NCAA Football Conference Realignment: From Bad to Worse

Scott PusichCorrespondent IAugust 28, 2011

The recent news about Texas A&M's likely application to join the Southeastern Conference (SEC) has unsurprisingly set off a new round of speculation about the inevitable game of musical chairs that will result.

Of course, the SEC has yet to formally extend an invitation.

That won't happen until (a) Texas A&M and the "Big XII - II" agree to the terms of A&M's departure, and (b) the existing SEC members approve A&M's application. Furthermore, (b) is not likely to happen until (c) a suitable "14th" member is found, which opens up yet another proverbial can of worms.

Much as with Nebraska's departure–which was also due to dissatisfaction with Texas' predominant position in the conference–the Texas A&M departure would set off a chain reaction of conference membership changes similar to what was seen a year ago.

Make no mistake about it; these moves and realignments take place because of money.

Programs want to increase their revenue, and conference members want to increase national visibility (especially on television). That's not surprising; the Bowl Championship Series was created by the "elite" conferences for much the same reason.

But this period of conference realignment (2010-?) is shaping up to be similar to the previous period of significant conference realignment in 1991-95. That period saw the SEC become the first major conference to expand from 10 to 12 members in the modern era (there are historical precedents of large conferences, such as the SEC itself, which explains a lot actually).

The SEC did so not for competitive balance, nor for some altruistic reason, but because the NCAA stipulated that a conference needed 12 members to hold a championship game. And holding a championship game meant additional television revenue. As such, the creation of conference championship games was the first notable element of the 1991-95 expansion period.

Creating such a game does not enhance competitive balance; if anything, the fact that conferences with ten or more members would likely not play complete round-robin conference schedules (remember, this was when most teams were limited to 11 regular-season games) means that teams could win their conference without having to play one, two, or even three conference members. This is competitive imbalance.

The SEC has had 12 members before, between 1940 and 1964 (for those who are wondering who left: Georgia Tech and Tulane). And it did not hold a championship game. The main explanation would be that money in general (and television money in particular) did not hold the importance that it does today.

The other notable element of the 1991-95 expansion period was the almost complete disappearance of the "independents," those Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS, previously I-A) schools without a conference affiliation in football. In 1990 there were 26 I-A football independents; in 1993, there were only 10. Most notably, Penn State joined the Big Ten (which then kept its traditional but mathematically incorrect moniker), and Miami-Fla. joined the newly created Big East.

#2 Penn State 14, #1 Miami 10: Fiesta Bowl, Jan. 2, 1987
#2 Penn State 14, #1 Miami 10: Fiesta Bowl, Jan. 2, 1987

These two independents, which between them accounted for six of the twelve national championships in the decade of 1982-91 (two national championships during this period were split/shared), were viable programs on their own.

Why join a conference? Only one reason: money.

They would receive a guaranteed share of conference revenues, and as part of the conference TV packages (at the time, only Notre Dame was seen as capable of negotiating on its own with television networks), they would have guaranteed exposure during the season. As it turned out, the Big Ten was–and still is–a much bigger brand name than the Big East.

Had the Big East accepted Penn State's overtures back in the early 1980s, it would have been in better position to benefit from the 1991-95 expansion period; it could have had a built-in rivalry of national importance (Penn State vs. Miami-Fla.). Instead, retaining its members has been problematic (to put it kindly). When you lose one of your charter "basketball" members (Boston College) due to football, things are not going well...

But what about the current period of realignment, 2010-? As with the previous period, it appears that the SEC will provide the spark that lights the fire. If it moves to 14 schools, other conferences will likely move to 14 schools as well. There is even the possibility of at 16-team "super-conference," though this is not new.

It could happen. And yet the "brand name" must remain.
It could happen. And yet the "brand name" must remain.

The Western Athletic Conference (WAC) expanded from 10 to 16 teams in 1996, but the experiment was to prove short-lived, as eight schools (including BYU) left to form the Mountain West Conference (MWC) after the 1998 season. One of the reasons for the break-up was travel costs; this will be of concern for any potential future super-conferences, as in most cases membership will be in all sports, not just in football. Non-revenue generating sports will also see their travel costs increase.

Ultimately, 16-team conferences will only be viable propositions if they function more as paired eight-team conferences. In such a format, teams would be required to play the other seven teams in their division, but would only be allowed to play one or two teams from the other division (and one of those might be a permanent rival). In such a case, the conference championship game would actually have greater meaning, and become a de facto first round playoff game–provided that the loser not be eligible for a playoff game (or BCS bowl).

One major glaring problem would be the case of the BIg East (again); not only is TCU a world apart geographically (and thus a costly addition in terms of travel for non-revenue sports), but further expansion would create issues for many of the other conference sports, particularly basketball. Adding seven more football members to the conference might result in the basketball membership increasing to 24 teams!

This trend is not a good one; college football is going from bad (expanding to 12 members for conference championship games) to worse (expanding to 16 teams for television markets). While there was general support for geographical compactness and respect for traditional conference identities twenty years ago, there is virtually no support or respect for those elements now.

As money becomes more and more central to college football in the FBS, both the magnitude and number of rule violations by individuals and whole programs will increase. Programs will see that the ends (major television contracts and bowl payouts) justify the means (conduct and recruiting violations).

Ultimately such cheating becomes necessary to "keep up with the Joneses," especially when the Joneses only receive a slap on the wrist from the NCAA (which has become as consistent and effective in enforcement as a policeman in a company town). Schools that abide by the regulations and refrain from cheating become also-rans; schools which cheat, but not as effectively or on as grand a scale as the Joneses join them as also-rans.

From the perspective of someone who wants to be entertained, and doesn't care for tradition in the least, these are the glory days of college football. However, from the perspective of curmudgeons like myself, who recall the days when "Ten" actually meant "10" (and not "12") and "East" didn't mean "Southwest," these are sad days indeed.

There are two ways to react to this:

1. "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Give in to the bigger, shinier conferences and their (cable) television networks. Root for your team against their hated "Legends" division rivals, or revel in the pomp and circumstance of the "Coastal" division. Call your cable or satellite provider and ask for The Longhorn Network (or the Buckeye Network, or the Crimson Tide Network).

2. Find more meaningful (and less corrupt) college football to watch. In most cases, this means finding the nearest Div. II or III program and attending in person, though in some circumstances Football Championship Subdivision (FCS, previously I-AA) programs might fit the bill. Even better, all three of those divisions have postseasons with competitive playoffs, instead of bowl committee bribes and kickbacks. And if you think even playoffs are too untraditional, then there's a conference for you:

In future articles this season, I'll be delving into the history of the conferences, with particular focus on the traditional eight-team format that was common before the 1980s. This means that I'll be looking at defunct conferences (including one of the most traditional, the Southwest Conference) as well as those that simply expanded (including the Pacific-8).

I will also be looking ahead to the ramifications of potential legal action against the BCS, to the possibility of a playoff system for FBS, and to the preparations of several FCS programs to make the transition to FBS.