This is conference championship week. Prior to the mid-90's, we didn't even have such a thing. Then the SEC expanded and used an NCAA rule that allowed for conference championships and the rest is history. So, since there aren't many games this weekend and there is enough talk already about the actual SEC championship game (and I'm kind of over all the Tiger Woods talk), I thought I would take a look at what led to these championship games...conference expansion. Specifically, I intend to compare the SEC, the ACC, and the Big 12 in these areas: divisional alignment, expansion team selection, championship game site selection, and overall success of expansion.
In 1991, The SEC was the first league to expand by adding Arkansas from the Southwest Conference (SWC) and South Carolina from the ACC. The exodus of Arkansas put the SWC in serious trouble. Arkansas was the second winningest program in that league and the only non-Texas school. It gave the league the cover and appearance of being a major conference when in actuality, it was the Texas league plus one. And the bottom of the conference had gone downhill over the two decades leading up to the split.
The Big 8 then set their sites on taking four of the remaining eight schools so they too could expand to 12 teams and have a title game and two divisions. They wanted Texas, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech and a fourth. SMU was on probation, Houston and Rice were furthest away (Rice was no good and Houston's best days were thought to be behind them). So it came down to TCU and Baylor. TCU was closest but Baylor had better political connections. In 1996, the expansion of the Big 8 to the Big 12 was completed.
Several years later, in 2003, the ACC decided to raid Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College from the Big East. The ACC had the advantage of there being two conferences that had previously expanded. So, in theory, they would be able to model what worked and avoid what didn't based on others having blazed the trail, right?
Not so fast. The ACC expansion has been the least successful of the three in nearly every phase while the SEC, who didn't have the benefit of someone else's history, has been the most successful. Sometimes life is funny that way.
The SEC has appeared to have gotten the conference alignment the most correct. They did a geographical split between east and west. They divided the existing 10 up into two sets of five and added Arkansas in the West and South Carolina in the East. This made sense from a travel standpoint, traditional rivalry standpoint, new member standpoint, and divisional strength standpoint.
The Big 12, as with most metrics in my estimation, did better than the ACC but not quite as well as the SEC. The Big 12 did wisely split along easy to understand geographic lines. Unlike the SEC, one could have made an argument for going North and South or East and West given that the footprint is much bigger. However, it was mostly a sound plan.
The North has been weaker than the South for sure. However, at the time it was being laid out, Nebraska and Colorado were traditionally strong programs. Around the time of expansion, Kansas State had also become pretty good under Bill Snyder. But, that should have been seen as temporary as these things tend to swing back to the power players over time.
It was obvious that there were structural advantages in the Big 12 South. However, had Nebraska and Colorado not fallen off the map for a little while, the differences wouldn't seem as stark. Nebraska seems to be coming back and Missouri has been a recent power up until this year. If Nebraska, Colorado, and Missouri can get back to winning ways, the North will at least provide something other than a speed bump for the South.
The ACC really botched the divisional alignment up. First, they came up with these stupid names that must have been decided by marketing people. Imagine being in that room at the time and some suit says "Let's push our "brand" by having one division called the Atlantic and one called the Coastal." Nobody knows who is in which division without looking it up in the conference standings.
This was a big mistake.
It was also a mistake to try to divide Miami and Florida State. Doing so killed the geographic alignment option. While it is understood that they were trying to balance power, as we have now seen, power comes and goes and swings to/from teams. Florida State is around seventh place in this year's standings. Miami has yet to appear in the conference title game. So while it could be anything but certain that these two teams would stay conference powers, it could have easily been foreseen that this poor divisional format would and has caused travel problems and has disengaged the fan bases as schools within the same division are too far away in many cases.
I realize that this is somewhat subjective and that the teams available or willing to move have as much or more to do with this than how "well" the conferences did in picking these teams. However, the results are still worth noting.
I have never read anything on it but it would appear that the SEC already knew they wanted East and West divisions when they chose Arkansas and South Carolina. Based on that assumption, it's not hard to see why their plan worked best.
The SEC created a plan first and then executed it.
The Big 12 took advantage of some teams that were going to need a new home.
The ACC just thought it was becoming irrelevant. In other words, it's easy to see that the more proactive rather than reactive the conference was, the more success the expansion brought.
Also, the SEC was already very strong and adding Arkansas and South Carolina simply allowed the existing teams the ability to split into divisions and host a title game because the expansion gave them 12 teams. The SEC would be almost as well off if they could have done what they did with the existing ten teams. But the expansion certainly hasn't hurt.
The Big 12 is a better conference than the Big 8 was. Therefore, the teams added were certainly a success. Besides giving every team access to the sizable Texas recruiting marketplace, the television footprint and viability was increased big-time by adding the Texas schools. One can quibble as to whether the 12th team should have been Baylor or one of the others but it really doesn't matter because this was a home run.
As I said before, the ACC appears to have decided to expand out of fear of falling further behind the SEC rather than out of any sound strategy. As such, it was botched. Miami added next to nothing in fan base, alumni base, or tv (the fans down there follow pro ball much more than college). Virginia Tech was solid. Boston College is in an area that is also more pro than college oriented not to mention that it's also an area more baseball oriented than football. So two of the three teams were not that great of additions. Furthermore, the same two that didn't make much sense from a fan following standpoint just happened to be geographically the furthest away from the mid-Atlantic area. Realistically, West Virginia would have been the best addition from a fan following and geographic standpoint and should have replaced Boston College. Miami at least allows more inroads into recruit-rich Florida for the other schools. And at the time expansion was being considered, Miami was very recently a power program. Had West Virginia been substituted for Boston College, my grade would have been an A. However, they weren't.
Conference Championship Game Site Selection
Again, the SEC got this right. They made an event out of it and they decided at the very beginning that it was going to be in Atlanta. There are other markets in the SEC footprint that have hotel accommodations and the stadium for it. New Orleans, Nashville, Jacksonville, Orlando, and Birmingham all come to mind. But they wanted it in the middle of the footprint. That and the fact that Atlanta was the largest city in the South made it the host city. And the SEC wanted to create an event and build it up. They wanted to nurture their event in the same area and embed it as part of that community's sports culture and happenings. They wanted to give teams a place to aspire every year when the season started. That's been accomplished.
The Big 12 has had their title game in San Antonio, Kansas City, Houston, and this year it is in Dallas. Jerry Jones is trying to get the conference to host the game at the new Cowboys Stadium every year. Making it a constant place would be a plus...at least from the success we've seen with the SEC and failures of the ACC. And the conference is studying it and will likely do that. Having it in Oklahoma City would be better geographically. However, short of that, Dallas is the next best option. The games have not been as competitive while the Big 12 North has been down but that can't be blamed on the site selection. They don't always sell out. That could be cured if they planted it and nurtured it in the community like the SEC. Grade: B-
The ACC made their championship game in Florida (it's been in Jacksonville and is now in Tampa) because they expected Florida State or Miami or both to be playing for it every year. Given that Miami hasn't and Florida State has only done it a couple of times, that was poor planning. Because for Virginia Tech or Boston College (the last two years participants) to go to Florida, that's not drive-able for the fans. This game moves to Charlotte next year with chatter about it staying there. That would be best. Miami, isn't going to travel well even if the game is in Jacksonville. And Florida State previously weren't big travelers because they were a bit spoiled. Their fan base has toned that back and would be happy to be in it in the future. But if this game was planted in North Carolina (where four of the fan bases are located and 3 more are within 200 miles), the local attendance could really help this game. Last year, in Tampa, the actual "butts in seats" count was around 27,000. That's incredibly bad.
The SEC did it all right. And they are reaping the rewards now and will for the foreseeable future. They have positioned their league as some sort of hybrid that falls between the NFL and the rest of college football. What is there to argue with.
The Big 12 is a much better conference than the Big 8. They have more, bigger, and better TV markets than they had before. They are tweaking their conference championship game. If the North strengthens up, it could be really great. There's a reason this conference is regarded right behind the SEC.
It's truly sad to see what could have been in the ACC. Had they invited West Virginia instead of BC, put their title game in Charlotte and built it up there, and had either Miami or Florida State (just one) not fallen off the map, they could be a player for an at-large bid in the BCS most years. But, as it stands, the ACC has fallen short in nearly every measurable category. Truly, they should start all over. For legal reasons, it's too late to boot Boston College and invite West Virginia. However, they should immediately scrap the unrecognizable division alignment names and plant the conference title game in Charlotte to stay. Oh, and it would help if they didn't lose to the SEC in nearly every head to head matchup and if they had won more than one BCS bowl since their expansion.