The importance of July 1 on the college football calendar is a sign of the times. Every year on this date for the last half-decade, we have to relearn the make-up of each league. Thanks, conference realignment.
The annual carousel appears to finally be slowing, but not before one last flourish that reshuffles the deck. The Big Ten expands to 14 members and reaches the Atlantic; the American lives up to its billing by adding three members from three different states, bringing its total to nine.
Conference USA restocks what it lost to the American via the Sun Belt, which reloads with new additions from the Football Championship Subdivision.
It’s a dizzying process to say the least. But as it begins to slow, we can take stock of how we got to the current alignment, and how each conference fared.
— The ACC (@theACC) July 1, 2014
2013: Notre Dame (in all sports except football), Pittsburgh, Syracuse
2014: Louisville, Notre Dame (begins yearly affiliate partnership in football)
A certain sect of sports media built a cottage industry on predicting the demise of the ACC. Other “dudes” outright conspired to lure big fish like Florida State and Clemson out of the ACC pond with unsubstantiated reports.
But as the conference realignment landscape settles, the ACC didn’t simple weather the storm: it came out ahead.
Pittsburgh is a big-market program with plenty of untapped potential thanks to the local recruiting pool. Syracuse claims a sizable portion of the New York fan base, which gives the ACC a presence in the nation’s No. 1 market.
Notre Dame is not a full member for football; nevertheless, bringing the Fighting Irish into the fold in any capacity is a major coup. Leagues like the Big East and Big Ten sought to bring Notre Dame football aboard previously, but to no avail. Notre Dame adds a national following, as well as intriguing matchups against such ACC opponents as Florida State and Clemson.
Losing charter member Maryland strikes a blow, but the addition of Louisville today is among the most intriguing of this era of conference realignment. Athletic director Tom Jurich has cultivated a landscape in which all Louisville sports can thrive. The football program began scratching the surface of its potential under Charlie Strong.
He may be gone, but Bobby Petrino was successful there in his first tour through Louisville. The Cardinals add great long-term value.
2012: Missouri, Texas A&M
The SEC’s first expansion in 20 years made sense geographically while also expanding the conference’s regional footprint. As important is that Missouri and Texas A&M found immediate success upon joining the SEC. A&M won 11 games in its debut season, upset the conference’s top dog Alabama and featured a Heisman Trophy winner. Missouri claimed its division and upended its former Big 12 counterpart Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl last season.
Talk about making a splash.
Moreover, the conference’s two biggest individual football stars the last two seasons–aforementioned Heisman winner Johnny Manziel and 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam–came from the new additions.
3. BIG TEN
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) June 30, 2014
2014: Maryland, Rutgers
Nebraska was an outstanding addition to the Big Ten fold. Few college football programs boast the Cornhuskers’ loyal following, and none can match the Nebraska fan base’s longevity–to wit, a half-century of consecutive home sell-outs. The idea of Nebraska hosting Ohio State, sparking a rivalry with Wisconsin and visiting the Big House is enough to make an college football giddy.
Maryland and Rutgers? Not as much. Surely there’s potential in adding the Scarlet Knights and Terrapins, but Jim Delany and Co. are banking heavily on just that: potential.
2011: Colorado, Utah
It’s with some hesitation I rank the Pac-12 fourth. The conference was never threatened with losing any of its existing membership, putting it on a solid footing other Power Five leagues couldn’t claim circa 2010.
The Pac-12’s additions, Colorado and Utah, were logical in that both occupy large TV markets, but also made sense geographically. Furthermore, both programs came in with recent track records of success.
It was evident from the outset Colorado was a rebuilding project and the Pac-12 was investing in the long-term payoff with the Buffaloes. But coming off a wildly success half-decade in the Mountain West, which included two BCS bowl wins, Utah was expected to compete immediately. Since an 8-5 debut season, the Utes have stumbled to consecutive 5-7 finishes.
The Pac-12 did not reach adding Colorado and Utah as the Big Ten has with Maryland and Rutgers, but neither comes close to matching the impact of Nebraska’s switch.
When it comes to conference realignment and the Pac-12, there will always be an element of “what if?”
It’s unlikely the Pac-16 was ever a realistic possibility. With the conference opting to distribute its lucrative television deal evenly among its ranks, Texas simply would not have fit. Longhorn brass may have used the Pac as a negotiating ploy to strong-arm a shaken Big 12 into meeting the university’s demands.
Nevertheless, the possibility that was floated through the media four years ago leaves one to wonder how a 16-team league with Texas, Texas Tech and the Oklahomas might have fit in the Pacific Conference.
5. BIG 12
2012: TCU, West Virginia
2011: Colorado, Nebraska
2012: Missouri, Texas A&M
The Big 12 teetered on the brink of extinction in 2010 and suffered a mass exodus in the subsequent two years. Texas A&M and Missouri leaving for the SEC ended decades-old rivalries with Texas and Kansas respectively, while Nebraska’s split for the Big Ten removed one of the conference’s most prominent members.
Much like Utah in the Pac-12, TCU and West Virginia came into their new conferences with long, recent track records of success. Various misfortunes and missteps by each relegated both to immediate also-ran status.
The biggest loss the Big 12 suffered as a result of conference realignment was the demise of its lucrative championship game. The Big 12 Championship routinely drew big numbers, a feat the ACC and Big Ten have struggled to replicate since introducing their own title tilts.
That the conference still exists, let alone managed to negotiate a decent revenue sharing plan for its members, is a considerable victory.
2012: UMass (slated to leave the conference after 2015)
I struggled with the placement of the Mid-American and Mountain West Conferences. The MWC added Boise State, Fresno State and Utah State, all of which give the conference real value. The MAC added UMass from the FCS, and the Minutemen have been one of the worst programs at the FBS level of the last two years. Meanwhile, the MAC lost a Temple program that had gained momentum in the previous three years under Al Golden and Steve Addazio.
However, the most fair gauge of a league’s status amid conference realignment is if it’s better off at the end than it was the beginning. In losing BYU, TCU and Utah, the Mountain West isn’t. While the MAC isn’t necessarily in better position, it’s certainly no worse than it was four years ago. And when UMass leaves, the MAC will finally have even numbers in its divisions; that’s a win.
7. MOUNTAIN WEST
2011: Boise State
2012: Fresno State, Hawaii, Nevada
2013: San Jose State, Utah State
2011: BYU, Utah
Oh, what could have been. The Mountain West came out of conference realignment with some strong additions: Boise State is among the most successful FBS programs of the past 15 years and commands national attention. Fresno State is a high-potential program with a rabid local fan base as last season demonstrated and Utah State is building something special.
The Mountain West also introduced a championship game in 2013, a major milestone for the league.
But losing BYU, TCU and Utah greatly weakened the conference that spearheaded the Playoff movement. In a cruel twist, the College Football Playoff is here, but the way it’s been structured ensures
2013: Houston, Memphis, SMU, UCF
2014: East Carolina, Tulane, Tulsa
2012: West Virginia
2013: Pittsburgh, Syracuse
2014: Louisville, Rutgers
The American Athletic Conference of 2014 hardly resembles the Big East of just a few years ago. Eight programs joined its ranks in the last three years, seven of which came from Conference USA. Five programs left in the last three years, and the threat of more chasing Power Five designation is always a lingering possibility.
Keeping consistently competitive Cincinnati in the fold is a win. The Bearcats have won at least a share of four of the last six conference titles. But UCF staked sole possession of the 2013 title, living up to the lofty potential that program has as a growing power right in the middle of a recruiting gold mine.
UCF’s continued growth as a university and its success on the football field will make it an attractive option when conference realignment begins again. Such is the plight of the American.
9. CONFERENCE USA
— C-USA Football (@CUSAFB) June 30, 2014
2013: FAU, FIU, Louisiana Tech, MTSU, North Texas, UT-San Antonio
2014: Old Dominion, Western Kentucky
2013: Houston, Memphis, SMU, UCF
2014: East Carolina, Tulane, Tulsa
Poor Conference USA. The league seems to sometimes exist as a minor league for the Big East/American to replenish its ranks when a member moves on. It happened in the mid-2000s after Virginia Tech, Boston College and Miami bolted for the ACC; it’s happened again en masse the last few years of conference realignment.
Regardless, C-USA soldiers on. With additions from the Sun Belt, WAC and FCS, the league has managed to maintain its numbers and even grow. MTSU and Western Kentucky’s recent success in the Sun Belt could translate to competitive football for both in C-USA; North Texas was a surprise breakout team in its C-USA debut.
FAU and FIU have potential because of their local talent pools (though FIU is in bad need of refocused leadership).
Old Dominion and UT-San Antonio are intriguing additions. Both are new programs that occupy talent-rich areas, and their communities have embraced them. Both have very high ceilings–which means the American will probably try to poach them in the coming years.
10. SUN BELT
2012: South Alabama
2013: Georgia State, Texas State
2014: Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Idaho, New Mexico State
2013: FAU, FIU, MTSU, North Texas
2014: Western Kentucky
Conference USA has treated the Sun Belt like the American has treated C-USA amid conference realignment. Western Kentucky is the fifth former Sun Belt member to ship off to C-USA in the last two years.
The Sun Belt has maintained its numbers with FCS call-ups, namely Appalachian State and Georgia Southern. These are certainly noteworthy additions; there may not be two more successful nor more recognized programs in FCS history.
New programs at Georgia State and South Alabama have also helped sustain the Sun Belt. Perennial FBS cellar dweller New Mexico State is reunited with one-year WAC partner Texas State. The Aggies and fellow WAC refugee Idaho are making their triumphant return to the Sun Belt after leaving the conference in 2005.