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College realignment's next steps: ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 scramble amid chaos

Jesse Beals/Icon Sportswire

The only certainty in conference realignment is uncertainty, much like the only constant in college athletics is change.

Decisions can whipsaw on the whims of a board member or a president pressured into a ready-fire-aim strategy. When diagnosing the travails of modern college sports, the fact that university decision-makers have virtually no expertise in the billion-dollar enterprise they run on the side often gets overlooked.

So to say with any certainty that the Big Ten and SEC aren't on the cusp of more imminent realignment moves would be correct for now, but that's seemingly a temporary pause. Is that pause a week? Or a year? Whatever the case, those conferences have established themselves as destinations so alluring that schools outside the "Power 2" would have to be tempted to join at a cut rate.

The only certain trigger for expansion among the Power 2 in the near term is a move by Notre Dame, which for now appears to be taking on a century-old strategy of patience. (The Fighting Irish have an ally in the SEC in any attempts by the Big Ten to box them out of the College Football Playoff. The SEC is unlikely to bless any move that prevents Notre Dame from having access to the playoff, as it would push the Irish to the Big Ten. The SEC wouldn't want to strengthen its rival league like that.)

The issue that both the Big Ten and SEC have in terms of adding additional schools is that there simply aren't any -- outside of Notre Dame -- that offer certainty of value to grow the financial pie enough to justify their slice. There are arguments for ACC schools like Clemson, North Carolina, Florida State and Miami. But there are looming legal reasons why UCLA, USC, Texas and Oklahoma are all waiting for their current TV contracts -- and congruent grants of rights -- to expire.

Any cries for Oregon and Washington in the Big Ten should be tempered by the reality that if USC and UCLA wanted them there in the first place, they'd probably be there. Those schools appear to value owning Los Angeles and the rich recruiting market much more. They have a monopoly on the West Coast. Why invite in your top competition?

For the ACC schools to bounce, there's a legal briar patch no one -- the poachers or the schools wanting to leave -- is eager to navigate. University presidents and conference commissioners are generally averse to legal issues; deposition is a dirty word in higher ed. Those factors, combined with exit fees and legal fees tied to grant of rights that could run more than $100 million, might make it so the juice of adding teams isn't worth the legal and fiscal squeeze -- at least in the short term.

So where's the next likely action amid the realignment landscape? Well, the most jockeying, consulting, back-channeling and speculation are centered around the race for No. 3. With the Big Ten and SEC having established themselves as a Power 2, the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 are scrambling to attempt to solidify or build the next best league.

What's unfolding in those three leagues is the quintessential college sports scenario where members are pledging fidelity to league members on Zooms while side texting about leaving for other leagues. Commissioners are chatting about potential deals among one another and privately crunching the numbers with consultants to poach the other's members. Conference allegiance these days comes with all the romance and permanence of a Tinder swipe.

Here's a look at the options all three leagues are exploring: