12 stays afloat.
The conference realignment could leave five schools on the outside looking in.
The expansion plans are driven by football, by far the biggest earner in college athletics, and schools that don't have strong gridiron traditions could get ignored.
That means schools like Kansas, despite its storied basketball program, along with Kansas State, Baylor and Iowa State could be looking for places to play. All of them have the added disadvantage of being in sparsely populated areas of the country.
"Hey, the KU brand is pretty good," Kansas basketball coach Bill Self said.
Still, if the Jayhawks and several other schools are unable to piece together something from the scraps of a ravaged Big 12, they might be forced to join smaller conferences, a demotion that would not only be embarrassing, but potentially devastating financially.
"I think we'll be in a quality league. I just don't know which league that will be in," Self said. "We are going to be in a BCS league. I'm totally confident of that. If something were to happen and we're not, we'd adjust."
A massive realignment could further concentrate the power to the biggest and richest schools. Some schools in BCS conferences will be left out in the cold, long-standing rivalries may be mothballed, traditions cast aside in the name of money.
A lot of change could happen in a short period of time.
"College sports, a lot of it is about traditions and rivalries and things like that, and there'll definitely be some changes," Maxcey said. "In general, college sports moves kind of slow and I think some of those changes will disappoint some fans of college sports."