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We have come to think of college athletics in terms of haves and have-nots, big conferences and small conferences, BCS and non-BCS. It's not just in football, either. That dividing line, which now seems so concrete, has permeated other sports, too: basketball, soccer, track and field.

It's a status symbol in recruiting. It's a financial gulf that programs on the wrong side are desperate to cross. Even the NCAA -- which has nothing to do with college football's postseason -- is talking about structural changes that will allow the "Power 5" conferences to have flexibility in making their own rules.

And it's all because of those three letters: BCS.

All the realignment we've seen the past few years, the TV boom that has led to a consolidation of power and financial might, the idea that conferences are racing against each other to get to the top of the food chain? For better or worse, it can be directly traced to the rise of the BCS.

In the old days, when conferences sent their champions to the same bowl games year after year and there was no way to engineer a matchup of the top two teams in the country, it was essentially a regional sport.

One of the great accomplishments of the BCS is that it made college football more national. Suddenly, Southeastern Conference fans had reason to care about Pac-12 games, and fans of the Big 12 or Big Ten needed to root against a Boise State or a Northern Illinois.

The unintended consequence was the caste system it created, especially as the TV money got bigger and bigger: The six conferences with automatic BCS bids were on one plane, and everybody else was on another.

Suddenly, school presidents and athletics directors started thinking differently. Your conference affiliation wasn't as much about geography, history or academic fit; it was about TV dollars and perception.

In 2003, the Atlantic Coast Conference raided the Big East for three of its top football programs: Miami (Fla.), Virginia Tech and Boston College. In 2007, the Big Ten launched a television network.

Those developments were massive in changing the landscape of college sports. After the ACC's expansion, the Big East was clearly No. 6 (and the most vulnerable) in the football pecking order among automatic-qualifying conferences. And once the Big Ten Network got up and running, it established Jim Delany's conference as the clear No. 1 in per-school television revenue.

For a while, it was chaos. The Big 12 nearly fell apart, stayed together, then changed forever when Texas A&M and Missouri went to the SEC. The Big East lost Pittsburgh and Syracuse to another ACC invasion, then scrambled to stay afloat before ultimately dying as a football conference.

But that kind of separation or hysteria over conference affiliation simply didn't exist before the BCS. It unintentionally created a system of haves and have-nots, and the gap only seems to be bigger in the new playoff world.

That's quite a legacy for the BCS -- for better or worse.

 

December 30, 2013
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