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Nebraska is key player in expansion game

SEATTLE -- So now the keys to the great college upheaval of 2010 are in the hot little hands of . . . Nebraska?

A state with about 1.8 million people? With a men's basketball program that, believe it or not, has never won a game in the NCAA tournament?

True, there's a little history with Nebraska football. Like 33 straight years with nothing less than nine victories.

But if the tipping point in the madcap race to super-conferences is now centered in Lincoln, it's a reflection of how the collegiate earth has tumbled off its axis.

Then again, who knew that Larry Scott, the brazen new Pac-10 commissioner, would emerge as a possible kingmaker in all this? Little more than a week ago, the prevailing wisdom was that all the cards in this high-stakes poker were being held by Jim Delany, the veteran Big Ten commissioner.

To update: Scott has the green light from the Pac-10 presidents to expand and grow the league's bank account. He is prepared to add six teams out of the Big 12, as long as one of them is Texas.

The Longhorns are believed unwilling to break up the Big 12 on their own. But a crack in the conference emanating from Nebraska likely puts a cattle prod behind Texas to get out. That's partly because of the Huskers' reach in football, and because the Big 12 North already bears a feckless resemblance to baseball's American League West.

Missouri is the other Big 12 program with wanderlust, but it's uncertain whether the Big Ten has reciprocal interest. Texas could probably indulge a defection by Missouri, but not Nebraska.

Nebraska and Missouri are reported to have a deadline imposed by the Big 12, as early as Friday, to make their intentions known. If multiple signs are accurate that the Huskers are about to jump — the Texas-based website reports Nebraska regents have signed off on the move — it likely means the Big Ten has been unsuccessful in selling Notre Dame on being the sole addition to the conference.

It's been speculated that any warmth the Big Ten has given off to the west of its borders would turn cool if it could make the solo, tidy addition: Notre Dame.

The Irish are still a big trophy in all this. If Delany could convince them that a collegiate nuclear morning is near, then he could propose a cozy refuge inside a 12-team Big Ten. That would keep Missouri and Nebraska at arm's length and, in theory, cool Texas' jets, preserve the Big 12 and put a damper on Scott's sweet 16 plan.

That horse may have left the barn, not to return, if Nebraska indeed has an offer to bolt.

If it doesn't, or somehow Nebraska stays put, I don't think it means the whirlwind romances of the past few weeks are done.

Conferences as we know them seem destined for change. There's too much money at stake and too many acquisitive impulses, especially in the context of backroom dialogue in recent months about expansion.

The whole thing has been portrayed in some quarters as a money grab, and that's not entirely inaccurate. But it's more than that. Most athletic departments, even many of the elite, are hemorrhaging red ink. It's not surprising that presidents are alarmed and ready to react decisively.

For a piece a few years ago on the developing money crisis in college sports, a Pac-10 president told me costs like airline charters were skyrocketing, the facilities race was out of hand and revenue wasn't keeping up.

That president, now retired, was at Arizona. The other day, the Wildcats' football coach, Mike Stoops, told The Daily Oklahoman he was wary about matching dressing rooms with Oklahoma and Texas.

"You have to make some serious adjustments to compete on that level," he said. "I don't know that you can get better facilities than what they've got at Oklahoma or Texas or Oklahoma State."

Sigh. That's one reason why we got here. As for where we're going, over to you, Nebraska.