To the rules that govern the motions of terrestrial bodies must be added a new concept: conferential drift, the tendency of a large college sports league to try to engulf smaller ones when motivated by the pursuit of revenue. And when the NCAA's major football conferences begin acting in earnest upon what has been stirring for months, they promise to gobble up everything in their paths with a race toward Manifest Destiny that could reshape the face of intercollegiate athletics.

This summer may see the groundwork laid for rampant additions, defections and mergers that could test the structural boundaries of Division I-A, as the nation's elite schools and conferences scurry to establish regional strangleholds in anticipation of megabucks television contracts. The eventual result could be the disintegration of several existing conferences, the affiliation of most independents and, by the mid-1990s, the emergence of three or four "superconferences" with two divisions and 12 to 16 schools apiece -- a transformation many see as the first step toward creating a college football playoff system.

"Where it all leads, I don't think anyone is sure right now," said Navy Athletic Director Jack Lengyel, who just completed his term as president of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics. "But it does seem clear to me that there will be some sort of realignment in the very near future. . . . The kind of money you're talking about makes that inevitable."

The possibilities are intriguing. What finally could emerge are an Atlantic Coast Conference stretching from the Northeast to Florida; a Big Ten, which recently added Penn State, that might have further holdings in the Northeast or from the current Big Eight (Nebraska, most prominently); a Southeastern Conference sprawling westward into Texas and including South Carolina and one or two more Florida teams among its Atlantic entries; and a revised Pacific-10 picking up what it can in the West (Colorado, Brigham Young and Air Force, among others).

Oklahoma has entertained notions about jumping from the Big Eight to the Southwest Conference -- a move that could become moot if, as some close to this process insist, the Big Eight and SWC eventually are left with no choice but to combine. An on-again, off-again Eastern Seaboard Conference for football composed of independents and Big East schools needing a football-only league may yet arise.

By the middle of the decade, most observers agree, there will be considerable movement involving college football's six major conferences and the 20 or so significant independents. Of those presently unaffiliated, only Notre Dame -- essentially a conference unto itself, owing to its personal network TV contract -- appears likely to remain that way.

At a time when the majority of athletic departments nationwide are failing to break even, financial answers may be on the way.

The dominoes are lined up, waiting for a nudge to send them falling. The SEC almost certainly will take the next step, and other conferences are sure to follow. Most eyes are on Syracuse and Florida State as the keys to the long-term shape of things.

Even the relative skeptics concede some reshuffling appears inevitable. "Any time you start discussing these things, people get nervous and the discussion kind of feeds off itself," said Nebraska chancellor and interim president Martin Massengale, who stressed his school has had no official contact with the Big Ten but whose athletic director, Bob Devaney, has written an informal letter of inquiry to the conference.

"I think all the restructuring might be further off than others are forecasting. . . . Of course, if one or two more things like Penn State happen, I'd have to reevaluate."

Said Virginia Athletic Director Jim Copeland: "You hear about all the possibilities and you wonder, 'Who's going to win, who's going to lose, or are they just going to trade them back and forth?' There are so many outcomes that could come about. . . . I think most of us are just waiting for something to happen."The Early Rumblings

The process began in December with Penn State's move to the Big Ten and was accelerated in February when Notre Dame bucked the College Football Association's freshly negotiated TV deals with ABC and ESPN to sign instead with NBC. By last week, even with NCAA reforms on the agenda, the nation's athletic directors talked mostly about realignment at their annual meeting.

Notre Dame's individual network deal stems from a 1983 Supreme Court decision that opened the marketplace, finding the NCAA's monopoly on football television rights to be a violation of federal antitrust laws. The CFA has since been the negotiator for the members of every major conference except the Big Ten and Pac-10, plus 20 independents, with participation voluntary -- a stipulation that allowed for Notre Dame's pullout.

(Another catalyst to the realignment fever is the Federal Trade Commission's investigation of the CFA package, which covers 63 teams. The FTC could find the CFA's deal to be an illegal monopoly, which would enable individual conferences to negotiate their own TV contracts earlier than anticipated. CFA officials, however, seem confident Notre Dame's defection helps ensure the arrangement will not be found to violate antitrust laws.)

In the aftermath, the nation's other powerful football leagues -- particularly the SEC, which fell only a few votes short of pulling out of the CFA deal itself -- were left wondering whether they might be better served by negotiating their own network contracts next time around.

"We've studied the TV situation carefully," said University of Mississippi President Gerald Turner, chairman of the SEC's expansion committee, "and we've concluded that our interests may be best served by operating on the assumption we'll negotiate for ourselves in the future. . . . The first step in that direction is minimizing the force of competing conferences within our geographic area."

The SEC has gone on the expansion offensive, and other conferences are wary of being left behind should a free-for-all exist when the CFA television deal expires after the 1995 season.

"We'd prefer to stay the way we are," an ACC official said, "but we have to protect our interests. Notre Dame and Penn State got everyone thinking they could sign their own TV contract. . . . If the SEC makes major moves, we have to think about what we'll do to keep pace."Wave of the Future

Dick Schultz, executive director of the NCAA, has said he envisions a future of superconferences; his predecessor, Walter Byers, once predicted the same. "What you have now is more talk than movement," Schultz said Thursday at a meeting of the Knight Commission here. But "I think it's probable you'll see the talk translate into movement. . . . With Penn State, Notre Dame and the FTC investigation, the climate is right."

The floodgates haven't opened yet, but they may soon -- especially with Arkansas having agreed to begin formal discussions with the SEC about joining its existing 10 teams. If the Razorbacks -- with the prospect of doubling their intake from conference revenue-sharing -- end their 76-year membership in the SWC, the SEC (like the Big Ten) would be one school short of the magic number: NCAA rules allow a league with 12 teams or more to match division winners in a one-game playoff to determine a champion.

Such a setup, most officials in major conferences believe, would produce a TV revenue bonanza. "It's hard even to venture a guess at the dollars that might be involved in that," Copeland said. "The numbers are so big already."

Indeed, the CFA's contracts with ABC and ESPN will bring a combined $300 million over five years, beginning in 1991. The Big Ten and Pac-10 have their own deals with ABC, while Notre Dame's agreement with NBC reportedly is valued at $30 million over five years. Yet those figures don't even match the NCAA's network TV intake before the 1983 ruling; realignment can be viewed most basically as a struggle to create more lucrative packages for TV.

"I'm told the '90s will be a move toward three or four superconferences," Arkansas Athletic Director Frank Broyles said recently. "Well, there are three or four networks to broadcast college football, if you count ESPN. It's reasonable to assume, I guess, that each conference could have its own network tie-in."

But that's not all. A break into two six- or eight-team divisions would allow a conference to have a network deal, plus perhaps two syndicated television arrangements, a conference championship game and the foundation for a national playoff that would have the networks salivating.

"Most conferences would increase their TV revenue by up to 50 percent," an SEC official said. "Some might come close to doubling it. . . . And, in most cases, you're only talking about adding two to four teams." An ACC source said the league "probably could double our TV money {and} tie in to a bigger bowl game by adding four teams. . . . Basketball revenue might double too."Potential Obstacles

The potential roadblocks do not seem insurmountable.

University administrators warn about stretching a league's borders too far to be reached by teams in sports other than football and basketball. "I have a total-sports program to worry about, not two sports," Syracuse Athletic Director Jake Crouthamel said. But divisions within the conference drawn with travel considerations in mind -- not to mention the additional revenue -- promise to ease the concerns of nonrevenue sports.

Also, the NCAA provision allowing for a conference playoff was not intended for Division I-A and could be rejected by the membership. But most close to the process say that is unlikely.

Beyond that, all that appears to stand in the way are the political considerations involved with a move such as Texas going from the SWC to the SEC -- and the pangs of conscience that some are beginning to feel already.

"After a while, you have to step back and ask yourself what's going on," Lengyel said. "You look at this, and it's tradition be damned; this is realignment driven by economics and television. Will this all fit beneath the tent of institutional control for academic purposes? I think that needs to be discussed at some point."

But Schultz countered: "It's the {university} presidents doing this, not just the athletic directors. They're looking at the compatibility of schools in ways other than just athletics. If this is done right -- and I think it will be -- it won't cause problems."

Meanwhile, the wheels are turning. The SEC is pursuing Arkansas, Texas and Texas A&M of the SWC, plus football independents Florida State, South Carolina and Miami. The SWC is trying to cut its potential losses by luring Oklahoma.

The ACC -- which voted against expansion earlier this year but has reconsidered -- presents a wait-and-see stance, but league officials contend privately that Florida State will turn down the SEC because it doesn't want to be in the same conference with Florida, which allegedly once fostered an SEC blackballing of the Seminoles.

The ACC, if properly motivated, could go after Florida State, Miami, Syracuse, Boston College, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, West Virginia, Virginia Tech or even former member South Carolina. Conference officials insist they can stand pat as long as the Big Ten and Pac-10 are willing to unite with the ACC in TV negotiations. But now the league's newest member, Georgia Tech, has opened itself to an offer from the SEC.

Meanwhile, administrators at football independents, like Syracuse's Crouthamel, are left to wonder if there will be anyone to schedule in a few years. The Big East's new commissioner, Michael Tranghese, has declared war on those who would raid his league's membership, but the Orangemen have little choice but to search for alternatives.

"Regardless of whether or not I'm happy where we are now, I've got to be able to schedule for football in the future," Crouthamel said.

Syracuse participated in the Eastern Seaboard Conference football talks, which progressed so far as consultation with Dave Gavitt, the previous Big East commissioner, to try to work out the many administrative kinks. The league was held up because one contingent led by Miami, Virginia Tech and Rutgers wanted an all-sports league, while Boston College, Syracuse and Pittsburgh were not willing at the time to cut their Big East basketball ties.

Others are left in what could be a battle for survival. The Metro Conference, for example, faces a potential life-and-death decision about whether to add football, but also talks of broad expansion. Officials at less-alluring schools worry about the potential financial disaster of being left behind, but Schultz insists everyone eventually will share in the rewards. "A conference can't have just winning teams," he said. "Someone has to lose."

Said CFA Executive Director Chuck Neinas: "Change is inevitable, and the time for it has come. It will come, and it will come soon. The only question is in what form."


Members Clemson Duke Georgia Tech Maryland North Carolina North Carolina State Virginia Wake Forest

Possible Defections Georgia Tech

Candidates Boston College Florida State Miami Pittsburgh Rutgers South Carolina Syracuse Virginia Tech West Virginia SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE

Members Alabama Auburn Florida Georgia Kentucky Louisiana State Mississippi Mississippi State Tennessee Vanderbilt

Candidates Arkansas Florida State Miami South Carolina Texas Texas A&M SOUTHWEST CONFERENCE

Members Arkansas Baylor Houston Rice SMU Texas Texas A&M Texas Christian Texas Tech

Possible Defections Arkansas Texas Texas A&M

Candidates Oklahoma BIG TEN CONFERENCE

Members Illinois Indiana Iowa Michigan Michigan State Minnesota Northwestern Ohio State Purdue Wisconsin

Additions Penn State

Candidates Nebraska Syracuse Rutgers Pittsburgh PACIFIC-10 CONFERENCE

Members Arizona Arizona State California Oregon Oregon State Southern Cal Stanford UCLA Washington Washington State

Candidates Brigham Young Air Force Colorado