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Revisiting the NCAA’s Last Major Realignment

  • Back in 2014, the finishing touches on the NCAA’s multi-year conference realignment were completed, bringing forth what we’ve largely seen in the Power 5 conferences ever since. The Big Ten expanded to fourteen teams as you would expect a conference with the word “ten” to have. The Big 12 lost 2 members and fell to 10, naturally. The Pac-12 was created, the Big East died in terms of football, creating the American Athletic Conference and the SEC expanded into the south. It’s now 2020, meaning enough time has passed to see whether these moves for each team that joined a new conference was worth it or not (Power 5 exclusive- sorry AAC).

ACC:

Louisville (2014)

Former Conference: Big East

Louisville is an interesting case, as their move to the ACC was largely focused on their basketball program joining the nation’s best conference. Louisville joined the ACC in 2014 and right away looked to be a solid addition, finishing 9-4 in their first year and finishing ranked in the top 25 with a 4th place finish in the conference. The next year was when the Cardinals found a game breaking QB out of Florida by the name of Lamar Jackson (you might have heard of him). Louisville finished 8-5, once again third in the Atlantic division and once again the 4th best mark in the conference. The next season Jackson won the Heisman, the Cardinals went 9-4, gave Florida State a Muhammad Ali style whooping on national television in front of Ali’s family in some perfect poetry. 2017 saw another 8-5 record in Jackson’s swan song season, before bottoming out in 2018 with a 2-10 season, Bobby Petrino being fired and replaced by Scott Satterfield. Satterfield’s first season at the helm this past year resulted in an 8-5 mark and a player being picked in the first round for the first time since Jackson and Jaire Alexander were in 2018.

Verdict: Success
Sure, the Cardinals haven’t won an ACC title or even competed in an ACC championship game, but they wouldn’t have gotten the exposure nationally that Jackson gave them if they had stayed in the Big East or American Athletic. Secondly, Jackson likely doesn’t go to Louisville if the Cardinals aren’t a power 5 team. It comes down to circumstance. The Cardinals are in the same division as Clemson who has had a stranglehold on that division for the better part of a decade.

Pitt (2013)

Former Conference: Big East

Pitt was a mainstay in the Big East and had one of my personal favourite rivalries in all of college football- the Backyard Brawl with West Virginia. Much like Louisville, Pitt’s move was largely predicated on their burgeoning basketball program. Since then, the team has only been bowl ineligible once (2017) but has largely hovered around .500. They did compete for an ACC Championship in 2018, but even that was at a 6-6 record because the Coastal Division was horrendous (writer’s note- can someone explain to me how Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is considered a “coastal” location?).

Verdict: Meh

Since moving to the conference, Pitt has posted a record of 49-42. It’s not bad, but no one ever considers Pitt a team any higher than the midway point of the conference, despite the few 8-win seasons they’ve pulled off. Those seasons have been more telling of the ACC Coastal being lopsided compared to their Atlantic counterparts. It’s definitely worked out better for the football team than their poor basketball program which is stuck in the abyss of the conference basement.

Big Ten

 

Nebraska (2011)

Former Conference: Big 12

The school that in essence, kicked off the entire process of realignment, the Nebraska Cornhuskers. In 2011, the Cornhuskers brought the Big 10 (which at the time had 11, go figure) to a twelve-team conference and thus allowed the Big 10 to have a much-anticipated conference championship. The initial move to the conference created the ill-fated “Leaders” and “Legends” divisions which was horrible and the NCAA and the Big 10 would much rather fans forget its existence.

The first season in conference saw the Huskers go 9-4 and finish the season ranked in the top 25. The next season Nebraska made it to the conference championship against Wisconsin (who represented the Leaders Division that year despite finishing third in the division due to Ohio State and Penn State being ruled ineligible due to NCAA sanctions) and were the heavy favourites to go to the Rose Bowl. That didn’t happen. Nebraska got steamrolled 70-31 and the game is more well known for this block by Huskers WR Kenny Bell.

Since then, Nebraska hasn’t finished above third in their division and their last time bowling was in 2016. Scott Frost’s return to his alma mater as head coach has been largely disappointing but many are hoping that that ship eventually gets righted.

Verdict: Neither Success nor Failure

Making a conference championship in year 2 is never easy, but that’s when they peaked. It’s more that the conference has evolved around them while Nebraska remains stuck in a rut. You have to wonder if they would have been better off staying in the Big 12.

Maryland (2014):

Former Conference: ACC

Maryland moving to the Big 10 at the time was a shocker as the team was generally a doormat under then-coach Randy Edsall (three seasons, 13-24 record) in the ACC, but generally speaking, Maryland had a few good seasons in their former conference in the 2000s.

Maryland since the move has been a very different story. Not a single winning season and only one bowl game. Things looked like they were going to turn around this year after the Terps started 2-0 with high scoring blowouts over Howard and a ranked Syracuse program, but then Maryland proceeded to lose 8 of their next 9 and failed to match the scoring output they had in their first 2 games in the 10 games that followed- combined.

Verdict: Complete Failure

It’s worked out well for Maryland basketball, but the football team is a glorified cupcake for the rest of the conference. Even the uniforms took a step back.

Rutgers (2014)

Former Conference: American Athletic

When Rutgers was in the Big East and the AAC, they were a team you could rely on to consistently compete around the top and were almost always a lock for bowl season, so the move to the Big Ten was seen as a good opportunity. Kyle Flood was a good coach for the Scarlet Knights and the Big Ten expanding into the Tri-State Area, while geographically was a head scratcher, had the potential to pay off big time for the conference. It got off to a great start, as the Knights went 8-5 in their first season in the conference. To this day, that is the best season the Scarlet Knights have had in the Big Ten.

Since that season, the Knights haven’t cracked 4 wins a single time, and are generally one of the bottom two teams in the conference every year. This past year saw the Knights put up a sad 132 total points on the season (11 points per game) and be shut out on 4 separate occasions. They even managed to somehow only pass for a single yard against Indiana , and after 3 quarters the following week against Minnesota, they’d only passed for a single yard again. 7 Quarters. 2 Passing yards.

Verdict: What do you think?

This move has been an utter flop. Maryland may be bad, but they’re relatively competitive on a week-to-week basis. Rutgers is a bye week that counts towards a team’s win total.

Big 12

 

TCU (2012)

Former Conference: Mountain West

After losing Nebraska and Colorado in 2011, and with more exits upcoming, the Big 12 needed to make splash additions to the conference in order to try to keep Texas and Oklahoma from bolting to join the Pac12 like the rumour was at the time. TCU had joined from the Mountain West after a successful run, usually going head to head with Boise State in the battle for non-power 5 supremacy in the BCS rankings and had won the 2011 Rose Bowl along the way.

The Horned Frogs got off to a rather unimpressive start in their new conference (11 wins in their first 2 seasons), but in year three were Big 12 co-champions (with Baylor) and finished their season by massacring the Ole Miss Rebels in the Peach Bowl 42-3. 2015 saw TCU go 11-2 and finish the year ranked 7th. A tough 6-7 season ensued, but the Horned Frogs bounced back with another 11-win season the following year in 2017. The last two years have seen TCU hover around .500 and settle into the mid-tier of the conference.

Verdict: Success

They’re the only team on the list so far to win their new conference. Sure, they’ve missed a bowl game twice in their time in the Big 12, but they’ve had more years with double-digit wins than bowl ineligible seasons.

West Virginia (2012)

Former Conference: Big East

West Virginia was a staple of the Big East largely due to the exciting brand of football the Mountaineers ran back in the Rich Rodriguez era, as well as stars such as Pat White, Steve Slaton, Chris Henry and Noel Devine to name a few. That offensive play style carried on through the Bill Stewart and Dana Holgerson regimes and was much of the reason the Big 12 came calling to offer WVU a boatload of money to join the conference. The season before joining the Big 12, West Virginia had just demolished Clemson 70-33 in the Orange Bowl- a perfect showing for a conference that was about to become littered with high octane offenses putting up 50 in almost every game.

Like TCU, The Mountaineers got off to a sluggish first two seasons (11 wins total) and it wasn’t until 2015 (their 4th year in conference) that the team started to build momentum, finishing 8-5. 2016 is when the school had their best season in the conference, going 10-3, finishing 3rd in the Big 12 and being ranked in the top 20 at season’s end. They finished ranked again in 2018 after going 8-4, but then lost Dana Holgerson to Houston. Last year, in Neal Brown’s first year at the helm, the team missed out on bowl season.

Verdict: slight uptick, but not “success”

West Virginia is an interesting team to look at as they don’t geographically fit into any of the Power 5 conferences. If they’d stayed in the Big East and had never left, they’d probably be a top team in the AAC these days, but the Big 12 certainly cycles through top teams quickly, maybe their time is soon.

Pac-12

Colorado (2011)

Former Conference: Big 12

It’d been a long time since Colorado was competitive in the Big 12. They’d finished atop their division in 2004 and 2005, however 2005 was the death blow to the program. They’d gone 7-5 and had won their weaker side of the conference, then Vince Young and the Longhorns smashed them 70-3 in the Big 12 Championship ( a game that inexplicably got a then 9 year old Mike interested in college football) and the Buffaloes only made one bowl game (2007) the rest of their time in the conference.

The move to the Pac-12 was seen as a potential new horizon. It was not. They finished bottom of the Pac-12 South every season until 2016. In 2016, the Buffaloes won 10 games and represented the south in the Pac-12 Championship game- they lost by 31. The next two seasons saw them finish at the bottom of the division, before 2019 where they finished second from the bottom.

Verdict: More of the Same

Save for one year, which inexplicably saw them become something other than a doormat, the Buffaloes have been no better off in the Pac-12.

Utah (2011)

 

Former Conference: Mountain West

Utah maintained success after Urban Meyer’s departure in the mid 2000s, and towards the end of the decade, Kyle Whittingham had the team ready for better competition, never being more apparent than 2008, when Utah went 13-0 and beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Year 1 in the conference saw the Utes go 8-5 and win the Sun Bowl. They went without a bowl game for the next two seasons but since then Utah has been the most consistent team of any of the ones listed to this point. The Utes have only had one season with less than 9 wins (7 in 2017) and have made it to the last 2 conference championship games- losing both.

Verdict: Success

This is what every small school team would hope for when it joins a bigger conference. This is the easiest team to grade.

SEC

 

Missouri (2012)

Former Conference: Big 12

Missouri was usually found among the top two or three teams in the Big 12 North before the conference lost Nebraska and Colorado- eliminating the conference championship game and divisons and went 8-5 in their last season before joining the SEC. Their first season in the SEC saw them go 5-7, however in 2013, led by a defensive line featuring Michael Sam, Kony Ealy, Markus Golden, Shane Ray as well as players such as EJ Gaines and James Franklin (no not that one), Missouri made it to the SEC championship game, losing to Auburn. They made it back to the SEC championship the following year but got blown out by Alabama. They wouldn’t make a bowl game again until 2017 after going 7-5 but losing to Texas in the Texas Bowl. An 8-5 season followed by a 6-6 season in which they didn’t see a bowl game due to NCAA sanctions have happened since.

Verdict: Failure

Yes, two conference title appearances in their first three seasons sounds good, but they’ve been stuck in no man’s land ever since. Never truly good, but never terrible enough for fans to feel sympathy.

Texas A&M (2012)

 Former Conference: Big 12

Texas A&M cashed in big time with the move to the SEC. One of the more inconsistent team in the Big 12’s history after the collapse of the Southwest Conference, A&M left for the greener pastures that didn’t involve a yearly thwacking at the hands of the rival Longhorns.

Right away, in their first year in the SEC they finished 3rd in the SEC West (ranked 5th in the country) and had a historic season from Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel- a season that got OC Kliff Kingsbury a head coach job at Texas Tech. It wasn’t until 2017 that the Aggies saw a season in which they won less than 8 games- a 7-6 campaign that saw Kevin Sumlin get fired and replaced by Jimbo Fisher on a 10-year, $75 Million contract. He has since gone 9-4 and 8-5 in his time in College Station.

Verdict: Definite Success

Going from a team that was lucky to be mentioned in the Big 12 as schools like Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Nebraska ruled the land, to a perennial top 25 contender and the home of a Heisman trophy winner makes this a clear winner. A&M was rarely taken overly serious in the Big 12, meanwhile in the best conference in the country, they’ve managed key victories on almost a yearly basis and were, at a time, national championship contenders. No team hardware materialized but Kyle Field has far more eyes on it nowadays.

After digging through this, it’s kind of shocking how few of these moves paid off for the better. Maybe this can be used as a lesson for teams in the future.

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