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In a summer of upheaval for college football, yet another development threatens to fundamentally change the structure of the sport. 

The Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC announced Tuesday that they are joining forces in an inter-conference “alliance,” intended to both counter the SEC’s expansion into a 16-team superconference and reinforce “shared values” among the three conferences. 

“I think we have to keep in mind what brought us to this day — what brought us all to college athletics — and that is the student athletes,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said. “We need to make sure we have shared values, we keep academics first, we keep our integrity and honor and collaboration together,” 

The alliance includes a scheduling partnership in football and men’s and women’s basketball which, according to ACC commissioner Jim Phillips, will “elevate the national profile of all of our teams by playing from coast to coast with college fans across the country as the beneficiaries.” While the specifics of the partnership remain unclear, the existing ACC-Big Ten Challenge in men’s and women’s basketball could serve as a baseline model for what inter-conference competition will look like. 

Crucially, the scheduling alliance in football comes alongside a round of College Football Playoff (CFP) expansion, which in turn could remove disincentives against scheduling tough non-conference opponents. In June, a sub-group of the CFP management committee proposed a 12-team playoff format to supplant the existing four-team model. All three commissioners expressed support for the expansion but also emphasized the challenges that come with it. 

“I’m a big believer in expanding the College Football Playoff,” Warren said. “But also, I’m a big believer in being methodical and doing our homework. … We need to think through the length of the season, health and wellness issues — not only physical but also mental — primarily the academics, how does this affect final exams.”

The three conferences will also work together to confront the challenges of changing name, image and likeness (NIL) legislation brought about by the Supreme Court decision in National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Alston. As of now, there is little NCAA guidance or rules regarding NIL. If the three conferences have similar priorities, the alliance could help them coordinate in the creation of league-wide guidance. 

“These matters, while challenging, also present once-in-a-generation opportunities for the leaders in college sports to reevaluate long-standing ways of conducting our business,” Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff said. “ … Despite the shifting landscape, there are some critical constants among many in college athletics, and specifically among every one of the 41 member institutions in our three conferences.”

Still, the agreement between the three conferences is just that: an agreement. There is no signed contract laying out expectations, nor is there a specific timeline to the plans laid out by the alliance. Another round of unexpected conference realignment or a drastic shift in TV deals could, in theory, send the whole alliance up in smoke. 

The commissioners don’t see that happening. 

“It’s about trust,” Phillips said. “… We’ve looked each other in the eye, we’ve made an agreement. We have great confidence and faith, our board charis have looked each other in the eye and have committed to the same level of support and connection to one another, our athletic directors have done that.”