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College Football Realignment: Winners, Losers, and Everyone Else

Once upon a time, boys and girls, college football was stable. The Big Ten had 10 teams, as did the Pac-10. The Big Eight had eight teams, and the Southwest and Atlantic Coast conferences truly focused on the Southwest and the Atlantic Coast. 

But college football has done its best in the last three decades — the last five years specifically — to blow that stability to smithereens.

Conference realignment is the art of conference commissioners sitting down and rearranging college football’s carefully crafted order. And in recent years it has dominated the headlines. It seems to be quieting down, with only two teams (Navy and Charlotte) moving leagues this season. But, just for fun, let’s stroll down memory lane and remember the joy (and sadness) conference realignment brought us.

The Beginning of the End

Everything started with the Big Ten and Pac-10. The leagues looked at the SEC, Big 12, and ACC Championship Games and liked what they saw. But to host a championship game, they were required to have 12 teams. This came at a point where the Big 12 was becoming increasingly unstable.

Colorado’s defection from the Big 12 to Pac-10 in 2010 — the move that started it all — came as little surprise. There was much more mystery surrounding the Big 10’s potential 12th team. (The Big Ten had been at 11 teams since 1990, when Penn State joined.) The squads rumored to be in the mix included Nebraska, Maryland, Rutgers, Missouri, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Louisville, Cincinnati, Kansas, and even Texas. It was the Cornhuskers who got the call, becoming Big Ten member No. 12 — and dropping the Big 12’s membership to 10.

The spotlight soon shifted back to the Pac-10, which appeared ready to tear what was left of the Big 12 apart. The conference was prepared to annex the Big 12’s entire South Division except for Baylor and form a 16-team super-conference. It fell through, and, for better or for worse, the Big 12 survived. Before the year was out, the Pac-10 had its 12th team: Utah.

In 2011, Texas A&M made waves by bolting for the SEC; to even the divisions, Missouri did likewise. The fun continued when Pittsburgh and Syracuse moved to the ACC, while the Big 12 stayed at 10 teams by replacing A&M and Missouri with West Virginia and TCU, which was the joining its fifth conference in less than 20 years.

The Big East tried to pull off a huge coup later on by bringing in seven schools, most notably Boise State and San Diego State. Owing largely to the fact that Boise is neither Big nor East, the move eventually fell through. Still, the Big East (which would be rechristened soon as the American Athletic Conference) had landed several of the best non-Power 5 schools in Houston, Central Florida, and others.

Soon, the moving and shaking began winding down. Maryland and Rutgers entered the Big Ten; Louisville headed to the ACC; and the American completed its lineup by adding East Carolina, Tulsa, Tulane, and traditional independent Navy.

Thus endeth the lesson. I didn’t even mention the upheaval in the minor conferences, as Conference USA pillaged the Sun Belt, Mountain West the WAC, and Sun Belt some of the FCS’s most traditional powers, such as Appalachian State and Georgia Southern.

Where We Are — And What’s Ahead

So who won conference realignment?

The SEC and Pac-12. The A&M/Missouri and Colorado/Utah tandems have turned the SEC West and Pac-12 South into two of the best divisions in football. The ACC won, as well, gaining some of the Big East’s finest teams without losing any of their core squads (like Florida State, Clemson, and Virginia Tech) to the SEC as some thought they might. 

And now the biggest loser: the Big 12. Texas A&M helped found the old Southwest Conference in 1915; Missouri, Colorado, and Nebraska were all longtime members of the Big Eight. And now they are gone. Because there are only 10 teams, the Big 12 no longer has the crucial conference championship game.

Inevitably, we have to look to the future of realignment in our great game. What’s in store five, 10 years down the line? One thing to look for soon is the Big 12 to go back to 12 teams. Baylor and TCU both felt their exclusion from the College Football Playoff was due to the Big 12’s lack of a championship game. To hold a championship game, the Big 12 must find two new members.

As for those 11th and 12th members, BYU seems a strong candidate — an independent, Power 5-level team with a strong football history and nice geographical proximity. Boise State, the Notre Dame of mid-majors, has to be considered. Central Florida, Memphis, and Cincinnati are all located in large metropolitan areas with sizeable fan bases and have had recent success. Other long shots may be Houston, SMU, Air Force, East Carolina, and Marshall.

As for other moves, the ACC seems like it might expand to 16 teams sometime soon. Connecticut, Cincinnati, and Notre Dame will be favorites. North Dakota State, winners of four straight FCS national titles, should consider moving on up to the FBS. Although not a perfect geographical fit, the Sun Belt could be a potential destination for the Bison, seeing as the SBC is one team short of a championship game and NDSU would have a natural geographical rival in Idaho.

A lot has happened in the last five years in college football, and rumors continue to fly. Just this past winter, someone from within the University of Toledo — the face of the Mid-American Conference for over 65 years — told me the Rockets had considered defecting to the American Athletic for mostly basketball purposes.

Sound crazy? It should. Because in this upside-down, topsy-turvy, Nebraska-and-Rutgers-are-in-the-same-conference world we live in, crazy is the new normal.

Photos: Ralph Freso/Getty Images (PAC-12), Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images (Utah, BYU), Ronald Martinez/Getty Images (Baylor)

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