College Football Teams We'd Love to See Switch Conferences in 2021
Hopefully, college football gets to move beyond all the opting out, last-minute maneuvering and rescheduling just to get in some semblance of a season in a pandemic environment and returns to normalcy in 2021.
This past year has been trying in all facets of life.
But for this exercise, we're going to teleport to an alternate reality where teams can be shuffled around from conference to conference temporarily just to whet our appetites with exciting matchups and intriguing storylines next season.
In some cases, permanent, real-life moves for these teams make a ton of sense. For others, there's no geographic or long-term reason to move them. But it would be interesting, nonetheless, in a hypothetical situation.
Every move is independent of one another. So, if Clemson hypothetically resides in the SEC on one slide, it is back in its original ACC home in another separate scenario.
Let's take a look at some teams we'd like to see elsewhere for '21.
Cincinnati to the Big Ten
If you are hoping the Cincinnati Bearcats upset Notre Dame and Indiana early in the season and run the table to see if the College Football Playoff committee grants them entry into the final four, you love chaos.
There's nothing wrong with that, and it would be fun to see a worthy Group of Five team finally get the nod.
The Bearcats under coach Luke Fickell the past three years have been growing, improving and building a lower-tier powerhouse that continues to prove itself on a big stage. They nearly upset Georgia in last year's Peach Bowl, and the talent gap is closing.
Think of a loaded '21 Cincy team running the gauntlet of a Big Ten schedule. This would be the perfect year to see it happen.
Not only are the Bearcats good, but powerhouse Ohio State is breaking in a new quarterback and replacing several other key players, and there is no real clear-cut favorite in one of the nation's most powerful conferences. Plenty of natural rivalries would await Cincinnati in the Big Ten, too.
Could Fickell's program compete in the league year-in and year-out? Maybe not. But it could this year, and getting the opportunity could quell some of the talk of Fickell getting a Big Ten job someday as he focuses on a dynasty in the Queen City.
Clemson to the SEC
The ACC is getting better; there's no question about that.
Upstart programs like North Carolina and Miami are improving, and it may not be long before coach Mike Norvell has Florida State back in contention, too. But with Notre Dame exiting and heading back to its life as an independent, Clemson needs scheduling help.
As long as we're allowed to move the Tigers out of a middling conference, it needs to happen. Joining the SEC would provide some huge showdowns and get them in the same league as rival South Carolina.
Think of grueling grudge matches against Alabama in a regular-season game, or renewing regional games from yesteryear with programs like Georgia and Auburn. The recent Texas A&M games were competitive, too.
Coach Dabo Swinney's team already can claim ownership of the ACC, and though the league has been down recently, the Tigers continually prove themselves in marquee games at the highest level. This is one of the nation's two or three premier teams.
Putting them in a league where there is consistently more than one game they have to get up for during the regular season would benefit all of college football.
Iowa State to the Pac-12
It makes no geographic sense to put Iowa State in the Pac-12. If anything, the Cyclones are a much better fit for the Big Ten.
But for one year, at least, it would be great to see one of the nation's five best teams go to a conference they'd have a better chance of winning.
Coach Matt Campbell's team isn't going to bat an eye having to battle Oklahoma this year or any year, but the Sooners beat Iowa State in last year's Big 12 Championship Game and may wind up being the best team in the country in 2021.
It would be a shame for the loaded Cyclones to not even get a conference championship.
In last year's Fiesta Bowl, the Cyclones thumped the Pac-12 champion Oregon Ducks 34-17. Is that an indication of just how much better Campbell's team is than anybody out West, or was it just a case of playing a great game against an overmatched team?
Putting the Cyclones in the Pac-12 for one year would boost the reputation of that league, and they'd get a rematch with the Ducks. They'd also play a bunch of up-and-coming teams that need to show they have the mettle to make it on a national stage, such as USC, Arizona State and Washington.
Liberty to the AAC (or Even the Sun Belt)
Who knows how long Hugh Freeze is going to be coaching the Liberty Flames. He's going to get another Power Five opportunity very soon the way he's winning games at the independent program.
But it's puzzling why the Flames haven't already joined a league, and while it does lead to some intriguing out-of-conference showdowns a lot of weeks (like Freeze returning to Ole Miss in 2021), it would make a lot more sense if they were a stalwart somewhere.
Putting them in the AAC would be a blast.
Is the Sun Belt a better fit? Probably, considering last year's Cure Bowl win over Coastal Carolina was a classic, and the league has some quality opponents like Louisiana and Appalachian State.
But the AAC is better football from top to bottom. Can you imagine seeing Freeze's high-octane offense led by Malik Willis matching up with juggernaut Cincinnati, another offensive powerhouse like UCF, Sonny Dykes' offensive-minded SMU Mustangs or defense-centric Tulsa?
Plenty of fun showdowns would exist in either scenario, but the AAC would give the Flames a home base and quality competition and lead to some big-time games on a little smaller stage.
Notre Dame to the ACC
Why did Notre Dame have to mess up a good thing?
Listen, Fighting Irish, we all understand you have these long-existing, far-reaching rivalries with teams from all over the nation, one of the richest pedigrees of any program and like doing things your own way with your hefty national television contract.
But it's time to join a conference already.
Much of college football hoped the foray into the ACC in 2020 during the pandemic would become a permanent thing, especially considering the Irish more than held their own. Coach Brian Kelly's team upset Clemson (albeit minus Trevor Lawrence) in a perfect regular season.
Then, the Tigers repaid them with a lopsided win in the championship game, but Notre Dame still made the College Football Playoff. Even so, the Irish never really flirted with the possibility of ACC permanence.
"The reasons we value independence—and it continues to be a priority for us—aren't impacted by the positive experience of being in the ACC fully this year," Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbick told reporters in December.
There would be a lot of intrigue in the Irish playing a full ACC schedule in '21. We enjoyed it so much last year, we're (hypothetically) making it happen again.
Ole Miss to the Big 12
Lane Kiffin coaches a fun, exciting brand of football. When the Ole Miss Rebels are on the tube, it's must-see TV.
But will that translate into a bunch of wins? It's hard to envision them surging to the top of a rugged SEC West gauntlet anytime soon. After all, the past two national champions (Alabama and LSU) hail from that division, and the Texas A&M Aggies were fifth in the College Football Playoff standings a season ago.
Auburn has experienced its share of success in recent memory, too.
Getting to the top of the food chain in the SEC is going to be a tough, long haul. It wouldn't be quite as difficult if you moved the Rebels a little further west in 2021.
Yes, Oklahoma is likely a much better team than Ole Miss, but putting the Rebels in the Big 12 could lead to an explosive offensive onslaught between those two teams. Another knock-down, first-one-to-50 game against Steve Sarkisian in Texas would be exciting, as well.
Then seeing a clash of styles against teams like West Virginia, Iowa State and TCU would lead to a lot of fun storylines, too. Ole Miss is a team on the rise in the SEC, but shifting it to the Big 12 for a year perhaps speeds its clock up a bit.
San Jose State to the Pac-12
Since this is just a one-year thing, there's little concern with putting a team like San Jose State in a Power Five conference like the Pac-12.
With quarterback Nick Starkel returning for last year's Mountain West Conference champions, they'll be one of the most fun teams to watch from the Group of Five.
A 34-13 loss to Ball State in the Arizona Bowl last year doesn't inspire a lot of confidence this journey into deeper waters would go well, but even though this would be the least intriguing of all these, it would still be interesting to see how the experiment worked.
San Jose State already plays USC on September 4 in the Trojans' season opener, so the Spartans will get a taste of the league right away. But with a full Pac-12 slate, Starkel would get a bigger stage for NFL scouts.
Then there is another intriguing storyline. According to the Mercury News' Jon Wilner, the Arizona Wildcats were down to Jedd Fisch and Brent Brennan when they chose Fisch to be their next head coach. This would be a chance for the San Jose State coach to get a little payback.
Still, it's hard to envision things going consistently well for the Spartans with a nine-game Pac-12 schedule.
UCF to the SEC
Other years, the UCF Knights could have probably posed a weekly challenge in the SEC, even if there's little chance they'd have put together the kind of win total they had.
Whether they're built to do it in 2021 is a major question. After all, they've given way to Cincinnati as the AAC's powerhouse recently.
But there are way too many juicy possibilities for us to pass on putting the Knights in the SEC for a season. Pairing them with their next-door neighbor, the Florida Gators, isn't anywhere near the top of the list, even though it's just another reason to do this.
Of course, UCF's new head coach is Gus Malzahn, who compiled a 68-35 record at Auburn over the past eight years before getting fired following the '20 season. Wouldn't it be fun to watch Malzahn go up against Bryan Harsin on the Plains?
Also, Malzahn had more of a magic touch against Nick Saban and Alabama than anybody, so seeing him coach UCF against them would be fun (though it probably wouldn't go so well).
One of UCF's candidates for head coach before hiring Malzahn was Ole Miss offensive coordinator (and former Knights coordinator) Jeff Lebby, so seeing what the Knights could have had versus what they got in Malzahn would provide plenty of headlines.
Finally, Josh Heupel left UCF to join athletic director Danny White at Tennessee, so there would be some intrigue with that matchup, too.
West Virginia to the ACC
It still feels weird any time you see West Virginia in the Big 12 standings.
The Mountaineers should be an ACC team, in hypothetical situations and in real life. So, let's put them where they rightfully belong.
Much like Ole Miss in the SEC, West Virginia has a lot of the pieces of the puzzle in place to be a good team in 2021 during coach Neal Brown's third year. He's done a great job rebuilding the program after Dana Holgorsen left for Houston.
But how much is the college football world going to notice it in the Big 12, where Oklahoma and Iowa State rule the roost and Texas and Oklahoma State aren't far behind? Can the Mountaineers get enough traction to make noise in the conference?
They could in the ACC. Though beating Clemson feels like a long shot, the Tigers are breaking in some new faces this year, so Brown's team could sneak up on them. There's nobody else in the ACC the Mountaineers would be massive underdogs against, either.
North Carolina and Miami would be fun games. Then there are the natural rivalries that already exist, such as Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech and Virginia. It makes a ton of sense for the Mountaineers to be in the ACC in '21. Let's just leave them there permanently, too.
Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.