A Closer Look at College Realignment
We’ve heard about super conferences. A lot of people hate the idea, and their concerns are worth noting. They fear the destruction of traditional rivalries and geographic continuity that has made college football great. Most of my catholic college football fan friends note that subsidiarity ought to be considered in light of this.
I don’t see anything wrong with the current alignment, but since the Big 12 is imploding due to Texas’s greed, I wondered whether super-conferences would destroy what I loved about college football. When I started looking through the scenarios, the answer I got was “well, not necessarily.”
To start, let’s see what these 4 16-team conferences would/could look like. To make this, I based it off of what appear to be the likely realignment scenarios from the rumors. I also decided that Texas & Notre Dame would not be independents. I also presumed that conferences would not vote schools off the island to make room for better candidates. New additions are in italics.
Now this is based off the idea that the ACC consumes the Big East, which becomes a basketball-only conference. Under that thinking, Kansas St. and Cincinnati would join/continue with the Big East in basketball and play somewhere else like C-USA for football (there’s been rumors that Iowa St. may get invited to the Big East too, but I consider that unlikely).
Now, let’s look at the conferences one at a time.
An expansion may help preserve the traditional rivalries of the PAC. I originally called it the PAC North, but it’s probably better as the PAC West, with all of the traditional PAC powers save the Arizonas. But the Arizonas aren’t exactly the mainstays of the PAC; it was the California teams. This would actually unite them in a division once again so that all of the new guys are stuck in another division. The geography isn’t bad either. You have a West Coast division playing against a division composed of a bunch of Western state schools who share a lot of cultural characteristics. This would probably work well.
The SEC would have the real oddball of Missouri and would be stretching for West Virginia. The current rivalries would remain intact, with Arkansas and LSU getting to resume their rivalries with the Aggies. VT & WVU would resume their rivalry. VT & WVU and Missouri would be getting a lot of new teams to play, but let’s note that the loss is mostly Missouri’s. VT just joined the ACC and the Big East for WVU since the mass departure hasn’t been awe-inspiring. Missouri would lose a lot of its tradition, but much has already left with Colorado & Nebraska. All of these teams do have fierce rivalries they would want to protect (v. UT, v. UVA, v. Pitt, and v. Kansas) but I’ll address that later.
The Big 10 fares much like the PAC, but not quite as well assuming geography makes up the division, as Nebraska has to get stuck in the middle of the traditional Big 10. Northwestern, Purdue and Indiana would suffer separation from the traditional Big 10 but those are also the weaker powers. They don’t have quite the rivalries with the others; instead they to rival each other. Northwestern may want to continue playing Illinois, but that’s easy taken care of via a protected cross-divisional rivalry (talk about that a bit more later). Penn st. would as well but gain a cross-state rival in Pitt. Notre Dame finally stops pretending it’s not a Big 10 team. Rutgers, Syracuse, & Pitt lose their Big East rivals…but not much lost there as they tend to rival each other.
Now to the ACC. I’m presuming the Big East is so unstable that its football side will collapse. I know there are reports today that the Big East is trying to get the leftovers of the Big 12 (Mizzou, Kan., Kan. St., Iowa St., and Baylor) but even if they did I think that would hurt them as you have a bunch of schools who add little to nothing to the conference in football and only one maybe two teams in basketball. As the SEC gazes hungrily at the ACC & Miami possibly facing a death penalty, I expect the ACC to respond and eventually succeed in football. If however, the Big East won out it would probably mean that Wake Forest would be left out and maybe a few others. Even if the Big East did succeed in surviving, I think it would survive as a non-BCS football conference.
Most of the Big East has very little tradition re: rivalries so they would very little. Kansas & TCU are the oddballs geographically, but for the most part it stays an East Coast conference.
So in summation, in the scenario I’ve pictured each conference may have one or two geographic oddballs, with the ACC being the worst offender and the SEC’s Mizzou a close second. The geography between the ends would be difficult as well (Washington to Texas Tech; Texas A&M to WVU; Nebraska to Rutgers; UConn to USF to TCU). Assuming they play in different divisions, the effect would be minimal (you have to go once or twice every six years). However, rivalries are largely preserved (from the status quo; if Nebraska was still in the Big 12 we may be having a different discussion) within division.
What I realized looking at this scenario is that while the conferences would be unwieldly, the divisions would generally not be. In essence, the realignment moves us from 6 major conferences to 8 major conferences with pairs of those conferences making a scheduling arrangement. This actually might improve the regional and geographic tendencies of schools.
I need to talk about scheduling before I let that point go. Many of the teams who left have important rivals out of conference. With an 8 team division, you have to play 7 divisional games. You then probably will have one protected rivalry game with one or two rotating conference games from the other division. So you’re playing 9-10 conference games, which is one more than being played now. That leaves two out of conference games. Assuming one game is devoted to another rival, that leaves only one game that fans have to suffer watching against a cupcake. Indeed, this schedule would improve the overall schedule quality of most programs by eliminating a lot of the weak spots.
Now, what’s scary about that if you’re Baylor is that either you use that game for a total patsy warmup game OR you use it play one of the other Big 4 conference members. If you’re not in the Big 4, you may be totally on the outside. Indeed, it would become reasonable at this point for the Big 4 to form their own division of college football with 64 members, leaving Baylor, BYU, and Boise St. out in the cold.
Another advantage of this would be that a lot of the troubles with the BCS would be resolved so that the bowl system could be maintained. There could only be 4 undefeated teams, and with a better schedule that becomes less likely and the voters would have better info to judge between schools. You could even do a reasonable playoff here. Leave the bowls as they are (though you’d have two-tiers of bowls if the Big 4 completely separated with the rest of DI having their bowls-as a fan this would purge a lot of the dumb bowls, which isn’t a bad thing). You can have two games of conference champion v. conference champion on Jan.1 (when bowls should end) and then have a plus one between the winners. The good part about this is that you can have a playoff that doesn’t destroy the bowl tradition, as it appears playoffs are growing in demand and there are far worse ways to do it.
I want to repeat: this is not ideal. I am not advocating this scenario, as I think that once realignment starts happening, crazy things will occur as schools and conferences try to preserve themselves, things that will do much harm and take away from what is good in college football. But as realignment looks to be more and more inevitable, it’s important to consider how it can occur that not only will minimize harm but may actually provide some improvements to college football. And surprisingly, there are some advantages with minimal impacts.