College Football Schools That Belong in Different Conferences

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistJune 15, 2016

College Football Schools That Belong in Different Conferences

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    The Big 12 helped fill the void this offseason by reviving the college football realignment/expansion discussion, prompting the wheels to start turning about which schools the conference might seek to add and how that will affect other leagues. As of now, the Big 12 has made no definitive decision, but another round of movement seems inevitable.

    Why wait?

    We've got a slew of suggested conference switches that would make great sense for a variety of reasons. Most of them probably won't ever happen, but a fan can dream.

    And since we're dealing in hypotheticals, our proposed moves include teams that are currently (or soon will be) independent, as well as ones that should consider going that route. We won't be making any recommendations involving the FCS ranks, however, since Idaho seems resigned to dropping down a level in 2018 and North Dakota State appears quite content winning FCS titles every season.

    Disagree with our suggestions or have others of your own? By all means, join the conversation in our comments section.

Army

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    Current conference: Independent

    Where it belongs: American Athletic Conference

    Army and Navy are forever linked in college football, their annual meeting each December being one of the best things about the sport. For years each was a longtime independent program, uninterested in being tied down to a league and completely willing to patch together a schedule from whichever teams it could face.

    Then Navy caved in 2015, joining the American to end 135 seasons of independence, and it couldn't have worked out better. The Midshipmen won 11 games for the first time in program history and nearly won their division.

    Now it's time for Army to follow suit. And it's only fitting the Black Knights follow their longtime rivals into conference life.

    While Army isn't nearly as successful at football as its rivals—its last winning record came in 2010, the only one since 1997—it's still a well-regarded program because of its military ties. And it's familiar with AAC teams, having faced the likes of Connecticut, Temple and Tulane over the last few seasons.

    Army would fit geographically in the East Division, close to Temple and UConn, which would put it opposite Navy in the West. The league could opt to include the annual Army-Navy game as a league contest or have it be separate, and having the teams in opposite divisions could make it possible to have their meeting serve as the conference championship game.

Boise State

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    Current conference: Mountain West

    Where it belongs: Pac-12

    What more does Boise State have to do to earn a power-conference invitation? Agree to do away with its iconic blue turf?

    It's not as if the Broncos aren't an attractive program from a performance standpoint. Their three major bowl wins over the last decade are more than the majority of power teams, including all but three Pac-12 schools (Oregon, Stanford, USC). They've had more draft picks since 2007 than four teams in that league and more first-round selections than seven Pac-12 clubs.

    The Broncos have won at least eight games every year since 1999, and during that time they've recorded wins over teams from the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.

    Boise might not provide the large television market the Pac-12 is seeking out—it's 112th, for the record—but it's got strong football interest and a passionate fanbase. It's a much better fit in that league than the Big 12, where its nearest foe (Texas Tech) would be more than 1,250 miles away.

    In contrast, Arizona would be Boise's furthest potential Pac-12 opponent at roughly 1,036 miles away.

BYU

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    Current conference: Independent

    Where it belongs: Big 12

    Among its reasons for choosing to leave the Mountain West for football independence in 2011, BYU cited the difficulty in being able to get quality teams to come to Provo for nonconference games. It thought a TV agreement with ESPN would help improve its attractiveness to power opponents, which has turned out to be the case.

    The Cougars have become almost too enticing if you judge them by their 2016 schedule, which ranks as the seventh-toughest slate in FBS based on opponents' 2015 win totals.

    BYU had dreams of being the Western version of Notre Dame, a faith-based institution with a national following that didn't need to rely on conference revenues to get by. This has only partly materialized, and after five seasons it's time to get back in a league.

    The Big 12 and Pac-12 are the best options, and geographically the Pac-12 makes the most sense. However, Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News noted that the Pac-12 would prefer to add "secular research schools" instead of religiously affiliated ones.

    The Big 12 doesn't have such desires, as Baylor and TCU are part of the membership. And geography can't really be a concern for that league, considering it added West Virginia in 2012.

Cincinnati

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    Current conference: American Athletic Conference

    Where it belongs: Big 12

    Cincinnati has built a cottage industry out of shifting in and out of conferences in football, so why not make another move?

    Since first fielding a team in 1885, the Bearcats have played in the Ohio Athletic Conference (1910-25), the Buckeye Athletic Association (1926-35), the Mid-American Conference (1947-52), the Missouri Valley Conference (1957-69), Conference USA (1996-2004), Big East (2005-2013) and now the American (2014-present). They've also been independent at three different times, most recently in 1995.

    Cincinnati was one of the six teams that came over from the Big East when it folded, but Rutgers and Louisville have since moved on. The American has that way-station feeling to it because of this, so it's inevitable that Cincinnati would eventually leave.

    The Big 12 has been the much-mentioned destination, often paired with fellow AAC school Memphis. Each is in a top-50 television market, with the Cincinnati area trailing only the Dallas, Houston, Kansas City and St. Louis markets within the Big 12 footprint.

    And Cincinnati would also serve as somewhat of a midway point between easternmost Big 12 team West Virginia and the rest of the league. This would make the Bearcats particularly attractive for non-football scheduling, giving West Virginia a travel partner.

    The football has been pretty good for a while now, too. Even with five different coaches, since 2000 the program has managed to win at least seven games in all but three of the last 16 seasons.

Hawaii

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    Current conference: Mountain West

    Where it belongs: Independent

    Football independence isn't for everyone, but it might be the only thing that can keep Hawaii relevant in the sport.

    The Rainbow Warriors will never be a fit in any conference because of how far away they are from the rest of FBS, a problem they've always dealt with. They could have gone independent in 2012 when the Western Athletic Conference fizzled out but opted to accept a football-only invite to the Mountain West, an agreement that's been very expensive.

    Unlike fellow WAC transplants Fresno State, Nevada, San Jose State and Utah State, Hawaii's deal requires it to pay a travel subsidy to Mountain West teams that come to Honolulu for league games to offset their costs. No other school in FBS has to do that, and there's no reciprocation by the rest of the Mountain West to help the Warriors pay their travel bills.

    Hawaii's budget is supplemented by playing several big-money road games, such as last year at Ohio State and Wisconsin and this fall at Arizona and Michigan. It used to be able to regularly lure a few of those schools to the islands, particularly late in the season, but the advent of conference title games has limited the Warriors to mostly hosting mid-major and FCS schools in non-league play.

    A full move to independence, though, could be aided by some NCAA assistance, similar to the so-called “Hawaii Rule” that allows teams who play at Hawaii to add a 13th regular-season game in order to offset the cost to play there. And with the right boost from a TV agreement, the Warriors could conceivably set up a load of home-and-home or two-for-one series with numerous power programs, similar to what BYU has been able to achieve.

Massachusetts

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    Current conference: Independent

    Where it belongs: American Athletic Conference

    Massachusetts made the ambitious move up from FCS in 2012, and its football program was accepted into the Mid-American Conference on a provisional basis. The league decided to sever that relationship after four years when the Minutemen declined to join in all sports, though it didn't hurt that they had managed a pitiful 8-40 record during that span.

    Now UMass is going the independent route starting with this fall, set to play a mix of power-conference teams and mid-majors with September home games scheduled against Boston College and Mississippi State. But in 2017 the home slate is devoid of power foes, and none are lined up to come to Amherst (or Foxborough, where it plays a few games a year in the New England Patriots' Gillette Stadium) until BC returns in 2021.

    Without those power opponents, it's very unlikely UMass would earn a bowl invite if it ever wins six games, so unless it's OK with that—and who would be?—it should be actively seeking out another league to join.

    If another round of realignment happens, the American is likely to be preyed upon as it was by the ACC and Big Ten a few years ago and thus will need to add more schools. And though the Minutemen aren't located in Boston they're close enough, making for an enticing addition to the AAC.

    If our suggestion to add Army also were to come to fruition, that league would have a nice, tidy Northeast quartet of Army, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Temple.

Memphis

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    Current conference: American Athletic Conference

    Where it belongs: Big 12

    Memphis is a program on the rise, having won 19 games the past two seasons (after winning 10 in the previous four) and producing a first-round NFL draft pick in quarterback Paxton Lynch. The Tigers lost their head coach to a bigger school, but the foundation Justin Fuente built should keep them strong for years to come.

    "Fuente gave Memphis a fourth year even though he had suitors following his 2014 breakthrough; that allowed the program an extra year of building infrastructure and showing fans a quality product," SB Nation's Bill Connelly wrote.

    That's one of many reasons why Memphis has been so frequently mentioned as a target for the Big 12 if and when it expands. There's also geography, recruiting impact, fan support and financial incentives, all of which paint Memphis in a positive light.

    Memphis is within 500 miles of four Big 12 schools (Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU) and also provides a bridge to geographical outlier West Virginia to the east. The Memphis region is a recruiting hotbed, one the SEC mostly dominates. But the Big 12 often dips into it, and having the local team be part of its league would help that cause.

    The Tigers drew 43,802 fans in 2015, an increase of more than 9,900 that was the second-largest year-over-year increase in FBS. That's only 2,300 fans per game fewer than Baylor, 2,900 less than TCU and 16,000-plus more than Kansas.

    And Memphis has a strong corporate backer in FedEx, which according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal would become a major sponsor for football and other Big 12 sports if the Tigers were added.

New Mexico State

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    Current conference: Sun Belt (independent beginning in 2018)

    Where it belongs: Mountain West

    If anti-realignment activists needed a program to serve as their poster child, New Mexico State would have no competition. And it would be the first time the Aggies have been competitive in that sport in a long time.

    NMSU is arguably the least successful program in FBS history. It hasn't had a winning record since 2002 and last earned a bowl bid in 1960. Last year's 3-9 mark was its best since 2011, and it's been 12 years since the Aggies went into their regular-season finale with a shot to finish at or above .500.

    This shouldn't be surprising since NMSU has been shuttled around between conferences the past 20 years like a down-on-its-luck relative that no one in the family wants to take in for more than a few weeks. It started when the Big West discontinued football in 2000, forcing NMSU to join the Sun Belt for four seasons before moving to the Western Athletic Conference in 2005.

    Then the WAC got out of the football game in 2012, and the Aggies had to play as an independent in 2013 before the Sun Belt begrudgingly welcomed them back. But this spring the Sun Belt voted to boot them and Idaho out after the 2017 season.

    Idaho opted to drop to FCS, while NMSU is going back to independence for the time being. The school hopes this is a short-term solution, but for that to be the case it has to convince another league to take it in.

    Conference USA and the Mountain West are the only real options, and each includes an Aggies rival (New Mexico in the MWC, UTEP in C-USA). The MWC makes better sense because it would keep NMSU from having to play a bunch of its league games in the eastern half of the country again, and with our realignment suggestions causing the MWC to lose several teams, it would be looking to replenish its ranks.

Notre Dame

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    Current conference: Independent

    Where it belongs: Big Ten 

    Smack dab in the middle of Big Ten country, Notre Dame football has been independent from the start. And with a lucrative long-term contract that essentially makes NBC its own network, there's no financial impetus for the program to ever change that.

    But the move a few years back to join the ACC in all other sports—and agree to play a handful of ACC teams in football each season—indicates that Notre Dame may someday give in and end its independence.

    If that ever happens, there's no other place the Fighting Irish should look beyond the Big Ten.

    Of the 21 schools Notre Dame has faced the most in its history, 10 of those are current Big Ten schools. It's played 387 games against the league's 14 schools and has future games scheduled with Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State and Purdue; the annual number used to be higher before the ACC agreement, which has caused the Irish to swap out Michigan for Wake Forest or North Carolina State.

    Being in the Big Ten wouldn't prevent Notre Dame from continuing other longstanding series, such as its traditional Thanksgiving weekend visit to either Stanford or USC or the tilts with Navy that have been played in Baltimore, Dublin and this November in Jacksonville.

    Hey, if the Big Ten is good enough for the Irish's hockey program, then why not football?

San Diego State

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    Current conference: Mountain West

    Where it belongs: Pac-12

    The last realignment cycle reached a fever pitch in 2012-13 when San Diego first joined and then left the Big East Conference before ever playing a game in any sport as that league's member. The Big East ended up becoming the American Athletic Conference and opted to raid Conference USA in order to stay alive, while SDSU stayed in the Mountain West.

    At the same time, though, SDSU was on the short list of schools the Pac-12 looked at for inclusion. It didn't happen, but commissioner Larry Scott said taking another look down the road wasn't impossible.

    "If we were to look at expanding again, I’m sure both those schools would be on the list," Scott said, per the San Diego Union-Tribune, referring to SDSU and Boise State.

    We've already moved Boise in the Pac-12, so in order to give that league an even number of teams SDSU gets to tag along. Actually, the Aztecs are just as enticing thanks to their strong men's basketball program and a strong performance in football that included winning the 2015 Mountain West title.

    San Diego is only a few hours from Los Angeles and has plenty of UCLA and USC fans, as well as those who support the Arizona schools, adding to the Aztecs' resume. And if the San Diego Chargers opt to relocate to another city, as they were close to doing this offseason, that would make SDSU the only football in town.

Texas State

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    Current conference: Sun Belt

    Where it belongs: Conference USA

    Texas State is among the slew of FCS programs that decided to move up to the big time over the past decade, transitioning in 2011 as an independent and then spending one season in the Western Athletic Conference before joining the Sun Belt in 2013. The Bobcats are now full members but await their first bowl invitation despite two years at or above .500.

    Moving into a league where there are more bids available could help this effort, as could cutting down on the travel budget.

    With Idaho and New Mexico State leaving the Sun Belt in 2018, Texas State will be the westernmost team in a league that stretches to the Atlantic Coast with next year's addition of Coastal Carolina. The nearest opponent, Louisiana-Lafayette, is a six-hour bus drive away.

    If Texas State were to move into Conference USA it would be the league's fifth Texas-based team, joining North Texas, Rice, UTEP and UTSA. Along with West Division foes Louisiana Tech and Southern Mississippi, that would leave no more than one or two trips to the eastern half of that league each season.

    C-USA is no stranger to having its membership ranks in flux, as nine of the league's 14 members have joined since 2013. We're not projecting any of its current lineup to be plucked away anytime soon, but with that always being possible, C-USA must be constantly on the lookout for replacements.

West Virginia

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    Current conference: Big 12

    Where it belongs: ACC

    Ask yourself, West Virginia: Has it been worth it?

    The Mountaineers' move to the Big 12 in 2012 was among the most surprising of all the football-related conference switches; not so much that they left the Big East, which was on its last legs, but that they opted to join a conference where the nearest school was more than 850 miles away.

    To put that in perspective, all but one of the ACC's 14 schools are closer than that, with four less than 300 miles away. That includes longtime rival Pittsburgh, against whom West Virginia has waged the famed “Backyard Brawl” since the 1890s.

    West Virginia is almost completely surrounded by ACC country, needing to fly over it on Big 12 road trips. And while men's basketball has managed to hold its own in that new league, the football results haven't been as strong. That was the driving force to move, and it hasn't paid off as hoped.

    Though Big 12 teams are each set to take in $30.4 million in revenue this year, per the Journal Record, that's not much higher than it would have gotten this year as part of the ACC, per USA Today's Steve Berkowitz, and the difference could be made up in travel savings.

    All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports, unless otherwise noted. All statistics provided by CFBStats unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.