Rudy Gamble is a sporadic contributor on the baseball side of the Razzball blog but now that he moved from New York to a college football town he’s pretending to be an expert in a second sport…
Unless you’re the type of college football junkie who attends spring practices and follow high school scouting reports, the college football offseason is usually a bore.
2010 has turned out to be really fascinating though. This is partly because USC became the most prominent program in 15 years (Alabama, Auburn) to get banned from bowl games, eliciting sympathy from 0.001% of non-USC fans. But it’s mostly because the defection of Colorado and Nebraska from the Big 12 almost led to a chain reaction which could’ve ended in: 1) The Pac 10, Big 10 and SEC growing to potentially 16 schools and 2) the dissolution of the Big 12 AND the Big East as its desirable teams were poached by the aforementioned conferences while the others were left without a chair at the BCS party.
Alas, the desirable three holdovers of the Big 12 (Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma) were paid off by the potentially jilted five (Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Baylor) and talks of 16 team mega-conferences are mothballed until the next time any of the big four conferences (SEC, Pac-10, Big-10, ACC) see a money-making expansion opportunity.
All this realignment speculation got me to thinking – what would be the most optimal college football conference alignments taking only the non-financial considerations into account? Would this be a disaster or could it be an improvement vs. the status quo?
Here are my non-financial considerations for re-organizing conferences in no particular order:
- Geography– Sports conferences – college or professional – tend to be geographically-based. Many benefits including rivalries tend to be regional, less travel for the players and the fans to road games, and similar weather.
- Academic Reputation – While it does sound like lip service when schools and conferences bring this up as part of their decision-making, I think this is an important consideration. You ideally want all the teams in a conference sharing similar philosophies about education and having similar admissions standards. It’s got to be frustrating for fans of one college to consistently see their team beat because other schools in the conference have lower standards.
- Student Enrollment Size – While small schools can be adept at operating a successful basketball program, it just doesn’t work as well for football. Having a big school compete against small schools is like watching a point guard cover a center in basketball.
- Past Football Performance & Fan Support – Enrollment size isn’t everything. Do you realize that Nebraska has 4,000 less students than Central Michigan? It’s tough to say whether success or fan support comes first but you want conferences to be competitive and colleges with a strong football tradition and fan support are more likely to deliver it than the opposite.
- Football Rivalries – Army v Navy. Michigan v Ohio State. Texas v Oklahoma. Alabama v Auburn. While rivalries can be maintained across conferences (Texas and Oklahoma were in the SWC and Big 8 respectively for decades, Georgia v Georgia Tech), it’s best to keep rival together if at all possible or else the rivalries might find their way off the schedule (remember Florida-Miami?)
- Past Basketball Performance & Rivalries – While conferences matter less in college basketball given that the regular season is just a pretense for the post-season tourney, you can’t consider putting Duke and UNC in different conferences without considering the college basketball ramifications.
- A Fair, Just Football Championship – The BCS is a joke. The conference realignment should give EVERY non-BCS team a chance at the title.
Below are the results of my hypothetical realignment. I’ve consolidated the 11 FBS (aka Division 1) conferences and the 3 independents (Notre Dame, Army, Navy) into 8 conferences:
Big Conferences: ACC (16 teams), SEC (16 teams), Big Central (16 teams), PacxSW (16 teams)
Small Conferences: Mid-American (16 teams), Southern (16 teams), Mountex (12 teams), WAC (12 teams)
All conferences are split into two divisions that reduce the geographic footprint as much as possible. Each team would play everyone in its division (7 games for all but two divisions) and a couple games in its opposing division. There would still be room for non-division games but I think they should be limited to Division 1 teams (to avoid walkovers) and have to be home-and-home (to maintain home/road balance).
Every conference has a championship game between its two division winners. The four smaller conferences champions would then face off against each other – similar to the wildcard matchups in the NFL. The two winners would then face the 3rd and 4th seeded champions of the 4 major conferences. The winner of these games would be pared off against the top 2 seeded major conference champions who received byes during the quarterfinals. These ‘semifinals’ would take place on January 1st. The winners of these two games would play for the championship a week later.
Below are the details on the proposed 8 conferences. There’s no doubt that some colleges will be none too happy (3 current BCS teams would be relegated, Notre Dame would have to join a conference, the non-basketball teams in the Big East would need to create a new conference). But I think this would be an overall improvement and, by creating 8-team divisions, will reduce travel time for teams and its fans (particularly in the 2nd tier conferences). It would create a much clearer path to a national championship with very few teams playing more than the current allotment of games (not to mention, January 1st would have awesome football games again).
Enjoy and please chime in the comments any suggestions to improve – as long as they are improvements that fans care about. Also, if you’re looking for a way to view as many college games as possible, click here.
Identity: East Coast, strong basketball tradition, stronger academics vs. SEC
– 4 teams from the Big East (Connecticut, Rutgers, Syracuse, West Virginia) that shore up the Northeast and bring strong basketball credentials (aside from Rutgers).
– Vanderbilt – ‘Traded’ from the SEC as it’s a much better academic match to the ACC and is a more basketball-focused school.
– NC State – This is a tough call but NC State is the clear #3 in the Raleigh-Durham triangle fight for basketball supremacy and it’s currently 2nd to only Florida State in terms of lowest academic ranking in the division. The ACC/SEC split of UNC and NC State would mirror Clemson/South Carolina and Georgia Tech/Georgia.
Identity: Midwest. Strong football tradition. Generally large state schools.
– Three Big 12 schools (Iowa State, Kansas, Nebraska). The Big 10 cherry-picked the football gem of the three (Nebraska) conveniently hopping over Iowa State. Iowa State has a similar student population and academic standards to its corn-belt neighbors (Iowa, Nebraska). While its football program has been historically dreadful, its not demonstrably worse than Indiana or Northwestern. Kansas borders Nebraska and generally fits the size and academic profile of the Big 10.
– Pittsburgh is right in between State College, PA (Penn State) and Columbus, OH (Ohio State). This resparks their natural rivalry with Penn State and puts a merciful end to a super-forced Penn State-Michigan State rivalry game on the last day of the Big 10 season.
– Notre Dame is right in the heart of Big 10 territory and matches the football traditions and academic standards of the conference.
PacxSW (aka Pac by Southwest)
Identity: A combination of major football programs in the Mountain & West time zones as well as major Texas/Oklahoma schools. Core of strong academic institutions peppered with geographically convenient 2nd & 3rd tier state schools.
– 5 teams from the old Big 12 – Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Colorado. Texas fits in very well academically with the cream of the Pac-10 crop (Stanford, California, UCLA, USC, and Washington) while the other 4 Big 12 imports bring strong football programs and comparable academic standards as Washington State, Oregon State, and both Arizona schools. The distance between the Northwest schools and Texas/Oklahoma contingent is mitigated by the two conferences that would tie the Southern (Arizona, ASU) and Eastern (Colorado, Utah) strands with the 4 Texas and Oklahoma schools.
– Utah – While this doesn’t seem to make the best cultural fit, Utah’s football program has been one of the strongest non-BCS teams for the past 5-10 years. You can make an argument for Boise State but Utah’s a bigger school and probably a better bet for long-term success. It also is geographically more convenient for creating an Eastern division with Texas/Oklahoma/Colorado/Arizona.
Identity: Football powerhouse generally in the Southeast. Big state schools that tend to be Tier 2 and Tier 3 academically.
– Texas A&M – It feels sacrilegious to separate Texas from Texas A&M given their 100-year rivalry. But the program seems like it could use a fresh start away from Texas and Oklahoma. It feels like ages ago since its run of 10 top-25 finishes in 11 years b/w 1989-1999. (Last I checked, though, it’s been a while since Nebraska has been dominant and they still got wooed by the Big 10). Moving to the SEC West will reconnect them conference-wise with ex-SWC mate Arkansas (with whom they have an annual rivalry game) and start up a rivalry with Alabama (with whom they have a Bear Bryant connection). It also feels that Texas, like Florida, should have representatives from two of the major conferences given how college football-crazy and prospect-rich it is.
– Missouri – Another Big 12 leftover. Missouri is right one the edge of the proposed Big Central and SEC geographic footprints. It’s about on par academically with Nebraska and Kansas but, in general, is a better fit with the SEC. The rivalry with Kansas (aka the Border War – the most intense rivalry no one on either coast is aware of) could still be maintained as an out of conference game. And, not to dredge up old history, but Missouri was a slave state (incidentally part of the reason behind the bitterness in their rivalry with non-slave state Kansas)…
– Cincinnati & Louisville – These Big East football members don’t have the rich football history as most SEC members but their academic profiles and lack of Atlantic coastland make them better fits in the SEC vs. ACC or Big Central. It would also add two strong basketball colleges to a conference that can use them and set up a rivalry with Kentucky.
Vanderbilt – See ACC for explanation.
Mid-American Conference (MAC)
Identity: Northeastern and Midwestern lower-tier football programs. Lower-tier academic programs (generally) except for a few geographically convenient schools (Miami of Ohio, Army, Navy)
– Army, Navy – Two of the last three independents have to go somewhere and this is a fairly solid fit. Only other option I can conceive is they are added to the Ivy League.
– Marshall – The one import from Conference USA (which would be folded in this hypothetical alignment) would be better geographically aligned than with their current Southern conferencemates.
Identity: Lower-tier football programs in the larger Southeast (similar to SEC). Lower-tier academic programs generally.
This is a completely new conference mainly cobbled together from two folded conferences (Conference USA and Sun Belt). The two exceptions are:
– Louisiana Tech – Currently in the WAC which is geographically wickety-wickety-wack.
– South Florida – They would be one of the 3 current BCS teams, in European football parlance, to be relegated . It’s a tough call. Their football program only started in 1997 and have been .500 or better in its 5 seasons in the Big East. It’s not a good fit for the proposed ACC – either academically or geographically (already have Florida State and Miami). Their lack of history doesn’t fit well with the SEC but I suppose you can say the same for Cincinnati and Louisville which entered the Big East at the same time in 2005. The tie-breaker for me is that Cincinnati and Louisville have top-tier basketball programs where South Florida has just a so-so program. The only reason South Florida got the nod from the Big East is out of desperation when Virginia Tech, BC, and Miami defected. In addition, this will set up rivalries with similar-sized/similar academic Florida programs like Central Florida, Florida Atlantic, and Florida International (FIU).
Identity: Second-tier football programs in the eastern portion of the Mountain Time Zone and the Kansas/Texas/Oklahoma region (Mount+Tex=Mountex). Mostly lower-tier academically except for a few geographically-convenient exceptions (Rice being the biggest exception).
This is a completely new conference composed of:
– 4 Texas programs (Houston, Rice, SMU, and TCU) that had been together in the old Southwestern Conference (SWC) and spread between the Mountain West and WAC conferences.
– 3 Texas/Oklahoma programs (North Texas, Tulsa, UTEP) split between the Sun Belt (North Texas) and Conference USA (other two).
– 2 New Mexico schools (New Mexico, New Mexico State) split up between the Mountain West and WAC conferences.
– Air Force (from the Mountain West)
– Kansas State – This would represent a demotion for the Wildcats and separate it from Kansas. While Kansas State had a great stretch led by Bill Snyder in the 1990’s, this has historically been a poor football program. They are a notch below any other of the 16 schools in my proposed ‘Big Central’ conference. You could make a case for KSU vs. Iowa State but Iowa State is better academically and is slightly better geographically. And, lastly, just like Texas A&M with Texas, could use some time outside the shadow of Kansas basketball.
– Baylor – The only reason they made the Big 12 over ex-SWC mates Rice, Houston, SMU, and TCU is because of political pressure from Texas Governor Ann Richards who was a Baylor alumnus. For this realignment to work, it’s either Baylor or Utah in the PacxSW and, from a football perspective, Utah deserves it more.
Identity: Second-tier football programs in the Mountain & Pacific time zones (not inc. New Mexico and Air Force) and Hawaii.
– Five teams from the Mountain West – Brigham Young, Colorado State, Wyoming, San Diego State, San Jose State – that are within the WAC geographical footprint.
– Louisiana Tech – This was a ridiculous fit anyway. Much better aligned in the proposed Southern conference.
– New Mexico State – Better geographical alignment with New Mexico and UTEP.
Student Populations + Academic Ranking – US News & World Report. (Note: Most colleges fall under National Rankings. Only Tiers 1 & 2 receive an actual rank – the rest get Tier 3 or Tier 4. Colleges referred to as “Master’s Universities” are Tiered from 1-4 and I’ve added a v2 next to their ranking. Army, Navy, and Air Force are classified separately and have a v3 added to their tier).
ESPN Prestige Rank – In January 2009, ESPN formulated a prestige ranking of all schools in Division 1 based on their performance since 1936. See ESPN for the methdology.