Winners and Losers of College Football Conference RealignmentDecember 21, 2021
Winners and Losers of College Football Conference Realignment
The 2021 college football season saw plenty of conference realignment news. It started over the summer with the seismic announcement that the Big 12's Oklahoma and Texas would be moving to the SEC in 2025. As a result, the Big 12 announced the addition of longtime American Athletic Conference schools Cincinnati, UCF and Houston, as well as longtime independent BYU.
The news of the shuffling set off a wave of conference realignment across the country. So which conferences gained and lost the most with the schools they added or saw leave? Let's run through the winner and losers of each conference that announced realignment in 2021 to find out.
The criteria we'll use for this will include the quality of programs gained or lost, including overall success by things like wins and losses, postseason appearances, national/conference titles or notable recent victories. Conferences that don't plan on expanding won't be classified as either winners or losers.
Author's note: Since the Pac-12, Big Ten and Big 12's "Alliance" created in response to the SEC's expansion appears to just be a scheduling component for now, we'll focus on the conferences that added or lost teams for this.
Winner: Conference USA
Key Losses: Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Texas-San Antonio, Rice, UAB
Key Additions: Liberty, New Mexico State, Jacksonville State, Sam Houston State in 2023
C-USA is undergoing possibly the biggest shake-up in college football. The conference lost Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Texas-San Antonio, Rice and UAB to the AAC. FAU, UAB and UTSA have all won the conference in the last 10 years, with UAB doing so in 2018 and 2020.
The UAB Blazers also have had a massive resurgence since the program came back from the dead in 2017. The Blazers have gone 43-20 since returning to the gridiron, and UAB has made it to bowl appearances every season except 2020, as its Gasparilla Bowl was canceled because of COVID-19. UTSA just won the conference this season and had a 12-1 regular season, the first in program history.
Still, C-USA has added Liberty, New Mexico State, Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State to make up for the losses. Since Liberty fully joined the FBS in 2019, the Flames have made three consecutive bowl games and had a 10-1 season in 2020.
Jacksonville State, which became the first FCS school to upset Florida State at home earlier this season, will be a welcomed addition to the conference. The Gamecocks have had at least nine wins in six of the past eight seasons, which includes a run of double-digit wins from 2014 to 2017. NMSU has struggled to find success throughout its tenure, but it did win its first bowl game since 1960 in 2017. Sam Houston State has had winning seasons each year since 2010, including seven double-digit wins over that span.
In fact, Sam Houston won the 2021 FCS National Championship in May by defeating South Dakota State in the national championship. (FCS schools played a spring season in 2021 after opting not to play in 2020 because of COVID-19). The title was the school's first NCAA title in program history.
While losing historic members isn't ideal for any conference, the C-USA did a pretty decent job of replacing members with teams that have all had relative success in recent years.
Loser: The American Athletic Conference
Key Losses: UCF, Houston and Cincinnati
Key Additions: Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA (likely in 2023)
The AAC is dealing with some massive fallout thanks to the Big 12 picking up UCF, Cincinnati and Houston.
UCF had a magical undefeated season in 2017. Capped off with an upset win over Auburn in the Peach Bowl, the victory prompted numerous discussions regarding the College Football Playoff and how it views Group of Five teams. Those discussions (partially) paved the way for the Cincinnati Bearcats to make history as the first Group of Five team to make it into the playoff in the postseason's history this year.
Houston has gone 71-40 since joining the AAC and won the conference in 2015 after a historic 13-1 season under Tom Herman. Replacing all three of these teams won't be easy, but the AAC adding Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA is a good start.
UTSA and UAB, which have had a ton of momentum of late, are easily already candidates to follow in the footsteps of Cincy and UCF to build to national relevancy. Although North Texas and Rice haven't won much in the last decade-plus, having both teams further extends the conference's footprint into Texas, as does UTSA. FAU will join USF to give the conference two Florida schools.
Losing three marquee members isn't ideal for any conference, and the AAC is no exception. But the conference has done a good job with the schools it's bringing in to replace them. It's just a matter of time to see if they can have the same success that UCF, Houston and Cincy did.
Winner: The Sun Belt Conference
Key additions: Southern Miss, Marshall, Old Dominion (in 2023)
The Sun Belt made big moves with conference realignment this year. The conference added longtime C-USA schools in Southern Miss, Marshall and Old Dominion. The conference also successfully added FCS powerhouse James Madison, which has won two national championships.
Those are great additions to a conference that already has programs that have achieved recent success like App State, Coastal Carolina and Louisiana. Marshall and Southern Miss have been nationally relevant for decades. JMU, national titles aside, has made it into the FCS playoffs each season since 2014. While Old Dominion is still adjusting to the FBS—it's had just one winning season since 2014—it had a successful FCS run from 2009-13.
The Sun Belt adding these members, while not having to lose any, is a huge win for the conference. And thanks to the AAC losing some of its best programs in UCF, Houston and Cincinnati to the Big 12, the Sun Belt looks primed to be one of the Group of Five's best conferences moving forward.
Loser: The Big 12
Key Losses: Oklahoma, Texas
Key Additions: UCF, Houston, Cincinnati, BYU (likely in 2023)
The Big 12's breakup with Oklahoma and Texas when they left for the SEC was messy, to say the least. It started with Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby issuing a cease and desist letter to ESPN, claiming the network has "taken certain actions" intended to harm the Big 12 and result in financial benefits to the company. The reason? All because the network merely first reported the news of the two schools possibly joining the SEC.
Bowlsby has since called the two schools' move to the SEC "silly" and that it "makes no sense." Of course, it's no surprise that Bowlsby and others inside the conference, aside from Texas and OU fans, see the move this way. For starters, Texas and Oklahoma bring in approximately $37 million a year for the conference, so the revenue loss will be a colossal hit.
While Houston, Cincinnati and UCF are strong Group of Five programs eager to prove themselves in the Power Five, they won't be able to make up for the revenue Texas and OU brought in. Not to mention the sheer size and scope of the programs' history and fanbases don't match what the three former AAC member schools have. BYU is a strong independent program that has just enjoyed consecutive double-digit-win seasons, so it will be interesting to see how it adjusts to playing in a conference for the first time.
Look, these two schools joining the SEC isn't really the Big 12's fault. Two blue-blood programs saw a better opportunity from the SEC (not to mention the money they could make) to make their reach even further and took it. Someone had to lose in this scenario, and that's the Big 12 here.
Winner: The SEC
Key Additions: Texas, Oklahoma (in 2025)
Beginning in 2025, two of the most iconic and recognizable programs in collegiate sports in Oklahoma and Texas will be joining the SEC. The move is huge for the SEC, just going off the revenue both of these two programs will bring in alone. Although there are rumors that the addition of these two teams—which will bring the SEC from 14 to 16 teams—will result in the creation of a superleague of sorts, for now the conference is treating this as a unique opportunity that it couldn't pass up.
Here's more from The Athletic's Andy Staples and Nicole Auerbach:
"At this point, [SEC Commissioner Greg] Sankey is the only person who knows exactly what the SEC's ultimate goal is. Multiple sources inside the conference insist that there is 'no grand plan' here, that what's happening now is the result of a can't-miss opportunity to add two blueblood college football programs in Texas and Oklahoma.
"But those same sources do believe that the league is positioning itself well for a world in which the NCAA is increasingly irrelevant — and a world in which the SEC can chart its own course as the nation's preeminent college football conference (or division). It's not a coincidence that the SEC is making moves like this with the NCAA weaker and more fragmented than it's ever been."
Sure, it's a bit unclear just what the SEC will look like exactly with Texas and Oklahoma in it. Especially given the current East and West divisions that exist, along with numerous permanent cross-division rivalries that current members share.
For that, we'll just have to wait and see. For now, the conference adding two of the most historic blue-blood programs in college sports makes the SEC the top dog for the foreseeable future.
Winner and Loser: Neutral Conferences
For the conferences that didn't announce expansion this year, we'll go ahead and classify them as both a winner and a loser. If these conferences opt to expand in the future, they could end up as winners, depending on potential teams added. If they continue to opt against expanding in the future, they might become losers to not follow in the footsteps of the various conferences that are expanding around them.
This works the other way around, too. Not following the realignment trend may actually help these conferences in the future, whereas ones that decide to expand might be making a mistake in the long run in doing so. For now, the Mountain West, Mid-American, Pac-12, ACC and Big Ten are opting to not expand as of 2021.
It looked as if the Mountain West was set to add members this year, but things are remaining quiet in the conference for now. Although there were rumblings about Boise State, San Diego, Air Force and Colorado State going to the AAC, all four schools aren't going anywhere for the time being.
Still, there's no guarantee that things will remain quiet in the conference, as its contract is set to expire in 2024. We'll keep an eye on it, but for now, the Mountain West remains neutral in our power rankings.
Like the Mountain West, the MAC will be staying as-is for the time being. It looked as if the conference was set on expanding at one point in time, however.
In early November, there were rumblings that C-USA's Middle Tennessee State was on its way to join the MAC. In the end, it didn't happen.
Here's what MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee said regarding the realignment rumors: "We greatly appreciate the interest other conferences have shown in our athletics program and in our university, as they are a testament to the overall excellence of our institution, both athletically and academically. However, after careful consideration and due diligence, I am pleased to reaffirm our commitment to Conference USA."
The Pac-12 looks like it may not expand any time soon, and it doesn't really look like it needs to for now. The Big 12 and SEC made the biggest moves in expansion, so the Pac-12 is wise to remain quiet for now. There aren't too many geographical options for the conference that make a ton of sense, either.
The one school that the Pac-12 could perhaps consider down the line that would make sense is Boise State. The Broncos have been nationally relevant within the Group of Five for over a decade, and Boise State would be competitive coming into the conference. Boise, along with another Mountain West school, may be what the Pac-12 considers down the line, but for now, we'll have to wait and see if that happens.
The ACC hasn't expanded since 2014 when it lost Maryland and added Louisville to the conference, while Notre Dame agreed to play five ACC games a year in football. Although the conference is without a team (mostly Clemson) in the playoff for the first time since the playoff was introduced in 2014, the conference has 10 teams playing in bowls this season.
The ACC hasn't seen traditional powers like Miami, Florida State and Virginia Tech achieve high-level success recently. But Clemson's dominance—with the exception of this season, which the Tigers can still finish with 10 wins—puts the conference in great shape moving forward without a real need to expand.
Same with the ACC here, except the Big Ten added Maryland and Rutgers in 2014. While Ohio State is out of the playoff this year, Michigan is representing the conference for the first time in the final four.
Michigan State represented the conference in the playoff in 2015, too. This year, the Big Ten has nine teams playing in bowl games, including Michigan's semifinal against Georgia.