College football’s Great Realignment has been on pause in recent months.

After the seismic moves we saw in recent summers — Oklahoma and Texas announcing they were joining the SEC in 2021, USC and UCLA announcing they were joining the Big Ten in 2022 — there aren’t all that many conceivable earthquakes remaining. But with the ACC unsettled, members of the Pac-12 continuing to wait (and wait, and wait) for numbers on a new media deal, and the Big 12 looking to do something bold, discontent and uncertainty are high.

With the ACC’s long grant-of-rights deal still legally impenetrable at the moment — and, therefore, the thought of ACC programs leaving for another conference remaining unrealistic in the short term — the next if-then moment is pretty well understood: At some point, the Pac-12 will announce its new media rights numbers, and either they will be good enough or they won’t.

If they’re comparable to the Big 12’s recent numbers, then the Pac-12 will likely keep its 10 remaining members in place and attempt to add two more. (Current indications are that San Diego State and SMU are at the top of the expansion wish list.) If the numbers are drastically inferior, things could get weird. The easternmost members of the conference — some combination of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Arizona State — could welcome an aggressive advance by the Big 12. That could create a potential domino effect: Maybe the Big Ten takes an accelerated look at Oregon and Washington (and maybe Cal and Stanford)? Maybe those schools look the Big 12’s way?

The Pac-12’s persistent delays in announcing media rights certainly don’t build optimism, but for now I continue to assume that odds favor the Pac-12 patching together some sort of coalition of broadcasters and promising just enough annual revenue that it keeps its members in place for now. But if there’s one constant in recent summers, it’s that our assumptions are consistently wrong.

The next decade or so of realignment could be both interesting and depressing

We’re facing one of two futures in this era of college football: Either (a) the Big Ten and SEC become the sport’s two dominant financial forces, creating more of a Power Two of sorts than a Power Five, or (b) the Big Ten and SEC become so powerful that we end up with the dreaded “super league” situation, in which they become either a formal or informal top division for the sport.

There’s a chance that, when the ACC’s grant of rights gets closer to its expiration, both the Big Ten and SEC pluck away its most valuable schools, ensuring that almost all of the sport’s big brands reside in one of two neighborhoods. We have seen plenty of speculation that the members of these conferences will form some sort of super league among themselves, a rather fatalistic vision. But there really won’t be a need for any formal separation at that point — the Big Ten and SEC will form the anchors for all of college sports regardless.

That doesn’t have to be completely unhealthy, by the way. Look at European soccer: Over the past 10 years, teams from England’s Premier League and Spain’s La Liga have scooped up 15 of 20 spots in the Champions League final and won all but one title. But well-run (and well-monied) clubs in other countries — Germany’s Bayern Munich, France’s Paris Saint-Germain, a varied smattering of Italian clubs — still make big runs when they have all their ducks in a row. Germany still has a product attractive enough to outdraw the Premier League in terms of attendance, and the pressure that comes with extreme riches has led to loads of panic spending and panic firings from Barcelona and many English clubs. That opens the door for well-run clubs outside of those areas to take advantage.

As long as schools in other conferences have a reason to invest, and fans continue to have a reason to care, football in conferences outside of the Big Two can remain both relevant and exciting. None of this power concentration is optimal, but a reasonably healthy ecosystem can still exist.

More than any future realignment moves, the single most important feature, when it comes to the health of the Big 12, ACC and Pac-12, could be the structure of the upcoming 12-team football playoff. For 2024 and 2025, the playoff will feature a minimum of six conference champions, four of which will get first-round byes. That alone makes winning those three conferences vitally important and worth striving (and investing) for. With that requirement in place, these conferences will remain viable for that reason alone. But there’s no guarantee the requirement will remain in place when contracts are renegotiated for 2026 and beyond. If the Pac-12 gets severely diminished in coming realignment moves, that could impact things, as could a power move from a figure like SEC commissioner Greg Sankey.

If the right people want further power conference concentration, and if the television revenue is there for it — it certainly has been so far, but there’s no guarantee that continues — it’s hard to know what might stop it. And we’ve potentially seen some of the last big home run swings available; there really aren’t many huge brands left to change conferences unless the Big Ten and SEC start stealing from each other.

For now, though, let’s daydream. For the conferences that are falling behind the Big Two, let’s think of some big swings for them to take. A Big 36? A Pac-91? Why not? Here are three (mostly) unrealistic but fun scenarios for the future of college sports.

(Please remember: There are no wrong answers in the brainstorming process.)

The ACC and Big East should merge

Colleague David Hale had an excellent Twitter thread recently about the ACC’s current conundrum. Because of the way realignment works, and because there’s no such thing as alliances or loyalty in the realignment process, the ACC basically has no strong options when it comes to preventing any of its teams from leaving for the Big Ten or SEC if the opportunity arises. A success-driven revenue model can help a smidge, but even the league’s most successful schools will make a pittance compared to SEC and Big Ten schools in the coming years. You can bend over backward to appease Florida State or Clemson, but if either gets an SEC invitation, they’re gone.

Meanwhile, the biggest theoretical moves the ACC could hope to make are unrealistic. Notre Dame clearly isn’t joining full time, there are no other huge brands to add, and ESPN probably isn’t renegotiating its media deal to make everyone happier. It feels like any potential move is simple window dressing while schools wait for the grant of rights to expire.

But what if the league changed how it defined itself entirely? What if it attempted to add programming and intrigue by … merging (sort of) with another conference?

From 1989 to 1991, the made-for-TV ACC-Big East challenge near the start of the college basketball season crafted big-time matchups such as No. 1 Syracuse vs. No. 6 Duke in 1989-90, No. 5 Duke at No. 6 Georgetown in 1990-91 and No. 5 North Carolina at No. 6 Seton Hall in 1991-92. At the end of three years and 24 games, both conferences had won 12. Granted, both conferences were better then than they have been over the past couple of seasons — per Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, the ACC graded out as only the seventh-best men’s hoops conference on average in 2022-23 and hasn’t been better than fifth since 2019-20, and while the Big East did boast national champion UConn this season, it has averaged a No. 4 ranking over the past four seasons. Still, the historic brand power here remains strong.

After what amounts to a failed football venture — one that saw a number of schools leave for the ACC during the last big round of conference realignment (hey, no hard feelings, right?) — the Big East was reborn as a basketball-first collection of mostly Catholic universities and crafted something most conferences cannot currently boast: a clear identity. Because of this, the two conferences could remain separate entities when it comes to in-conference schedules. But what if they created a shared programming and scheduling arrangement that featured annual nonconference games (like The Alliance, but not complete nonsense from the start) and, perhaps, an annual, weeklong ACC-Big East tournament in Madison Square Garden in March?

(How would these conferences’ automatic NCAA tournament bids work? However we want! Give them to both finalists, or perhaps to each conference’s furthest advancing team. The world is our oyster here.)

This obviously wouldn’t be much of a football move. Sure, the league could add UConn football to the mix (and hey, Villanova has a rock-solid FCS program, right?). But despite an increase in marquee hoops matchups, plus the Big East’s media rights money and some potential ratings boons from December through March — by the way, this double-conference would have also claimed seven of the Sweet 16 teams in the women’s NCAA tournament — this won’t stop predators from raiding the conference(s) in the future. But it would assure that the identity and brand quality wouldn’t get completely drained if it loses a few schools in the future. That’s something, right?

The Big 12 should expand to 24 … or 36!

The Big 12 has found its niche — and its confidence — in recent years. Despite its combined 1-5 record in College Football Playoff games, and despite facing the loss of its two biggest football brands to the SEC, it has quickly begun to enjoy life as The Fun Conference. The close football games are nonstop, something that should remain the case when it trades Oklahoma and Texas for four top-40 caliber programs in BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF. In men’s basketball, the conference has ranked a distant first in average Ken Pomeroy rating for two straight years and placed a team in the NCAA tournament final for three straight seasons (2018-19, 2020-21, 2021-22) with two wins and an overtime loss. Houston was a Final Four team recently too.

Moving forward, the Big 12 could carve out a niche as the third-best football conference and one of the best in many other sports, from the diamond sports to track and field. It’s got an aggressive and confident commissioner and, for worse or better, no geographic limitations. It already stretches from Utah to West Virginia to Florida (and New York, sort of), so any move it wants to make in the realignment wars — current rumors have commissioner Brett Yormark looking into adding both Gonzaga and UConn in addition to the potentially vulnerable Pac-12 programs and/or San Diego State — would only stretch those boundaries so much.

At the moment, this is the conference that seems most likely to make a genuinely bold and potentially ridiculous realignment move. Yormark would like to get to 14 or 16 schools at some point. My verdict: That’s not nearly bold enough. Let’s create the first tiered conference.

When an American sports fan first gets hooked on European soccer, one of the first things that inevitably catches his or her imagination is the idea of promotion and relegation. It is common in the soccer universe — the past week or so has featured some pretty incredible promotion and relegation moments, especially in England and Germany — but it remains elusive within the US sports universe.

I’ve long thought that the idea had particular merit within college sports, especially college football, where teams’ financial status and place in the great conference hierarchy has more to do with what friends they had in the 1930s, as major conferences were evolving, than anything they’ve done on a football field of late. I’ve been fiddling with “what this would look like” scenarios for years.

I acknowledge that, unless or until I am put in charge of all college football one day, we’re obviously never going to redraw all the divisions of the sport. We’re not going to promote Troy or Louisiana or Appalachian State from the Sun Belt to the SEC at Vanderbilt’s or, in 2022, Texas A&M’s expense. (Think of how hilarious that would be, though!)

But what if an enterprising conference, with its aforementioned bold and confident commish, were to expand its boundaries and create its own set of tiers within which to promote and relegate? Why should the Big 12 stop at 14 or 16 teams when it could try to vacuum up every remaining exciting athletic program in the country?

Sure, add the four closest Pac-12 schools. And Oregon and Washington, if they’re interested. Stanford is still a regular presence atop the Learfield Cup rankings for overall athletic success; add them. Add Cal too.

Add Gonzaga, obviously.

Appalachian State, Boise State, Memphis, Louisiana, SMU, San Diego State, Tulane and Fresno State have all averaged SP+ rankings of 60th or better over the past five football seasons; add them all. James Madison finished 50th in its first season in FBS. Add them too. Add UTSA, if they sign football coach Jeff Traylor to a lifetime contract.

North Dakota State is the preeminent FCS football program. South Dakota State and Montana State are good at football and threatening a top-50 Learfield Cup finish this year. Add them all.

Atlanta is huge. Add Georgia State. North Carolina A&T is amazing at track and field and was good at football pretty recently. Let’s crack open the HBCU universe. Let’s add Jackson State, too. Make the Tigers conferencemates with Deion Sanders and Colorado.

Hell, is the Ivy League indestructible? Because Princeton and Harvard have a constant top-40 presence in the Learfield Cup, and both have fielded excellent FCS football teams.

Expand, and expand, and expand until you get to 24 teams, or 36, or 48, then create tiers of 12-team conferences. Set up eight-game conference schedules within your tier, plus a ninth game to assure that all major rivalry games remain continuous. Apply relegation rules — the bottom two teams in each tier go down to a lower tier the next year, while the top two teams go up. Do it just in football if you want, or do it for every sport.

Big 12 football, Tier 1 (based on last year’s SP+ rankings)

West: Baylor, Oregon, TCU, Texas Tech, Utah, Washington

East: Cincinnati, Kansas State, Memphis, Oklahoma State, Tulane, UCF

Tier 2

West/South: Boise State, Fresno State, Houston, Kansas, SMU, UTSA

East/North: App State, Iowa State, James Madison, North Dakota State, South Dakota State, West Virginia

Tier 3

West: Arizona, Arizona State, Cal, Montana State, San Diego State, Stanford

East(ish): BYU, Colorado, Georgia State, Jackson State, Louisiana, NC A&T

Who says no to this?

OK, fine, just about everyone would say no, from university presidents to climate change activists (because of the ridiculous travel). But that’s just because they don’t have the vision you and I have, Brett Yormark.

The Pac-12 should expand … to 91 in football (and 190 in basketball)

Now that we’ve cracked the seal on relegation, let’s think even bigger.

If we’re being honest, the Pac-12 only ever had one good card to play in the Great Realignment, and former commissioner Larry Scott played it as soon as he possibly could. In the early summer months of 2010, Scott, still in his first year on the job, made a play to destroy the already wobbly Big 12 conference, attempting to add Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Colorado to what would become a Pac-16 Conference. A&M was never sold, and there were rumors that Scott wanted to include Kansas as well, but the big fish were Texas and Oklahoma. They were the closest blue-blood programs within reach, and adding them would have been an absolute coup.

It seemed for a few days as if it actually might happen, but things eventually fell apart. Texas supposedly got cold feet for one reason or another, the Pac-10 added Colorado and Utah instead, and the Big 12 lived on without either Colorado or Big Ten-bound Nebraska. (It held on a year later, too, when Texas A&M and Missouri left for the SEC.)

Scott made plenty of mistakes as the conference’s commissioner. The ridiculously expensive real estate and the fancy offices in San Francisco never made fiscal sense, and the inability to sell the Pac-12 Network and its satellite networks — or to create said satellites in the first place — handcuffed the conference significantly. Even with the same membership, it could certainly be more financially healthy than it currently is.

Still, without Texas and Oklahoma, Scott was never going to truly succeed. As conferences began fighting for territory, there was no way for the Pac-12 to overcome being so dang western. Since loyalty has never ever been a thing in realignment, there was no card for the Pac-12 to play to keep USC and UCLA once the Big Ten got a wild hair to go global.

Now, as Scott’s successor, George Kliavkoff, faces the same geographic realities in looking to secure new media rights and attempt to figure out which expansion candidates stand out in a sea of schools with similar statures — and as the process drags on longer than initially anticipated — there’s one final home run swing the conference has at its disposal, and I’m here to recommend it:

Add everyone.

Add every school with any sort of tie to the Pacific time zone. Anything west of the Missouri River, for that matter. Absorb (if we’re feeling warlike) or become affiliates with (if we’re more benevolent) every conference in the general area. Create a conference with tiers in each level of college football — FBS (power conference and Group of 5 levels), FCS, Division II, Division III — and promote and relegate from within them. The NCAA won’t allow such a thing? Let’s not allow such small details to get in the way of a great idea.

The Mountain West starts out as Tier 2. The Big Sky is Tier 3. (Throw the four Dakota schools in there as well.) The WAC and Southland are Tier 4, followed by Division II’s Lone Star and Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (which features 2022 finalist Colorado Mines) in Tier 5 and Division III’s American Southwest (which features heavyweight Mary Hardin-Baylor) and Northwest Conferences in Tier 6.

Do the same for basketball, throwing the West Coast Conference into Tier 2, the Big West into Tier 3, et cetera. There’s a lot of good, upwardly mobile basketball out west, from NIT semifinalist Utah Valley to Division II men’s semifinalists Cal State San Bernardino and Black Hills State to Division III men’s champion (and women’s runner-up) Christopher Newport. They’re all part of the PAC now. Even without UCLA and USC, within a couple of years of promotion and relegation, everyone in the top tier of the men’s basketball conference would be a top-75 or so team. In football, everyone would be top-50 or so.

Instead of being limited by geography, make sure that, for every sport you sponsor, you are represented by the absolute best programs in the West. You have no way of stopping an Oregon or Washington from leaving for the Big Ten if offered, but if someone leaves, bump two more teams up the ladder and keep on rolling. Turn your greatest weakness into your greatest strength. What bad could come from it? Like the money would actually get worse or something?