The College Football Conferences and Realignment
By Chuck Hawks
Current NCAA football rules require a minimum of 12 member schools (two six school divisions) in order to hold a conference championship game, so the Pacific-10 and Big Ten (actually numbering 11 schools since Penn State joined the conference over a decade ago), were looking to expand to 12 or more teams. During the summer of 2010, the Pac-10 and the Big Ten came very close to dismantling the Big 12. When the dust settled, the Big Ten became a 12 school league by adding Nebraska (formerly of the Big 12) and the Pacific-10 became the Pac-12 by adding Colorado (formerly of the Big 12) and Utah (formerly of the Mountain West).
As part of the same general shake-up, BYU left the Mountain West Conference (MWC) to campaign as an independent. TCU, also formerly of the MWC, accepted an invitation to join the Big East for the 2012 season, but then changed its mind and decided to join the Big 12 instead.
As a long time college football fan and graduate of the University of Oregon (a Pac-12 member school dating back to the days of the original Pacific Coast Conference), I found the 2010 and ongoing conference realignment developments, which included adding Utah and Colorado to the Pac Conference, intensely interesting. Like most college football fans, I feel it is better if college football conferences represent discernable geographical regions. The Pac-12 has long been the dominant athletic conference in the western United States. Colorado and Utah are part of the traditional 11 Western states, but Texas and Oklahoma (OU, OSU, UT and TT were considered for Pac membership in 2011, but rejected) are not. The 11 contiguous western states run from the Rocky Mountain states westward and include Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.
The Pac-12 members are financially secure and have decided to remain a 12 team conference for the foreseeable future. At present, the Pac-12 members are divided into two more or less geographical divisions, with Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, Cal and Stanford in the Northern Division and USC, UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and Colorado in the Southern Division.
If it is to expand beyond 12 schools, BYU and Boise State are the foremost western football powers not already Pac-12 members. Their addition would make for a strong 14 team conference and I would like to see both in the Pac. Air Force and Nevada (Reno) also merit consideration for future Pac membership.
Unfortunately, I have heard that the Pac-12 refuses to consider Boise State on academic grounds. (Pac universities are expected to be academically elite; Stanford, Oregon, USC, UCLA, Cal, Colorado, Arizona, and Washington are all AAU members.) Financially and institutionally secure, the Pac-12 is an elite conference that can afford a "wait and see" attitude to further expansion.
It will keep the "Big Ten" name regardless of the actual number of member schools, but they are de-emphasizing the "Ten" part of their name. The logo and popular handle is now "B1G." The Big Ten member schools have expressed a desire to remain a 12 team conference for the foreseeable future. Notre Dame could have joined, but refused to give up their independent football status (and share their football revenue!).
The B1G is divided into the "Legends" and "Leaders" divisions. The Legends are: Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern and Minnesota. The Leaders are: Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio State, Indiana, Penn State and Purdue. With the exception of Penn State, the Big Ten members are all midwestern universities.
The B1G insists that they are not interested in expansion beyond their present 12 members and, frankly, they don't need to. They are one of the three elite conferences (along with the Pac-12 and SEC). They are also highly respected academically; all but new member Nebraska are AAU members. However, if the Big 12 breaks apart, the B1G would be the logical home for some of the orphaned universities. Should the Big 12 ultimately collapse, I would like to see Iowa State (an AAU member), Kansas (an AAU member) and Kansas State admitted to the B1G.
In 2010, the Big 12 lost Colorado to the Pac-12 and Nebraska to the Big Ten, reducing the Conference to 10 members: Texas A&M (aTm), Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Iowa State and Baylor.
In September 2011, Texas A&M announced its departure for the SEC in 2012. October 2011 found Missouri departing for the SEC. (Missouri attempted to join the Big Ten in 2010, but was rejected.)
To compensate for the loss of aTm, the Big 12 invited TCU to join the conference. (A good choice!) West Virginia decided to depart the Big East to replace Missouri. (Not such a great fit, due to the travel problems and time zone differences.) To enhance their financial viability, the Conference adopted a new, equal TV revenue sharing deal (except for the "third tier" Texas Longhorn Network). For now, the Big 12 includes 10 teams: TCU, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas Tech, Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and West Virginia.
The future of the Big 12 is hard to predict. The Conference may invite other schools to join to bring the number of members back to 12. A desire to remain at 10, rather than the previous 12, members has been acknowledged by at least some of the Big 12 schools. If so, will they keep the "Big 12" name? It seems odd to have a Big Ten Conference with 12 members and a Big 12 Conference with 10 members. In any event, the Big 12 remains one of the four most powerful football conferences, along with the Pac-12, B1G and SEC.
The 12 member SEC has accepted Texas A&M (formerly of the Big 12) as its 13th member and added Missouri (also from the Big 12) to bring its membership to 14. Part of the attraction of aTm and Missouri for the SEC may be academic, as both are AAU member universities. Including aTm and Missouri doubles the total number of AAU members in the SEC, which is academically the least prestigious of the major football conferences. (Previously, Florida and Vanderbilt were the SEC's only AAU members.) Like the B1G and Pac-12, the SEC is an elite football conference in a position of power and they can do whatever they want.
The 14 team SEC is operating two divisions. The SEC East includes Missouri, Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Kentucky. The SEC West includes Texas A&M, Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Mississippi State.
Atlantic Coast Conference
The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) seems to have won its struggle with the Big East to represent East Coast football. There simply are not enough good teams in the Northeast to support two major FBS conferences. The South Eastern Conference is stable, financially strong and populated by recognized national football powers. That left the ACC and Big East to fight it out for the remaining eastern universities.
In 2011, the Atlantic Coast Conference absorbed the two most prominent remaining football schools of the Big East Conference (Pittsburgh and Syracuse), making the ACC the "other" major eastern football conference (after the SEC). In 2012, the ACC reached an agreement with Notre Dame, accepting ND as a member in all sports except football. ND retains their independent status in football, meaning they do not have to share their football revenue. However, they agreed to play five football games with ACC teams per season and will participate with the ACC bowl tie-ins.
This seems like the best of both worlds for ND, at least for the time being. Of course, ND is a much more natural geographical fit with the B1G, but that conference would not put up with ND's insistence on football independence, sensibly requiring an all or nothing participation to join the B1G.
There is speculation is that the ACC might become the first 16 member conference, as Connecticut and Rutgers would like to bolt the Big East for the ACC. It remains for the ACC to decide if it wants them. Frankly, I cannot see that either university has much to offer in terms of national football prowess. Indeed, on the football field, the ACC would become weaker with the addition of these two schools.
As constituted in 2012, the ACC is divided into the Atlantic and Coastal divisions. The Atlantic Division includes Clemson, Wake Forest, Maryland, Florida State, NC State and Boston College. The Coastal Division includes Georgia Tech, Duke, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Virginia and Miami. To which divisions Pitt and Syracuse will be added is not yet known.
Mountain West Conference and Conference USA
In October 2011, the MWC and C-USA negotiated a football only alliance that will result in a dual conference Championship game in 2013. Ideally, this will include divisional championships and a tiered playoff format. The hope is to secure an automatic BCS Bowl bid for the winner. Certainly, the winner of the MWC/C-USA championship game would be better qualified for a BCS Bowl bid than any past Big East Conference champion has been.
For 2012, the two conferences together number 22 teams, 10 in the MWC and 12 in C-USA. This number will probably change, as both conferences remain in a state of flux. For now, the Mountain West remains the strongest of the non-automatic BCS qualifying conferences.
During the 2010-2011 conference realignments, the MWC lost BYU, Utah and TCU, seriously eroding the strength of the conference. They responded to these losses by acquiring Hawaii, Nevada and Fresno State, all formerly Western Athletic Conference (WAC) teams. Boise State will play in the MWC in 2012, then (presumably) depart for the Big East in 2013. For the 2012 season, the Mountain West schools include Fresno State, Boise State, Air Force, San Diego State, Colorado State, UNLV, New Mexico, Hawaii, Nevada and Wyoming.
C-USA is currently divided into six team, East and West divisions. In the East we have East Carolina, UCF, Marshall, UAB, Memphis, and Southern Miss. In the West we have Tulsa, Rice, SMU, UTEP, Houston and Tulane.
Three C-USA schools (UCF, Houston and SMU) have been invited to join the Big East and East Carolina has petitioned the Big East for membership. Nevertheless, the future beyond 2013 is probably brighter for the MWC/C-USA alliance than for the Big East.
The Big East is, by far, the weakest of the automatic qualifier (AQ) BCS football conferences and its future appears uncertain. (It has several non-football playing members and may remain viable as a basketball conference.) The departure of Pitt and Syracuse to the ACC and West Virginia to the Big 12 leaves the Big East without credibility as a major football conference.
For the 2012 season the eight Big East football members are Rutgers, South Florida, Pitt, Cincinnati, Louisville, Syracuse, Temple and U-Conn. Syracuse and Pitt will be departing for the ACC. U-Conn and Rutgers have made no secret of the fact that they would also like to join the ACC (why would the ACC want either?) and Louisville is a potential candidate for future Big 12 membership.
The Big East frantically sought replacement members (Boise State, Air Force, Army and Navy being the most prominent) in an attempt to bring its membership back to at least eight football teams and retain its automatic BCS bowl bid through 2013. Air Force, Army and Navy declined, but Boise State accepted the Big East (football only) invitation for 2013, part of an attempt to take the Conference national (C-USA already fulfills that role), while incongruously retaining the "Big East" name.
Invitations have been extended to SMU, Central Florida and Houston (from C-USA) to become a new Big East members. East Carolina (C-USA) is seeking to join the Big East and has applied for membership. Villanova, an FCS school, has indicated that it would like to be considered for membership. (Why any school would seek to join a notoriously weak conference that is on the ropes is a mystery to me.)
The Big East should accept that they are a minor football conference and concentrate on basketball and other sports. Even there, they are declining, as Notre Dame has withdrawn from participation in the Big East in basketball and the minor sports and switched to the ACC. (ND remains an independent in football only.) However, in the short term (the 2012 and 2013 seasons), the Big East retains its undeserved BCS AQ status
The major independent football schools are down to Notre Dame, BYU, Navy and Army. Of these, only BYU and ND are perennial football powers. Notre Dame is forging an alliance with the ACC and BYU belongs in the Pac-12. (Whether BYU will ever be invited to join the Pac-12, however, is another question.) Overall, the future does not look bright for independent football programs.
Conclusion and Suggestions
The FBS landscape is still changing and it seems likely that more changes will occur in the future. The Pac-12, Big 10 and SEC remain stable, financially secure and powerful. They are the elite "Big Three" among football conferences. The ACC seems to have established itself as the "other" Eastern conference (besides the SEC), with a reasonably solid membership unless the SEC comes calling. The Big 12 remains a powerful football conference and its future is now brighter than it appeared in 2010-2011. Every other conference is either in a state of flux or vulnerable to some extent. Stay tuned for updates.
At last, starting with the 2014 season, we will have a four team playoff in the FBS. The four lucky teams will be chosen by a selection committee. This is a big step in the right direction although, due to the subjective nature of the polls, four playoff teams really isn't enough. Hopefully, at some point the FBS playoffs will be expanded to eight teams. That would still be manageable in the context of the post season bowl games and make it very likely that the best FBS team in the country would, in fact, be included in the playoffs.
The Cotton Bowl should be added to the list of official BCS bowl games, creating two more BCS Bowl slots. Removing Notre Dame's special (favored) status would eliminate another troublesome BCS anomaly.
To improve the accuracy of the BCS rankings, computer ratings should be dropped from the calculations. The computers simply do what their programmers tell them to do and those individuals have proven less accurate than the human polls. Dump the computers from the BCS formula and add the ESPNU Fan Poll, which is often the most accurate of the human polls. The fans have proven to be more in touch with college football reality than the experts.
Finally, teams should be required to have a winning season record to qualify for ANY bowl game. The absurdity of rewarding statistically average teams (6 wins and 6 losses) with a bowl game undermines the credibility of post season play. All bowl bound teams should be required to have won at least a majority of their games during the season.
Copyright 2010, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. Last updated 16 Sep 2012. All rights reserved.