Conference Realignment: Let the Bickering Begin
Does anybody remember the SWC (Southwest Conference)?
If you do, I congratulate you on your age and/or sports history knowledge.
By the way: you can get bonus points for identifying the eight mascots in the "family portrait" on this page! This little humorous history lesson is a way of showing how top-level (formerly I-A, now FBS) college football has changed over the last 40-plus years, as television has permeated (some say corrupted) every aspect of the game...even conference membership.
Traditional conference affiliations based on geographic and/or historical ties are being replaced by discussion of television markets and national profiles...as if these conferences didn't already have national profiles by representing their region in inter-conference or postseason games.
In the following slides, I will briefly discuss the prospects for the four soon-to-be "super-conferences," along with the two aspiring "mid-major" conferences which may succeed in getting a place at the BCS table and the three "minor" conferences which will be left with the scraps.
I offer up my reasonably thought out (yet emotionally affected) predictions for what things may look like in 2012 and 2013, when this latest game of musical chairs comes to a halt.
Nota Bene: These predictions presume the complete collapse of the Big 12 and the Big East. Should those two conferences somehow survive, I would include them with the five "mid-majors," as they would be essentially gutted of their most successful programs.
[pictures are from a set of 6" x 9" postcards printed in 1969 by the Collegiate Marketing Corporation in Austin, Texas: I found them through this website: http://www.uni-watch.com/2011/01/22/what-kind-of-fan-are-you/ accessed on Sept. 14, 2011]
B16 Ten: The Granddaddy of Them All
A Big Ten Conference "family portrait", circa 1969.
Along with the SEC, the Big *cough* Ten is responsible for the prevailing trends in conference realignment. It is the oldest intercollegiate athletic conference (founded in 1896) and it used to be even more academically driven than it is now (the University of Chicago was a founding member).
As such, the official name of the conference was "The Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives" until 1987, at which time "Big Ten" became the official name.
Once Michigan State joined in the early 1950s (effectively replacing Chicago), the membership remained at a stable 10 for four decades. Then, following the SEC's expansion (see next slide), the Big Ten sought to bolster its own presence. It invited Penn State, which needed to clear up some loose ends before officially beginning conference play in 1993.
Notre Dame was approached, but politely declined. The Big Ten remained determined to pursue Notre Dame and went a-courtin' again at the end of the 1990s, only to be spurned again.
Finally, when the Big 12 started to fragment, the Big Ten invited Nebraska to join. Interestingly, Nebraska had requested to join a century earlier, but had been turned down.
"You love her...but she loves him...and he loves somebody else... you just can't win..." (J. Geils Band, "Love Stinks")
So what now? Will Notre Dame finally requite the Big *sneeze* Ten's love?
I predict that the Irish will say "We love you, but not in THAT way. Let's just remain friends, alright?" Crushed, the Big *ahem* Ten will propose to the less pretty Rutgers, who will gladly say yes. It helps that Rutgers has a place close to the Big City, of course. And it also has a "Certificate of Good Housekeeping," as it's a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU).
Rutgers will also point out that there were three colleagues to the west who now needed a home, but were also members of the AAU: Kansas, Missouri and Iowa State.
The Big *burp* Ten will think about it for a while, pacing back and forth, but will grudgingly realize that despite their uneven football pedigree, all three had something worthwhile to contribute.
Kansas will plead that its brother, Kansas State, should be allowed to come along, but the Big Ten will be firm and say "we don't want your brother, sorry; it's either us or him." Kansas will leave its brother behind, as the priority of self-preservation takes over (more on Kansas State later).
B16 Ten West: Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa State, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois
B16 Ten East: Northwestern, Purdue, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers
SEC: The Good Ol Boys Keep on Rollin'
A Southeastern Conference "family portrait', circa 1969.
While not as old as the Big "Teensomething," the Southeastern Conference (SEC) has quite the pedigree itself. Formed as a breakaway from the older Southern Conference, which is now in I-AA (FCS), the SEC actually had 12 members as the 1960s began, but no conference championship game. Georgia Tech and Tulane left in the mid-1960s and so the membership remained at 10 for about 25 years.
The SEC was primarily responsible for the wave of conference expansion and realignment in the early 1990s. It added Arkansas from the weakening Southwest Conference and South Carolina from the ranks of independents.
It could have added more teams from the SWC or from independents...for instance, Texas A&M or Florida State...but it only needed 12 teams to host a championship game (and thus gain more TV exposure).
It was only with the potential fragmentation of the Big 12 that the SEC took notice and began to consider possible candidates for expansion. However, it is not in a particular rush to increase to 16, and might even stay at 12 members if the potential lawsuit(s) from Baylor (and possibly other former Big 12 members) proceed.
Assuming that the legal challenges are resolved in its favor, the SEC will likely add Texas A&M to the Western Division. There is a possibility that it may be able to attract Oklahoma and Oklahoma State as well, although those two schools have so far seemed more interested in joining the Pac-12 than the SEC.
Being bigger fish in the "smaller" Pac-12 might be one reason for that preference; another might be the desire to remain with Texas (and to a lesser degree, Texas Tech) wherever they end up.
One school that may be without a home through no fault of its own is TCU. Even though it wouldn't make much of a difference in terms of TV market, the Horned Frogs could bring a strong, rejuvenated football program. But there's no telling whether or when TCU (or even Texas A&M) will be able to join.
Of all these conferences, the SEC is the most likely to remain as 12, as it is hesitant to add teams from outside its geographic region. That's one reason why its identity remains so strong, after all. But I'll go out on a limb here and predict a 14 team conference (not 12 and not 16).
SEC West: Texas A&M*, Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State, Mississippi, Alabama, Auburn
SEC East: TCU**, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida
* = Conditional on lawsuit being resolved. ** = Conditional on Big East collapsing.
ACC: The East Coast Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us
An Atlantic Coast Conference "family portrait", circa 1969.
In 1953—20 years after 13 teams broke away from the 23-team Southern Conference to form the SEC—seven schools broke away from the (re-grown) 17-team Southern Conference to form the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) along with Virginia, an independent (the Cavaliers had left the Southern Conference in 1937).
So, the SEC and the ACC are relatives in a way; however, the two don't quite agree on the nature of their relationship. The ACC would say the two are brothers, while in the SEC's view, it's the uncle and the ACC is the nephew.
Though never the equal of the SEC in terms of football prestige, the ACC did develop a unique identity, based not so much on athletic success as on (again) a strong regional identity. All the schools were located in the Atlantic Coastal Plain and Piedmont geographical regions:
The conference shrunk to seven schools when South Carolina became an independent in 1971, but grew back to eight with the addition of Georgia Tech in 1978 (the Yellow Jackets had left the SEC 14 years earlier). Once it was clear that the SEC was adding Arkansas and South Carolina, however, the ACC decided to take action.
Much as the Big Ten would do, it stole a march on the Big East by inviting Florida State. The Seminoles had been a possibility to join the SEC, but in the end, it was likely the promise of a relatively easy conference schedule, combined with the academic reputation of many of the members (including former fellow Metro conference member Georgia Tech) that persuaded Florida State to join.
Why didn't the ACC immediately try for 12 members? Well, by this time, the Big East had finally woken up to the fact that it would be marginalized as a basketball-only conference and sought out additional schools to add to its three football-playing members (whom were playing as independents up until this time): Boston College, Pittsburgh and Syracuse. In 1992, five new members joined those three in the first official season of Big East football: Miami, Rutgers, Temple, Virginia Tech and West Virginia.
The ACC, therefore, remained at nine members for over a decade. It became clear in the early 2000s, however, that the Big East was never going to be among the leading football conferences. As previously stated, the Big East was founded in 1979 as a basketball conference, and although Miami and Virginia Tech had considerable success as conference members, there was no desire on the part of the conference to expand to 12 teams and hold a conference championship game.
Miami in particular was disappointed in the Big East's lack of action and became receptive to the ACC's courtship in the early 2000s. Syracuse, Virginia Tech and Boston College were considered as well, but when the time came to send out formal invitations in 2003, only Miami and Virginia Tech were invited and began conference play in 2004. However, Boston College was invited the following year and began conference play in 2005.
As we see this year, the relative weakness of the Big East as a football conference is a continuing story. The roots go back to its rejection of Penn State in the mid-1980s when it had the chance to add the Nittany Lions. This weakness has been to the advantage of other conferences, as both the Big Ten and the ACC were sniffing around the Big East for new members.
To its credit, the ACC beat the Big Ten to the punch, and by doing so has touched off the next storm of realignment. Congratulations, guys.
Will the ACC try for 16? It's a possibility. The question is in which direction? Some are saying that Texas is a strong possibility, but my hunch is that Texas is using the ACC as leverage to get a better deal from the Pac-12 (see next slide).
There are two more Big East programs that would consolidate the ACC's domination of the eastern seaboard, however: UConn (only recently an FBS member, but on the rise) and West Virginia (very strong in both football and basketball). My prediction:
ACC North: Boston College, UConn, Syracuse, Pitt, West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia Tech, Virginia
ACC South: Duke, North Carolina, NC State, Wake Forest, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State, Miami
Pac-16: At Least We Can Count
A Pacific-8 Conference "family portrait", circa 1969.
The conference formerly known as the Pacific Coast Conference (PCC) is perhaps the most intriguing of the lot. It's gone from an afterthought in the BCS era to one of the prime movers of the 2010s. It's the one primarily responsible for the latest round of chaos which began last year.
It bears mention that the PCC, which existed from 1915 to 1959, had 10 members at one point: California, Stanford, USC, UCLA, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington, Washington State, Idaho and Montana. During the late 1950s, however, the conference began to experience turmoil similar to the Southwest Conference turmoil of the late 1980s.
The conference disintegrated in 1959 amid bitter recriminations between the member schools. A new conference, the Athletic Association of Western Universities (AAWU), began play in 1959 with five members: California, Stanford, USC, UCLA and Washington.
By the mid-1960s, Washington State, Oregon and Oregon State were back in the conference, which was re-christened the "Pacific-8 Conference" in 1968. This is the conference seen in the "family portrait" above.
As Arizona and Arizona State became major powers in the Western Athletic Conference in the 1970s, the Pac-8 took notice and invited the two to become members in 1978. This was also the year of the creation of Division I-AA; divisions II and III had been created five years earlier, in 1983.
This increasing stratification would continue with the advent of the BCS era, during which the Arizona schools' former conference was effectively relegated to "mid-major league" (if not "minor league") status.
When the Pac-10 began talks with the aim of taking half of the Big 12 Conference—Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Colorado, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State—it sent a shock wave throughout the BCS conferences (and to a lesser extent, the rest of the FBS, along with parts of the FCS). This was in addition to the Big Ten's approach of Nebraska.
For their part, the Texas and Oklahoma schools managed to preserve the Big 12 conference, but Colorado accepted the Pac-10's invitation. The Pac-10 then managed to attract Utah from the Mountain West conference to fill out the 12-member roster so that it could hold a championship game and re-negotiate its TV contract. As we know, that TV contract turned out to be pretty good for the newly-minted Pac-12.
And so now we turn to the aftershocks of last year's tremors. Once again, the Big 12 is poised on the verge of collapse. Texas A&M is no longer a possibility for the Pac-12, having sought (and received) an invitation to the SEC.
The Oklahoma schools are both interested, but Texas is more or less on the fence. This is due to the financial aspects of its contract with ESPN for the Longhorn Network, conceived only last year when the Big 12 conference was (momentarily, as it turns out) preserved.
My prediction is that Texas will use the ACC as leverage against the Pac-12 and ensure that the Longhorn Network remains, but as a component of a broader Pac-16 network, in which the Longhorn Network will serve the eight newest members, while the other half of the network (the "Pacific Network," perhaps?) serves the "Pac-8" members.
There is even a possible new name for the eastern half of the Pac-16, as it's not currently being used.
The Big Eight.
Pacific-8 Division: Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, California, Stanford, UCLA, USC
Big Eight Division: Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas Tech
The Leftovers, Part I: Sorry, Kansas State
A Big Eight Conference "family portrait", circa 1969.
The Big Eight, along with the SWC (see next slide), was one of the oldest intercollegiate conferences, predating the SEC, ACC, Pac-8 and Big East. It effectively ceased to exist in 1996, when it added four schools from the SWC and became the Big 12.
But just as we've seen with the Big East, this corporate merger of sorts wasn't guaranteed to succeed. Of course, Oklahoma and Nebraska continued to be national powers, but now that they were in separate divisions, their rivalry lessened in importance.
In fact, there was no "preserved rivalry" feature in the Big 12, so what used to be a heated rivalry vanished from the college landscape virtually overnight.
This is a warning to the present and future super-conferences: Don't screw with the traditional rivalries or it'll come back to bite you in the backside.
So of the eight members pictured above, I'm predicting four to be in the "B16 Ten" super-conference and three to be in the Pac-16 super-conference. That leaves Kansas State out in the cold.
To be honest, Kansas vs. Missouri is a far fiercer rivalry than Kansas vs. Kansas State. I have personal experience with both rivalries, and I think that many (if not most) Kansas fans and alumni would agree with me.
I predict that Kansas State will find a home in the up-and-coming (but not quite there) Mountain West Conference:
MWC West: Boise State, Hawaii, San Diego State, Fresno State, Nevada, UNLV
MWC East: Kansas State, Air Force, Colorado State, Wyoming, New Mexico, UTEP*
Barring some extraordinary instability among the WAC or Conference-USA members (which is nevertheless a distinct possibility), I foresee the MWC staying at 11 or 12 members.
The 12th member would be in the MWC Eastern Division, and although I would suggest Baylor, I don't know if the MWC would want Baylor. I think UTEP is more likely, due to geographic reasons.
However, if the SEC doesn't invite TCU (see my SEC slide), there's always the possibility that the Horned Frogs could be readmitted to the MWC, especially if the MWC petitions the BCS to be given the Big 12's automatic qualification berth in the BCS (and succeeds). I also foresee Conference USA petitioning for the Big East's automatic qualification berth (see next slide).
The Leftovers, Part II: Sorry, Baylor
A Southwest Conference "family portrait", circa 1969.
Of the eight Southwest Conference members pictured above, one is already in the SEC, one has been formally invited and one (I predict) will likely be invited when the Big East collapses. Two are likely headed to the Pac-12 and two are currently in Conference-USA (C-USA). That leaves Baylor.
If the proverbial crap hits the fan in the coming weeks, Baylor will go ahead with its lawsuit. At that point, the possible outcomes are:
- Baylor is invited to become a member of the SEC (snowball's chance in Waco)
- Baylor wins lawsuit against SEC (least probable)
- Baylor settles out of court with the SEC for a sizeable sum (somewhat probable)
- Baylor loses lawsuit against SEC and is counter-sued by Texas A&M (somewhat probable)
- Baylor is invited to C-USA, which will inherit the Big East's AQ status (most probable)*
*In this last outcome, I leave the outcome of the lawsuit undetermined, though I would lean slightly towards the prediction that they would settle out of court, given the circumstances mentioned.
So what happens to the rest of the Big East? Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida would be orphaned. Baylor would be orphaned by the collapse of the Big 12 (I predicted in the last slide that Kansas State would be "adopted" by the MWC). There would be two reasons for C-USA to pursue these four members.
First, it would bring C-USA to 16 members (it already has 12) and put it on a par with the BCS conferences in numbers, if not in prestige.
Second, if it were to add four teams from defunct BCS conferences, it could (and I predict, will) make a case for inheriting the Big East's automatic qualification berth in the BCS.
C-USA West: Baylor, Houston, Rice, SMU, Louisiana Tech*, Tulane, Tulsa, Southern Miss
C-USA East: Memphis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Marshall, East Carolina, UAB, South Florida, Central Florida
* If TCU *is* invited by the SEC (this is my prediction; I admit that the chances are slim, but definitely possible, especially if Texas A&M is in), then I would see UTEP moving to the MWC, and Louisiana Tech taking its place in C-USA.
If TCU is not invited by the SEC and joins an AQ-status MWC, then the C-USA will keep its existing 12 members and add Baylor along with the three Big East orphans.
Finally, I address the independents and the three "mid-minor" conferences, the Mid-American Conference (MAC), the Sun Belt Conference and the Western Athletic Conference (WAC):
MAC West: Northern Illinois, Ball State, Western Michigan, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Bowling Green, Toledo
MAC East: Miami (OH), Akron, Kent State, Ohio, Buffalo, Temple*, UMass**
* Temple has been a football-only associate member of the MAC since 2007.
** UMass will join the MAC as a football-only associate member and begin FBS play in 2012.
Sun Belt: Arkansas State, UL-Lafayette, UL-Monroe, Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee, Troy, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, South Alabama*
* South Alabama is already a Sun Belt member and is scheduled to begin FBS play in 2013.
WAC: Idaho, San Jose State, Utah State, New Mexico State, Texas State*, Texas-San Antonio (UTSA)*, North Texas**
* Texas State and UTSA will join the WAC and begin FBS play in 2012.
** North Texas is currently a member of the Sun Belt, but might be persuaded to move to the WAC if given enough, uh, "incentive" to do so. Perhaps some Texas politicking is in order?
Contrary to some speculation, I predict that Notre Dame will remain independent. I would only expect that to change if, for whatever reason, its special status within the BCS (which is constituted by the six existing conferences and Notre Dame) were revoked.
I also see BYU. Army and Navy remaining independent—at least given my predictions for the rest of FBS. So of the 124 FBS teams in 2013, 90 will be in BCS (automatic-qualification) conferences, 30 in non-BCS conferences and four independents (of which one has special BCS status).
Having said all this, it's really time that the NCAA stepped in and instituted a proper playoff format, similar to the one found in FCS (but involving TV rights and revenue on a scale similar to "March Madness"). But that's a story for future (and past) columns.