For years and years, the most popular barroom theory in college sports was that we're one day headed to four 16-team super-conferences. Normally, the person telling you the theory would nudge you in the ribs, with a tone that implied that they concocted the theory themselves or were told of "the plan" straight from the lips of God Himself.
My response any time my ribs were nudged has always been, "Okay, but somebody's got go out and actually make that happen."
In reality, college sports presently has two super-conferences -- one at 16 teams, the other at 14. (Go find any mock up of a 4/16 alignment. None of them had Texas and Oklahoma in the SEC.) With the Big Ten and SEC leaving the rest of college athletics behind and 8-figure collectives now seen as the cost of doing business, those in the know believe FBS isn't splitting into fourths, but instead into two.
Let's let Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick explain it, via Sports Illustrated:
“There’s always been sort of a spectrum—and I want to stress that everything along the spectrum is valid; it’s not a criticism,” Swarbrick said. “On one end of the spectrum, you license the school name and run an independent business that’s engaged in sports. The other end of the spectrum, you’re integrated into the university in terms of decision making and requirements, and some follow that.
“I think both can produce great athletic competition. But it’s really hard to get there given the contractual obligations that already exist.”
In plain English, on one side you'd have universities that operate athletics similar to how they always have -- athletes are students who receive scholarships and other associated benefits but no salary, the athletics department is governed by the university administration, and athletes must maintain progress toward a degree in order to maintain eligibility for competition. On the other, you'd basically have a mini-NFL and mini-NBA -- athletes are just that, athletes. They may attend classes if they so choose, but they would not be required to do so. Athletes would receive a salary, likely under a collectively-bargained contract. And the athletics department would be wholly separate from the university, simply licensing its name, logos and facilities from the university.
The split wouldn't necessarily be as clean cut as you'd think. Notre Dame, for instance, would remain in the Future NCAA, not join the Mini-NFL, Swarbrick said.
“We’re going to have these two conferences that have so distanced themselves from anyone else financially,” Swarbrick said. “That’s where I see it starting to break down. There are so many schools trying to get out of their current conference, and they can’t get there.”
It, obviously, remains to be seen whether the two ends of Swarbrick's Spectrum compete for the same championship and/or play non-conference games against each other each September. The bigger question would be whether a school that offers "just" a scholarship and still requires its players to take a full class load can compete, in a general sense, with pure football factories that pay six figures (or more?) and don't heap coursework on top of football.
As for when this is all expected to happen, Swarbrick points to the middle portion of the next decade, when the most far-out TV contracts expire. (The ACC is presently the last to expire, in 2036.)
Of course, Swarbrick himself 68 years old. He'll be past 80 when 2036 arrives. So it'll be up to a new generation of leaders to go out and make this happen.