Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, pictured last month, wants to create a student-athlete experience “for the 21st century.” (AP Photo/Paul Beaty) (Paul Beaty/AP)

The NCAA’s Division I Board of Directors will vote on a measure Thursday that proposes to grant autonomy to the five biggest (and richest) sports conferences. If it passes — and failure would be the year’s biggest upset — the Southeastern Conference, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 would be able to vote through rule changes as they see fit.

The big programs would continue to rule college sports, same as they always have, with everyone else adjusting as best they can.

“It faces a reality that we’re not all competing on the same level anyway,” said Kellen Winslow, the Hall of Fame former NFL player who’s now the athletic director of Florida A&M. “We like to think we are, but we’re not.”

The issue garnering the most attention is whether college athletes, specifically those who play football or men’s basketball, are entitled to more than just a free education. According to a USA Today study released in May, 53 athletic departments bring in more than $50 million in annual revenue; schools don’t offer athletes much more than a scholarship, housing and food.

Jim Delany , commissioner of the Big Ten, said by telephone Wednesday that autonomy could grant schools the ability to create “an experience for the 21st century.” Among the considerations could be guaranteeing scholarships for multiple years — most grants-in-aid must be renewed before each school year — and earmarking money for players in exchange for time demands and true cost of attendance. Delany said he was more than 80 percent confident Thursday’s vote will pass in favor of the “Big Five,” and he said he estimated “substantial changes in the student-athlete experience” would be voted on in the next 18 months.

“Every one of the five conference commissioners, the presidential groups in those five conferences, have asked for this autonomy,” Delany said. “Now we have to do something with it. And I think there should be pressure on us to perform in that regard.”

Thursday’s vote would not affect the percentage of postseason or television revenue any conference or athletic department could receive, Delany said. He wouldn’t speculate on the power conferences’ next move if the measure fails, but there have been whispers that the Big Five could seek to leave the NCAA, though serious questions would follow such a move — a possible antitrust situation and the collapse of the NCAA tournament would be atop the list. A win Thursday would keep the NCAA intact, at least for the time being.

“I think everybody has sort of accepted and woken up to the reality for a variety of reasons that we should stay together,” said Delany, whose conference includes three of the top five schools in the USA Today revenue study.

But some Division I representatives don’t believe their larger siblings were ever serious about seceding from the NCAA. Robert Hill, the longtime AD at Stephen F. Austin, said he believed it was “a bluff.”

“I just don’t see them walking out,” Hill said. “I just see them trying to use that again to be a bully. And they can because they’ve got all the money.”

The Big Five conferences presumably can further position themselves to reap even bigger financial windfalls, taking advantage of increasing interest and new TV networks.

“It just boggles my mind every time new million-dollar figures are thrown out there,” Hill said. “Where is it coming from? How can they sustain that kind of cash?”

Assuming the vote passes, all Division I schools would be allowed to follow any new rule passed by the five major conferences. North Dakota State or Mercer could theoretically offer players the same stipend or improved benefits as Alabama or Ohio State, albeit within the constraints of their own budgets. Winslow predicted the days of major-conference powers scheduling pay-for-play games against smaller-conference opponents could be in jeopardy, a further strain on tight budgets. Nevertheless, Winslow said he would approach the new landscape as an opportunity to test his creativity and ability as a fundraiser and entrepreneur. “They’re doing what you want to do,” he said. “You have to give them credit for that.”

Vince Nicastro, athletic director at Villanova, said there have always been challenges at a school without a major college football program. He said the adjustment might be less noticeable at his school or those such as Georgetown and Gonzaga, where nationally known basketball programs attract attention and dollars.

“There’s always been a gap of resources between those playing at the highest level of football and those of us who don’t,” Nicastro said. “In that respect, I don’t think it’s going to change much for us.”

Hill, who has worked in the athletic department at Stephen F. Austin since 1987, said he sees a widening gulf between the haves and have-nots. He said the most recent turn has led him to wonder whether smaller programs eventually will have to fight harder for scholarship limits, access to championships and player transfers — several of the reasons schools pursued Division I membership in the first place.

“They’re going to get their way one way or the other,” Hill said of the power conferences, “and basically the rest of us be damned.”