SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said if the Power Five conferences -- which also include the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big 12, the Big Ten and the Pac-12 -- don't get the flexibility needed to create their own bylaws, the next step would be to move to "Division IV."
"It's not something we want to do," Slive said on the final day of the SEC meetings. "We want the ability to have autonomy in areas that has a nexus to the well-being of student athletes. I am somewhat optimistic it will pass, but if it doesn't, our league would certainly want to move to a Division IV. My colleagues, I can't speak for anybody else, but I'd be surprised if they didn't feel the same way."
Moving to Division IV would keep the Power Five under the NCAA umbrella while granting college football's biggest money makers the kind of power to better take care of student-athletes. The SEC, for example, would like to pay full cost of college attendance, provide long-term medical coverage and offer incentives to kids who return to school and complete degrees.
Smaller Division I schools likely can't afford the changes the major conferences are seeking. And while Division II and Division III have their own rules, forming a Division IV would seemingly create a wider divide between the Power Five and other smaller schools.
Slive, however, said a potential move wouldn't disrupt championship formats, including the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
"I've been so optimistic that we're going to stay in Division I that we haven't sat down and tried to map it out," Slive said. "But we know that failure to create what we're trying to create would result in doing something different. How we would construct a Division IV? We haven't looked in that.
"We hope everyone realizes we are moving into a new era and this is the way to retain your collegiate model. It would be a disappointment, and in my view a mistake, not to adapt the model. This is a historic moment. If we don't seize the moment, we'll make a mistake."
University of Florida President Bernie Machen wasn't nearly as confident about staying in Division I.
"We're in a squeeze here," Machen said. "There are now six lawsuits that name our conference in them that specifically have to do with the whole cost of attendance and stuff like that. We would like to make changes, but we can't because the NCAA doesn't allow us to. We're really caught between a rock and a hard play. We desperately would like some flexibility."
Southern Mississippi athletic director Bill McGillis believes the major conferences will get that flexibility and that a Division IV won't be needed.
He said more autonomy for the high-resource leagues is just "the reality of the situation" and that schools like Southern Miss in Conference USA agree with many of the proposed changes. McGillis expects schools from all Division I conferences will have a say in the process and will adjust to whatever is decided.
"I think the system will work and that the schools outside the high-resource five conferences that are committed to competing at a high level will still be able to do that," McGillis said.
The SEC wants the NCAA steering committee to adopt its proposal for the voting threshold, which would allow the Big Five to pass legislation with more ease. The NCAA board of directors will vote on the steering committee's proposal in August.
Currently, the NCAA requires a two-thirds vote of the 65 schools and 15 student representatives as well as four out of five conferences.
"What we fear is that nothing will change because the threshold is so high," Machen said. "We're asking them to lower the threshold, which we propose is 60 percent and three conferences. With three conferences out of five and 60 percent of the 65 and 15, you can make those kinds of changes."
Still, Machen has his doubt it will pass.
"This is the NCAA we're dealing with," he said.
And Machen envisions rough waters ahead if things don't change.
"The whole thing could go up in smoke if the lawsuits come down or with the unionization rule," he said. "So the whole intercollegiate model is at risk if we don't do something. If they don't want to do this, it seems to me it's incumbent upon them to come up with something else that will help us get out us this box."